HC Deb 16 May 1988 vol 133 cc681-8

The following questions stood upon the Order Paper.

35. Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he now expects to make a decision on the future of the Settle-Carlisle railway.

54. Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the future of the Settle to Carlisle railway.

3.30 pm
The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. David Mitchell)

The Settle-Carlisle line is about the most impressive example of our Victorian railway heritage. It runs through spectacular scenery and attracts tens of thousands of tourists each year. Many travel long distances simply to ride on it. Only about 20 per cent. of its usage is for local transport needs as opposed to leisure.

Although currently the line makes a substantial annual loss, I believe that it has considerable potential for development as a tourist attraction. This is a specialised activity for which, quite properly, British Rail is not particularly well qualified. It would be more appropriate for the private sector. The Transport Users Consultative Committee investigation has shown that hardship would be caused to a number of local users, but my right hon. Friend's view is that this would be largely met by the provision of guaranteed bus services. Accordingly, my right hon. Friend is minded, on the evidence before him, to consent to British Rail's proposal to cease operations. We have been advised to delay the final decision until the end of November to enable any new evidence to be taken into account. We plan to allow a further four months thereafter before British Rail operations cease, to enable any prospective future operators to complete their arrangements.

In connection with the prospects for a successor operation, British Rail tells me, first, that it is prepared to negotiate a dowry with a suitable private sector operator. Secondly, British Rail will help to end the uncertainty about the cost of restoring the Ribblehead viaduct by undertaking the repair of one of the 24 arches this year. Thirdly, English Heritage has generously offered £1 million towards the viaduct's repair. Fourthly, the local authorities offered to contribute £500,000 while withdrawing their previous annual support of £70,000 a year. Even that offer was hedged with restrictive conditions. Fifthly, a number of public and private bodies are offering support in cash or kind and with your permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall list these in the Official Report. Financial assistance may also be available from the English Tourist Board and the Manpower Services Commission. I am hopeful that this will lead to a new future for the line, and I am ready to make my good offices available to assist in this direction.

Mr. Cryer

Will the Minister accept that his statement will be viewed with massive dismay by all sections of the community, including many Conservative voters? They will be dismayed that the Minister is making such an unimaginative and vicious decision for the people who use the line and the many millions who regard it with very great affection. Will he also accept that this campaign by British Rail was begun with a programme of organised neglect that has led to the present position with the Ribblehead viaduct?

It is appalling that the Government should promise to make money available for a private sector solution when that money is not being made available to the best organisation to run it as part of the national network, namely, British Rail. The restoration and running of an 80-mile line is beyond the resources of a private sector solution. I speak as the founder of the Keighley and Worth Valley light railway back in 1961. This statement will be greeted with extensive dismay, and I regard it as a sad moment for the Settle-Carlisle line when the Minister was brought to the Dispatch Box to make such a heavy-handed and uncaring statement.

Mr. Mitchell

The hon. Gentleman talks about massive dismay at British Rail ceasing to operate and the private sector coming in to run a successor operation. Even in his question just now, the hon. Gentleman added to his long and loud protestations about British Rail's stewardship. I do not see how he can at one and the same time complain about that stewardship and object to our finding specialists in tourism railways. The hon. Gentleman should realise that British Rail's priority is to invest in a modern railway system for the 21st century, not to provide pleasure rides for railway archaeologists.

The hon. Gentleman referred to preserved railways. Let me tell him that the North Yorks Moors railway, with only 18 miles of track, has as big a revenue as British Rail has on the whole of the Settle-Carlisle line—and, moreover, that the Severn railway has as much income as the whole of British Rail's running costs on the line.

Mr. Curry

My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) will join me in welcoming the delayed decision to take the line out of the hands of British Rail, which does not want it and which tries to forget it, and into the hands of private enterprise, which will give it the chance of a viable future oriented towards exploiting its tourist potential.

Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that a long-term future cannot lie with British Rail, which wants to get rid of the line, but must lie with those who are prepared to update it commercially and make the necessary investment? Will he elaborate on his remark that British Rail is prepared to give a dowry to a successor company? Will he say what support will be available, and guarantee that there will be an active Government campaign to attract money that will lead to a proper privatisation of the railway? Finally, will he ensure that his remarks about the needs of local inhabitants, who are in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border, will be looked after genuinely and with a great deal of understanding?

Mr. Mitchell

My hon. Friend has made a number of cogent points about better exploitation of the opportunities on the line as a tourist line by those who specialise in that aspect, rather than by British Rail. In answer to his specific question about the dowry that I mentioned—I know that the House is interested in that—British Rail is anxious to cease its own operations on the route, but is prepared to negotiate a dowry to a suitable private sector operator running a preserved railway. This will reflect the transfer of assets and liabilities. I understand that the dowry will include the two rail tracks, signalling, structures and land, and that British Rail would undertake to lift, remove and pay for continuously welded rail surplus to the private owner's operating requirements. That could amount to up to £850,000.

