HC Deb 25 November 1981 vol 13 cc973-80

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Thompson.]

10 pm

Mr. John Watson (Skipton)

I am very grateful for the opportunity to raise in the House the topic of the future of the Settle to Carlisle railway. I do not think that it is premature to raise the question although, as I think hon. Members will be aware, it is fair to say that no closure proposal has even yet been made by British Rail, and none has yet been received by any arm of the Government. Nevertheless, it is fair to anticipate that, in the next two or three years, such a proposal might be forthcoming because the 70-odd miles of the Settle to Carlisle railway runs partly over something called the Ribblehead viaduct.

The viaduct is apparently falling down to the extent that, according to British Rail, it is costing £150,000 a year to keep it standing. A full reinstatement, according to one version of British Rail's figures, would cost £6 million. According to British Rail, if that money is not spent the viaduct will not last for longer than six years at the most. In those circumstances, it is difficult to see how a closure proposal could be avoided.

At the moment, the reinstatement of the viaduct, I understand, is not included in the British Rail capital programme. Even if it were, that would be no guarantee that the work would be carried out. The external financing limit is in itself not sufficient to cover the current capital programme. If, therefore, the viaduct and the work on it is to get not just into the capital programme but sufficiently high up the programme to ensure that the work is done, the viaduct will need a significant traffic load to justify the work. The traffic load, according to British Rail, has been declining and, quite deliberately, from May next year, it will decline still further because six inter-city trains a day which have been going over the viaduct between Nottingham and Glasgow will be withdrawn and sent by the westerly Lancashire route.

I confess that I raise this issue substantially because I have a constituency interest. A large part of the line, including the viaduct itself, falls within my constituency. The railway itself generates some employment. If the line were to close, one station, Settle, would need to close too. Some quarry traffic of economic significance would be lost. Most important, the popular Dales rail service, which brings 6,000 people a year from the Leeds and Bradford conurbation with their much needed cash to spend on our hard pressed tourist industry, would presumably have to go.

In all honesty, however, I would not be raising the topic if I were solely concerned about a constituency matter. There is a national significance. This is the highest railway line in England passing through some of the wildest and most beautiful countryside. Its construction in 1874 must surely have been one of the most heroic acts of the railway age. The line has a strategic significance, linking the conurbation of West Yorkshire to Scotland, and offers a valuable relief line for the Shap route. It is therefore reasonable and not premature to pose a number of questions.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

I endorse everything that the hon. Gentleman says. The biggest revenue earner for the line is Leeds in the West Yorkshire conurbation. The immediate effect is wider than the hon. Gentleman's constituency interest, as he accurately pointed out. There would, for example, be a withdrawal of services from Keighley and Skipton that both of us, I believe, wish to see restricted and opposed.

Mr. Watson

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's contribution.

There are five questions to which I would be grateful for a reply by the Minister. The first is a fundamental question. Does the re-routing of the Nottingham to Glasgow service have anything to do with the condition of the Ribblehead viaduct? It is almost with some apology that I feel it necessary to ask that question because my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary, in winding up last night, was commendable in his clarity when he said: The diversion of the passenger service which has set off all the fuss was taken on commercial grounds by British Rail and has nothing to do with the physical condition of the viaduct."—[Official Report, 24 November 1981; Vol. 13, c. 831.] What could be clearer? Nor, unfortunately, is there anything much clearer than the statement to the contrary by the Secretary of State about three weeks ago in a letter to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph): BR's decision to re-route the Nottingham-Glasgow service arises from the deteriorating condition of the Ribblehead viaduct". I shall, of course, be very interested to hear my hon. and learned Friend's reconciliation of those two statements.

My second question is: are we, or are we not, now facing a major reduction in the passenger rail network? I understand from British Rail that, because of the current external financing limits, no less than 3,000 miles of track are considered under risk over the next few years. Yet I was heartened to see a recent letter from the Secretary of State, which said: I have made it quite clear that I am not prepared to see any substantial cuts in the passenger rail network". Again, I shall be interested to hear my hon. and learned Friend's reconciliation of those two statements.

