Will my right hon. Friend try to ensure that his next meeting with the Chairman of British Rail is held before the end of the year in order to try to avert the proposed fare increases, which are due to take effect in January? Is he aware that an increase of up to 16 per cent. in rail fares will cause real hardship to rail travellers, undermine the social contract, and do long-term damage to the rail industry? Will the Secretary of State consider that an increase in the subsidy to £25 million would halve the level of the increase and therefore be money well spent?
Even then, Mr. Speaker, I might get only one of them right. However, I certainly can give my hon. Friend one assurance—I shall meet the Chairman of British Rail before the end of the year. I must disappoint him on his other questions. It would be quite wrong to mislead the House. These decisions on fares are for British Rail and there is no prospect whatsoever of making further resources available to the railways in the difficult economic time ahead. That should be accepted as a starting point. Of course, there will be hardship, but the decisions must be made on the basis of priorities and the resources involved.
In view of the recent record of the Greater London Council, does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that to allow it to have a monopoly of train services in the London area by taking over British Rail would be a calamity, both to the commuter and to the ratepayer? Will he scotch this disastrous idea straight away?
No, it is not for me to scotch any particular idea today. The record of the GLC, which has had to cope with some extremely difficult problems, is a great deal better than the hon. Gentleman rather ungenerously suggests. One problem is to get a suitable accommodation among all the various public transport services in London. Co-ordination is difficult. I like to think that progress is being made, although I cannot pretend that it is very fast.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that after the last fare increase there was a 40 per cent. reduction in the number of passengers using the route between Glasgow and London? Does he not appreciate that that places a much greater burden on his Department's road budget? Surely it would be better to keep down fares so as to keep passengers using the route to capacity.
My hon. Friend puts his finger on the sort of analysis that we have to make. It is wrong to consider any increase in fares in isolation. Whatever may be the experience of the rail service to which my hon. Friend refers, in 1975, for example, when there were increases in fares amounting to 50 per cent., the number of passenger journeys dropped by less than 5 per cent. while revenue increased by £90 million. These are figures that cannot be ignored.
In view of what the right hon. Gentleman said about public expenditure constraints, does he agree that unnecessary subsidies must be eliminated? As it costs the taxpayer £70 million a year to subsidise rail freight operations, will the right hon. Gentleman say when he expects the rail freight subsidy to be eliminated?
A more temperate approach to subsidies is desirable. Without substantial subsidies on the passenger side, there would be a much smaller rail network, which would not meet the social need. On the freight side, I have made clear before that there is no good reason why within a period British Rail should not meet the full cost of its freight operation. There has been some improvement. I hope that the subsidy, if it is unnecessary, will be eliminated very soon.
As we have already heard from the right hon. Gentleman that there is no prospect of further resources being made available to British Rail, and as we have heard from his hon. Friend that the Department is extremely cost conscious, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the taxpayer and the commuter are entitled to some independent judgment of the efficiency with which the resources of British Rail are now being used?
No, I do not. The chairman and the Board are appointed and given a job to do. I think that they should be supported more frequently by the House. It is not an easy task. We have a mixed economy, and in those circumstances we should encourage managers, who are often very professional and devoted, to get on with the job. We should not make carping criticisms.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that any judgment of the efficiency of British Rail must be made on a comparative basis? Does he agree that in the first place there should be comparisons with the efficiency of other railway systems throughout the world, none of which manages to make a profit? Secondly—in my view, much more important—does he agree that comparison should be made with the efficiency, or lack of it, of the private motorised freight-carrying system, which is an alleged free —that is, chaotic—market system involving the duplication of resources and immense social and unmeasured costs?
I agree that comparisons are relevant, but I take a rather simpler criterion. The management of British Rail must provide the most efficient service that it can to meet economic and social needs. I think that it is tackling the task in the best possible way.
When the right hon. Gentleman meets the new Chairman of British Rail, will he put it to him that it would be helpful to Members to be able to see separate accounts for the various British Rail regions, which at present are not readily available? Secondly, will he convey to him the congratulations of the Liberal Bench on the introduction of the high-speed train, which brings a successful service to Bristol and Cardiff, a service that could be taken advantage of by other British Rail regions?
I am sure that Mr. Peter Parker will note the hon. Gentleman's kind remarks. I shall mention the hon. Gentleman's first point to the Chairman of British Rail. The more information that can be made available, the better. Of course the House wants to discuss these matters, but we must try to allow the management to get on with the job and deal with some of the major problems.
May I suggest that when the right hon. Gentleman does meet the Chairman of British Railways he raises this matter with him and asks him whether he holds the view that the present concept of a subsidy for British Rail as opposed to subsidies for individual routes will allow anybody to know which routes are economic and which are not?
No, I do not think that that is one of the matters which I should feel justified in discussing with the Chairman of British Rail at present. I know that there are differences of opinion about the best possible system, but there is common ground on both sides, first, that without a passenger subsidy there would be a very small network, which would not meet social needs, and, secondly, that the management must have some discretion within the statutory procedures.
Will my right hon. Friend take into account the fact that there is great fear among railway workers generally that not merely uneconomic lines but even economic lines are in danger of being closed down? Will he give an assurance that this will not happen, because there are fears among working people generally that the whole network will be drastically reduced?
My hon. Friend very fairly refers to fears which exist in the industry at all levels. I greatly regret that such fears exist. There must be change in every industry and I greatly hope that railwaymen will be able to arrive at a sense of confidence about the future and will help to provide a service which is efficient and effective and meets genuine need without increasing the cost, which would have to be borne on public expenditure.
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why it is that, when there are substantially more than 1 million unemployed, we listen to announcements on the loudspeakers at stations of a long list of trains which have been cancelled because of staff shortage? Is not this an extraordinary lack of co-ordination in the national system?
That is an extraordinary simplification. The fact that there is a large number of people out of work and that British Railways have a shortage of staff does not mean that those out of work have the required skills or are of the right quality to fill specified vacancies. Although they are losing substantial numbers of men, British Railways are still recruiting as well.
Will my right hon. Friend consider urging the Chairman of British Railways to do something revolutionary⁁that is, to halve the fares and thus attract back to the railways those who would greatly like to travel on the railways if only they were able to afford the fares?
I greatly wish that I could agree with my hon. Friend that that is how it would work, but, I regret, all the evidence is very much to the contrary. British Railways have carried out a number of experiments and by and large the result has been that more passengers reduce revenue. I have made it clear to the Chairman of British Railways that any reductions that he chooses to make have my blessing but that if, as a result of reductions, there is a loss of revenue, that loss must be carried somewhere else within his budget.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the present network is well below the level at which it ought to be and that the execution work done by Lord Beeching will be looked on in retrospect as a national disaster? Is not one way of improving the financial situation of the railways to adopt the suggestion by the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mr. Johnson) to transfer freight from the roads to the railways?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's expression of opinion about what was done some years ago will be widely shared. I agree that it is desirable that the railways should carry as large a proportion of freight as possible. But there are problems. We must have an efficient system, and there must be a limit to the money made available to it in the form of revenue support. Otherwise, additional costs will fall on both taxpayers and ratepayers.