HC Deb 13 May 1983 vol 42 cc1011-23 9.49 am
Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden)

My pleasure in having the opportunity to raise this subject on the Adjourment debate is tinged with regret that it still remains unresolved despite its having been aired in several ways during this Parliament. The possibility of electrifying the railway line between London and Cambridge has been chugging round for a long time between the British Railways Board and the Department of Transport. My hon. Friend the Minister will say today that he is still awaiting a final submission from British Rail before a decision can be made. Therefore, he may imply that I am jumping the gun, being impatient, or that I am pressing him when he does not have a specific proposal before him. However, I hope that he will understand the wider context in which I raise the matter.

My first consideration is for the luckless passengers, many of whom I have the honour to represent. In talking of the electrification of the railway line to Cambridge, obviously one is also concerned with the citizens of Cambridge and the catchment area for the railway station in Cambridge. It is a matter of concern to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James), who greatly regrets that other engagements in his constituency prevent him from being here to support me this morning, but my remarks are in no sense prejudicial to the interests of his constituents.

I find it almost incredible that there could be so much delay in deciding on a relatively low cost project. I hope that the Government will take pity on the passengers using the line, a great proportion of whom are my constituents.

It is important to make clear that there are two railway lines to Cambridge and that any question of electrification has to embrace both of them. There is a route from King's Cross to Cambridge which is already electrified as far as Royston, leaving a relatively small gap between Royston and Cambridge. There is also the line from Liverpool Street to Cambridge, known as the Lea valley line, which is electrified as far north as Bishop's Stortford. Then the gap is slightly longer between Bishop's Stortford and Cambridge than it is between Royston and Cambridge.

My principal interest is obviously in the Lea valley line, along which I have five stations in my constituency and many commuters. I understand the inter-relationship between the two lines and I am aware that British Rail sees the two lines very much together as the prime option.

I maintain — although I dare say that many hon. Members would disagree with me—that the Cambridge line, and in particular the Lea valley line, is the worst line running out of London under the auspices of British Rail. It suffers from what is known within British Rail as the cascade effect, in that someone in the imperfect world in which we live has to be at the bottom of the heap. That tends to be the Liverpool Street operation of British Rail's Eastern region, and within that operation it is the Lea valley line which gets the oldest locomotives and the oldest rolling stock.

Over the years there has been a dreadful record of breakdown and delay, usually unaccompanied by rational explanation at the time. The journey from Audley End to Liverpool Street is at best about 52 minutes. The main train of the morning, which is heavily used by commuters with business appointments to keep, is frequently delayed, sometimes by as much as half an hour on a 52-minute journey.

The passengers on the line have had too much to put up with for too long, and electrification offers a prospect of real improvement. In its efforts to overcome the many problems on the line, British Rail has been forced reduce the level of service so that the poor standards have been alternated with changes in the timetable, reducing the number of trains. It is has been designed to improve the quality of the service but tends to lead to a yet further turndown in the corkscrew effect, resulting in a still lower standard.

I accept — and I am sure that the Minister will appreciate — that not everything can be secured by electrification alone. I am advised that an electric train is no more capable of moving than a diesel train if the driver fails to turn up. There are other factors involved, such as signalling and the narrowness of the approach between Bethnal Green and Liverpool Street, and the fact that there are two tracks along most of the length of the line. All those things have an effect on the service but, as I said, electrification opens up the possibilities of a real improvement in service.

The sad experience of my constituents was added to by their disappointment when the Government approved the Anglia East electrification project for the line to Norwich. I am happy about that approval but the Government did not at the same time, although it was part of the submission, approve the Anglia West scheme embracing the Cambridge electrification.

I understand that four options are being considered by British Rail in the preparation of its submission to the Department. The first is to electrify the line from Royston to Cambridge, with the prime service to King's Cross. The second option is to electrify the line from Royston to Cambridge and from Bishop's Stortford to Cambridge, again with the prime service to King's Cross. The third option is to electrify the line from Bishop's Stortford to Cambridge, with Liverpool Street as the prime service. The fourth option is to electrify the line from Bishop's Stortford to Cambridge and from Royston to Cambridge, with Liverpool Street as the prime service.

