§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Andrew Mitchell.]
§ 11.1 pm
§ Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)
Just over 11 years ago, on 9 March 1983 at 10.16 pm, when I was the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, I introduced an Adjournment debate on the British Rail sleeper service to the north-west. I initiated the debate because a little mole on the night train had told me that British Rail was going to cut and run and savage that sleeper service, leaving the public high and dry. British Rail wheeled out the hoary old chestnuts that the route did not justify the investment, that each new night sleeper cost £250,000, that the service was not producing a 7.5 per cent. return on its capital and so forth.
I was strongly supported by the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) and, sadly, by the late Mr. Bob Cryer, who was then the Member for Keighley, by the former Member for Manchester, Openshaw, Mr. Charles Morris, and the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett)—then the hon. Member for Stockport, North. The former hon. Member for Manchester, Withington, Mr. Fred Silvester, made a good contribution and the former Secretary of State for Employment, Mr. Albert Booth, who represented Barrow-in-Furness, added his weight. My friend and colleague the Under Secretary of State for Transport, now Sir Reginald Eyre, responded in his normal avuncular, cogent and helpful way.
As a result, after heavy lobbying and the strongest of representations, the sleeper service to the north-west was saved and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. British Rail did not dare to run the gauntlet again until after the Boundary Commission got rid of my Liverpool seat. Within months of my adoption for the Devon seat of South Hams, British Rail whisked the night sleeper off. I saw the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) earlier and he said that the region was the poorer for losing the night train. Obviously, the battle between what some people have described as David and Goliath did not percolate down to the south-west, or British Rail might have had second thoughts before taking on someone who, if I may say so, is a seasoned warrior.
The Government are committed to the west country. The Prime Minister said that the Cabinet was now thinking west country, and he has been as good as his word, delivering the nuclear refit to Devonport, guaranteeing jobs well into the next century. The President of the Board of Trade was as good as his word in ensuring that large swathes of the south-west are now eligible for European money through assisted area status and 5b status. It is good to see on the Front Bench, among other distinguished Ministers, the Minister with responsibility for deregulation, the Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs. It is nice to see that he is keeping an eye on such subjects.
Much of my constituency is now covered with layers of grant opportunity, as has never happened before in our history. More Cabinet Ministers have descended on the west country than have done for generations. I am told that some Ministers are now thinking of applying for season tickets to save the taxpayers money. The fact that the west country is an important area, which, unlike Scotland and Wales, does not have its own Government Department, has 859 meant that it has to receive top priority in Government thinking and there are plans for its future development throughout the region.
The Devon structure plan forecasts an increase of 66,000 houses by the turn of the century. We must have a better transport system to cope. The Department of Transport is reviewing whether the Exeter to Plymouth A38 should be upgraded to motorway standard. Brymon Airways continues to run, through British Airways, a service from Heathrow to Devon and Cornwall throughout the day. It is not a cheap service to fly west and it is not surprising that the airplanes are not as full as British Airways would like.
That goes also for the Cornish Riviera sleeper train. It used to stop at Reading, Swindon, Bristol, Taunton, Exeter, Newton Abbot and Plymouth and continue to Cornwall. Now it stops only at Reading, Exeter and Plymouth and, not surprisingly, there are fewer people as there are fewer stops. None the less, the sleeper train provides an essential communication link with the west country's principal towns and cities.
If the sleeper ceased to exist, the first weekday train from Paddington would not reach Penzance until 1.30 pm—a whole morning has gone—and one would not reach Plymouth much before 11.30 am, if the train arrived on time. By the time that one got into Plymouth proper, it would be midday. Those would be the first available times that one would arrive at those towns' railway stations.
If you were an investor or an industrialist, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would you choose to put your inward investment in a town that you could not reach until midday on public transport? If you were coming from Japan or Europe, there are many other parts of Britain that you would favour, nearer the channel tunnel, with excellent infrastructure and good public transportation systems. You would not invest in Plymouth or Cornwall if you could not get there. If the public transport is bad, new industry and new employment prospects will not come there. It is too much bother to go somewhere when one has to drive the whole time.
One of the reasons why the inner cities have not revived as fast as we would like, in the way that the Government would like, is not only violence on the streets and high rates, but the absence of proper infrastructure that allows big articulated lorries in and out, or good railway connections that help industrialists to travel between places. One cannot get into many of the inner cities and one cannot get out of them.
