HC Deb 13 March 1991 vol 187 cc1072-8

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

12.13 am
Sir John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

I welcome this opportunity to discuss the performance of British Rail, and I am delighted to see in his place my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport.

Britain invented railways and built them all over the world. I have always preferred travelling by train to driving a car, particularly on today's crowded roads. Before the war, I lived near Hitchin on the old LNER line, and often went to see the Silver Jubilee thunder by. At that time, the trains to and from Hitchin were so punctual that one's watch could be set by them. I also remember the thrill of going to Paddington station en route to Oxford, and I remember the west country accents, the chocolate and cream coaches, the glorious engines and, of course, the station master in top hat and tails. Apprentices for the GWR had to go to Swindon to be approved. It was like joining a good regiment. The railways were privately owned, and the morale of the staff was high.

For the last 45 years, I have travelled on the Marylebone line. Initially, the steam trains were not too bad, and the trains alternated between Marylebone and Paddington. Since steam went out, the service has unfortunately deteriorated, with bad time keeping and many more stops at the stations. I realise only too well that this line has not suffered as much as some of the lines in the south-east of London about which there are so many scandals. However, the number and frequency of delays, the cancellations of services, the breakdowns of engines and signalling, about which there is little or no information, are innumerable. Even yesterday, the train that I had planned to catch from Marylebone left 20 minutes late.

Some year ago, I began corresponding with the then chairman of British Rail on all these matters. Replies were slow in coming in, sometimes written by a less senior official, and always, I am afraid, temporising and unsatisfactory. I had a long series of complaints about the appalling state of the car park, which I used regularly. One could easily have broken a leg on the rough ground, and at night the car park was either unlit or lit by only one, insufficient, lamp. Eventually, in exasperation, I asked to see the chairman, and after some delay, I was fobbed off with promises of a meeting that never took place. In the end, I heard no more about it.

I am bound to ask myself whether, if the railway system was not a monopoly, it would dare to treat its customers in this way. This leads me to believe that there must be something radically wrong at the top, and also with recruitment, training and promotion of the right people to the higher positions in British Rail. There seems to be no incentive for efficiency, and a lack of leadership at all levels. Let us imagine for a nightmare moment that our forces in the Gulf had been conducting themselves on the principles on which the railways are run. How different the result there would have been.

These weaknesses show up worse when a service breaks down or is cancelled. Unfortunately, I have seen only too many such incidents. No senior official ever appears on the scene. No one above a chargehand or, in Army parlance, a lance-corporal, ever appears. Where are the sergeants, let alone the subalterns or more senior officers? All too often, no explanation of why the incident occurred is given, and we are not told how long it will last. If, in desperation, one telephones the railway centre, it often takes ages to get through, and before anyone replies. Even then, there is often no clear answer. Can one imagine this happening in one of our great private enterprise companies—for example, Marks and Spencer?

The situation is no better in my constituency. Halesowen now has no station, although there are two local stations nearby. Stourbridge is on the Birmingham to Worcester line, with a poor local service, old rolling stock, and often a lack of information when anything goes wrong. Recently, there has been a new name for the region in which I live—Network SouthEast. Although some stations have been improved and repainted, the whole idea of Network SouthEast seems to be a purely media and promotional one, with appalling stupid signs such as "Welcome to Little Snodgrass". What the customers want is not advertising expertise but a better service. The timing of most services is poorer because there are so many stops at stations.

Morale among the staff of British Rail generally is not good, although I still meet some marvellous railwaymen, with some of the pre-war ideals of giving a good service to the public. I usually find that the booking clerks are good and give a better service than one often gets at a post office counter.

The whole organisation needs much better leadership and inspiration at the top. The railways have lost a huge freight business. Unless they improve, they will lose passengers as well. A recent survey published in the magazine Which? points out that two out of five rate the overall quality of service as fair or very poor, that around two out of five think that the service represents poor value for money and that more than two in three regular commuters think that the quality of service has deteriorated in the last three years.

The article also points out that British Rail does not guarantee that trains will start or arrive at the times specified in timetables and states that it is not liable for any loss or damage that might arise from delay. The same applies, of course, if any passenger service is suspended or discontinued.

Another great tragedy for the railways and, from an environmental point of view, for the country as a whole has been the loss of freight traffic. Business after business has lost confidence in the railways, due in large part to strikes and the poor service that is given. I was surprised to hear some time ago that even the Post Office now sends many letters and parcels by van instead of train.

With too many cars and lorries on our overcrowded roads, the railways had a golden opportunity which they have not taken. Why, for instance, can they not give a door-to-door freight traffic service, combining the carrying of goods by train with subsequent delivery by van? Really good service is given by the railways only when part of them is contracted out, as with the famous Orient Express.

The recent short spell of bad weather highlighted faults in the design of engines, rolling stock, lines and signalling, and in many cases the failure of management and staff as well. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) pointed out on Monday in a question to the Secretary of State for Transport, huge investment is no use if British Rail cannot operate the equipment in bad weather.

