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Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The debate is on rail passenger services. The fact is that the Tory central office briefs do not stretch to a word on rail services.
The point that I am trying to make is that the Labour party's forecasts about the future of privatisation have been wrong. There is no reason why we should listen to it this time any more than we have in the past.
Every privatisation has brought increased investment and service to the customer. This privatisation should be no different. Its dependence on public funding has let down British Rail in the past, and the Government now want to put it on a sound financial footing. Not only is Labour incapable of reforming public services, but it remains unsure whether to cling to the past and call for renationalisation or whether to try to push for a pale imitation of Conservative policy--a rose by any other name. While the Labour party ties itself up in arguments about clause IV, the rest of the world has had the debate and reached a conclusion. Privatisation has worked and has been copied throughout the world. Let us allow the benefits to be felt by the railways.
Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South): I thought that we were here this evening to speak about passenger services under rail privatisation, not to be given some quotations about other utilities that have been privatised. Let us stick to the subject itself. I have three areas of doubt that I want to bring to the attention of the Government: first, from a Scottish perspective, the funding situation; secondly, the infrastructure; and thirdly, the withdrawal of services. I want to give practical reasons for my doubts on whether, under privatisation, passenger services will be improved. First, let me deal with funding.
Over the past 15 to 20 years, the funding of British Rail in Scotland has relied almost exclusively on the passenger transport executive in Strathclyde region. Since 1975,
Column 223some £400 million has been invested in Strathclyde's railways--about £30 million a year. We are told that, because of changes in the franchising system, the sum will be increased to a staggering £112 million next year--three times the amount expected from the local PTE. We are also told that, although the money will come from the Government in the first year, there is no guarantee that it will continue to do so.
At the same time, new unitary authorities are being introduced in Scotland. Can hon. Members imagine small unitary authorities being able to go on financing the railways to the tune of £112 million? How will they apportion the cost? They will start to fight among themselves.
At present, there is only one train from Argyll to Helensburgh; Cunninghame --the area represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) and me, which will become the North Ayrshire unitary authority --has some 10 stations, with trains running the length and breadth of both our constituencies. How can the Government expect funding to continue in the same way when two local authorities have been merged into, as it were, a central bank? Unless assurances are given, the whole network will suffer. There must be funding either from the top downwards or from the local authorities upwards, and we clearly cannot expect funding from the bottom up to continue. The Scottish Office and the Department of Transport must become involved. None of the changes will be clear to those who will become responsible for most of the funding, and the figures must be stated in a way that they can understand. I am also doubtful about the continuation of high standards in infrastructure. The Forth bridge, which is described internationally as the eighth wonder of the world, was built to standards that we in Scotland know as "Clyde class", but it is now badly corroded. Earlier this year, I visited the bridge with my hon. Friends the Members for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke). Although we went on the say-so of Railtrack, it was clear to us as we went underneath the bridge in a boat that the cross-members were corroded. The Scottish Office says that the problems are purely cosmetic, but the failure to paint the bridge during the past couple of years has obviously resulted in terminal damage. Railtrack, which owns it, has failed in its duty to maintain the eighth wonder of the world; meanwhile, it is taking some £170 million a year from ScotRail. I am told that stocks are now at their lowest-ever level, and that no rail clips have been ordered in the past few months. That will obviously affect passengers in the future. Last month, for the first time, ScotRail failed to meet the standards of the much-hailed passenger charter in either its eastern or its central section. How can it be held responsible, when most of the failures that have been identified are Railtrack's responsibility? This is the beginning of what will result from full-scale privatisation of the railways. Signalling and infrastructure faults have been identified as Railtrack's problem. I understand that the signalling system at Haymarket remains incomplete even now, some nine months after its inception, and that a further £1 million needs to be spent if delays are not to continue. It is nonsensical to split responsibilities. Earlier, someone asked who would be responsible for explaining why a train was late. It is clear that there will be more difficulties
Column 224than ever. Only this week, my train to Glasgow Central was delayed; faulty signals were blamed, and Railtrack was said to be the source of the problem. There is, however, no suggestion that ScotRail will be compensated, and again passengers will suffer.
