HL Deb 27 March 1995 vol 562 cc1471-94

7.19 p.m.

Lord Gray rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will advise the Director of Rail Franchising to maintain the West Highland Sleeper and Motorail Service and to instruct British Rail to retain that service at least until the consultation process is completed.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, had the Fort William sleeper not run last night I would not have been here to ask this Question. However, it is not self-interest that leads me to do so, rather it is the potentially serious consequences for the social and economic welfare of the West Highlands that the possible withdrawal of the services threatens.

Ironically, 100 years ago there was an almighty political wrangle over whether the Mallaig line should be built because of the need for a subsidy, which the Tories favoured. The economy of the West Highlands is subsidised. It has to be, and considerable sums are involved. I dislike Euro-jargon, but it is an "objective one" area. A comprehensive transport infrastructure is essential. The railway is a key component, and the sleeper/motorail service is a key element.

This is not a privatisation debate, but the proposed axing of the services has aroused passions and the public debate thus far has at times engendered more heat than light. I hope that this evening we shall turn down the heat and turn up the light and will be able to persuade the Government to look afresh at the problem.

Not only is withdrawal of the sleeper and motorail service threatened, but ScotRail has announced that additional seasonal trains will not run on either the Oban or Fort William lines this summer—all this at the beginning of the tourist season upon which Lochaber, Argyll and the islands rely so heavily. It is also relevant that there is a proposal to de-trunk the A.828, which we had hoped to see improved.

Furthermore, all these cutback proposals coincide with the announcement that 19 oil companies want to go ahead now with developments off the west coast. Service cuts now do not auger well for Oban, Mallaig or the islands benefiting from any oil-related boost. Lost business is often nigh impossible to recover and opportunities missed seldom return. Surely it is time for investment, not cutbacks.

An aspect which unites those campaigning for the retention of these services is a disbelief in a variety of official statements, particularly on the cost of services and the level of subsidy. They are frustrated at BR's refusal to give details. In the face of that coyness the only way I can challenge those figures is to advance rival ones.

Individuals and campaigning groups have painstakingly researched detailed costings. I am indebted to three sources for the calculations which I am confident are realistic: London Friends of the West Highland Line, Professor Bill Bradshaw of Oxford (an adviser to Her Majesty's Government on rail privatisation) and Mr. Jack Shaw-Stewart. They have produced assessments of the direct costs of providing the services, including Rai1track charges.

Before taking into account any revenue, their assessments are £2 million, £2.3 million and £1.8 million respectively for running the Fort William Sleeper and Motorail Service as at present. The figure of £2 million is more precisely £2,003,466 per annum, or £3,042 per train.

The same sources assess revenue at £1.28 million. That is based on 16,000 passenger journeys with fare variations. Current improved performance and uncertainty concerning strike days last year suggest that 17,500 journeys and £1.4 million revenue might be nearer the mark. The figure of 16,000 passenger journeys had to be estimated because of last year's strike.

Those figures assess operating deficits at £740,000 or £604,000. Whichever one takes, it is a far cry from the officially quoted figure of £3 million. It is important to remember that the contribution to Railtrack which is included would not represent a saving on withdrawal of the services.

Perhaps a better way of looking at the matter is to examine what would be saved by axing the services. My sources assess avoidable costs at £1,094,000 a year. That is £186,000 less than the estimated revenue from 16,000 passenger journeys. There is therefore no net saving to the taxpayer from axing the services. Surely that points to the adverse effect that taking off the sleeper and Motorail services would have on other services on the line.

The scenario against which the matter has been aired is unsatisfactory. We were told that franchising would be based on the 1994 timetable. Consultation has been provided for and repeatedly promised. However, while we await consultation Mr. Salmon, Director of Passenger Rail Franchising, has announced that he will exclude the Fort William Sleeper and Motorail Service. Then BR announced that they will axe the services on 28th May. That is why my Question has to be double-barrelled. One might be forgiven for feeling as if one had gone to play a crucial match and found that someone had nicked the goal posts and dug up the pitch and the referee had lost his whistle. I do not accuse the Government of interfering with posts or pitch—that was done by Mr. Salmon and British Rail—but the Government do appear to have lost their whistle.

We have been given assurances that no final decision has been made. My noble friend the Minister said as much at Question Time on 28th February, and he explained why Mr. Salmon had made his announcement. But that explanation did not excuse Mr. Salmon pre-empting consultation. I see that Mr. Swift, the rail regulator, says that BR is out of order. I hope that he is right.

It is reported that the Scottish Office has refused BR a subsidy. I hope that it will note that on the basis of my figures a three-month operating subsidy would require only about £200,000. It is reported that Mr. Salmon has withdrawn subsidy. How does he withdraw what is presumably already in place and was not in his gift? Surely when so much is at stake for a heavily subsidised economy the decision whether to subsidise an important aspect of infrastructure for an area of special need should be a hands-on political decision taken from a wider viewpoint. Can my noble friend the Minister say whether there has been a thorough review of the wider implications for the economy of the West Highlands of the withdrawal of these services?

One might have hoped that privatisation would afford an opportunity for entrepreneurial improvements rather than a death sentence. Once the service has gone, trying to win back business would be daunting.

It has been irksome when trying to discuss this matter to be rebuffed with repetitions of the figures of £543 per passenger and a subsidy of £6.6 million per annum. If British Rail's operating subsidy is £3 million that puts access to the Railtrack system at more than £3.5 million, although a leaked letter now suggests that it is less, and it has already been admitted that Railtrack costs will not reduce with withdrawal of the services. Without knowing the construction of the Railtrack access charge how can we judge its relevance to this debate and to the threatened services? I remain suspicious.

Since the Fort William sleeper service was moved from Kings Cross to Euston, BR has done it few favours. There seems to be a corporate lack of will to maximise business, as current experience with freight is proving. Freight is not on the agenda tonight, but I am told authoritatively that £1 million worth of freight traffic is currently going begging on the Fort William line.

In order that before consultation starts everyone is briefed to discuss the subject on the same basis, I ask my noble friend that British Rail and rival costings should be independently analysed, or that British Rail should release its calculations for study in exchange for those I have mentioned this evening.

I have come to the end of my speaking time. There is much else that I should like to have said. I have a great affection for the line for which I once travelled as stand-in for a sleeping car attendant. However, it is not my relationship with that line which is at stake; it is the relationship of that line with the area about which I have spoken.

