HC Deb 16 January 1984 vol 52 cc3-6
3. Mr. Adley

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he next intends to meet the chairman of British Railways; and what he will be discussing.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

I frequently meet the chairman to discuss matters of mutual interest.

Mr. Adley

Does my right hon. Friend recall that the previous chairman of British Rail, in a bid to humour Sir Alfred Sherman, encouraged Coopers and Lybrand to set up a study into the suggestion of concreting railways into roads? Before embarking on an outbreak of "Shermania", will my right hon. Friend ensure that if we have any of these schemes, some of which, it is stated, will include vehicles running on guided tracks, all the costs, including land acquisition, will be borne by those carrying them out and that at the very least safety standards will certainly be no lower than those that the House has imposed on British Rail over the years?

Mr. Ridley

There is no such proposal before me at present, although I have heard of possible plans for Marylebone station and the line from there. There will be great engineering difficulties, especially if the tunnel is too narrow for two buses. We must leave this matter to the railways and the National Bus Company. If they wish to put proposals before me, I shall consider them bearing in mind my hon. Friend's point of view.

Mr. Bagier

Was the new chairman, Mr. Bob Reid, satisfied with his instructions to cut back the transport grant that he receives from 1988 to 1986? Did he give the Minister any idea of the savage cuts that are being forecast in the railway system by Conservative Ministers of State?

Mr. Ridley

The reduced public service obligation grant was based on plans put forward by British Rail. I asked BR to accelerate the economies which BR identified that it could make. Those economies do not consist of a reduction in quality, the number of services or in a programme of major route closures. They are economies that are to be found from within the railway system. The present external financing limit which covers investment in the railways was put forward by the railways, and we agreed to it.

Mr. Robert Atkins

Does my right hon. Friend intend to discuss with the chairman of British Rail the privatisation of British Rail catering and buffets at stations? Is he likely to question him about whether it is true that British Rail has been unable to find any private company prepared to tender for those services?

Mr. Ridley

I have discussed this matter with the chairman, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is continuing to pursue it. Station catering and catering on trains are separate issues, but we should have criteria for assessing the cheapest and best way to provide that catering and to allow those who can do so to provide the service. My hon. Friend is pursuing those matters with the railways. I believe that it is not a matter of privatising the service, but it may be a matter of contracting out.

Mr. Freud

On the subject of cuts in British Rail, will the Secretary of State assure the House that he has more faith in public consultation than in assassination by rumour and administration by leak?

Mr. Ridley

I understand not the hon. Gentleman's question. Perhaps he was not consulted about the electrification of the line through Ely to Cambridge.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

Because of BR's problems under successive Governments in financing its investments, will my right hon. Friend urge BR to respond positively to any proposals to privatise commuter or other passenger services?

Mr. Ridley

I congratulate my hon. Friend on that question. I hope that Sealink will be privatised soon, which will provide additional resources for investment. I stress that the external financing limit is in no sense likely to prevent investment this year— indeed, it is rather more likely that BR will not be able to produce sufficient projects for investment to bring it to its limit.

Mrs. Dunwoody

As the excuse given for the abandonment of the stripping of asbestos from diesel multiple units is that the new build can go ahead, will the right hon. Gentleman guarantee that he will make money available to ensure that the programme is carried out—especially in the light of the Under-Secretary's undertaking to me during the last Question Time on transport affairs that there was nothing to stop the programme from going ahead on time?

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Lady may not have heard my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary say two minutes ago that we had agreed to the building of 150 lightweight diesel multiple units. That is evidence that we are allowing the replacement programme to go ahead, subject to the detailed checking of each application.

Mr. Haselhurst

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the electrification project which his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary announced this afternoon — which will be welcomed by many of my constituents—marks a further step towards the modernisation of the railways? Will he urge the chairman of BR to move ahead with that project with all possible speed?

Mr. Ridley

I am glad that my hon. Friend welcomes our decision. There will be no difficulty in BR moving ahead as quickly as possible, and it is keen to do so.

Mr. Snape

Is it true that the building of the 150 light-weight rail buses will be put out to tender to five different companies? Does the right hon. Gentleman not think that that might delay the introduction of the vehicles? Are we not likely to repeat the mistakes made following the 1955 modernisation plan, when there was a multiplicity of different sorts of diesel locomotives, with all the consequential problems of maintenance and driver training?

Mr. Ridley

The order will be put out to tender to five contractors. That means that British Rail Engineering Limited will have to tender effectively if it wants to gain the contract. However, whichever company gains the contract it will mean jobs for British industry—and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that.

The technical merits of the design are a matter for BR. The hon. Gentleman will know that BR is also perfecting a design for medium-weight DMUs.


Mrs. Dunwoody

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Secretary of State said that I should have listened to the remarks made by the Under-Secretary of State. May I point out that it would have been more helpful if the right hon. Gentleman had read his brief? The Under-Secretary of State made no such statement and was referring to a letter that he had written to the chairman of British Rail this morning.

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that that is a matter for me.