The letter from which I have just quoted was sent on 28 October by the Secretary of State to my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling), who I am happy to see here. I am sure that he shares my regret that his onerous responsibilities as Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury prevent him from participating in the debate.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland)

My hon. Friend will know that Chief Whips do not make speeches, and I do not know whether this can be called a speech or an intervention. May I say that I very much share my hon. Friend's views and his feelings about the Ribblehead viaduct? Although it is in his constituency, I sneaked in to look at it, and I could see nothing wrong with it.

Mr. Watson

I am surprised and grateful to my right hon. and respected Friend for that intervention.

I hasten to move to my third question: what is the significance of the freight traffic? Great play has been made of the removal from the viaduct of the six inter-city passenger trains per day. When I asked British Rail to what extent the viaduct was used by freight traffic, I did not get a consequential reply. I was led to believe that it was insignificant, and the only figure that I was given—informally, of course—was that it was something like six or seven trains a day.

Such is the enthusiasm for this line that many volunteers were prepared to sit by the railway line counting the freight trains over a period of days, during which time they came up with a figure that was far from six or seven per day. The average was nearer 30 trains per day carrying freight.

What was most significant was the nature of the freight that was being carried: limestone aggregate, coal, steel and slow moving heavy goods. It is generally acknowledged that the carriage of such freight over the line and on the rail network generally has declined in recent years, coincident with the industrial recession. However, it should be acknowledged also that if we are to emerge from the current economic recession, one of the first signals of that emergence may well be a greater activity in the limestone aggregate industry or the steel industry. In those circumstances, such rail traffic might be among the first to pick up.

My fourth question is: what would be the strategic ramifications of closure? Apparently, most of the traffic, including the freight traffic to which I have just referred, would need to be transferred to the Shap line. That line is very busy at the moment. Frankly, I doubt the feasibility of transferring 25 or 30 freight trains a day to that line at the moment, and if that freight traffic were to increase, as it might, the Shap line could become substantially overloaded.

What happens when the Shap line needs maintenance? If we lose the Settle to Carlisle line and, for inevitable reasons, the Shap line were to be closed, there is only one alternative route throughout the west side of England, and that is the long, roundabout route through Cumbria and Whitehaven. I wonder about the reality of that alternative.

I am given to believe that there is a tunnel in Whitehaven that is so narrow that trains can only just get through it. The diesel motor units that use it have bars on the windows to stop people leaning out. If people were to lean out of the windows as the train entered the tunnel, the passenger load of British Rail might fall for reasons that even the marketing department of British Rail has so far hesitated to anticipate. Therefore, I question the reality of so much extra traffic following such a roundabout route.

What about the condition of the viaduct? I am no expert on viaducts or construction, but it is in my constituency and I have seen it. It looks okay to me. Apparently it will cost £150,000 per annum to keep it going. Has £150,000 been spent on it this year? If so, what on? Who says that it will cost £6 million to put it right? What consistency has there been about that £6 million? Why was reference made last night to £4.5 million? Has there been an independent assessment of the cost of putting the Ribblehead viaduct permanently right?

I am bound to question whether the masive sum of £6 million is realistic, or whether it has not been injected for some wider cosmetic purpose. Even if we close the line, we cannot presumably leave the viaduct, like some ageing Roman aqueduct, on its own to rot as the centuries pass. Decommissioning would involve some cost and presumably that would have to be taken into account when working out what should be done.

It seems likely that, sooner or later, we shall be asked to approve the closure of 72 miles of historic, scenic, strategically significant and economically important railway track in order to save, at the most, £6 million. That £6 million is the cost of building one mile of extra motorway at today's prices. If the public are to be asked to approve such a proposal they are entitled to ask such questions. Therefore, before giving their approval, they are entitled to sound and rational answers to the questions that I have raised.

