HC Deb 25 February 1981 vol 999 cc864-6
7. Mr. Bagier

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what proposals he has for a rolling programme of electrification of British Railways main lines; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Fowler

The report of the review of main line electrification was published on 11 February. The financial assessment which it presents is favourable, but I have to consider the wider issues which it raises, including the prospects for the commercial rail business and how the funds to finance electrification might be generated.

Mr. Bagier

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with Sir Peter Parker's statement that we have a golden opportunity to back a winner this time? Does he further agree that the large-scale implementation of electrification which is recommended in the report is vital to the structure of the railway system? Is he aware that such a move would give a further tremendous uplift to the electrical industries, to the supply industries and to the export potential for everything attached to the railway system? Will the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that he will implement a rolling programme and not try to act in a piecemeal way?

Mr. Fowler

We do not want to look at the issue in a piecemeal way. I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that aspect. I also agree with him that such a move is of profound importance for the private sector in supplying the equipment. In the next few months we shall be considering this in conjunction with the British Rail corporate plan and the plan for electrification, which take us over the next decade. They have to be considered together.

Mr. Higgins

Does my right hon. Friend see any scope for private investment in British Rail—if not in electrification then in passenger rolling stock—which would leave more resources available for electrification?

Mr. Fowler

We are in the Transport Bill seeking private investment in some of the subsidiaries. I shall be eager and happy to look at other opportunities. My right hon. Friend has mentioned an avenue which the Government should explore.

Mr. Spriggs

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that some of us are wondering whether he appreciates the large number of private firms which depend upon orders from the British Railways Board for the maintenance and repair of the track and repair of coaching and freight stock? Is he aware that Callender Cables of Prescot—just across the border from my constituency in St. Helens—has recently made 750 men redundant as a result of the lack of orders from British Rail? Will he see what steps he can take to assist the BRB to provide the necessary work to enable Prescot Cables to take those men back into full-time work?

Mr. Fowler

I thought that I had made clear that that is one of the major factors that we shall take into account in considering investment and in considering the whole electrification programme. The prospect for the private sector is one of the factors, but there are also the opportunities for the railway business as a whole. That is why we are trying to do it together. I have also talked to the rail council at a very constructive meeting, and I am very grateful for its advice on the whole electrification issue.

Mr. Colin Shepherd

Will my right hon. Friend develop urgently the co-operation between British Rail and private sector finance sources so as to speed the development of electrification on the railways? Is it not the case that the electricity programme can be divided into bite-sized chunks that will enable private sector finance to be forthcoming in the right sort of amounts?

Mr. Fowler

This is one of the issues being looked at by the British Railways Board in dealing with this matter. I shall consider any proposals put to me. There may be difficulties, particularly in identifying the investment within a network system, but it is in the interests of the railway industry for us to look at all opportunities for investment in it.

Mr. Stott

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the case for an extensive electrification programme has been borne out conclusively in his own Department's report, together with that of British Railways, and that the major option available to the Secretary of State is the one which would have a practical and long-term effect, not only for the railways but for the British industry as well?

Is the Secretary of State further aware—bearing in mind what my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs) said—that one of the main conclusions of the report was that time is of the essence, and that a decision on this issue needs to be taken very soon if British industry is to benefit from it? Will the Secretary of State come to the House very soon and give us an indication when he is prepared to go ahead with these proposals?

Mr. Fowler

I understand that time is very important. We must put together the electrification proposals with the corporate review. We are talking of Ministers considering this during the next month or two. That is the time scale that we have in mind. That is right because of the importance of this for the railway industry. The sort of decisions that we are taking now will affect the railway industry for the whole of the 1980s.