HC Deb 08 March 1993 vol 220 cc645-7
1. Mr. Hoyle

To ask the Secretary of Stale for Transport if he will sponsor a cost-benefit study of proposals to upgrade the west coast main line to accommodate 250 km per hour passenger trains and associated improved freight services.

8. Mr. Martlew

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he last met the chairman of British Rail to discuss investment plans for the west coast main line.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. John MacGregor)

At present, it is for British Rail, as operator of the west coast main line, to bring forward a cost benefit study into its upgrading. BR intends to start the resignalling work in this corporate plan period. Following the establishment of Railtrack in April 1994, this responsibility will pass to that body.

Mr. Hoyle

Would not it be better to ask BR for the proposals instead of the Secretary of State shunting us into the siding of rail privatisation? He must agree that money should be spent immediately on the west coast line in the way that money has been spent on the east coast line, to provide efficient rolling stock, efficient track, efficient signalling and an efficient rail service. Instead of having a charter of complaints—the citizens charter—funds should be made available immediately for rail projects for this vital rail link.

Mr. MacGregor

1 am glad that the hon. Gentleman accepts that there has been substantial investment in the east coast main line: some £550 million. There has been substantial investment throughout British Rail. As the hon. Gentleman knows, that investment is currently running at record levels. However, not everything can be done at once. As I have said, in the context of its corporate plan, which will be coming to me fairly soon, BR is currently looking at resignalling work. The hon. Gentleman asked about rolling stock. The Government's contribution remains at record levels, but, inevitably, as a result of the recession, there has been a decline in revenue and British Rail decided that it was not prudent to proceed at this stage with work on the rolling stock, which is likely to cost about £350 million. It is considering its rolling stock strategy and will no doubt present proposals in due course.

Mr. Martlew

Over the past decade, the Government have starved the west coast main line of investment. Bearing that in mind, will the Minister ensure that the £150 million that was made available in the autumn statement is spent on that line? It would be a travesty for that money to be spent in any other region, including Network SouthEast. Not only would there be anger in my constituency, but the users of the line from Birmingham all the way up the west coast and including those in Belfast would be angry.

Mr. MacGregor

The £150 million of leasing to which the hon. Gentleman refers is, of course, a major new contribution which the Government have made available to British Rail. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that. We have asked British Rail to confirm by Easter what rolling stock it proposes to lease and tor which lines. Is it for British Rail to make the decisions and I have no doubt that it will hear what the hon. Gentleman has said and will take it into account.

Mr. Jopling

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the unreliability of that line causes many people not to use it unless they are absolutely forced to do so? Does he realise that it will be necessary for much money to be spent on the line fairly soon? Is it true that work on signalling will begin this year? Will my right hon. Friend play his part and try to kick some life into the management at the top of British Rail, who do not seem to have got out of their old, bad, complacent habits and who are a contributory factor to the unacceptability of the line?

Mr. MacGregor

I acknowledge that the upgrading of the line is necessary, both in terms of rolling stock and of the infrastructure. I cannot give my right hon. Friend a date: it is for British Rail to come forward with proposals on resignalling. As I said, that is being considered in the context of the corporate plan. The whole purpose of our privatisation proposals is to improve management and prospects, not only on the west coast main line but throughout the system.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

I heartily agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling). I assure my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that we are very proud of the standard of station staff and of their handling of passengers and so on, but we are not satisfied with British Rail management. If British Rail were privatised there would be better investment and a better deal for those who use the line. We are proud of the staff, but we want to be as proud of other parts of the line as we are of Lancaster station.

Mr. MacGregor

As I said earlier, our proposals are intended to improve services to passengers through franchising. It is unlikely that the west coast main line will be among the first, because it was not included in the seven lines that I announced as shadow franchises. I hope that it will follow not long afterwards, so that my hon. Friend can enjoy the benefits to which she looks forward.

Mr. Prescott

Does the Secretary of State accept that all the work has been done and that the cost is known? All that is lacking is political will and Government resources. Is not the right hon. Gentleman concerned that the taxpayers' money invested in the east coast line will be highly attractive to a privatised railway, which will undermine the west coast line? Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that the strategic route from London to Scotland will be on the west coast line and that he will instruct the track authority to see that it is?

Mr. MacGregor

I do not accept that the investment in the east coast main line will have a particular effect on franchising. The terms of the franchise will reflect a number of factors. I recognise that the east coast investment took place ahead of the west coast main line and I recognise the need to upgrade the infrastructure and rolling stock. However, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is a lack of political will. Investment is currently at record levels, but we must establish priorities.