The rail and airplane network has to be top class, or people take the roads, because it is more convenient, even though the roads are heavily congested. With the £3 billion reduction in the road-building programme this year, it is essential that we use other channels of communication and do not overburden even more the roads that we have built.
British Rail's west of England service has greatly improved in the past 10 years. It is odd, though, that in spite of the multi-million pound new signalling equipment, that has not resulted in faster or more frequent trains. However, the fact that the night train continues to plough its way across the country both ways, every evening, six days a week, arriving virtually on time in every case, so that the business man can arrive fresh for a day's work and tourists arrive with buckets and spades at the ready, makes it an essential part of the rail infrastructure.
The Great Western management, to whom I shall pay tribute later, seem a little less enthusiastic about the continuation of the Cornish Riviera night sleeper, as it is 860 known, perhaps because they do not see it as an essential part of the west country fabric. Financially, apparently, it is precariously balanced, but that is not too surprising because the charges are high, the continental breakfast is quite dreadful, the facility is not well enough marketed and the train does not stop at enough stations.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson), whose interest in the railway is well known, for coming up to Paddington and touring the sleeper. I have never seen so many people in a single first-class cabin. There were two television companies, each with their floodlights, and my right hon. Friend the Minister shaking the hand of a poor man in pyjamas. It was quite an amazing sight.
My right hon. Friend the Minister was left in no doubt when he heard all those who were travelling on the night sleeper—I think that it is fair to say that no one put British Rail up to it; they were all diehard travellers on the night sleeper—say how tremendously important it was to their industry and business. I am only sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Dame Janet Fookes) is unable to speak because of her elevated position. Like me, she used to use the night sleeper. In particular, she and I were regular travellers on the Saturday night sleeper, but that has been withdrawn.
The Devon and Cornish Riviera night service has become a symbol of the Government's commitment to the west country. If it is withdrawn, it would appear that the Government are not prepared to stand up for an essential service, especially as the franchise bid is but a year away. Just at the point when the west country is witnessing the beginning of the economic upturn with business and commerce showing real signs of revival, an essential public transport service is about to come off the rails. Will the Minister, therefore, give me the opportunity of being the first hon. Member to save two sleeper services, the Liverpool one and now the west country one?
Before I close, I pay a special tribute to Brian Scott, the managing director of InterCity, Great Western Railways. He has managed to build around him a first-class team at the management level and has inspired loyalty and commitment from those working the service on the stations and in the trains. The restaurant cars are run to a high standard but I wish that there were not so many ticket collectors constantly disturbing one's journey, not to mention the incessant announcements telling one not to open the doors, to close the doors, not to leave any personal luggage, where to find the buffet, what the buffet is selling—hot and cold snacks; I know it by heart. A little peace and quiet would be much appreciated.
What we have in the House tonight is the strength of the west country Conservative Members, who are committed to a first-class franchise service but who do not want to damage the west country's prospects by an early and unnecessary withdrawal of a crucial rail facility. I have been trying for three and a half months to get this slot in the parliamentary timetable and I am most grateful to whoever arranged for me to speak tonight. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister, knowing that I have waited three and a half months, will not let us down. Whatever he says, I thank him for his extended courtesy for spending a couple of hours at Paddington station last night seeing for himself what we on the Conservative Benches believe is of great importance to the west.
§ Mr. Steen
No, but I shall give way after the debate has finished!
I thank all my hon. Friends for helping me during the past three months in ensuring that the sleeper service continues and that we have a helpful and productive debate. Finally, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should say that, as my hon. Friend the Minister has sorted out with us, my hon. Friends have my consent to speak for as long as they like.
§ Mr. Robert Hicks (Cornwall, South-East)
I support my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) in what he said about the need to continue the Paddington—to—Penzance sleeper service, although I am not sure that I would necessarily support his remarks about other areas during the course of his 12-minute speech, particularly in relation to Liverpool.
Of those present in the Chamber, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) and I are probably the longest standing users of the service. When we were first elected in 1970, there were two night sleeper services between Paddington and Penzance. One reason why British Rail withdrew one of them was lack of support. It is incumbent upon all of us in the west country to play our part in making sure that the service continues. I make the point to my right hon. Friend the Minister that we are approaching a crucial period.
§ Mr. Hicks
I do not need flippant remarks from Liberal Members.
