HC Deb 14 October 1991 vol 196 cc5-7
5. Mr. Adley

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will list the countries whose Transport Ministers he has met during the year to discuss railway policy.

Mr. Rifkind

Railway policy was discussed at two meetings of the European Council of Transport Ministers, resulting in the adoption of an important directive to move towards ending state railway monopolies in the Community. I have also had a separate discussion about railways with the Dutch Minister of Transport.

Mr. Adley

While thanking my right hon. and learned Friend for that reply, may I ask him to confirm that there is an obvious difference between ending the monopoly and going for tooth and claw privatisation? Has he noticed that after 18 months' study Chancellor Kohl's government railway Commission has come out firmly against railway privatisation? On behalf of our party, will he realise that those proposing privatisation are the same people who proposed the poll tax? Please do not let us have a poll tax on wheels.

Mr. Rifkind

I agree with my hon. Friend that the ending of British Rail's monopoly and the future privatisation of British Rail are quite separate issues. We have demonstrated our belief and desire that, even now, British Rail should facilitate new providers of freight and passenger services to use under-utilised British Rail track. We believe that any serious desire for increased use of our railways can only benefit from the ending of that monopoly.

As regards the attitude towards privatisation in Germany, I note what my hon. Friend says, but l also recall reading a recent speech by the chairman of the Deutsche Bundesbahn—the Germany federal railway—in which he said that the ultimate privatisation of the railways might be necessary to ensure their best utilisation.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Has the Secretary of State also noticed that Germany has committed billions of deutschmarks to modernise railways in eastern Germany on the basis of a nationalised system? Will he make it clear to anyone who talks to the European Community that one cannot expect a railway to operate when it hears vague threats of privatisation, is given no clear management line and is expected to find an 8 per cent. return on the assets that it is investing?

Mr. Rifkind

The requirement for an 8 per cent. rate of return is similar to the required rate of return for French railways. As regards the European Community, the most important breakthrough has been that, for the first time in railway history, all European Community Ministers called for an ending of the state monopoly of the railway structure. It will be interesting to know whether the Opposition and the British railway unions will be the last known defenders of state rail monopoly—no one else seems to believe it desirable.

Mr. Madel

In the overcrowded south-east should not future railway policy reopen lines for passenger traffic— lines which have not been used for many years? To that end, will my right hon. and learned Friend encourage British Rail to reopen the Dunstable to Luton railway line and say that we would rather that money were spent on that than on expensive television advertising campaigns telling us how many trains run at more than 100 mph?

Mr. Rifkind

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is desirable for railway lines to be opened or reopened where there is a demand for them. I am pleased that in the past few years under the present Government that has been happening. Throughout the United Kingdom about 17 routes have been reopened and six new lines initiated. I believe that, for the first time since the early 1960s, there is an ongoing increase in railway utilisation.

Mr. Wigley

I did not hear the Secretary of State refer to Wales as one of the countries with whose Transport Ministers he has had discussions. In view of Welsh Office Ministers' passing interest in transport and of the fact that the through inter-city railway service from Holyhead to London was halved from six to three trains a day two weeks ago, will he discuss urgently with Welsh Office Ministers and British Rail the reversal of that decision?

Mr. Rifkind

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales takes a keen interest in railways in Wales and we are already in regular contact with him. The circumstances involving routes such as the one to which the hon. Gentleman referred are for British Rail to determine in the first instance on the basis of the use being made of that service.

Sir Teddy Taylor

How does it help to advance the cause of railways for fundamental decisions about structure to be made in Brussels? Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the residents of Southend-on-Sea have the second worst railway line in Britain—a line that has been condemned as totally unsuitable by his junior Minister—and that they are losing jobs in London solely because they have to use the Fenchurch Street line? They would be far happier if the Secretary of State concentrated on solving the problems of investment in that line, instead of trying to discuss railway structure and organisation with the EEC.

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend's question raises two issues. He is, of course, right to mention the unsatisfactory condition of the railway line that affects his constituents and I strongly endorse the points that he made about that. His remarks about the European Community, however, suggest that he may not yet understand the nature of the decision that was announced. That decision made particular reference to railway services operating through several Community countries.

The opening of the channel tunnel will mean, for example, that British Rail could provide services from the United Kingdom through the tunnel to France, Germany or Italy and not be prevented from doing so by protectionist measures adopted by Governments on the continent. That is the nature of the breakthrough —and a breakthrough of that kind had to be achieved at European Community level if it was to be achieved at all.

Mr. Snape

Has the Secretary of State told other Transport Ministers just how well we in this country plan our transport infrastructure? Perhaps he will tell them how much they have to learn from his handling of the channel tunnel rail link, for example. As—in the words of the chairman of the Conservative party—political considerations dictated this choice, will the Secretary of State tell his fellow Ministers that the choice—[HON. MEMBERS: "Question!"] I am asking a question, as hon. Members would know if they were listening. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. This takes up a lot of time. Will the hon. Gentleman ask his question, please?

Mr. Snape

We are pleased to see that the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) is still here to ask me to do so.

As—in the words of the chairman of the Conservative party—political considerations will cost the taxpayer, through British Rail, about £1 billion in connection with this choice of route, may we have a little less hypocrisy from the Conservative party about local government expenditure on transport, or on any other relevant matter?

Mr. Rifkind

First, as the House knows, I propose— subject to your leave, Mr. Speaker—to make a statement on that subject later this afternoon. Secondly, the fact that my announcement of the choice of route was welcomed by the hon. Gentleman's party makes the hon. Gentleman's current remarks seem slightly absurd.

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