HC Deb 16 December 1980 vol 996 cc262-70

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

12.21 am
Mr. Fergus Montgomery (Altrincham and Sale)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this matter on the Adjournment. I declare my interest, having recently been appointed as the parliamentary consultant to the Society of West End Theatre Managers..

Although the debate has beeen correctly recorded as being concerned with cuts in British Rail services, my purpose in raising the matter is to draw attention to the effect that the cuts will have in the West End of London, not only on theatres but on cinemas, bars, restaurants and all the other activities that go to make up the West End of London.

I understand that this morning there was a broadcast of an interview which I did last night in which it was said that I was attacking British Rail. That is not strictly true. My purpose in raising this subject is to try to persuade the railway authorities, especially in the Southern region, to draw back from their foolhardy and dangerous proposals. They should be asked to give more serious consideration to the inevitable effects of these cutbacks and to find alternatives to effect the savings that they need to make.

I do not necessarily feel that it is always right to increase fares or to cut back on services. British Rail should use a little imagination to bring back customers to the railways, to try to effect the economies that it wants to make. It could do that during off-peak times, about which it is particularly concerned.

I do not want to go into the nature of the cutbacks that have recently been announced by British Rail, because they have been fully documented in the press. However, they involve the early closure of certain stations in London and the suburbs, the closure of many of these stations on Sundays and the curtailment of many evening services from the stations which are to be left open.

I was recently given a lengthy memorandum by the Southern region in which details of the cuts were outlined. I was appalled at the naivety and what I can only describe as the typically bureaucratic blandness of the comments expressed in that document. It seems to express surprise over what is described as the rapid decline in economic activity and consumer spending which has been reflected in lower ticket sales. The answer is that if railway fares go up too much, fewer people will use the railways.

I see some of my hon. Friends representing what I might call commuter areas which are experiencing tremendous difficulties at this time. I am sure that they are under great pressure from their constituents. I have to admit that British Rail is being cunning. Its aim is to cause as much distress as possible to the commuter in the hope that he will pass his aggravation on to his Member of Parliament, who in turn will put pressure on the Government to increase British Rail's subsidy. It is only fair that people should be aware of that aspect.

There are many reasons why consumer spending has declined. One of the points that should be considered by British Rail is that the service that it offers is often very poor. Commuter trains are frequently cancelled, causing enormous aggravation to the traveller. Catering facilities on long-distance trains are a joke. There is a monopoly. One has no option but to eat whatever is provided. One finds that trains are either virtually empty or so overcrowded that one cannot get a seat. The balance never seems to be right. The list is endless.

We have the strange situation that, by British Rail's very actions or failure to remedy many obvious faults, it suffers a decline in business and uses this inevitable decline as justification for making its services even worse. It is not for me to advise British Rail what it should do to make itself more effective, but we are entitled to remind the railway authorities that they should provide the country with a public service. All too often one detects in the public service an arrogance which would be totally untenable in the private sector.

The scream from British Rail is that it needs more and more money from the Government to put right its financial situation. Whilst I am in London, I live in a flat near Victoria station. Recently I have had some correspondence from British Rail through an organisation called Terra Survey by Catterall Sutcliffe Associates. The first letter I received was addressed to "Miss William F. Montgomery". I find this very strange, because it said that "Miss William F. Montgomery" is the main lessee of my flat. The second letter I received by recorded delivery, which must have cost British Rail or whoever does the survey for it a good deal of money. It was addressed to "Mrs. William F. Montgomery". I want to tell British Rail that I am a married man and not an unmarried lady. I am very curious about how much money British Rail has spent on this particular service when it is screaming out, on the other hand, for more and more money from the Government to be paid into its coffers.

Because British Rail is a monopoly, we get a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. To some extent this is inevitable with a monopoly, because we have no choice. We have to take it or leave it. By its own evidence, it is clear that British Rail's customers are leaving the service and turning to other means of transport. In most businesses, if there is a fall-off every effort is made to try to win back the customer.

The contrast between British Rail and the West End theatre managers could not be more stark. Earlier this year it became clear that the West End theatres were going through a very difficult time, partly because of their own failure to market themselves effectively but mainly due to circumstances beyond their control, because of the rapid decline in the number of tourists coming to this country. The British hotel business has priced itself out of the market, and many American tourists, who were the mainstay of the West End theatre, decided to avoid Britain because the costs of accommodation in our hotels had risen very substantially.

