HC Deb 05 December 1983 vol 50 cc7-9
12. Mr. Alton

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what effect the Chancellor's autumn economic statement will have on investment in British Rail.

Mr. David Mitchell

The external financing limit announced in the autumn statement will allow room for the increasd investment that British Rail has forecast in its corporate plan.

Mr. Alton

I welcome the fact that there will be a modest increase in investment, but does the Minister accept that the basic under-financing of British Rail means that it will be unable to invest in new technology? That in turn will lead to a reduction in the services available to the public and will prevent British Rail from being able to reduce its unit costs. Does the Minister agree that he is condemning British Rail to a lingering death? What is the figure for investment this year on the roads compared with the railways?

Mr. Mitchell

I could not disagree more with the hon. Gentleman when he says that there is basic under-investment in British Rail. We have provided in this year's external financing limit all that British Rail asked for. During the past four years about £1,500 million has been invested in British Rail. We expect that over the next five years £2,000 million will be invested in it. Those are substantial figures. I think the House will agree that as a result an ample opportunity should be provided for British Rail to carry out the investment that it judges to be necessary.

Sir Bernard Braine

Does my hon. Friend agree that, unless something is done to increase investment in British Rail, especially in respect of the neglected commuter lines to London from south Essex, where difficulties are experienced daily by thousands of commuters, increased investment in roads will be needed, because of the current desertion of commuters from the railways to coach and bus services. Does my hon. Friend not feel that the time is ripe for a completely new approach to railway and road finance, especially in the context that I mentioned?

Mr. Mitchell

I assure my hon. Friend that no limitation is imposed by the Government on British Rail's investment projects in the areas to which he referred. It is for the board to identify what would be worth while and to come to us with proposals. We shall consider them sympathetically and carefully. We are turning down no such proposals at present.

Mr. Flannery

Is it not a fact that the Minister deliberately neglected to answer the question by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) about under-investment in British Rail compared with investment on the roads? Is it not true that our railways suffer from under-investment, compared with the rest of the countries in the Common Market? Is it not a fact that in France, for instance, there is massive investment in the railways compared with the investment on them in this country? The Minister said that it was £2,000 million, which sounds a lot, but it is over a period of five years, which makes it much less.

Mr. Mitchell

One cannot make comparisons between the railway system in this country and that in other countries, where the distances are much longer between stations, and the operation —[Interruption.]There are far greater distances in the railway network in France, which is provided with enormous opportunities which we do not have here. I utterly reject the suggestion that there is under-investment, as the hon. Gentleman implies.

Mr. Ward

Will my hon. Friend ensure that any further increase in investment in British Rail comes from increased efficiency and not from the long-suffering taxpayer, who already pays too much?

Mr. Mitchell

We are looking to British Rail to bring forward proposals for investment that will help to increase efficiency. We shall encourage it in that direction.