It is important that we ensure that the service continues into 1995 so that it forms part of any franchise offer made to Great Western or anyone else who may be interested post-1995. If the service were to be discontinued this year, it could not be included in the franchise package. That makes it absolutely crucial that my right hon. Friend the Minister leans on British Rail management, or uses whatever influence he has at his disposal, to ensure that the service stays in the British Rail timetable post-October and remains in the package for the franchise or whatever future arrangements are made next year.
If we lose the service this year, there would be no guarantee that it would re-run at some future date. I look to my right hon. Friend for an assurance that he has done what he can with British Rail and Great Western management to ensure that the service will not be discontinued from October.
§ Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) on securing this Adjournment debate, which has attracted widespread support from Conservative Members representing west country constituencies.
I accompanied my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Minister to Paddington station last night to see the sleeper and to talk to people using it. I shall not add to my hon. Friend's unparalleled description of the scene at the station at midnight, except to say that we spoke to a number of passengers who use the sleeper service regularly—at least once a month. They much appreciated the 862 assistance being given, and we appreciate the contribution that they—as business men, industrialists or investors—make to the west country. It would much diminish economic recovery in Devon and Cornwall in particular if the sleeper service were withdrawn.
There is a slight snag, of which my right hon. Friend the Minister is aware. Three years ago, the sleeper service ceased to stop at Taunton. We saw a train at Paddington station that was about to depart, at 11.30 pm, for Bristol—so that area is served by a late-night train. Exeter, Plymouth and Cornwall are served by the late-night sleeper service. Taunton and the hinterland of Somerset, north and east Devon could much benefit from a service that departed about midnight and stopped at Taunton at 2 o'clock in the morning. A sleeper would not be required, because few passengers would want to use one for such a journey. They would require only the seating accommodation that we saw on the train last night.
Such a service would enable my constituents and those of neighbouring constituencies who are in London for evening meetings, dinner, theatre or whatever to return home the same night. The lack of such a service has caused considerable concern and aggravation in my constituency over the past three years. I make the point to my right hon. Friend the Minister but also to British Rail and the successor companies that such a service would make good common and commercial sense. It is a financial equation and—
§ Mr. Nicholson
I cannot give way because the Minister will want to speak. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will catch the Chair's eye later.
It makes good commercial sense to entice more passengers on to the late-night service—people who want to return to Somerset or thereabouts. With the opening of the channel tunnel, over the next few years more people will want to use the railways. As they come to see the environmental problems and the huge costs of road transport, more of them will want to travel by rail. I hope that the Government and those responsible for operating the rail service will take the opportunity not only to make the service stop at Taunton but to ensure that it survives.
§ Mr. Sebastian Coe (Falmouth and Camborne)
Members who represent Cornwall all recognise that Cornwall's ability to sustain full-time meaningful employment is inextricably linked to the ability of its business people to go out and conquer fresh markets, and to chase markets hitherto closed to them simply because they could not get in and out of the county within one full working day and get back to shepherding their businesses the following day.
We recognise that the future of the sleeper service is closely linked to all this. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) pointed out, we must impress on the Minister the need for any future structure running the railways to market the service properly. The future of any public service depends—this is almost a truism—on the number of people who use it, and that is particularly true of a sleeper service. The service must be marketed as a stand-alone service that can compete with all the other burgeoning services in the county. 863 This is an important facility—
§ Sir John Hannam (Exeter)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) on his initiative, not only in securing the debate but in arranging for the Minister's visit to Paddington station to see the extent of the support for the continuation of this important service to the west country.
I represent the constituency with the first stop in the west country. Business men and women in Exeter, Dorset and east Devon would tell the Minister that they rely very much on this service. They like to leave their cars at Exeter, come up to do their business in London, then journey back late at night, arrive in the morning, pick up their cars and get home for a couple of hours before starting a normal day's work.
The same applies further west in Cornwall, where, unless people have a sleeper service, they cannot pursue a normal day's business when they get back to Truro and points west.
British Rail needs reminding again and again that great opportunities are unfolding with the new system that we are setting up, and that its success will depend on attracting more customers and new business; and the only way to do that is to open up the system and provide ever more facilities—unlike what has been done with freight services which have in the past been shut down. Not only should this important service be maintained but stations like Taunton should be reopened so as to offer access to a wider clientele.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams reminds me of one of those wonderful steam engines of the past: when the going gets tough and the track starts going uphill, he makes a lot more noise and exerts even more determination. That is how he secured victory in Liverpool. I am sure that in this endeavour he will have the support of my right hon. Friend and of us all as our businesses and industries enter a period of expansion.
