Previous Section Home Page

Column 339

new roads in London were instructed by the Department's officials to assume a massive 46 per cent. real increase in fares by the year 2001? A report to that effect appears in this month's Railway Gazette International. How does that figure compare with the increased cost of private car use, which is estimated at only 9 per cent. by the year 2000? Is the increase linked to the removal of public service obligation subsidy completely? Will the Secretary of State come clean and tell the House what are his intentions? The Secretary of State's policy is to allow InterCity to operate as a private company, which means that it could take certain business decisions that were very much against the public interest--such as doubling long-distance commuter fares. Even if half InterCity's passengers were lost, revenues would be maintained while rolling stock levels would be reduced. Would the Government stand aside and allow that to happen? I would not put it past them.

I return to the scandalous withdrawal of the Stranraer-London sleeper services to which my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) referred earlier--as did the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), who was apparently brashly dismissed by the Secretary of State. Despite all-party opposition from Members of Parliament representing constituences in south-west Scotland and Northern Ireland, no one in British Rail seems to give a damn what happens. Local authorities and other interested organisations are willing to commit themselves financially to helping the services, yet they are still to be withdrawn. Does that signal the beginning of the end of sleeper services between London and Aberdeen, Inverness and Oban, and perhaps even between Edinburgh and Glasgow? Will the Secretary of State agree not to withdraw those sleeper services and personally to examine the Stranraer service--and not hide behind the argument that that matter is entirely for InterCity to decide?

Everyone knows that the Government are not very popular in Scotland because of their policies. Perhaps the Secretary of State can build up a little good will by giving a categorical assurance that no more Scottish services will be withdrawn, especially in rural areas. Will he consider the electrification of the east coast line north of Edinburgh to Aberdeen? Can he guarantee that Channel tunnel passengers from Scotland will have direct inter-line facilities in London, without having to change stations, from the day the Channel tunnel comes into operation? There is a strong suspicion that Scotland will not benefit, and nor will other areas, and that not all the necessary infrastructure will be in place when the tunnel opens. There is no such suspicion attached to the French operation. I for one am not in the least reassured by the Secretary of State's promise that everything will be all right on the night. I do not believe that we will be ready for the opening of the Channel tunnel.

Most railway workers do a first-class job in all kinds of weather, working long and unsocial hours for low pay. Last year, they had to fight very hard for an 8.8 per cent. pay increase, yet the salary of British Rail's new chairman will increase from £92,000 to £200,000 per annum. Any Government, regardless of their policies, must acknowledge that the best way of improving services is to provide more financial support for infrastructure, and to pay railway workers decent wages and provide them with good working conditions.

Column 340

The nation needs a properly planned, co- ordinated and integrated transport system. I make no apology for reiterating a longstanding trade union and Labour party transport argument. The nation needs a system that will take into account economic, environmental and social benefits for users and non-users alike. The Government will not provide such a system, but the next Labour Government will. 8.18 pm

Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith (Kincardine and Deeside) : One would have more respect for the criticisms made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall) and by his hon. Friends if they at least acknowledged some of the achievements of our transport system over recent years. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State acknowledged that many improvements need to be made, but one must acknowledge also those that have already been made.

If I may say so in her absence, the intervention of the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) could not have been more wide of the mark. Roads in Scotland, of course, are the ultimate responsibility of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. I remind the hon. Member for Moray that the part of Scotland that I represent as well as the hon. Lady has seen road dualling between Perth and Aberdeen nearly completed, but she made no mention of that. In the last nine months, my right hon. Friend has committed himself to major improvements to the road between Aberdeen and Inverness, in the hon. Lady's own constituency.

Mr. Adley : Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith : I would rather not give way, as this is a short debate and I want to finish fairly quickly.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's commitment to investment in British Rail, and to its continuation. Investment has increased in recent years.

I want to concentrate on the concern in my part of Scotland about current plans to finish the electrification of the east coast line at Edinburgh and not to continue it to Aberdeen. The hon. Member for Shettleston mentioned this.

We certainly appreciate that some £400 million has been invested in the east coast route. It has been the biggest single investment that British Rail has carried out in its electrification programme, and we are grateful for it, but it is only logical that it should be continued beyond Edinburgh to Aberdeen. I ask my right hon. Friend to do all that he can to ensure that it is completed.

