Orders of the Day — Darlington — Bishop Auckland Rail Link

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:15 pm on 15th November 1979.

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Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Parliamentary Secretary (Ministry of Transport) 9:15 pm, 15th November 1979

If we were pressed for time I could reply to the speech of the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) by saying in answer to his last question, which was whether I could give a categorical assurance, "Yes, I can give a categorical assurance that this line is not a candidate for closure, as far as I am aware it has not been a candidate for closure, and as far as I am aware it is unlikely to be closed in the foreseeable future." However, we are not too badly pressed for time and I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving me the opportunity to deal with the future of this railway line and also some of the general issues he has raised. I shall do so fairly shortly because I appreciate that he was prompted to move so quickly to initiate an Adjournment debate by the recent rumours and so-called "disclosures" in The Guardian.

The hon. Gentleman has been the first to introduce an Adjournment debate about a railway line in his constituency, and I foresee that if I do not deal with the nature of those disclosures another 40 hon. Members will come along with similar Adjournment debates about the railway lines that were named on the front page of The Guardian.

Let me begin by dealing with a specific matter, that of the railway line between Darlington and Bishop Auckland. I hope I can set the fears of the hon. Member and his constituents at rest. I do not know of any plans to discontinue this service being brought forward by anybody. Certainly my Department has received no plans to close this service, and we have no plans or proposals of that kind in our possession. The British Railways Board has not submitted any plans for closure of this service to my Department. It does not appear on a list of closures because there is no such list of closures in my Department, and there are no proposals in any other form in my Department for the closure of this line.

Because of this Adjournment debate, and because of the hon. Member's concern, we approached the Board, following the announcement of this debate and after the disclosures in The Guardian, to ask for its views on the line. The Board assures us that as far as it is concerned there is no proposal to close this service in the foreseeable future. I therefore believe—and I have said it in as many ways as I can—that I can give an assurance that any suggestion that this line might be facing closure in the foreseeable future is ill-informed and wrong.

It so happens that this service is a very good example to use to illustrate the poor foundation for the list that appeared in the newspapers. It is a service that has a fairly promising history, and any proper examination of the list would show that this is not a very strong candidate for closure on any ground at all. Traffic has been building up on the line since a change of policy a few years ago when the Board devised a new form of timetabling aimed rather more at local traffic patterns and with less reliance on meeting main-line connections, which in the past had apparently been the main purpose of the timetable.

The reslts have been quite dramatic. In 1973 there were 162,000 passenger journeys on this line; in 1974, 173,000, and in 1975, 222,000—an increase due to the 150th anniversary celebrations of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. In 1976 there were 185,000 passenger journeys; in 1977, 207,000; and in 1978 a staggering 321,000—almost double the figure in 1973. I am told that in 1979 the number of journeys is already 6 per cent, above the level for last year, which was such a successful year.

I am told, and I draw this management and commercial information from the Board, that the revenue earned by the line has doubled since 1977, so the traffic is picking up in a fairly remarkable way. It is a busy line, and changes in timetabling and other improvements have led to an encouraging increase in traffic and revenue. The Board demonstrated its confidence in the service by investing in improved facilities along the line. New platforms were installed at Bishop Auckland in 1976, and in 1978 a new station was opened at Newton Aycliffe.

This line—if anyone had acquired any knowledge of it—would not have appeared on anyone's list as a candidate for closure, but of course we cannot guarantee any line remaining in being for ever. I have no idea what the railway pattern of this country will be by the turn of the century. At the moment this line is doing well. I have given illustrations of the way in which it is doing well, I received assurances from the Board, and the Department has no plans to close it.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that the fears of those who use the line, those who work at the Shildon works and know the importance of the rail access, and those who derive employment in the area which is based in part on the line, are groundless. These fears were created by stories that appeared in The Guardian and in environmental magazines such as Vole, and I must deal with them.

My difficulty lies in trying to devise new ways of saying to the House that the story is fiction. It is not true. It has no basis. The reality is that when a newspaper story of that kind appears, especially when it is given prominence on the front page of a newspaper as the main story of the day, however much Ministers protest there is a belief that there is no smoke without fire and that the story must be well founded. After a time we begin to run out of ways of trying to emphasise that the story is well wide of the mark. Certainly there is no point in getting hot under the collar about it or denouncing the people involved.

The original story was fairly dramatic. It mentioned a specific list, which was supposed to exist, of 41 lines being considered for closure. The list was said to be in the hands of my Department. The story was redolent of secret talks, the railway B division was named, and the list was reprinted, allegedly in full. Ministers were startled by that front-page story in The Guardian. We may be gullible, but on this occasion we were ultra-cautious and made considerable inquiries in the Department to discover whether things were going on in it that had been concealed from us. My right hon. Friend and I are satisfied that that is not the case. Not only had we seen no such list, and not only had we not heard of any such talks, but I am convinced from all that I heard that no such talks had taken place and that no list of that kind had reached the Department. That was the basis upon which my right hon. Friend gave as vehement a denial as he could: not to take revenge on The Guardian or to start a quarrel with it, but to quieten the fears springing in Bishop Auckland and stop them from spreading to the 40 other routes on the list.

Since then The Guardian and others have returned to the attack, reinforcing the feeling that there is something in the story. The latest stories are different from that in the first newspaper article. The secret talks and the list in our Department appear to have vanished. The references now are to lists that exist or discussions that have taken place within the British Railways Board or other organisations.

