HL Deb 18 June 1981 vol 421 cc806-13

6.29 p.m.

Lord Mowbray and Stourton

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This is a small and simple Bill and I do not propose to make a heavy meal of it, especially at this time in your Lordships' House. This Bill was very ably introduced in another place by my honourable friend Mr. Speller, the Member for Devon North. It is simply to give British Rail the power to open, or reopen, lines at present closed to passenger traffic without the risk of the experiment, if the experiment is not viable, of the present lengthy and expensive processes of closing them again.

There are some lines now open for freight which British Rail might decide could usefully handle passengers as well. Since 1970, when I first began to answer for the Department of Transport in this House, I have noticed that although we have all paid lip service to the British Railway Board being commercially enterprising and flexible, in many ways their hands have always been tied by legal restrictions. In this time of recession, it is of vital importance that the framework for future advance and progress should be as good as can be. Here, in a small way, which will chiefly affect rural communities, we have the opportunity to give British Rail, working with local councils, whose funding help will of course be necessary, a chance to do something about this.

Public passenger transport shows an everlasting pattern of change. The motor-car has certainly largely taken over in my lifetime. But for many groups of people or areas of country there is still a great deal of hardship for many, and any links which may help to make our lives easier in moving about are to be encouraged. Rail, bus, air and car—all are on that chess board. It is for us to enable the pieces to move in the way most suitable for our needs. This very small Bill will help the British Railway Board to experiment more where they think fit on those few closed passenger lines, and I therefore beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill now be read 2a".—(Lord Mowbray and Stourton.)

6.32 p.m.

Lord Mountevans

My Lords, it is almost a year to the day since I took my seat in your Lordships' House and since that day I have been ever aware, and increasingly conscious as I have listened to debates, of the awe which your Lordships' House inspires in its new Members. One cannot but notice the courtesy and forbearing with which it conducts its business, and as I rise for the first time tonight to speak, it is to that forbearance that I appeal.

I support the Bill strongy as I believe that by removing a statutory restraint on the possible re-opening of railways on an experimental basis, or of railway stations from which services have been withdrawn, it will open up a number of opportunities in both rural and metropolitan Britain, opportunities which may be of benefit to those travelling to and from work, to those travelling on duty or to study, for health reasons or for any number of reasons arising out of our increasingly urbanised society.

The restraint, as so simply and well-explained by the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, is that of the statutory procedures for subsequently withdrawing an experimental service. I feel that one should consider the effects of the statutory procedures a little further. Only some 10 miles from here, British Rail is seeking to withdraw completely services over the four-mile section of line between Elmers End and Sanderstead, a modest route with only three intermediate stations where services in March this year boarded on average each day some 220 passengers, with one station generating only 16 passengers on average per day, perhaps reflecting the fact that within the area served by the local district council concerned, there are no less than 24 British Rail stations, so the passenger has a wide choice.

British Rail published notice of its intention to close the route earlier this year, having failed to obtain consent to close it in the Beeching era. The consultative committee has held its inquiries and I understand has made its recommendations which are now in the hands of the Minister. He will eventually grant or withhold the consent for which British Rail has asked. As one does not know when that will be, one cannot work out how long the procedure has taken, but there is evidence that each month it takes before the consent is granted, as hopefully it will be, it costs British Rail over £5,000 simply to operate a very limited train service.

That may not be an enormous sum in the context of British Rail, or even one that would be saved by the enactment of the Bill we are discussing tonight—I fully appreciate that the Bill is not applicable in this context—but this sum (and there are other sums in other instances; in Scotland there is a line where, again, consent has been sought which I believe is costing British Rail some £750,000 per annum to keep open) has got to be found out of fare revenue or from other Government or local government sources. It is also a sum which, grossed up, is one which I think could prove fatal to a proposal to re-open a rural railway elsewhere on an experimental basis, and its existence, or sums like it, constitute a good reason for supporting the Bill.

