HC Deb 08 December 1987 vol 124 cc378-96 6.23 am
Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport, who is responsible for railways, for being here to listen to and answer the debate. He was kind enough to receive a delegation from Dumfries and Galloway regional council, and an all-party delegation arranged by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. McKelvey), who has been prominent in seeking changes to the proposals from British Rail. The proposals are the most serious changes in British Rail policy for south-west Scotland since the Beeching changes in the 1960s when the Dumfries-Stranraer direct route was closed. Throughout south-west Scotland there is widespread fear that the proposals presently before the public herald a further rundown in services, leading eventually to the closure of lines.

South-west Scotland covers part of Strathclyde and represents the whole of Dumfries and Galloway, and it is a significant area of Scotland. We cannot believe that the Government will allow BR to denude such a large area of a good train service. It will certainly have a damaging effect upon the economy and it is contrary to the Government's laudable efforts to build up that economy. The line runs directly through those areas of Scotland with the highest unemployment rates—Cumnock, Kirkconnel and Sanquhar.

The proposals will have serious repercussions on the travelling public, on tourists—we should remember the enormous investment in Butlins at Ayr— and on freight. In May 1988 BR proposes that there will be no sleeper service on the line. It will withdraw the Glasgow-Kilmarnock-Dumfries-Carlisle sleeper entirely and divert the Stranraer-London sleeper via Glasgow and the west coast main line service to Carlisle. It will withdraw the through train service from Stranraer to London via the Nith valley line and withdraw the sleeper service from Lockerbie on the Glasgow-London service.

I am a great commuter, and there is no greater supporter in this House than me for travelling by rail—I have little alternative. I am aware that restrictions will be placed on my travelling and on people travelling in the south-west of Scotland if the proposed changes are made.

If there are no through trains on the Nith valley line, everyone who wants to go south will have to change at Carlisle. That will involve all the problems of luggage, of the disabled getting in and out of trains and, of course, of getting on trains that are overcrowded on the main Glasgow-London service. I know that BR says that people can catch a local train and then get a sleeper at Carlisle, but that sleeper is frequently full on Sunday nights when, more often than not, I travel to London. I do not see how the additional passengers can be carried on Sunday nights. Indeed, during the day the London trains are grossly overcrowded.

Inevitably all the problems will drive train passengers to travel either by bus to London or certainly by car to Carlisle. That will result in a further depression in the number of passengers who will use what will then become a provincial route from Kilmarnock to Carlisle. That will add to the statistics that will enable BR to close the line entirely.

All this is inexplicable. Dumfries has just won the award for the best station in the United Kingdom. We welcome the investment that has been made in improving that station. Indeed, Stranraer and Locherbie have also been improved. There are splendid staff at all the stations in south-west Scotland. I am sure that the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun will discuss the line further north if he catches your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The National Union of Railwaymen has put in an immense amount of work through that great character, John Flanigan, who works so effectively in the Dumfries area. Its reward has been to see a definite reduction in services. That reduction has been taking place steadily and now it has reached the point where it can go no further. British Rail promised us that if the NUR and the region accepted the single tracking of the line it would be profitable and economic to run the line in future. We agreed to that; now we are to be let down. British Rail promised that there would be a new signals system, which would mean the loss of many jobs but, again, would help profitability. We accepted that, and again we are being let down. We were promised that Annan station would be upgraded, and that it would be manned. We have been able to prove that there is a rising income at the station. The promise was made as recently as May, but the station is now unmanned.

An unmanned station in the middle of the night is a pretty daunting affair, especially for a lady passenger waiting for a train. The station is a long way away from other residences, and has no telephone. It is impossible to know whether a train is 10 minutes or two hours late, and 1 would not recommend standing there alone in the middle of the night to any passenger.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Does the hon. Gentleman know offhand what the unemployment rate is in Annan? Is it not ludicrous that Annan station, like many others, should be unmanned when many people in such areas would be only too grateful for a job there?

Sir Hector Monro

Indeed. It was very sad when those two men lost their jobs, or were moved elsewhere, when the station was unmanned in October. The hon. Gentleman is right: unemployment is relatively high in Annan, particularly male unemployment. That economic argument is another reason why it is so sad to see such things happening.

We were also promised when Lockerbie station was improved that there would be no rundown in the service. That was as recently as February of this year. Now it has lost its sleepers. What can we believe? We are told that Sprinters will be the answer—local trains and, of course, constant changing at Carlisle. The Sprinters have not yet been built; I have shown my hon. Friend the Minister a press cutting which says that they may not be available until 1989. In any case, they are no substitute for the through inter-city trains that we are about to lose.

Members of Parliament from all parties — including two Ministers and Members from Northern Ireland — regional, district and community councils, the Enterprise Trust and the business community all believe that the loss of the present services will have a serious impact on southwest Scotland. My hon. Friend the Minister really must believe that the weight of evidence is of great significance, and should be accepted.

A big public meeting in Kilmarnock was arranged by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, who took the chair. It was very successful, and a number of speakers from all walks of life highlighted the importance of the line. They spoke from experience, which they seemed to possess in far greater depth than those who spoke on behalf of British Rail.

We have also had meetings with British Rail in Dumfries and Galloway, organised by the Regional council and supported by the District councils. There was unanimity of a strength that I have never encountered before in the whole of south-west Scotland on the view that British Rail's changes were going too far, and must not be implemented next summer.

Of course, we realise the Government's objectives. We wish British Rail to be profitable, and we accept the implications of the public service obligation grant. We also accept that the Government do not wish to be involved in the day-to-day running of the railway: indeed, that would be impossible. However, what we are discussing is not day-to-day running of the railway, but a major change in policy. An inter-city route with sleeper services has become a provincial service, with changing at Carlisle. There are grave possibilities concerning the future impact on the economy of south-west Scotland.