No one can say that the matter is not getting detailed examination. I am not sure whether there are any further combinations which could be considered. All the proposals — I stress this in the interests of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge—would seem to be of benefit to my hon. Friend's constituents, but the choice of option could very well have a serious effect on my constituents. Therefore, I should like to tell the Minister what I believe should happen and why.

I hope that the Minister will approve the fourth option. I believe it is the sensible option, because obviously it serves the maximum number of people. It brings an electrified railway service to the largest number of people. It must be clear that on the Lea valley line many more stations would benefit than if the Royston to Cambridge line alone were to be electrified. There are only three relatively minor stations between Royston and Cambridge, whereas there are many more—five in my constituency —between Bishop's Stortford and Cambridge.

It makes sense to me that, from an operational point of view, British Rail should be allowed to electrify both lines. One can readily imagine the possibility — one hopes that it would be a rare circumstance but it could arise —of serious breakdown on one line or the other. If both lines were electrified, it would be possible for British Rail to switch the service from one to the other in the event of a breakdown. Otherwise, British Rail would be forced to maintain both diesel and electric facilities at Cambridge. I gather that in practice it probably would not, therefore conditions could be chaotic if there were to be an accident or an electrical signalling failure.

I understand that the option to which I have referred may be shaping up as the best financial option of the four, and that the figure of £13.5 million, which has been mentioned as the overall cost, could yet turn out to be on the high side. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind.

Another argument in favour of the fourth option is that there is to be a redevelopment at Liverpool Street—it is hoped by the end of the decade—and we shall therefore have a spanking new station on the site of the most inglorious, inaccessible and difficult station that is there now. It will be the ultimate in modernity, despite the efforts of conservationists to impose planning restrictions and qualifications on British Rail which have no relationship to the efficient running of the railway. It would be bizarre to have a magnificent new station with mostly electrified services running into it, and yet one poor line, the Lea valley line, still struggling to operate with diesel locomotives of deteriorating standards. It would seem to be the best terminal for what would or could be an upgraded service.

Moreover, there would be savings if Liverpool Street could operate electric traction throughout its services. I believe that there are two minor branch lines which could be electrified at minimal cost. If that is done, as British Rail expects, virtually as part of everyday expenses, the only line that would not be electrified into Liverpool Street would be the Cambridge line north of Bishop's Stortford. It must be obvious that there would be a saving if British Rail did not have to keep maintenance facilities at Liverpool Street to cope with diesel traction units as well as with electric units.

I understand that there are savings in the operation of electric multiple units and rolling stock in any case. I understand, too, that there can be greater efficiency, through better timetabling, if all the trains are electric and have the same acceleration characteristics. One of the problems on the Lea valley line is that trains catch one another up and there are delays for that reason. With an all-electric service, I understand that that difficulty can be more readily overcome. An electric service would be a much better service, particularly to intermediate stations such as Stansted, Elsenham, Newport and Great Chesterford because of the acceleration characteristics of the electric units.

If I have not said enough on the plus side of the fourth option, there is the real danger on the other side of the argument that if that option is not pursued the Lea valley line could deteriorate still further in future. If Royston-Cambridge alone were electrified, British Rail would have the option of diverting its trains north of Cambridge from King's Lynn into London at King's Cross, and the line north of Bishop's Stortford, between Bishop's Stortford and Cambridge, would then have a very minor role in British Rail's priorities and would decline to being no more than a shuttle service serving those stations. That is an appalling prospect for my constituents and the many passengers who use those stations. So unless a positive decision is taken, there could be a negative effect on a line which has already suffered badly over the years.