I know that I am talking about a further investment of some £80 million, but when one compares that with the hundreds of millions spent on the Channel tunnel, and the £200 million or more which is projected for the Heathrow link, it is no wonder that there is anxiety in our part of Scotland.

People in areas north of Edinburgh are worried that British Rail has said that electrification is not justified. We welcome British Rail's commitment to consider the matter again.

Why are we so concerned? The people in the north of Scotland want to take advantage of the Channel tunnel, as do other areas, and we want to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the integrated European market after 1992.

Column 341

Under the present arrangements, the east coast main line is part of the integrated United Kingdom InterCity network. If

electrification ends at Edinburgh, locomotives will have to be changed, and that makes many people think, rightly or wrongly, that the area north of Edinburgh will become peripheral. We will not share in the advantages offered by the improved journey time from London to Edinburgh. That journey is to be cut by 35 minutes, but the journey to Aberdeen, after allowing for the change of locomotives, will increase by 20 to 30 minutes. We do not count that as progress. We ask for our share in the 35-minute improvement in journey time that Edinburgh will get.

Freightliner's terminals are being closed in Scotland, and four British Rail area manager's offices are closing. Therefore, my right hon. Friend should not be surprised at the kind of fears that I have expressed. They are genuine fears, and we do not want to see the north of Scotland become peripheral.

Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks) : Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith : No, I would rather not give way, because of the time.

The Grampian region has a population of more than half a million. Tayside has 400,000 and Fife some 350,000, so we are not talking about peripheral areas. They have a large population and it is growing, which is a reverse of the national trend in Scotland. It is also an area of high economic and industrial activity. My right hon. Friend used to be at the Department of Energy, and he should not need persuading about the importance of that part of Scotland because of North sea oil.

Would the investment be justified? British Rail says that its figures show that it would not, but the figures are only a little short of viability. I welcome the fact that they are going to re-examine the figures, and I hope that something positive will result.

I agree with the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) that this should be costed in socio-economic terms and not just economic terms. We want a full cost-benefit analysis, showing the benefit to travellers, the time saved, the reduced congestion on roads and other economic and social benefits to the local areas served by the line. I understand that that is how road investment studies are carried out, and how investment in harbours and ports is assessed. We ask for similar treatment for this line. The issue has real relevance in regional development terms, particularly if the whole of the United Kingdom is to benefit from the Channel tunnel. I remind my right hon. Friend that this kind of project is appropriate for external funding. Some 40 per cent. of the line goes through assisted areas. The inquiries that have been made of the European development fund show that it could be used. One of its purposes is to correct regional imbalance. Therefore, a considerable amount of funding could come from Europe, and I hope that advantage will be taken of that.

More recently, a number of individuals and bodies have come up with the suggestion of private funding. Some of my hon. Friends have criticised the amount of money that

Column 342

Scotland gets. However, people in Scotland are prepared to put money into a project such as this, and the chairman of British Rail is considering proposals at the moment.

I ask my right hon. Friend to keep pressing British Rail about the project, and to facilitate it in every way that he can. We want an integrated transport system. The Scottish Office has improved roads in north-east Scotland beyond recognition in the past 10 years under the Conservative Government. Aberdeen airport is one of the busiest airports in Britain, and a lot of money and investment has been put into it. We want choice and competition in transport services, so we want the rail system to be improved, not hindered, so that it shares in the competition and offers choice to the user. That makes sense for regional development.

I ask my right hon. Friend and the House not to forget that the area concerned services the generation of all the revenues from the North sea. We simply ask for a little of it back.

8.26 pm

Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport) : St. Valentine's day is an appropriate day to discuss rail services. I am certain that the majority of the British public, and those who travel on British Rail and London Underground, have a love-hate relationship with the managements of those companies, and would rather put them in the stocks.

The public know that the management are not the real culprits because their hands are tied, and they have no alternative but to do what the Government order. They know that profit and loss has to take priority over quality and service.

Mr. Ian Bruce (Dorset, South) rose --

Mr. Fearn : I shall give way in a moment.

The recent astronomical fares increases are sympto-matic of the Government's attitude towards anything that can be even remotely considered a public service. The ideology is to apply market forces, but in this case I do not think that that is going to work. Britain needs a comprehensive public transport system to meet the economic and trade needs of the 1990s, and the social and environmental needs of today and beyond.