The Government must involve themselves; they must be interested in how the taxpayers' money is to be spent and what British Rail's priorities are for south-west Scotland, because the repercussions are contrary to the Government's industrial development policy. We will certainly face a reduction in investment from outwith the region. We will see a reduction in the ability of local firms to compete with other firms elsewhere, because we will not have an effective rail service. We will certainly see a reduction in tourist income — I have spoken about Butlins at Ayr—and there will be a further undermining of the economic situation at Cumnock and Sanquhar.

Strathclyde region and Dumfries and Galloway region have played an important part in trying to sustain the railway system in south-west Scotland. They have helped in many ways, through rail cards and publicity campaigns. But this local effort should be matched by a real marketing drive by British Rail; it should concentrate on this for two years and only then contemplate changing the service if its promotion efforts have not added greatly to revenue. I have grave doubts—perhaps the Minister will comment on this—about the statistics that are thrown at us by British Rail on the number of passengers. Certainly they seem far fewer in number than I note with my own eyes as I travel by day and by night.

Investment in British Rail elsewhere is at a very high level. I noticed only recently that there was to be £383 million for London commuters. Just a morsel of that would be of tremendous value to south-west Scotland in making the system more efficient, effective and profitable. We are concerned that all the efforts of British Rail will in the end drive the trains on to the east coast route and make the whole of the west coast route provincial.

British Rail should not live in an ivory tower. It has its part to play in running the nation. It has a duty to serve us and to improve the quality of its trains. If it fails, it must be the Government's duty to take steps to rectify the decisions of British Rail. To whom else can the public turn, except to the Government, to correct those decisions by British Rail that are contrary to the interests of the people who live in south-west Scotland?

Mr. Dalyell

East coasters, of whom I am one, view this matter with considerable concern because, as I hope to argue briefly, either the Edinburgh-Linlithgow-Glasgow line or the Edinburgh-Falkirk-Shotts-Glasgow line will have to be electrified to take the through trains from King's Cross. That means that our local services, if the London trains are late, are thrown into chaos. Speaking for the Linlithgow commuters and for the people in Fauldhouse and Shotts, I view this with the greatest concern. We want the west coast route.

Sir Hector Monro

I certainly take the hon. Gentleman's point: if the electric trains stopped at Waverley life would be very difficult for his constituents in central Scotland. I wonder whether British Rail has thought it through and realised in what direction it is going.

We have no air service. We have to rely on rail for long-distance travel. Although the local road service is improving all the time, that does not help us with day-in and day-out travel to and from the south. We feel that we are being badly let down by British Rail. I ask the Minister to explain to British Rail that major areas of Britain such as south-west Scotland cannot be thrown on the scrap heap when it comes to inter-city services. I hope that when he replies to the debate the Minister will be able to give us an encouraging response and tell us that he will at least highlight our concern to British Rail itself.

6.40 am
Mr. Willian McKelvey (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)

I am indebted to the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) for being lucky enough in the ballot to give us the opportunity to debate a very important issue for all of us in Scotland, not just for those who use the west coast line, and for many of the kind things that he has said about me in the debate, inasmuch as we have managed to work together for a common cause. I do not want this to be a mutual back-slapping debate, but the respect of the people of Ayrshire for the hon. Member for Dumfries in his fight to retain this train service is considerable, and is probably equalled only by the admiration of his constituents for the manner in which he has carried out his duties in this regard.

I shall not bore the House with all the details, but it is necessary to give a brief history of the matter. It came about in a most appalling fashion. I received a quite cryptic letter on 24 August, advising me that intercity would be axing overnight services from Glasgow via Kilmarnock, Dumfries and Carlisle to London.

It is necessary to chronicle the loss that was envisaged. The 22.15 nightrider, which was an all-week train, was to be rerouted; the 22.25 Paddy, which is commonly used on this line and is routed from Stranraer through Kilmarnock and Dumfries to the south and which ran for six days a week in the winter and seven days a week in the summer, was to be rerouted; the 10.55 Paddy, which was a six days a week train, was to be withdrawn completely; the 21.05 Paddy from London to Stranraer, which ran for six days in the winter and seven days in the summer, was to be rerouted; and the 23.00 nightrider from London Euston through Kilmarnock to Glasgow, which again ran for six days a week in the winter and seven days in the summer, was to he rerouted.

The letter arrived out of the blue; there had been no consultation whatsoever with any of the areas concerned, the trade unions or any of the regional or district councils. In an area spanning several hundreds of miles, not one single thought had been given to the effects of these cuts on the socio-economic aspects of the area. That led us to believe that these decisions, affecting large areas of Scotland were being made in London.

The travelling public, and the people who represent them at any level, were not to be consulted. I passed the information directly on to the Kilmarnock and Loudoun district council because I was appalled at what has been intimated in the letter. To its credit, the council called an emergency meeting of district and regional councils and interested bodies in the area. Incredibly — the meeting was called at short notice—we had a maximum turnout of the people involved. We unanimously condemned the manner in which this information had been given, and everyone was appalled by the prospect of losing these services.

Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)

I assure Scottish hon. Members that we in Northern Ireland would have been represented at that meeting, but, because of the short notice, it was not possible to attend. Nevertheless, we view with concern the threat to our economy in the diminution of services. Great efforts have been made recently by the Northern Ireland tourist board to attract visitors. Now that there is some improvement in the overall security and a better image of the Province is being projected, it is regrettable that there is a diminution in real services in Scotland and that inconvenience will he caused to those wishing to travel through to Stranraer. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there could be a threat to our rail services from Lame to Belfast if we lose further travellers who would have used the through train?

Mr. McKelvey

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I shall be mentioning the positive part that other hon. Members have played in making representations to British Rail.

One thing is certain: all district councils were in agreement—a feat in itself—as were different political parties in condemning the way in which we were being treated. Parliamentarians united in their opposition to the proposed cuts and a meeting was held in the House, to which we invited Mr. J. R. Ellis, the general manager of ScotRail. On that occasion the hon. Member for Dumfries and I were supported by colleagues and friends from the House, including my hon. Friends the Members for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Lambie), the hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) and the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker). To unite that group in one cause is even more spectacular than uniting the Ayrshire and Galloway districts in a common cause.