I hope that those noble Lords who have so kindly put their names down to speak tonight, together with my efforts, will be able to persuade the Minister to have another look at the problem and to give us some encouragement.

7.30 p.m.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Gray, on introducing this useful debate. I should declare some interests. I am a member of a frequent flyer programme with both British Midland and British Airways and in receipt of a car park pass from the British Airports Authority. Having got that out of the way, I can tell the House that I have been a railway enthusiast since I was aged 14. Also, and more cogently, my brother is catching the night sleeper from Fort William to London tonight and will join the train at two minutes past 10 in Crianlarich. Therefore, although I live in Clackmannan, which is distinctly not in the West Highlands, I feel that I have some connection with the area.

I deplore the planned withdrawal of the West Highland Sleeper and Motorail Service during, or almost before, the consultation period with possible franchisees has begun. Does that mean that the carriages must rot and the staff be dispersed? I do not understand how the service could be taken on as it will not be a going concern unless the discussions with potential franchisees take place extremely swiftly. I am, too, worried about rumours that business is being turned away by British Rail in order in some way cynically to prove that the service is not working.

In a small way, the proposal gives an economic kiss of death to the fragile economy of Lochaber and the North Argyll area. All this is happening in the country which invented railways. As regards public transport in Scotland, there is a choice of rail or air transport from North, East and Central Scotland. There are airports in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness, Wick and Campbeltown, not to mention most of the islands. In the East of Scotland, Dundee and Perth do not have a significant airport, but they have motorway connections with airports. Therefore from the East Coast, North and Central Scotland, it is possible to travel either by air or by rail. However, there is no air service out of the West Highlands despite there being a small airfield at North Connel. A person wishing to travel from that area by rail after the withdrawal of the sleeper motorail service would have to drive through to Kingussie to catch the sleeper from Inverness, no doubt at some awkward time, having travelled the road through Laggan—a route which I should hardly recommend in winter.

The West Highlander who wishes to travel by air has to go by Glasgow or Inverness, again on awkward roads which quite distinctly are not motorways and which have to cross mountain ranges at such passes as Rest and Be Thankful.

The withdrawal of the sleeper motorail service creates a black hole in public transport in the West Highlands. But what are we really considering? We are looking at a Government of 16 years with what must be considered an anti-rail policy. Scotland needs a more positive government attitude towards railways in remote areas. When in 1880 the Callender and Oban railway was being built, when the North British Railway Co. was constructing the West Highland line in the 1890s, and when the Mallaig extension had to be built with public funds, it was recognised that it would not be easy to run a rail service in that area, but that a rail link was definitely needed if there were to be any possibility of economic development.

I believe that the Minister has to face up to the fact that his department is throwing away Scottish rail services. I fear that that enhances what I like to call "Britosceptic" thinking. I sum that up in this way. What is the point of two nations having a united Parliament if Scotland gains policies that it does not want? I believe that a Scots Parliament would have a more positive attitude towards railways in remote areas. It would recognise that social subsidies are involved.

I conclude by urging the noble Viscount to retain the service in order to allow the fullest and most realistic discussion with potential franchisees.

7.36 p.m.

The Earl of Buchan

My Lords, I wish to address the House for six minutes and to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Gray, on his tenacious efforts to keep the West Highland line open, in particular for the throwing of light on tendentious figures issued by British Rail and other interested parties. This noble House, incidentally, has to listen to Erskines speaking for 12 minutes—I refer to my noble kinsman Lord Mar and Kellie, and myself.

Perhaps I may address the Minister on a matter not directly connected with the issue. Since Cross-Bench Peers were falsely accused of being "whipped" during the debate on the Pensions Bill, this Cross-Bench Peer has no inhibitions about offering advice to the Government. Would it not be kinder and shrewder to adjust the length of the debates in accordance with the likelihood of Her Majesty's Government being able to do something about the issue in question? Indisputably, the Government have the power to close or to keep open the West Highland line; they could do something about it. Thus, the next time that an occasion arises where time is asked for a debate on an issue such as a United Nations conference on the imperfection of Western man with particular reference to the vileness of the developed world, could not the answer be roughly along the lines of, "Very sorry, Her Majesty's Government can do nothing about the imperfections of Western man: You can have 15 minutes maximum in which to speak"?

In encouraging the Minister to maintain the sleeper and Motorail services on the West Highland line, perhaps I may make a plea on behalf of those living in remoter parts of Western Scotland such as Ardnamurchan and Morven, where a great many people seek to make a living through holiday camps, fishing, fish farms, forestry, the retail trade, the holiday trade and fanning. It cannot be right that those people's connections with the remainder of the United Kingdom should be changed at the whim of a secretive franchise director. It is now assumed in that part of the world that once Baghdad bazaar standards are applied to the railways the next argument will be, "Now that them is no night service on this line, let us take away the day service because the costs cannot be shared". It cannot be right that remote places such as Acharacle can be cut off from the remainder of the United Kingdom, resulting in it being more difficult to get from there to London than from Brussels to London.

Perhaps I may seek to soften the Minister's heart and draw his attention to a most unfortunate coincidence of dates. The year 1995 is the 250th anniversary of the landing of the Young Pretender. That event will be commemorated loyally at Glenfinnan and will draw a great many visitors from literally all over the world: America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other similar places—even France and Italy. It must appear to the organisers of the commemoration a snub that almost to the month Motorail and the sleepers to Fort William are being taken off. Perhaps noble Lords would consider how the event could be commemorated and what could be done with a little marketing and publicity. One could have an announcement along the lines of: Join the Motorail sleeper in Rome, after visiting Henry IX's tomb in St. Peter's, and be at Bonnie Prince Charlie's memorial via the Channel Tunnel the next day! A little imagination and a little hard work marketing the service should make it prosperous.

The noble Lord, Lord Gray, touched on the history of the line. As he said, it has been running for 101 years. However, what he did not mention is that the Treasury gave a subsidy of £260,000 towards the cost of the building of the line at that time. It was never a question of the line being profitable. Noble Lords might be interested in the comment by the chairman of the North British Railway in 1899, that company having guaranteed the capital for the West Highland railway. He said: I would not venture to prophesy it will ever pay an adequate return. It has never paid, but it represents a hundred miles of well-maintained, single track line between Helensburgh and Fort William. It could be made more prosperous.

