HC Deb 09 March 1983 vol 38 cc926-34

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

10.16 pm
Mr. Anthony Steen (Liverpool, Wavertree)

We are fortunate to have a Minister to reply to this important debate who is known for his commitment to the cities and with a first-rate track record—if that is the right phrase to use.

The strength of feeling over the withdrawal of sleeper services from the north-west of Britain is well evidenced by the number of people in the public gallery and the number of hon. Members in the House, including my hon. Friend the Member for the Wirral (Mr. Hunt), who is in his usual place on the Front Bench and who has long been a supporter of the sleeper service.

I should also mention early-day motion 126 in my name and that of other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Liverpool, Scotland Exchange (Mr. Parry) who, unfortunately, is in Strasbourg but would like to be associated with what I say tonight.

My purpose this evening is to expose a cover-up which is aimed at cutting out the overnight sleeper services linking the capital with the entire north-west of Britain. But for the activities of a night mole, with whom I have close contact, hon. Members representing the north-west would have been kept in the dark with no idea of what British Rail was up to. I pay tribute to that night mole for alerting us to the impending danger.

Having confronted the chairman of British Rail with the fact that I knew of his plans to take off the sleepers, it took him two months to get his general manager to meet an all-party group of hon. Members on 10 February. We were promised facts and figures to justify British Rail's decision. That was a month ago, and no facts or figures have been produced. In a random check during the four weeks ending 15 May 1982 it was found that 96 of the 140 first-class berths and 255 of the 358 second-class berths were occupied on the Manchester to Euston sleeper service. So much for British Rail's contention that only Members of Parliament use the sleepers.

British Rail's arguments are that the sleeper coaches currently in use on the north-west line are about to expire and that the traffic on the route does not justify new night-sleeper rolling stock, which cost £250,000 each. Let us suppose that British Rail is right in that the level of business does not justify new sleeper coaches at that price. Why should it not refurbish some of the old coaches from the north-west and the redundant coaches on the Edinburgh and Glasgow routes? The cost would then be between £90,000 and £130,000 a coach and they would look like new.

As British Rail is obliged to find a 7.5 per cent. return on its capital, each coach must earn between £8,000 and £10,000 per year. Is British Rail telling the House that it cannot expect to earn between £8,000 to £10,000 per coach, when the Manchester coach earned more than £2,000 in May? Admittedly the throughput in the northwest has declined over the past three years, but that is as much a result of the appalling rundown in the service by British Rail as of the general problems of the recession. The withdrawal of the service would have been more rapid if it had not been for the remarkable team of stewards who have done their best to keep their side of the service running and have inspired me to raise the matter this evening.

The service will be profitable if the pricing, product and marketing are right. Will the Minister explain why, on a brand new poster at Birkenhead railway station, British Rail has advertised the new sleeper services which the House is told are coming off on 1 May? It does not make sense that British Rail should, on the one hand, take the service off and, on the other, display a new poster.

I do not believe that subsidies are needed for the night sleeper service, but would they be inappropriate bearing in mind that every European network is subsidised by the Government, who recognise that a good transport network is a prerequisite for a buoyant economy?

The north-west is already one of the most heavily subsidised parts of the country. Successive Governments have poured huge sums of public money into the region. The Department of the Environment is spending £150 million in Liverpool this year. British Rail is planning to spend £2 million on a facelift for Liverpool's Lime street station, in addition to £5.4 million to be spent under the urban programme for the same purpose. What is the point of building up the station if the train services are being run down?

It is not just the night trains that have been run down. There is now just one fast train every three hours between London and Liverpool, compared with one fast train every hour last year. The action is similar to that of Liverpool city council, which, rather than repair the 5,000 empty council flats and houses in its possession, insists on building new ones.

I challenge the Minister and British Rail to produce the loadings on all the north west sleeper services from April last year to Christmas—a nine-month period—to produce estimates for rebuilding existing rolling stock, and to project the loads for the next three years. The House should examine them. If the service does not make a profit, perhaps it could break even. If, by chance, the service made a loss in the first year, why should we need to spend £2 million of British Rail's money on a facelift of Lime Street station? What is the point of the Government spending £13 million on an international garden festival in Liverpool in 1984 if the 3 million visitors who are supposed to come from the Continent and who may flood into the city are unable to travel overnight to their destination?