On Monday, during questions, the Secretary of State chose to give my right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) a tongue-in-cheek response to his question about the need for an integrated transport system. Is the Minister aware that we are probably the only country in Europe that ignores the social and environmental public interest aspects of our public transport system, and probably the only country that does not view public transport as a public service, but thinks that its profitability, when it is run as a commercial organisation, is the only evidence that it is operating in the best public interest?

The Secretary of State also said in his response that his Department was pursuing a balanced policy, with record levels of investment to improve all aspects of the transport system. He made it sound as though the Government had performed a great service, and that we should give them a pat on the back.

Yet we know that the share of total capital invested in the railways today which comes from the Treasury is minimal. We also know that, in France, capital investment plans announced this year show that they are investing in

Column 343

their railways at well over twice the rate of investment in Britain, and theirs is already a well-funded system. The cost of travelling on French railways will be cheaper. The French have seen the opportunities of 1992 and of the Channel tunnel, and have reached out to grasp them. We have not done that ; our transport policy will hang around our necks like a millstone for the rest of time.

What is required is planning, along with co-ordination, investment and financial support. Part of our policy should be a recognition that-- properly developed and fully exploited, and with the dedicated reserved routes that they control--the railways can carry far more passengers and goods than the roads, using much less space, ensuring greater safety and causing less environmental pollution.

What the system does not need is a massive fares increase, which will deter passengers and return them to the roads. In September 1978, the price of a standard return ticket from London to Brighton was £5.65 ; in September 1989, it was £16.20. Following the latest increase, the fare is 200 per cent. higher than it was when the present Government came to power.

Hon. Members will want to know how inflation affects those calculations. Rail fares are rising faster than the inflation rate : the rise in the retail prices index over the same period was only 115 per cent.--which, of course, is nothing to be proud of. Passengers are being priced off the rails. Our roads are becoming more congested, with all the social, economic and environmental disadvantages that that creates. It is madness to build more roads in the mistaken belief that they will relieve congestion : the more roads that are built, the more cars there will be to fill them. It is nonsense for us to pursue policies that will inevitably bring our major towns to a halt.

London Regional Transport's declared policy is to deter passengers, at least during peak hours. British Rail claims that it has never been part of its policy to turn passengers away, but the current fares increases will do just that. Today's press reports that British Rail is to make further cuts in services, and to shorten trains on Network SouthEast and the rural provincial lines, seem to confirm that its policy is to reduce capacity rather than increase it. Both groups point to the increased number of people they transport to dispute that fact, and to justify claims that services have been improved. The number of passengers has undoubtedly increased over the years, but that is probably due less to efforts to improve services than to the nature of today's society. More people are on the move : as communities break up, they travel further to work, do the shopping and engage in leisure activities.

Many people have moved further afield to be able to afford their own homes. They have been hit hardest, especially in the present climate of high interest rates. The recent fares increases are the final blow, and many people may have to consider moving again or even leaving the home ownership market altogether. Moreover, those on low incomes who cannot afford to buy cars increasingly cannot afford to travel on public transport either. They are in danger of becoming isolated from the services they need, and of being unable to participate in the life around them.

I referred earlier to the policy of encouraging off-peak travel. Of course, if LRT's attempts were entirely successful, the "off-peak" period would become the new rush hour. More to the point, there is a limit to the amount of off-peak travelling that is possible : flexible hours may have some advantages, but they too are limited--not only from a business point of view, but because they can be very

Column 344

destructive to family life. As a frequent traveller on British Rail and London Underground, I am always rather sceptical when I hear talk of "off-peak hours", because the trains are always crowded when I travel on them, whatever the time.

I have not said much about the quality of service on the railways. Certainly the astronomical price of tickets should warrant excellent service, but more often than not it does not approach such a standard. Trains are cancelled, run late, do not contain the advertised buffet car and are poorly maintained, and in some cases passengers have no idea what is happening.

On my latest trip from the north, my train was an hour and a half late. When I questioned a member of staff, he said that the driver was ill and had not turned up in time. When I asked another member of staff who happened to be passing--admittedly he was on the catering side--he said that the train had not come out of the siding in time. Later, someone on one of the platforms said that the delay was definitely due to a landslide in Scotland. As it happened, none of the excuses was correct.