We went on to hold a public meeting in Kilmarnock. That was attended in large number by all the councils, authorities, churches, anyone who had any responsibility for representing people, and the people themselves. There were representatives from across the entire Ayrshire, Galloway and Dumfries geographical area. I chaired that meeting, which included as a speaker the hon. Member for Dumfries. He received a rapturous welcome in what might be called a Labour stronghold. The meeting was attended by Jimmy Knapp, the general secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen. He felt so moved by what we had told him that he was determined to be there. From an overseas trip he came directly up to Kilmarnock on a flight —there was not a train available to get him there on time—so that he could present the views of the NUR.

After the speeches, the general manager of ScotRail was presented with a petition. That petition called for the cancellation of proposals that would reduce rail services to Kilmarnock, the Nith Valley and Dumfries and Galloway and provide the opposite; that is, to enhance services for all of those areas to meet social need and assist in the development of tourism and employment opportunities in the future. That point has already been mentioned. We were able to say that the petitions had been signed by 4,500 people. It had been put together in less than 10 days. A total of 1,581 signatories were from Kilmarnock and Loudoun, 97 from a neighbouring constituency and 2,825 from Dumfries and Galloway. Names were still being added to the petition and it was to be forwarded to British Rail. Public feeling was very strong on the matter about the way in which we had been treated.

On Monday of this week, accompanied by two councillors from Kilmarnock and Loudoun district council, John Blaney and Gus Steele, a group of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Dumfries and my hon. Friends the Members for Cunninghame, South and for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, met the Minister of State to tell him what was happening. We felt that the Government ought to bear some responsibility for the attitude of BR, or at least to be made aware of its attitude, which was that we should not complain to BR because it was merely carrying out Government policy to make the line profitable.

One of the problems is that the Minister gave us figures, which he had been given by BR, which we could not believe. BR said that about two passengers were using the line each day. I took the opportunity to check what happened the previous day — Sunday. With the assistance of the union and BR, I discovered that between 16 and 20 passengers used the service to Kilmarnock alone. I know some of them, and I shall give the Minister their names in case he wants to check. There was Stewart Boyd, a regular traveller because he commutes to work in London, John Moffat, John Blaney, Gus Steele and several others — they know them but I do not — who could be named if an investigation was necessary. The train uplifted another 20 passengers between Kilmarnock and Annan.

The stations are unmanned, which presents a difficulty for some people who want to use the service. It is not possible, for example, to go to an unmanned station and get a sleeper ticket to the south from a machine. People who want to do that have to go to a travel agent, who will book the ticket through Glasgow, so the sale appears on the Glasgow figures, not the unmanned Annan station.

Some £380 was derived from those who made the short journey from Kilmarnock to Annan. Such a sum is not to be sneezed at, and it is additional to the fares that were paid through travel agencies. To compound the mystery of the missing travellers, Councillors Jim Mills and John Blaney, who were coming down to London on Thursday for a meeting with Dr. John Prideaux, the manager responsible for intercity services, managed to get a sleeper down, but could not get a sleeper back. Believe it or not, the sleeper compartments headed for Kilmarnock are sold out. BR says that the route is unprofitable, but people who want to travel on it cannot get a sleeper because all the places are sold. It just does not add up.

The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. David Mitchell)

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the sleeper is full of people wanting destinations on the Nith line or Glasgow? BR's proposed alternative service would cover the second point.

Mr. McKelvey

I cannot tell the Minister, nor can BR, where those people will alight. I know, however, that two passengers wish to alight at Kilmarnock and will not be able to do so because there is no room for them on the train. However the sleepers are booked and, whoever books them, it is evident that if I could not get on the train to Galloway, there would be no way that I could get to Annan. Even the Glasgow sleeper was full, so that evening none of the sleepers was available to get our two colleagues back to the north. They had to travel by plane in the afternoon, something that they did not want to do because they are not particularly keen on flying. Again, the opportunity of travelling by rail had been denied them.

That is part of the argument that we are using with British Rail. It has simply looked at book figures and told the Minister that only two passengers were on the train. I can understand why in that case it became unprofitable to run that line, but the figures are not correct. If the matter is looked at in that way, British Rail will be slashing lines and services the length and breadth of the land, even more than it is doing at present.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Dumfries will be happy to hear that one positive thing to emerge from this is that there has been an increased interest in services since the campaign started. The key factor is that British Rail does not advertise the services. In fact, it carries out negative advertising, hoping that people will not use the services so that the figures will show that no one is using the services that it is providing. British Rail should be marketing its services vigorously so that profitability can be achieved much more readily than at present.

We do not want the routes to be selected directly on the basis of the figures supplied by British Rail. If that were the case, the district and regional councils might have to promote some kind of survey to get the real figures, and they might have to bill British Rail if it is not prepared to carry out such a survey on our behalf.

The results that are deliberately brought about by the policies of sustained neglect on behalf of British Rail must be overturned by figures which show the true and honest position of the travellers. We are looking not for a decreased service in an area that has suffered serious economic blows in the recent past, but the reverse. We want the services, in an area that is crying out for them, to be increased and enhanced. If British Rail pushes forward in that direction, it will have all the Members of Parliament, all the elected representatives and all the public in that area on its side, united in the one cause.

6.57 am
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

One cannot go to an unmanned station and ask for a sleeper ticket". I commend the remark of my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudon (Mr. McKelvey) to The Observer and other such places which run "sayings of the week." My hon. Friend is one of the genuinely witty Members of the House and this is a case for all his powers of ribaldry in a good cause. If I went, proverbially, tiger shooting in the cause of a railway, there is no one whom I would rather have with me than my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudon.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro). Let me tell him and the Conservative party a salutary little tale. In 1958–59 I was the Labour candidate for the Borders. I received 10,000 votes, and I remember it vividly because that was the time of the threatened closure of the railway at Hawick, Galashiels, Melrose, St. Boswells and Newcastleton. It was "Beechingised."