My hon. Friend also asked about the protection of local people's usage of the line. We intend to ask the TUCC to give us further advice on bus substitution routes and timing.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

To say that I am disappointed by the statement is an understatement. Three generations of my family have driven engines on the line, so I hope that no one says that I do not know anything about it. Today's decision will mean job losses in my constituency. It will mean that the local authorities—I quote from a letter to the Minister from the chairman of the action committee, Mr. William Cameron—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not read, please.

Mr. Martlew

Does the Minister agree that the provision of local authority money was subject to the proviso that British Rail continued to run the line? The amount promised was £500,000, and that money will not be available to the private sector. Does the Minister agree that this is not a toy railway to be run by enthusiasts, but an integral part of the British Rail system, which should stay there? In my constituency, the Minister's name will go down in history alongside Lord Beeching's.

Mr. Mitchell

I am fascinated by what the hon. Gentleman says. I held three public meetings with the assistance of the local authorities in Settle, Appleby and Carlisle. At the meetings in the first two places there was a large attendance and at Carlisle nobody turned up.

Mr. Martlew


Mr. Mitchell

May I say that, with regard to the Cumbria contribution, it has offerd to pay approximately £166,000 per year for three years, but at the same time proposes to cancel the continuing £70,000 a year that it has provided in recent years. That is a very small net increase, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would wish to mislead people into thinking that it was as generous as it at first appeared.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Will the Minister understand that this is a most disappointing decision? Will he further understand that it would be churlish not to acknowledge his own personal efforts over many months to find a solution that would allow this glorious line to be kept open? To give us some idea of what the successor management has to cope with, can he tell us what is the current loss on the line and will he also say that his own Department will give assistance to potential operators? Does he not agree that what we need now is optimism and endeavour, not the gloomy approach of saying, "It can't be done," which we had from the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer)?

Mr. Mitchell

I understand my right hon. Friend's feelings and very much recognise them, having been on the line myself and seen how spectacular it is. I know the intensity of local loyalty to the line. However, at present, the revenue to British Rail is just under £1 million a year. British Rail says that the maximum that it could expect to achieve in future is between £1 million and £1.5 million. I have asked it to recheck those figures during the summer. The operating costs are currently £2.7 million, but British Rail expects them to be reduced to £2.1 million, including the amortisation of the Ribblehead repair, through modernisation and replacement with different signalling and new Sprinters. Nevertheless, that means that the loss, even on the basis of modernisation and cutting costs, will be about £750,000 to £850,000 a year. On the other hand, I have to say to my right hon. Friend that since the Severn railway can achieve a revenue of £2 million a year, that puts into proportion the ability of the private sector to do rather better than the current operators.

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

I have used the line twice in the past couple of months, and whenever I have been on the line, particularly recently, it has been quite busy, in so far as it is part of Cumbria's industrial heritage. May I ask him a simple question? He says that, in choosing between the public and private sectors, it is more economic for the private sector to run the line. If private sector support cannot be found at the end of the day and it does not come forward to keep the line afloat, will the hon. Gentleman have a look at the matter again, or will he simply say that it must close, and that will be the end of it?

Mr. Mitchell

As I said to the House earlier, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will make a final decision in the light of any new evidence at the end of November, but, meanwhile, he has made it clear that he is minded to accede to British Rail's request to close. The hon. Gentleman referred to the ridership. In 1983, it was 93,000 a year and in 1986–87 it was 300,000. British Rail says that that figure is now levelling off.

The hon. Gentleman says that I said that it was more economic for the private sector to run the line. When he checks Hansard, he will find that I did not say that. I am saying that the private sector has more specialised ability to run this type of operation as a tourist attraction than British Rail. That is demonstrated by the fact that a number of preserved railways have a far higher revenue than British Rail achieves on this famous line.

Mr. Leon Brittan (Richmond, Yorks)

While I hope that a private sector solution can indeed be devised, may I ask my hon. Friend to agree that the £500,000 which local authorities were asked to contribute was on the footing that it would lead to the retention of the railway by British Rail? Does he agree that if a private sector solution is to be devised the long time spent on considering this matter could have been used to better effect in devising that rather than leaving it to this last-minute appeal? Does my hon. Friend further agree that although everyone will make every effort to bring about a private sector solution now, there will be deep disappointment that the matter has been handled in this way?