Fortunately, much of what I was going to say about the withdrawal of services has already been said by the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy), but the Government must answer our concerns about the threat to sleeper services in Scotland. I am told that the regulator proposes a cut from five to two. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the problems caused by the restriction to 16 coaches at Euston. I do not know how the services will be run with split trains; perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us. We have already heard about the problems involved in the withdrawal of Motorail.
That is all the tip of the iceberg. Given that every route in Scotland is currently subsidised, how can those routes be maintained in the private sector? It is nonsensical; it is a joke. The Government's snide remarks show how seriously they treat the problem. This week we have seen perhaps the most ludicrous aspect of rail travel as it now is. A picture in the local press today shows a railway carriage being taken down the road for repair. Perhaps the Government want that to happen to all railway carriages.
The late Robert Adley, who chaired the Transport Select Committee, called rail privatisation the poll tax on wheels. Unfortunately, there will be no wheels to tax.
Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams): The hon. Member for Cunningham, South (Mr. Donohoe) put a forceful argument for privatisation. He said that things were pretty bad, and would become worse with privatisation. I believe that they will become better.
The west country has been mentioned a fair amount this evening. In my experience, rail services there have become progressively worse, especially in the past two years. The new timetable considerably lengthens the journey time to Totnes, one of the two British Rail stations in my constituency. I think that part of British Rail's programme is to make the journeys slower so that when trains arrive late it need not pay so much compensation under the passengers charter. If my experience is anything to go by, the situation has got worse and I hope that privatisation will make it better.
British Rail uses a raft of excuses--"BR-speak," as I call it. For example, slugs on the line stop heavyweight carriages dead in their tracks; bridges are in a perpetual state of repairs; floods always cover the line between Taunton and Exeter, not to mention the cursed sea at Dawlish, which is always going over the tracks just beyond that town. Freak thunderstorms cause power failures in Cornwall; not only does that county seem to be in permanent darkness, but the trains are always shunted on to sidings and fleets of buses take people from one station to another to connect with other trains. Then there is the ubiquitous phantom of Westbury--the cow that is so regularly seen on the line. Whenever the train is on time, the driver stops dead because he says that there is a cow on the line. One always hears at Paddington that the delay has been caused by a cow--it is more like Bombay or Delhi than Westbury--and if there is no cow on the line, then signals, points and crossings will do the trick.
Column 225For the past three months, no train to Totnes or Ivybridge that I have been on has been on time. That is borne out by a parliamentary answer that I received in July last year, when the then Minister said that in 1991 only 62.6 per cent. of trains arrived in Plymouth on time, in 1992 only 61.2 per cent. arrived on time, and in 1993 only 61.9 per cent. arrived on time. Fewer than two thirds of trains arrived according to the timetable time.
The one exception is the sleeper. Here I should like to take a little credit; one does not get much credit in this place, and I never get the credit, but I played a part in stopping the Government, with BR, taking off the sleeper service to Penzance. When I was in Liverpool, I had a reputation for preventing BR from taking off sleeper services to the north- west, although it did just that as soon as I was transferred to South Hams. My hon. Friend the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that the sleeper service is to be included in the franchise document, so it is safe for the next two or three years, although it will have to be used more if it is to be saved.
I said that the sleeper always arrives on time, but that is not quite true. A few months ago, I was waiting in Exeter station for the sleeper at 1 o'clock. I waited until 2.30 in the morning, but no sleeper arrived, though I pay tribute to BR for providing free cups of tea and blankets.
The problem with west country services is not only that the timetable has slipped but that trains arrive progressively later than the timetable time, with a difference of some 15 or 20 minutes, which produces growing anxiety in the minds of travellers that they will arrive late if they go by rail. More people are taking to the road, which is the last thing that we want as our west country roads are already saturated with cars which I suspect are driven by people who would have gone by rail but for the feeling that rail services are unreliable.
Rail travel is also expensive. It is more expensive to travel first class from London to Plymouth than to travel Apex from London to Gibraltar by plane--1200 miles by air is cheaper than 227 miles by train--and it takes longer to go to Plymouth by train than to go to Paris or Brussels. No wonder we in the west country feel somewhat discriminated against--like some sort of outpost of Europe, with Cornwall feeling that even more than Devon.
