HC Deb 21 February 1983 vol 37 cc777-84

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

12.3 am

Mr. T. H. H. Skeet (Bedford)

In this debate I am joined by my hon. Friends the Members for Luton, East (Mr. Bright), Luton, West (Mr. Carlisle), Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Madel), and St. Albans (Sir. V. Goodhew) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Lyell), who will soon become the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire.

The prolonged delay in the operation of the Bedford-St. Pancras electrification is a public scandal. Construction began in 1976 and the project was completed to Moorgate in May 1982. It remains unused, with 48 sets of rolling stock remaining at sidings at Bedford, Nottingham, Derby and Cricklewood. The unions have complained about the lack of investment in British Rail, but when a project is carried through to completion they inhibit its use, regardless of the pleas and discomfort of commuters who travel daily between Bedford, the intermediate stations, and the metropolis. It could happen only in "Alice in Wonderland" that, from a total investment of £154 million, electrical equipment, overhead wiring and rolling stock worth £85.6 million lie idle to weather and rust, while a further £68.1 million is in partial use.

After the Taj Mahal, the pyramids and the groundnut scheme, Bedford electrification remains a monument to union ineptness and irresponsibility and managerial inability to control events.

According to my hon. Friend the Minister, in a written reply The investment which has been lying idle represents about £150,000 a week in interest costs".—[Official Report, 18 November 1982; Vol. 32; c. 272.] There could be a saving for British Rail. On 8 April 1982, my hon. Friend said: current costs of train crews, fuel, cleaning, shunting, maintenance and depreciation on rolling stock are estimated at approximately £4.10 per mile for each four-car diesel-multiple-unit set and at £3.20 per mile for each four-car-electric-multiple-unit set."—[Official Report. 8 April 1982; Vol. 21; c. 474–75.] On a rough estimate, the capital loss to October 1983 is about £5 million, and the revenue loss is about £1.5 million.

The current timetable is something of an enigma. Work was completed to Moorgate in May 1982 and was estimated to be completed to St. Pancras in October 1983. If we assume a McCarthy settlement of £6 per shift of duty within 14 days, which is optimistic, 50 per cent. of the service could be operational on a slower timetable by July 1983, with full operational service by October 1983, or one and a half years after completion of the works. I hope that my hon. Friend will give his verdict on the timetable.

However, the House is more concerned with drivers' wages today and what they are likely to be on average. The basic wage is £105 a week. If we add 10 per cent. for unsocial hours, which is £10.50, overtime and Sunday working another £30, and London weighting allowance £15.80, that makes a total of £161.30. If we add an estimated extra £6 a shift claimed by ASLEF—it is claiming £7 but will probably get £6—that brings the total to £194.30. We must then add a further 6 per cent. on the McCarthy proposals, which will eventually be backdated to September 1982, which brings the total pay of drivers to £200.60 or £10,430 per annum.

Those figures are extraordinary when compared with the Tyneside metro, which is a drivers-only operation. The wage for those drivers is £165, including overtime and continental rostering. Yet we are told by ASLEF that the extra responsibility assumed would account for the difference between those figures. I cannot believe that.

Mr. David Madel (Bedfordshire, South)

Does my hon. Friend agree that with such wages it is time for the drivers to think about the suffering commuters who must continue to travel in dirty diesel trains from Bedfordshire to St. Pancras?

Mr. Skeet

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning that. I am one of those unfortunate commuters who come from Bedford, and my hon. Friend comes from a station on the line. We have been suffering those appalling conditions for too long. The unions entirely ignore the comfort of the travelling public.

Mr. Graham Bright (Luton, East)

Is my hon. Friend aware that many commuters from Luton are now travelling by the excellent coach services that are running from that town to Victoria? The commuters are finding that more pleasant, because the coaches are comfortable and cheaper. That must be damaging the long-term prospects of this line, and the unions are responsible.

Mr. Skeet

The unions, especially ASLEF, must recognise that the more they continue with restrictive practices, the more they are destroying their own system which gives them a good living.

I wish to refer to the preliminary electrification scheme. The two main projects are Paisley to Ayr at a cost of £25 million and Colchester to Harwich and Ipswich to Norwich at a cost of £29 million. A formal proposal relates to the main east coast line of Leeds to Newcastle at a cost of £118 million.