The result of all that was a Liberal candidate unexpectedly winning a by-election and the humiliation of a new Conservative candidate, the late Commander C.E.M. Donaldson, my opponent in 1959 having had a sizeable safe majority. That was a blue-chip Conservative seat, but once the railway was taken away it was transformed into a Liberal seat. The Liberal candidate, now the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel), the leader of the Liberal party, was the beneficiary of the removal of that railway.

I am not in the business of defending Conservative seats, but I gently remind the Minister that if these plans go ahead, one result will be that the hon. Member for Dumfries or his successor, will not win at the next election. Certainly the Minister of State, Scottish Office, the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Lang) will lose his seat. There is thus a political calculation to be taken into account. I hope that that will strengthen the Minister's hand when he points out these issues to those who run the Conservative party.

Neither the French nor the Gemans would dream of closing such a railway in any part of their country that was in any way comparable to Dumfries. Among the European nations, only the British would even contemplate doing such a thing.

In any case, I am not a Member of Parliament for the west of Scotland although I do have a strong locus. I should explain to the House that I have the good fortune to have been sponsored by the National Union of Railwaymen for 10 years. Although not a penny comes to me personally, I believe that union sponsorship should be declared. I also declare an interest from the point of view of my constituency. On 3 November 1986 I asked the then Secretary of State for Transport whether he was aware of the great increase in traffic at the stations of Linlithgow, Polmont and Falkirk High and the success of the Edinburgh to Glasgow line in recent months? In those circumstances, is he sure that an added electrification route from King's Cross to Edinburgh and then on to Glasgow will not damage the successful traffic between Edinburgh and Glasgow? This is very important to my constituents. The then Secretary of State for Transport, the present Secretary of State for Social Services, answered: I always consider the hon. Gentleman's detailed comments carefully. I am not aware of the precise details about increases in traffic, but I shall consider the matter. To be fair to him, the right hon. Gentleman told me outside that he would consider the matter seriously. He added: I do not imagine, however, that what the hon. Gentleman has said denies the high quality investment which most people regard as of great benefit to the east coast line."—[Official Report, 3 November 1986; Vol. 103, c. 671.] To that I say amen. Investment in the east coast line is undoubtedly important. I believe that the Secretary of State for Transport did consider those matters.

On 6 April 1987 I asked what information Ministers had as to when British Rail expects to complete its assessment of the case for investment in the east coast route King's Cross-Edinburgh, and onward routes to Glasgow. I should say that I have a high regard for the Minister because I believe, as do many in the NUR, that he has a genuine interest in railways. I do not say that to flatter him, but because we believe that it is true. He replied: East coast mainline electrification was approved in 1984 and it is expected that the scheme will be completed on schedule in May 1991. BR is still at an early stage of assessing whether there is a case for electrifying any further route from Edinburgh to Glasgow. I should say that 1991 is not far away.

I followed up with a supplementary question: Before any conclusions are reached on the matter, could there be some opportunity for public discussion as to whether to electrify the Fauldhouse-Shotts route, or the Linlithgow-Polmont-Falkirk route? Are there not grave implications., one way or the other, for local services, which could be disrupted by long distance London-Glasgow traffic via Edinburgh? The Minister replied: The hon. Gentleman is making a perfectly fair point—one which should certainly be considered. At the moment no proposals have been received from British Rail by Ministers, so we are not yet in a position to give the further examination that is needed."—[Official Report, 6 April 1987; Vol. 114, c. 8.] Your parliamentary neighbour, Madam Deputy Speaker, the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape), who is now chairman of the NUR group and who has personal experience of the railways, has told me of the great difficulties on the Coventry-Birmingham line. If ever a train is late, local Coventry-Birmingham traffic is thrown into difficulty. Just imagine a long-distance route, on which there can be delays. If a long-distance London to Glasgow train were delayed, what would happen to commuter services between Edinburgh and Glasgow?

I speak as someone with both a constituency and a personal interest. There is nothing like a personal interest to goad Members of Parliament after a long night's sitting. I take on board the point made by the hon. Member for Dumfries about his sleeper. I also have a personal interest. I frequently use the Linlithgow-Edinburgh and Linlithgow-Glasgow railway line. If there are constant changes because of the need for through trains, what will happen? My questions are perfectly fair. I ask them on behalf of my constituents rather than for myself. As yet, there has been no answer.

Until an answer to this part of the jigsaw is forthcoming, for heaven's sake do not let us talk about closing down any west coast line or altering west coast services. Even though British Rail engineers say that an hour will be saved by routeing London to Glasgow traffic through Edinburgh, that is not necessarily an overall satisfactory consideration. I shall leave that point, because the Minister must have time to answer. Until there is a decision on electrification of the Edinburgh to Glasgow line, the Government should go no further with BR, in tampering with west coast considerations.

The debate also relates to the Settle-Carlisle railway line. On 20 December 1984, I asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the future of the Settle to Carlisle railway line. We have the great advantage of a Minister being in post for many years, rather than flitting from one post to another. The Minister said: British Rail has published a proposal to withdraw passenger services from this line. The proposal is being dealt with in accordance with the procedures laid down by Parliament. Objections from users will, therefore, be considered by the appropriate transport users consultative committees, which will report to my right hon. Friend on any hardship they consider withdrawal would cause. My right hon. Friend will then decide whether to give his consent to the proposal, having regard to all the relevant factors, including social and economic considerations."—[Official Report, 20 December 1984; Vol. 70, c. 277.] I mentioned December 1984 because a great deal of water has passed under the bridge—perhaps I should say the viaduct—since then. It reinforces the view that it is a long saga. It has gained momentum. It is fascinating to see how those who have worked so hard on the Settle-Carlisle railway have had a great influence on national public opinion.