10.12 pm
Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch and Lytnington)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

Does the hon. Gentleman have the permission of the hon. Member for Skipton (Mr. Watson)?

Mr. Adley

Yes, Sir.

I shall be brief. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton (Mr. Watson) on his persistence in obtaining the debate and on the way in which he so lucidly put the case on behalf not only of his constituents and those concerned with British Rail but of a far wider public, who regard the battle as important and of particular significance to those who, like me, watch the activities of the Steam Locomotive Operators Association with interest. As my hon. Friend will know, it is one of the few lines that is licensed to run steam engines.

I have two brief questions to ask. What is British Rail's attitude to the future of the line, and what is the future of the Ribblehead viaduct? I shall not go over the points that my hon. Friend has made so lucidly, but in the past British Rail has often reduced a service and the income, increased costs and then put forward a sound case for closing the line. I fully support my hon. Friend's comment about an independent assessment of the work that needs to be done on the Ribblehead viaduct. We need a prompt and honest answer from British Rail about its intentions towards the line. It is a line that British Rail advertises as the most spectacular in England. The wild settings are incomparable. For how long will it be a main line?

What about the Ribblehead viaduct? What are the costs? I make one suggestion to my hon. and learned Friend the Minister which he may pass on to British Rail. What about using the National Heritage Memorial Fund for the line? The National Heritage Act 1980 empowers the fund's trustees to give financial assistance towards the cost of acquiring, maintaining or perserving land, buildings, works of art and other items of outstanding importance to the national heritage. In its way, Ribblehead is as significant as Ingleborough, which God provided for this nation. The Ribblehead viaduct is every bit as significant as hundreds of the buildings that are listed as important.

We put British Rail in a difficult position. If, by some weird and horrible mischance, the line is closed—albeit temporarily—the nation should retain a right to the track bed for possible future use either by British Rail in an emergency, or perhaps by others if British Rail cannot or will not keep it open. I give my fullest support to my hon. Friend and I hope that the Minister has some helpful and comforting words.

10.15 pm
Mr. Christopher Price (Lewisham, West)


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Does the hon. Gentleman have the permission of the hon. Member for Skipton (Mr. Watson)?

Mr. Christopher Price

Yes, Sir.

I intervene as a London Member but a Yorkshireman. The line and its possible closure have implications far beyond any constituency interest of the hon. Member for Skipton (Mr. Watson). I was brought up in and around the Ribblehead viaduct. It is a piece of the national heritage. It is unthinkable that it should disappear. I do not believe some of the estimates. It is ludicrous to say that the only solution is to build another viaduct alongside it.

Anyone who knows and loves that part of Yorkshire must endorse the message of the debate—that the Ribblehead viaduct must survive as a working railway line which is necessary for the country and is part of that most splendid piece of the Yorkshire environment. I hope that we shall hear some comforting words from the Minister.

10.16 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton (Mr. Watson) for raising this subject tonight. It has been the cause of comment in debates in the last two days. The Adjournment debate gives us the opportunity to look at the problem in the detail which has not so far been possible. There is a considerable amount of local concern about the future of the line which has been marked by the fact that my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) has broken the silence normally imposed upon him in the House to express the concern of his constituents. I accept that there is a wider national interest in any speculation about the future of the Settle to Carlisle railway line.

One or two recent incidents have provoked speculation. First, an announcement was made by the British Railways Board that the Nottingham to Glasgow service would be rerouted from May 1982 via Manchester and Preston instead of using the Settle to Carlisle line. That gave rise to speculation in the press about the condition of the Ribblehead viaduct. People are now beginning to speculate about the possibility of the line being closed altogether.

The least that I can do is to explain what is happening and try to put the record straight. I apologise because part of the process of putting the record straight involves explaining a discrepancy between what I said last night and the contradictory statement which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport made in a letter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph). That letter was written in error and on advice which was mistaken.

