HL Deb 01 July 1969 vol 303 cc448-50

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they accept the social and economic importance of the British Railways passenger and freight services of the East Coast Highland line from Inverness to Lairg, Wick and Thurso; and whether they are aware of widespread local reports that British Railways intend eventually to endeavour to close down the East Coast Highland route North of Inverness; and whether they will give an assurance that any such proposals will be resisted on grounds of social and economic importance to Highland development.]


My Lords, the Government have demonstrated their acceptance of the need for a railway passenger service from Inverness to Wick and Thurso by grant-aiding it under Section 39 of the Transport Act 1968 to the extent of £594,000 this year. The provision of freight services is entirely a matter for the British Railways Board, but I understand that, far from seeking to withdraw such services, they are considering making changes to provide them more efficiently. These changes include the establishment of a coal concentration depot at Brora.

We are aware of the reports to which the noble Lord refers, but these reports are groundless. The whole basis of calculation and payment of grant is designed to encourage the Railways Board to run passenger services as efficiently and economically as possible. In the unlikely event of the closure of these services being proposed, all the statutory safeguards would come into operation and the Government would give full weight to the social and economic factors to which the noble Lord has referred.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether he is aware that his reply will give a great deal of reassurance to local interests and will go far to counter the unfortunate rumours which have circulated locally? May I also ask him whether he will endeavour to get the Government sources of publicity at work, so that the gist of his reply can be widely known in North-East Scotland?


My Lords, I cannot guarantee that anything I say will be published in the North of Scotland, but I will endeavour to get it through by more devious channels.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the sympathetic treatment meted out to railways that are uneconomic is contrary to the Tory policy when they appointed Lord Beeching, whose policy was to cut off these railways in the country?


Very friendly words, my Lords.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say for what period of time the grant-aided line is extended?


My Lords, this grant is for only one year, but I would point out that out of 222 grant-aided services at the present time, 133 are in that category. There were about 250 applications to be considered, which meant that there was not time in every case to project estimates of loss for the statutory maximum period of three years. We expect to receive fresh applications for 1970 onwards.