HC Deb 11 February 1991 vol 185 cc596-8
3. Mr. Burns

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he next plans to meet the chairman of British Rail to discuss Network SouthEast.

The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Roger Freeman)

This Thursday.

Mr. Burns

Does my hon. Friend accept that, despite the improvements on the Liverpool to Chelmsford line in the past four years, many of my constituents are still concerned about the quality and standard of the service on that line? When my hon. Friend next meets the chairman of British Rail, will he explain to him that many of my constituents believe that British Rail should be legally bound to compensate those who have to put up with delays and an unacceptable level of service which are not due to adverse weather conditions or vandalism?

Mr. Freeman

I am aware of the problems on the line to which my hon. Friend referred. Indeed, I visited his constituency with him to learn of the problems first hand. Compensation for failure to deliver services properly is a matter for British Rail, not for Ministers. As a general principle, the Government believe that fare increases in real terms should come into play only when there has been an improvement in the quality of service.

Mr. Spearing

May 1 draw the Minister's attention to British Rail's proposal to withdraw guards from trains on Network SouthEast, particularly on the dense network of commuter lines on the southern region? Will he read the speeches made on this topic in the debate on the Public Safety Information Bill last Friday and will he assure the House that the savings achieved by such a method have nothing to do with Government pressures on Network SouthEast? Will he let me know what proportion of savings in train movements such policies will achieve?

Mr. Freeman

I shall be glad to write to the hon. Gentleman with the information that he requests. I can give him the assurance that he seeks. Driver-only operation on the south-western lines, for instance, will not jeopardise safety but will enable more trains to be run. British Rail is suffering from a severe labour shortage and cannot recruit and retain drivers and guards. With driver-only operation and the completion of resignalling at Waterloo, constituencies served by British Rail in that quadrant of London will get a better and safer service.

Mr. Dunn

When my hon. Friend meets the chairman of British Rail, will he undertake to express the great concern of my constituents who were so adversely affected by the poor services offered by Network SouthEast at the end of last week and over the weekend? Will he make it plain that in 1991, snow on the line, frozen points and the quality of the snow itself are not good enough reasons for such poor performance?

Mr. Freeman

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and I will draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the chairman's attention. I visited Waterloo and Victoria this morning and learned that about 45 per cent. of Network SouthEast's southern region trains had been running. Although the problems relate to the rolling stock, I share my hon. Friend's concern—and, presumably, the concern of the whole House—that British Rail should find itself in this position with relatively modern rolling stock.

Mr. Tony Banks

To what extent is it the fault of Network SouthEast that, apparently, it is the wrong kind of snow, automatic doors will not open and points get frozen, and to what extent is it the fault of the Government, who have been taking funds away from Newtwork SouthEast? The Government cannot wash their hands of responsibility for something as desperate as the failure of Network SouthEast to meet the natural demands of commuters in the present bad weather.

Mr. Freeman

The hon. Gentleman's analysis is not right. There is no indication that the serious problems with Network SouthEast services have anything to do with revenue subsidy, investment or pay. The problem appears to be related to the design of the rolling stock, some of which is relatively modern, and the Government and British Rail must learn the lessons of the past few days.

Mr. Andrew Bowden

When my hon. Friend meets the chairman of British Rail, will he remind him that the Brighton line is one of the most profitable in the country and urgently needs new rolling stock? Will my hon. Friend also tell the chairman that last week, in common with many of my constituents, I spent five hours on a train from Victoria to Brighton with no heating, no corridors and no loo?

Mr. Freeman

Much though my hon. Friend may sometimes wish to do so, he will appreciate that he cannot hold Ministers directly responsible for the operation of British Rail. The Government have ensured a significant investment programme. This September, on the Kent inner services—my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) will be one of the beneficiaries of this—400 new coaches and longer platforms are to be introduced. Many other lines—including, for example, the Chiltern services and services to Oxford and Reading—will have new rolling stock. I do not have immediate good news about the Brighton line, but I certainly convey my hon. Friend's views to the chairman of British Rail.

Mr. Prescott

Is the Minister aware that only last week a report from his Department referred to a decline in reliability and punctuality and to carriages being dirtier and more overcrowded than they were last year? That is precisely what the Transport Users Consultative Committee has been saying, and it has linked the situation directly with the fact that the Government have reduced the public service obligation by hundreds of millions of pounds. When will the Minister recognise the connection, reverse that policy and give people in the south-east the chance of a decent railway system?

Mr. Freeman

The hon. Gentleman raises a number of points, presumably referring to 1989–90, when undoubtedly there were problems of unpunctuality and reliability, caused in part by a series of strikes on British Rail and London Underground. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the public service obligation. The Government firmly believe that it is much better to devote resources to investment than to revenue subsidy. That does not rule out a continuation of revenue subsidy, especially for regional railways, but investment is the key to improving the quality of service.