Even when efforts are made to inform passengers, it is virtually impossible to hear, because the tannoy system does not work.

Mr. Ian Bruce : Clearly a good deal of creativity is involved in the production of so many good excuses. If we privatised the railway service and gave it its head, it would improve considerably, as does any service in which British industry and enterprise are involved.

Mr. Fearn : The hon. Gentleman has a point, but I think that the number of excuses would be reduced only if staff were paid a proper rate for the job. If British Rail had more employees, the service would be better. The problems are all symptomatic of a system that has been cut to the bone in the interests of cost efficiency, and that is not a good way in which to run a public transport system. I have mentioned the Secretary of State's reference to his Department's balanced policy. Last Monday, at Transport Question Time, he said that in the next three years the Government's roads programme would amount to £5.7 billion, and the rail, Underground and other public transport programmes to £6 billion. Does he really consider that a good, balanced policy? Spending on more roads has been justified through cost-benefit assessments, but no form of rail investment has been seen to bring such benefits.

I note that it is now part of British Rail's objectives to undertake cost- benefit analysis to enable Government to justify capital grant for investment. I also understand that the payment of capital grant for non- user benefits has, in theory, been Government policy since 1987, but that policy has not been followed through in practice.

Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West) : The hon. Gentleman's constituency and mine adjoin each other and we have common problems, caused mainly by traffic flow. Bypasses are needed to relieve the pressure on the villages in the area. A bypass has already been built in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, on the edge of Southport, adjacent to the new hospital that owes its existence to this forward-thinking Government. In the villages, however, and in and around Ormskirk and Southport, the public are asking for the traffic flow to be relieved. Surely it is only right for the Government to give that a high priority.

Column 345

Mr. Fearn : The hon. Gentleman and I agree on that, and we are both working towards the new road system leading to Southport. If the Minister had agreed to open the Burscough Curves, a flow of traffic from Scotland and the north would have opened up the north-west, and I hope that that will still be a rider. We know that the local authorities must get together, but Government money is needed as well.

When does the Minister expect the first capital grant for non-user benefit to be made under the new objective? How does that fit in with the requirement for British Rail to operate in a commercial manner to ensure a return on investment of at least 8 per cent.? It is clear that transport costs should be reduced. To achieve this, we must invest in our railways.

Investment in the railways could have a proportionately greater effect than investment in roads, and it could have greater environmental and social benefits. Other nations in Europe have seen that. Other nations have invested at a far greater rate than has Britain. Proportionately, they have invested more public money. It is time that we did the same. If we are to compete, if we are to benefit from 1992 and from the Channel tunnel, we must invest in our infrastructure. The railways and London Underground are part of that infrastructure.

8.40 pm

Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford) : The only thing more depressing than the simplistic motion in the name of the Leader of the Opposition was the somewhat negative speech of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott)--a characteristic performance with nothing but dubious criticism. The hon. Gentleman tried to scale the heights, but did not quite get there. We heard nothing constuctive. Nor--and this is more important-- did the hon. Gentleman's speech tell us anything precise about what the Labour party proposes to do about rail transport, or about where the money to pay for the very vague ideas spluttered out would come from. I remind the hon. Gentleman that in 1984 another politician--Fritz Mondale--went round the country criticising his political opponents but failing to come up with any detailed, constructive proposals of his own. People turned to him and said, "Where's the beef?" I say to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East, "Where's the beef, Giovanni?" The British electorate want to know the precise details of the policy. We do not want simplistic solutions and flowery expressions in an attempt to con the electorate.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in his admirable speech, not everything that British Rail is doing is now completely up to scratch. There is a good reason for that. Our railways were neglected in the late 1960s and the 1970s. There was under-investment and gross over- subsidisation. Opposition Members call for the investment of more taxpayers' money. That would not improve the service one iota ; it would lead to inefficiency. The use of taxpayers' money leads to lethargy and to a total refusal to meet the demands or satisfy the needs of the customer. That is what British Rail has been suffering from, and that is why, until recently, British Rail was not providing anything like as good a service as its customers deserve and should have been getting.

Mr. Adley : Does that apply to West Germany as well?

Column 346

Mr. Burns : My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) raises the question of West Germany.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough) : Yes, tell us about West Germany.

