London-Carlisle Rail Service
Oral Answers to Questions — Transport

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours

Mr Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he next intends to travel in an official capacity on the London-Carlisle InterCity train service.

Photo of Mr John MacGregor

Mr John MacGregor (South Norfolk)

I did so last month. I would have travelled on the line again last Friday, but the strike meant that I was one of the passengers lost to British Rail that day, with corresponding substantial loss of revenue. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will condemn that counter-productive strike in the same way as I did.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours

Mr Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Does the Secretary of State realise that we have waited a number of years for investment in that line and that its managers say that, unless investment is forthcoming, the line will simply collapse? I understand that the Minister intends to make an announcement in reply to my question, but may I pre-empt him by saying that, if investment is based on competition in which we are in a run-off with Kent for £150 million, that is not good enough? We demand investment now. The taxpayer has over the years paid a great deal of money to government on the basis that investment would be made in the line. Why cannot he give us an honourable statement today instead of what some might regard as a dishonourable cop-out?

Photo of Mr John MacGregor

Mr John MacGregor (South Norfolk)

I was asked when I intended to travel on the line and I was answering the hon. Gentleman's question. As to his supplementary questions, my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport hopes to make an announcement soon about rolling stock in relation to leasing. As to infrastructure, BR intends to start work renewing the west coast main line, but the precise timing will be decided later in the spring, when British Rail finalises its spending plans. When the hon. Gentleman talks about the taxpayers' contribution to British Rail, he should know that we spent record sums on capital investment in BR last year. It is expected that the figure will reach more than £1 billion this year—which is still substantial by any standards. The hon. Gentleman should recognise the relevance of my comment that British Rail is losing £10 million a day in the RMT strikes. If the hon. Gentleman favours investment, will he call on the RMT to stop the strikes, which are reducing investment rather than increasing it?

Photo of Mr Gyles Brandreth

Mr Gyles Brandreth (City of Chester)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that that line services the great and beautiful city of Chester? Is he further aware that last Friday I, too, was unable to take my customary train to Chester and consequently took an aeroplane? I discovered that the journey to Chester via Manchester was half an hour faster. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Friday's futile strike not only did a grave disservice to our national railway system but gave a useful shot in the arm to British Airways?

Photo of Mr John MacGregor

Mr John MacGregor (South Norfolk)

When I was to share a platform with my hon. Friend on Friday afternoon, we both had to travel by air rather than take a train. I agree that the risk of such strikes is that passengers will be permanently lost to British Rail when they discover, as my hon. Friend did, that there is a quicker way to travel to Chester. The risk to freight is even more serious. I have endeavoured in a number of ways to get more freight off the road and on to the railways and I have presented to the House schemes for achieving that. Last Friday's strike and other strikes will cause that freight to be switched from rail to road, which would counterbalance anything that I am trying to do. That is why the strike is counter-productive.

Photo of Mr John Prescott

Mr John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull East)

Does the Secretary of State accept that instead of hurling abuse at people in industrial disputes, it would be much better if he used his office to bring the parties together to achieve an agreement, rather than have disagreement? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that his statement on British Rail's financial objectives one day before the first day's dispute, when British Rail was meeting the trade unions, which would have resulted in cutting investment by half and BR's revenue subsidy by 23 per cent., and in making another 5 per cent. of cuts, could only have added to the thousands of redundancies? Was not that statement designed to torpedo the talks?

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Mr John MacGregor (South Norfolk)

That is absolute nonsense. The objective set for British Rail next year and the announcement that we made in the autumn statement will mean a somewhat smaller public service obligation grant than the year before. However, it is a good deal higher than two years ago and very much higher than for a long time. It is down only on the year before. What is more, it is being achieved by more efficient British Rail cost operations, which included the voluntary redundancies that it has achieved this year on generous terms.

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Mr John MacGregor (South Norfolk)

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that they were voluntary. I hope that he agrees that, in the interests of the taxpayer, it is right that British Rail should seek to reduce its costs and thus to have a lower PSO—but it is still a good deal higher than earlier.

Photo of Mr John MacGregor

Mr John MacGregor (South Norfolk)

Last year was an absolute record and this year it will be £1 billion—higher than in any period since the early 1960s and still very substantial. As to the strike, I have made it clear throughout that I support the British Railways Board. If the hon. Gentleman is in favour of investment in British Rail, does he not realise that it would be better for him to persuade the RMT to call off its strikes rather than support it in the way that he did? The hon. Gentleman is risking investment going down next year.

Photo of Mr Robert Adley

Mr Robert Adley (Christchurch)

Leaving aside the rhetoric on both sides of the House about the strike, does my right hon. Friend agree that lack of investment on the west coast main line is having a deleterious effect on services? Is there any realistic likelihood, under his plans for the railways, of private sector investment in that line's infrastructure?

Is my right hon. Friend further aware that I have written to him three times to ask when I may present to him personally the literally hundreds of letters that I have received about his plans for the railways? Will my right hon. Friend ask his private office to deal with that little point as well?

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Mr John MacGregor (South Norfolk)

I have replied to my hon. Friend. He writes me a very large number of letters and I endeavour to get a reply to him as quickly as possible. My hon. Friend asked me about infrastructure investment on the west coast main line. My hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport will say something about that shortly.

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Mr Nick Harvey (North Devon)

Will the Secretary of State comment on the impression given by the Minister for Public Transport to the Standing Committee considering the Railways Bill that the leased stock—the new rolling stock that is coming into the railway industry—will be given to the new franchisees? Does he agree that the existing rail users on the remainder of the service will not regard that as a golden handshake for them?

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Mr Nick Hawkins (Blackpool South)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it has always been clear, as he confirmed yet again this afternoon, that British Rail has definite plans to upgrade and modernise the west coast main line as soon as possible? Does he further agree that the remarks of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) when he is in the north-west, spreading gloom and despondency and scare stories about maintenance and safety on the west coast main line, can only drive passengers away, further damage the west coast main line and frustrate all the hopes that my constituents have of their direct through service from Blackpool to London being reintroduced? It is the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East, therefore, who is doing the damage to the west coast main line.

Photo of Mr John MacGregor

Mr John MacGregor (South Norfolk)

The intention and hope obviously is that, before long, we shall be able to start infrastructure investment on the west coast main line. Until now, it has been for British Rail to establish its investment priorities. In recent years, there have been massive sums of capital investment in other lines—£550 million on the east coast main line and £800 million on Network SouthEast. The west coast main line is now a clear candidate for investment priority. I have already said that British Rail hopes to renew the infrastructure on the west coast main line shortly. I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend said about the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East. The support that he has given to the RMT strike damages the interests and prospects of both passengers and investment. It is also unnecessary to spread scare stories.