Either British Rail wants a share of the action, or it will increasingly lose out as people take to the road or fly into Speke airport, where private enterprise is increasingly capturing the market. I trust that the Minister will realise the seriousness of the issue and the strength of feeling on both sides of the House and not give us a ministerial answer, which will do little more than buy more time for British Rail.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Order. Hon. Members will want to hear the Minister's reply, which the hon. Gentleman would like to begin at 10.34 pm.

10.24 pm
Mr. Charles R. Morris (Manchester, Openshaw)

I should like to associate myself with the case advanced by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen), and I support the retention of the rail sleeper services. Those who belong to the north-west group of Labour Members of Parliament are concerned about the proposed withdrawal of the Manchester to London sleeper service. Unhappily, that service may have rather unfortunate connotations for the Chancellor of the Exchequer and other Conservative Ministers, who have been known to lose their trousers when using it. Nevertheless, it meets a real community need. Understandably, British Rail is faced with major financial problems, but there is a commitment to provide a service that the community wishes to use. British Rail says that the 7 am train from Manchester arrives in London at 9.30 am. That sounds reasonable, but one must consider the practical problems of getting to the station in Manchester and of attending meetings in London in time.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

Is not one of the most illogical factors that the first train from Manchester leaves at 7 o'clock, while the first train to Manchester does not leave until 8 o'clock. Those who want to appear in court in Manchester either have to go up the night before or fly up on the morning of their court cases. More and more people are doing that.

Mr. Morris

My hon. Friend is quite right. It is assumed that one lives near the station in Manchester or that the meeting is being held right next to the station in London. I hope that the Minister will use his good offices with British Rail to convey the intense feelings held on this issue both in Manchester and in the House.

10.27 pm
Mr. Fred Silvester (Manchester, Withington)

I also associate myself with the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen). The case has been well put and I shall not elaborate it.

The need for the service varies according to how the service is marketed and its cost, but that utilisation is high, as has been demonstrated. There is a difficulty in assessing one service, and so one must look at the service as a whole when considering the development of a region, and in particular Manchester and Liverpool. If the sleeper service is taken out of that whole a gap will be left that cannot be filled. The options open to business men who often have to deal with the metropolis will be limited. In a highly centralised country, it is an essential part of the quid pro quo that British Rail should ensure that the necessary services for the regions are properly maintained.

10.24 pm
Mr. Albert Booth (Barrow-in-Furness)

At a time when the finest sleeper coaches in the world are being introduced on to the British Rail network, it is proposed that the sleeping car service from Barrow to London and vice versa should be withdrawn. The cost of replacing the old rolling stock on those lines is—we are told by British Rail management—to be regarded as new investment on which a 7 per cent. return must be earned. However, there is no possibility of doing that on provincial lines. If that logic is followed, all provincial lines will stop their services when they need to replace rolling stock. What possible justification can there be for the British taxpayer being required to pay more than £800 million as a public service obligation to British Rail to maintain the post-Beeching network if services are to be withdrawn from that network?

Barrow has been offered, as an alternative, the opportunity of travelling to Preston to catch a sleeper to London—a journey that can be done in 2½ hours on the express train. We must put up with travelling without a sleeper from London to Barrow overnight.

The clear alternative is to offer work to British Rail Engineering Limited, which has a superb capacity to either build or refurbish coaches to the highest standards. I trust that the Minister will tell us that he will intervene to achieve that.

Mr. Steen

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that on the Glasgow and Edinburgh routes the new sleepers costing £250,000 have been introduced? I am told by my tame mole that many of the sleepers are in first-rate order. They do not need £80,000 or £130,000 spent on them. They may need £50,000 spent on them, but on a 7 per cent. return basis there is no reason why they should not be introduced into the north-west on 1 May. Does the right hon. Gentleman know anything about that?

Mr. Booth

There are coaches available to British Rail that could run without the most expensive of refurbishment programmes. But they should not, in any case, be required to make a 7 per cent. return.

10.31 pm
Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington)

I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) for giving us an opportunity to join in the debate. It is important that as many as possible do so to show the strength of feeling throughout the region. The move proposed by British Rail means cutting off a lifeline to the region. It is not unusual for Warrington new town to appear on television urging people to come to Warrington to see developments, but the means of doing so is to be cut off.

