HL Deb 28 November 1973 vol 347 cc142-50

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I will repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister for Transport Industries. The Statement is as follows:

"In July last year, I told the House of a significant deterioration in British Railways' finances. This led me to conclude that the financial provisions of the 1968 Act, like all previous attempts to solve the railways' difficulties, had proved inadequate and that new legislation would be needed. Since then, the Railways Board have at my request, in close association with my Department, been conducting a series of thorough studies on the prospects and needs of their industry. In considering the conclusions, I have taken account of wider transport policy considerations.

"The Board's studies showed no prospects in the foreseeable future of a railway network of anything like the present size being viable. Three possible options were therefore considered against the background of social and economic needs, the preservation of the environment and the conservation of energy supplies. First, wholesale withdrawal from large areas achieving savings in the long run, but with high transition costs. Second, piecemeal closure of a significant number of individual loss-making passenger services. The economies would be relatively small, since most of the system costs would remain while revenues fell. The Government do not believe that either of these alternatives would be in the country's interest.

"The third, and in the Government's view the right course, is to maintain a railway network of roughly the present size, and to improve it. Unremunerative pasenger services should be kept in being as long as they are justified on social and environmental grounds.

"The Government broadly accept the strategy recommended by the Railways Board. This will mean substantially higher investment in four key areas.

"Fast Inter-City services will be improved, beginning with the introduction of the high speed diesel train on the London/Bristol-South Wales route. The Board will also press on with the development of the advanced passenger train, which is ahead of comparable systems elsewhere.

"Secondly, conditions will be made more tolerable for the long-suffering commuter. Improvements will include electrification of some suburban services, and there will be new rolling stock, better interchanges and modernised passenger terminals.

"Thirdly, rail freight and parcels services will be rationalised and made more efficient; with computer-controlled wagon movement and high capacity wagons to give faster turn-round times and greater reliability. The Government and the Board are seeking to identify suitable freight traffics which could be attracted from road to rail. I am accordingly approaching 100 of the largest firms, in consultation with the Freight Transport Association.

"Fourthly, increased investment in track and signalling on the key parts of the system will provide even higher standards of safety and efficiency, at the same time reducing operating costs.

"I therefore propose a switch of resources within the transport sector, mainly from urban road to rail, to provide the necessary investment for the railways. This will increase over the next 5 years from some £140 million in 1973–74 to £225 million in 1977–78, which includes provision for the initial stages of a rail link to the Channel Tunnel. The Government will also continue to provide substantial revenue support to the railways. All this is consistent with the determination of my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to contain the growth of public expenditure, figures for which will be laid before the House next month in the Public Expenditure White Paper.

"The Government's proposals for the railways will mean a continuing programme of work both for the railway workshops and for the manufacturing industry over a period of years. They will enable all concerned with the railways industry to plan ahead more realistically than in the past. The Government believe that the policies they propose are necessary in order to achieve an adequately equipped industry. They will expect all engaged in it to ensure that the opportunities offered by this increased investment and by the high-speed developments in particular are exploited to the full.

"The necessary powers to provide appropriate financial support will be taken in a Bill to be presented to Parliament shortly. This will be supported by a Transport White Paper, which will underline the greater emphasis the Government are giving to railways and other forms of public transport."

3.49 p.m.


My Lords, we thank the noble Lady for repeating this Statement, which in my opinion is a very welcome one, and it would surely be churlish of me, as a railwayman, to look at this gift horse in the mouth. The Government's decision to accept the third option, which the Statement said was to maintain a railway network of roughly the present size and to keep in being unremunerative passenger services, appears to me to be the right one, particularly having regard to the fact that we look like having an energy problem for a long time to come. In this connection, I particularly welcome that part of the Statement that made reference to the further electrification of our railways. The improvement of the Inter-City services is also to be welcomed as it is likely to improve the competitive capacity of the railway system. As to the commuter services, I hope that the improvement will not be at the end of the five-year period. In my opinion, the commuters have suffered more than enough, and the sooner we start on the job of improving these services the better.