Our aim is to move regional offices from Bristol down towards the south-west. The civil servants and others working in those offices will need a night service to get home after, say, late-night debates in the House.
I hope that my right hon. Friend will listen very carefully to the views represented tonight, and will ensure that the service continues, so that when the franchise is offered it will be included as an important part of the service to the west country.
§ The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Roger Freeman)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) on initiating a debate on this important subject. I also congratulate my other hon. Friends who have participated, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe)—who came to see me yesterday with my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams—and my hon. Friends the Members for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) and for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam), 864 who also came, as did my hon. Friends the Members for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) and for Plymouth, Drake (Dame Janet Fookes).
Representations have also been made over recent weeks by, in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Mr. Harris), and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) and my hon. Friends the Members for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning), for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson), for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter), for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) and for Westbury (Mr. Faber). It is a formidable list.
As my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams implied, we had a very interesting discussion yesterday afternoon to discuss the continuation of the Paddington-to-Penzance sleeper after the end of the current timetable. We covered the issue in some detail, and I felt that the meeting had enabled me to understand much more fully the concerns of my hon. Friends representing the south-west. That contrasts sharply with the behaviour of members of the Liberal Democrat party, who have neither sought a meeting with me nor tried to secure an Adjournment debate; nor have they raised the issue in the same direct way as my hon. Friends.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)
It is entirely in order, as far as the Chair is concerned. The Chair has no role to play, and no comment to make.
§ Mr. Freeman
I pay tribute to Brian Scott and the management of British Rail, who have succeeded in improving services on the Great Western railway. That includes the sleeper, which has received significant and welcome patronage in recent months.
Let me give my hon. Friends the firmest possible indication of Ministers' views on the continuation of the Paddington-to-Penzance sleeper, known as the night riviera. Ministers believe that the service should be part of the franchising process in 1995. We want to see what ideas the private sector can bring to the future operation of services—for example, in terms of improved marketing of the night riviera service.
§ Mr. Freeman
Until franchising takes place, the future of the service is a matter for British Rail; but I do not wish to see any precipitous change. I assure my hon. Friend that Ministers wish the service to continue throughout this year and up to and including the franchising process. The service is in the current timetable, which runs up to October. I therefore expect it to be included in the October timetable, which is the winter timetable, so that it will be open to the Franchising Director to consider it in the context of franchising the Great Western main line services. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friends who have interests in that important part of the country.
865 The Government accept that important rail services such as the Great Western main line and sleeper services are perceived as being very important to the economy of the west country—important not only to the business community, but to those who travel to the area for leisure purposes. It must be recognised, however, that the economic viability of the night riviera service is a crucial factor in the determination of its future. I understand that currently the service is marginal. However, I also hear that Great Western hopes that passenger ridership will increase as the economy comes out of recession, and there is already evidence of an increase in patronage.
I believe that the debate tonight—I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams on his contribution—will serve to raise the profile of this important service. But a railway, as with any other business, has to be responsive to passenger demands. It is therefore vital that, in order to ensure the long term future of the night riviera service, there be increased usage of the sleeper. It really is a case of use it, or lose it. People cannot come to British Rail, Great Western and the Franchising Director and ask for a service to be retained if they are unwilling to make use of it.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne for helpfully and clearly spelling out that point. I also confirm that we expect to see channel tunnel night services running on the Great Western main line. I hope that the night stock, which is currently under construction, will be running on that line from Christmas 1995. That will bring a very welcome boost to the economy of the west country because it will bring tourists directly from the 866 continent of Europe and through the channel tunnel, all the way along the Great Western main line, and certainly as far as Plymouth. We do not rule out a continuation and extension of that service in the future.
It is very important for the economy of the south-west that we continue to develop rail services. I can tell the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), who has had ample opportunity to criticise our reforms in other debates, that the reforms which will follow in the wake of the Railways Act 1993 will improve rail services in this country. He will find that the private sector will introduce into the railways not only fresh capital but innovation—new ideas.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams that one of the great advantages of franchising is that the marketing of the service is improved. I make no criticism of Brian Scott and his management team or of British Rail—they have done an excellent job within the constraints of a public sector service.
The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North and the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) have no imaginative or positive ideas to offer to improve rail services. The Government have a monopoly on good ideas to improve rail services. We will bring additional capital to the railway industry, we will let the private sector market the services better, and we will see more patronage not only on the day services and night services but on the sleeper services.
§ The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
§ Adjourned at twenty-nine minutes to Twelve midnight.