Above all, the passengers on the Lea valley line deserve a good service. Electric trains are more reliable and carry more people. For example, an eight-car electric multiple unit can carry 650 people, whereas a nine-car hauled train can carry at most only 520. Perhaps I should add that at present, while there are platform limitations at Liverpool Street, which it is hoped will be overcome with the redevelopment, most of the hauled trains are not nine-car but seven-car, and some of my constituents could tell my hon. Friend about waiting for the main train in the morning only to find that it turns out to be a four-car diesel unit. That causes further aggravation. Electrification of the line will attract more people to use the railway. That is surely a sensible aim of public policy. Indeed, British Rail avers that experience of electrification has shown that to be true.

Finally, I hope that the Government will not rely entirely on the rate of return on capital employed. This is not a £500 million project. The final figure may be no more than £11 million. Certainly I expect the Government to look at the cost-effectiveness of maintaining a rail passenger service, but I ask them to take into account all the factors, some of which, such as increased passenger usage, may not be easily quantifiable. More than anything, the Government should think of the customers. They should rid the Lea valley line to Cambridge of its "Dad's Railway" image, and match the facility to the new terminal that is to be created at Liverpool Street and the related electric operations that are to be based on that station. My hon. Friend may find, when he examines the submissions, that the arguments of justice and finance converge, and I believe that regard for the passenger should temper any financial stringency that may be in the air.

I ask my hon. Friend to approve the scheme, particularly option 4 to have both lines electrified, in the best interests of all the passengers. If we are to have a passenger rail service, let it be of a standard to grace the times. I ask my hon. Friend to approve the scheme without further delay. I am scared of the prospect which sometimes troubles my sleeping hours that my hon. Friend and I, or our ghosts, will be here as Parliaments of the future draw to a close, still debating whether we should electrify the railway to Cambridge.

10.6 am

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

One of the great traditions—I use that word advisedly; or should I say "freedoms"—of Parliament is to raise grievances on the Adjournment, and this is the Adjournment of Adjournments, in one sense.

This grievance should never have arisen. For reasons that I shall give in support of the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst), I believe that the House should not have to take up issues of this kind. Here we have an administrative and transport anomaly which should never have taken place, and we should not have to raise it on the Adjournment. My interest as a London Member is a personal one, because I have used the lines that serve the stations that were mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, in particular Audley End, Royston, Great Chesterford and Foxton, for over 50 years. So I speak as a consumer, rather than as a constituent.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I take up two or three points that he raised in his speech. He mentioned the age of stock, maintenance and breakdowns. I am sure that that is not what British Rail wants. Those of us who were in the House two days ago will know the representations we received from British Rail workshops. I am certain that British Rail would love to maintain stock, properly, no matter what its age —incidentally, some older trains are more comfortable than some of the new ones—particularly at Stratford in the borough which I represent and which of course was the centre and origin of the Great Eastern Railway, which originated one of the lines that we are debating.

However, I am not sure that certain policies allow British Rail to do that. Nor am I sure that some of the strictures and precepts that are set by cost accountants are realistic. I do not believe that they are. Under whatever Government—I say this in no partisan spirit—some of the accounting methods that were applied to both public and private enterprise alike are unrealistic in terms of the quality of service which consumers, both private and public, are expected to enjoy. Accountants do not bear in mind the quality of what money can buy; they take account of purely quantitative factors. In my opinion, that is the reason for some of the discontent about maintenance. The Hon. Member for Saffron Walden mentioned track. There used to be four lines serving the Lea valley almost as far as Broxbourne. Two have been taken out, no doubt for economy reasons—reasons which one could question.

As for a new station, no doubt Liverpool Street may be better, but I hope that it will not be made like Euston where taxi ranks have been provided but where stairs are needed to get to the taxis. That is an administrative nonsense by British Rail showing that sometimes the newest is not the best. The arrangements at Liverpool Street on the level installed in 1870 are far better than those of 1970 at Euston. We have administrative anomalies not only in Whitehall but in British Rail. Small though they may be, they are matters of great annoyance to consumers.