The problem of delays and the slowness of trains to Totnes is even worse on Sundays, when it is virtually impossible to travel from Totnes to London in under four hours. The other day it took me five and a half hours because of cows on the line at Westbury. We tend to get diverted on Sundays via Yeovil and Chippenham. Although both are beautiful parts of the country, many of us do not appreciate that unscheduled guided tour of the region.
One of the problems with BR is overmanning. I do not know whether this is correct, but I am told that there have to be two men in the cab in trains travelling between London and Reading because the train goes at 125 mph. If it goes at 110 mph, only one is needed. The unions have insisted on doubling the staff by putting an extra man in the cab. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister
Column 226will tell me whether there are two men in the cab when trains go through Slough at 125 mph even though only one is actually doing anything.
On the journey from London to Totnes, every few seconds someone clips one's ticket. Every time the train stops, another man clips the ticket. My ticket looks like one of the sheets in my passport because there are so many ticket collectors. They are good and nice, and they add a certain presence on the train, but we do not need so many of them. The restrictive practices involved in overmanning are well illustrated by the number of ticket collectors. I hope that that will not happen after privatisation.
Trains have been so late that I have been using the charter. I have collected so many vouchers that every time I go to Totnes I can now dine royally in the BR restaurant car. The only snag is that the restaurant cars are being taken up. I am sure that there will be a great improvement after privatisation.
I am a great railway enthusiast and I am well known for the support that I have given to BR and InterCity. The managing director of rail services in the west country does an excellent job, but the problem is that the service is in decline. To entice people back on to railways, we need faster and cheaper railways, and more reliable services.
On summer weekends, a train travels from Paddington to Totnes in just under two and a half hours. It is an exhilarating journey. The train is always full to the gunnels, with people hanging out of the windows, egging the driver on. One would like to see more of that. In winter, the trains are full of depressed passengers, paying through the nose, having their tickets clipped incessantly, and drowning their sorrows in powdered coffee and tea from the buffet, or in French water and wine. Would you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, expect to find English wine or water on SNCF trains in France? Can you imagine the French serving exclusively English wine or water on SNCF? Of course not--only French wine and French water would be served. When the service is privatised, I hope that British goods, and not all that European stuff, will be served on trains because British goods are not served on French trains.
The final reason why we should give privatisation a throw is that it may give the Government the opportunity to put some of the money that they invest in railways into building new railways. I want more money to be spent on new railway lines. I do not see why we could not have new railway lines if the money given in subsidy to British Rail were released and used for new lines between, for example, Exeter and Plymouth. That is what everyone wants. In Italy and France, new lines and motorways are built in minutes, so why not in this country? I am all for the service in my region being privatised. It cannot be worse than it is now. The region is crying out for improved infrastructure and if privatisation will provide that, I am all for it.
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Mr. Keith Hill (Streatham): You will be pleased to hear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I intend to speak with exemplary brevity and, somewhat unusually in this debate, about rail passenger services. As a member of the Select Committee on Transport, I sat through about 150 hours of its inquiry into the Government's rail privatisation plans. As a member of the Standing Committee which debated the Railways Act 1993, I sat through about 100 hours of debate on the detail of the privatisation programme. I can also say in all honesty that I have attended every debate in the House on rail privatisation since April 1992. Throughout that dauntingly long process, Ministers have repeated like a mantra the notion that franchises would be based on the existing timetable. In his opening speech, my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Transport provided irrefutable proof of that proposition.
Even when Ministers have referred to minimum service requirements, which I am bound to say has not been very often, not once have they said--again, this is a matter of record--that the minimum service requirements would be less than the existing timetable. If words mean anything--we are entitled to take them at face value--Ministers have led Parliament to understand that they were not envisaging any reduction in services. Now, however, we know that they are. However Ministers may duck and dive, the blunt truth is that the passenger service requirements represent the only level of services to which franchisees are contractually committed. If that is all that a franchisee wants to run, that is all that he will run and no amount of weasel words can disguise that simple fact. It might be said that we have heard enough such words during the long debate on rail privatisation.