Perhaps I may make a point on press comment on the issue. The Times newspaper has covered the issue fully and fairly in my view, and I hope that it will continue to do so until the cause is won or the proprietor runs out of newsprint. The Economist, on the other hand, produced a rather facetious article on the West Highland line and I do not commend it to noble Lords.

Finally, I implore the Minister to reconsider the issue and request the railway authorities to keep open the line for both the sleepers and Motorail.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Rankeillour

My Lords, I intend to leave the statistics and business data of this sad and sorry tale to those noble Lords best versed in such matters. My own contribution is merely intended to bring the attention of this House and the kingdom to other curious things that are said to lie behind British Rail's dismembering of the West Highland line.

This is not the "Deerstalkers' Express": it is used by people in every walk of life, even more so since the huge ski complex was built in the high hills outside Fort William, which attracts tourists in great numbers, winter and summer, from all over the world. I wonder why BR—which apparently claims that its sleepers and Motorail carriages are so empty—has not lowered its charges (I emphasise "lowered") to attract the army of skiers and tourists, as well as their motor cars, for the haul of hundreds of miles from the South to Fort William. Indeed, how well has BR tried to advertise the line with the new honeypot at its northernmost end, one wonders?

Imagine, if you will, that BR suddenly announced that it was to rip out all the seats from a few carriages in all its commuter trains between, say, London and Manchester or Birmingham, for the given reason that they are too expensive to maintain; and, anyway, what is wrong with making the passengers uncomfortable throughout the entire journey! What is wrong goes far deeper than just bad marketing and a poor sense of the needs of the travelling public. In the case of the Fort William to London Euston trains, the matter becomes a lot more serious, for not only would the removal of the sleeper service and Motorail be a giant step backwards for BR, but also the people of the Highlands and Islands would at once lose their only safe, all-weather, year-round, fast means of restful transport. Our lifeline would be snuffed out like a candle's flame: there a moment before, but suddenly stone dead.

We are not like somewhere in the Home Counties with an airport and a choice of good fast roads between London and front doors elsewhere. We in the Highlands and Islands are an ever-increasing population trying to live, as the noble Earl, Lord Buchan, said, a peaceful, constructive life in a territory that by nature requires greater consideration from such people as British Rail than almost anywhere else south of the Border.

In short, this is our railway too. My ancestor, Lord Annandale, did not form his Caledonian Railway Company during the Industrial Revolution to survey a route from Glasgow to Fort William just for us now to see the West Highland line dismantled, stone by stone, apparently in the name of cost. Does not BR know the word "amenity"? Does it not care? No, he had a dream; and in time a railway was built along that surveyed route but, alas, not by his company, as history shows for all to see. But at least that selfsame track is still in use—so far.

But for how much longer? If BR is to care so little for its travelling public, how does it view the metals themselves? Will they be torn up too? We in the West Highlands remember all too well what Beeching did to our way of life all those years ago. Are we now to have the coup de grâce?

Our West Highland line is not just a statistic in BR's company books, it is our lifeline: a living legend, an old scenic marvel, admired throughout the world, a fast vital means of transport between calm and chaos. Yet, despite all that, BR has for years been gnawing away at its foundations instead of gently improving them. Why?

In The Times leader of 20th March this year came the charge that, booking clerks discourage passengers in order to support claims that the sleeper runs almost empty on most nights". That is said to be, all too believable in the light of earlier tactics by railway bureaucrats". So perhaps the time is ripe to ask the Minister whether there is any truth in that report and whether the bureaucrats are indeed accountable.

Even now, some sleeper attendants at Fort William have been summoned to the severance pay desk, one girl near her marriage day. What a wedding present to start out on life's hard road, having just been fired by a company set, she thought, to see her through to retirement.

Is it really beyond the wit of man to improve our beloved railway to the point where it can flourish as well as, or even better than, in its Victorian heyday? Is there no chairman available or capable of pulling it up by its bootstraps, to give the staff their pride back; to reintroduce observation cars, the better to see the gorgeous scenery en passant; to put attendants in uniforms that look correct and are not ragbags; to use some imagination in the matter of the present unmanned stations and to keep the entire length of track free of rubbish?

The train goes through my West Highland village. I am an ardent passenger on it and have been since a boy, when the station was the hub of our universe and the corrals held our livestock for transport to the lowland markets. Nowadays only a hut and a platform remain of that boyhood memory.

In those days of BB (before Beeching) British Railways very much cared for its stations and passengers. Why does it not still? After all, the whole north west of the Highlands and Islands survives. Those areas still need the attentions of the Belford Hospital consultants, fast transport for businessmen and freight, and tourism. Now that the ski complex is blossoming, British Rail announces its closure of the sleeper and Motorail. In company with everyone who is concerned with the Highland line, I am appalled.

BR must be told in no uncertain way that it simply cannot cut off the Highlands and Islands sleeper/Motorail services just because, as yet, the line does not balance its books. Railtrack might consider running it all on its own from the vast sums that it charges other operators. Amenity can bring its just rewards sometimes, if given a push. The alternative is bleak for the north west of Scotland, if we are to be deprived of services which in most other parts of this kingdom people regard as their common right. Let us just look at a road map of Scotland and ponder on the dire alternatives and consequences for the future.

What benefits will this privatisation bring to railway passengers north of the Border? Apparently none. It is a clear indication that British Rail and the Royal Mail would be a lot safer in the hands of nationalisation (one of the few exceptions to the rule now surging through this kingdom). Keeping the railways and the Royal Mail under government eyes would make me feel a lot safer than just throwing them to the avaricious wolves.

7.52 p.m.

Lord Mountevans

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Gray for asking this Question tonight. As ever on railway matters, I declare an interest. It will come as no surprise to noble Lords that I have some sympathy with the British Rail decision. I also have to say that I have some sympathy with the speech of my noble friend Lord Rankeillour. He has probably travelled that railway more times than have the rest of us put together.

The noble Lord is a lover of the West Highland railway, and so am I. I am sad to see the sleeper threatened with withdrawal. But I have to say that I find annual subsidies of £2.6 million for the operation of the train and £4 million for infrastructure quite unacceptable in my capacity as a taxpayer. In terms of costs per passenger, these figures become £180 per single journey and £450 respectively. They are all 1993–94 figures from an Oral Answer in another place; and they relate to the 14,600 passengers carried by the West Highlander in that year: 284 passengers per week spread over 12 trains, six each way. With six trains each way, you get an average load of 23 passengers per train. I shall return to that point later.