Mr. Burns : Once again the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) seeks to intervene from a sedentary position. Many people regard the hon. Gentleman as the unthinking man's Alf Garnett. If he listened a little more in quiet, he might learn something and increase his knowledge of the subject.

In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, I would say that it is too easy, too glib, to make comparisons between subsidisation in Britain and subsidisation in Europe. The railway debts that the British Government have written off have not been written off in Europe. That is why the subsidisation figures there are far higher than they are in this country.

Mr. Adley : Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Burns : I am sorry, but I cannot give way. Other hon. Members want to speak, and I am pushed for time.

I would point out to my right hon. Friend that Chelmsford is one of the largest commuter towns in the south of England. I, too, have been a commuter, and I can say that the service lacks a number of elements. For example, the cleanliness of trains, despite the target, is not good enough. Neither is time-keeping.

Mr. Prescott : Here come the complaints.

Mr. Burns : Not at all. Before the hon. Gentleman gets carried away I shall explain that, despite those criticisms, there is investment pouring into British Rail and it is being reflected in the service. But because there is so much catching up to do, as a consequence of neglect in the 1970s, it is not possible to do everything overnight. Those lines in which there has been investment have seen the benefits of remarkably improved service. The Liverpool Street to Chelmsford line is not so good as it should be, but one can see that the investment there is beginning to bear fruit. New and additional trains are being introduced. Outdated rolling stock is being replaced with new carriages. More than £1 billion is being invested in Liverpool Street station. Of course, because of the building work, that station has been a nightmare for commuters in the last three years. The rebuilding is extensive, and when the station is up and running it will be a showpiece for London and will bring benefits for commuters.

Within the last three years there has been a major rebuilding programme at Chelmsford station. My constituents will be delighted at my right hon. Friend's announcement at Question Time on Monday that a new signalling programme on the Shenfield to Chelmsford to Colchester line, costing more than £19 million, is to start early next year. That will bring real benefits to commuters and to the line when it is in operation in 1993.

The crux of the matter is investment. What is needed is investment. That is why I welcome the fact that since 1983 the Government and BR have invested more than £3 billion in British Rail. [Interruption.] The Government and BR have invested more than £3 billion in British Rail, and during the next three years more than £3.7 billion will

Column 347

be invested to improve the service. That is the way forward. That is the way in which we will get a better service. And we shall continue.

My constituents accept that the fare increases that they have had to put up with over a number of years have been above the rate of inflation. But they are saying "Thank God we did not have the 50 per cent. increase in fares that was experienced during the time of the last Labour Government." Thank God, as a result of some of the increases in fares, they have seen improvements in the service. I remind the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East that they were less than amused when their fares went up again this month to pay for the strike last year that the hon. Gentleman endorsed and encouraged. That is the answer on fares.

Perhaps the most powerful argument against the whole case for subsidisation comes from the Labour party consultation paper of 1977, which said :

"Social, environmental and economic considerations do not seem to justify the large subsidy which railway users now receive, bearing in mind in particular that the generality of railway subsidies are regressive in effect."

That is the truth of the matter. That is why it is right that there should not be further subsidisation just to cushion inefficiency. We cannot have a system of meddling and blanket subsidies ; that benefits the rich far more than the poor. What we need is more investment. It is time that that was recognised by the Opposition. We should not con the electorate with subsidies. We should provide real benefit. We should improve the service through investment. That is the way in which British Rail is proceeding.

In conclusion, I say to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East that the motion that he and his hon. Friends have asked the House to support should be rejected. It shows that the Opposition have learnt nothing, and that they propose to do nothing in the future if they ever get into power. The House should reject the motion and treat it with the contempt that it so richly deserves. 8.49 pm

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) : Nothing delights me more than to hear a Conservative Member of Parliament say, with great fervour, that we must never allow the rich to subsidise the poor. From a party that has just introduced the poll tax, the effrontery is so amazing we can only sit and gawp. Almost every other European country has spent more on state assistance to its national railways than we have. We spend 0.22 per cent. of our GDP on state assistance to our railways. Luxembourg, Ireland, Germany, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands and even little Portugal, with its rundown system, spend more on their railways.