I travelled on a sleeper from Manchester on which the local radion station conducted a survey of business people. There were many different types. They all said that it saved them hotel accommodation and that they could have a full day on business in Manchester and return to London the following day.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

I intervene only briefly because it is a north-western debate. Does my hon. Friend accept that the problem is being faced by other provincial cities such as Leeds? British Rail is proposing the withdrawal of the Kings Cross-Leeds service, which will affect the Yorkshire and Humberside regions in the same deleterious way that my hon. Friend outlines for his region.

Mr. Hoyle

I accept my hon. Friend's remarks. It is an attack upon the regions. It is a further blow, and it is silly to do it. It does not make financial sense. It is economic nonsense. I hope that the Minister will take the strength of feeling back to British Rail and ask it to think again before it takes a step that will take opportunities from the regions.

10.33 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Reginald Eyre)

I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) with interest and sympathy, particularly as I am aware of his deep concern for the quality of life in cur great cities. I understand his concern that the withdrawal of the sleeper services between Liverpool and Manchester and London could injure the prospects for the economic recovery of the north-west.

I have noted well the strong interest in the debate, marked by the attendance of so many right hon and hon. Members from the north-west. They include my colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Transport—my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker)—and my hon. Friends the Members for Richmond, Yorks (Sir T. Kitson), for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), for Wirral (Mr. Hunt) and for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Sill/ester).

I assure the right hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. Morris), my hon. Friend the Member for Withington, the right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) and the hon. Member for Warrington (Mr. Hoyle) that I shall certainly draw the attention of British Rail to the points that they have all made so strongly.

I am pleased to be able to tell the House at the outset that the British Railways Board in reconsidering the financial case for retaining these sleeper services and I believe that it will be reaching a decision soon. I am sure it will have regard to the views that have been expressed this evening. I hope it will help the House if I explain some of the background to British Rail's proposals to revise the sleeper services between Euston and the north-west.

Mr. Steen

The Minister should know that hon. Members find the behaviour of British Rail inexcusable. British Rail does not tell Members that it is withdrawing sleepers. I have to learn the fact from the tame mole. I put it to the chairman of British Rail, who took four weeks to reply to the letter. He says that it is true and then takes a further two months to arrange a meeting between northwest Members and his general manager. The general manager promised to return to hon. Members with the facts. He has utterly failed to do so.

Mr. Eyre

I am sorry to hear what my hon. Friend says. I shall draw it to the attention of the British Railways Board.

First, I should explain that, with the exception of the service between Glasgow and Edinburgh and Inverness, all of British Rail's sleeper services form part of the intercity sector. It is common ground between this Government and the previous Labour Government that inter-urban travel should operate without subsidy. It follows that British Rail's inter-city services should pay their own way, and the board has accepted a remit to run them as a profitable business. This commercial remit means that the case for investment in any part of the business, including sleepers, has to be judged according to its financial return.

I should make it clear that decisions on the scheduling of services are a matter for British Rail management. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will appreciate that it would be quite wrong, and would serve only to undermine proper managerial responsibility, for the Government to seek to intervene in service scheduling. This must apply to inter-city services as to others. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will bear both of these points in mind when considering British Rail's proposals for sleeper services.

Hon. Members will know that British Rail is in the process of introducing a new generation of sleeping cars. The previous generation of vehicles was built between 1957 and 1964, with a working life of around 20 years. British Rail had to decide whether it would be worth while to invest in a new generation of sleeping cars to re-equip all the services which were operated by the older generation. It had to bear in mind both the cost of the new vehicles and the likely demand.

On the cost side, it was clear that the new vehicles would be expensive. The new sleeping cars would have to offer standards of comfort comparable to British Rail's latest day coaches and good hotels. They would have to be capable of retaining a high level of custom for another 20 years or more. The new vehicles are based on the mark 3 day coaches with which hon. Members will be familiar from travelling on the diesel high speed trains and on the electrified services out of Euston. They incorporate the latest sound-proofing techniques, airsprung suspension and smooth braking. They are air conditioned, with a separate temperature control in each compartment. Finally, they contain highly sophisticated fire prevention equipment, reflecting all the safety lessons learnt from the investigation of the Taunton sleeper-train fire in 1978, in which 12 people died. The new sleepers are the most technically sophisticated vehicles now in service on British Rail. It is not surprising that they are expensive to build and maintain.

Bearing in mind that there had to be a sound financial case for investing in new sleepers, British Rail had to decide how to deploy them in order to generate the best return. As with any other business decision, the deployment of these vehicles must have regard to demand.

