HC Deb 16 February 1983 vol 37 cc278-80
4. Mr. Spriggs

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he next expects to meet the chairman of the British Railways Board for the purpose of discussing plans for further electrification.

Mr. David Howell

I frequently meet the chairman of the British Railways Board to discuss matters of mutual interest, including plans for further electrification.

Mr. Spriggs

When the right hon. Gentleman next meets the chairman of the board, will he confirm that he intends to authorise the electrification of the line between Ashford and Hastings with the least possible delay? Will he also confirm that the rates of return for the electrification of the east coast main line are favourable? When the board's submissions are complete, will he authorise the electrification of the east coast main line without delay?

Mr. Howell

The Government recognise and have made a commitment to the need for a major investment on the Tonbridge to Hastings section of the line. Discussions are continuing on the precise form that the investment should take.

The British Rail Board brought forward figures last autumn for the electrification of the east coast line. It then withdrew them because it needed to revise the prospects for inter-city business. I understand that it will bring forward new figures shortly, and I look forward to seeing them.

Mr. Hordern

Would not the prospects for electrification be greatly improved if British Rail were allowed to operate the parts that have been electrified—for example, the Bedford to St. Pancras line? Does not that and other restrictive practices, such as guards still travelling on goods trains when they are not required, make the prospect for British Rail rather bleak?

Mr. Howell

I assure my hon. Friend that British Rail has my full support in seeking to overcome the monstrous delay in the use of £150 million of modern equipment on the newly electrified line between Bedford and St. Pancras. It has become a symbol of the refusal of part of the trade union movement to accept the new practices that are necessary to go with the new investment.

Mr. James Hamilton

When the Minister next meets the chairman of the board, will he remind him of the speech that he made on 8 February when he stated clearly that if the electrification of the railways took place it would mean the renewal of diesel engines which, in many instances, would have to come from abroad? Will the Minister speak seriously with the chairman about that problem?

Mr. Howell

It is correct that, elsewhere in the system, diesel engines are coming to the end of their lives and are in need of renewal. However, the diesel equipment on the east coast line still has many years of service. That is why the Government and the British Railways Board seek to provide an overall view of inter-city services and how they can be brought to profit.

Dr. Mawhinney

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will tell the chairman of British Rail that once the proposals for the electrification of the east coast line are submitted to him they will be reviewed as a matter of urgency and a quick, and I hope positive, decision will be taken on them?

Mr. Howell

I shall do my best to look at the proposals as quickly as possible in the light of the criteria laid down by the Government, which have not changed since they were laid down in the summer of 1981, one of which was that there must be a prospect and a plan for how much inter-city business as a whole can be brought into profit.

Mr. Hardy

Does the Secretary of State agree that there is a growing suspicion that the only programme of massive public expenditure that the Government seem eager to embrace is continuingly increasing unemployment? Would it not be better to devote resources to major items of expenditure, such as the gas-gathering pipeline, which the right hon. Gentleman rejected in another office, and major electrification? Would this not at least bring us into line with the practices of many of our competitors?

Mr. Howell

Yes, I welcome all worthwhile investment, and I welcome the fact that British Rail is lifting its moratorium on investment projects and will be able to increase investment next year. Investment in new infrastructure, including rail developments, is highly desirable where it is worth while and soundly based.

Mr. Colin Shepherd

Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that consideration of electrification of the east coast main line route will be separate from and parallel to any consideration of the Serpell report?

Mr. Howell

The issue is being looked at separately from the Serpell report. The Serpell report made some observations about the long-term prospects for the inter-city business, but that does not alter the way in which the east coast electrification issue is being handled.

Mr. Robert Hughes

How many times has British Rail submitted figures on electrification to the right hon. Gentleman and how many times has he asked for recalculations to be done?

Mr. Howell

On the east coast main line, British Rail has brought forward proposals once before, and the next time will be the second occasion. British Rail decided to withdraw its calculations in November, following discussions with my Department which revealed that the revenue projections were no longer soundly based.