As a loyal supporter of railways, and even a very occasional writer on them, I feel that British Rail and the British public are well served by the policy of the PSO grant. I note from British Rail's last annual report that central Government support in this form increased by 19 per cent. in 1980. I also note from the same source that support by passenger transport executives amounted to almost £58 million, an increase of 24 per cent. This is a sound example of central and local government working together and being involved in the creation of a situation which enables passenger transport executives, such as the West Yorkshire one, to have examined 36 locations or sites either for new stations or for re-opened ones on existing routes. Of those sites, I believe that 17 have been shortlisted for further study and that the executive hopes that three will have actually been re-opened as stations in 1982, with perhaps nine being constructed and re-opened by 1984. It is estimated that if the programme is completed, British Rail will gain about £91,000 of new fare revenue by 1982–83, rising to £567,000 by 1985–86. If some of the sites I mentioned are only marginal, I would hope that the case for them, in instances of re-opening, perhaps even only experimentally, will be strengthened by the Bill.

This is a sound Bill. I believe that, if enacted, it will provide both British Rail and local authorities with an important and interesting opportunity. If we give the Bill a green light tonight, I shall follow with interest the use made of that opportunity.

6.38 p.m.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow a maiden speaker because it gives one the opportunity of expressing the gratitude of the House to him, and I do that in no small measure tonight. It is perhaps even more welcome for me to hear somebody speaking on transport matters; I sometimes think we are rather lean in this House on transport matters, and the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, has shown us that he has a keen grasp of the subject. Indeed, his quickness with figures was perhaps a little unnerving for me. No doubt his past in promotions management at the British Tourist Authority has provided him with that background; if he went to British Rail he might enhance their reputation as well. He reminded us that he has been with us for only a year, but now he has made his maiden speech I hope we shall have the opportunity of hearing him again.

The noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, really dealt with virtually everything I wanted to say. As he said, this small measure will make some contribution to British Rail's trading effort. If your Lordships accept the Bill, British Rail will be able to play a further part in the Government's general plan to make available more free choice to passengers in various parts of the country.

As restrictions on the use of energy, involving perhaps motor-cars, and other restrictions affecting the rural areas force people to look at alternative methods of transport, British Rail might be able to capture part of the market; I hope that it does. Such a situation would give it an opportunity to demonstrate some of its expertise, and we should look forward to that. I cannot think that any part of this measure, so briefly but so ably described to us by my noble friend Lord Mowbray and Stourton, will attract objection from any part of the House, and so I support the Second Reading.

6.41 p.m.

Lord de Clifford

My Lords, I apologise for intervening in the debate without having put my name on the list of speakers. I wish to join my noble friend in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, on what I thought was an admirable maiden speech, and I look forward to hearing what he has to say on transport matters in the future. I, too, should like to welcome the Bill. I believe that through district councils the Bill could lead to much closer public involvement in the running of the railways. That would be particularly valuable in rural areas. The links which used to exist between the population and the railways appear to have vanished completely, and any measure that will bring closer public involvement in the running of railways would be a very good thing. I trust that your Lordships will give the Bill fair weather.

6.42 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I should like to join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, on his maiden speech, which showed that he is well informed on transport matters. I am sure that he is well informed on other subjects, too, and I look forward to hearing him speak in future debates on transport and other matters. I also wish to congratulate both the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, who has brought forward the Bill in your Lordships' House, and the honourable Member for Devon, North, who introduced it in the other place. The Bill gives an opportunity for an intelligent, worthwhile, flexible, approach to railway lines or stations that are closed. I was pleased to note in the other place the Government amendment providing for the opening of stations which are closed on lines that are still in service. It is clear that without this small Bill British Rail would be very seriously inhibited in conducting experiments.

However, I must make it prefectly clear that though we support the Bill, in no way shall we be prepared to forgo those provisions of the 1962 Act which have to be followed regarding the closure of services other than those that are to be experimented with. We regard the consultative procedures as being of the utmost importance. We had an excellent debate on transport policy in your Lordships' House on 12th January. I then asked for experiments in public transport, and I instanced in particular post bus services and the possible development of the rail bus, on which experiments were being conducted. Things seem to have moved very fast since then. This month's Rail News carries a very informative article on what is described as a great British achievement. The article states: Put a Leyland bus and BR know-how together, and what do you get? The answer is a rail bus". This Bill, together with the development of the rail bus, give opportunities for a flexible approach to rural transport.