On 30 July 1984 I referred to the Ribblehead viaduct. I asked whether the line qualified for heritage funds, and the Minister replied: The eligibility of projects for heritage funds is a matter for the organisations which control them. I have control over none of these bodies. I then asked: Is the Ribblehead viaduct any less of a monument to its age than, for example, Chatsworth? Will we simply allow it to crumble? This is quite apart from the value of the diversionary line from Scotland to England, which, presumably, will be more important if there is to be the east coast electrification? The Minister replied: It will be for British Rail to consider making an application at the appropriate time, when it knows the future of the Ribblehead viaduct, which is tied up with the decision —not yet taken—on the future of the Settle-Carlisle line. What the hon. Gentleman has said is absolutely reasonable and proper, but must be set in the context that there are eight listed or scheduled viaducts on that line."—[Official Report, 30 July 1984; Vol. 65, c. 10.] What is the present thinking on the heritage aspects of the Settle-Carlisle viaduct?

On 21 April 1986 I ask the Secretary of State for Transport again about the Settle-Carlisle railway line: Is it not a fact that 80 per cent. of the work that needs to be done is in employment and less than 20 per cent. in materials? What are the real costs, in view of the numbers that would then be employed? Does that not put the preservation of the Ribblehead and other viaducts in a different light? The Minister replied: The hon. Gentleman has drawn an interesting point to our attention. However, Ministers will have to consider the proposals for closure in a quasi-judicial capacity. It would be quite wrong today for me to give an indication of my view of the hon. Gentleman's point."—[Official Report, 21 April 1986; Vol. 96, c. 1.] What is the present thinking on the heritage aspects of the Settle-Carlisle line? I returned to the subject on 12 December 1986, when the Minister said at column 273 of Hansard that he could not make a statement because he had not seen the report of the transport users consultative committee, which was due on 17 December. There is a history to the matter, and this is an opportunity for the Minister to bring us up to date on the heritage and other aspects of the Settle-Carlisle line. We wish to allow the Minister time to reply, and I thank the House for hearing me.

7.10 am
Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

I join my hon. Friends in congratulating the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) on raising this subject. It is splendidly appropriate that the House should be debating sleepers at this stage of our annual exercise in parliamentary insomnia, and I was reflecting on that as I made my way to the House at half-past five this morning.

The fact will not have been lost on the Minister that this is the second time in the past fortnight that he has been hauled to the Dispatch Box to answer for British Rail's efforts to sabotage some of its services to and from the south of Scotland. I hope that the Minister is getting the message, which has come now from the south-east of Scotland, as well as from the south-west of Scotland and from Northern Ireland, and has been raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I hope that he will use the influence that he certainly has to do something about the British Rail proposals.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. McKelvey) has spoken eloquently on behalf of his constituents. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) and other hon. Members from Ayrshire have made strong representations about British Rail's proposals as they affect their constituents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has quoted some relevant evidence that he has collected from various sources about the real level of use of the service on the Glasgow-Kilmarnock-Dumfries-Carlisle railway line. He has also highlighted an apparently disturbing failure by British Rail to consult local communities about its proposals to alter the services on that line.

I must say that I find it difficult to understand the attitude of British Rail towards its potentially excellent sleeper services. The new sleeper coaches are of a high standard of comfort and safety. The facilities for comfortable and reliable overnight travel should be an attractive alternative to the vagaries of air travel within the United Kingdom nowadays. Indeed, it is worth referring to a very effective advertising campaign that British Rail ran last year, or the year before, in which it compared the comfort and convenience of sleeper travel with the hassle discomfort and uncertainty of domestic air services. Sadly, it is becoming clear that British Rail wants to pick up sleeper passengers only at the major centres, such as Edinburgh, Glasgow and Carlisle, and that anyone from intermediate stations will have to whistle.

Sleeper services have great potential, but on both the east and west coasts British Rail seems hell-bent on sabotaging that part of its business by deterring potential customers. My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun complained about the lack of information and poor advertising of the rail services in his part of the country. In some of these areas, the sleeper service could appropriately be described as the secret service. One cannot understand why British Rail is trying to sabotage its service in this way, unless it wants to do away with it on those lines. In that case, it ought to be answerable to the Minister and to the House.

I suspect that this factor is not unconnected with the financial constraints imposed on British Rail by the Government. The impression given is that the service is run by accountants rather than by railway men, and by London accountants at that, which is certainly a disturbing consideration for us in Scotland. This slide-rule approach to what should be a national service, compounded by the factual errors that were highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, means that passengers will have to travel to mainline centres to catch Inter City trains—or lump it.

On the east coast — we discussed this with the Minister earlier—my constituents and people from the north-east of England will have to travel all the way up to Edinburgh to connect with overnight trains to London. We now discover that, on the west coast, people from Ayrshire will have to travel to Glasgow to obtain services to London, and people from Dumfries and Galloway will have to travel to Carlisle to catch such services.

Inevitably, in circumstances such as these, local communities will lose out. They will be deprived of access to services which are convenient for holiday-makers and visitors going in both directions and provide essential lines of communication to business men, professionals and administrators who need convenient access to London in this extremely centralised United Kingdom. Without good transport facilities, such people will find it impossible to go on living in the rural communities of south-west Scotland. The economy will be affected if such people find it necessary to move away. People in Dumfries and Galloway and Ayrshire who will be bypassed will lose out; but British Rail will lose out, too, as a result of this cut in its services. It will deprive itself of the possibility of picking up a significant and potentially growing number of passengers at the intermediate stations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow rightly compared the situation with what happened on the Waverley line between Edinburgh and Carlisle many years ago. British Railways, as it was then known, attributed all the costs to the running of that line, including even a share of the running costs of Waverley station, without taking into account the fact that it provided an essential feeder service for its other main line services. British Rail has cut its own throat by doing away with that service. It has been harmful to the Border communities, which have lost their railway service, and to British Rail. I know for certain, because my wife unwillingly spent a long time there last Saturday, that Waverley station is still there, with its associated costs. What is missing, because of the Waverley line closure, is the revenue that could have come in from passengers in the Border area.

