HL Deb 21 June 1979 vol 400 cc1107-10

3.10 p.m.


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 are satisfied with British Railways' reported decision to curtail diesel services in rural areas, owing to shortage of fuel.


My Lords, it is for the British Railways Board to decide what changes in rail services are needed in order to save fuel.


My Lords, while thanking the Minister for that reply, may I ask him whether he is aware that British Rail already seem to be in some trouble about replacing their diesel stock, specifically the multiple units which run some of the commuter services? There is a danger, therefore, that the fuel shortage might be used as an excuse for cutting down or, indeed, cutting out some of these services, thereby increasing the use of petrol.


My Lords, our understanding is that the British Railways Board intend to maintain freight services—for example, coal to power stations and services for work and business travel. The cuts are concentrated on off-peak local passenger services and are effected by reducing the number of trains and shortening them. Also, good housekeeping methods, such as not keeping engines running, are being implemented. I apologise for my laryngitis, which makes it hard for your Lordships to hear me.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, is the noble Lord able to give an assurance to the House that while we expect British Rail and the National Bus Corporation to play their part in saving fuel in so far as they can, it is essential that our rural services should be kept going and that areas of the country should not be deprived of all kinds of transport? Is he prepared to give an assurance to the House that if the situation becomes worse he will see what he can do and what efforts he can make to ensure if necessary, that extra fuel is made available to British Rail and to the National Bus Corporation in order to maintain services in rural areas?


My Lords, I appreciate totally what the noble Baroness is saying. The British Railways Board have every intention of keeping all the services possible going. If the situation were to worsen, they would certainly have consultations with my right honourable friend. At the moment, the amount of fuel coming into this country is the same as last year. It is merely that the fuel demand in this country has increased.


My Lords, is it necessary altogether to suspend railway traffic in rural areas simply because there is a fuel shortage? Is there not another form of fuel? I am no expert on this subject, but perhaps the noble Lord can inform me whether or not it would be possible to utilise some of the steam engines, using coal as fuel, as a temporary measure until the oil fuel shortage is overcome?


My Lords, the versatility of the mind of the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, is such as to command admiration from all quarters. I am sure that the British Railways Board, if the need were to arise, would consider such a measure, but at the moment it is not necessary. Services in rural areas are not being severely cut. The British Railways Board have every intention of keeping going as good a service as is possible. As I have already said, the cuts at the moment are minimal.


My Lords, is it not the case that we, the British, have agreed with our partners in the European Economic Community to cut by 5 per cent. this year our consumption of imported fuels? Is it not therefore inevitable that marginal services, like those in rural areas, will suffer unless a careful eye is kept on them? Can the Minister not respond to the question which was put by my noble friend on the Front Bench and say that, in the event of any danger of that kind, he will do his best to make sure that at least these services are kept going?


My Lords, this is a matter for future policy. The necessity does not arise in the present situation. British Rail are hoping to cut their use of diesel fuel by some 4½ per cent., by cutting down on a few off-peak period trains and by better housekeeping. If the situation were to worsen, my right honourable friend would no doubt have consultations with the British Railways Board.


My Lords, is not this the opportunity for the Government to assist British Rail in every way they can to bring people back to the railways and to take some of the traffic off the roads?


My Lords, if that were to happen, the British Railways Board would be very pleased.


My Lords, while I do not wish to exacerbate the noble Lord's laryngitis, may I ask him whether British Rail have considered an electro-chemical solution to their problem? —namely, the introduction of battery operated trains which 60 years ago in Ireland were run with great success. Battery operated trains are particularly suitable for running short distances and for this type of service. Would the noble Lord suggest to British Rail that the introduction of battery operated trains, which would not involve the use of diesel or, indeed, any hydro-carbon fuel, might be the ideal solution to this problem?


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, has given me much food for thought, none of which I knew about, and my brief does not inform me! However, I can tell the House that a joint review of main line electrification is in progress in the Department of Transport, and my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport expects to receive an interim report this summer. He will, of course, take into account any energy implications contained in this report.