Mr. Mitchell

I understand my right hon. and learned Friend's disappointment. No undertaking was given to the local authorities about their contribution. They were told that it would weigh in the decision, and indeed it did. But it had a considerably reduced effect because, instead of offering £500,000, it turns out that the contribution is £166,000 a year for three years and that at the same time the local authorities intend to cut the regular contribution of £70,000 a year that they have been making for some years. Therefore, the net effect is a small addition. The conditions included a 20-year guarantee, that this should be a one-off payment only, and that no further request for financial support should be made. Against that background, the contribution looks less generous than it at first appeared.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

Does the Minister accept that many people will be not only disappointed but appalled by many of his statements this afternoon? Will he give the assurance that, if the package is forced to go ahead as the only solution acceptable to the Government, British Rail will have the right to operate trains on that line, should the west coast line not be open? Will he further state what will happen if the private sector cannot deliver and maintain that line when the west coast line has a problem?

Mr. Mitchell

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman should be appalled by anything I said this afternoon. Perhaps he is appalled at the revelation of the losses, which are probably larger than he hoped or imagined. British Rail would have to negotiate the use of the line for diversionary purposes with the new operator of the line. The route would have to be surveyed to ensure that British Rail was satisfied with it for its rolling stock. Those are commercial matters for negotiation between the parties.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

Can my hon. Friend tell me what contribution Lancashire county council has offered to make to this initiative? Does he expect that private individuals will have an opportunity to subscribe to a potential new operating company under these proposals? Is this opportunity for private capital to run such a rail service a precursor of private capital in other spheres of the Department of Transport?

Mr. Mitchell

On the latter point, one is increasingly finding that the private sector can finance the expansion of various forms of rail transport, particularly light rail which is being developed in several parts. I cannot be exactly precise, but I understand that Lancashire county council is paying one third of the £166,000 a year—between £50,000 and £60,000.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

The Minister knows that from the beginning this campaign has been led by people in the area who want to retain a railway service, not a Toy Town railway. He will know that the petition I brought on their behalf referred specifically to the fact that it is not that British Rail cannot run the service but that it has deliberately decided that it does not wish to. To suggest that replacing the service with buses will somehow provide adequate cover for local people is a disgrace for a Minister of Public Transport.

Mr. Mitchell

We are seeking further advice from the TUCC about appropriate bus substitution. It is anticipated that there will be a bus from Giggleswick for the people of Settle to go to Carlisle. I have walked to Giggleswick from Settle and it is not an arduous journey. From Appleby to Carlisle it is envisaged that there will be a bus to Penrith and the journey will take the same length of time. I accept that Settle to Appleby will be a considerably longer journey than otherwise, but since on average only about half a dozen people make that journey for local purposes, as opposed to tourism, the hon. Lady may not feel that it is necessary to spend £750,000 on their behalf.

Mr. Terrence Higgins (Worthing)

Is the Minister aware that his efforts to consider the matter with first-hand experience are very much welcomed? We must hope that this proposal is successful. We should also recognise that British Rail must allocate its resources to areas which produce the greatest return to the public.

Mr. Mitchell

My right hon. Friend is correct. British Rail has embarked on the largest modernisation programme since switching from steam to diesel. It is not part of British Rail's remit to organise pleasure rides for people who travel on the line only to enjoy the scenery.

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

Will the Minister stop all this talk about Toy Town railways and pleasure trips? He must know that the line provides necessary local public transport and that it has the potential to provide transport from the cities of the east midlands and Yorkshire to the heartland of industrial Scotland. If all the goodies and the extra finances that have been provided to try to flog the line off to some capitalist to make a profit had been given instead to British Rail, does the Minister believe that British Rail would have changed its mind and run the railway itself?

Mr. Mitchell

The hon. Gentleman should remember that Cumbria's own figures show that more than 60 per cent. of people use the line purely for the pleasure of going on it. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for saying that he expects the line to be so profitable in the private sector that the various gentlemen whom he thought would make profits out of it will appear. I hope that his confidence will be fully justified and that those profits will guarantee the future of the line well into the next century.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

My hon. Friend will be aware that many of my constituents are extremely interested in the railway and will agree wholeheartedly that there is substantial scope for its redevelopment. If in November, or the four months thereafter, a deal looks even remotely in the offing, may I take it from my hon. Friend's answers that matters will be delayed to enable the deal to be stitched up?