If the press comments, some of which have already been prayed in aid this evening, repeating that shibboleth "Beeching", or talking about "withering on the vine" or about lack of investment and lack of marketing, were true, I should have a great deal more sympathy with those who spoke passionately tonight for the train. But, sadly, they are not totally true.

To quote Beeching would involve closure of the route, touched on by the noble Earl, Lord Buchan, and mentioned by my noble friend Lord Rankeillour. But we are not talking about closure of the route. In this case we are talking about the withdrawal of one train.

Turning to the idea of withering on the vine and to investment, the West Highland has received a disproportionate amount of investment in the past decade. I wish that my railway from Waterloo to the New Forest had received similar levels in terms of the passengers that it carries. Millions are spent on radio electronic tokenless block signalling and on new day-time trains. The sleeping cars themselves are much more modem than those on many of the trains on which I travel down to the New Forest. Indeed, they are much more modem than the high-speed train fleet, which is a means of communication for many Members of this House.

With other investment over the decades, the journey time from London has come down by some two-and-a-half hours since I first travelled on the route, and indeed on the night sleeper, in 1962. There is one monster difference, which nobody has mentioned, between 1962 and today; namely, the presence of the motor car.

Is lack of marketing to blame? That was also touched on by noble Lords. I hardly feel so. Last year saw the centenary of the West Highland line. It was celebrated with additional steam services. There was a new video—the second film in effect in recent years; I can remember paying, in my British Tourist Authority days, for the early 1980s film. There are cassette tapes, a new history of the line and a very attractive description of the sights on the route which make the journey by daylight very appealing indeed. My noble friend Lord Lindsay was at Fort William for the centenary celebrations with the West Highland line steam locomotive that was rescued by his late father. The West Highland line and the West Highlander have scarcely ever had that much publicity before.

What about the more specific appeal to the customer's pocket? My noble friend Lord Rankeillour mentioned lack of marketing. But he will recall that in the past two or three years I told him of certain opportunities and he has indeed used them. There has been a very great deal of marketing in an effort to keep this sleeper going. There has been advertising at both ends of the route. With the Apex tickets, similar to the airline ones, one saves money by booking some time in advance. There have been discounted berths for family Railcard holders, including the offer of two berths for the price of one. There have been offers of sole occupancy of twin berth compartments for second-class ticket holders; special packages for couples; and off-peak first-class offers—to say nothing of Motorail offers, which I believe I specifically mentioned to my noble friend. There have been four special Motorail offers, Let us not forget the work that was done by the Scottish Tourist Board and my erstwhile friends in HIDB, which in those days had tourist cars covering the line, as well as my erstwhile colleagues in the British Tourist Authority.

I am always delighted when tourism is prayed in aid, as it has been tonight by the noble Lord, Lord Gray, and the noble Earl, Lord Buchan, among others. But all this promotional and marketing activity suggests to me that the train does not meet tourism needs which cannot be met by other services on the route.

Where does all this activity leave us? On my last journey on the West Highlander, last October, there were 10 passengers, of whom five were my colleagues—British Rail's "best kept station" judges—and five were revenue fare paying customers. Those five in no way cover the staffing costs: seven people are required to run the train, actually on the train between Fort William and Glasgow. They do not cover the staffing costs, the rolling stock costs or the traction costs; and them is no way that they could cover the infrastructure costs, no matter how we calculate those.

You could have given some away for free and the train would still have been losing a fortune. To put it another way, the £180 per passenger subsidy figure that is mentioned is four-and-a-half times that payable for a passenger who uses the Inverness sleeper and 11 times that of using the Edinburgh sleeper.

The West Highlander has, sadly, run its course. I sympathise with BR's decision to withdraw it. In the light of the franchising director's decision to withdraw subsidy—it was the franchising director who took that decision—given the numbers, I would be reluctant to look for subsidy from any other source. Rather, we should hope that the Inverness service, with its ongoing subsidy and its prospects, is given a fair crack of the whip.

This is an emotional issue, and I share that emotion. But emotion does not pay the bills. Let us celebrate the West Highland line and the West Highlander. But let the latter go, and let us concentrate on the much greater problems facing British Rail as a whole nationwide. The battle is really for the railways. The West Highlander seems to me to be but a smokescreen.

8 p.m.

Lord Renton

My Lords, for reasons which have already been given and which I shall attempt to support, I do not go the whole way with my noble friend Lord Mountevans. Fortunately, my noble friend Lord Gray has already deployed in great detail and with great accuracy the financial implications involved. I am glad that he did so. It saves us all a bit of time.

I have no interest to declare in this matter. I used the West Highland line quite often until about 40 years ago. Since then I have not used it very much and certainly not in recent years. I remember the West Highlands for some of the most wonderful scenery in the world, and wonderful wildlife too. It is a great potential tourist attraction, not merely for people from the southern half of England but from the rest of the world. Fortunately, there is a growing tendency to treat the world as one place. Air travel has made that possible.

The noble Earl, Lord Buchan, mentioned Rome. It so happens that I was there yesterday concluding a three-day visit—not, alas, on holiday. I was working rather hard, unpaid I hasten to add. I was astonished at the number of Japanese people in Rome. That is just a symptom of the ever increasing travel between various parts of the world involving people from all over the world.

Most long distance travel is done by air. But, as the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, said, in the West Highlands the air services are somewhat limited. They are limited for the tourist trade. Some of the landing fields are so small that they can take only very light aircraft and might not meet the needs of tourist traffic if it increases, as I believe it will, in the years to come.

For that reason the West Highland line to Fort William is truly essential. The question that remains is whether the night sleeper service is also essential. I believe that it is and will become more so as the international tourist trade expands, as it undoubtedly will if those in this country who are responsible for developing what is a great money earner for this country—it helps the balance of payments—do as well as they should. If so, the tourist trade to the West Highlands will undoubtedly expand over the years. That goes beyond the valid reasons for the West Highland line stated by my noble friends Lord Gray and Lord Rankeillour.

I must say a word about the cost of the sleeper service and attempt to answer some of the points made by my noble friend Lord Mountevans. I voted for privatisation. But during the discussions on the Bill I never understood—I do not think I was given to understand—that services such as these would be closed down. The railways, even though privatised, are a public service. It would go against principle if only those services were operated which made a good profit. Within a few years only suburban services, inter-city services, football specials, summer seaside services and a few profitable freight services would be running. I was very interested to hear my noble friend Lord Gray mention the potential for freight services on the West Highland line.