The rabbit out of the hat--the deus ex machina--for the Secretary of State is the fact that the rail passenger has never had guaranteed services before. He said today that for the first time there would be an absolute guarantee of services. If we had a Government committed to a decent public transport system and prepared to invest in the railways at the same level as our European partners, we might not need a guarantee anyway.
We heard a great deal from Conservative Members about the benefits of privatisation, but they very often drew comparisons with the excellent services--and the speed with which new services could be introduced--in countries such as Italy and France, where railways are run on a nationalised basis. As Lord Marsh, who is no ally of the Labour party, told the Transport Select Committee, the railway industry was the one industry whose problems could be solved only by throwing money at it. That is a fact.
It is worth noting that the so-called guarantee will in the foreseeable future apply only to that small portion of the railway on which the franchises will operate. There are no guarantees of any description for the rest of the railway system, and certainly not for the branch lines about which we hear so frequently from the Secretary of State when he is trying to justify his policies on the radio. Given that a disproportionate amount of subsidy will be dished out to the franchises to make them attractive to the private sector, the rest of the network is likely to remain a Cinderella for the indefinite future. There will be no fairy godmother to whisk the rest of British Rail off
Column 228to the ball or to any golden high-speed future in the sky. While the Conservatives are in power, the prospects are grim indeed for passengers on most parts of the network.
What is the quality of the so-called guarantee that is on offer? There is a clear implication in everything that has been said that a guaranteed minimum means that a franchisee will not be able to run services below that level. But that is not so, and I will explain why.
On 15 December 1993, the Select Committee on Transport took evidence from the newly appointed franchising director, Mr. Roger Salmon. In the course of the interview, I asked him what would happen if the Treasury decided to cut the subsidy to the franchised railway. It had happened plenty of times to British Rail, so why not to the franchisees? Interestingly, the franchising director did not dismiss the possibility out of hand. On the contrary, he answered my question with admirable candour and I will quote his reply in extenso. It is reported on page 11 of the Committee's minutes of evidence, entitled "Arrangements for Railway Privatisation", printed on 15 December 1993. About the Government, Mr. Salmon said:
"It will have ability to change those subsidies under certain circumstances . . . If there is a shortage of money, one of the ways British Rail tends to react, at the moment, is by cutting investment or putting up fares. The Franchising Director, by and large, will have similar options regarding existing franchises that have been let. He will be able to change minimum specifications. He will be able to change fare levels and thereby ask the franchisee to save money and pass those savings . . . back to the Exchequer." In the words of the franchising director, speaking of his own powers in relation to minimum service guarantees,
"He will be able to change minimum specifications."
There is no guaranteed minimum. It can always be lowered--we have it from the mouth of the man who can do it.
Members of Parliament and the public have allowed themselves to be led up the garden path for too long in the belief that there would be no reduction in service levels under privatisation. One thing is entirely clear: we should be under no illusions that there are any guarantees about minimum levels of service.
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): I shall have no hesitation in voting against the Labour party's motion and voting in favour of my right hon. Friend's amendment, which is entirely sensible and practical. I allow myself a little chuckle as we debate a very serious issue when I think of the year that I spent very happily as Minister for Roads and Traffic. I became almost exclusively associated with roads and motor cars, which was to me a great irony, as I shall explain. My loss is the gain of my hon. Friend the Minister, and I wish him well. I suspect that he will find life easier being Minister for Railways and Roads than I ever did as Minister responsible for roads alone. I have a confession to make: I love trains. I started early with my Hornby 00 gauge and continued by building up my son's collection of rather splendid electric trains. While some hon. Members may have catalogued their visits to New York and Tokyo according to sights, mine were catalogued by visits to train shops.
However, my experience of real-world trains, and passenger services on them throughout my life, has been a little different. I grew up with the steam age on my local
Column 229railway line through Salisbury. I also had the excitement of family holidays to the west coast of Scotland, when I travelled, often overnight, from King's Cross to Mallaig or Kyle of Lochalsh on the sleeper trains and, occasionally on the Motorail. Indeed, this debate will have done a great service to such routes. The consultation process seems to be going rather well if tonight's debate is anything to go by. Mr. Salmon will have plenty of heavy reading to do, as well as thinking.