Mr. Mitchell

I have told the House what my right hon. Friend is minded to do. We shall have to see the position when we reach that stage, but there have already been large contributions from the private sector and from the public sector, too. English Heritage will give £1 million. Grand Metropolitan is prepared to put up £25,000 as pump-priming and £100,000 if it is matched by a dozen or so others. Scottish and Newcastle Breweries will also contribute, as will a range of firms including British Aggregates Construction Materials Industry and the Federation of Resin Formulators and Applicators. The House should pay tribute to those private sector firms, which have nothing to gain but which are prepared to put themselves out to provide materials either at cost or at lower prices, and even to provide labour to help to save the Ribblehead viaduct, to which so many hon. Members of the House are attached.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

Is the Minister aware that this decision will be seen by thousands of British people as an act of political vandalism? Will he confirm that the Settle-arlisle line is the least loss-aking line of the group known as "other provincial services"; that the sum of £750,000 would not buy more than 100 yards of motorway; that to talk about "railway archaeologists" in relation to the thousands of people who protested about the proposed closure of the line is downright insulting; that to take £1 million from the budget of English Heritage when his Department will not cough up £750,000 is another act of political vandalism for which he and the Secretary of State will be remembered; and that this parsimonious, niggardly and short-ighted decision represents a victory for the Secretary of State for the Environment over the Secretary of State for Transport?The Minister should be aware, knowing the character of the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), how much the right hon. Gentleman's political victories will cost the Conservative party over the next few years.

Mr. Mitchell

I am not quite sure of the relevance of most of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I thought that he was a friend of British Rail, that he wanted it to enter the 21st century with massive investment in modernisation and not try to run a tourist attraction that makes a loss year by year. Losses on the line are such that, during the non-ourist season, it would pay British Rail to hand a 20 quid note to each person and ask them not to travel on the train.

Mr. Cryer

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the wretchedly unsatisfactory nature of the answer to my question, I intend to raise the matter on the Adjournment at the earliest opportunity.

Following iv the list of public and private bodies: English Heritage has offered up to £1 million or 40 per cent. of eligible costs—whichever is the less—for the restoration of Ribblehead viaduct subject to certain conditions, notably that the line should stay open to provide a means of access to towns of historic significance. Grand Metroplitan is willing to help initiate any project associated with the line which promotes both employment and tourism opportunities. Grand Met has offered to contribute up to £25,000 as pump-priming for such a project, but is prepared to raise that to £100,000 should the offer be matched by a dozen or so other private sector companies. Scottish & Newcastle Breweries plc has indicated that it would be prepared to consider a sponsorship arrangement, worth up to £25,000, for the branding of either a viewing and restaurant car or a refreshment car. The following commercial firms, many of them under the auspices of the British Aggregate Construction Materials Industries and the Federation of Resin Formulators arid Applicators, have offered to supply materials (and, in some cases, labour) at reduced cost to help with the restoration of Ribblehead viaduct:

BACMI Members:

  1. ARC Ltd., Chipping Sodbury, Avon
  2. Tilcon Ltd., Knaresborough, North Yorkshire
  3. Hargreaves Quarries Ltd.,Pickering, North Yorkshire
  4. Castle Cement Ltd., Peterborough, Cambridgeshire

FeRFA Members

  1. Advanced Sealants Ltd., Wilton, Wiltshire
  2. V. A. Crookes Ltd., Sheffield
  3. Environmental and Structural Maintenance Ltd., Andover, Hampshire
  4. John Lelliott Structural Renovations Ltd., Raynes Park, Surrey
  5. Protective Services Contracts Ltd., Glasgow
  6. Prodorite Ltd., Wednesbury, West Midlands
  7. R. B. R. Contract Services Ltd., Wooburn Green, Buckingharnshire
  8. Structoplast Contracts Ltd., Leatherhead, Surrey
  9. Balvac Whitley Moran Ltd., Liverpool
  10. Boston Chemical Co. Ltd., Wetherby, West Yorkshire
  11. FEB (Great Britain) Ltd., Manchester
  12. Protective Materials Ltd., Leatherhead, Surrey
  13. Resdev Ltd., Elland, West Yorkshire
  14. SBD Construction Products Ltd., Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire
  15. Sealocrete Ltd., Southampton

Other Firms

  1. BarFab Reinforcement, Smethwick, West Midlands
  2. British Steel Corporation (General Steels) Redcar, Cleveland
  3. Servicised Ltd., Slough, Berkshire

The Rural Development Commission is prepared to consider an application for a grant of up to £100,000 from the rural transport development fund for the restoration of Ribblehead viaduct. This offer has been made because the commission believe that continued rail services will afford benefits to the rural communities. The commission will also consider on their merits further projects which could benefit the social and economic development of the area. The Countryside Commission considers that the line can improve access to the countryside and bring significant benefits to the rural communities. It is in principle prepared to make grants up to £100,000 to match capital investment in tourism and related projects by other bodies, or to support marketing initiatives and the provision of new passenger services on the line.