HC Deb 01 July 1981 vol 7 cc857-9
10. Mr. Cook

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what progress has been made in considering the recommendations of the Department of Transport/British Railways Board joint review of main line electrification.

18. Mr. Hooley

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects to make an announcement about plans for the electrification of the British Railways system.

Mr. Fowler

I refer the hon. Members to the statement that I made in the House on Monday 22 June.

Mr. Cook

Does the Secretary of State recall that the hold and imaginative proposals within the joint review were the results of three years' consultation following a published paper? Does not he accept that the process by which all three options of that joint review were rejected on the basis of an unpublished paper, from a "think tank" that consulted nobody. is a most unsatisfactory way for a Government to reach decisions? Does he realise that British Railways are left with an electrification scheme with no particular mileage or expenditure targets and that the resulting "ad hoc-ery" will make it more difficult and more expensive for them to manage what should have been a strategic industrial programme?

Mr. Fowler

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the joint report to which he referred. He will remember that the assumption of the report was that the inter-city and freight business would continue to win traffic and to flourish. Regrettably, that assumption has not been borne out. The trading postion for both inter-city and freight is very much down this year. In spite of that, we intend to go ahead with the programme that I announced.

As to the reaction of British Railways, I refer the hon. Gentleman to what their chairman said, and to what the Rail Council said, which was that this was a positive way ahead, which gave a fighting chance for the future of British Railways.

Mr. Hooley

Will the Secretary of State insist that high priority is given to the electrification of the service between London and Sheffield, which has been scandalously neglected over the years? Is he aware that the current service from London to Newcastle—268 miles—is as fast as the service from London to Sheffield, which is only 167 miles?

Mr. Fowler

I have asked British Railways to submit a programme of schemes that can be started within a 10-year timetable. They will be ranked in order of return. Doubtless, what the hon. Gentleman said about his service will be taken into consideration.

Mr. Needham

Is my right hon. Friend aware that if British Rail and the unions do not sort out their productivity problems fairly rapidly, and if the orders do not start to flow for the programme, many of the private companies that are desperate for orders will no longer exist because they will not have the work force to provide the goods and services when ordered?

Mr. Fowler

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. The advantages of the programme accrue not only to British Rail but to manufacturing industry. The one point that should be taken on board is that it is in the interests not only of the Government and British Rail but of the passengers and the industry that we make progress in agreement.

Mr. Bradley

Is the Secretary of State aware that his proposed method of approval of electrification by stages is causing maximum uncertainty within British Railways and their supplying industries? Does he not agree that that method is hardly conducive to efficient forward planning, when much rolling stock needs replacing and much resignalling needs to be carried out? Will he not reconsider his proposed method?

Mr. Fowler

I shall not reconsider my proposed method. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is true that it is not a blanket commitment to investment, come what may. It would not be right for any Government to give that sort of commitment. It is a promise of a running programme, provided that sensible conditions are met. The hon. Gentleman, with his knowledge of the rail industry, knows that the conditions that we have set out can be met.

Mr. Foulkes

How will the Secretary of State's request to British Railways to produce a 10-year programme for electrification relate to decisions within the area of a passenger transport executive such as Strathclyde? Will he say how a decision will be reached on the Ayrshire electrification, as opposed to the electrification of the Glasgow to Edinburgh line or the Glasgow to Carlisle line? People in Ayrshire are anxious about that decision.

Mr. Fowler

The essential point made by the hon. Gentleman is that basically it is an issue between Strathclyde and British Railways. On the question of general policy, meetings have been taking place between my Department and British Railways ever since I made a statement a week or 10 days ago.

Mr. Cormack

When my right hon. Friend is discussing electrification and other advances with Sir Peter Parker, will he tell him that travellers, be they tourists or business men, expect refreshment on trains? Will he also tell him that they expect a decent British breakfast?

Mr. Fowler

I know that concern has been expressed about the British breakfast. Obviously, it is an operational decision for British Railways. Clearly they will have to balance the benefits of a British breakfast with the loss currently being made on catering.

Mr. Stott

In view of the Secretary of State's declaration in his statement last week of a passionate commitment to the future of the railways, will he say what backing, in clear financial terms, he is prepared to give to the rail electrification programme? On the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley), will he give the House an assurance that if the British Rail Board identifies the Midlands main line north of Bradford to Sheffield as a specific priority for electrification he will give it the necessary backing and the go-ahead?

Mr. Fowler

As I have already said, we are asking British Rail to set out a programme of schemes that can be started within a 10-year timetable. I emphasise that it is a 10-year timetable. The schemes will be ranked in order of return and their costs will be taken into account when setting the external financing limit and the investment limit for a particular year. At the same time, we shall want the new business plans of British Rail both for inter-city and the freight business.

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