HC Deb 11 February 1987 vol 110 cc433-40

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Boscawen.]

11.44 pm
Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

I should like to preface my remarks tonight by thanking all my parliamentary colleagues who have lent me their support and encouragement for this debate. In particular, I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Waddington), my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) and for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Watson), and the hon. Gentleman, my friend, the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Lewis), who is recovering from an illness or he would be with us tonight. All of them were fighting for the retention of this line even before I was elected, and I pay tribute to their valiant efforts.

I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce another debate on the Carlisle to Settle line. The House will be aware that I initiated a debate on 12 March 1984, shortly after my maiden speech in this House. Since that time a lot has happened and the main arguments have been conducted outside the parliamentary arena while the transport users consultative committees inquiries were taking place. Now that these inquiries have been concluded and the report of the TUCC is lying on the Minister's desk, it is appropriate once again to return the argument to the political arena. It is also important to have this debate because we have before us a unique report. Never before in our history can we have had a joint report from two committees which ends with the words: On the basis of the undoubted hardship the closure of the line would cause together with the strength of the commercial case presented for its retention, the Committee strongly and emphatically recommend that consent to British Rail proposals to close the Settle to Carlisle line be refused. It is my intention to put on record on the Floor of the House some of the comments from the joint TUCCs' report which make up that emphatic recommendation.

When I gave evidence to the inquiry at Appleby last year, I said to the chairman: I do wish to make clear that in addition to the hardship evidence which I shall present here today, I shall avail myself of the opportunity to use the direct line to the Minister. I shall show to him that British Rail have adopted a policy of wanton neglect of this line, that they have failed to spend a fair proportion of the Exchequer subsidy on it; failed, until very recently, to market it properly and deliberately or negligently changed trains timetables to discourage use. I shall seek to show to him that the line is of strategic diversionary importance as we shall see this coming Easter weekend when approximately 66 trains will be re-routed over it. We all know that it is part of our great engineering heritage but it can also be part of an exciting enterprise future if it was integrated into a proper tourism development plan, perhaps with the injection of private capital.

I did not anticipate at that time that the TUCCs would look at factors other than hardship and, I am delighted to say, come to some very firm and sensible conclusions. First, I want to tell the House about the hardship that would be occasioned to my constituents, and particularly to those in Appleby.

The TUCCs concluded that very severe hardship would be caused to elderly and disabled people travelling to Carlisle to make hospital visits, for essential shopping needs and to visit friends and relatives. They also said that people travelling to destinations in the Leeds direction and beyond to visit relatives or for other essential purposes, and those for whom no private transport is available, would suffer hardship.

The TUCCs also concluded that severe hardship would be caused to mothers and others travelling with babies and/or young children who find travelling by bus more arduous than by train and who would have difficulty making the interchange between bus and train at Penrith. In addition, the TUCCs listed all those other cases where there would be considerable hardship a nd an element of hardship caused to my constituents.

Of crucial importance is the TUCCs' conclusion on how to alleviate that hardship. They said: The committees believe that there is no way of satisfactorily alleviating the hardship that would be caused to those using Appleby station and those benefiting from the existence of the railway. That is a devastating and quite conclusive comment, but in addition to the rail users living and working in Appleby, the committees also identified others who would suffer if the line closed. For example, 16 per cent. of economically active residents in Appleby are engaged in jobs generated by tourism, and it is clear that closure of the Settle to Carlisle line would have a serious effect on the town's economic fortunes.

The Minister will see that the committees have also dealt with through services on the Carlisle to Settle line, and I think it is fair to say that they were highly suspicious of the timetabling and re-routeing changes that had taken place, confirming the suspicion held by many of us that British Raid had adopted closure by stealth tactics that have now, thankfully, backfired. The committees concluded that there would be many cases of severe and considerable hardship caused to through travellers if the line closed, and said that any proposals for alleviating hardship produced by British Rail would, if effected, benefit comparatively few people.

Many constituents who have written to me have pointed out the strategic importance of the Settle to Carlisle line in its own right, and also its importance as a diversionary route on those all too frequent occasions when the west coast main line is out of action. Again, the committees were more inclined to believe the survey done by the Friends of the Settle to Carlisle Line Association showing that the line was used for diversionary purposes on many more occasions than British Rail was prepared to admit.

However, British Rail's preferred diversionary route is apparently the Cumbrian coast line, which is so eminently suitable for diversionary purposes that current coaching stock using this line has iron bars fixed over the windows preventing passengers from putting their heads out because the trains pass so close together. Every time a west coast main line train is diverted British Rail proposes to solve that problem by instituting single line working and issuing verbal warnings to passengers not to stick their heads out of the window. Therefore, quite rightly, the committees concluded: The Cumbrian Coast Line would not provide an acceptable alternative for diversionary services. It appears that very high expenditure will be necessary to improve the line capacity and journey times for diverted services. Indeed, it struck the Committees that British Rail's approach to the diversionary potential of this line lacked credibility and was somewhat haphazard. They are the TUCC's conclusions, not mine, but they happen to coincide.

