HC Deb 20 February 1980 vol 979 cc419-21
3. Mr. Bagier

asked the Minister of Transport if he will relax the cash limits applied to the British Railways Board.

Mr. Fowler

I have no plans to change either the external finance limit for 1979–80 or the 1980 ceiling on the public service obligation grant.

Mr. Bagier

Is not the Minister aware that the cash crisis facing British Rail is now fairly desperate? Is he aware that British Rail has been forced to put a ban on recruitment in the next four weeks and to stop urgent repairs to the tracks? Will he not agree that the only alternative to lifting the cash limits is a further massive increase in charges, to which the public will react violently?

Mr. Fowler

I would not agree with the hon. Member on the last point. The British Railways Board has taken stringent measures, and I pay tribute to it for its ability to live within the cash limit. Measures such as these are what it is all about—that is what living within the cash limits means.

Mr. Garel-Jones

Perhaps in the course of his next meeting with the British Railways Board—and I recognise that this falls slightly outside the context of the question—my right hon. Friend would raise the matter of the very serious train crash which took place in my constituency—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Perhaps the hon. Member could put that question under some other heading. He has, after all, drawn my attention to his misdeeds.

Mr. Spriggs

Is the Minister aware that the answer he has just given about the financing of British Rail simply will not do? Will he have another think about this because one of the greatest and most urgent needs at present is that of conserving oil and the best way to do that is to help British Rail electrify more and more lines?

Mr. Fowler

The cash limit that we are talking about is largely unchanged from that left by the last Government. Of course railway policy is important, but it cannot be insulated from the rest of the economy.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

Will the Minister say whether, in imposing cash limits, he is giving the chairman of British Rail sufficient flexibility about the amount of the network that he must continue to run?

Mr. Fowler

If the point of my hon. Friend's supplementary question concerns rural services, I have made it abundantly clear to the chairman of British Railways that any option concerning the cutting of rural lines is not one that we would support. We believe that improvements are possible in the economics of British Rail and that the most important need is for improvements in productivity.

Mr. Booth

Has the Minister overlooked the fact that in its corporate review British Rail pointed out that the investment allocated to continuous welded rail was sufficient to support only 19,000 track miles? In view of the accident which has taken place as a result of a welding failure, will he at least reconsider how far this development will be limited by the decision that he has taken on British Rail finances?

Mr. Fowler

I shall certainly consider the arrangements for continuous welded rail but I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would not want it to be thought that the cause of the accident was any lack of investment in the system at that stage. I do not believe that that is remotely the case. We have announced an inquiry on this matter, but the right hon. Gentleman's point was certainly not the explanation for the crash.

Mr. Garel-Jones

Following those remarks, will the Minister agree that tribute must be paid to people in my constituency, particularly those at the Watford general hospital, who admitted 45 people in one and a half hours, and also to the employees of British Rail and the local police who acted very promptly and very well in the circumstances? Will the Minister give my constituents an assurance that the findings of the inquiry will be published, and will he ensure that some thought is given to what might have happened had one of the trains carrying nuclear fuel waste been in the vicinity?

Mr. Fowler

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the emergency services and the staff of British Rail. I have ordered a public inquiry into this matter and the results will be published. On the question of what would have happened had this been a flask train, I do not think that any risk to the public would have been involved.