There are only one or two questions that I should like to put to the noble Baroness. With regard to the sentence: This will increase over the next 5 years from some £140 million in 1973–74 to £225 million in 1977–78 which includes provision for the initial stages of a rail link to the Channel Tunnel", does that mean that the total of the £120 million projected for the link between the Channel Tunnel portal and London will be deducted from the other projected improvements to the railway system? I should like to hear the answer to that question, and I hope the noble Baroness will be able to give it.

I understand that the Railways Board asked for a nine-year programme. Here there is a five-year programme. My Lords, I would only ask the noble Baroness and the Government: does not experience show that a longer period has distinct advantages when thinking of future planning for the railway system? If the railways have suffered from anything in the past it is from the fact that they have had to live from hand to mouth. The periods of their programmes, and so on, have been much too short. I sincerely hope that, despite the excellence of this Statement—and I greet it with the sort of words I used at the outset—it will be possible for the Government to consider a nine-year programme as against a five-year one. The final question I would put to the noble Baroness is: when can we expect the White Paper, and shall we he able to arrange a debate upon it before we actually get the Bill, so that when the Bill comes the projected programme will be one which will have been subjected to consideration by this House?


My Lords, we on these Benches also warmly welcome the Statement which the noble Baroness has been so kind as to read out to us. I think that one or two of my colleagues would like to have the opportunity to put short supplementary questions on specific points in which they are interested, but I will limit myself to one general enquiry, if I may. It is: would the Government not agree that when the noble Lord, Lord Beeching, was asked a silly question by a Conservative Administration he gave a silly answer to a Labour Administration, an answer which now, after considerable distress occasioned to a large number of users, past and present, of British Railways, is at long last being repudiated and reversed?


My Lords, I should like to thank both the noble Lord, Lord Champion, and the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, for the welcome they have given to this Statement, and to say to the noble Lord, Lord Champion, that, as he rightly surmised, the Statement is made, among other things, against the background of the energy crisis. This is one of the considerations behind the strategy which this Statement represents. The noble Lord asked me three specific questions. On the question of the total investment over five years, I would assure him that the investment in the Channel Tunnel is not expected to start until about 1976–77, and in this period, up until 1977–78, is not expected to be more than £41 million. So the other investment will of course go ahead.

The noble Lord also asked me whether I thought that a five-year programme was sufficiently long, and whether it would not be better to have a nine-year programme, about which I think the British Railways Board talked. My answer is that the Government broadly accept the British Railways Board's longterm general strategy for the various parts of its railway business, and the investment which is being made available for the next five years will enable the Board to plan ahead sensibly in key areas. Naturally I cannot give a categorical assurance about investment levels for the distant future, but we shall continue to roll forward the five-year investment plans in the usual way and to assess the actual projects on their commercial, social and economic merits as they come forward for decision.


My Lords, would not the noble Baroness agree that the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, who, as General Robertson, was chairman of the railways, fought to electrify the whole of the railways and was defeated and lost his job over dieselisation? Do not the Government now recognise that in those years they made a terrible mistake, with the consequence that they are now being blackmailed by the sheikhs and we cannot get oil?


My Lords, so far as the electrification of the railways is concerned—which I think was the centre of the question that the noble Lord, Lord Blyton, asked—this is a matter which is currently under discussion and consultation with the British Railways Board and the users.


My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that this Statement, which is the most progressive Statement made on the railways, irrespective of what Government was in power, for some considerable time and a complete breakaway from the Marples-Beeching regime, is very welcome indeed? The noble Baroness referred to the question of dealing with some hundred firms with a view to transferring their traffic, I presume, from roads to rail. Would that programme include the establishment of branch lines, as it were, or branch sidings, into these firms' premises and the establishment of container depots within the factories themselves, in order that more use could be made of rail as compared with road? So far as electrification is concerned, would the noble Baroness say just how far it is intended that this should go forward? Apart from her reference to the South-West area, is the whole of the programme for electrification of the London area, which has been envisaged by the Railways Board for some considerable time, going ahead, and will it be included in these financial figures?

Lastly, on the question of £140 million and £225 million, does the noble Baroness think that this is sufficient? While we welcome this, is it not rather a miserable amount compared with what is actually necessary to conserve our energy supplies and to transfer much of this long-distance traffic away from road and on to rail?