I am reluctantly driven to the conclusion that the weaknesses in management are due largely to security of tenure and the certainty of pay, which have made many inclined to be slack in their approach to their duties. Above all, why do not top and middle management get out and about to see at first hand what is happening? I am sure that the chairman is a good man. I hope that he will have his own carriage, with supporting staff, attached to inter-city services or other main-line trains, so that he can get about personally and see as many stations as possible. Cannot managers model themselves on the best private enterprise companies, where the customer always comes first?

There no longer seems to be the pride that there once was in the railway profession. The sooner all the separate services are privatised the better. We shall then see better management, better equipment, including more electrifica-tion which is efficient and not harmful to the environment, better managers and staff, higher morale and a better deal for the customer. The distress, sadness and disappointment among travellers by train I have seen year after year. Surely under this Government we can do something to improve matters. Perhaps we should send someone over to France to see how the railways are run there. Above all, the stimulus of competition will work wonders, and British Rail will be freed from the protected and cosy position that it enjoys at present.

12.24 pm
The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Roger Freeman)

It is a great pleasure to be in the House tonight to answer the debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Sir J. Stokes). In responding to my hon. Friend's comments—bearing in mind that I have many times been at the Dispatch Box in response to Adjournment debates at a late hour—and to the clear and cogent arguments that he has adduced this evening, perhaps he will allow me to respond in a rather more ad hoc fashion than my brief would otherwise have dictated. The style in which he has introduced the debate calls for perhaps a more direct reply than would otherwise be the case.

What my hon. Friend has described from his knowledge of British railways over the past 40 years is a comment on how society itself has moved. I would not dissociate myself from his analysis of the change in the railways since nationalisation. He described the situation in, I believe, 1946. I can just remember, as a very small boy aged four, going to Euston when travelling from London to the north-west; I can recall that great station and the thrill of the age of steam for young children. Those days are past. Euston station as my hon. Friend and I recall it is no more.

My hon. Friend said that we were dealing with a nationalised industry in which to some extent over the years a very large organisation had become driven by the need to supply certain services and perhaps had forgotten how to satisfy customer need. That was very much a theme of his speech. I believe that it is an accurate analysis. What is needed in the years to come is so to organise the structure of British Rail that it can and will respond more positively to the requirements of the customer.

There are parallels here with the national health service and perhaps with our education service. It must become more responsive to what the customer wants, the customer in this case being the travelling passenger. My hon. Friend has suggested privatisation as the solution. The Government would agree with him. It is surely right to place British Rail in the private sector. The Government have not reached any conclusions about the timing or the method of that—it is a very difficult task and one that must be done sensitively, with proper consultation and with proper forethought—but we are clear in our determination to move the railways back to the private sector from which they originated in their individual railway company form.

My hon. Friend referred to the management of British Rail. Today I have been out and about with the management of Network SouthEast, visiting stations in north Kent—Ramsgate, Margate, Ashford and Ton bridge —together with not only my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Jones) who, out of a great sense of loyalty, is still here at this late hour, but four other hon. Members who represent constituencies in Kent. We were accompanied by very senior management from Network SouthEast, which I thought was commendable. We stopped at the stations, and the management ensured that I spoke to passengers and staff. I commend the management of Network SouthEast on its preparations for my trip today and on the fact that it gets out and about.

My hon. Friend talked about freight. There has been a dramatic shift of freight from the railways to the roads. Just after the war, the majority of freight was carried by rail; now it is only a small minority, perhaps 10 per cent. That in part has been due to the growth of the motorway and trunk road system and the greater freedom and flexibility of moving freight by road for manufacturers and shippers. But the Government strongly believe that, in the next decade, British Rail, whether in the public or private sector, will face the great challenge of capitalising on the opportunities presented by the channel tunnel to ship freight long distances from the great regions of the nation through the tunnel to compete with other European nations in selling goods at a fine and competitive price.

The Government are assisting British Rail to make that difficult transition. British Rail must develop a system of intermodal terminals where manufacturers can move their freight by road to new terminals where train loads will be assembled and hauled a minimum of 200 miles through the tunnel to the waiting markets.

We believe that that is the right way for British Rail to recapture some of the freight that is now being carried on the roads. I envisage that freight from the new terminal at Normanton, near Wakefield in Yorkshire, will remove lorries from the M1, M25 and M20—roads that would otherwise have been used to carry individual lorry loads of freight through the tunnel. I hope that British Rail can capitalise on the construction of that new terminal and the new technologies available to British Rail, such as the new low-wheeled bogie wagons that will be able to run on both British and European gauges and through the tunnel and move more freight from the roads and on to rail.

My hon. Friend referred in passing to InterCity. which has experienced a remarkable transformation. In the past 10 years, the inter-city service has improved greatly. It is now one of the few railway systems—if one can describe that sector of British Rail as a system—that makes a profit. That is a remarkable achievement—a turnround in fewer than five years. A great tribute should be paid to the management of InterCity and British Rail on that achievement.