Let me turn briefly now to financial matters. Here we have some difficulty because the TUCCs pointed out: Throughout the public hearing the Committees repeatedly asked British Rail to substantiate its case for closure by providing estimates of the cost required to renovate and maintain the Settle to Carlisle line and the savings that would be effected if the line closed. This request was always declined. The Committees much regretted this decision, not least because it limited British Rail's participation in the public hearing. I do not have the time to go into those matters tonight, but I would urge my hon. Friend to consider carefully the detailed financial arguments presented by the TUCCs. Those arguments are unique because no TUCC in the past, to my knowledge, has ever attempted to untangle British Rail's financial case.

Much has been said about the cost of repairing the Ribblehead viaduct, but all that I want to say tonight is that I will contrast the wanton neglect of it with the repair work that has just been done to the 40-arch Welwyn viaduct in Hertfordshire as featured in Railnews in November 1986. That viaduct has been waterproofed in eight weekends at a cost of £160,000. The article states: This will protect its brickwork from damage by water penetrating from the track above, and had the work not been done now the cost of repairing long term damage to the Viaduct would have been many times greater. No wonder the TUCCs said: The Committees were surprised that British Rail did not take the opportunity to replace the waterproof membrane when it singled the track over the Ribblehead Viaduct in January 1985.

Over the past two years we have had so many conflicting reports of the cost of repairing this viaduct, and, indeed, the other structures along the route, that I have come to the conclusion that we must have an independent consultant's report on it, commissioned by the Minister. How can my hon. Friend reach a sound conclusion if there is so much doubt about the structural and engineering soundness of the line? Therefore, I must press my hon. Friend most strongly tonight to commission a firm of internationally renowned structural engineers to carry out a full independent study of the Ribblehead viaduct and the other viaducts and tunnels along the route so that we can have definitive answers, once and for all, on the real repair costs and thereby settle this argument for ever.

Although British Rail was reluctant to produce figures on the line, happily many other organisations were keen to submit financial evidence. I have just received a letter from the secretary of the Friends of the Settle to Carlisle Line Association, which states: I think the most important topic at the moment is the British Rail press release of December 22nd. This is said to be a statement of finance upon which the closure proposal is based. We think the figures are misleading, and this statement deserves very close examination. A few points are: it mixes Capital Expenditure in with the Revenue position; it ignores the cost of the proposed alternative rail and bus services; it offsets Interest and Depreciation of as yet unbuilt Sprinter units against Current Revenue; it says only 10 per cent. of passengers are making `essential' journeys— as if that is relevant! In fact this means that as 90 per cent. of passengers must be travelling for the pleasure of the Settle and Carlisle itself, 90 per cent. of Revenue would not transfer to the proposed alternative service, i.e. closure would mean a loss in income of £900,000 per year. In short, this statement is a woefully inadequate presentation of the BR case for closure, yet it is all that members of the public are being allowed to examine. I entirely agree with that statement, and I ask my hon. Friend to use his powers to examine the financial case much more closely than can Back-Bench Members.

Also of particular significance is the case presented by Mr. Album, a solicitor acting for the Friends of the Settle to Carlisle Line Association. His financial memorandum amply exposes the illogicalities and inconsistencies in British Rail's financial case and, as I know that my hon. Friend has a copy of that memorandum, I urge him to study it very closely indeed. If he does, he will come to the same conclusion as the TUCCs, namely: On the basis of the financial evidence submitted at the public hearings by objectors and, in particular, that submitted by the Joint County Councils and the Joint Action Committee and in the absence of any detailed financial information or submission from British Rail, the Committees were convinced that there was no case for closing the line on financial grounds. Indeed, the committees came to the opposite view, namely: It is the unequivocal view of both Committees that the assets which comprise the infrastructure of the Settle to Carlisle line should be fully exploited by all the appropriate sectors of British Rail— InterCity, Provincial, Parcels and Freight— for the benefit of customers and to maximise revenue.

Finally, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I turn to the marketing of this line—or rather the lack of marketing, which has been British Rail's approach in the past. British Rail has discovered to its surprise that, with a minimum of promotion, a market for the line clearly exists. British Rail should be congratulated on its marketing initiative, small and under-resourced as it is, but the results have been spectacular. We now have evidence that the line has doubled its income in the last year and a record number of trains are now running on it. The TUCCs' report states: It is acknowledged within British Rail that the Settle to Carlisle line is, in relative terms, one of the provincial sector's most financially successful lines in that it more than covers its operating costs. But the report went on to say: It has been firmly established that the line ranks as a marketable product with long term growth potential within British Rail's network provided the will is there.