Of course, the hon. Member for Saffron Walden is right. The anomaly of this triangle of non-electrification being left was questionable from the start. It is a triangle with Cambridge at the apex, Royston to the west and Bishop's Stortford to the east. Perhaps the Minister will be able to tell the House the proportions of the capital cost if the whole scheme is proceeded with. Is the total £13 million or £30 million?

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

The figure is £13 million.

Mr. Spearing

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can say what the Royston-Cambridge leg would cost. My guess is that the figure is low in proportion to the remainder and the value of having the alternative route. I have known trains travel at short notice at times from Kings Cross to Cambridge, with would-be passengers at Liverpool Street advised to travel by underground to catch trains at King's Cross. That confirms exactly what the hon. Member for Saffron Walden said about an alternative route in cases of breakdown. It could even take excursion traffic. It is clear that the hon. Gentleman's fourth option is much the best value for money, for all the reasons that he gave.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the East Anglia electrification from Colchester to Norwich, which is a welcome step. But the electification as far as Ipswich, Felixstowe and Parkeston Quay—in respect of which Royal Assent has just been given to a new Act—should have been done years ago. Even if the Norwich electrification may not have been so justified, to have cut off electrification at Colchester and not extend it to Ipswich, Felixstowe and Harwich was again a transport anomaly about which there can be no argument. It might have been a better option to electrify the line as far as Ipswich, to leave the Ipswich-Norwich section, and to electrify the triangle that we are discussing, although I would support the electrification of it all.

We are discussing an issue which has been debated over the past two years in Committee, on the Floor of the House and during Question Time. It has been one of the continuous themes of this Parliament. We appear to be unable to reach a consensus among the main parties about the electrification of British Rail. This is where some people who look upon our politics as being too partisan have a point. But I believe that this should not be a matter of party political contention. There is an overwhelming case for a rolling programme of railway electrification on certain lines. The order of priority can be worked out ahead. The speed at which it is implemented can be varied according to the resources available.

When I was a young man, I was told that in times of depression a Government should speed up such investment for all sorts of reasons of economics which I shall not go into now because there is a difference of opinion in the House. But one would expect a rolling programme of this kind to be speeded up when we have the manpower and the capacity available in industry to do it, instead of which other criteria are applied.

I hope that in a future Parliament a policy of this kind will be agreed at least in terms of priorities and a rolling programme which can be varied according to the resources available. Perhaps we should take a leaf out of the Dutch book. They have had a rolling programme of land reclamation thinking decades ahead. In the 1950s, they were planning a rolling programme lasting up to the year 2000. Perhaps we should look to China. In that great civilised country, albeit one with different traditions from our own, they plan ahead even longer.

Our great civil engineering assets, of which our railways are one of the major features, deserve this type of approach. It is an approach which the public expect and which they have a right to expect from the House and from Governments of whatever colour. We must use these public assets to the optimum benefit. By day, they can carry passengers rapidly at speeds of up to 120 mph. By night, they can carry freight, urgent goods and mail, and perhaps over weekends they can carry outsize loads. With matters as they are at the moment, it appears that this innate flexibility is not being used to the maximum benefit. Bearing in mind that we have track which was designed and laid down by such people as Stephenson and Brunel and we can incorporate modern devices of electronics and safety, it is difficult to understand why we do not use it to maximum effect. Electrification is one way in which we can do that.

The current requirement for investment of this kind which has been set recently is about a 7 per cent. return on the capital invested. But the social returns on top of that are almost inestimable. I remind the House that the former right hon. Member for Wallasey, the late Ernest Marples, agreed in his Government's time that the Victoria line in London should be built even though, according to the accountants, it was not expected to return as much as 1 per cent. If Mr. Marples could agree to that investment in the Victoria line on the basis that it would not pay even 1 per cent., I suggest that any Government should agree to the moderate investment proposed by the hon. Member for Saffron Walden without very much difficulty.

