HC Deb 24 May 1995 vol 260 cc889-91
6. Mr. Tyler

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what are the implications for the Scottish economy of the decisions taken to date on the continuation of rail sleeper services from other parts of the United Kingdom. [24227]

10. Mr. Galbraith

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he last met the directors of ScotRail to discuss rail closures. [24234]

Mr. Lang

Although responsibility for railway matters rests with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, I have been taking a close interest in these matters. My right hon. Friend and I agree that the Scottish economy will continue to derive substantial benefit from the continuation of rail sleeper services to and from Scotland and that such sleeper services remain important. I met the director of ScotRail on 28 March 1995. We discussed a wide range of matters relating to rail services in Scotland.

Mr. Tyler

If the Secretary of State has been taking such a close interest in the future of sleepers, will he consider the problem of the sleeper service between the west country and Scotland which, according to the timetable which we now have in our hands, is to disappear this weekend, yet which his colleagues in the Department of Transport have said carries 32,000 people a year, requires a minimal subsidy to maintain it and is of huge importance to the tourist industry at both ends of the line?

Can the Secretary of State explain why there has been minimum consultation with the tourist boards and why the economic effects of the closure have not been properly identified either by him or by his colleagues in the Department of Transport? Is it not a scandal that the service is to disappear this very weekend?

Mr. Lang

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the subsidy on the Plymouth sleeper is about £44 per passenger per trip. That amounts to about £1.4 million per annum for a sleeper service that is roughly half occupied most of the time. However, he will be reassured to know that the London-Penzance sleeper is included in the public service requirement for the Great Western franchise.

Mr. Galbraith

The Secretary of State may have been taking a close interest in these matters, but he does not seem to be doing anything about them. Does he realise that not only the sleeper services but the overnight seating service to Scotland are being affected? Does he realise that there will be cuts in the west coast line, the highland line and the Kyle of Lochalsh line? Does he realise that privatisation means not only cuts but an increase in charges? When will he stand up for the railways and stop lying down in front of the privatisation express?

Mr. Lang

The hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to put all those relevant points during the consultation process that is now in train. The hon. Gentleman talks about rising costs, but I have to point out that rail fares rose by 22 per cent. more than inflation in the past 10 years. As a result of the arrangements that are now being made for the future, they will fall in real terms in the years ahead.

Mr. Macdonald

Does the Secretary of State not realise that, unless he seizes the opportunity, which he now has, thanks to Highland regional council, to save and to develop the sleeper service to Fort William, he is really saying that he does not care if—

Madam Speaker

Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman and the House are aware that the hearing on this matter has been set down for 1 June. The matter is therefore sub judice. I just caution hon. Members as to the questions that they may put. Having given that caution, I will hear the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Macdonald

Is the Secretary of State aware that the message that he must give to the people of Scotland is that, in transport terms, all parts of Scotland, including in particular regions such as the highlands and far north-west Scotland, must be connected on equal terms with the rest of the UK? If he does not send that message, he is saying that he does not care about the highlands' social and economic future.

Mr. Lang

I care very much about the social and economic future of the highlands, as of the rest of Scotland. That is why I warmly welcome the decrease in unemployment, which is continuing after a fall for three consecutive years, and the growth in new employment and economic activity throughout the highlands and the rest of Scotland. The hon. Gentleman will, of course, have the opportunity to make the points that he has raised in the consultation process, but the announcement by the director of franchising underlines, for the first time, the continuing guarantee attached to the vast and overwhelming majority of rail services in Scotland. They have never had that before.

Mr. McFall

In Perth and Kinross, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have been banging on about the integrity of the Union. Does the Secretary of State accept that the logic of that statement means that there should be adequate rail access to all parts of the UK, including the highlands? Recent decisions threaten both day and overnight services, tourism and the economic prosperity and livelihood of the inhabitants of the region. Does he agree with the Scottish people that, if the Prime Minister is sincere in his desire to listen to people, he will do so and immediately abandon the folly of rail privatisation in Scotland?

Mr. Lang

The hon. Gentleman seems to be completely unaware that the decline in the quality of this country's rail services began when they were nationalised. Nationalised ownership and the starvation of resources undermined the quality of rail services. We are now creating not only a basic guarantee of almost all existing services, but the opportunity for new investment, new commercial management and an improved commitment to the delivery of a quality service. That should lead to a service that is not only cheaper, but better.