HL Deb 19 March 1975 vol 358 cc737-41

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in the name of my noble friend Lord Ferrier on the Order Paper. My noble friend is indisposed, and apologises for not being present.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps are being taken by British Rail to replace the out-of-date rolling stock on all Scottish Highland lines, and re-introduce observation cars during the now extending tourist season.


My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, is in-disposed I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Balerno, will pass my wishes for a speedy recovery to the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier.

My Lords, I understand from the Rail-ways Board that the quality of the stock on Highland lines will progressively improve as older coaches are withdrawn from service, and newer ones are allocated. The Board consider that the provision of special observation cars is not a commercially justifiable proposition.


My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, for that Answer. I regret very much the inability of British Rail to provide observation cars. Do the Government realise the great tourist attraction of the trains on the Highland lines, more particularly on the line to the Kyle of Lochalsh?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, while agreeing with the sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Balerno, it might be of benefit to the House if I point out that I understand from the Railways Board that special observation cars would cost at least £ 50,000 each ; and to convert an existing coach to give it an observation end and refreshment facilities would cost £25,000. Even to convert an existing coach to give it bigger side windows would cost up to £ 15,000. The commercial judgment of the Railways Board is that even with the five-month tourist season, they could not recover their costs through increased traffic at fares that people would be pre-pared to pay.

On the last point of the noble Lord's supplementary, it is open to the High-lands and Islands Development Board, which has responsibility for tourism in the Highlands, to contract with British Rail for the special services they want for local reasons, in order to promote tourism.


My Lords, are the Government aware that the proper place for the diesel engines running on the Inverness line is the scrap heap? That is not my own opinion, but that of a very experienced engine driver who drives these trains. I travel a lot on this line. Are the Government aware that one practically never travels on that line without a breakdown occurring some-where? A short time ago there was a breakdown, and before one working diesel engine could be found from Carlisle, four other engines had to be examined.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Cromartie, has my sympathy, but, as I am sure he is aware, so far as British Rail are concerned I act as a form of pigeon post. I will fly off and make sure they get the message, but I cannot give the noble Earl an answer now.


My Lords, if it is not possible to do this immediately, can the Minister say whether, in view of the wonderful scenery in the Highlands—the mountains and the lakes—the Government could keep this in mind as a long-term desirability?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I think 1 can safely say it is a long-term desirability. However, I felt it only fair to answer the Question in terms of what is viable at the present time.


My Lords, would the noble Baroness add another message to her pigeon? Is she aware that any breakdown on the main line North to Inverness usually has the effect of delaying several trains, because singling of the line— carried out in the late 1960s— has left few passing places? Is she further aware that the Beeching Report had nothing to do with this? On the contrary, that Report recommended improving the services and the speeding up of traffic on such main lines.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I am quite aware of this. We are aware of the need for improvements to assist development in North-East Scotland, which is increasing tremendously due to oil. The Rail-ways Board are actively considering the case for investment. The Government will give sympathetic consideration to any proposals that the Board may make.


My Lords, referring to the previous answer of the noble Baroness with reference to the viability of the railways, may I ask whether the Government will have another look at the situation with a view to encouraging the Railways Board to become more viable? Reference has been made to the breakdown of diesels. We know that the life of the diesel engine is comparatively short compared with that of an electric locomotive. We know that the cost of a diesel locomotive is infinitely greater than that of an electric locomotive. In view of the statement of the Government that they will not encourage the development of the Channel Tunnel on account of railway costs, is it not time the Government had another look at the whole transport situation with a view to ensuring that the railways become more viable? There are many beauty spots in our country, such as the Highlands, North Yorkshire and elsewhere. People should be able to go to these wonderful places and enjoy them, as they used to do before the Beeching/ Marples era.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Minister for Transport is looking at transport as a whole, including the railways. I would point out to my noble friend Lord Popplewell that, when we are talking about provid-ing facilities at beauty spots and at the same time making the railways com-mercially viable, one of the troubles is that the two things are often contra-dictory. This is really the big problem. But I will make sure that what my noble friend has said is passed on to the right quarters.


My Lords, does the noble Baroness recognise that the Inverness/Kyle of Lochalsh line is not simply a beauty spot, but is often the sole means of communication across that part of Scotland? Bearing in mind that there are no refreshment facilities there at the present time, there has been a Report by the Ross County Council— which I am sure the noble Baroness has seen, and which British Rail must have seen—urging the replacement of the present rolling stock, which will take itself out of circulation if British Rail do not do so soon. Also, there is the question of the improvement of the amenities in the service.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I think I have already answered the first point. I appreciate that the Kyle of Lochalsh is not only a beauty spot. I have already pointed out that the Government recognise the need for investment here. How-ever, I must come back to my point that I cannot reply on behalf of British Rail so far as day-to-day matters are concerned. But I am quite certain that, in the right quarters, note will have been taken of what has been said by various noble Lords here today. So far as the specific question of refreshment cars is concerned, as the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, spoke up loud and clear I am certain, too, that what he said will have been noted, and I hope something will result from it.


My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell us—I quite understand if she cannot—what has happened to the obervation cars we used to have in the Highlands not so very long ago? I can remember going from Oban to Glasgow in a train that had an observation car; speaking from memory, I do not think it could have been longer than two or three years ago.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, there were four observation cars, which were withdrawn in 1967. They have now been bought up privately and are used for private enterprise. There are higher charges for them; they are run on partly voluntary labour, and one really cannot make a comparison between that and what could be undertaken by the Railways Board.

Viscount ST. DAVIDS

My Lords, if private enterprise can make money on them, why cannot the Railways Board?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, private enterprise is charging very much higher fares than the Railways Board would or could charge. If the Railways Board did that, we should immediately have a series of Questions asking about fares.

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