The position is that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science asked for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport's comments on a letter which he had received from an organisation known as the Friends of the Settle-Carlisle Line Association. That organisation expressed the fears described by my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton.

The reply was sent upon advice but without consulting the British Railways Board. The assertion on the face of the letter from the constituents that there was a deterioration in the Ribblehead viaduct was accepted without question by my Department. The Secretary of State for Transport sent a reply which accepted the premise and proceeded on that basis.

That letter eventually came to the notice of the British Railways Board which realised that it was inaccurate. We have since been assured categorically by the board that the decision to re-route the Nottingham to Glasgow line has nothing whatever to do with the condition of Ribblehead viaduct.

The decision was taken on commercial grounds because, rightly, British Rail is trying to improve the commercial practice of main line passenger services. It is commercially more attractive to take the trains through substantial centres such as Manchester and Preston instead of going from Settle to Carlisle. The main line route diversions, I am assured by British Rail, are caused entirely by sound commercial judgment. I have no reason to doubt that.

The board intends to introduce a local service between Leeds and Carlisle. The scheduling of that service is a matter entirely for the board and not for the Department, but it enables me to explain that it is part of the commercial management of the railways and not based on the condition of the viaduct.

Nevertheless the British Railways Board has also made it clear, no doubt to others as well as to the Department, that it is concerned about the condition of Ribblehead viaduct. It says that the viaduct requires expenditure. I do not have the estimate at my fingertips. The Department of Transport does not produce estimates of the cost of repairing structures, but the board says that the viaduct has deteriorated during the years and will require expenditure in the near future.

That takes us, as did my hon. Friend, to the serious question of how that sort of structural renewal will be financed by the British Railways Board, given its present financial difficulties. It gives rise to perfectly proper questions about the level of financial support given to British Rail by the Government. The support that we give to British Rail is not based on an item-by-item bill being submitted to us. We faced the same problems, speculations and demands for specific sums of money when there was controversy last year about Barmouth viaduct on the central Wales line.

The Government cannot accept individual submissions saying that a viaduct or a tunnel must be repaired or a station must be restored, which will cost £1 million for the first, £3 million for the second, and so on. We give the support that is judged necessary and which has been agreed with the board to provide the necessary passenger services that the Government have obliged it to provide.

We put the board on an external financing limit which has been increased in recent years and which now stands at the staggering figure of £920 million for the current year. There is also the public service obligation grant which follows well-determined European Community rules. We placed the British Railways Board under a public service obligation, which was stated in 1974 to be to provide a service to the public that was reasonably equivalent to the service then prevailing. We then agreed with the British Railways Board the grant that the Government must give to subsidise the board and to provide that service, including capital investment on the line. Yesterday a massive increase in the 1981 PSO grant, to £754.7 million, was announced.

In straightforward terms, in order to subsidise the board to provide the passenger service that it is obliged to provide, we are giving British Rail £2 million a day to support the services. British Rail must draw up its capital programmes within that figure so that it has its own priorities and can introduce any essential investment to repair structures or improve services.

I do not wish to reiterate what I said in my reply to the debate yesterday evening. Many people say that it is not enough money. However, the taxpayer is providing a substantial sum of money that enables British Rail to make large investments—much more than the Settle to Carlisle line would involve—including the introduction of the advanced passenger train, buying high-speed trains and signalling renewal at Victoria, Brighton and the West of England. That comes within British Rail's programme of capital investment. Within the PSO grant, it must determine its own investment priorities and make good the necessary structures upon which it runs its trains.

Although I am not an engineer, I have listened this evening to two hon. Members who have visited Ribblehead viaduct. We may be talking about a few million pounds, but we must consider that demand for money against the background of the total cost of the railways, which is £2,500 million. The total finance limit is almost £1 billion a year and we give £750 million in grants. The board must determine its priorities within those sums to provide the service laid upon it by the Government on behalf of the public.

