HC Deb 05 November 1980 vol 991 cc1272-3
13. Mr. Gwilym Roberts

asked the Minister for Transport if he will provide special funding to British Railways to enable them to open freight branch lines for passenger transport.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

No, Sir. The Government already provide general support for existing passenger rail services.

It is up to the Railways Board, in consultation with local authorities, to decide whether it would be worthwhile to introduce new services on freight-only lines.

Mr. Roberts

Does the hon. and learned Gentleman accept that it is absurd that in a developing area such as that covered by the Walsall to Rugeley line, which is used extensively by mainline passenger transport during the weekend, the line should be available only for commerce during the week? In view of the low Government subsidy to British Rail and the Government's mean attitude in cutting public expenditure for local authorities, does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the only hope for these lines is to provide special Government support?

Mr. Clarke

British Rail has to take a decision, with our encouragement, about the commercial prospects for a new passenger railway service and whether it is likely to cover its costs. On the question of support, it should also look to the local authorities. In the West Midlands, for instance, the county council is giving support to an extensive system of new passenger services.

Mr. Adley

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that the answer that was given a moment ago about British Rail to the effect that we were continuing the previous Government's policy, is a low level of expectancy on this side of the House? We expect our Government to do better than the Labour Government. On that basis, will my hon. and learned Friend look at the situation in France—taking the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair Wilson)—where the track bed is owned by the State? Is it not time that we started considering the fundamental changes that are needed to enable British Rail to compete effectively in the 1980s?

Mr. Clarke: One thing that we have not altered in the Labour Government's policy is that we have not made cuts in the investment ceiling of British Rail. That shows that in making the necessary cuts in public expenditure we have regard to the need to protect capital programmes and the future.

We have looked at the position in France, but there are considerable difficulties if one starts to separate responsibility, whether financial or otherwise, for the track and the infrastructure of the railways from the people who have to operate the trains.

Mr. Les Huckfield

Will the Minister take note of the fact that passing the buck to the metropolitan county councils does not work, as they are not willing to spend more money on promoting more services? Is the Minister now telling the House that the best hope for those living in the metropolitan county council areas is for Labour to take control of all of them next May?

Mr. Clarke

The passenger transport authorities are sucessfully supporting extensive passenger services, and the Conservative-controlled West Midlands county council is maintaining support for services, many of them on new lines brought back into passenger service.

Any evaluation of the prospects for a new passenger service must have some regard to what it will cost the public, whether through the local authority or the Government, and British Rail has to make a sensible judgment of the likely passenger traffic.