In the days of my trips to Scotland, the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), when I first came across him, was the radical editor of the West Highland Free Press ; an excellent document. I find it difficult to understand why the hon. Gentleman has become such a reactionary and I have become the radical. My other memory was of the branch lines for passenger services throughout the south and west, the old push-me pull-you between Salisbury and Downton or Newton Abbot and Teigngrace. In Devon, I explored the old granite tramways from Haytor to the coast and Brunel's hydraulic railway along the coast from Starcross, where the pump house still stands. I have also extensively used trains in Germany, which, incidentally, are not all that they are cracked up to be, and I have worried my American friends by insisting on travelling by train rather than by air, for example when I undertook a 17-hour journey from Portland to San Francisco on the Starlight Express. I also saw the future on the bullet train from Osaka to Tokyo. However, railway nostalgia alone simply will not do. I fear that the Opposition parties--I notice that not one Liberal Democrat is gracing the Opposition Benches--have given train spotters a bad name in this debate. The future is now with us in the superb Eurostar trains running through the channel tunnel and the journey has been transformed by facing up to the reality of railway infrastructure finance. I have been taught that railways adapt or die; they serve their passengers or they meet the Rev. Awdry in the happy, shunting yard upstairs.
The issue is not simply money. Successive Governments have spent on railways more than £1 billion for every year that I have been on this planet. And for what? For a decade and more my constituents have complained week in, week out about the service that they were receiving from British Rail.
Admittedly, there has been some good management at the top, but it has been impossible for those people to make an impact on the vast spongy bureaucracy and inertia that is British Rail. Sometimes there has been spasmodic investment. For example, we were promised some second-hand trains; they did not come. We were promised a painted station; that did happen. We were promised, and got, a loop line at Tisbury, and there has been talk of reopening stations at Wilton and Porton.
However, the timetable was always enormously inflexible. At weekends--the time when most people want to travel to London, for functions, for sport or for some other kind of leisure, and to come home again late at night--the timetable was reduced, because otherwise it would not have suited British Rail. The cry was always that that was the time when all the engineering was done.
When I was a Minister with responsibility for tourism, I visited Cornwall at the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), who has done more
Column 230than anyone in Cornwall to champion the cause of railways. His constituents told me that BR simply would not listen to what they said about their needs, and about the patterns and cycles of holiday bookings in the south-west.
Then the Government made a commitment to privatisation. All of a sudden, British Rail started to react. Suddenly, we had our new trains and a more flexible timetable. British Rail was starting to wake up, but it was too late. I became a late convert to the Government's policy of rail privatisation.
As the Secretary of State said, what the franchising director has produced is not a timetable but a consultation exercise--the first-ever consultation on our railways. I believe that there are issues more important than the timetable. None the less, when I compare my existing timetable with the South West Trains passenger service requirement, I realise why the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) totally failed to mention the main line from Waterloo through Salisbury to Exeter. If he had done the homework on that line that I have done, he would have discovered that the passenger requirement follows the present timetable closely, and that does not suit the Labour party's argument. The two are similar in terms of level of service, but for the first time there is a guaranteed minimum, and now there is every incentive for running additional, marginally costed revenue- raising passenger services.
The great old regional companies certainly served their purpose--sometimes there were regional monopolies; sometimes there was cut-throat competition- -but we must move on from those days. The early privatisations of gas and telecommunications were a success, but of course both have had to be modified. I warmly support the present exciting concept of separating the capital investment in the infrastructure of the railways from the services that provide revenue flows. In the international context, that is the most important thing that has happened to investment in railway systems for half a century.
Until now, there has been little incentive for British Rail to listen to the passenger, but now the franchisees will have every incentive not only to run a timetable to match existing loading but to generate the new markets in rail travel that are there for the picking.
My last observation is that British Rail has had a people problem. When I get on a train from my constituency and travel from Salisbury to Waterloo the journey, on good railway rolling stock, is now a real pleasure. More often than not the train is on time, and not only the trains but the people are a pleasure. There is the friendly guard, or the senior conductor, as I should call him; even the people pushing the tea trolleys seem to be enjoying themselves--something that could rarely be said of staff under the old regime. It is a happy transformation that the people now running the railway services seem to be realising that it is in their interests, too, to do a good job of work and to welcome their passengers--or, as I rather regret that they now call us, their customers.