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Popplewell, for his support of this Statement, and as I think this was also the intention of the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn. I should like to thank him, because I think he, too, welcomes this Statement on railway policy. The noble Lord, Lord Popplewell, asked a question on the extent of transfer of freight from road to rail. I can give him an assurance that the Government are considering the question of support to private sidings as a way of helping this transfer from road to rail. As was said in the original Statement, we are carrying out this joint exercise with the British Railways Board and we have asked a hundred major companies to identify the kind of traffic which could be carried by the railways.

On the question of electrification, I think I cannot add anything to what I said in my previous answer. I consider, my Lords, that this is a very generous amount of money which is being given to British Railways. It is a very substantial increase over the present annual rate, which would total £700 million over five years, and it means that over the course of five years British Railways will have an overall investment of very nearly £900 million.


My Lords, in the course of the Statement, the noble Baroness's right honourable friend said that there was going to be a switch of resources from urban road transport to rail transport. May I take it that the words "urban road transport" in that context do not include urban passenger transport, and that there is no intention to reduce the resources being devoted to the maintenance of our urban passenger transport?


Yes, my Lords, I can give that assurance. The Government believe that the right priorities for urban areas are better public transport, both road and rail, in preference to road building schemes which formerly allowed the interests of the private motorists to override other important aspects of urban life. We think that the local authorities' new comprehensive transport planning powers will enable them to decide the right balance in their own areas between public and private transport, and the White Paper will set out our policy on this. I should have added in my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Champion, that we expect the transport White Paper to be published before Christmas.


My Lords, can the noble Baroness say whether, the emphasis being mainly on urban roads, there will be no reduction in motorway programmes? If that is so, will she ask the Road Research Laboratory, if they have not already done so, to revise their projection of motor vehicle ownership and usage, which goes up to 1980 and on which our road programme is based, in the light of rapidly increasing fuel costs?—up to £1 a gallon according to the forecast of Lord Stokes; and some of us think higher. Since these factors will affect vehicle ownership and usage, will she look at the motorway programme as well to see whether, in addition to the Statement made this afternoon, any diversion of resources from that programme is to be made?


My Lords, I will note what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has said. The Statement this afternoon is concerned with the strategy for rail and the whole comprehensive report on transport policy will be presented in the White Paper. I think that that will be the appropriate moment to consider it.


My Lords, can my noble friend give an assurance about the future of the railway lines to the West of Scotland, to Oban, to Mallaig, and particularly to the Kyle of Lochalsh, if not now as soon as possible?


My Lords, I should like to give an assurance to my noble friend that in fact any lines which have been considered for closure will in the present context be reconsidered.


My Lords, will the noble Baroness say whether or not in regard to the capital programme, in order to preserve a degree of flexibility, the principle of the rolling average capital programme can be preserved and not necessarily cut off at five years in order that there shall be progressive programmes going on beyond the end of five years?


My Lords, the answer to the noble Lord, Lord Pargiter, is the same as that which I gave earlier. We have a five-year rolling programme, but the effect of it is that it rolls on over a sequence of years. In this particular Statement we only look forward to the next five years.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in many cases up and down the country some lines have been kept open by the voluntary effort of many railway enthusiasts? It was suggested in the other place or in The Times a short while ago that all this enthusiasm and voluntary work might be harnessed for the assistance of the railways particularly in regard to keeping open some branch lines. Has any thought been given to that question?


My Lords, I cannot assure my noble friend Lord Grimston that this has been considered, but I will look at it and let him know.


My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that all of us on this side (and I am sure the whole House) will welcome this dramatic Statement and U-turn? Nevertheless, would the noble Baroness be able to assure the House (though ultimately we shall need to have a debate about it) that when economic assessments are being made, the fact that nearly 8,000 people a year are killed and one-third of a million more are injured on the roads will be counted in the economics of going back to the railways; because that social service means that death will be taken off the roads? To follow the question by the noble Lord on this side, will we have co-ordination between road and rail and the Research Laboratory when these urban railways are opened again?


My Lords, when the transport White Paper is published it will cover a comprehensive treatment of the transport problem and it will take into account social and environmental factors.