HC Deb 11 January 1993 vol 216 cc596-8
9. Mr. Burns

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what targets he has set for the current year for the number of passengers using British Rail.

Mr. Freeman

The Government do not set targets for the number of passengers using British Rail, but we wish to see more travellers preferring rail to road for all types of travel, including commuting into London.

Mr. Burns

Is my hon. Friend aware that the thousands who commute from Chelmsford to Liverpool Street station each day simply want an efficient, well-run service, and does he believe that franchising will achieve that?

Mr. Freeman

I certainly do, and I am sure that the House looks forward to tomorrow's debate on that very subject. My hon. Friend has long been concerned in particular about resignalling on the Great Eastern line, as others of my hon. Friends have been in relation to resignalling on the London-Tilbury-Southend line. I confirm that, following a review of the interdepartmental financing round settlement for British Rail, resignalling work on both lines will immediately continue.

Ms. Glenda Jackson

Is the Minister aware that many of my constituents are eager to use the services provided by British Rail, but that they are consistently being made too expensive by constant fare rises—and that many services are not even accessible because of the continuing closure of railway stations? Far from pursuing privatisation, should not the Government take on board the concept that railways should provide a public service that is available to the majority of the public?

Mr. Freeman

The hon. Lady will know that the Government, on behalf of the taxpayer, provide £1,000 million a year in subsidies to British Rail to run socially necessary services. If she believes that fare increases should be moderated or that fares should be reduced, that would mean the taxpayer having to provide more money for subsidies to British Rail and a bigger burden on the taxpayer. The difference between the Opposition and the Government is that we believe that railway passengers should meet as much of the cost of providing the service as possible and that socially necessary services should be subsidised rather than the passenger.

Lady Olga Maitland

Is my hon. Friend aware that thousands of southern commuters suffer unnecessarily when trains do not run—which I understand is due to cancellations resulting from drivers not turning up for work? Will my hon. Friend therefore look into the trade unions' restrictive practices?

Mr. Freeman

My hon. Friend is right. Certain services are affected by drivers not turning up for work, but I pay tribute to British Rail—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) should be generous with his support where British Rail has made an effort to improve the quality of services. Under the passengers charter, there has been a real improvement this year on certain Network SouthEast lines. I hope that my hon. Friend will see continued improvement on her line.

Mr. Prescott

Is the Minister aware of the report published today by the Central Transport Consultative Committee, and of the Health and Safety Executive Commission's report on safety in a privatised railway, which make it clear that there will be serious cuts in passenger services and that they will be less safe due to the lack of adequate financial resources provided by the Government? No doubt that is due to the £3 billion that the Government have taken out of public support since 1983. Does not the Minister think that British Rail and the Secretary of State should switch their attention to that important issue rather than try to explain the confusion about whether the Government intend to privatise, semi-privatise, or commercialise—all of which are irrelevant to the needs of a good railway system?

Mr. Freeman

I will deal with the hon. Gentleman's two specific points, because we shall have an opportunity to debate the full issue tomorrow. As to public support for the railways, the hon. Gentleman is five years out of date. We increased the public service obligation grant in the past four straight years. The hon. Gentleman must get his facts right. He claimed that we removed support, whereas he should know that we have increased it in the past four years. As to safety, every time that there is an accident on the railways—and that happens infrequently—the hon. Gentleman immediately says that the Government and British Rail are skimping on safety. He should know that this year, British Rail is spending £200 million on safety —a significant improvement on previous years. Safety is the single most important factor for not only the Government but British Rail.