The inter-city service, with its modern rolling stock, running on electrified lines—the east coast main line is a fine example of a new line with new rolling stock being delivered—represents an acceptable railway service in comparison with any other European railway service.

One of the great problems of Network SouthEast, which basically provides a service to commuters into the capital, is its Victorian railway lines which run under Victorian bridges. I saw Rochester bridge today and how narrowly constrained the railways were in bringing the commuters of Kent into London as a result of there being a single track in one direction over that bridge. The same is true of the great London terminals such as London Bridge, Waterloo, Victoria and Liverpool Street in particular, where the capacity might have been acceptable 50 years ago but today is unable to cope with the enormous increase in the patronage from which British Rail is now benefiting.

My hon. Friend might be interested to know that from 1970 to the mid-1980s patronage on Network SouthEast continually declined year on year. All of a sudden, in the mid-1980s, when prosperity returned to Britain, and particularly to the south-east, patronage began to rise at an impressive rate. Network SouthEast suffers now from the problems associated with overcrowding on many lines. Perhaps it is reaping the consequences of years of neglect in investment in rolling stock. It has undertaken, therefore, with Government support, a massive programme of reinvestment, and we are seeing the benefits of that on certain lines. For example, from Liverpool Street station to Southend, there is modern rolling stock. On the Northampton line, which runs up to my constituency from Euston, there is modern rolling stock. On some lines, however—I shall in conclusion have something to say about Marylebone station and the Chiltern lines—the service is not acceptable.

There are other lines where the service is not acceptable. I saw today Kent link and coastal lines where a great deal of new investment is needed, and we are providing it. The Kent link services—those services for inner London and London suburbs towards the south-east and Kent towns such as Dartford and Sevenoaks—will benefit from this autumn from the introduction of class 465 electric trains. I accept, however, that more needs to be done. On the Kent coastal services, out as far as Margate and Ramsgate, the introduction of the 471 Networker express trains will help matters. We are discussing with British Rail how quickly the process can be accomplished.

The Government acknowledge that British Rail has a long way to go in meeting the quality-of-service targets that we have set. My hon. Friend will know that the objectives vary between sectors and time of day. They can be summarised as roughly 90 per cent. of trains arriving within either five or 10 minutes of schedule time, depending on the service sector, 99 per cent. or more of trains running, 95 per cent. of telephone inquiries to be answered within 30 seconds, all carriages to be cleaned inside and out every day, sliding-door trains on Network SouthEast and regional railways to be no more than 135 per cent. loaded, with slam-door stock to be no more than 110 per cent. loaded and no standing for more than 20 minutes except by choice. My hon. Friend might say to me that even 135 per cent. or 110 per cent. loadings are unacceptable. I look forward to the day when no passenger need stand on any British Rail train, but we must be realistic about the loadings of trains serving London surburbs. There are short-journey services into central London that inevitably will be crowded.

I conclude by answering specifically my hon. Friend's questions about the Marylebone line. In recent years, the service on the line has suffered because of aging, unreliable rolling stock and infrastructure. It has been clear for some time that a complete overhaul of the line and total replacement of the rolling stock would be necessary to provide the high standard of service that my hon. Friend and others using the line rightly demand.

The line is in the process of complete modernisation at a total cost of about £75 million. Marylebone station has been extensively modernised as part of a major redevelopment of the area. A new signal box is also now in place at Marylebone and the resignalling of the entire line has been completed. The total cost of the resignalling package, which includes associated track improvements, is about £12.5 million. The train fleet is also being replaced. The first of 89 new class 165 Neworker vehicles currently on order was handed over to Sir Bob Reid last month, and after trials should be delivered to the line next month. Some 165s will enter service in May, and the number will increase over the summer until the full fleet is in place in September.

The new passenger trains are some of the most technologically advanced in the world and should lead to much improved performance. They have been designed specifically to operate under driver-only operation, which should significantly improve reliability. There is great difficulty in recruiting and retaining staff in the south-east. If fewer staff can be used safely, trains can be operated more reliably.

The new trains will also feature automatic train protection. The installation of ATP trackside equipment along the whole line is under way and should be completed later in the year. In addition to enhancing safety, the ATP scheme incorporates improved driver information systems that will provide advance information about track hazards.

I hope that my hon. Friend is pleased with that report on the Marylebone line. Improvements are in hand. I hope that, before his years as a Member of this honourable House draw to a close, he will be able, with me, to celebrate the introduction of that spanking brand new rolling stock on the Marylebone line. It would give me great pleasure if my hon. Friend would join me, at the appropriate time, in visiting the stations and the new trains in service. I cannot be precise about when that will be, but I hope that it will not be too long.

On the attitude of management and staff, my hon. Friend drew an analogy with the armed services—the esprit de corps, and the ability to communicate not only between the officers and the other ranks but with the passengers—the friends, not the enemies, of the railway. I believe firmly that my hon. Friend is right in saying that privatisation will help to bring the railways closer to the customer, which is where they started from, where they should be and where, in due course, they will be.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to One o'clock.