HC Deb 02 November 1983 vol 47 cc859-61
5. Mr. Tom Clarke

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on the implications of the Serpell report for Scotland.

Mr. Younger

The Serpell report gave rise to a wide public debate in Scotland, as elsewhere, about the future of the railways. Having listened carefully to that debate, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has given the chairman of the Railways Board a clear statement of the objectives the Government wish him to pursue. The chairman's guiding objective is to run an efficient railway providing good value for money. That is in the interests of Scotland as of the rest of the country.

Mr. Clarke

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is time to end the haemorrhage of job losses in the railway industry in Scotland as elsewhere? Does he agree that it is time for reinvestment and electrification, and, further, that it is time to make the railway services an essential part of an expanding Scottish industry?

Mr. Younger

I appreciate half of what the hon. Gentleman says, but the overriding objective of the chairman of the British Railways Board must be to run an efficient and effective railway for its customers. In that regard I am encouraged, first, by the progress that is being made, notably in electrification, which, as the House knows, is beginning on the Ayr to Glasgow line, and, secondly, by the new signalling techniques that are being introduced on Scottish lines.

Mr. Bill Walker

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the advantages of the Serpell report is that it has concentrated attention on the lines north of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and that that is a good thing, as it shows clearly that the line between Perth and Inverness is vital?

Mr. Younger

The Serpell report did us a service in drawing together many views on the railway system. However, as I have stressed before, the Serpell report does not represent Government policy. It is a useful starting point for considering what future policy should be.

Mr. Dalyell

What serious credence should we give to a report that solemnly suggests as an option that the passenger service should terminate at the great megalopolis of Crianlarich?

Mr. Younger

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman knows Crianlarich as well as I do. However, that is a complete distortion of the general purpose of the Serpell report—[Interruption.] Serpell deliberately tried to set out different options. The fact that the hon. Gentleman and I probably do not agree with many of them does not invalidate the exercise.

Mr. Michael Forsyth

Does my right hon. Friend agree that absurdities such as the termination of the line at Crianlarich have arisen because we too often accept that restrictive practices and overmanning in British. Rail should be allowed to continue at the expense of passenger services?

Mr. Younger

I appreciate that point. I cannot stress too strongly—and I hope that all hon. Members agree— that the overriding objective of running a railway is to satisfy the customers.

Mr. Russell Johnston

Is that not exactly the point? Is it not true that in countries such as France there has been considerable investment in the railways and that that has shown a return in that more people are using them? Is it not time that the Scottish Office took a positive attitude towards rail investment?

Mr. Younger

The Scottish Office does take a positive view. There has been considerable investment in the railways in recent years and that investment is continuing. I direct the hon. Gentleman's attention to the most interesting improvements that are now being made in signalling techniques. They can save many jobs in the railway industry, by making it more effective and efficient and so keeping the services going.

Mr. Dewar

Does the Secretary of State not accept that the whole Serpell exercise has done untold damage to the morale of the railway industry in Scotland, and that it is in the interests of Scotland—to use the Secretary of State's phrase—that the present railway network should be preserved? That should be stated in absolute terms by any Secretary of State. I believe that the burden of section 20 payments on Strathclyde region are projected in the coming year to amount to more than £30 million. That is putting an enormous strain on the ability to maintain the sort of railway network that the council wants and the travelling public need. Will the Secretary of State look seriously at that problem and see whether the Scottish Office or the rate support grant settlement can do anything to help?

Mr. Younger

I appreciate the problem outlined in the hon. Gentleman's latter point. Without being in any way unsympathetic to it, I should point out that Strathclyde faces a problem which the rest of us face all the time in trying to find enough money to do all the things that we would like to do. Of course I shall consider the problem and see what I can do to help. My right hon. Friend and I have made it clear on several occasions that, in the light of the Serpell report, it is not our intention that the board should embark on a programme of major route closures. That applies just as much to Scotland as to anywhere else in the United Kingdom.