HC Deb 09 July 1984 vol 63 cc679-82
1. Ms. Richardson

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects to meet the chairman of British Rail to discuss the inter-city strategy.

5. Mr. Tom Cox

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement of future plans for inter-city railway services.

8. Mr. Waller

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he has received British Rail's proposals for its inner-city business.

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

I received the strategy study recently and have already had one discussion about it with the chairman. I shall wish to have further discussions with him before reaching a final view on the strategy.

Ms. Richardson

Will the Secretary of State admit that it is impossible for inter-city to achieve its 5 per cent. return on assets by 1988, as the right hon. Gentleman wishes, without cities such as Aberdeen, Plymouth, Sheffield, Hull and Nottingham having their inter-city connections affected?

Will he withdraw the Serpell-by-stealth policy and make sure—and give a guarantee to the House—that at least the present, inadequate level of inter-city services is maintained?

Mr. Ridley

I do not know where the hon. Lady gets all that from. It is wholly untrue. The strategy study predicts a major improvement in the sector's financial performance by 1988–89. It does not yet show the business achieving the full 5 per cent. target in that year. The study is complex and important and I shall need to study it further before reaching conclusions upon it.

Mr. Tom Cox

Is the Secretary of State aware that the great problems faced by British Rail are the target imposed upon it and the fact that, in developing an inter-city strategy, it has had to take note of what the Secretary of State says and balance that against possible cuts in services?

Will the Secretary of State assure the House, therefore, that conditions will not be imposed by his Department of future developments, in particular on the development of the important east coast main line service?

Mr. Ridley

I have received the study, which will be published by British Rail. It may be necessary to remove some commercially sensitive matter. When the report is published and the hon. Gentleman can study it, he, with his hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Richardson), will probably conclude that the newspaper reports they may have been reading are at variance with the study.

Further, the objective of inter-city breaking even and, indeed, achieving a 5 per cent. target return on its assets is not affected by the PSO, because this part of the railway is treated differently for financial purposes.

Mr. Waller

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the acknowledgement from the Conservative Benches of the considerable efforts by British Rail's top management to run the business in an efficient and businesslike way? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is incorrect to say that the Government have not supported British Rail in the past and that that has been shown to be a myth? Does my right hon. Friend accept that prolonged failure to reach a decision on the east coast main line will make it much more difficult for British Rail's top management to convince the work force of our commitment to a modern, efficient and profitable rail service?

Mr. Ridley

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his well-deserved tribute to the efforts of British Rail's management to impart more commerciality into the railways. I entirely agree with him. I received the east coast main line submission on 25 May and the inter-city strategy on 22 June. They are major and complex documents and I should like time to make sure that I find the right answer. I hope to reply before the House rises for the recess but I know that the House will understand if, in the interest of getting the decision absolutely right, I do not succeed in making that deadline.

Sir Dudley Smith

When next my right hon. Friend meets the chairman of British Rail, will he impress upon him the importance of running inter-city services on time? Is my right hon. Friend aware that there has been deterioration in that respect on the Birmingham-Coventry-Euston line, that on eight out of the last 10 occasions when I have used that service the train has been late, and that my experience is by no means unique?

Mr. Ridley

Punctuality is an important factor of railway operation. I am sure that my hon. Friend will draw his unfortunate experience to the attention of the chairman, because it is he rather than me who is responsible for that. The railways can improve their financial performance partly by improving their punctuality, thus attracting more customers.

Mr. Kirkwood

As the Secretary of State said that he received the report only on 22 June, will he make every possible effort to make a statement before the House goes into recess, because he will understand hon. Members' difficulties in asking him questions after that? Will he confirm that for an investment of about £200 million on the London-Edinburgh route British Rail could save almost £1 a mile, which is £1,000 per round trip? Will the right hon. Gentleman take on board the importance of the electrification proposal for the whole of the south-east of Scotland, which depends exclusively on that route for transport south?