However, that does not always happen. In the light of other great privatisations and transitions, it is important for the new railway companies and franchisees to understand that the period of transition is a difficult one for their work force. In the case of British Airways, there was real resentment among its staff, and much the same applies in the ambulance services. The success of the Nothumbrian ambulance service when compared with the
Column 231London service shows that, however much capital equipment is put into a service, it will not work unless the people who are running the services are working with the system that is introduced. Privatisation is not just about the timetable, nor is it even just about infrastructure investment. Passengers also need to feel that all railway staff from the top downwards are having a change of heart. British Airways, British Gas, British Steel, the power companies and the water companies are all now world-beating companies, and undoubtedly a better use has been made of the taxpayers' original investment. I am absolutely confident that the same can be true of the railways.
Mr. Hugh Bayley (York): In denigrating British Rail, the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) asked whether it was conceivable that one would be able to buy English water or wine on a French train. If the hon. Gentleman went to France, he might find that he was riding on a British- built train, as the new tram for Strasbourg was built in my constituency at ABB carriage works in York. York is a railway town. Eighteen months ago, 4,700 people in York worked for the railways--one in 12 of the work force. In the past 18 months, that number has fallen to 3,500, a drop of 1,200. The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) may talk of jolly tea trolley pushers on trains, but there are also thousands of people who have lost their jobs.
One might ask what effect those job losses will have on the passenger. Let me refer to two problems which we have in York. The first is that the 170 employees of Interlogic Control Engineering have been told that they will lose their jobs. The second is that 750 employees of ABB carriage works in York fear that they will be told soon that they will lose their jobs if, in the next seven or eight weeks, the company does not get a further order of the type of trains that it builds.
Signalling is the life-blood of the safety system for the railways, and if 170 signalling engineers are sacked, one builds up problems for the railways. The lack of new rolling stock is something that I do not need to explain, as other Members on both sides of the House have called for investment in new rolling stock.
Since this is a short debate, I must confine myself to two examples. The cause of most--not all--of the fatal railway accidents that have occurred recently is found to be in a signalling fault. One thinks of Clapham, and also--although the reports are not yet out--of the Cowden crash. Last week's crash on the Carlisle to Settle line was another example. In each case, it appears as though a signalling fault or a failure to provide an adequate signalling system was responsible.
Following the Clapham crash, the British Railways Board commissioned the Hesketh report, which identified a huge backlog of investment in signalling. That led to the creation of the British Rail signalling project group, and to the employment of some 1,500 additional skilled signalling engineers. As part of the preparation for privatisation, the signalling project group split into two separate companies--Interlogic Control Engineering and Signal Control UK. As I have mentioned, Interlogic has decided to close its York office with the loss of all 170 of its employees.
Column 232The decision was taken--I am told--to make the company viable for sale to the private sector. The managing director, Dr. Geoffrey Cowley, who himself is planning to lead a management buy-out took that decision. He is putting the redundancy costs on to British Rail to produce a company that will suit him when he puts in his management buy- out bid. I met Dr. Cowley last week, and he said that the job losses were inevitable because the company's business plan anticipated that the company would be designing schemes worth £180 million in the current year. It has won design work for schemes worth £105 million, because Railtrack has cut investment in signalling. Such cuts have a direct effect on the public, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) said. The collapse of Haymarket interlocking, the signal box, has resulted in months and months of delays for travellers from Glasgow to London, and we heard this evening that those delays continue.
In a Wednesday morning debate two weeks ago, we had the opportunity to debate the job losses at ABB carriage works in York, so I shall not go over that ground again. I simply say that new carriages are badly needed by passengers on the Kent coast services. They are needed to improve the service's reliability, comfort and safety. Despite the fact that those carriages have been promised for five years, in statement after statement from British Rail managers and Transport Ministers, the carriages will not be ordered in the foreseeable future because British Rail says that it will delay replacement until 1999.