It is time that British Rail started to learn from this type of experience. It is cutting off its own life-blood by cutting off access to potential customers in these areas. The Minister can quote figures, but if my experience on the east coast is anything to go by, the position has been aggravated by poor information, lack of consultation and unsatisfactory or wildly fluctuating timetables.

I hope that the Minister will re-examine the issue and apply pressure to British Rail. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow, I am a strong supporter of the railways. He is sponsored by the National Union of Railwaymen, and I am sponsored by the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association. I believe strongly in the principle of the railway service. It has tremendous potential. It is valuable that BR is investing in electrification and other improvements, but it is sad that other, locally-based aspects of the service are now under threat. That could be bad for the long-term good of the railway service. I am alarmed by the damaging impact of Government financial constraints on this vital part of our national transport network. I support the efforts of my hon. Friends and of the hon. Member for Dumfries to protect railway services in their parts of the country, and I certainly hope that the Minister's response will be positive.

7.19 am
The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. David Mitchell)

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) and the hon. Members for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. McKelvey) and for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) made some significant points in this debate. I fully appreciate that British Rail's decision presents difficulties to those hon. Members and to others who regularly use the line. I can understand why they feel bitter about the handling of British Rail's decision.

The hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) spoke about the inadequacy of consultation. I shall draw that to the attention of the chairman of British Rail. As hon. Members will appreciate, this decision was taken by British Rail and not by Ministers. British Rail did not consult me or my right hon. Friend, because we have no role in decisions of this kind. British Rail runs the railways and it is for British Rail to take and explain the hard decisions.

I fully appreciate the point that hon. Members made about the need for an explanation. I can only suggest that the hon. Members concerned take up these points directly with the British Railways Board. I understand that they are shortly to meet Dr. Prideaux, the sector director for intercity. They may also want to meet the sector director for provincial services, particularly in connection with the concern expressed by my hon. Friend about when the proposed Sprinter services will be introduced on this line.

It may help the House if I explain the background to British Rail's decision, and the relationship between Government and the British Railways Board. For many years it has been the policy of successive Governments that interurban long distance services should not be subsidised. This policy was first set out by the last Labour Government in their transport policy White Paper of 1977, which said quite plainly: There is no case for subsidising inter-urban services. It is in pursuit of that policy, with which the Government agree, that we have told British Rail that its intercity sector will not be eligible for public sector obligation grant after the end of this financial year. We have set all British Rail's commercial businesses the combined objective of making a 2.7 per cent. return as a current cost operating profit on net assets before interest by 1989–90. The Government are well aware that this represents a tough target for British Rail, but it is not an impossible one and has been accepted by the chairman.

The intercity sector's performance has improved considerably and more improvements are forecast. Investment in major schemes, such as the electrification of the east coast main line, will obviously help. We believe that in the long term there will be significant improvements. British Rail will have greater freedom to manage its business and will have even more incentive to offer its customers an attractive service at an attractive price. That is how British Rail will succeed in the market place. It is in this context that British Rail has examined its intercity services to see where the level of service does not correspond to customer demand and where, as a result, the cost of providing a service is not met by fares.

One of the conclusions it has reached is that some of the existing sleeper services cannot be justified. The position of the service along the east coast main line from towns and cities in Northumberland, Tyne and Wear and Durham was debated in the House a few days ago. The other is the Nith valley line, which runs from Carlisle to Glasgow through Dumfries and Kilmarnock to the west of but not quite paralleling the west coast main line. However, at the same time as it is withdrawing these trains, British Rail is introducing four new sleeper services that will link major centres of population in Scotland, the west midlands and the south coast of England. Therefore, improvements are being made and sleeper services are being tailored to meet market demand.

Hon. Members must recognise that anybody providing a service where the market is changing ought to meet increasing demand by providing additional services. The other side of that coin are the reductions where there is an inadequate number of customers to warrant providing similar services.

Mr. Dalyell

Has the whole problem of the Glasgow-Edinburgh electrification and the overcrowding on that increasingly used line been taken into account in this jigsaw?

Mr. Mitchell

That aspect of that line did not appear in the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries in raising the matter of the Nith line, so I do not have the information the hon. Gentleman seeks. But I will write to him with the information as soon as possible.

Mr. Home Robertson

The Minister has confirmed that it is the intention of BR to continue running sleeper services between the main centres. The hon. Member for Dumfries pointed out that many communities along the length of that line would like access to those services. The Minister has explained that the services will be there but will take a slightly different route. Why is BR so hostile to the idea of picking up passengers at intermediate stations on services which it will continue to provide?

Mr. Mitchell

I will explain the position, and the hon. Gentleman may want me to give some detailed information when I come to the question of the costs of operating this service in parallel with the west coast main line service for sleepers.

There are just three intercity trains in each direction along the Nith valley line each weekday. One, the sleeper between Stranraer and London, calls at intermediate stations along the line in the small hours of the morning and is hardly ever used by passengers at these stations. The stops are principally for parcels, including the mail.

The hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) expressed concern on behalf of travellers from Belfast, and particularly those who go through the main town in his constituency, Larne—I am personally familiar with the port there. This service will be re-routed via Glasgow but the passengers are unlikely to notice the difference as they will of course be asleep.

The second intercity service is one of the sleeper trains between Glasgow and London which is routed down the Nith valley. Most of the passengers on it travel to and from Glasgow. According to BR's records, at the latest count, in October, there were an average of 10 sleeper passengers, or five at two particular spots. I must admit to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries, who came to see me with a deputation, as did the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, that I referred at that time to an average of two passengers. I now discover that that was a survey carried out by BR during August, and some may think that a slightly eccentric time to carry out a survey. The October survey, which I think hon. Members will accept as being a realistic time to carry out a survey, showed that there were 10 sleeper passengers.

