HL Deb 18 November 1987 vol 490 cc186-8

2.40 p.m.

Lord Stodart of Leaston

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 subsidise the provision by British Rail of night trains carrying sleeping berths.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Lord Brabazon of Tara)

My Lords, sleeper services are provided by BR's InterCity sector which is still grant-aided by the Government. Losses on these services are thus covered by grant. However, it has been the policy of successive governments that inter-urban travel should not be subsidised, and InterCity, and thus sleeper services, will not receive any grant after the end of this financial year.

Lord Stodart of Leaston

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Will he consider bringing to the attention of British Rail the widespread mystification of many people at what they think is their extraordinary financial strategy? Does it make sense to spend a fortune on up-grading the east coast route from Kings Cross to Edinburgh and then permanently to re-route the night sleeper by a longer run from Euston through Carlisle, thus depriving a large area of South-East Scotland and North-East England of the ability to use those services?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, that must be British Rail's decision. They are responsible for the day-to-day operation of the railways. I shall draw my noble friend's remarks to the attention of British Rail; but it would be wrong for Ministers to intervene in such operational matters.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, is the Minister aware that for many years governments of both parties, Members of Parliament, Members of your Lordships' House and many other people, have tried to persuade industry to invest in the North-East of England? This decision by the British Rail Board not to have a sleeper service from London to the North-East of England (Newcastle) is a body blow to all their efforts. Will he try to persuade British Rail to change their minds on this matter? If they are immovable, will the Government use their statutory power to give them a directive to retain that sleeper service?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, British Rail's decision to electrify the east coast main line was, I should have thought, a very satisfactory one for Newcastle. It is a large investment and it is going well. The fact is that nowadays hardly anybody is using these sleeper services. British Rail estimates, according to the figures it has given me, that it loses about £35 a head on the sleeper services to that part of the country. It must be right, especially as the ordinary trains have become faster and there is increasing competition from airlines and coach services, to remove the sleeper services.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, will the noble Lord agree that the transfer of the management of British Rail to this House might not be an unlimited blessing?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, the noble Lord has a great deal of experience with the management of British Rail. However, I have tried to make it clear that Ministers should not become involved in day-to-day operational matters. Otherwise I suspect that no one at all would be prepared to run British Rail.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, while I accept that the sleepers, according to those who use them a great deal, tend to be underused for large parts of the week—although they are very busy at certain times, in particular at weekends—I should like to ask the Minister whether he has any figures to show the intensity of the utilisation of sleepers. Is there any likelihood of his advising British Rail to look at the possibility of repricing and perhaps allowing discount fares, as the airlines do, for the slack periods of the week?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, that is a possibility for British Rail to look into. The sleeper service will continue to Edinburgh, using the west coast route. British Rail believes that it can provide a better service in that way. It is worth pointing out to noble Lords—I do not have a total figure for usage—that, for instance, if one takes a station such as Berwick on the east coast route, less than one person a train uses that station on the sleeper service. It therefore hardly makes sense to keep it going.

Lord Gainford

My Lords, has the Minister experienced sleeper travel recently, in particular with the diminished dimensions of the sleeping berths and the luggage space? The only way of ensuring a comfortable night is to be fortunate enough to have a two-berth second-class sleeper berth and to sleep in the lower berth with one's luggage at the top.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, most recently I travelled on a sleeper to Plymouth. British Rail has said that it will make sleeping compartments more comfortable. As Minister for aviation, I always try to travel by air whenever possible.

Baroness Elliot of Harwood

My Lords, if British Rail wants to continue to make the railways pay it should give attention to those of us who use British Rail every single week. Otherwise, people will turn to the airlines, which in my opinion will become more crowded and less satisfactory. I hope that the Government will press British Rail to continue these services because they are vital to a great many people.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, as I have said, it is a management decision for British Rail. The services to Edinburgh will continue but they will use the different route which British Rail considers will be more satisfactory.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, will the noble Lord pay greater heed to the plea made by my noble friend Lord Glenamara, taking account of the serious unemployment situation in the North-East and the importance of a proper sleeping berth service to that area? Will he at least say that he will convey this plea to the chairman of British Rail, in spite of what the noble Lord who is a former chairman of British Rail has just said? It is interesting that the use of the North-East route is minimal.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, as I said earlier, I shall certainly draw the remarks that all noble Lords have made this afternoon to the attention of British Rail. However, I tried to explain to the noble Lord, Lord Glenamara, that British Rail is investing a good deal of money in the east coast services. The fact that there will no longer be sleeper services on that line should not make that much difference. The route has become much faster over the past few years and fewer people appear to want to use sleeper car services.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, on behalf of those who are frail and elderly, I should like to ask the Minister whether some porters can be supplied for those of us who find luggage heavy to carry.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I think that strays a little away from the Question that I am trying to answer today. It will be included in British Rail's reading of Hansard.