Instead of just saying "This is the end of the world" and closing the theatre doors, the Society of West End Theatre Managers decided that it must try to do something about it. It started its own marketing operation. Less than two weeks ago, we had the first of the marketing schemes to win back audiences. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts opened the half-price ticket bureau in Leicester Square in London. I am delighted to say that this scheme has already proved a substantial success, because by the end of this week—in other words, in less than two weeks since the start of the scheme—more than 10,000 people have used the booth to buy tickets to go to West End theatres. Many of these are people who would admit that they would not have gone to the theatre had it not been for the booth offering tickets at a cut-price rate. Some of these people, who have never been to the theatre before, have been attracted by this imaginative scheme. We hope that they will continue to go to the theatre. The secret is that, once attracted to the West End theatre by half-price tickets, people become sufficiently interested to continue to go.

If the theatre had followed British Rail's example, it would have closed theatres, introduced shorter plays, closed the bars and taken all sorts of measures to cut back on the service rather than try to win back the paying customer. Instead, the theatre managers are trying to improve their service, to meet public demand. While the railway authorities are proposing to close stations on Sundays, which is scandalous because people often visit relatives or come into the West End on those days, the theatre managements are having discussions with the unions with a view to their opening on Sundays, an experiment that has been a great success on Broadway.

I have no doubt that in defending its attitude British Rail will argue that it has already tried all sorts of schemes. It will cite special summer fares, Saturday prices, the senior citizens £1 offer, the special special Christmas reductions" and the specially reduced rates for children. I contend, however, that British Rail has not tried hard enough. The senior citizens £1 scheme, which is a marvellous idea—it is great if elderly people are able to travel anywhere for £1—was one of British Rail's best-kept secrets. Apart from a few press releases, the only time one saw anything about it was if one happened to visit a railway station. Those not inclined to travel on trains are unlikely to visit a railway station. Therefore, old-age pensioners who did not visit stations knew nothing about that marvellous offer. It is not much use to pensioners if the message is not put across.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport said during Question Time last week that British Rail's advertising budget is about £9.5 million. I begin to wonder whether, at that price, we taxpayers are getting value for money. British Rail must realise that to increase traffic on the trains it must expand the schemes that it is now operating in what I can only describe as a half-hearted way.

Why limit the senior citizens scheme to November? Why limit it to old-age pensioners? Why not introduce a flat-rate fare for anyone using the trains after 6 pm—after the peak period? Most of the trains moving into or out of London at that time are half empty anyway. Sir Freddie Laker operates a scheme of standby fares. It has been very popular. It is better to sell tickets at half price than to sell no tickets. That theme has been embraced by the West End theatres with great success. I do not see why British Rail could not do the same.

It would be a great pity if the Society of West End Theatre Managers were being thwarted in its attempts to revive the theatre in London by the backward thinking of British Rail. In developing their marketing strategy, the West End theatre managers have defined as the primary market target people who live within the Greater London area. British Rail admits that those who live within 20 miles of the centre of London will be most affected by the cutbacks that it is proposing.

Of course, people living in the Greater London area have alternatives—buses and tubes. But criticism of British Rail does not necessarily absolve London Transport from the same treatment. The sad fact is that public transport services for Londoners have declined to the point where they are close to total breakdown. Students to whom I have lectured this year and last have told me that their prime criticism is of the cost of transport in central London—the level of tube fares. They felt that what we pay for transport is far in excess of anything they pay, for example, in the United States.

What concerns me most is that with the closure of stations and the curtailment of so many services the traveller is being effectively denied any choice and thus becomes even more captive to the take-it-or-leave-it attitude which seems to be so prevalent at British Rail.

It is not easy to quantify the effect of these cuts on theatre-going. A pilot survey was conducted at the Prince of Wales theatre in the West End a year ago, and only 11 per cent. of those surveyed stated that they had come to the theatre by train. I feel that that figure was rather low. On Monday this week, the Society of West End Theatre Managers distributed a questionnaire to all the people in the queue at the Leicester Square ticket booth. This produced a figure of 60 per cent. who had travelled into London that day by train; 65 per cent. said that they usually used the train, and 75 per cent. of these said that they would be affected by the cutbacks. These figures seem rather high. It could well be that the accurate figure is somewhere between 11 per cent. and 65 per cent.

Whatever the exact figure may be, there is no doubt that theatre-going in the West End and other forms of entertainment will be seriously affected if British Rail goes ahead with these proposed cuts. The West End theatre has shown signs that it is able and willing to fight and win back its audience, and British Rail should not be allowed to undermine those efforts. We should be using all our energies to stress to the railway authorities that they have a duty, not only to the public but to the industries which depend on the railways for their customers, to provide a decent, efficient and reliable service and that such a service should not be limited to the peak hours but should fulfil all the needs of those wishing to travel for business or pleasure. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to give us some hope that British Rail is at least thinking again before going ahead with the plans it has announced.