Subsequent to my meeting my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun yesterday, I discovered that there were 24 seated passengers a night—not sleepers but seated passengers—who joined the train at intermediate stations on the Nith valley line on the south-bound journey. On the northbound journey, when the train stops at Dumfries at 5.03 am and at Kilmarnock at 6.30 am the figures were much lower. I understand that some hon. Members may wish to challenge these figures, even the revised ones that I have now given.

Sir Hector Monro

The 25 seated night passengers travelling from Kilmarnock or Dumfries to London, on reaching Carlisle in future on the Sprinter service, will have to get out in the middle of the night and wait for goodness knows how many hours for perhaps a non-existent train to the south because they will not have available the sleeper service that waits in the siding at Carlisle. Is this not rather rough justice for them?

Mr. Mitchell

My hon. Friend has made a legitimate point. As the situation now stands, there would indeed be a two-hour wait at Carlisle. I suggest that my hon. Friend may want to raise that matter with the intercity director and the provincial sector director who will be responsible for the line in future. My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun may want to ask British Rail for more information about the matter.

Mr. McKelvey

Has the Minister considered something that is puzzling me? Irrespective of the number of people travelling south on sleepers as only about one third of them come back, are we to assume that many people are leaving the Kilmarnock, Annan and Dumfries area to domicile themselves in London? How on earth do they return to the area—if, indeed, they are coming back?

Mr. Mitchell

I understand that they come back, but not on the sleeper train. It is not necessarily true that people who travel one way on a sleeper will return on a sleeper. The hon. Gentleman will accept that that is perfectly fair and reasonable. I do not want him to assume that the drift of population from Scotland has been accelerating in the way he inferred.

The intercity sleeper service will be re-routed along the west coast main line where it will not suffer the present disadvantage of needing a locomotive change at Carlisle because the Nith valley line is not electrified and the west coast main line is. That means that there must be a change from the diesel locomotive to the electric locomotive at Carlisle. Passengers from Kilmarnock will still be able to use the service by a connecting train to Glasgow, while those from Dumfries will be able to pick it up at Carlisle. The third intercity service is the daytime through train between Euston and Stranraer. This will run only to and from Carlisle from next May, and there will be a connecting service to Stranraer.

To sum up, there will be changes to three current services. The Stranraer and Glasgow sleepers will be rerouted via the west coast main line. The daytime service between Stranraer and London will run only between London and Carlisle, with the service on from Carlisle to Stranraer provided by the provincial sector.

I am told by British Rail that all those services are under-used at present. British Rail has told me that savings from changing those three services will be £450,000 a year and the House may be surprised at that figure. The loss of revenue will be about £50,000. In addition, BR expects to make significant savings in infrastructure costs in the longer run. That means that at the moment passengers using those intercity services pay through fares only about one ninth of the total cost of those services. The rest is effectively paid for by the taxpayer or by higher fares for other passengers.

Mr. McKelvey

indicated dissent.

Mr. Mitchell

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. When I first heard that that level of saving could be achieved, I was surprised. He may want to probe the matter further with the intercity director. Of the savings, some £250,000 is derived from the Glasgow sleeper train and £100,000 because a £1 million locomotive will not have to be renewed. That is a substantial sum of money. Fuel and manpower savings are also taken into account. On the Stranraer sleeper, £60,000 will be saved from part of the cost of the locomotive, and on the daytime service £130,000 will be saved from the locomotive and three coaches.

Mr. Dalyell

Has the hon. Member taken into account in the manpower calculation the cost of unemployment benefit paid to someone who would otherwise be employed? The social aspect should enter into the calculation.

Mr. Mitchell

The hon. Gentleman may take that view, but the sleeper attendant does not necessarily come from an area of high unemployment. Moreover, we are talking about a commercial organisation. The hon. Gentleman has not suggested that all business men in his constituency who run commercial organisations should adopt the same view on the cost of employment.

Mr. McKelvey

It is becoming even more frightening. Is the Minister saying that the cost of the line is such that we will save £450,000, part of which would be due to the saving of a new locomotive which would have had to be replaced? If those figures were applied throughout the rail network, only electrified lines would be left, so there is no response other than to eliminate all lines which do not use electrification.

Mr. Mitchell

No; the provincial services of British Rail will continue to enjoy a very high level of subsidy. That subsidy will be available for the operations on the Nith line. We are concerned with three trains which are not provincial service trains, are not subsidised and will form part of the commercial rail network in fulfilment of the policy outlined by the Labour Government in their White Paper.

Considerable doubt must exist about whether the losses I referred to earlier can be defended, particularly given that the current sleeper passengers will be able to pick up connecting trains to Glasgow or Carlisle and still pick up the London services from there. The deputation from the Dumfries and Galloway regional council which my hon. Friend brought to see me earlier this week maintained that the intercity service ought to be continued because it is important to the development of the area. If the members of the delegation believe that to be the case, the remedy is in their own hands: under section 63 of the Transport Act 1985 they have power to pay British Rail for a service to be provided, and if they consider that they can justify the cost to their ratepayers they are at liberty to negotiate with British Rail on that basis. Before the council considers whether to take up the option, it should carefully consider the service which will be provided in the future.

After the withdrawal of through services to London on the Nith valley line next May, conventional locomotive trains will for a short time provide local connecting services, but in October 1988 new class 156 Super Sprinter trains will be introduced between Glasgow, Stranraer and Kilmarnock, via Dumfries and Kilmarnock. Those trains will have air suspension, large picture windows and carpeted floors, and will have a very high standard of comfort. On many trains a trolley catering service will be provided.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries referred to the "second-rate service". I hope he will feel, once he sees the new trains in operation, that it is anything but second rate.

Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)

The hon. Gentleman will recall, from a previous incarnation in Northern Ireland, that whenever there was an argument over whether there should be competition on the London-Belfast air routes we were told that at best British Airways were breaking even. Then, whenever competition became a factor, we discovered that they were making a considerable profit. Will the hon. Member for Dumfries be prepared to go carefully through the books and accounting procedures of British Rail? I am always extremely suspicious when I find that enormous losses have been made by services such as this one which are vital to the community.

