HC Deb 22 November 1979 vol 974 cc726-38

Motion made, and Question proposed. That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Mother.]

11.8 pm

Mr. Tom Eggar (Enfield, North)

I welcome the chance to initiate this important debate on the costs and standards of British Rail's commuter services. Tonight, I shall restrict myself to the problems faced by London commuters.

Last week's announcement of a 20 per cent. increase in fares was the biggest ever demanded by British Rail from the long-suffering public and it came at a time when, by common consent, the standard of services has fallen more than ever before.

It is estimated that almost one million people travel into central London to work every morning. Of these, more than 40 per cent. go by rail. British Rail carries about 410,000 commuters a day—normally within a two-and-a-half-hour period. The demands on rail services are obvious, and British Rail never fails to point out the inadequacy and uneconomic use of its rolling stock, signalling problems and the unsocial hours that guards are expected to work. Yet these problems are not new. They have been with the railways for over 100 years. It is only during the past 10 years that criticism has reached its present height.

Some Opposition Members—as usual, they are not in the Chamber—believe that commuters are heavily subsidised and that, having chosen to live in pleasant suburbs or nice country areas, they should put up with the economic consequences of their choice. The myth has somehow grown that commuters are affluent, middle-class owner-occupiers who can afford the fares. The reality is far different. The majority of commuters, especially those from outer London, are ordinary working people who provide the back-up services for the financial institutions, the corporate headquarters and the Civil Service.

Hardly anybody moving to London for the first time can afford inner London house prices. It is virtually impossible to find private rented accommodation, and there is almost no chance of council accommodation being available. Having moved outside central London, people cannot afford to return. It is almost impossible for them to arrange council transfers into central London. Through no fault of their own, commuters have to live outside London, and, once outside, they are at the mercies of the vagaries of British Rail.

There can be no doubt that fares are rising in real terms. It is not true that British Rail's fares are rising no more than inflation. In my constituency, from 1974 to 1979 the fares from Enfield Lock station to Liverpool Street almost trebled. The best statistics that I can find reveal that the gross pay of my commuters in that period only doubled, and the increase in take-home pay was less. A current study estimates that the average commuter works for one day per week solely to pay for his commuter ticket. The effect of that over the past few years has been that 25,000 have ceased to travel into central London. There is some evidence that the increase in fares has hit young people especially hard, because they tend to be the lowest paid.

If this trend is permitted to continue, there will be an increasing shortage of workers in central London. I do not say that that will happen overnight, but over a period the City and the West End will suffer from the inner city decay that can be seen on the South Bank of the Thames and docklands.

The subject of the debate is not only the cost of travel but the standards of the facilities provided by British Rail. As soon as I heard that I had obtained this Adjournment debate, I asked Mr. David Cherrington, chairman of the newly formed commuter action group in my constituency, to let me have details of the service from Enfield Lock station to Liverpool Street. The results were appalling. For the two weeks from 5 November to 16 November, his group had precise timings of 31 trains. Two, and two only, left Enfield Lock on time, nine were cancelled and the rest were late, some by as much as 30 minutes. Returning to Enfield Lock from Liverpool Street, of the 35 trains surveyed only nine started on time and almost 50 per cent.—17 out of 35 trains—were cancelled. There is no justification for a service giving those poor standards.

Cancellations are almost commonplace, but information about the cancellations is almost non-existent. Occasionally, generously British Rail puts out a notice on local radio stations. If it does that, it often forgets to inform the stations down the line. On one occasion recently, LBC announced at 7.55 am the cancellation of a train due at Enfield Lock at 8.25 am. The station staff were telephoned at 8.35 am to be told about the cancellation. On other occasions staff are told and the radio stations are not, so the commuters arrive expecting their regular train, only to face a delay. The situation is even worse than that. Often, when one train is cancelled the next train consists not of the expected six carriages but three carriages. When that happens, the train is four times more crowded than usual. It is no wonder that commuters' tempers become frayed.

Criticism goes even deeper than that. We hear of dirty, unswept and unclean trains. Part of the responsibility lies at the door of the commuter, but if British Rail runs trains with filthy carriages and dirty seats at 8 o'clock in the morning it can hardly expect passengers to treat the facilities it provides with immaculate care.

Governments of both parties must bear responsibility for the present poor state of the services. They have happily shelled out subsidies to British Rail without insisting on adequate standards from British Rail in return.

