HL Deb 28 February 1995 vol 561 cc1402-4

2.50 p.m.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so I should declare an interest in that my home is near a station on the West Highland line. I should also apologise to your Lordships for a mistake in the drafting of the Question as it appears on the Order Paper. It appears that the West Highland sleeper service is to be withdrawn from 28th April and not from 28th May.

The Question was as follows:

Whether, as suggested by the rail franchising director, the West Highland sleeper service requires an annual subsidy of £3 million, and if so whether the social and economic consequences of his decision to close this service from 28th April 1995 have been considered.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen)

My Lords, the annual subsidy for the West Highland sleeper service is £6.6 million including infrastructure costs using a 1994–95 price base. Any decision concerning the service prior to franchising would be a commercial matter for BR. In determining the passenger service requirement for the ScotRail franchise, the franchising director will be consulting the Scottish regional councils and the Rail Users' Consultative Committee for Scotland. He will take into account all relevant representations about the consequences of the withdrawal of the service.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply which I fear may be regarded as coming more from the pages of Alice in Wonderland than any brief which should have been put in front of him. Unless full and formal consultation about the future of this service takes place, as promised by my honourable friend Sir Hector Monro in the Scottish Grand Committee on 8th February, and until the railway establishment can be forced to reveal the occupancy figures for each month of the year, I am afraid that my stricture to my noble friend must stand. Can he say whether the Government's pledge is to be fulfilled and can he now confirm that the annual loading figure is at least 16,000 passengers? If so, does he agree with the Written Answer in another place of 20th February indicating annual costs of between £2.9 million and £8.7 million depending on whether infrastructure costs are included? Finally, does he agree that as the trains which take the sleepers will be going anyway, a full marginal costing of the service is required, and without that no savings at all are to be caused?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I do not agree with much of what my noble friend says. He asks about occupancy figures. The average occupancy figure for the Fort William sleeper is some 60 per cent. in summer—that is, about 36 people—and about 50 per cent. in the winter, which is only about some 18 people per train. The Government have committed themselves to consultation and the franchising director will consult with the bodies I mentioned. There is absolutely no doubt that that will go ahead.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I wish to ask the Minister more about the process of consultation. Is it not a fact that the franchising director had already committed himself in a press release before Christmas to the withdrawal of the services by simply withdrawing subsidy? He has stated subsequently that he will consult on a timetable which no longer includes the services because they have been withdrawn in advance. What is the value of consultation under those circumstances?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the noble Lord is not correct. The franchising director has made a preliminary announcement. No final decision has been made; none will be made until after the consultation has been completed.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, why does the franchising director make a preliminary decision when he has to base his views on consultation? Would it not be better to listen to the views of the tourist authorities and other relevant bodies before making this prima facie declaration?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the objective behind the early statement of the franchising director was to end the great amount of speculation that has surrounded other sleeper services which the franchising director has indicated he is minded to safeguard.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, will the Government, while this consultation takes place, bear in mind that the area served by the West Highland sleeper is nowhere near an airport and that busy people, with a day's work to do following a journey, need a night's sleep? Is the Minister aware that busy people live in that part of the world and that they are not all tourists?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, there may be a number of busy people but few of them use the sleeper service. The numbers are extremely small. They are down, as I said, to around an average of 18 per train in the winter. However, I can assure the noble Lady that those types of concerns will no doubt be made in the representations to the franchising director.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the services would be better used if they were better advertised and that often too many sleeper coaches are put on to a train when one or two would be enough? Will he also bear in mind that the regulator has a duty to watch consumer interests? What is to happen when there is a conflict of his opinion with that of the other person?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I think the franchising director is the name my noble friend is searching for. The point is that the levels of occupancy of these services are extremely low. It is easy to see from the figures that the subsidy required—a total figure of some £450 per passenger per journey—is enormous. The numbers of people who use the services is tiny and the money involved could well be used on more socially necessary services.

Noble Lords

Next question!

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I regret to say that the House has been the victim of my long-windedness for which I apologise. We have two more Questions. The House may wish to continue with this one but I suggest that perhaps we should give others a chance.