Obviously the Bill can affect some urban areas as well, but in particular it gives opportunity for experimentation in the rural areas. The Bill (if passed by your Lordships) and the development of the rail bus could together considerably aid experimentation with and development of services in the rural areas. I understand that the cost per vehicle of the rail bus will be about £140,000, compared with about £400,000 for a new type diesel two-coach unit, which British Rail propose to introduce elsewhere. The vehicle would carry 100 passengers, 64 of them seated. It would have a maximum speed of 74 miles per hour, and would do 10 miles to the gallon on diesel fuel, compared with three miles to the gallon for the conventional diesel motor unit. Obviously there is opportunity for the Bill to bring about experimentation and to deal with the development of the rail bus, which could also be an export winner, if British Rail is able to experiment with it on a considerable scale. Other noble Lords have stressed how useful could be such an opportunity in terms of alleviating traffic on the roads.

The report of the National Bus Company for 1980 indicates that, due to the recession, bus services suffered a 10 per cent. drop in passengers during the year, and 2,000 fewer vehicles were operated. The chairman of the bus company has stated that in 1981 one mile in nine on offer to the public in 1980 will no longer be provided. If people change their arrangements for travelling to work, and some services are taken off, that affects passengers who want to travel other than to work. The Bill gives an opportunity possibly to assist in covering some of the services that the bus companies may have to drop. As we have already pointed out, there is every possibility of unremunerative services being deleted from the bus networks in times of recession or where competition arises on the profitable routes. Car sharing will not be the answer, and I hope at the appropriate time—not in this debate—to pass a few comments on the letter of the Under-Secretary of State in today's Times. If British Rail can experiment with opening rural lines in particular, possibly using the rail-bus, it could be a great boon.

I believe we are all concerned that British Rail has not been able to spend £50 million of its investment programme because it has had to keep within its cash limits. We all know the problems facing British Rail, with track at risk, signalling to be modernised, and rolling stock to be replaced before it is completely worn out. I am pleased to note that the Secretary of State has said so determinedly that talk of closing 40 rail services is rejected by the Government. I was also pleased to learn that the Minister had refused to agree to the closure of the Epping-Ongar line (near to where I live) which is an extension of the Central Line of the Underground.

But, someone has to meet the cost, and I notice that the Under-Secretary of State, speaking in another place on this Bill, said on 15th May, as reported at col. 1063 of the Official Report: Local authorities that wish to fund experimental rail services will have to be prepared to find the necessary funding from within realistic sources—that means the resources that they are prepared to find from the ratepayers, supplemented by the reasonable level of grant that they can expect to receive within the grant-giving procedures that we have set down". That means in effect that the county councils, which receive the transport supplementary grant, will be expected to meet from it the cost of any experiments that British Rail might wish to undertake. But with the recession there will also be a wish to keep the transport supplementary grant for the bus services.

I have been looking at figures given in Written Answers in the other place on 5th June, and reported at cols. 448 and 450 of the Official Report. I see that in Wales, based on 1979 figures, between 1979–80 and the current year, 1981–82, there has been a drop of 20 per cent. in the transport supplementary grant. In the whole of England there was a drop of 7 per cent. and, taking the English shire counties alone, which are the ones which are going to be affected greatly by experimentation, I hope, in British Rail services, there was a 16 per cent. drop in real terms in the transport supplementary grant.

Therefore, while we welcome the Bill it must be paid for, and the Government may have to take a careful look at the transport supplementary grant if British Rail need to be financed to carry out some of these experimentations. As the Ministers concerned, those for Transport and the Environment, are in the same building, I hope they talk to each other, and that it may be possible for them to realise that something may have to be done for the transport supplementary grant if we really want to carry into effect the opportunities that this important little Bill presents.