We are told that British Rail is responding to the performance target set for it by the Government and that it will be able to introduce a much better service. The reality is quite different. Using 1989-90 prices, when the Conservative party took power in 1979 investment in British Rail was £518 million. In 1988-89, that figure has risen to £600 million. We are not talking about a tremendously impressive increase in investment. The Government decided, for dogmatic reasons, that they would not invest in British Rail and that they would reduce the passenger service grant. That led to considerable discomfort for passengers, although fares increased and services grew much worse.

Column 348

I spoke last week to a member of the French Assembly who had been asked to produce a detailed report on transport for 1992. Shortly before that, I spoke to members of the German Parliament about their transport plans. A French Government transport official says : "For us the TGV is an Airbus on rails. It is competitive with air up to 500 kilometres. It gets cars off the road and it is clean." If other nations are prepared to spend more money on improving their services, why do we suffer from constantly increasing fares and constantly declining services? The reason is simple. The Government boast that they have allowed British Rail to increase its investment, but they have never said that they expect all that investment to be provided directly by passengers, through increased fares. They never refer to the fact that people who have had to move out of city centres to find somewhere to live have already had to bear considerable fare increases.

We desperately need a Government who are prepared to face up to reality. The Government's transport policy takes no account of the fact that our road system is incapable of carrying all passengers and freight and that it has become bogged down to such an extent that even industry, when it is realistic, can put a figure on what the Government's policy is costing it. If asked, industry would make it plain to the Government that it wants a rail system that will provide a good alternative to our overcrowded roads.

London's transport system is almost breaking down. Crisis management has led to the stopping of escalators on London Underground and people cannot get to the platforms. Passengers find it difficult to go from place to place at particular times of the day. They are forced to endure conditions on London Underground that are unacceptable in this day and age.

The Government should not perpetuate their confidence trick by saying that they are investing more in the system when what they really mean is that they are prepared to allow British Rail to borrow more money, provided that passengers will put up with lower standards of service and higher fares. The Government say that they are committed to improving the transport system. The reality is quite the reverse. The passenger is paying, in every sense of the word. If Conservative Members of Parliament do not accept that fact, at the next general election they will be shown clearly what their constituents think of the Government's commitment, or lack of it, to a public transport system.

8.56 pm

Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks) : I intend to speak briefly about the railway line problems in my constituency and then to compare the United Kingdom network with those that are developing rapidly in Europe. The comparison is not favourable to this country. There are three railway lines in Sevenoaks. Year after year the Uckfield line has been unreliable and has continued to lose passengers. Electrification is essential if the line is to provide the service that passengers can reasonably expect. The north- west Kent lines run from Maidstone to Swanley, and the high-speed Channel tunnel link will feed into those lines. We shall debate that matter in more detail on another occasion. However, those lines, which run into south-west London, are already overloaded. British Rail has said that its Channel tunnel

Column 349

link services will not be detrimental to existing services. All of us who represent constituents in that area have difficulty believing that, but we shall hold British Rail to it.

I also have in my constituency the Sevenoaks to Orpington line which runs from Tonbridge and Hastings into London. The service there, although better than on the other two, still leaves much to be desired in punctuality, reliability and, above all, cleanliness. I do not argue that just throwing money at the problem will solve it. Good management by British Rail is the key, but there is also an essential need for a strategy and for increased funding. I have a specific question for my right hon. and hon. Friends on management. Am I correct in understanding that the new chairman of British Rail, Mr. Bob Reid, will not take up his job fully until September or October and that there will be an interregnum between the departure of Sir Bob Reid and the taking of full control by his successor? If true, that is extremely disturbing in that all the consultation on the detail of the high -speed link, before the legislation is deposited in Parliament, will take place between British Rail and Trafalgar House when there is no full-time chairman in post. It is extraordinary that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State could not arrange for Mr. Robert Reid to take over the job when his predecessor leaves in the spring. I cannot believe that Shell, with its strength of management, could not have done without its current chief for a further three months.

I shall concentrate on the unfavourable comparison between the British Rail network and the European network of the future. On which European railway lines have my right hon. and hon. Friends travelled during the past six months? What is their impression of them, and how did they view Britain's rail network as of now and, more importantly, as of the next decade in comparison with the networks of France, West Germany, Italy and Switzerland?