I hope that in future Parliaments matters of this kind will not have to be aired in Adjournment debates and that future Governments will agree on a long-term rolling programme with a realistic and modest calculation of return which includes the cost benefit to the community. In that case, I suggest that the figure, whether it be 7 per cent. or 5 per cent. on capital return, can be reduced considerably. There is a good case for saying that even if there is no visible return in accountancy terms, it is good investment from the point of view of the taxpayer. If we can come to that kind of agreement in a future Parliament, this Adjournment debate will have served its purpose.

The House is often given a reputation for partisan and fierce argument and debate. Hon. Members always know that there is an enormous amount of business done both on the Floor of the House and upstairs in Committee on what might be described as good public administration. The majority of hon. Members believe in good public administration and the standard of public affairs which is a strong tradition in the country and in the House. The issue under discussion falls into that category. It would be a pity if such issues continued to be bones of contention in future Parliaments needing continuous Adjournment debates on the grievances of our constituents. A matter of this kind should not be a source of grievance. It should be the subject of agreement between all politicians desirous of seeing the optimum use of our great civil engineering heritage and the technology of which we are the inheritors.

10.20 am
Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stevenage)

It gives me great pleasure to speak after the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) on an issue on which we can agree once more. I have served with him on several Committees and he is always seeking ways in which the Labour and Conservative parties can agree on a programme. On this occasion it is the electrification of the line from Bishop's Stortford to Cambridge. I am also glad to be able to support my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst).

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State knows that the case for electrification made by my hon. Friend is unanswerable in view of the future costs of the replacement of equipment on that line—presumably with diesel equipment if the line is not to be electrified. My hon. Friend the Minister has in mind the fact that the electrification of this line will not give any return on capital. In fact, it will continue to make a loss. The line from Hertford North in my constituency to Moorgate was electrified, resulting in a much improved service. The passenger traffic increased, as my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden said, by far more than the accountants had predicted in their financial case to the Department. It increased by nearly 50 per cent. when only a 30 per cent. increase had been expected. People came off the roads and went on to the trains. Nevertheless, that line continues to make a loss. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister is looking at that problem.

We must deal with the problem of commuter transport into London. Therefore, we should not look purely at the return on capital and I hope that my hon. Friend will not adduce that argument. When he is considering the problem, I hope that he will bear in mind two terrible examples. One is the electrification of the Bedford to St. Pancras line where, since July last year, the trains have been ready to run but we have not been able to reach an agreement with the unions as to how that can be done effectively and efficiently. Here the hon. Member for Newham, South and his party can bring influence to bear on the National Union of Railwaymen to make sensible arrangements about the management and manning of the line that is to be electrified before a commitment is made to invest capital in it. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister and British Rail will reach an agreement with the unions before this project goes ahead.

Mr. Spearing

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that that agreement has now been reached? Will he also agree that matters are not always as they appear in the newspapers? For example, when the HS125 was introduced on the Western region when I represented an area on it British Rail wanted those trains to by run by a single driver at the front. I and the unions objected and there was an occasion when a driver died at Slough and the train was brought to a rest and driven on by the second man. Had British Rail had its way on that occasion there would have been legitimate public concern. Although the dispute was unfortunate, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will agree with me that things are not always as they seem from the newspapers.

Mr. Wells

The problem that the hon. Gentleman raises is one which could lead us into a contentious argument, and I do not want that. I am asking for his support in resolving such difficult issues, obviously with the safety and convenience of passengers in mind, but also to ensure that they run efficiently. Single manning is a criterion which the Minister must take into account if he is to approve the electrification of this line.

The second terrible example that I want to bring to the attention of the House is the management of the Lea valley line which is electrified from Bishop's Stortford to Liverpool Street and from Hertford East, through Ware to Liverpool Street. As my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden said, the management on that line is appalling. Carriages are not simply badly maintained but are filthy and there can be no excuse for that. The seating is so revolting that many of my commuters have to use cushions to protect them from the filth.

The signalling system and the bottleneck at Liverpool Street cause endless delays and make the line extremely unreliable. The management of the stations on the line is also appalling. They are overmanned, yet they are filthy and repairs are left undone. The toilets are in an appalling condition. No effort is made to help passengers when alterations to services are made. Such things infuriate many commuters and waste much time when business men are delayed in reaching their appointments in London.