One of the most important factors influencing the demand for sleeper services is the quality of the day services on the same route. The key question is: "Can I travel from home to destination and back reasonably comfortably in a day, and have adequate time for my business, meeting, or whatever it may be, at the far end?" If the answer is yes, people will usually prefer to do the trip in a day, rather than use a sleeper service.

I am glad to say that services have much improved since the last generation of sleeper cars were ordered. Twenty-five years ago, in 1958, in the age of steam, it took about four hours to travel by train between London and Liverpool. The earliest time by which a London business man could be in Liverpool, travelling by day train, was 11.31 am. He would then have only five and a half hours before having to catch the last train home. Today the fastest journey time is two and a half hours instead of four. The earliest day train from London arrives at 10.30 am and there are eight and a half hours before the last train back.

There have been similar improvements in day-time services between Manchester and London. In 1958, the London business man travelling by day train would not arrive in Manchester until 11.34 am, leaving just over six hours to spare before the last train home. Today, he could be in Manchester by 9.45 am, with over nine hours to spare. The Liverpool or Manchester business man travelling to London has benefited in a similar way.

It is hardly surprising that these major improvements in day-time services should have reduced the demand for sleeper services between Manchester and Liverpool and London. I understand from the railways board that, between 1969 and 1981, the number of journeys by sleeper between Liverpool and Euston fell 65 per cent. From 20,000 to 6,900 a year, and between Manchester and Euston by a similar percentage, from 21,000 to 7,900 a year. There are no comparable figures for 1982 because of last year's strikes. I should say in passing that most of the journeys are southbound. About twice as many people use sleepers travelling south as travelling north.

In contrast, on the services between London and Scotland, journey times have improved over the last 25 years, but not to the point where a day return trip is feasible—at least for most travellers. On these services the demand for sleepers has remained buoyant.

Over the intermediate distances to Preston and Barrow, the results have also been intermediate, as one might expect. Demand has been more buoyant than on the Liverpool and Manchester services, and less than on those to Glasgow and Edinburgh. But on these services the imbalance between southbound and northbound passengers has been very marked—about 4:1 in favour of southbound.

British Rail must be guided by commercial criteria in deciding on the deployment of the new sleeper cars. The new vehicles are already in operation on the main AngloScottish services. During the summer, the new sleepers will be introduced on the remaining Anglo-Scottish services and the west country services. These long distance sleeper services are the most heavily-trafficked, and the main revenue earners for British Rail. It is natural that they should receive priority in the deployment of the new sleeper cars.

However, I understand that the board is still considering the financial case for introducing the new vehicles on to the less heavily-trafficked services. I know that it is aware of the particular concern of right hon. and hon. Members about the future of the services between London and the north-west. The debate will emphasise that strongly to the board. It is clear that there is still a strong demand for a sleeper service from Barrow and Preston to London, although apparently not as strong in the other direction. The board's decision to retain a southbound sleeper service from Preston, using the new vehicles, and to introduce a linking day train service from Barrow will be welcomed. I note the point about refurbishment, and that will, of course, be considered.

As I said in my opening remarks, the future of the Manchester and Liverpool sleeper services is still under consideration. I should remind the House, once again, that it is for the railways board to take the final decision on whether to retain these services, and that this decision must have regard to the commercial remit laid upon Inter-City.

I cannot judge whether the figures that have been quoted by some right hon. and hon. Members this evening demonstrate a financial case for the services to which they referred. That is a matter for the board, and it would not be right for Ministers to attempt to usurp its commercial judgment. However, I am sure—I repeat this as clearly as possible, because I am conscious of the strength of feeling in the House—that the board will take careful note of the points that have been made by right hon. and hon. Members. I am sure, too, that the board will look carefully at the financial case for retaining the services. That could involve using the older vehicles for as long as it is economic to do so, and using new sleepers if that can be justified commercially. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this matter.

Mr. Steen

Will my hon. Friend say something about the Holyhead service? Does he realise that we are not asking for new sleepers? We are asking that the old sleeper coaches be renovated.

Mr. Eyre

That matter has not been raised specifically in connection with the debate, but I note that my hon. Friend properly raised the matter of Holyhead. I am told that the point that he made about refurbishment and the use of older sleeping cars may be relevant to the case that he has in mind. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. I assure him that I shall ask the British Railways Board to consider that aspect of the matter as well very carefully.

Mr. Steen

I am sure that the House is grateful to the Minister for his honest and open approach to the matter. We hope that we shall not have to call him back here again.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to Eleven o' clock.