Surely, it is unbelievable that privatisation could result in the loss of all other services, some of them somewhat marginal and some losing small sums of money, which are necessary to the life of the people in the country. If that were to happen, our roads would become even more congested than they are already. Therefore, I believe that some traffic which does not pay or does not pay well enough should be subsidised. If the West Highland night sleeper services were better advertised, as has been suggested, they would be subsidised less.

But even if they have to be subsidised, they should be kept going as a public service. I agree that it is a question of the amount of the subsidy. Obviously, that must not get out of hand. But it is a matter for those who will have the responsibility of running the services to see that they are well advertised and that the public are persuaded to make the fullest use of them.

It would be absurd to discontinue this service in early May without further thought being given to what has been said in this evening's debate, without further thought for the future, and indeed ignoring the 250th anniversary of the landing by Prince Charles Edward, as the noble Earl, Lord Buchan, mentioned. Alas, this debate is not about Motorail on which, as an octogenarian widower, I have become rather dependent in travelling between Euston and Carlisle and which, I dare to hope, may too be given an extended lease of life.

8.7 p.m.

Lord Gainford

My Lords, it is a pleasure to support my noble friend Lord Gray and other noble Lords who have spoken on this matter. My personal interest is indirect. I used the line and its sleeper services quite a lot when living in Argyll. I still have family there including a brother who recently moved to Roybridge and is a close neighbour of my noble friend Lord Rankeillour. He has told me about the anxiety of local people.

It is not just those who live close to the line who are concerned. The railway has, expressed in geographic terms, a vast catchment area. The West Highlands depends on the line for both trade and tourism. And tourism is not just a summer matter. Skiing has made it an all-year-round industry. I am told that at New Year, when a vast number of skiers headed for Fort William, there was a desperate call for additional coaches on the trains, both sleepers and ordinary coaches. For some reason, British Rail was not able to supply them. I merely repeat what I have been told. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister can look into the matter and write to me. If I have been misinformed, I am most sorry.

The feeling of the local people can be illustrated by a page from the Fort William newspaper Press and Journal. I have shown it to my noble friend and he has taken a copy of it. There are three main headlines. One says, "Appeal to Premier to save North rail lines". It tells how the regional council convenor, Duncan McPherson, is attempting to save the Motorail's sleeper service and how a number of honourable Members in another place representing the Highlands are trying to interview the Prime Minister about it. Two further headlines are "Timetable of broken promise" and "A feeling of betrayal".

There is another matter to be considered. The railway line is extremely famous. It is featured in a book which I received at Christmas called, Train Journeys of the World. It describes 30 journeys throughout the world: among them is Glasgow to Fort William on to Mallaig. It contains descriptions of the wonderfully scenic journey that can be experienced. If British Rail insists on withdrawing sleeper and Motorail services, the West Highlands will begin to consider what other services can be cut. As was pointed out, there is no airport near Fort William and therefore the railway line is vital. Will British Rail eventually cut the lifeline?

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down perhaps I can say that the Press and Journal is a north Scotland newspaper printed in Aberdeen.

Lord Gainford

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lady for that information. The cutting was sent to me by my brother who lives near Fort William. I thought therefore that it was from that district. I am grateful for the correction.

8.11 p.m.

The Earl of Dundonald

My Lords, I too add my support to that of other noble Lords in the Chamber. Many of us feel strongly about this matter. I wish to start by looking at the other side of the coin to the one presented by my noble friend Lord Mountevans.

The Government clearly have a duty to deal in the best possible way with the assets owned by British Rail. I should like to point out to the Minister and to others that the principal asset of the West Highland line is that of the track. Any businessman will say that one should make the maximum use of any fixed asset if one is paying for it day in and day out regardless of whether or not it is being used. I suggest, therefore, that if we were realistically looking at the business we would be trying to run services on the line 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Clearly that is not possible—hut we should try to move towards that.

The other aspect is that the rolling stock is bought and paid for. I know that it is going into a separate leasing company, but if there is to be an excess of rolling stock once this service, and perhaps others, are cut, then there will be a lot of secondhand rolling stock lying around the country and it will not have the same value as its original cost. The break-even point on this service, therefore, is the cost of the variable costs of the business, not that of the fixed or rolling costs. The variable costs do not amount to much; they incorporate things like wages, fuels and everyday repairs and renewals. The Government really should take note of that.

Coming back to the point relating to the track, if the Government are saying that we should preclude ourselves at this moment in time from using half of that asset—that is, the night time part of it—then it will be that much more difficult to see any form of realistic payback on it. Hotels, golf courses, or any other assets that deal with services and people, do not take that view.

The next point is a follow-on and one to which other noble Lords alluded. If we take away half the available time to make money to recover those costs, it makes it that much more expensive to run the other part of those services. It means that the Government will have to subsidise the other services more than they do at present. It may be possible to take the view that it would make closure of the line in its entirety that much easier at some time in the future. I should like to think that that is not the case, but it may be possible to draw that conclusion.

I should perhaps draw my noble friend's attention to a letter received by his friend in another place, Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, from Arjo Wiggins, a major employer in the area. It made the point that the company transports 55,000 tonnes of freight annually. In the event of the line being closed—I know that that is not what we are discussing tonight, but it may be possible to suggest that—it would cost an additional £160,000 per annum. That makes it extremely difficult to run those sorts of businesses.

To turn to the effect on local businesses in the area, it seems strange that we should be discussing the closing of an opportunity tonight when recently there was talk of through sleeper services from both Glasgow and Edinburgh to Paris, Milan and other European capitals. I do not understand the logic and perhaps my noble friend the Minister will explain that to me in his response. There are 16,000 passengers who use the sleeper service on an annual basis. That is a lot of people.

Lord Mountevans

My Lords, if my noble friend will allow me to say, that amounts to 14 people per train. The figure of 16,000 sounds a lot, but it is only 14 people per train.

The Earl of Dundonald

My Lords, perhaps I can continue and expound the point in relation to local businesses. Assuming those passengers spend £100 a head, to withdraw the services may produce a fallout of as much as 50 per cent. The effect on the local economy, therefore, could be as much as £1 million per year. That is a significant part of the tourist income in an area such as Fort William and Lochaber. Again, I do not understand the logic of that. When we are trying to encourage tourism in those areas, that does not seem logical.