12.37 am
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

The constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Montgomery) is quite a long way from London and the South-East, but, of course, I know that he has always been closely interested in the London theatre. I quite accept his case that theatre-goers and theatre management in London must be among those most concerned by recent newspaper reports about the closure of some stations in and around London.

The other Members in the Chamber are, more predictably, London Members, with an obvious interest in the subject. My hon. Friends the Members for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) and Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) must have constituents who are affected, and I see my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) in his place, as I am sure he will be again on Friday, when, I understand, he intends to raise a similar matter.

I can understand the concern of theatre management. I was interested to hear the latest results of the survey that the Society of West End Theatre Managers carried out to find out how heavily customers of the West End theatre depend upon rail travel. The theatre managers have been carrying out such surveys for some time, and obviously an appreciable number of their customers are using the trains.

The cuts are a British Rail management responsibility. The recent cuts were not a decision of the Government. Nevertheless, I should say, in explanation of what British Rail is doing, that the cuts are by no means as severe or as draconian as come of the early press reports indicated. Some of the apparently well-informed leaks proved to be inaccurate.

I suggest that the effective reduction of services is not particularly severe. A 7.30 pm closure of 14 stations is proposed for weekdays—not including Blackfriars, which it was confidently predicted would be on the list. That is 14 stations only, out of 566 on Southern region as a whole. It is true that the list includes two London terminals—Cannon Street and Holborn Viaduct. At present they close at 10 pm. But they are very lightly used after 7.30 pm. I am told, for instance, that at Cannon Street there are only 14 departures after 7.30 pm, and on average there are only 10 passengers on each train. That station is 10 minutes' walk from London Bridge station, which will remain open as at present.

A similar pattern is repeated at Holborn Viaduct, which is about seven minutes' walking distance from Blackfriars station, which will remain open in the evenings. No doubt it is convenient to the limited number of passengers who travel out of Cannon Street and Holborn Viaduct that these stations should remain open, but they are small in number. I shall return in a moment to the point that someone has to pay for the cost of those trains late at night out of Holborn Viaduct and Cannon Street—and it is not the few passengers travelling upon them.

Those are the closures and restrictions proposed. What they amount to is that Charing Cross, London Bridge and Blackfriars will remain open as usual and the weekday and Saturday arrangements for most of Southern region and the London terminals will remain unchanged. I begin by trying to reassure the House that the proposed closures are not as drastic as might have been first supposed from the comments made.

The reason for these reductions being made at all is that British Rail, like any other business, has to attempt to match the supply of its trains and services to the level of passenger demand. There has been a fall in patronage this last year and there are a number of services in and around London which are very lightly used. In so far as British Rail fails to match supply to demand, it incurs unneccessary costs which it must pass on to other passengers or to the taxpayers. Recently we invited the Monopolies and Mergers Commission to investigate the standard of services provided by British Rail to London and the South-East to see what could be done to improve efficiency, reduce costs and improve performance for the majority of passengers. A very valuable report was produced, which made a large number of recommendations, which British Rail assures me it proposes to act upon and which, I hope, will lead to some improvement in the present rather inadequate level of service to commuter passengers.

One of the recommendations of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission was that British Rail should do something about the fact that in London and the South-East it was operating excess capacity in a wasteful way in services around but outside the peak. I believe that some adaptation of the level of services to the genuine level of passenger need and demand is in the interests of all passengers who use this service during the day.

If British Rail runs empty or half-empty trains and incurs unnecessary costs, it has to hand those costs on, and we all know that there are already difficulties involved with higher fares and high subsidies to London and the South-Eastern commuter services. The closure of lightly used stations and ceasing to run empty or near-empty trains release resources which we hope can be used to try to improve matters for the passengers who have to use the trains at busy times of the day.

I trust—and British Rail will confirm this—that British Rail not only wishes to cut services to match demand and therefore avoid wasteful expenditure but makes the attempt to win additional traffic, which is the other side of the coin, if it is to make better use of presently under-used facilities.

My hon. Friend criticised the ability of British Rail to market its operations and win fresh traffic. I am sure that it will note what he has said with concern and interest. I certainly agree that it is spending enough money on publicity and ought to be getting some value out of it.

It has to be said that British Rail has introduced a wide range of concessionary cards of one sort or another and is making efforts to market them. For instance, I am told that the £1 Awayday ticket available to holders of senior citizens railcards, offered in November, led to the sale of about 70,000 additional railcards of that type to customers who, I assume, British Railways hopes will be won to rail travel at other times of the year. Theatregoers are obviously a category of people who ought to be won to the train, if that can be done, and who ought to have some facilities offered to them. They can already use Awayday returns, which give travel at little more than half price, and they can also take advantage of any railcard scheme for which their age, family or any other distinctive feature of their lives makes them eligible.

