HC Deb 19 April 1993 vol 223 cc6-9
4. Mr. Hoyle

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what offer he has received to modernise the west coast main line from the consortium of GEC Alsthom, Balfour Beattie and Trafalgar House.

The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Roger Freeman)

A consortium has expressed an interest in privately financing the infrastructure renewal of the west coast main line and we are studying the proposal. In addition, new rolling stock for this line is one of two options under consideration by British Rail for the £150 million rolling stock leasing facility announced in the autumn statement. The other option is upgraded dual-voltage Networkers for use on Network SouthEast's outer suburban services. I have today asked British Rail to invite tenders for both options. The eventual choice between then will depend on the bids received.

Mr. Hoyle

Is the Minister aware that breakdowns are occurring all the time? Only this morning when I travelled down to London the train was delayed because of engine failure. On the last four occasions that I have travelled there have been engine failures and long delays. Can the Minister say when decisions will be taken? Does not he realise that about £900 million needs to be invested in the west coast main line? Far from my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) talking about the safety risks, it was the route director for the west coast main line, Mr. Warburton, who made that statement. When will there be action? We are fed up with waiting.

Mr. Freeman

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the cost of the infrastructure and rolling stock work is estimated to be about £900 million. We have today announced that British Rail is going out to tender for new inter-city west coast main line rolling stock and that it will compare those tenders with the bids received for the new class 465 Networkers. It is sensible to see what is the best value for both British Rail and the taxpayer. My right hon. Friend said that work will start very soon on resignalling the line and improving the infrastructure. British Rail has only just completed over £500 million of work on the east coast main line. It is important for British Rail now to turn its attention to the west coast main line, which should become the premier railway line in the country.

Mr. Jopling

Is my hon. Friend aware that the announcement this afternoon that tenders will be invited for improving the rolling stock on the lamentable west coast main line service is good news? Will he give the House an assurance that if both bids reflect good value for money, it is not impossible that both will be accepted?

Mr. Freeman

I can give my right hon. Friend the assurance that, as the leasing market develops, as surely it will—we hope within the next few weeks to be able to announce our conclusions on the consultation document on leasing—it is not out of the question that both options can be pursued.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Why does the Minister pretend that he has not taken evidence about the length of time it takes to place an order, to build the rolling stock and to get it into service? He knows very well that there is no market for second-hand, broken-down carriages which already produce an inadequate service. If he is not prepared to give us a genuine undertaking this afternoon that both lines are a priority, we shall know that his talk of wanting to support the passenger is so much hot air.

Mr. Freeman

I hope very much that because of the specific class of rolling stock that British Rail has selected —class 465 Networkers, which are dual voltage trains that can be used on Network SouthEast—and because of British Rail's decision to go out to tender for class 91 locomotives and mark IV coaches for the west coast main line, not much redesign work will be involved. I hope that the tenders will be returned quickly, that decisions can be made and that the trains will be manufactured quickly.

Mr. Gale

My hon. Friend will appreciate that his announcement this afternoon has profound implications for the future of the north Kent line. Given that, will he recognise that the trains for that line will mean jobs in construction for the United Kingdom and jobs that will enable north-east Kent to compete with Nord-Pas de Calais for jobs that would otherwise go to France? Will he impress on British Rail the importance of those trains to north Kent when the final decision is taken?

Mr. Freeman

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's hard work in representing the best interests of his constituents on the Kent coast line. I can confirm that British Rail is well aware of the importance of improving the rolling stock in Kent, especially because, next year, new trains will provide channel tunnel services. It is important, certainly in outer Kent, that we have modern, efficient rolling stock which can compete, which offer good value for money and which will compare well with the new rolling stock to be introduced to the channel tunnel.

Mr. Bayley

Does the Minister recognise that the further delay in reaching an order, which his announcement today implies, puts at risk 1,600 jobs at the ABB works in my constituency and puts at risk jobs at GEC? Can he give us a firm date for when the order will be placed? Can he give the House an undertaking that he will approach the Treasury to get authorisation now for £300 million of leasing finance so that both orders can go ahead? Will he also give an undertaking that the whole build of whatever orders are placed will take place in this country because otherwise the British railway manufacturing industry will go the way of the British motor cycle industry, adding billions of pounds to our balance of payments deficit?

Mr. Freeman

No further delay will be caused by my announcement today. If the order had been for one line, there would still have had to be a tender procedure. There is no additional delay. I am well aware of representations from many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight), who last week made very strong representations on behalf of ABB. If ABB wins an order, it will be good for York, for Derby and for Crewe. I am also well aware of the fact that GEC Alsthom is another major manufacturing company for rolling stock. We shall see what response we get from the bids. As I said in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the leasing market will so develop that we are able to proceed with re-equipping both lines.

Sir Roger Moate

Does my hon. Friend understand that, despite our welcome for the leasing finance, there is some disappointment at the fact that we have waited six months for a decision, but are now told that, between the two competing lines, there is only a 50–50 chance of one order being placed? That is not satisfactory. Why has it taken six months to reach that conclusion? If one line is not to be the loser, can my hon. Friend explain far more clearly to the House how it might be that if leasing finance develops within the coming weeks, both those orders, which are equally important, might be placed?

Mr. Freeman

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing the attention of the House to the importance of the leasing market. I have given an assurance that we will make a statement as quickly as possible on the response to the consultation document on the procurement of rolling stock and leasing, and on how that market will develop. New opportunities will be opened up by these important developments and we will return to the House as quickly as we can to say how we see the way forward.

Mr. Wilson

As the Secretary of State seems to have some difficulty understanding his own handiwork, will the Minister confirm that in the current year investment in the existing railway will be at its lowest since nationalisation in 1948, and that a public service obligation grant cut of 23 per cent. is envisaged? That is bad news for the west coast line and for the system as a whole.

Will the Minister confirm that this pathetic damp squib of a statement is the direct consequence of playing two schemes off against each other when there is absolutely no need to do so? Instead of an announcement as to which of the schemes will go ahead, we have today had only a recycling of a previous announcement that two schemes are in the running. Does that situation have anything to do with the forthcoming county council elections?

Having finally accepted the leasing concept that the Opposition advanced 18 months ago, why have the Government still not given us a decision on a single line that will benefit from it? What possible reason is there for restricting leasing to one project instead of using the concept to develop and modernise our railways and to give some relief to the private railway industries which are starved of investment and are warning the Government that, due to the blight created by the threat of privatisation, 30,000 jobs are at risk in those industries in places such as York, Derby and Birmingham?

Mr. Freeman

In referring to investment, the hon. Gentleman always makes a simple error. Both he and the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) always exclude channel tunnel rail investment. That will be part of the existing railway this year because the channel tunnel will open this year—[HON. MEMBERS: "This year?"] Yes, this financial year. That is why, £1.4 billion worth of investment should be included. The channel tunnel is as much a part of the railway system as the London-Tilbury-Southend line.