6.51 p.m.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, the Government welcome this Bill, which my honourable friend the Member for North Devon, Mr. Tony Speller, introduced in the other place as a Private Member's Bill; and I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Mowbray and Stourton for introducing it so clearly and concisely this evening. I should also like to join in the congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, on his maiden speech, which I found both detailed and well-reasoned. I hope we may hear more from him, perhaps in a better attended House, on the next occasion.

The provisions in the Transport Act 1962 governing proposals to close rail passenger services were designed to safeguard the interests of users. The purpose of the present Bill is to ensure that these entirely necessary safeguards for the users of existing rail passenger services do not act as an inadvertent obstacle to the introduction of worthwhile new services on a trial basis. This Bill would enable the Railways Board to test the market for new services in the knowledge that, if there was insufficient demand for the service, then it could be withdrawn at relatively short notice without them having to bear the expense of that service while the often lengthy statutory closure procedures were gone through. I am pleased to be able to tell noble Lords that the Railways Board have welcomed this Bill as a useful contribution to their operating flexibility.

This Bill is in harmony with Government policy towards local rail services. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport has made it clear on many occasions that the Government are not prepared to see substantial cuts in the rail passenger network; and my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport repeated this assurance when moving Government amendments to this Bill in the other place. I am pleased to repeat this assurance to noble Lords: this Government are not planning another round of Beeching cuts. Obviously, I cannot say there will never be another closure; the provision of public transport must change over time to meet changing patterns of demand. But we are not prepared to see any wholesale closure of local railway services. The House will recall that, where there are objections to a closure proposal, the statutory procedures give the final decision to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport. I hope that these remarks will reassure the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, as regards some of his observations.

On the basis of this firm assurance, we are looking to the Railways Board to take positive steps further to safeguard the future of local services by reducing operating costs. I have in mind the introduction of radio-signalling to replace outmoded mechanical signalling; automatic level crossings to replace expensive manned crossings, and lightweight "railbus"-type rolling stock to replace the ageing diesel multiple units that now operate these services. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, touched on this point, and I appreciate his enthusiastic remarks; also, his warnings about future bus travel. But I do not think they really have very much to fear from this measure, certainly in the immediate future. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport is encouraging the Railways Board to implement their proposal for a demonstration project for these low-cost operating techniques on a rural line. I believe that the introduction of these techniques can only improve the prospects for introducing experimental services.

The decision whether to introduce an experimental service must be a matter for the Railways Board. But they are unlikely to be prepared to do so unless a service is capable of generating sufficient earnings to meet its allocated costs, or unless central or local government, or any other body, were prepared to subsidise any gap between earnings and costs. Here I particularly appreciated the remarks of my noble friend Lord de Clifford. The Government pay the public service obligation grant to the Railways Board in order to compensate them for having to provide passenger services generally comparable with those that they operated at the end of 1974. At present, this grant amounts to some £2 million a day; but like other public expenditure, it is subject to cash ceilings, and the Government would not be prepared to increase this ceiling in order to allow the board to run a new passenger service where the revenue from that service would fall short of the allocated costs.

We must, therefore, look primarily to local authorities to make use of their powers to make grants to British Rail to finance these services. It would be for these parties to agree on suitable terms, but the knowledge that an unsuccessful service could be withdrawn quickly should make it easier to reach agreement. In conclusion, may I say that the Government welcome this Bill, and I hope that noble Lords on all sides of the House will support it as a useful contribution towards the flexible operation of the railways and as a means of meeting the changing transport needs of rural areas in particular.

6.56 p.m.

Lord Mowbray and Stourton

My Lords, it only remains for me to add my thanks to all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, and for their general consensus of good will towards this Bill. In particular, of course, I should like to pay my respects and offer my humble congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, upon his most able speech. To my rather sparse skeleton he added welcome flesh and blood, if I may say so, which was greatly to the advantage of your Lordships' House.

My noble friend Lord de Clifford spoke of the climate being fair weather for this Bill. We had the doyen of transport speakers in this House, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, helping us in our decision; and my noble friend Lord Avon has given us the Government's blessing. I hope we shall not need to commit this Bill, and, that being the case, I hope we shall shortly be able to see it on the statute book. I thank your Lordships for your help and for having spoken.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.