HL Deb 17 June 1986 vol 476 cc721-3
Lord Beloff

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have any plans for changing the status of British Rail.

Viscount Davidson

No, my Lords.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for that extraordinarily informative reply, may I ask him whether he is aware of the steady deterioration of services on Southern Region? Perhaps I may give him the example that a journey from Oxford to Brighton, which used to be by through-train taking two hours 20 minutes, now involves two changes of train and is timed to take four hours? May I further ask the noble Viscount whether he is aware of a continuous and expensive publicity campaign by British Rail to dress up deteriorating services as though they were improved services? Finally, does the noble Viscount agree with me that to call Southern Region Network South East only makes sense on the assumption that a net is something in which you catch helpless commuters?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I am sure that those concerned in British Rail read Hansard and they will take note of everything that my noble friend has said. I do not think I can comment further than that.

Lord Jacques

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that I use the southern network daily and I can say that the services, particularly between my station, Westminster and London, have improved immensely and are not likely to be further improved by any idea of privatisation?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I am not aware of the actual line on which the noble Lord travels; but I am delighted to hear that he thinks that services have improved. I should like to say that the Government are extremely keen on privatising certain areas of British Rail, particularly in the catering field. Since May, train catering has come under Inter-City management, and British Rail are spending £12 million in switching to high quality at-seat catering with food services supplied by the private sector. I think that noble Lords who use British Rail will agree with the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, that catering services have improved dramatically since they have been tendered out to the private sector.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Beloff referred to a journey between Oxford and Brighton. I do not expect my noble friend on the Front Bench to have statistics with him, but could the answer perhaps be that nowadays there are fewer demands by dons and others for journeys to Brighton than there were in the past?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I think that my noble friend is probably quite right.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, may I ask the noble Viscount whether the privatisation of catering services that he mentioned has extended to the buffets? As a practically permanent traveller on British Rail I have not noticed the slightest difference in the food at the buffets. They have the same sandwiches.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I do not know where the noble Baroness finds the old British Rail sandwich, but I am told that it is fast disappearing and is being replaced by a very modern and very tasty one.

Lord Broxbourne

My Lords, whatever may be the view of my noble friend about the status of British Rail, will he use his formidable and not necessarily monosyllabic eloquence to persuade them to take a more positive view about improving the performance of their railway lines and consequently their image? Can he get them to realise that their present, somewhat narcissistic practice of congratulatory self-contemplation is not enough? Will he urge them to substitute action by way of improving the position for the travelling public, in particular at stations, by improving the cleanliness and conditions, by the use of an increased supply of porters and luggage trolleys, and even perhaps by having a few seats for the accommodation of patient and weary travellers to save them from despondency and despair?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, to answer my noble friend's polysyllabic question, I take note of what he says.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, is it not the case that there is always room for improvement and are not British Rail one of the least publicly supported railway networks in Western Europe, particularly in contrast to those of Germany and France? If the purpose behind the question of the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, is privatisation, is it not also the case that the only undertakings that the Government dispose of are those which are a success, usually as a result of the work put in by public ownership?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, noble Lords will remember that British Rail has already privatised Sealink Ferries, 29 hotels, the hovercraft business and over £400 million of surplus property. British Rail attracts a grant of £800 million a year and is doing its very best to attract more and more customers by using private methods and private contracts.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the deterioration in the service of British Rail may be due to the old rolling stock that exists? Is it consistent with maintaining an efficient railway system when substantial redundancies are declared in the railway maintenance workshops?

Viscount Davidson

I seem to remember, my Lords, that when I last answered a Question on the subject I was able to tell your Lordships that British Rail was introducing a whole range of new railway stock over the next few years.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, may I hasten to assure the Minister and ask him whether he is aware that I certainly had no idea of privatisation in mind when I asked my original Question? I was cured of any interest in privatisation by his noble friend's defence of British Telecom. I should like to ask the Minister whether he will suggest to his right honourable friend that, as part of the Channel tunnel deal, the French railways which run very well take over the whole of Southern Region.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I shall tell my right honourable friend of my noble friend's suggestion.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, is it not true that the French railways run very well because they are subsidised by their government?

Viscount Davidson

I think, my Lords, that that is a matter of opinion.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, in relation to the noble Lord's first supplementary question, who wants to go to Oxford anyway?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord and I both had the good fortune to go to another place, and so I would agree with him.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, does the Minister know that I wish to go to Oxford? I live there.

Viscount Davidson

Maybe, my Lords, but my noble friend does not want to go from Brighton.

Lord Somers

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that the Swiss railways, which are perhaps the most efficient in the world, run perfectly happily with a partly private but chiefly nationalised system?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord.

Back to