Orders of the Day — Darlington — Bishop Auckland Rail Link

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:58 pm on 15th November 1979.

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Photo of Mr Derek Foster Mr Derek Foster , Bishop Auckland 8:58 pm, 15th November 1979

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the important matter of the need to retain the rail link between Darlington and Bishop Auckland. In doing so, I have two aims in mind. The first is to place before the House what I believe to be the incontrovertible case for keeping this line open whatever may happen to any other line either this year or in any other year.

My second aim is to explore in open debate some of the discussions that have taken place, notwithstanding ministerial denials, between British Rail and the Department on British Rail's corporate review document.

If we were to close this line we should lose a significant aspect of rail history. Hon. Members will realise that this was one of the earliest bits of railway in Britain. Indeed, Shildon—a town upon this line—celebrated its 150th anniversary as a railway town three or four years ago. The residents of Shildon believe that their Timothy Hackworth rivals George Stephenson as one of the greatest innovators in railway history. Therefore, if this line were to close, we should lose something of great value in railway history.

My major reason for contending that this rail link should not close concerns the industrial development consequences of such a course of action. I remind the Minister that Bishop Auckland lost its special development area status as a result of his right hon. Friend's policy statement earlier in the year. Many people in County Durham regard the loss of special development area status not so much as a policy decision mistake as a technical mistake within the Department of Employment. I am grateful for the courteous and understanding hearing that the Secretary of State for Industry gave to me and my colleagues on this issue. Nevertheless, we have lost our special development area status. Ultimately Bishop Auckland will become merely an intermediate area. As such it will lose all incentives for attracting new industry to an area that suffers from major unemployment problems.

Added to that, we are to lose the new town development corporation of Newton Aycliffe, which could be described as the jewel in the crown of my constituency. There has been a net gain of 4,000 jobs in Newton Aycliffe during the last four or five years, largely as a result of the dynamic industrial development policies of the team of officers of the development corporation. In view of those two factors, my constituents would regard the loss of the rail link as the last straw in a series of events since 3 May that they would now regard as disastrous in industrial development terms.

I should like to remind the Minister about the advantages of good transport communication in attracting new jobs to any area. Indeed, there is no need to remind him of this aspect. We have been attempting to attract new industry to the North-East for 40 or 50 years and we are encouraging new and existing firms to grow. We are always reminded that if we cannot attract jobs to the areas where the people are, we should encourage the people to go where the jobs are.

There is one difficulty. If we are to encourage people to be more mobile in the North-East—I agree with that objective—we need a good, reliable and relatively cheap transport system. I suspect that if rail transport is coming under pressure either to increase fares or to reduce services, bus transport will suffer from similar pressure. Therefore, people may be forced to use their own cars—if they have them. The North-East has a lower average incidence of car ownership than anywhere else in the country. Therefore, I say "if they have them" advisedly. Cars are wasteful of energy, and expensive.

I also remind the Minister that the Shildon rail works, employing 2,500 workers, is along that line. That works, which has a long and glorious history, is to as one of the most efficient rail building and repairing. It was recently referred to as one of the most efficient railbuilding and rail repair works in Europe. It has a very bright future in supplying wagons not only for this country but world-wide. It recently won some important orders.

The Shildon works receives much of its raw materials by rail and, of necessity, its finished products must leave the works by rail. The people of Shildon feel that if the rail link were lost serious doubt would be cast upon the long-term future of the works and the prospects for its 2,500 work force. Almost every family in Shildon is touched by the prosperity, or otherwise, of the works.

We must also remember the energy-wasting consequences of such a closure. If the rail link were closed, there would be a diversion of passengers to the roads. It is estimated that 1,100 people use the rail link every day. There was a 60 per cent, increase in passenger journeys in 1977–1978 and a further 12 per cent, increase in 1978–1979. That suggests that the link is going in the right direction. If, at the moment, it is not justified in economic terms it could well be justified in the foreseeable future, particularly if, in addition to the rail halt that was built at Newton Aycliffe, there was another rail halt at Eldon. Such a halt has been long sought by local people.

Following a closure of the rail link there would be a diversion of freight to the roads. In view of the considerable increase in manufacturing jobs there, I hoped that we might eventually get a roll-on/roll-off facility at Newton Aycliffe. That would make the area more attractive to incoming industrial development and local industrialists.

The rail link does not stop at Bishop Auckland. It continues with freight into Weardale. A good deal of mineral freight traffic is carried along this line. If the line were discontinued, all that mineral freight traffic would be diverted on to the roads, with consequent waste of energy. Such a diversion would also have serious environmental consequences in many of the beautiful villages of Wear-dale.

What will be the public expenditure consequences of this rail closure? The Government are in the business of trying to save money, and the rail halt built at Newton Aycliffe only three or four years ago cost £100,000. Therefore, if the rail link were severed, far from a saving there would be a waste of public money. That would be reprehensible. As the House knows, the debate on this issue originated in The Guardian and denials were made by the Minister. It seems to me that if we are in the business of saving public money on the roads there are several options open to us. None of them is pleasant. I have the greatest sympathy for the Government and British Rail as they face this decision.

One of the options is to increase fares. Already there are suggestions for increasing fares by about 20 per cent. That would spread alarm throughout the country. It might spread even more alarm amongst Conservative Back Benchers. I expect that the Minister and his Department are under pressure from that direction.

We could reduce the subsidy on uneconomic lines. That is what we are debating in connection with the Darlington and Bishop Auckland line. The arguments that I have used could be applied to each line that is on the notorious list that does not exist except in the British Rail corporate review document. Many hon. Members on the Government Benches could use my arguments. There is political sensitivity in this issue.

Another option is to save money on wages or salaries. In order to do that, we must negotiate a salary or wage agreement that is lower that the rise in the cost of living. The unions would have something to say about that. Alternatively we could reduce staff or increase productivity with the existing staff. The Government are always stressing the need to increase productivity. However, one of the aspects involved in increasing productivity is increasing investment to give more power to the elbow of each worker. The investment necessary must be found either from British Rail's own resources or from the Government.

The next option is to defer investment in British Rail. We need to replace much of the diesel rolling stock, which is now well beyond its original need for replacement. Perhaps it would also mean deferring the electrification of the railways and advanced freight technology.

Each of those options has serious consequences for the long-term viability of the railways. They are also serious in terms of their energy-conserving implications. The current cuts in public expenditure will prevent much of that investment, either because the Government will not make the money available or because of the high cost of borrowing in the private sector.

Railways have a bright future, not only in this country but internationally. The Government should be examining ways of supporting them so that they can reach towards this bright future. If that is accepted, the fundamental investment in electrification, in the replacement of rolling stock and in advanced freight technology must go ahead. That is important to the nation at large and to my constituency. It is particularly important to Shildon, where 2,500 jobs are dependent on the future of the railways.

I urge the Minister to give a categorical assurance that this rail link will be kept open. I hope that it will be given the highest priority in future years, when the corporate review document is studied and when the same options for saving money are considered. I hope that the Minister, having listened to the arguments, will give a favourable reply.