We have the opportunity to make British Rail in the west of Scotland work properly, and that opportunity is being taken away. I draw the attention of my noble friend the Minister to the Scottish Association of Public Transport which wrote, as he may or may not be aware, to the Prime Minister on this matter promoting its North Star proposals where the franchise director may be encouraged to incorporate services other than the ones he is at present considering into the ScotRail franchise. They would include the opportunity to expand and develop the sleeper services on the West Highland line. What better way of arriving in Fort William or the west of Scotland than having had a good night's sleep and breakfast on a sleeper car, passing over Rannoch Moor.

In conclusion, it seems illogical, just as the Government are trying to encourage new franchisees into the system, to close down what is a wonderful opportunity for those businesses.

8.18 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, like others, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Gray, for introducing this debate. In particular, he not only asked two important questions which query the Government's willingness to exercise their remaining powers in regard to privatisation, but in doing so he provided, as several other noble Lords pointed out, a valuable series of figures and advice drawn from known experts in the field as to the real cost of maintaining this service. I hope that the Minister, in responding to the debate, will clarify how those costs compare with the figures given by Ministers in another place. It may be that those figures were given here. If so, I apologise for the error. It seemed to me that there was a considerable discrepancy between the two which needs to be clarified.

In addition, the noble Earl, Lord Dundonald, made some extremely good points about the importance of not ascribing the whole cost of any particular part of the railway to one service and about the difference between total cost and marginal cost. I hope that the Minister will respond to those points.

Many noble Lords have spoken about the local situation. I have nothing to say on that subject. I claim no knowledge whatever of the West Highlands. But when one hears people who have lived there all their lives speak of those needs, we all have to pay attention. My noble friend Lord Mar and Kellie, who has not claimed to live there all his life, and the noble Lord, Lord Rankeillour, expressed those local needs very vividly indeed. Those needs should be taken into consideration, as in particular should the lack of alternative direct links with the capital of what is still supposed to be a united kingdom—however much I may agree with some of the points which my noble friend made, this is perhaps not the place to have that debate—and the fact that, as the noble Lord, Lord Rankeillour, said, the service is a lifeline to the outside world which is still required today. That is a good reason for maintaining it.

Other noble Lords have spoken of the opportunities that are available to advertise and to gain more users of the service. I should like to endorse what the noble Earl, Lord Buchan, said about the importance of these long-distance services now that we have a direct rail link to the rest of continental Europe. It is ridiculous to be destroying this kind of service at the very moment when it becomes more relevant, if anything, than it has been before. Now is not the time to be carrying out such destruction.

In a way, the noble Lord, Lord Renton, summed up these views when he spoke of the need to regard rail services as part of a public service approach to transport. I endorse that and add a point which essentially many noble Lords made, although not directly. Transport is not just one thing taken in isolation. The Government approach it in that way. It is very difficult to perceive any integrated transport policy in their attitude to such matters as the destruction of this or that part of a given service. I see that the Minister shakes his head—not his hands: he might be wringing his hands perhaps, but not visibly. Perhaps he can explain to me how the withdrawal of subsidy for these services satisfies some overall public transport good. I must say that it is invisible to me, as it is to many other noble Lords present today.

I should like to add one or two points which have not been mentioned by other speakers, at least not directly. The first concerns the relationship between what is happening here and rail privatisation. There is no doubt in my mind that the two matters are intimately connected, if only because it is the franchising director's decision not to include these services in the public service requirement for franchisees—not to subsidise the services—that has brought them to a point of crisis. The situation has been worsened by the fact that ScotRail, presumably a potential franchisee which would want to run this part of the rail service, is apparently threatening to cut the services in advance of the completion of the consultation process set in motion by the franchising director. It is that aspect of the matter which is the most shameful because it is not a suitable way to go about public business. As has been said, it is rather like closing a school and then consulting on the future of that school. That is not the kind of thing that local authorities on the whole do; and if they do, it does not reflect any credit upon them.

We believe that at least a golden share should be retained in Railtrack. That would remove one of the causes of this whole problem—the separation between Railtrack and the train operating companies. That is precisely why it is so difficult, as the noble Lord, Lord Gray, said, to distinguish between the costs of Railtrack and the costs of train operating when one is dealing with , this or any other part of the growing and emerging so-called rail system in this country. We believe that we should retain at least a golden share in Railtrack so that the public interest and the public transport policy aspects of government can be encouraged through that share ownership.

Finally, I plead with the Minister to use his residual power to prevent the closure of this service before the public consultation has been completed. That public consultation should be used to bring all the concerns which noble Lords have expressed today into the public arena. I very much hope that he will be able to reassure us on that very important point.

8.26 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Gray, for initiating this important debate. It is a story that has been marked by an extraordinary amalgam of confusion, evasion, contradiction and non-answers, and also tonight by a number of admissions on the part of noble Lords opposite that perhaps they were wrong about support for privatisation—at least they have expressed some doubts about that.

It was last December that the franchising director, Mr. Roger Salmon, announced that he would not include Motorail trains on the Fort William/Carlisle and Carlisle/London, Plymouth/Edinburgh/Glasgow sleepers in his passenger service requirements. The Minister categorised that as a preliminary announcement—some preliminary announcement! But evidently the franchising director expected that the trains would keep running in the meantime. On the other hand, British Rail interpreted his announcement to the effect that the services should be withdrawn and in fact decided to do that as from 28th May this year. What is offensive about what has happened is that there was apparently no consultation about the effect on Scottish tourism. There was no consultation about the employment effects. But we were still informed that the formal consultation would take place. What did happen, according to British Rail—this was not mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans—is that it consulted the Scottish Office and the Department of Transport and gained the approval of the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising before deciding to withdraw the service. I put it to the Minister: is that version correct?

A number of strange answers appeared in Hansard in both Houses about all this. But, as the noble Baroness just said, to imagine that in the light of what the franchising director had said, and furthermore in the light of what had been said by a colleague of his, Mr. James Watson, on behalf of the franchising director, that they were not intending to review the decision which was announced before Christmas but that they were intending to consult on that decision as part of the ScotRail PSR, who can believe in any genuine consultation? He has made up his mind. What will really happen now is simply that the franchising director will go through the exercise and say, "I have undertaken my statutory obligation", and that is that. The result is wholly predictable. I know that the Minister disputes that, but I really do not believe that he can say that with any conviction in his voice or in his thoughts.