Mr. Ridley

I cannot confirm any of the hon. Gentleman's figures, which are new to me. His figure for the value of the investment is wrong, because the choice is between investment in new diesel stock or electrifying the line. Either way, there has to be investment. With regard to the date, I told my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) that I hoped it would be possible to give an answer before the House rose, but if it is not I am sure the House will agree that it is such an important issue that a little more time should be taken to get the answer right.

Mr. Prescott

I am glad that the Secretary of State now recognises that inter-city cannot possibly pay its way by meeting its target by 1986. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that that is partly because its economics have been undermined by his competition policy for buses on the same routes. Will he confirm that the whole electrification programme does not depend upon an inter-city strategy and can stand on its own, as reports have said since 1978?

Mr. Ridley

Inter-city does not quite meet the 5 per cent. target that we set for it, but I think that the hon. Gentleman is being unduly pessimistic about how close it comes to it. However, he will see the figures for himself in due course. I do not accept that the inter-city strategy and the east coast mainline electrification prospectus do not go together. The business must be considered as a whole. The railways plan the business as a whole before major investment is contemplated on one or other part of it.

2. Dr. Marek

asked the Secretary of State for Transport how many train miles of inter-city services were operated by British Rail in 1983; and what is the forecast number for the current year.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Mitchell)

The figure was 48.3 million in 1983. BR's latest forecast is that inter-city train miles will rise to 48.6 million in 1984.

Dr. Marek

I am sure that that statement will be welcomed by the country, but will the Minister give us one assurance that major cities such as Leeds, Sheffield or Chester will not be deprived of their inter-city service as a result of his consideration of the inter-city strategy?

Mr. Mitchell

Those are matters for British Rail, but I have no knowledge of any suggestion that any of those services would be eliminated from the inter-city network.

Mr. Harris

When will the strategy be published? Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity of killing once and for all persistent rumours that high-speed train services to the west country and Cornwall are at risk?

Mr. Mitchell

Once again, I have no knowledge of any proposal to cut train services to my hon. Friend's constituency. Publication is a matter for British Rail. I understand that it intends to publish the report, but it will do so without the commercially confidential information that it contains.

Mr. Barry Jones

Does the Under-Secretary of State know that the chairman of British Rail has refused to sanction electrification of the Crewe to Holyhead line, or even a high-speed train service from Euston to Holyhead? Does the hon. Gentleman know that the unemployment problems in Clwyd and Gwynedd are severe and that attempts to find new work would be greatly facilitated if such services were available? What will the hon. Gentleman do to enable British Rail to have the funding necessary so that my constituents have a better chance of gaining new work?

Mr. Mitchell

It is for BR to decide which services it will provide and the type of train service—inter-city or otherwise.

Mr. Corbett

The Government pay the money.

Mr. Mitchell

It is for BR to decide. It is a matter of considering how many customers will be attracted, how many people will use the service and whether the service is viable and provides value for money for BR and the taxpayer.

Sir Anthony Grant

Is my hon. Friend aware that a most important inter-city route lies between the great city of Cambridge and the capital? Will he therefore look favourably on any proposal to electrify the line between Cambridge and Royston?

Mr. Mitchell

The investment proposal for electrification of the line to Cambridge has already been approved on one route. The proposal was not approved on the other route because it was not the best value for money.

Mr. Snape

Why are train services between Bristol and Manchester a part of the inter-city network, while those between Liverpool and Hull are not? What relevance does either of those lines have for the electrification of the east coast main line?

Mr. Mitchell

The concept of the inter-city service has grown up over a period. It originated as a marketing exercise and has continued to its present form as a sector within British Rail. It is for British Rail to decide—[Laughter.] It is all very well for the Opposition to laugh. We do not manage the railways. It would be wrong for Ministers or politicians to seek to manage BR. That is much better done by professional railwaymen who know their jobs.

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