HC Deb 10 March 1982 vol 19 cc834-5
11. Mr. Heddle

Secretary of State for Transport what proportion of freight traffic is now carried by rail; and what was the comparable figure in each of the last five years.

Mr. Eyre

The latest figures are for 1980 when about 14 per cent. in terms of tonne-miles was carried. Figures for earlier years are conveniently given in "Transport Statistics 1970–1980" and for the five years from 1975 to 1980 show a variation between 14.3 per cent. and 15.8 per cent.

Mr. Heddle

Will my hon. Friend note the pleasure of Conservative Members at his appearance at the Dispatch Box today? Does he agree that the scope for translating freight business back to the railways is enormous, but that industry will not do so until the unions streamline their working practices, increase productivity and guarantee that goods will be delivered on time?

Mr. Eyre

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. He is right to say that the scope for freight that could be transferred is large. My hon. Friend made powerful points by emphasising, as did my right hon. Friend earlier, the vital importance of productivity to the future of the railway system.

Mr. Stott

In addition to productivity increases, the Minister will be aware that investment is of crucial importance when talking about translating freight from road to rail. Is he also aware that the Armitage report recommended an increase in section 8 grants to provide private rail sidings? Is he also aware that one of the impediments to achieving that is the peculiar and inhibiting planning conditions that apply to section 8 grants? Will he look at this problem with a view to introducing legislation aimed at making those planning conditions more amenable to the freight trade?

Mr. Eyre

I appreciate the importance of the hon. Gentleman's points about section 8 grants, which were referred to in the Armitage report. I emphasise that we understand the importance of that aspect. We shall consider the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

Mr. Cockeram

Does not my hon. Friend's reply point to the declining importance of the railways in our transport system and to the fact that the consumer is increasingly choosing to carry his freight by road? Does not that demonstrate the importance of greater roads expenditure?

Mr. Eyre

Unfortunately, my hon. Friend is right. The figures show a slight decline in percentage terms over the years in the amount of freight carried by the railways. That in itself emphasises the tremendous importance of the railways achieving a competitive position and attracting as soon as possible extra business as a result of its competitive virtue.

Mr. Eastham

The Minister and his hon. Friends seem to be enthusiastic about the transfer of heavy freight to the roads, but is the Minister satisfied about the maintenance of the roads, which are also used by vehicles that do not carry heavy freight? Is he prepared to make representations so that he can offset some of the collapses of the roads and of the sewers in many of our cities?

Mr. Eyre

The hon. Gentleman has entirely misunderstood what I have been describing. It is clear that there is scope for the railways to attract more freight business. The Government want them to do that, but it must be done on the basis of a competitive attraction of that business. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate the importance of the announcement made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer yesterday about the contribution that heavy lorries will make to the covering of track costs.

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