HC Deb 07 November 1979 vol 973 cc379-82
3. Mr. Anderson

asked the Minister of Transport what is his policy towards provincial rail services.

Mr. Fowler

I am considering currently how best to safeguard and develop rural public transport, and I am considering the views recently put to me by the Central Transport Consultative Committee about how best to maintain the existing rural rail network. But I have always made it clear that I can see no case for a further round of Beeching cuts.

Mr. Anderson

How is "Beeching" defined in this context? Is the Minister saying seriously that the article in The Guardian today is a complete figment of some civil servant's imagination, or that he was unaware of what was being done behind his back by civil servants in his Department? Is the Minister aware that if any cuts on the scale suggested in The Guardian go ahead, they will be fought all the way by the Opposition? We hope to be joined in that by many Conservative Members whose rural constituents would become more isolated if the cuts were to go ahead than they have been for a century.

Mr. Fowler

Let me make it absolutely clear that the report in The Guardian is untrue. I read it with astonishment. As I have hold the House, I see no case for another round of massive cuts in the railways. I have no list of passenger services for closure such as is printed in The Guardian. There have been no secret talks between my officials and the Railways Board to discuss any such list of closures. I deplore the groundless anxiety caused by such inaccurate reports.

Mr. Goodhew

Can my right hon. Friend assure me, if there are not to be massive cuts, that at least he will not cut the Watford to St. Albans line, which is a very convenient alternative to those who find the electrification of the St. Pancras to Bedford line, with its bad timekeeping at the moment, rather inconvenient?

Mr. Fowler

There are no proposals of that kind. The statutory position is that British Rail cannot withdraw a passenger service or close a passenger station without my consent. The House may be reassured to know that the only cases currently in the statutory procedure are the Board's proposal to withdraw the rail service connecting to the Humber ferry when the new bridge opens, and its proposal to divert a service from Kentish Town to Gospel Oak on the North London line.

Mr. Snape

Without commenting further on the accuracy or otherwise of the article in The Guardian, will the Minister give an assurance that if 900 or so miles of railway line were ever to be cut, he would consider it to be a resigning matter?

Mr. Fowler

I would certainly consider it to be a disaster, and that is why I have made it clear that it is not the Government's intention to do so.

Mr. Fry

In order that the House may take a slightly less emotional view of this topic, will the Minister supply details of the subsidy paid per passenger mile to rail as opposed to that paid to bus services? Would it not be a good idea to examine this matter in detail in relation to these rural lines?

Mr. Fowler

Currently, the Government provide British Rail with more than £700 million a year, which is more than £2 million a day. Last week provision for the support of the passenger railway was reduced by £22 million, of which £9 million was decided by this Government and £13 million by the previous Government.

Mr. Booth

May we take it from what the Minister said that he has an understanding with British Rail that it will accept the £22 million cut in Government provision without any withdrawal of passenger services? The House is not satisfied that what are called rural passenger services in this context are a minority interest. They cover a vast number of towns and cities. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that the report just completed by the Policy Studies Institute into the effects of withdrawal of rural rail services will be available for study by Members of Parliament before any announcements are made about changes in the network?

Mr. Fowler

I shall look into the second matter raised by the right hon. Gentleman. On the first one, obviously it is a matter for British Rail to decide how it should live within the cash limits. Sir Peter Parker sent me the Board's 1979 corporate review on 25 October. It contains financial evaluations of a number of options drawn up by the Board at the end of last year. They include an option on closing some services. However, as I believe has been made clear before, they were options. Certainly no decisions have been taken, and I have not even discussed the position yet with the chairman of the Board, since it arose only at the end of October.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call one more hon. Member from each side. We shall then have had a good run on this question.

Mr. McCrindle

Whatever may be the policy about rural services, and I accept what my right hon. Friend said, will he take this opportunity to reaffirm that it is no part of this Government's policy to preside over a still further deterioration of London commuter services, especially when we are faced with a 20 per cent. increase in season tickets?

Mr. Fowler

It is no part of my intention to preside over the deterioration of British Rail services, and that is central to our policy.

Mr. Donald Stewart

Is the Minister aware that the cuts already made in Scotland under the Beeching plan left us with services far below an acceptable minimum? Is he aware, further, that the bus services in lieu mostly never materialised, and that where they did they have since disappeared? In many areas, the railway provides the only means of contact, particularly during inclement weather. Will the right hon. Gentleman repel any suggestions from British Rail that these should be cut further?

Mr. Fowler

I have already made my position clear on proposals for a Beeching type cut, and it is for British Rail, if it wants to put forward suggestions for bus substitution on one or two services, to do so if it wishes.

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