I learnt at the end of last year that British Rail was keen to provide a service to customers by ordering those new carriages, but it cannot do so for financial reasons. Sir Bob Reid wrote to me on 21 November last year and said:
"At present, we have no plans to place orders for new trains, nor do the newly formed rolling stock leasing companies.
The financial position this year is extremely difficult . . . There is insufficient headroom to take on any additional commitments this year, and next year is also likely to be tight."
The cause of the problems at both Interlogic and ABB, and for passengers, is lack of investment. I asked the House of Commons Library to dig out the investment figures for me. Those show that in 1992-93, £1,556 million was invested in the railways. The following year, the figure fell to £1,263 million. The Department of Transport's press release on Budget day last November said that the Government intended to put only £750 million of taxpayers' money into the railways next year.
Unlike many hon. Members on both sides of the House, I have set up and run a business, so I know that if one invests, one improves the product and gains a market share whereas if one does not invest, the business goes into a spiral of decline.
Will the Minister now give me an answer to my written question on signalling? Will he place in the Library a copy of the Hesketh report so that we can see what was recommended? What future does he hold out for the 170 signalling engineers in my constituency who have been told that they will be made redundant? What prospect is there that the British Railways Board will decide to place a follow-on order with ABB carriage works within the next seven weeks, ahead of its threat of closing the York carriage works?
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Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes): Even in the remaining few moments of the debate, I do not believe that it can take place without reference to our late colleague, Robert Adley. He certainly would have been in his place tonight and producing some trenchant thoughts. In all probability they would not have been entirely in support of the Government, as they seldom were. I am sorry that he is not here. Like Robert Adley, I have been entirely in favour of the denationalisation of British Rail; my only qualms relate to the Government's method and their approach. All the arguments from the Opposition have been met by the statement from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who has said that they are curable through the process of denationalisation. Soon may it come.
I believe in the infinite capacity of entrepreneurial activity to meet the requirements of any public user of a service. That is the case equally for the services of British Rail. My goodness, gracious me, such improvements to present services are needed in spades on Network SouthCentral, which travels down through my constituency, beginning with the Brighton line, on to Lewes, along to Eastbourne or down to the coast at Newhaven and Seaford. Passengers on that service have suffered from a diminishing service and a lessening of quality rolling stock for too long. They deserve better. For that reason I shall support the Government's amendment.
My one remaining qualm has to do with timing. The trouble with the plans as presented is that they will take a little time to execute. The trouble with that is that people who will benefit from improved services will not necessarily do so quickly enough to appreciate that the Government's plans are correct. [Interruption.] I hear cackles from the Opposition, but that just shows how little they care about improvements in service. They obviously consider that a worry about bringing those improvements in quickly enough is merely worthy of a cackle. I hope that the Minister will take note of my concern. I hope that the Government will be able to introduce the improvements in services as a result of the denationalisation in time so that my constituents and others like them will benefit. The qualms that have been raised have been well identified in the final two lines of the Government's amendment, which
"condemns Her Majesty's Opposition for continuing to rely on scare tactics as a substitute for policy which would enhance passenger services."
Those scare tactics have begun to stick not only from the Front Benches but from the Liberal Democrat Benches. There is a hardly a Liberal Democrat local council which has not sent up flak about worsening British Rail services, but the Liberals have no plans to improve them.
I promise the Government my support in the Lobby. My continuing hope is that the Government's plan for denationalisation will work, but that it is carried out with urgency.
Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): Last week, the publication of the passenger service requirement by the franchising director was hailed by the Secretary of State for Transport as the first great advance for the passenger. He said:
"Satisfying the aspirations of train passengers should be the heart of any policy for the railways."
Column 234It is the PSR that is supposed to satisfy those aspirations with contractual obligations to provide in certain instances less than a third of the services currently provided; a cut of 70 per cent. in some peak morning services and contracts which will allow operators to miss out services to stations currently served and make other stations optional.
No sooner had the PSR been published than the Secretary of State attempted to distance himself from it, as he did again tonight. He said that the PSR did not represent a timetable and the actual services to be provided.
The Government cannot have it both ways; either the PSR is the answer to rail passengers' prayers or it is not. Either the services that are contained within it are those that will actually be offered, or they are not. If they are, they represent the most savage attack on Britain's rail services since Beeching; if they are not, how on earth can they be described as a great advance for the rail passenger?
