HC Deb 08 March 1993 vol 220 cc653-5
10. Mr. Ian Bruce

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what representations he has received from private operators who may wish to bid for running rail franchises.

Mr. MacGregor

We have received expressions of interest from more than 70 prospective private sector operators and British Rail management bid teams interested in operating franchised passenger services.

Mr. Bruce

My right hon. Friend's answer is in stark contrast with the view of the doom and gloom merchants in the Opposition who seem to suggest that nobody will want to run our rail services. Will my right hon. Friend encourage management buy-outs and franchisees who wish to extend our rail system to more freight and more passengers than are carried by British Rail?

Mr. MacGregor

Yes, certainly we are keen to encourage management-employee teams to bid for franchises in competition with all others who are bidding. We have had more than 20 expressions of interest from management-employee teams. I regard that as an extremely encouraging sign. I know that there is a great deal of interest among them. My hon. Friend is also right to say that we shall encourage passenger franchisees to extend their services as well as to meet the commitments in the contracts. Freight will be different because they will not be bidding for franchises. However, I believe that there is a great deal of interest in our proposals for the freight sector. I am confident that our proposals, combined wil h my recent announcements about three freight proposals, are the best way to try to achieve a halt in the decline of freight on rail and to bring about a shift from road to rail.

Mr. Olner

The Minister must surely realise that without substantial investment in BR, particularly on signalling and rolling stock, no franchisees who are attracted will do the job correctly. When did the Minister last travel on the west coast line to see just how dilapidated are the track, the signalling and the rolling stock? The Minister must do better, get out of his complacent mood and do something about our railways before they disappear completely.

Mr. MacGregor

There is no complacency. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that there has been substantial investment in recent years in very many parts of the country. I have said that it is not possible to do everything at once. For example, very recently a £40 million contract was announced for investment in signalling on the London to Tilbury and Southend line. Investment is taking place on a substantial scale. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there needs to be continuing investment and I believe that our proposals will achieve that.

Mr. Cormack

Has anyone at all expressed interest in taking over the west coast line? What comfort can my right hon. Friend offer my constituents who will soon have longer journeys to London than they have had hitherto? That is a totally unacceptable situation.

Mr. MacGregor

I cannot disclose those bids that are commercially confidential and at this stage, as my hon. Friend will recognise, most of them are. I recognise that there have been marginal differences in the timetable on some aspects of the west coast main line, reflecting to some extent the position in relation to some of the signalling. I have indicated that BR is currently considering that. However, the changes in the timetable are very small indeed.

Mr. Prescott

What is the right hon. Gentleman's estimate of the subsidies for such franchises in the first and second years? Will he assure the House that the finances for the payment of those subsidies will not come from the £4 billion surplus that he has seen in the British Rail pension fund, as that would constitute the greatest rail robbery in history and would be bitterly opposed in iLhe House?

Mr. MacGregor

I cannot, of course, say what the subsidy will be for the first two years as that will be part of the public expenditure negotiations in the autumn. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises that. However, I am glad to respond to the hon. Gentleman's second point. I give him a complete assurance that in no way would we countenance—and certainly in no way would I countenance—the BR pension scheme fund being used for purposes other than for paying BR pensioners. I give the hon. Gentleman that assurance—[Interruption] Yes, in relation to the total fund. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in trying to stop the mischievous and unwarranted scares that I encountered in Swindon on Friday, when I was very happy to give that assurance to the petitioner there who came to see me about it. Such scares are totally unfair to the pensioners and I hope that they will stop.