I hope that I have the Minister's assurance that no new electrification project will be undertaken or permitted until ASLEF agrees to work the Bedford-St. Pancras facility. I am certain that my hon. Friends will agree with that.

Last year there was a dispute between ASLEF and British Rail over flexible rostering. It lasted for 17 days but was spread over several months with the eventual acceptance of the McCarthy proposals, but unhappily it was not decided what extra payment was due to the drivers on a single-man operation. It is extraordinary how oblivious the members of ASLEF have been to the difficulties of the travelling public and to the fate of their own enterprise on which they depend for their living and which was subsidised by the taxpayer to the tune of about £1,000 million per annum in 1982–83. The commuter remains disadvantaged, yet cannot lay a claim against the unions for any loss sustained.

On Thursday 10 February I was travelling to Bedford on the 16.35 and sat in a compartment which had no heating. The guard was helpful and told me that the carriage—FO 3198—had been referred three times to the authorities but nobody had bothered to correct the defect. This is certainly not an isolated example. I have come to the conclusion that the trouble with British Rail is that it is overstaffed, that management at certain levels is either afraid or reluctant to manage and that the unions in their rivalry make the administration of the system virtually impossible, especially when they choose to cause disruption regardless of the loss, damage and discomfort of third parties who may choose to travel by rail.

Why was the cost of running the operation of the Bedford-St. Pancras line not settled with ASLEF and the NUR before British Rail embarked on building the project? Secondly, as British Rail is a state corporation, for which the Minister has responsibility, how long is he prepared to tolerate the painfully slow negotiating procedure that has contributed to endless meetings and the wasting of national assets?

Thirdly, will the Minister confirm the assurance given by a former Secretary of State for Transport that, unless there is to be proven productivity and a reasonable rate of return on public investment, new electrification projects, wherever they be, will not be contemplated?

Fourthly, will the payment of the 6 per cent. awarded to railway workers by Lord McCarthy pursuant to a settlement of the recent dispute be made contingent upon union readiness to operate the Bedford-St. Pancras line?

Fifthly, does the Minister realise that if a private company was conducting these operations, and if it could not use profitably the £150 million worth of assets for a year following completion, it would have little hope of keeping its enterprise from voluntary liquidation, and that ASLEF should be made to realise that there must be some limit to its inordinate demands and restrictive practices?

Will the combined efforts of this wretched union through the accumulated loss of British Rail, to which it has contributed, place at risk the Bedford-Bletchley rail link? Will he confirm that the loss to that line, after crediting the value of the tickets, amounts to £14 per person who travels on that line?

This is an extraordinary example of modern technology. The money has been provided by the taxpayer, yet unions that are outdated in their own experience are holding back what should have been a profitable exercise.

12.15 am
Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, West)

This is a significant debate for those of us with constituencies on the Bedford-St. Pancras line. We are all grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) for raising the matter.

It is significant that the Opposition Benches are empty. I refer especially to the absence of the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Huckfield), who was so vociferous during the recent British Rail dispute in support of ASLEF, which is entirely to blame for this dispute.

I represent constituents who are running out of patience. As my hon. Friend said, this is a scandal. We can only wonder at the resilience shown by our constituents over the last few months while this dispute has dragged on. It is a disgrace that thousands of them have travelled to London each day and seen at Cricklewood the new rolling stock waiting to be manned with weeds growing through the wheels, all the more so as they have been forced to travel in the most out-of-date and filthy carriages now available on British Rail. All our constituents must be grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this matter.

Most galling of all is that the cost is increasing, despite the return that could be achieved not only to the drivers but to the well-being of our constituents. There is no doubt in my mind that jobs are being lost in the Bedford, Luton, St. Albans, and Hemel Hempstead areas because this line has not yet reached fruition. The opportunity for new housing is being lost because the line is not operational. I know of many employers who would willingly come to the towns in that area if and when the service is available.

