HC Deb 11 March 1991 vol 187 cc651-3
1. Mr. David Marshall

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what plans he has to increase investment in British Rail.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

British Rail's investment expenditure this year will be the highest in real terms since 1962, and up to £4 billion is planned for the next three years—a 60 per cent. increase on the previous three years in real terms.

Mr. Marshall

I thank the Secretary of State for that encouraging reply. Is he aware, however, of the astonishing contrast between the attitudes to public investment of British Rail's present chairman and his predecessor, both of whom were Government appointees? Is Sir Bob Reid's candour a direct result of the change of Prime Minister? Does the Secretary of State agree with Sir Bob that British Rail needs annual investment—not subsidies—of between £1 billion and £2 billion for several years? I welcome what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said about next year's expenditure, but will it be additional investment in real terms? Exactly how much of what Sir Bob is seeking is the Secretary of State prepared to provide?

Mr. Rifkind

I have already said that the amount—up to £4 billion—that is planned for the next three years is a 60 per cent. increase in real terms. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is right in saying that there is a difference of view between British Rail's present and previous chairmen, but there is certainly a difference between what the Labour party is saying today and what it did when in government, when rail investment was substantially less than it is now.

Mr. Jopling

Has my right hon. and learned Friend delivered an imperial rocket to the chairman of British Rail following the way in which BR managed the service during the week of hard weather? It is no use BR's having a massive investment programme, as it has, if it can neither design nor operate its equipment. Many days after the snow had stopped falling, BR was still running a skeleton service, there appeared to be no ticket collectors and hundreds of people must have gone through without paying, and at one stage there did not even seem to be any drivers to provide a minimal service.

Mr. Rifkind

I sympathise very much with what my right hon. Friend has said. British Rail is conducting its own inquiry into the lessons to be learnt from that experience. I am also expecting to hear in the next few weeks the results of a review that I commissioned in December to see whether any lessons could be learnt from the experience of other countries with climates similar to ours, which might help to prevent a repetition.

Mr. Fearn

Is the Secretary of State aware that many of the bridges owned by British Rail and for which it is responsible are now in a very bad state of repair? Will he put the point to the chairman of British Rail and perhaps provide resources to do the bridges up?

Mr. Rifkind

I believe that British Rail has its own plans to improve and rehabilitate any bridges which may require such treatment. We shall draw the hon. Gentleman's question to the attention of British Rail.

Mr. Adley

As my right hon. and learned Friend knows, in past years the present Government and previous Governments have always exhorted British Rail to buy British. Following the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), may I ask whether the Government are putting any pressure on British Rail to buy British, or is it free to look to the manufacturing capacity of other countries in regard to rolling stock and locomotives? Some countries can and do build locomotives to withstand much worse weather conditions than ours.

Mr. Rifkind

Naturally, we want the travelling public to have the best available rolling stock for the price that is paid. It is for British Rail to judge how that can best be achieved when seeking to purchase new rolling stock.

Mr. Snape

Does the Secretary of State accept that what Bob Reid mark 2 is asking for is additional cash amounting to about £1.3 billion per year for some years to make up the investment shortfall, bearing in mind that the rolling stock and signalling equipment is 12 years older than it was when the Conservative Government were elected? Does he accept that Sir Bob is demanding cash, not an increase in the external financing limit, which would have to be paid for through even higher fares and even more overcrowding on our shockingly run railway system?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman's premise is incorrect. I have read the transcript of what Sir Bob Reid said. He acknowledged that the Government were providing facilities for £1.3 billion of investment this year, and expressed his desire for that to continue over the next few years. As I said earlier, the Government propose expenditure of £4 billion in the next three years—a figure very similar to the one mentioned by Sir Bob Reid.

Mr. Gregory

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that among his plans for major reinvestment in British Rail he will consider ensuring that the operating companies obtain greater productivity from their employees? They have changed their definition of "on time" so that they can pay additional sums to their senior management, but a train that arrives 10 minutes late does not strike me, or the rest of the world, as being on time. Will my right hon. and learned Friend look at the strange definitions that the operating companies have incorporated in order to pay themselves more money? Will he also look at the subsidiary operating companies, which may operate genuine share schemes for their employees, and ensure that they benefit from the investment?

Mr. Rifkind

I note with interest what my hon. Friend says. We are anxious to ensure that British Rail recognises the need for quality control and introduces realistic and acceptable incentives for its staff in order to obtain an improvement in the quality of service. I shall look into my hon. Friend's point.