I am told that in some parts of the country British Rail runs local promotions for particular theatre shows, and I am sure that it would be interested in taking up some of the suggestions made by my hon. Friend and in exploring any schemes put to it which might have the eventual effect of increasing its net revenue.

Having given that explanation of what British Rail is doing now, and having touched on matters that it might resort to in order to increase traffic on its services in London and the South-East, I have to confirm again that these proposals are not ones over which Ministers have any power. Ministers do not determine the timetabling of trains. We do not have any involvement in the day-to-day management of the railways, and we have to stand behind and support the judgment of the railways when they make management decisions that are aimed at improving their present somewhat unfortunate financial predicament.

I should make it clear, therefore, that British Rail has taken these steps to reduce costs, which is in line with the Government's direction to British Rail, and I understand that similar proposals for other regions will be forthcoming from British Rail in due course. All over the country, if steps are taken to match resources to genuine passenger need and to maximise the utilisation of resources at times of peak demand, when most people want to make use of the trains, I think that that will be to the benefit of the travelling public as a whole.

I should like now to touch on a matter to which my hon. Friend referred—although he supported the Government on this—which is the suggestion that has appeared in connection with these cuts that the problem could be solved if the Government were more generous with taxpayers' money and gave more finance to British Rail. It cannot be repeated too often that we have reached the stage where that can no longer be the simple answer to all the problems of British Rail. Management steps have to be taken. There has to be a response from the work force in British Rail to get better value for the money that is being given and to improve the efficiency and performance of the system.

When one looks at the financial position of British Rail, one sees that the Government have been comparatively generous to this industry in helping it to cope with the present financial pressures upon it. When one looks at the general economic state of the country and considers the financial background against which the Government have had to take decisions about public expenditure, one sees that British Rail has come out reasonably well. The main restraint upon British Rail is the external finance limit, within which British Rail is having difficulty in living. Last year there was a wage settlement of 20 per cent., with some productivity elements, which, obviously, British Rail hoped could be accommodated within its EFL for that year. In the event, the performance of the business did not enable British Rail to afford that wage settlement and it had to come to the Government to seek an enlargement of the EFL.

To some extent, the difficulties of British Rail have been caused by the recession and the falling traffic in steel and coal. The Government took the view that it would be wrong for passengers in London and the South-East, Cheshire or anywhere else to pay the cost of these difficulties in the freight business, caused by the recession. Therefore, we have shown flexibility and we have increased the EFL of British Rail by £40 million to £790 million in the present year and to £920 million for the next financial year. It is a difficult target for British Rail but not an impossible one, and it is not an insubstantial amount of money, most of it, in effect, being paid for by the taxpayer.

A sum of £2 million a day is to be expended by the taxpayer on the railways next year. That is £15 per head for every man, woman and child in the country, more or less, and that, I suggest, is not an insubstantial EFL. It is not good enough to challenge it by making comparisons with European countries, many of which regard the level of support that they give the railways as something akin to a national disgrace. Our railways are slightly more successful in earning some resources from revenue, but other countries with stronger economies might be able to afford more. We are affording a great deal.

So far as the passenger service is concerned, we finance that through what is known as the passenger service obligation, and again we have responded to the needs of the passengers, and, therefore, to British Rail. Only last week the PSO was raised by £23 million, to a total of £678 million for 1981. That recognises the difficult trading conditions. It is remarkable that the Government have been able to increase that amount, admittedly with no overall increase in resources available to British Rail, at a time of financial stringency.

Investment is often mentioned in connection with services in London and the South-East. We have not cut the investment ceiling of British Rail" despite the present financial cirumstances. It has been maintained at its real value as set by the last Government. Each year £325 million, at current prices, is available for British Rail to invest, and it is investing heavily. There is no bias against investment in London and South-Eastern services, and the Monopolies and Mergers Commission found that 25 per cent. of investment in British Rail was taking place in London and the South-East.

I could give the House a list of improvements taking place in the commuter service within the investment ceiling. The list includes the London Bridge resignalling, the electrification of the Great Northern suburban services, the electrification of the Bedford—St. Pancras services, the Victoria resignalling and track modernisation, the resignalling and track modernisation of the London-Brighton line, a rolling programme for the construction of 220 new electric multiple units each year and a programme for refurbishing the existing EMU fleet by the mid–1990s.

All that is being invested by British Rail within the constraints of the investment ceiling that we are operating. We would like to do better, but the railways are not starved of money now. They need to put their own house in order and respond by improving their efficiency and productivity and meeting the needs of their customers in London, the South-East and elsewhere.

I appreciate the concern of everyone in London, not least theatregoers and theatre management, which is struggling with its financial problems. As my hon. Friend said about the proposals for London and the South-Eastern services—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Tuesday evening 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 ten minutes to One o'clock.