As was said in debates yesterday, although rising steadily year by year, the EFL is still putting restraints on the board and it is finding it difficult to invest up to its ceiling and tot se all the PSO grant that it would like on investment. That, unfortunately, is because of the failing business performance of the railways, partly brought about by the recession. This is causing loss of revenue and the board has not so far been able to reduce costs to keep up the business performance.

That means that the recent heavy investment in modernising the inter-city services has so far failed to generate the funds to improve the rest of the railway. Because of the failure of the inter-city services to operate as a commercial business without subsidy, we have not been able to give such a thing as a totally unconditional commitment to electrification. It also means that British Rail has difficulty refurbishing rural and provincial services.

However, I do not deny that over the years there has been substantial neglect of track renewal and structural repairs on provincial and rural services. That is not new; it goes back 10 or 15 years. In any case British Rail has been unable or has ceased to do much more than patch and mend on provincial services.

Nevertheless, if the business performance can be improved, and if the Government continue to be flexible and to give British Rail financial support, it is for British Rail to draw up its own investment programmes, to repair the structures and to provide the service which we oblige it to provide.

Mr. Adley

Will my hon. and learned Friend personally ask Sir Peter Parker to take up the idea of the National Heritage Memorial Fund?

Mr. Clarke

I give that undertaking. My hon. Friend's suggestion seemed ingenious. Not for the first time he produces an original proposition to support the railways. The thought crossed my mind that one difficulty that British Rail operates under is that it has over 700 listed buildings on its network through which it is supposed to run a modern railway line so far as conservationists and others will allow. There may be advantages in my hon. Friend's suggestion if it gives access to funds set aside for conservation purposes. I shall make sure it is explored.

Mr. Cryer

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman also suggest to Sir Peter Parker that he explores EEC sources? I understand from a European Assembly representative that money might be available from the Common Market for a specific purpose.

Mr. Clarke

That source is worth investigating, but we have had a preliminary look, and it is not very encouraging. It is outside my immediate area of responsibility, but I do not believe that Ribblehead is in an assisted area, which means that the regional development fund is automatically ruled out. However, if other European funds are available, I am sure that British Rail and the Government will be interested, but at present no specific transport infrastructure funds are provided by the Community, although the British Government are among the Governments who are most active in trying to make progress towards an infrastructure fund.

That is the background, I cannot answer the other questions about the service. The Government simply cannot intervene in such matters as the levels of freight and passenger traffic. The routeing and timetabling of trains is the responsibility of management, and it is not right for the Government to interfere.

A lot of freight traffic uses the route because British Rail has many wagons which cannot operate on a high-speed basis, so they cannot be fitted into the West Coast main line which they would otherwise use. Therefore, that kind of freight traffic may decline as British Rail continues its commendable progress in modernising its freight business.

At the moment British Rail is putting on a local service between Leeds and Carlisle and has put absolutely no proposition to the Government for the closure of the route. Because of the recent speculation, my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton fears that sooner or later the Government will be asked to approve the closure. We shall cross that bridge when we come to it. We cannot possibly go round the country prejudging possible closures, case by case. However, my hon. Friend will know that there is an elaborate procedure for closures. He will also know that my right hon. Friend the present Secretary of State for Transport has reaffirmed exactly the policy of his predecessor. The Government have no wish to see substantial cuts in the passenger network.

It is not possible, as we are sometimes pressed to do, to give an absolute undertaking that not a mile of railway line will go, but we accept the feelings expressed this evening that when important lines come into question the public would not wish the closure to be undertaken lightly. There is an elaborate procedure whereby the TUCC has to consider the hardship that might be caused by a closure proposal, and my right hon. Friend has to give his consent before it can take place. At present, that has not even been embarked on. We have had no inkling from British Rail that it is coming forward with a closure proposal. There is, therefore, no reason even to start the procedure.

There is understandably, concern about the railway and speculation about its financial position. There is a lot of bidding from genuine friends of the railway who are trying to get a bit more to repair this, improve that or electrify the other——

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.