We must insist that when the line is electrified—I hope that it will be—the stations are manned efficiently and the trains cleaned. There should be proper signalling arrangements so that the trains can run on time into and out of Liverpool Street to give the commuters the service that they deserve. Undoubtedly, on the case that has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden, electrification must come about on this line. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us that he will approve this but on the condition that British Rail and the unions ensure that they provide an efficient service which runs on time and is clean and pleasant to use.

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

I recognise the anxiety expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) about the quality of rail passenger services between Cambridge and Liverpool Steet, London. My hon. Friend has been most diligent in pressing upon the Department and the appropriate officers of British Rail's Eastern region, as well as upon the chairman of the British Railways Board, his views on the improvements that are needed to cater adequately for his constituents' needs.

I understand my hon. Friend's frustration over the continuing uncertainty about British Rail's proposals to electrify the line between Bishop's Stortford and Cambridge. Let me summarise the position. Last year we asked the board to provide additional information about its proposals to electrify services between London and Cambridge on this line and on the line to Cambridge from Royston and Kings' Cross. It is still giving careful and serious consideration to those points. We expect to receive that information during the summer and we shall then give urgent consideration to the board's proposals and will announce a decision as soon as possible.

Before I talk in more detail about the electrification proposals, I want to say a few words about the importance of the railways' customers. The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stevenage (Mr. Wells) rightly placed much emphasis on that. I also want to say a few words about the Government's approach to railway electrification in general. I welcome the strong emphasis on the customer in the board's report and accounts for 1982, published on Wednesday. The chairman is right to say that the future of the railway is as much to do with the quality of its products and services as it is to do with finance and politics.

We have encouraged the board to move closer to the customer through its reorganisation into separate accountable businesses. I trust that the new section on the customer in the report and accounts will, over the years, be able to chart a steady improvement in the quality of rail services. I note the matters raised by the hon. Member for Newham, South in that connection and the other aspects of railway affairs. Only by achieving that steady improvement in the quality of railway services will the railways flourish.

We recognise the advantages of electrification and we have accepted the principle of a 10-year programme of main line electrification. But because the main beneficiaries on these routes would be the inter-city and freight businesses, which have a remit to run at a profit, we expect the board to justify main line electrification on commercial grounds. We are currently considering the board's detailed proposals for electrification of the east coast main line to Leeds and Newcastle. We consider that electrification is part of the line's future, but there must be a satisfactory financial prospectus for inter-city before we can decide on the timing. The hon. Member for Newham, South is right to say that this issue is not a matter for party difference.

As for more local services, such as those from London to Cambridge, we do not expect the railways to make a commercial return. That was an important point raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Saffron Walden and Hertford and Stevenage and by the hon. Member for Newham, South. Local services are not expected to make a commercial return. We acknowledge the social value of these services through the public service obligation grant that we pay to the board that amounts to £2.3 million a day. We expect the board to provide, and where necessary renew, the services in the most cost-effective way, which may involve electrification.

The board's decision to electrify rail services to Cambridge is complicated by the fact that we have to decide on the proposed electrification of two lines converging on Cambridge both with services from London stations—King's Cross and Liverpool Street. The line from Royston to Cambridge is 13 miles long and the fixed work would cost about £5 million. The line from Bishop's Stortford to Cambridge is 24 miles long and would cost £8.5 million to electrify. We must decide whether the potential savings and revenue gains would justify electrifying both those lines.

I have noted the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden on the subject of priorities and the support that was given to that subject by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stevenage and to the consumer and management aspects that my hon. Friends spoke about so strongly.