On Monday of this week my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for tourism gave a special £230,000 cash grant to boost tourism in the north of England, with an additional £20,000 to boost tourism in Cumbria. That initiative is widely welcomed by my constituents, but there is no point in adopting that aggressive marketing stance if British Rail does not exploit to the full the potential of this line of tourism and related activities.

My constituents and my hon. Friends know that the Carlisle to Settle line offers an opportunity for sustained growth and, with it, increased efficiency and profitability. We all conclude just what the TUCCs unanimously concluded: Whereas British Rail did not make a detailed case for the closure of the Settle to Carlisle line, the Joint County Councils, the Joint Action Committee and, indeed, hundreds of individual objectors convinced the Committees that there is an overwhelmingly strong case for its retention. When my hon. Friend studies the report, I am sure that he will come to exactly the same conclusion.

Mr. John Watson


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Does the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Watson) have consent to speak from the hon. Member for Penrith and the Border (Mr. Maclean) and the Minister?

12.1 am

Mr. John Watson (Skipton and Ripon)

I do, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate. I can be quite brief because I simply wish to make two points that may not have been fully aired in the debate during the past year. First, it is now almost 20 years since this line was last considered for closure. In 1967, the conclusion reached was that the line should remain open.

It is instructive to look at what has happened to the passenger figures in the 20 years since then. About 230 passengers used the line from Settle station in my constituency in July 1967. In July 1985, the last year for which figures are reliably available, the number was 1,470. That is an increase of 540 per cent. in 20 years. For Skipton, the figure 20 years ago was 640 passengers per week. In 1985 that figure was 3,860—an increase of 503 per cent.

It seems rather perverse that at a time of falling passenger numbers and revenues across Britain as a whole, British Rail should now be seeking to close the one line that has seen such a dramatic increase in its passenger flow.

Secondly, I should like to comment upon the nature of the decision that my hon. Friend the Minister will shortly have to take. When the need for such a decision first became apparent about six years ago, it seemed that it would be a local affair. The line was remote, rural, in the north and losing money. Its closure was judged to be a matter of little concern, other than to local Members of Parliament who would be troubled, and it was felt that that would be the end of it. However, by 1984 the scale of things had changed. By then the coming decision was seen as highly symbolic of the Government's attitude to railways in general. Now the climate has moved beyond even that. It is now a decision about what kind of railway system Britain should have. A decision to close the line now would be consistent only with a policy of minimum service, doubtful arithmetic and rural decline. A decision to retain the line would be a true acknowledgement of the environmental, economic and historic value of our complete railway network. I very much hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take that latter course.

12.3 am

The Minister of State, Department of Transport (Mr. David Mitchell)

I should like to thank hon. Members for the debate this evening and for the interesting points which have been raised.

My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) has put his views and those of his constituents robustly, as he usually does; I should add that he has frequently done so to me privately. I have noted the views that have been expressed. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I shall take them into consideration.

As my hon. Friend will know, I have already travelled on the line myself and admired the beauty of the countryside through which it passes. It crosses magnificent viaducts and bridges that are a tribute to the skill and sacrifice of the engineers and the work forces who built them more than 100 years ago. I have also had a chance to talk to local people and to hear their views about the line at first hand.

My main function tonight is to listen to the arguments, rather than to discuss their merits. As the House will recognise, I must be careful not to prejudice the final decision on the case before all the evidence has been fully considered. My hon. Friend. will recognise that it would be improper for me to express my view.

The TUCCs are independent bodies set up on a regional basis to represent the interests of all rail users. The TUCC or, in the case of the Settle-Carlisle line. the two TUCCs, must consider the objections and report to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the hardship which would be caused by the proposed closure and on ways in which it might be alleviated. They may hold public hearings to receive oral evidence from objectors and representations from British Rail. As my hon. Friend knows, they have certainly done a thorough job on that.

In reaching a decision on whether to allow the line to be closed, my right hon. Friend must consider the TUCCs' report on hardship together with all other relevant factors, including wider social and economic considerations.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

Inadvertently, I was not allowed my one-minute say on this. Does my hon. Friend accept that the Government's decision will be a litmus test of the Government's commitment to the railway and the heritage? Does he further accept that large numbers of people in this House and beyond regard the closure of the line as unthinkable, unspeakable and unacceptable?

Mr. Mitchell

My hon. Friend has, as always, put his views succinctly and forcefully and I have noted them.

