HC Deb 20 June 1988 vol 135 cc833-6
17. Mr. Nicholas Bennett

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what recent representations he has received concerning the privatisation of British Rail.

Mr. David Mitchell

Three letters. I am making it clear to correspondents that I have no plans at present, but I am considering long-term options for the future, and the possibilities of privatisation are not ruled out.

Mr. Bennett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. Will he bear in mind the recent privatisation of the Japanese state railway, which means that it now joins the other 11 private companies in Japan that are run by free enterprise? If that is going too far, will my hon. Friend consider establishing some form of track authority, so that we can at least have some private competition back on British Rail?

Mr. Mitchell

I am sure that experience in Japan will be taken into account, but there is a property feature, which is somewhat unique, in that case which may not be appropriate to British Rail. The possibility of having a track authority will be examined with British Rail if we decide to go down that line.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing

What negotiations is the Minister having about the possible impact of privatisation on rural communities, which are still suffering from the cuts made by the Beeching axe? Is he aware that we will refuse to accept any further cuts?

Mr. Mitchell

There has not been any suggestion that the subsidy provided for the provincial network, including Scotland, should be at risk in any way. There have been substantial improvements in rural services, many of which now use modern, fast sprinter trains. When I travelled on some Scottish routes recently I found ScotRail's morale much higher than it was a few years ago and that the standard of service provided for the customer is much better. ScotRail is looking much better than it used to.

Mr. David Curry

Does my hon. Friend agree that the urgent need is for British Rail to get out and sell the privatisation of the Settle-Carlisle line? Does he also agree that one chap sitting in an office hoping that somebody will turn up, knock on the door and ask whether he happens to have a railway to sell is not a substantial marketing effort? Will my hon. Friend ensure that BR sets out to succeed, bearing in mind that BR is in a heads-we-win tails-you-lose situation, because if the line is not privatised there is a risk of its being closed?

Mr. Mitchell

I understand that British Rail intends to market and shortly to advertise for those interested to come forward. There are two potential ways forward. First, if the Secretary of State is minded to confirm his announcement, what I call in shorthand a "Mr. Big" might come along and develop the whole line commercially as a tourist project. Secondly, there might be some co-operative local effort to ensure the future operation of the line. If what I have characterised as a Mr. Big appears, it would be highly desirable for him to make his presence known as soon as possible, preferably within the next month.

Mr. Hardy

Does the Secretary of State suspect that the prospect of privatisation is the reason why new seats have been placed on British Rail's main line stations from London to the north-east? Is he aware that all the seats are red, except at Grantham, where they are blue? Will he explain that phenomenon? If it is because of the Prime Minister's connection with that town, does he not feel that her attachment to the railway system is so meagre that it does not deserve consideration?

Mr. Mitchell

The Prime Minister told me how much she enjoyed her journey on British Rail on one particular occasion. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to the improvement at stations along the east coast main line. I travelled along that line on Sunday and I was impressed by the smartening up of the stations and the general improvements.

Mr. Paice

When considering privatisation, will my hon. Friend bear in mind the tremendous success during the last few years of the Government's investment in British Rail, especially in the sprinter services and the electrification of lines? Will he also bear in mind that there is a need for a dramatic increase in investment and that perhaps only a private entity could provide the level of funds required?

Mr. Mitchell

My hon. Friend is being a little unfair to the Government. I have approved every investment proposal that British Rail has put to me since 1983. It is true that I had to send one back because I was not satisfied with it, but after British Rail reworked the arrangements for the operation of the Royston to Cambridge line I approved the proposal. Therefore, no proposals from British Rail for investment have not been approved. I do not believe that the private sector could have provided better investment. Of course, it is only by sucking it that we shall find out.

18. Mr. Allen

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if there have been any discussions between his Department and British Rail staff concerning the possible sale of British Rail.

Mr. David Mitchell

I have no plans for the privatisation of British Rail, but my Department is discussing long-term options with British Rail, including the possibilities of privatisation, and having regard to the need for systems of regulation and subsidy to loss-making services.

Mr. Allen

Is the Minister aware that there is anxiety in the midlands about the future of the east coast line and fears that it may be privatised now that it has been electrified, which may lead to the midland line becoming defunct? Will he reassure all the people in Leicester, Loughborough, Nottingham and elsewhere that the line to St. Pancras has a long-term future into the next century?

Mr. Mitchell

I have no reason to believe that British Rail has any plans to downgrade the midland main line. The hon. Gentleman will know that that line has had substantial investment in resignalling and that the current HST service runs as fast as the track will allow. Electrification would not make it any faster.

Mr. Gow

Although, in the past, many people may have believed that British Rail should remain in public ownership for all time, is my hon. Friend aware that the climate of opinion and the experience of recent years have transformed that belief? Is he further aware that many people would welcome the privatisation of British Rail? Will he bring forward a measure to that effect in the next Parliament?

Mr. Mitchell

As I said earlier, we are examining long-term options for British Rail. Those options include the possibility of privatisation, but I cannot give my hon. Friend the answer that he seeks until the options have been properly and thoroughly investigated, and I certainly could not do so this week.

Mr. Boyes

When considering the long-term future of British Rail, will the Minister join me in praising the efforts of the catering staff on trains? They are working in very difficult circumstances, often with a shortage of manpower, food and many things that customers want. The responsibility lies with the Government, because they are cutting back on the cash that enables British Rail to provide a proper service. It is unfair that the people at the sharp end are the catering staff, who are answerable for the Government, when they should not be.

Mr. Mitchell

I am happy to join the hon. Gentleman in referring to the improvements that have taken place, not only in British Rail catering, but through the introduction of private-sector trolley operations on many British Rail routes. Both give a good standard of service, substantially higher than it used to be. I made use of those services over the weekend and was much impressed by the facilities available at York station, on which I compliment British Rail.