The Minister must understand the deep resentment that is now felt against British Rail and the union concerned. I do not completely share my hon. Friend's dissatisfaction with the management. I compliment Mr. Harry Reed, the divisional manager, who tried to apologise to commuters for the trouble that has been caused. The blame lies fairly and squarely with the bloody-minded attitude of Mr. Ray Buckton and the ASLEF union. They, and they only, are responsible for this delay and for the fact that this investment has not yet come to fruition.

Only one result should come from this sad affair. Not only should British Rail refuse to go ahead with any further electrification until the line is opened, but those drivers who continue to refuse to man the line should be dismissed and replaced by those—and there are many—who are willing to be trained to man the line. If that does not happen, as my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, East (Mr. Bright) said, people will find alternative means of transport.

The ball is fairly and squarely in the court of the union. I hope that the debate and the Minister's remarks will emphasise that fact so that we can start the trains running as quickly as possible.

12.20 am
The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Reginald Eyre)

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) has been seriously concerned for a long time about the issue that he has raised tonight. I note that my hon. Friends the Members for Bedford and Luton, West (Mr. Carlisle) are supported by the presence of my hon. Friends the Members for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Madel), St. Albans (Sir V. Goodhew) and Luton, East (Mr. Bright) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Lyell).

Many of the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford will have suffered as a result of the rail unions' refusal to operate the new electric trains on the Bedford to St. Pancras line. I also understand the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, West. Luton is the main intermediate stop on this line. My hon. Friend's constituents would have benefited, as he described, from the introduction of the new service. I share their indignation and appreciate fully the strength of feeling expressed by my hon. Friends on behalf of their constituents.

For nine months, trains which would have provided a faster and more frequent service, generating more revenue, have been standing idle at Cricklewood gathering rust and surrounded by weeds, within view of the long-suffering passengers in the shabby old diesels, which still provide the service. We know the reason only too well. It is because the rail unions—first the NUR and now ASLEF—have refused to agree on terms for driver-only operation, for which the trains were designed. They have become a symbol of union intransigence and resistance to change. It is impossible to take seriously the unions' commitment to a modern railway and their requests for new investment when they are blocking the full use of investment worth more than £150 million.

Suburban services to Bedford are still operated by diesel multiple units introduced in the late 1950s. In the mid-1970s, a decision had to be taken on their replacement. The Railways Board proposed that the service should be electrified and extended along the Midland City line to Moorgate. A new station, known as King's Cross Midland, would be built to improve connections with the underground at King's Cross and St. Pancras, an important interchange served by five tube lines.

An extensive programme of engineering work has been carried out. Several stations, including Luton, were substantially reconstructed and a completely new station was built at Bedford. The maintenance depot at Cricklewood was rebuilt to cope with the new rolling stock. Colour light signalling was installed from St. Pancras to north of Bedford. Extensive track improvements were made. In order to make room for the overhead power lines, many bridges were reconstructed and the track on the Midland City line lowered. King's Cross Midland station was built, with links to the underground. And, of course, the overhead wires were installed.

All this work was completed within the time scale set at the start of the project and within the cost target. The Bedford-Luton section of the line was switched on in January 1981 and used for driver training. The line to Moorgate was ready in May 1982. Electrification of St. Pancras station was completed during last summer, as planned. But the new trains still did not run.

At present, the service is being provided by trains that should have been withdrawn. British Rail has had to face extra maintenance costs to keep them in service. The railways, their customers, and the taxpayer have lost the benefit of nine months of using the new trains on the Bedford-St. Pancras line. Luton and St. Albans should be served by four trains an hour in each direction throughout the day, and Bedford by two. The average journey time from London to Bedford should have been reduced by 20 minutes and to Luton by 11 minutes. As it is, passengers on this line have had to suffer a reduced service and overcrowding at peak periods. I regret this. Luton and St. Albans have only two trains an hour in each direction during the day, and Bedford only one.

The pity is that this is totally unnecessary. The travelling public have suffered. The image of the railways has been harmed and the climate for further investment has been made less favourable as a result of the unions' action. Yet the issue is basically a simple one. The new trains for the Bedford-St. Pancras line have been designed and built so that they can be operated by the driver alone. The Railways Board has, therefore, decided, quite rightly, that it makes no sense for trains to have both a driver and a guard. It sees this as one of the central areas where there is scope for productivity improvements to help to reduce its costs.