In this case Briitish Rail proposed closure because of the heavy maintenance now required on the viaducts, bridges and tunnels on the line. Each of these has been assessed by the board's civil engineers. They estimate that they need to spend almost £1 million every year for the foreseeable future to maintain them to the required standard for passenger use. The immediate problem is the need for urgent heavy repairs to the Ribblehead viaduct, which has deteriorated recently because of exposure to harsh weather. British Rail estimates that between £2.7 million and—4.3 million needs to be spent on the viaduct now to restore it to a condition which would make it suitable for long-term passenger train use. It also says that modern rolling stock and radio signalling should be introduced to ensure that passenger services can continue at the lowest possible cost to taxpayers.

British Rail did not make its financial case available in time for the TUCC hearings. The statute did not require it to do so. The hearings were concerned with hardship, not finance. But it is my right hon. Friend's responsibility and mine to consider the financial aspects together with the other issues. British Rail submitted its case last December and published a summary. I understand that Sir Robert Reid, chairman of British Rail, has now agreed that the full case should also be made publicly available. I am sure that the House will welcome that.

I am also aware of the calls for independent scrutiny of British Rail's estimates—something for which my hon. Friend expressly called in his speech. I have heard what he said and I think he is right. It would be helpful to consider carefully the best way to ensure some independent assessment of the costs. I am in no way suggesting that there is any deception by British Rail, but I recognise the widespread unease and the feeling that these estimates should be subject to an independent check. Perhaps the best way I can proceed is to talk to the joint local authorities' steering committee in the area about what independent group it feels would be appropriate.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Does the Minister accept the view expressed by the great majority of people in Cumbria that the matter should not be decided exclusively on financial grounds but should be based primarily on the county's heritage? Everyone wants to retain the line basically for that reason.

Mr. Mitchell

I shall of course take the heritage aspect into account, as will my right hon. Friend, but I believe that there are much wider considerations than simply the heritage in the minds of those in Cumbria who are callng for the line to be retained. My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border succinctly expressed a number of those considerations.

If my right hon. Friend agrees to closure, British Rail proposes that the present services between Leeds and Carlisle should be replaced by a service with new Sprinter diesel multiple units via Giggleswick and Carnforth. Giggleswick is just over one mile from the centre of the town of Settle.

The line runs through the areas of the north-eastern and north-western England TUCCs. Those bodies have produced a joint report for my right hon. Friend. I should like to pay tribute to the two committees for all their hard work in preparing that document. The report unequivocally recommends that my right hon. Friend should refuse consent to the closure of the line, on the grounds of the hardship that would he caused to the local communities and others, including tourists. My right hon. Friend and I will pay close attention to what the TUCCs have said and balance it against British Rail's case for closure. I think that the whole House would wish me to put on record our appreciation of the work that those committees have done.

As required by the Transport Act 1968, we must also have regard to the wider social and economic considerations. I cannot at this stage give a comprehensive list of what all those considerations will be, but they will certainly include the effect of closure on the local economy and on tourism. There is evidence that over two thirds of passengers travel on the line simply to enjoy the ride and that over 90 per cent. of the journeys are for leisure purposes. We shall take into account the effect of closure on the various historic structures along the line. If the line is to remain open, the funding implications need careful study. Because of my right hon. Friend's role in considering the case, neither he nor I can lead a fundraising campaign. We are in a quasi-judicial position. Nevertheless, we need to establish whether contributions to the upkeep of the line are likely to be available from sources other than the public service obligation grant.

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is essential that the financial performance of the line should be subject to the most careful scrutiny before any decision on closure is reached. I give my hon. Friend that assurance.

Those are just some of the significant issues that my right hon. Friend and I shall need to consider very carefully before reaching our decision. We appreciate that the line's future needs to be settled as quickly as possible. However, this is a large and complex case, and we must allow ourselves sufficient time to consider properly all the various factors and possibilities. I cannot therefore tell hon. Members when we shall be in a position to issue a decision, but I hope that what I have said tonight will reassure hon. Members that my right hon. Friend and I will take this case most seriously and that there will be no decision until we have given the most careful consideration to all the relevant evidence.

Perhaps I may add, on a personal basis, that I have already visited the line and attended three public meetings in Carlisle, Appleby—at the Moot hall—and Settle, and that I have also visited several halt stations and crawled over the Ribblehead viaduct. My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border will know that I am keenly aware of the very strong feelings both locally and nationally about this line.

That urges me on to make the most careful assessment of the various points that have been put to us, in terms of hardship and a critical and careful examination of British Rail's financial case, and also in terms of the wider economic considerations that affect towns like Appleby. I have vivid recollections of a meeting in the Moot hall in Appleby that was very—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at fourteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.