HC Deb 14 October 1991 vol 196 cc7-8
6. Mr. Pike

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he proposes next to meet the chairman of British Rail; and if he will be discussing rail safety on that occasion.

The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Roger Freeman)

My right hon. and learned Friend has regular meetings with Sir Bob Reid, the British Rail chairman, to discuss a variety of railway issues. Safety remains the top priority for both the Government and British Rail.

Mr. Pike

The Minister says that safety remains the top priority and the Government always say that it is paramount. Does he accept, however, that many people who work in the industry feel that financial pressures and lack of investment in the railway system are eroding the safety margin and that there is increasing concern in the industry about safety factors? What is needed is a major change in Government policy —or a change of Government.

Mr. Freeman

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. I pay tribute to British Rail—not only the board but the staff—for making sure that safety is a top priority. Last year, British Rail spent about £140 million on safety and the board plans to spend about £200 million in the year that we are halfway through. That, in my view, places the right emphasis on safety and British Rail's objective is to ensure that that emphasis continues in the future.

Sir Bernard Braine

Is my hon. Friend aware that it is not merely safety that concerns my constituents in Castle Point, who, in order to get to work, are obliged to use the worst—(Interruption.) Yes, the worst railway in the country? That railway is completely unreliable. Will my hon. Friend give me an assurance that the chairman of British Rail—who so far has been oblivious to all this— will be told that it must stop? Safety and reliability: that is what we want and demand.

Mr. Freeman

My right hon. and learned Friend and I share my right hon. Friend's comments about the quality of service on the London-Tilbury and Southend line. It needs resignalling and reinvestment in new rolling stock. It is operated safely, but its unreliability is due to the age of its infrastructure. My right hon. and learned Friend and I are addressing those problems right now.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing

Does the Minister accept that the public should have the fullest confidence in the transportation of both freight and people? In that context, can he tell us what safety discussions he has held with British Rail about the transportation of nuclear waste to Dounreay from places as far afield as Iraq, Canada and Germany, as there is widespread public concern in Scotland about that? May I have the Minister's assurance that he will advise the House of the details of the routes that are to be followed and the dates and that the police forces will be informed?

Mr. Freeman

The operators follow strict criteria as to the safety of their loads, whether carried by road or rail. If the hon. Lady is ignorant of that and cares to table a question, I will answer it. Prior publicity of the routes followed would not be in the best interests of the safe conduct of such material.

Mr. Cormack

Will my hon. Friend arrange to see the chairman of British Rail at a different main line station each month? If the chairman fails to turn up on time, will my hon. Friend fail to renew his contract?

Mr. Freeman

From my knowledge of Sir Bob Reid's interest in railways, he has visited not only all the London termini but most of the rail services in the country. He is extremely assiduous in his task. My right hon. and learned Friend and I meet the chairman frequently out of the office on British Rail's network.

Mr. Prescott

Will the Minister discuss the safety implications of the creeping privatisation proposals that were announced by the Secretary of State at the Tory party conference? Can he now make it clear that those proposals will not go ahead, as the Bill is unlikely to be included in the Queen's Speech?

Mr. Freeman

There are two parts to that question. The Government have made it plain that any privatisation of British Rail will be a matter for the next Parliament, not for this. There is no question, therefore, of any Bill being presented to Parliament in the next Session. The Government have always made that plain. Any railway system, whether it is in the public or the private sector, has to be operated safely. The roles and responsibilities of Her Majesty's railway inspectorate will continue.