Mr. Mitchell

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern.

I know that a number of hon. Members are to have a meeting with Dr. Prideaux who is responsible for marketing, the standard of service and the bottom line. He is in a position to flesh out the bare information that I have given to the House. I am sure that hon. Members will seek to extract from him the full, detailed, information so that they can understand and explain to their constituents the reasons that have led British Rail in the proposed direction.

The new services along the Nith valley and Stranraer lines will be slightly more frequent than the present services. Details of the new timetable are not yet available, but BR hopes to run a daytime service roughly every two hours. That is a distinct improvement on the present service. On the route via Dumfries good connections will be made, via the daytime services with the south-bound trains at Carlisle and a number of trains, including that from Stranraer, will run through to Newcastle.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries asked about the availability of space at Carlisle. The delegation I saw yesterday mentioned the possibility that passengers who formerly used the Nith valley services would have difficulty in getting on west coast mainline trains because of the shortage of capacity. However, BR says that the daytime services from Carlisle that will replace the Stranraer through service will start from Carlisle and therefore there will be no shortage of seats. Generally, there are occasionally standing passengers on particular problem trains, such as those on Friday nights and holidays.

Sir Hector Monro

I must ask my hon. Friend to check that information with British Rail. I know that it has said that one train will start from Carlisle in the early morning, but all the other through intercity trains will be full of passengers from Glasgow. I know that that is true from travelling regularly.

I appreciate that my hon. Friend has been as helpful as possible, but I believe that the people in south-west Scotland — a large area — will feel thoroughly disappointed that no one is able to defend their point of view. It appears that BR is always right, whatever it says and whatever its facts and figures. The travelling public do not seem to matter. I am extremely disappointed that the Minister is not prepared to arbitrate on our behalf and to tell BR that it is wrong. The elected representatives of south-west Scotland — Members of Parliament and councillors—know that BR is wrong, but we are not getting any support.

Mr. Mitchell

My hon. Friend has demonstrated well that the people of south-west Scotland have doughty advocates for their case. I am sure that that will be equally true when hon. Members meet Dr. Prideaux to discuss this matter in more detail.

I accept that the much improved Sprinter services, even with good connections, are not a complete substitute for through trains to those who use them. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries can be reassured about the general future of the line. Fear about that has obviously underlain a number of the anxieties that have been expressed.

British Rail is planning to provide a better local service and it hopes—as is usual when a service is improved—that more people will use it. Since 1984 it has demonstrated its faith in the future of the line by opening new stations at Auchinleck and Kilmaurs.

It is suggested by some that Scotland is not receiving its fair share of the benefits of investment in the railways. Surely that can be refuted. On Monday the first stage of ScotRail's new £1 million radio signalling scheme in the west Highlands came into operation. That follows the successful introduction of radio signalling between Dingwall and Kyle of Lochalsh in 1984. Two years later the scheme was extended to Wick and Thurso.

Scottish main lines will be served by the new class 158 express Sprinters, which will be introduced from 1989, giving a faster and more comfortable journey. Earlier this year, the electrification of the line from Glasgow to Ayr and Largs was completed. And, of course, Scotland will benefit from the electrification of the east coast main line from London to Edinburgh, the largest single investment for 25 years and the biggest ever electrification scheme.

I must reiterate a point that I made earlier. It is for British Rail to decide how best to operate its services within the guidelines set by Government. Anything else would be a recipe for confusion. But it has a responsibility for explaining what its plans are, and why changes are being made. From the information BR has given me, it seems that there are good financial reasons for the changes on which it has decided. Nevertheless, I fully accept that some hon. Members do not agree with all the figures that BR has given me. As I said earlier, I hope that my hon. Friends will take up with BR any figures with which they disagree.

It also seems clear that all the changes are not for the worse. For example, the new service that will be provided from next October will in many respects be better than the present one, although there will undoubtedly be a gap between the withdrawal of the intercity service in the spring and the promised October introduction of Super Sprinters.

It is a pity that BR failed to get its message across to the users of the line. There is not much point in its explaining to me what it is doing; I am not a regular user of the line. However, my hon. Friend is, as are Opposition Members. I very much hope that when they meet BR, as I understand they will this week, they will receive the explanations for which they have asked me.

We have had a searching debate. It is not for me to defend all the details of BR's activities; it is for BR to do that. I have sought to give the House the explanation that BR has given me—the reasons that have led it to the changes, which will result in reductions in the sleeper services on the Nith line, but also in the introduction of other sleeper services in areas in which BR, in its commercial judgment, anticipates a growing market. It sees the Nith line as a line that has not been growing over the years.

One point that the deputation put to me when they came to see me earlier this week is the extent of publicising BR's services on the Nith line. Certainly, I hope that they will take that up with BR, not just with Dr. Prideaux when they see him in connection with the intercity services. I hope that my hon. Friend and others will try to meet the sector director for provincial services, who will be concerned with the new Sprinter services, the new timetable and the new connections into the intercity services at Carlisle and Glasgow; and that they will follow up those points specifically at a subsequent meeting.

Mr. Dalyell

I should not like it to be thought that we are slagging ScotRail. It did a very good thing in opening the Edinburgh to Bathgate line, and many members of its management have shown imagination. I should not like the debate to leave the general impression that I—along perhaps with some of my hon. Friends — am being critical of ScotRail. Along with the NUR in Scotland, it has shown considerable imagination in many respects.

Mr. Mitchell

I—like the hon. Gentleman, no doubt —have travelled on that line to Bathgate. It is part of the provincial network, and, I believe, has the current Sprinters. It has been very well received, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to it.

There is a good deal to be gained from talking to those who run the provincial services in Scotland about the timetable, and the provision that they propose to make in future on the Nith line. I hope that that will be followed up.