HC Deb 30 July 1984 vol 65 cc21-3

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper.

22. Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he is yet in a position to make a statement in response to British Rail's east coast main line submission.

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

I have written to the chairman of British Rail giving consent to the electrification of the east coast main line to Edinburgh via Newcastle, together with the branch to Leeds, at a cost of £306 million at 1983 prices, fourth quarter. My decision was based on a detailed and rigorous appraisal that showed the board's proposal to be justified on its financial merits.

Mr. Kirkwood

I welcome that decision, but does the Secretary of State accept that his method of announcing the decision, which was described by the chairman of British Rail as the most important investment announcement for 25 years, has been casual, to say the least? The decision was taken on Thursday, and the right hon. Gentleman could easily have announced it in a statement to the House on Friday or today before holding a press conference, as he did on Friday. Although I criticise the method of the announcement, the content of the decision will be warmly welcomed by everyone north-east of Hitchin.

I wish to ask the Secretary of State three brief questions.

Mr. Speaker

Order. As this is an extension of Question Time, three questions are too many.

Mr. Kirkwood

Is it true that the British Railways Board expects to get a real return of 7 per cent. on the investment? I recognise that the Government have not contributed any money for this purpose—the board must raise the money itself—but may we assume that the increase in productivity will he passed on to passengers and freight users of British Rail, through cheaper freight charges and rail fares that would otherwise have been the case?

Secondly, will the Secretary of State use his good offices to ensure that the electrification proposals are implemented at the Edinburgh end as well as the London end when the work starts?

Mr. Ridley

It is typical of the hon. Gentleman that when he is confronted with good news he can do nothing but cavil at the way in which it is announced. No discourtesy was intended. I planned to announce the decision in answer to his question today, as I have done. However, somehow journalists got hold of the story on Friday. [HON. MEMBERS: "A leak."] Yes, there was a leak. It is pointless to deny it, so I had no alternative but to announce the decision on Friday.

I confirm that the project has passed a 7 per cent. test discount rate, which is why it is commercial.

The hon. Gentleman's other questions are matters for the judgment of British Rail.

Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Loughborough)

Is it not still a fact that this welcome decision shows that the Government are prepared to stand behind good investment proposals for British Rail? Is it not now incumbent on the management of and the unions working in British Rail to deliver the goods that they promised?

Mr. Ridley

My hon. Friend is right. It should be seen as a triumph for British Rail to have improved its productivity to the point where it can make this investment pay. I hope that it can make further improvements, for the benefit of passengers as well as taxpayers.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

While welcoming this decision, which is long overdue, may I ask the Minister to tell us what consideration has been given, or will be given, to extending the east coast electrification to Aberdeen?

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman cannot sustain the argument that the decision is overdue. It is only a month since I received the submission from British Rail, which has not made an application for the further electrification of the line to Aberdeen.

Dr. Brian Mawhinney (Peterborough)

Will my right hon. Friend accept the thanks of my constituents of all political parties for the decision that he has announced? Will he also accept the thanks of my constituents who are taxpayers for his insistence on getting the right proposal before acting?

Mr. Ridley

It is extremely pleasant that my hon. Friend recognises the importance of the decision. It should be welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House, but increased expenditure on infrastructure seems to be cavilled at by Opposition Members, whereas it is not by Conservative Members.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

Does the Secretary of State realise that to talk about a branch line from Doncaster to Leeds is to denigrate the most important city in Yorkshire? If he accepts that, should there not be an electrified link between York and Leeds, so that the line is electrified all the way round?

Mr. Ridley

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that there was no intention of demeaning the importance of Leeds — [HON. MEMBERS: "Or Doncaster."] If we become involved in a discussion about the rival merits of all northern towns, we shall be here for too long.

Mr. Alexander Pollock (Moray)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this news will be greeted with much relief by all concerned with the Government's commitment to a future rail network which adequately serves the needs north of the border? May I reinforce the plea that if this investment is successful, logically, in the fullness of time, we may look forward to further electrification extending to the north-east of Scotland?

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. The reason why the Government approved this investment was that it showed a good rate of return on the money invested. That will continue to be our criterion in deciding whether electrification is justified, and I do not want it to be taken as a green light for electrification everywhere, unless proposals can show a good rate of return as was the case this time.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

Does the Secretary of State accept that it is sadly typical of him that even when he is announcing good news he makes a cock-up of the procedure? [Interruption.] I had no idea that Conservative Members were so delicate about such matters. Why have we not yet seen the inter-city strategy report, of which this proposal was merely a small part? Can the Secretary of State guarantee the future of railway workers at York, Crewe and Derby, so that they might benefit as a result of the announcement, or will their fate be similar to that of the workers at Shildon and Swindon, who, despite being praised for their productivity not too long ago, have now been give a ticket to the dole queue?

Mr. Ridley

It is typical of the hon. Gentleman that when he hears good news he makes a cock-up of receiving it. I confirm that the inter-city strategy has been received and approved and that British Rail will soon publish a copy which does not include commercially sensitive information. The report will be made available to hon. Members. I have not yet received the Railway Board's review of the future of BREL. I have told the chairman of British Rail that I would prefer him to get it right and to rationalise BREL rather than to hurry his proposals.