HC Deb 23 January 1980 vol 977 cc404-8
1. Mr. Cryera

asked the Minister of Transport when next he will meet the chairman of the British Railways board.

3. Mr. Beith

asked the Minister of Transport when next he plans to meet the chairman of British Railways.

4. Mr. Foulkes

asked the Minister of Transport when next he plans to meet the chairman of British Railways.

6. Mr. Pollock

asked the Minister of Transport when he plans next to meet the chairman of British Railways.

9. Mr. Cook

asked the Minister of Transport when he will meet the chairman of British Railways.

10. Mr. Durant

asked the Minister of Transport when next he plans to meet the chairman of British Railways.

12. Mr. Gordon Wilson

asked the Minister of Transport when next he intends to meet the chairman of British Railways.

16. Mr. Moate

asked the Minister of Transport, when he plans next to meet the chairman of British Railways.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Norman Fowler)


Mr. Cryer

When the Minister "soon" meets the chairman of British Railways, will he emphasise to him that he means to start improving British Railways on the principle of the retention of all present routes and services, including the Woodhead cross-Pennine route? Will the Minister also encourage British Railways by authorising more investment, especially in commuter services in the Leeds-Bradford area, which has been starved in comparison with London and the South-East? Does henot agree that the Government would be derelict in their responsibility if they failed to encourage and regenerate British Railways, bearing in mind the world's finite fuel resources?

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order: I hope that other hon. Members—this is no reflection on the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer)—will ask brief questions, because it will help us all.

Mr. Fowler

The Government certainly appreciate the importance of British Rail and support it. The Woodhead cross-Pennine route is a freight service, the responsibility for which lies with the chairman of British Rail and does not come to me. With passenger services the responsibility and decision come to me, and I have informed the chairman that we would be totally opposed to the massive cuts that are mentioned in the corporate review.

Mr. Beith

Is it not sound policy that British Rail should exploit to the full the commercial potential of its existing assets? When the Minister meets the chairman, will he encourage him to develop the services—modestly, but on a better basis—at Alnmouth station in Northumberland, where there is considerable potential for improvement?

Mr. Fowler

I shall certainly look into the specific matter raised by the hon. Gentleman. On the general point, I agree with him; I believe that the energy crisis underlines the importance of the railway system.

Mr. Foulkes

When the Minister meets the chairman, will he encourage him to end the penny-pinching restrictions that are causing British Rail to reduce the services between Glasgow and Girvan, a line that has been developing over the last few years? If there are any difficulties with oil, the Minister might encourage the chairman to introduce steam trains on that line, and others in Scotland.

Mr. Fowler

The chairman will have heard what the hon. Member said. As I understand the present position, five trains will be cancelled on that line—only on Saturdays, and only in the winter months—as a means of saving fuel.

Mr. Pollock

When my right hon. Friend next meets the chairman, will he discuss with him the rapidly declining quality of the Aberdeen-Inverness railway, which passes through my constituency, and which is of major importance to the many thousands of Service men based there and to the students who have to pursue their studies elsewhere? In particular, will he consider establishing a proper link with the inter-city routes from the North-East of Scotland to the south?

Mr. Fowler

I shall certainly talk with the chairman about the points that my hon. Friend has put to me. I give my hon. Friend that undertaking, and I understand and admire the concern that he shows for the line.

Mr. Cook

At the risk of making the Minister's next meeting with the chairman a very long one, may I ask him also to raise with the chairman the forecasts which make it plain that within the next few months British Rail will go through the ceiling on the public service obligation grant and that the figures for future years are unrealistic? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, unless he revises the ceilings, the only short-term alternative for British Rail is a sharp increase in fare, at the very time when, if the energy crisis means anything, we should be making public transport more attractive and not more expensive?

Mr. Fowler

I do not accept that. The chairman has made it clear that he wants and intends to live within the cash limits. The cut in the PSO for 1980–81 was about £22 million, of which £13 million was decided by the previous Government.

Mr. Wilson

Does the Minister accept that the Scottish area of British Rail is one of the least reliable and punctual of all the areas in the British Rail federation, and that that is largely because of the clapped-out locomotives that, unfortunately, the staff have to use there? Will he authorise the chairman to increase the investment on British Rail in Scotland, to make sure that the services improve, and particularly to electrify the line to take account of the shortage of diesel oil that is likely in the next 20 years?

Mr. Fowler

I shall certainly talk to the chairman about the points that the hon. Gentleman makes. But I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's description of the position in Scotland.

Mr. Moate

Does by right hon. Friend agree that there can be no justification for British Rail's freight operations running at anything but a genuine profit? Have new financial targets yet been agreed with British Rail?

Mr. Fowler

Yes, Sir. The chairman accepts that it is important—I believe that this is common policy on both sides of the House—that British Rail's freight operations should run at a break-even point. That is certainly the policy of this Government. It is one that we shall pursue.

Mr. Prescott

As the Minister has met the chairman since the production of the British Rail corporate review, will he make clear what options he would regard favourably to meet British Rail's problems—increasing prices, reducing manpower or selling off assets—as he has reduced the option of closing lines?

Mr. Fowler

The options that are open are under consideration at present. Clearly, one of British Rail's most important aims must be to improve the productivity of the system. I believe that this is recognised by the chairman. British Rail has made proposals to the unions, and they are under consideration at present. I believe that they are important for ensuring the future of the railway system.

Mr. Sims

When he meets the chairman, will my right hon. Friend put to him that London commuters, who have recently suffered yet another substantial increase in the cost of their season tickets, are rather more concerned with reliability and punctuality than with frequency of service, and that they would willingly accept a reduced spring timetable, a reduced number of trains, if they could rely on those trains running as advertised and on time?

Mr. Fowler

I am willing to talk to the chairman about that. The Government have already made clear that we shall have a major re-examination of the efficiency of commuter services in the South-East. The Monopolies and Mergers Commission will be given that task, which will be carried out this year.

Mr. Spriggs

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the board has a contract with the Government to provide an effi- cient service, and that there is a severe backlog of repairs and maintenance work to be done, which will cost a great deal of money? What is his Department prepared to do to help the board to overcome that deficiency?

Mr. Fowler

We recognise the importance of maintenance and of investment generally in the railway system. That is one of the matters about which I shall be talking to the chairman. The hon. Gentleman's point is important, and we have it well on board.

Mr. Temple-Morris

Will my right hon. Friend give the House a little more detail about what he will say to the chairman about productivity, bearing in mind that Sir Peter Parker said at the end of last year that British Rail had not even begun to get it right yet? Would not the whole question be much easier if there were one confederation of trade unions covering the railway industry, or is that just wishful thinking?

Mr. Fowler

I do not know whether it is wishful thinking. It is certainly not something that the Government or I can influence. What my hon. Friend says is absolutely correct. As the chairman has said, productivity is the rock upon which British Rail's future is based. British Rail's operating costs are 70 per cent. labour. This underlines the importance of the proposals made by British Rail to the unions, and the importance of their being accepted.

Mr. Dempsey

Will the Minister draw to the chairman's attention complaints from two of my constituents that they were refused admission to the restaurant car when travelling north, from London to Glasgow, because it had been reserved exclusively for the Prime Minister, who was travelling to the Conservative Party conference at Blackpool—and who, incidentally, did not turn up? Will the right hon. Gentleman discuss with the chairman by all means giving the Prime Minister adequate security but minimising the the inconvenience caused to all rail travellers?

Mr. Fowler

If the complaint concerns travel to the Conservative Party conference, the hon. Gentleman is a little late in making it. But if he gives me details, I shall have it investigated.