HC Deb 25 November 1981 vol 13 cc882-3
17. Mr. Cryer

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the current level of investment in British Railways and the additional amount needed to renew ageing structures which carry the permanent way.

Mr. David Howell

The board expects to invest £325 million this year. That does not include expenditure on renewal of structures, which is an operating cost and is therefore not subject to any Government investment ceiling and is entirely a matter for the board to determine.

Mr. Cryer

Is the Secretary of State aware that the restrictions on investment have recently caused British Rail to divert the Nottingham-Glasgow trains, which affects my constituency of Keighley, as a means of a backdoor closure of the Settle-Carlisle railway? Is he further aware that British Rail has stopped all track replacement work and all viaduct maintenance work on the Settle-Carlisle route and closure proposals have been put forward because of the ageing condition of Ribblehead viaduct, which will require several million pounds to restore? If British Rail approaches the Government for additional investment, which is vital if we are to keep such routes open, will the Government be prepared to treat such a request sympathetically?

Mr. Howell

The board already receives substantial funds—about £2 million a day—to enable it to maintain the present network. I expect the board to meet the cost of doing that from within those funds. That is the arrangement and that is the expectation.

Mr. Cockeram

Will my right hon. Friend point out to British Rail that it has much surplus land, including hotels, around the country and that no one travels by British Rail just because it owns hotels in London? There is plenty of capital locked up within British Rail that can be released, instead of fleecing the taxpayer further.

Mr. Howell

It is desirable that British Rail should pursue disposals to raise funds. There is an agreement between the British Railways Board and the Government about the introduction of private capital into subsidiaries. Disposals of this kind should be pursued.

Mr. Anderson

I refer to the Secretary of State's reply earlier about the Hitchin-Huntingdon line. Yesterday, in replying to the debate, the Under-Secretary of State said that the Department was not aware of the implication of the decision on the Hitchin-Huntingdon line on the Balfour Beatty team. Today, the Secretary of State said that the redundancy notices were premature. Does this mean that the Government have in mind the placing of a contract in respect of electrification before the expiry of the redundancy notices?

Mr. Howell

The Under-Secretary of State did not say yesterday what the hon. Gentleman claims he said. I did not say today what the hon. Gentleman claims I said. I said that the notice was not issued by Balfour Beatty and that the news that there was a problem was precipitate. The hon. Gentleman quotes words that I did not utter. The Hitchin-Huntingdon section is clearly part of the East Coast line main line project, which is part of the overall programme. The Government look forward to the programme being put forward by British Rail. They have not yet received it.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis

It was announced yesterday that my right hon. Friend had given quite a large amount of money to British Rail, following a year in which the number of passengers carried was considerably reduced. Is my right hon. Friend aware that one reason for the loss of passengers is the appalling service in some areas for commuters? Will he arrange for some of the money that he has given to British Rail to be spent on improvements to these commuter services? Without that expenditure British Rail will lose even more passengers.

Mr. Howell

The very large and exceptional addition to the public service obligation grant that I announced yesterday is to meet the very large deficiency in revenue that has occurred. It is not to compensate for increased costs. The pressure on costs and for improvements in administrative efficiency must continue with all possible vigour. I said yesterday that some considerable improvements in some areas had been made, but there is great room for improvement elsewhere.