As the impact on services becomes apparent, Ministers attempt to reassure with warm, cosy words about every rail passenger's benevolent uncles, the rail regulator and the franchising director. We are reminded that their obligation to protect the interests of rail passengers are enshrined in statute. Yet every time the Rail Regulator or the franchising director makes a pronouncement, such as on minimum service levels or through ticketing, it is suddenly matched by a mad rush from Ministers to tell us that our benevolent uncles are proposing what will never actually happen. Indeed, in the case of the public service requirement, the Secretary of State disowned the proposals in the same speech in which he welcomed them. He added:
"It is not for me, as Secretary of State, or even Roger Salmon, as the franchising director, to dictate the future timetable. That is for operators and Railtrack".
That is the bottom line of rail privatisation. Whatever assurances Ministers give, whatever safeguards they pledge to build into the system, the operators--or rather the market--will decide the level of service.
Despite what we have heard from the Conservative Benches about Labour scaremongering, I give Ministers the opportunity to put a stop to those scares once and for all. Will they guarantee that no rail service will be reduced to the limit outlined in the public service requirement? Will they guarantee that every station described as "optional" in the PSR document will continue to receive the level of service that it does currently? Above all, will they guarantee that the level of service provided nationally following privatisation will not be below that provided by the current timetable?
If Ministers cannot give those guarantees, rail passengers will continue to be scared by their privatisation proposals, and rightly so.
Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North): First, I associate myself with what my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) said at the start of his speech about the very sad circumstances that lead to my being in this position tonight, and I know that the thoughts of all of us are with the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish), who otherwise would have been here.
Column 235The hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) is really too modest when he gives the Opposition all the credit for alerting people throughout the country to what is going on in the railways, and for the fact that millions of people--85 per cent. of the population, according to the latest opinion polls--do not wish their madcap scheme to be proceeded with. Of course the hon. Member for Lewes, 12 months or so ago, was one of those so-called Tory rebels who contributed greatly to that mood of awareness.
The tragedy is that the hon. Gentleman gave in. He did not obtain a single concession; the scheme that is going through now is as bad as, or worse than, what he opposed. Even the issue on which he supposedly took the Government to the line, the so-called "Peyton amendment" tabled in the House of Lords, which would give British Rail the right to compete to operate services--the minimum concession that the hon. Gentleman was prepared to vote for at the time--is now being denied by that creature, the franchising director, who has been created by the privatisation process.
The hon. Gentleman may have given in. He may now be starting to defend the proposals to his constituents, but he is too late, and I am delighted to say that to some extent his own handiwork has contributed to that.
Various hon. Members have spoken--those who read out Central Office briefs and those who read out their own important works of literature, such as the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway)--of all the wonderful successes of other privatisations. Most of that is nonsense. If we examined those claims in turn, they could be tested and found wanting.
However, Conservative Members do not understand or will not accept that, in one key respect, railway privatisation is different from every other industry that they have tried to privatise. The key respect is that the railways alone rely for their profitability on political decisions about the level of subsidy. If an industry is profitable, or capable of being made profitable, as all the others were, one might say that entrepreneurial flair can win the day, and we could argue about whether that has been true. However, the railways are different because, as in every other country, they depend on political decisions about subsidy.
That is why I believe that, ultimately, the whole enterprise is doomed to failure. The Government, in their last days, will be unable to give the assurances that any investor needs. That is why the process of debate is so important; it is to inform public opinion, to inform investor opinion and to make it absolutely clear that anyone who puts their money into the railways is putting it into a loser. That process is proceeding very satisfactorily.
What do we hear from Conservative Members tonight? They are right back where they started. The debate has passed them by. All they can do, with their little scripts, is stand up and denigrate British Rail. They did it when the White Paper came out; they did it on Second Reading; they did it in Committee; they have done it in every debate on the railways that has taken place when I have been in the House. Where does it leave them? It leaves them with 85 per cent. of public opinion opposed to railway privatisation. It leaves them with a better informed electorate, and a massive electoral millstone around their neck. Our message to the Government is: carry on. The Government will not manage to privatise the railways but, day after day, people learn what is