I recently had the opportunity, with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) and others from both sides of the House, to travel on the newest TGV line from Brittany to Paris. We saw new marshalling yards, new rolling stock, and brand-new and extremely efficient train sets, as they are described. The track out of Paris follows an old route unused since the first world war, but not sold off ; it was kept with an eye to the future. The line has been well barriered for noise and a large part of it is in a cut-and-cover tunnel. Landscaping has been carried out over the top to a very high standard, with local authorities being involved in the project.

Mr. Adley : I support everything my hon. Friend has said. Will he join me and, I am sure, other hon. Members in pleading yet again with the Government to stop immediately the policy of successive Governments of selling off redundant railway track? There may be a case for closing some services but there can never be a case for destroying part of our transport heritage.

Mr. Wolfson : I thank my hon. Friend for his comment. I cannot go as far as he does about never selling unused track because there may be places where, taking even the longest view, there would appear to be no future use for it. However, the example I have described makes strongly the case that he is arguing.

Column 350

The line from Paris has been superbly landscaped. New houses have been built alongside it, enhancing the environment, and the value of houses on each side of the track has increased considerably. Suburbs that were previously regarded as being on the wrong side of the track are now attractive. The improvement is the result of a long-term strategy and long-term planning for the railways.

The speed, design, quality and performance of the new train are better than those of the newest trains in Britain. There is no vibration or noise when one moves from one coach to another. I take up the point of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) that train will be the way to travel in Europe for distances between, say, 200 and 1,000 km rather than making the change from bus to plane to bus. No less a person than Lord Young of Graffham, when Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, said off the cuff that Europe will travel by train in the future, not as now by plane. At that time he was spearheading the campaign to bring Britain up to date with the opportunities of 1992. Unless we build a rail infrastructure to meet that challenge, we shall not meet it effectively.

Sir David Mitchell : My hon. Friend refers to the scope for travel within the continent and to journeys between 200 and 1,000 km as the major front for rail travel in future. Does he accept that journeys of those distances, which exist throughout the continent, can make a railway network pay in a way that could never be achieved with the shorter distances in Britain?

Mr. Wolfson : My hon. Friend makes the point that it may be easier to do that on the continent, but in the Standing Committee considering the Channel Tunnel Bill, he argued that the Channel tunnel provided British Rail with the greatest opportunity for more than 100 years. I agree with him that the Channel tunnel will link us into the long-distance network, but the Government need to demonstrate a greater commitment and give a higher priority to the railways than they have in the past. Funding is required to build an infrastructure.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan- Smith) pleaded for national support, as well as arguing that support would come from the private sector, for his area of Scotland as part of a regional development policy. That is exactly what the French have done in building the TGV for the Atlantic coast. They took the view that Brittany and the south-west of France needed the stimulus of a high-grade modern rail service, from which growth will follow. That argument applies exactly to the case that my right hon. Friend was making for Scotland. It is no surprise that a number of hon. Members representing Scottish constituencies have spoken tonight. They have said they want the benefits of the Channel tunnel in Scotland. In Kent we are concerned about having too much growth, because it is not needed in all parts of the county. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) is in a different position. He could do with the stimulus-- [Laughter.] I do not wish to be misunderstood. My hon. Friend's constituency will benefit from the stimulus. An effective rail link is crucial to bring the benefits of the Channel tunnel to the midlands, the north and, above all, to Scotland.

Mr. George J. Buckley (Hemsworth) : Not with £600 million investment.

Column 351

Mr. Wolfson : I do not suggest that when the Labour party was in government it had a satisfactory record of investment in the railways. It did not. I certainly cannot support the Opposition's motion today as I have no confidence that they would be able to deliver.

I look to the Government to provide a larger proportion of public investment, as capital subsidy and as continuing subsidy to running costs if we are to get the full benefits of the rail system that I believe this country deserves.

Finally, I wish to refer to the political relevance of all this. It is of real concern to rail travellers throughout Britain when they are travelling in cattle truck conditions. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made the perfectly sensible point that lines had closed and the sleeper service was suspended because they were not being used effectively. He did not say that some lines are used so effectively that people travel in cattle truck conditions. After 10 years of Conservative government, people expect the service to be better, whatever the Government's capital investment in British Rail. My concern is for the British economy in the future. I am not satisfied that our stategy is correct. It is flawed and I shall therefore abstain in the vote.

9.10 pm

Next Section

  Home Page