On 6th March the franchising director said that he expects "consultation" (so called) to begin in May and to last not less than eight weeks. Yet on 15th March, Mr. John Swift, the rail regulator, said that it is not up to British Rail to withdraw the trains. The decision should be made by the Government and the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising. That is precisely what happened. They have both colluded in that.

I want the Minister to answer this question: can the Secretary of State force BR to maintain the service until the so-called "consultation" has taken place? Do Ministers have any role? If they do not, why were they consulted by British Rail and why does British Rail pray in aid their support? Can Ministers interfere with the rulings of the regulator?

What about the users' committee? We know that Major General Lennox Napier, the chairman, declared roundly that Mr. Salmon should not have made the announcement that he did last December. He said that he should have waited for consultation to have taken place. That is patently obvious, as the noble Baroness put it in her contribution a moment ago. Evidently his pleas fell on deaf ears, as we have heard from Mr. James Watson, speaking on behalf of the franchising director.

So what is to happen? Having consulted the Scottish Office, the Department of Transport and OPRAF, British Rail proposes to keep the locomotives and coaches mothballed. What they should be doing, of course, is keeping the trains running pending consultation. The Government should take immediate steps to safeguard the services until proper consultation has taken place, although obviously that is now very difficult. They should undertake a proper, independent survey on the implications for employment and tourism.

Mr. Ian Grant, the chairman of the Scottish Tourist Board, has expressed deep concern regarding the implications for Scottish tourism, which brings in no less than £800 million to Scotland each year. So how is that likely to be affected by this decision?

Can the service be reinstated after it has been mothballed? The Minister must answer these questions. What about redundancy legislation and how that affects re-employment of redundant sleeper staff if the trains are reinstated after consultation? Would it not be necessary to have new recruits brought in who would have to be hired and trained?

Perhaps the most telling indictment in all this comes from Mr. Alex Lynch, the acting director-general of ScotRail for another few days. He is a most powerful witness. He said that BR and the franchising director have colluded in an unholy alliance to ensure the demise of the service before privatisation begins to take effect, undercutting the whole concept of consultation. The Minister must answer that accusation.

I shall not say anything about the cost because we know that the figures are clearly disparate and have been interpreted in a very different way. We have heard tonight the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, say one thing and the noble Lord, Lord Gray, say another. What the House is entitled to demand from the Minister is a proper, independent investigation into the calculations. But whatever those calculations may be it is chicken feed compared with the amount that has been squandered on privatisation so far, which amounts to many hundreds of millions of pounds including £4 million for those advising on rail privatisation.

I believe that this is really about reducing the rail network over a period to a core of lines requiring no subsidy. It is a story of no effective consultation. It sets an appalling precedent. It is not fair, it is not reasonable, it is not democratic and all concerned should think again.

8.45 p.m.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I am indeed grateful to my noble friend Lord Gray for introducing the question of the West Highland sleeper this evening. As we have heard—especially from at least one of my noble friends whom I have not had the pleasure of hearing before—this is an issue which arouses strong feelings. I begin by acknowledging the strength of that feeling. I undertake to convey the feelings of the House to the franchising director. However, I believe that a little balance is required. I take the opportunity to clear up some of the misconceptions which have been aired.

I have not heard much defence of the level of subsidy this evening but a questioning of the figures. I shall go into the level of subsidy later on. But I feel that that is vitally important in considering the future of this service. I have also not heard a great deal about the levels of occupancy of the service. We have heard a great deal from noble Lords who feel that a case has been made for the retention of the service, but I do not feel that the issue of the very low levels of occupancy of the service has been fully addressed this evening.

In addition, this matter is not about the closure of a line, as some noble Lords have suggested. Indeed, a noble friend of mine said that he was not talking about the closure of the line, but then went on to talk about that. I would also strongly contest the conspiracy—

The Earl of Dundonald

My Lords, I wonder whether my noble friend will give way. I did not actually speak about the closure of the line but about the possible closure at some future date and this simply being a first stage.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I am very well aware that my noble friend is himself fully aware of the statutory closure process that the closure of any line has to go through. I do not see that the closure of the West Highland sleeper line is related to that issue at all. I would strongly contest the conspiracy theory put forward by the noble Earl, Lord Buchan, and the, shall I call it, "anti-Scottish theory" put forward by the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie.

To these ends I believe it might be helpful if I give a little background to the situation which might help clarify some of the issues that we have discussed this evening. I believe that a good starting point would be a discussion of the role of the franchising director. He has been given the task of securing that passenger railway services are franchised as soon as reasonably practicable. He has statutory powers and duties which are set out in the Railways Act. Under Section 5 of that Act the Secretary of State has powers to set him objectives and to give him instructions and guidance. He is required to encourage efficiency and economy and to promote the use and cost-effective development of the rail network. I believe that that is an extremely important point.

In franchising rail services the franchising director has to secure value for money for the funds which he has available and to allocate them in the best interests of passengers. My noble friend Lord Renton went into this issue. I was very pleased to hear him acknowledge that the levels of subsidy must be taken into account in the context of the levels of occupancy. I am sure that my noble friend did say, and would say again, that he would not want to see levels of subsidy not examined and that they are of great importance in considering the issue.

Lord Renton

My Lords, perhaps my noble friend will allow me to intervene. He should also bear in mind that I said that the level of subsidy can be considerably reduced, as has been mentioned by some of my noble friends.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I believe that the only hard evidence that we have to go on is the actual levels of subsidy at the moment and the services offered by British Rail. As my noble friend acknowledged, the whole purpose of rail privatisation is to encourage a more efficient railway. We believe that the franchisees, in taking up the franchises, will be able to create great efficiencies and make more efficient use of the network.

It is important at this point to say that, should the successful franchisee wish to take forward a service, there is nothing to prevent him from doing that. The question under consideration is the passenger service requirement or the guarantee.

The question of the efficient allocation of funds will inevitably require the franchising director to take difficult decisions. One such decision is the level of the provision of sleeper services to Scotland. The franchising process is already well under way. The franchising director issued a pre-qualification document last December inviting organisations to apply for consideration as bidders for eight franchises, including ScotRail. Last week Roger Salmon announced the results of that exercise. Thirty-seven organisations have applied to pre-qualify. Many are interested in more than one franchise, with the result that the total number of applications for the eight franchises is over 160. So there is clearly healthy private sector interest in running passenger services.