I welcome the Government's decision to refer British Rail's commuter services to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. It is especially pleasing that the Commission will be concentrating on the productivity and efficiency of the services. It is clear to me, as I think it is clear to hon. Members on both sides of the House, that bad management and antiquated trade union attitudes are two of the reasons for fare increases.

The referral to the Commission does not go far enough. What is necessary is nothing less than a full-scale interdepartmental inquiry into the whole issue of subsidies and taxation on public and private transport. It is generally accepted that there is a case for the Government to continue to subsidise commuters. On the other hand, it is recognised that the social and economic costs to those who travel to work by car are increasing all the time. I can find no evidence that the Ministry of Transport, the Department of Energy or the Treasury has ever considered in detail how to achieve an economic and fiscal balance between public and private transport. Even if they did so a few years ago, rising energy costs over the past five years have brought completely new factors into the equation.

Such an inquiry could consider whether it would be cost-effective to give tax relief to commuters in the form of a tax allowance as an alternative to or in addition to the Government subsidies already being paid to British Rail. For more than 30 years the House has been told that such a suggestion would be completely unworkable. Today, however, my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Treasury was kind enough to confirm that six out of the nine EEC countries provide such allowances. If they can do it, why cannot Britain?

We understand that the Minister is currently reviewing vehicle licence fees. Should he not at the same time be considering whether, as a method of moving people from private transport to public transport, there should be an increased rate of tax on petrol? Should there be a special licence fee for cars using city centres? Should the Government give specific subsidies for specific lines rather than blanket subsidies to British Rail's commuter services?

I have referred to suggestions that have been made over a period. Each question has been analysed individually by different groups. However, I do not believe that an attempt has been made to bring together all the studies to form an overall view of all the possibilities open to the Government.

Three years ago, a Select Committee recommended an inquiry into the Government's support of transport services. We have not had that inquiry. It is time that we did. The need for the inquiry is greater than ever. The result of an inquiry might be that the present system is the best that can be devised. I hope that this would not be the case. Unless an improvement can be made, there must be real doubt about London's economic future. An inquiry would at least enable the Government to examine all the options methodically. I believe that commuters are fed up to the back teeth with the service they are getting from British Rail. They expect, and demand, action from British Rail and from the Government.

11.21 pm
Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Eggar) for inviting me to take part briefly in this debate. My hon. Friend makes a strong case for his constituents. They need an advocate like him in the House.

I speak with cold, personal fury about the conditions under which commuters from all over the South-East division of British Rail are forced to travel to and from London. I say "forced" advisedly because commuters are captive customers. The present standards are a national scandal. They are a symptom, on British Rail, of a rundown, inefficient and seedy country. These conditions daily debilitate our morale and remind us that Britain is not what she was. They infuriate the thousands who suffer from a rotten service for the crucial and necessary activity of getting to and from work.

People start the working day frustrated. They finish it angry and disillusioned. Because British Rail is a nationalised industry, nationally run and nationally subsidised, they are angry and disillusioned with the Government. I suggest that our Government ignore that fact at their peril.

The commuters' major problems are lack of regularity and too many cancellations. As my hon. Friend has said, there is lack of information when cancellations occur. The bad condition of the rolling stock continually causes overcrowding.

British Rail's own figures on delays in the South-East region show that only 83 per cent. of morning peak hour trains in October were on time or within five minutes of their scheduled arrival. That means that 17 per cent. were not—a 4 per cent. worse result than for September. In October, we do not have snow. This is an unacceptable level of service.

I should like to put some questions to the Minister. British Rail is a Government service, and the Government have a responsibility to try to sort out the matter. Are we satisfied that British Rail's weighting in assessing the cost of commuter services is correct? Forty per cent. of British Rail's passengers are commuters. How are these costs attributed? Are we satisfied that the method that is used is correct? Why, over the last 10 to 20 years, has the balance of advantage between a season ticket and a daily ticket purchaser been eroded? Fare dodgers do better with daily tickets. It is to everyone's advantage that the majority of people buy season tickets.

Why is there such a lack of clarity from British Rail about what is to be the last day when passengers can purchase season tickets at the old price? A wide variety of offers appears to be available. If one shops around for one's season ticket, one may get a better deal from one station than another. I second the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North that a study be carried out into the benefit of energy saving by encouraging more people to travel by train and get off the roads.