At present the main service between Cambridge and London runs from Liverpool Street via Bishop's Stortford and Audley End, which are in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden. The service south of Bishop's Stortford is provided by electric multiple units that operate at frequent intervals. I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden has been in touch with Eastern region about the new timetable being introduced on Monday 16 May. My hon. Friend will be aware that the board has sole responsibility for decisions on timetabling. Such decisions will always involve difficult judgments about the best way to serve the railways' customers and to make the best use of available resources. Any change is almost certain to discomfort some passengers, and the board has to weigh disadvantages for them against the benefits for others. Electrification would not end the problem, as my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden acknowledged.

The board's dilemma is exemplified in the timetable changes that are to be introduced on the services out of Liverpool Street. Customers in Cambridge will benefit from the speeding up of the non-stop service to Liverpool Street. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) has expressed pleasure in this respect. Customers on the line between Ely and Norwich will benefit from the introduction—

Mr. Spearing


Mr. Eyre

—of a through service to London. However, customers using the stations between Bishop's Stortford and Cambridge will experience a reduction in the quality of service between the morning and evening rush hours. During this off-peak period, customers using Audley End station will have a through service to London every two hours and not hourly as now. They will also have the use — as will customers using the other stations — of a two-hourly shuttle service between Cambridge and Bishop's Stortford. People using this shuttle will then have to transfer to the electric service between Bishop's Stortford and Liverpool Street. However, I understand that newly refurbished electric multiple units are to be introduced on the service during the summer. My hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden will be pleased to know that these trains will provide a standard of comfort comparable to new vehicles.

The British Railways Board submitted proposals to electrify services to Cambridge together with proposals to electrify services from Colchester to Ipswich, Harwich and Norwich. These proposals were put forward in 1980 because the diesel multiple units that provide the local services will need to be replaced during the 1980s, and because a relatively modest extension of overhead wiring on the lines out of Liverpool Street would enable most of the remaining diesel services to switch to electric traction.

The board proposed that it would be possible to extend the present electric services on the Great Northern line out of King's Cross from Royston, where they now terminate, to Cambridge, thus restoring through services, and to extend the present electric services north from Bishop's Stortford in each case without any increase in the vehicles required. The changeover from diesel to electric traction would result in a more efficient use of rolling stock and reduced maintenance costs. It would increase revenue by reducing journey times, particularly by reducing delays due to traction change at the margin of the electrified network.

In December 1981 my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport approved electrification to Ipswich, Harwich and Norwich because he was satisfied that there was a strong financial case for that part of the board's Anglia electrification proposals. The appraisal of this scheme was fairly straightforward because it involved a single line from Colchester to Norwich with a short spur from Manningtree to Harwich. The decision on electrification to Cambridge was much more difficult because of the existence of two converging routes.

The board demonstrated that it would be better to electrify both lines to Cambridge from Royston and from Bishop's Stortford than to renew the present diesel trains. It assumed that the line to Bishop's Stortford would be electrified because it carries the through service between London and Cambridge and would, on its proposals, continue to provide the main service. The board's investment submission demonstrated a reasonable case for electrifying the Royston line as an addition to the electrification of the Bishop's Stortford line, but the case for electrifying both lines seemed less strong than the case for electrifying just one.

In any investment submission, as my hon. Friends will understand it is necessary to consider alternative possibilities to establish that the preferred option offers the best value for money. In this case it would be physically possible to undertake the schemes in the reverse order from the one that the board had assumed—it was clearly right to test that option—and to establish what return would be given by electrification from Royston to Cambridge on its own and whether, if that were done, the board would then be justified in electrifying the line from Bishop's Stortford to Cambridge as well.

Consequently, when we approved the eastern half of the board's Anglia electrification proposals 18 months ago, my Department asked it to look at this alternative possibility for the Cambridge electrification. The board has taken time to complete the work, because it has had to consider what services it would be appropriate, and indeed possible, to run on both lines in the event of electrifying the Royston to Cambridge line without having electrified the Bishop's Stortford to Cambridge line. As I have said, we hope to get the results during the summer. Once we have heard from the board, we shall reach a decision as quickly as possible. If the board shows that there is a satisfactory case for electrifying both routes, considered separately in the way that I have described, the way will be clear for a decision in favour of electrification of both routes.