Each franchise will be built around a passenger service requirement. The so-called PSR will specify the contractually guaranteed level of service which each franchisee will be required to operate. Among other things, it will specify frequency, journey times, first and last trains and weekend and off-peak services. Passenger service requirements will protect services to every station and on every route on the network. I hope that that guarantee will reassure my noble friend Lord Gainford about his concerns, which ranged beyond the question of the West Highland sleeper.

Draft passenger service requirements for four of the first franchises were announced by the franchising director and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport last month. They cover the Great Western, London Tilbury & Southend, Gatwick Express, and South West Trains franchises. The proposed passenger service requirement for ScotRail will be announced in early summer. This will include proposals for those Anglo-Scottish sleeper services which the franchising director believes should be protected by the PSR.

There has been some discussion this evening, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, about consultation and the early preliminary announcement by the franchising director. As has been said, the franchising director has already given an indication of the sleeper services which he is minded to include in the passenger service requirement. He announced on 14th December that he was minded to include sleepers to four of the five existing Scottish destinations—Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness. At the same time, he made it clear that he was minded not to include the Fort William sleeper or any Motorail services in the PSR.

As we have heard, some people have taken the view that the franchising director's announcement has pre-empted the consultation exercise on the future of those services. I vigorously deny that. It is not the case. At the time of his announcement, there was considerable speculation about the future of sleeper services generally and worries that the franchising process would see the end of all Anglo-Scottish sleeper services. It was to calm this speculation that the franchising director made his intentions known.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I am much obliged to the Minister for giving way, but will he indicate whether or not the charge that was made by the deputy or acting director general of ScotRail was right—that the Government had colluded and had agreed to the closure of the service as from 28th May?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I do not think that there are any accusations of collusion to be made at all. I shall set out what has happened; the reason for the franchising director's early announcement to quell speculation; the role of the franchising director; the role of the Government; the role of BR and the interaction between BR and Ministers.

As I have said, the ScotRail passenger service requirement will be subject to consultation in early summer. All the issues that have been raised this evening concerning tourism and other important questions will be fully aired.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, I apologise for intervening, but is it not the case that an announcement that the service will be ended was made before the end of the consultation process which the franchising director instituted? That is the question to which we are all awaiting a reply. If that is not the case, why does the Minister think that that impression has been so widely received by most noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Gray, as he mentioned in the opening speech?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I believe that there has been some misunderstanding. If the noble Baroness will allow me to say so, I think that perhaps she has perpetuated some of that misunderstanding—

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, I was asking a question.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I believe that the noble Baroness is confusing the role of the franchising director, who is involved in setting the passenger service requirements for guarantees of future service levels after privatisation, and the question of BR announcing that it would no longer run the service. That is not the passenger service requirement. That is not the role of the director of rail passenger franchising. This is a question for British Rail—

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords—

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, if the noble Baroness will remain in her seat for a moment longer, she will hear me fully explain the situation.

Perhaps I may return to the issue of consultation. The draft passenger service requirement will be sent to all the interested local authorities and to the relevant rail users' consultative committees. The Office of Passenger Rail Franchising will have detailed discussions on the services to be included and the franchising director has made it clear that he will consider any representations he receives about the inclusion in the PSR of the Fort William service.

I turn now to the reasons why the franchising director reached the preliminary view that the Fort William service should not be included in the PSR. Essentially he was concerned that the very high cost to the taxpayer of these services and their low usage suggested that they represented very poor value for money indeed. In respect of the Fort William sleeper, the cost in subsidy to the taxpayer of keeping that service running is £450 per passenger journey including infrastructure costs.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, challenged me to explain the difference between my figures and those given by my noble friend. I do not believe that I can do that at the Dispatch Box. Our figures come from British Rail. After all, it is British Rail which operates the service. The figure that I have quoted is not far short of the average subsidy which travellers in the south east receive for a full year's commuting. Whatever strong arguments or otherwise have been put forward this evening, I believe that it is vital that that context is taken into account.

I believe that levels of usage are critical in analysing the case that has been made by noble Lords. On average, the Fort William sleeper is only 60 per cent. full in summer—about 36 passengers per train—and 50 per cent. full in winter when the number of carriages per train is reduced. Average occupancy in the winter, therefore, is about 18 people. In addition, demand is falling and could be expected to continue to do so in future. On Motorail, 17,600 cars were carried in 1993–94, representing 48 per cent. of capacity.

Faced with those figures it is perhaps not surprising that the franchising director reached the preliminary view that he did. Nevertheless, he is certainly well aware of the importance which is attached to these services locally, which has been ably expressed in the House this evening. He will also have noted the campaign which has been mounted to save the services. I have given the undertaking that he will take fully into account the report of this evening's debate. The franchising director's mind is not closed and if the consultation process leads him to conclude that the services should be preserved, they will be included in the PSR and the franchisee will be contractually required to operate them.

It is for the franchising director to use his judgment to decide what services to include in franchises in the light of the consultation. The objectives, instructions and guidance which have been issued to him give him general guidance but leave specific decisions to him. The Secretary of State has therefore instructed the franchising director to ensure that for the initial letting of franchises, the passenger service requirements are based on the service level being provided by BR immediately prior to franchising. This does not mean that he has to include every service provided by BR. It would be wrong to try to fossilise the existing pattern of services in this way.

The second half of my noble friend's Question deals with British Rail's decision to withdraw the Fort William sleeper and Motorail services from the summer timetable, which effectively means that the services will stop operating on 28th May. This is the point about which the noble Baroness was talking. Until franchises are let, decisions about individual services are a commercial matter for British Rail. It is for BR to judge the market and to allocate its resources in response to the needs of passengers. Ministers have no powers to direct it on matters relating to the provision of individual services. On this occasion, BR has taken the view that it cannot justify continuing the services into the summer timetable.

I regret that I have run against the buffers of the time limit. My right honourable friend has asked BR to ensure that all the assets needed to run the Fort William sleeper and Motorail services will be kept available at least until the end of the consultation process on the ScotRail franchise.

I hope that the House will accept that Ministers and the franchising director are in no doubt about the strength of feeling expressed by noble Lords this evening.