11.24 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

I assure my hon. Friends that I was already aware before this evening of the general dissatisfaction with the quality of the commuter services of British Rail, particularly into London. Their contributions tonight reinforce the dissatisfaction felt by their constituents. I can assure them that my right hon. Friend the Minister and myself are highly dissatisfied with the level of service experienced by many people going into London. The fact that we have become Ministers does not insulate us from the strong public feeling that we encounter, not only from Members of Parliament. I am glad to say that we do not cease to travel by public transport. My own experiences in the last month have been limited mainly to the Dartford loop line in the rush hour, but I can reinforce everything said by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) about the quality of travel enjoyed by most people on the Southern region.

I also assure my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Eggar), who asked why there is not a general inquiry into the whole basis of support for transport, that we are not neglecting the need to examine with the closest care the present arrangements and to look for improvements. I am not sure that we can have an unlimited number of inquiries. What is wanted are some decisions about the future of transport policy and the future relationship between the Government and British Rail. But we have heeded the reports of Select Committees and the other reports of many kinds on the railway system, and we are examining the present position very critically and hoping to establish a better basis for the future.

London and the South-East sector of British Rail pose particular problems. Every division of British Rail poses some problems—either of unsatisfactory return on capital where the services should be commercial, or unsatisfactory levels of performance where they are bound to be subsidised.

London and the South-East is such a nightmare in many ways that we intend to make it the first reference to the new Monopolies and Mergers Commission, which will be set up in the new year when the Competition Bill is passed. The Commission will be inquiring into the efficiency and quality of the service provided.

We set great store by that inquiry. We do not intend the new MMC to be a kind of souped-up Price Commission. The problem in London and the South-East is that one cannot apply a straight commercial remit to the commuter services. It is necessary also to look, given that there is a large captive market and it is possible to pass on any cost to the unfortunate customer, at the efficiency and standards of the service. The Commission will have power to have an independent outside look at the quality of service and management, the problems of productivity and so on which should be improved in this area of the railways, and we think that the report will be of great benefit.

We do not intend the inquiry to take very long. If the Bill receives Royal Assent in the new year, we hope that the report will be available about six months later.

Mr. Eggar

But does not my hon. Friend agree that the remit of the Monopolies Commission simply does not go far enough, and that we need a broader look at the balance between public and private transport?

Mr. Clarke

With respect, I do not agree with that, because it is a duty of the Government as a whole to look at general transport policy and the Monopolies Commission would take longer over its work and the quality of its work might diminish if it diverted itself from commuter services to consider transport policy as a whole. Obviously, if the Bill goes through, my hon. Friend will be able to make suggestions to the Department of Trade about the precise remit of the Commission. We certainly hope that it will make a valuable contribution.

To be fair, it must be said that the British Railways Board and its chairman, Sir Peter Parker, recognise that the present level of commuter service is not satisfactory and have welcomed the outside inquiry into the efficiency of their work. I hope that both the Government and the Board will draw lessons from the results of the inquiry.

I assure my hon. Friends that while we are waiting for the Bill to become law and the reference to be made to the Commission, we shall not suspend all activity on railway and transport policy. Anything that can be done between now and next June, when we get the report, to improve the commuter services will be done. But all these matters take time.

I turn now to some specific issues which have been raised. The most immediate, which I am sure is causing the most annoyance, is the increase in rail fares. The relationship between the Government and the Board is such that the level of fares is not within the control of the Government. Decisions on the level and structure of fares are entirely for the Board. We have no powers to intervene, even if we wished to do so. I hasten to add that we are not seeking to take powers to intervene in such a central management matter.

The British Railways Board, like everyone else, faces rising costs. The level of fare increases must be judged against the overall level of inflation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North has said, these increases slightly exceed the level of inflation. However, commuter fares will not look attractive in Britain until the Government's objective of squeezing inflation out of the economy has begun to have an effect. The level of costs faced by the British Railways Board will then be reduced.

Those are necessary disclaimers, because it is useless for Ministers to pretend that they have powers which they do not possess. I have looked at the recent increases with the same anxiety as that expressed by my hon. Friends. Because of the reduction in season ticket discounts and the adjustment of fare scales on particular services—particularly where there has been investment and where the quality of service has been improved—the overall average increase for the London and South-East traveller is marginally higher than anywhere else in Britain. Indeed, fares from Enfield seem to have increased slightly less than the national average. However, there is no general weighting against the commuter in the latest package of rail fares.