The board, and many railwaymen, realise that they must achieve productivity improvements to secure the modern and efficient railway we all want to see. We must compliment BR on what it has done so far in that direction. Of course, more needs to be done, and the board can count on the Government's full support in its continuing efforts to achieve further improvements.

The search for improved productivity on the railways has not been exclusively the province of the Railways Board. The rail unions have advanced their own ideas for achieving better productivity, and several Opposition Members have given the House the benefit of their ideas. These have always had the same theme—"Increased investment leads to improved productivity; give us the investment and we will deliver the productivity " The appalling example of the Bedford-St. Pancras saga shows a completely different picture. Here we have some £150 million invested in new rolling stock and special infrastructure designed to provide a modern, fast, efficient and comfortable service by May 1982. But what has happened? The benefits to the customers have been lost. The only real journey that those new trains have made is into the sidings; they are still there.

Mr. Skeet

When will we have the electrification?

Mr. Eyre

I am seeking to answer that question to my hon. Friend's satisfaction.

Let us examine the reasons why the new trains are still standing idle in Cricklewood sidings. Diver-only operation of trains on the Bedford-St. Pancras line was one of the six productivity points in the twin agreements on pay and productivity which formed part of the 1981 railway pay settlement. There then followed a full year of negotiations about what the unions were supposed to deliver under the terms of the productivity understanding, when they were supposed to deliver it, and what should be the role of guards on trains that have no need for them. It was only after Lord McCarthy, in an arbitration award on pay and productivity in September last year, had suggested a formula that would allow single manning to take place with guards retained for a period of six months on non-guard duties, that the NUR agreed to the principle of driver-only operation.

The Railways Board therefore opened negotiations with the NUR and ASLEF on supplementary payments for staff whose responsibilities would change under the new arrangements. It made an offer which the NUR accepted, ASLEF chose, to take the issue through all the stages of the negotiating machinery. It now rests with Lord McCarthy, the chairman of the Railway Staff National Tribunal, to arbitrate on this question. I am sure that the whole House will join me in hoping that Lord McCarthy makes his award clear and realistic, and that he makes it quickly.

Hon. Members will, I am sure, have seen the press reports of remarks made by the chairman of the Railways Board about railway negotiating procedures. He cited the Bedford-St. Pancras negotiations as an example of how the industry's existing machinery of negotiation was inadequate to cope with the need for rapid change. I emphasise that it is, of course, entirely a matter for the Railways Board to negotiate any changes to the existing machinery with the unions which it may conclude are necessary. The Government have no locus in this, although, of course, we shall look forward with interest to seeing how its ideas on this important subject develop.

The House will wish to know how that sad story affects the case for further electrification. The Government have already approved electrification to Harwich, Ipswich and Norwich, and preliminary work has started on this scheme and on the line between Paisley and Ayr. We have the board's proposals for the electrification of the east coast main line to Leeds and Newcastle, the schemes with top priority in its 10-year programme of main line electrification. We hope to announce a decision shortly on the board's proposal to electrify the Tonbridge-Hastings service, and we are awaiting further information to establish whether it would be worth while to electrify both lines to Cambridge, from Royston and Bishop's Stortford.

We have told the board that we cannot reach a decision on the east coast main line proposals without regard to prospects for the inter-city business, which would be the major beneficiary. Inter-city has a remit to run at a profit; and when we see a satisfactory plan for the business, the way will be open for a decision on the electrification of the east coast main line. We hope to receive the board's business plan shortly. Decisions on the balance of the 10-year programme will have to be reached in the context of the debate on the future of the railway as a whole.

However, the case for electrification, as for any other major investment, is bound to be affected by the unions' readiness to co-operate in improving productivity. The more the railways can save through higher productivity, the more will be available to invest in worthwhile schemes. The problems on the Bedford-St. Pancras line show how slowly this lesson is being learnt. But I hope, for the sake of my hon. Friend's constituents, whose interests they have represented so strongly, that the unions will yet show, by quickly agreeing to operate the service, that they realise how far the future of the railways is in their hands.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Twelve o'clock.