Although, as I have explained, the Government have no powers in that respect the Minister of Transport has made it clear to the British Railways Board that we will not approve any fare increases weighted against the captive London and South-East commuter. That is the Government's position.

The general cost of the services must be considered when looking at commuter fares. There is a suspicion amongst hon. Members who represent the South-East and their constituents that the commuter services subsidise the remainder of the business. That is not the case. The cost of commuter services is very high. I am sure that my hon. Friends will accept those arguments concerning efficiency of resources during peak hour travel. Even with the latest increase in fares, the total revenue from the London commuter services will fall far short of the estimated costs.

Commuter services are one of the loss-making parts of British Railways. The record of British Railways concerning fares is not bad. For the fourth successive year, they have managed to have a full 12 months between increases in passenger fares. The Government were glad that this was so. Despite the forthcoming increase in January, commuting to central London by train will still be generally cheaper than doing so by car, if the motorist has to pay the full cost of running his car.

I shall not defend the fares policy of British Railways since they are capable of defending themselves. I am not content with commuter fares. I realise that they are expensive. They may not be as expensive as the Westminster chamber of commerce claims. However, it is no consolation if one says that it costs the average London commuter only half a day's pay to get into London.

In order to avoid the inexorable yearly rise in fares, something must change. To tackle increasing costs, the Board can improve productivity and efficiency, increase fares or carry more passengers. Failing that, the Government will have to increase the subsidy. Government subsidies for British Railways are already very high. When reading the British Rail advertisements concerning the railways' great success, and their contribution to energy saving, one must bear in mind that, given all the remits that they have for the commercial running of parts of their services, they are not receiving a satisfactory rate of return on any of them. In 1979, the subsidies will total nearly £500 million for the passenger service as a whole. That is well over £1 million a day. There has to be some limit to the extent to which the taxpayer subsidises rail travel.

Another way of dealing with the problem, as I have said, is to increase passenger traffic. I am glad to say that passenger traffic on the railways is increasing more than the Board expected. I am also glad to say that the Board has been successful in increasing off-peak travel by offering concessionary fares. The Board is continuing to explore this and wishes to carry out more studies, in the London area in particular. That is of advantage to the commuter because it will improve the financial status of the com- muter lines if the Board can increase off-peak travel in the London area.

The real trouble is productivity. That has been said often by members of the Tory Party, in Government and in Opposition. It has been said by Sir Peter Parker. Increased productivity is the key to increasing efficiency and getting down the underlying costs. Not only can the constituents of my hon. Friends frequently observe the lack of efficiency in the operation of the commuter services; it also shows in the resulting finances and in the quality of the service.

Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones (Watford)

Does not my hon. Friend agree that, while we make the point about increased productivity among the mass of the work force, there is another side to this? I have had to write to Sir Peter Parker today on behalf of a constituent to ask him why it was that British Railways sent 12 representatives of management to the CBI conference this year, more than double the number sent by any of the major companies in this country. Management needs to be looked at, too.

Mr. Clarke

I would not like to comment on that issue. No doubt my hon. Friend will receive a reply from Sir Peter.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport has had occasion to point out in the House that, when there have been considerable reductions in manpower on the railways as a whole, the number of people employed in administration and management has seemed consistently to increase. It is a little like the Admiralty, which acquires admirals as it loses battleships. British Railways have gone along that road in recent years.

In dealing with the commuter services, we have to get down to the general question of productivity. Everyone will have seen in the press that, following last year's agreement between the Board and the railway trade unions, talks are under way about new productivity proposals. Obviously, given that they are taking place in the context of pay demands, it would not be helpful for me to go into too much detail. Nevertheless, there is great scope for increases in productivity on the railways. We do not have years in which this can be discussed. Nor can it be bought at a quite extortionate and unrealistic price by those managing the railways.

Until costs can be offset by increased efficiency, fares have to rise. It is also true, when people are negotiating pay levels, that the kind of pay levels they are contemplating cannot be achieved at the public expense until there is some increase in productivity. I do not have time to go into the details affecting commuter services—such as the increase of one-man operation, where consistent with safety. Where there are old-fashioned trains with doors that do not slide open, there is a need for guards, and they are difficult to recruit—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty two minutes to Twelve o'clock.