The environmental magazine Vole is convinced that my right hon. Friend is not right when he denies the story. It quotes in support of its belief a list of railway lines. The list does not come from the Board, let alone from us. It was produced by the Ramblers' Association, based on research that it had carried out. I am always willing to have talks with the association. I have the greatest respect for its work, but it is rather wide of the stories that we denied last week. We have not had the pleasure of seeing the list that was produced by the Ramblers' Association, except as it was reproduced on the front page of Vole.

The Guardian reasserted that talks of this kind went on within the Board. It quoted in support of its story the fact that various options were considered by the Board and said that the corporate review, which reached my right hon. Friend recently, contained a reference to the options which it considered.

I assure the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland that the corporate review does not contain any such list. The British Railways Board has been reviewing various options, but not in discussion with our officials. It has considered various plans for the future of provincial services.

British Rail has made no secret of its work. The revelations, which are always of interest to the public, need not have been made in such a startling way. British Rail has been telling its trade unions, consumer organisations and the general public for some time that it is concerned about the financial circumstances of local rail services.

In the commentary on the 1978 annual report, Sir Peter Parker said: Rail wants to sustain its vital contribution to rural services, but the cost of that contribution is growing. There are many options, including the integration of bus and rail services, but these options must be exposed and some decisions faced before choice is overtaken by economic necessity. That was a public reference to rural services.

It is not surprising that the board has made an estimate of the effect of various options without making a secret of the review that it was carrying out and hiding nothing from either the rail unions or the transport users' consultative committees. The corporate review contains no list of specific services to be cut and British Rail has not discussed such options with officials of my Department.

The corporate review was sent to my right hon. Friend the Minister on 25 October. He will discuss that report with the Board shortly, but he has already written to Sir Peter Parker to make clear that the option of closing 40 passenger services is one which the Government have rejected.

All passenger line closures must be submitted to the Government. Since the Government took office, British Rail has not put forward proposals. If proposals had been put forward, they would have had to be considered by the transport users' consultative committees and would have required ministerial consent before being put into practice.

Therefore, closure of passenger services on the scale recently suggested is an option which the Government have rejected. If anyone is thinking of sending a list of 41 services, he can rule that out. I hope that the debate has given me the opportunity to set those rumours at rest.

The question of railway finance has been raised by the hon. Gentleman. I accept that in dealing with individual rumours and reassuring the hon. Gentleman and his constituents about a particular service we face a problem. British Rail faces problems of how to modernise, change, invest and get itself ready to provide the needed services of the future.

The supposed leaks and wild speculations of last week distract people from discussing sensibly rail options, long-term investment needs and the form that the Ministry of Transport's railway policy should take. There have been opportunities, and there will be future opportunities, to tackle the question of railway finance and investment.

On previous occasions I have indicated the Government's broad approach to railway finance. Areas of railway activity can be roughly divided into categories. There are inter-city services and freight services. The Government believe that both categories should be run on a commercial basis. We shall give the Board clear financial targets, consider investment needs with it, and come to conclusions on electrification, and so on. We shall trust the British Rail management to put those businesses on a footing to make a useful contribution to passenger services and serve this country's freight needs.

Inter-city and freight are two areas where the long-term future for the railways is particularly bright. The recent oil crisis, the energy problems that we face, the limitations on heavy road traffic in this country and other developments are making their competitive position more attractive and giving British Rail a great deal to aim for.

South-Eastern and suburban services hardly concern us in this debate. There is a specialised problem in that area. We have had discussions with British Rail about the problems and have referred the services to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission because there is a captive market there and we should like an outside review, which British Rail would also welcome, of the efficiency with which the services are operated.

The other provincial services outside the inter-city network are sometimes called rural railways, though they are certainly not all rural. Some call them the "social railway", which is a rather unattractive phrase. It is part of the operation where a pure financial remit is not enough. There is a public interest in maintaining railway networks even in areas where they need some public support. That is the area within which the line that we are discussing falls, as do the 41 services and a number of others. The Board has made no secret of the financial problems that it faces in that area. The Government are aware of these problems, and we have to devise a sensible policy.

Various actions can be taken. I do not like quoting my own words, but in order to demonstrate that thought on this subject predates the article in The Guardian by a long way, I refer the House to what I said earlier this year: In this area, where we accept the basic case for continued support, the Government will wish to hear from the Board what is the lowest cost way of renewing assets required for those services. The Board will need to assess the likely traffic and the least expensive way of providing a reasonable service. We shall need the Board's estimates of the extent and timing of renewal needs of these services. When we get those estimates we shall give careful consideration to the Board's view that they will need investment funds devoted to them above the level advocated in its present programme."—[Official Report, 12 June 1979; Vol. 968, c. 408.] One of the first matters that we have to consider is low-cost ways of maintaining some of these services. British Rail is exploring with British Leyland the possibility of a new low-cost vehicle for certain provincial services. There is also a programme of renewal of the diesel multiple units, two of which are on the line about which the hon. Member is concerned and most of which are operating on the lines which we are discussing.

Low-cost methods in themselves may not be the whole answer. We shall also consider with the Board estimates of the investment position on those lines and ways in which the transport needs of the areas can best be served. That is the approach which we have to take, in a sensible and rational way rather than just dealing with newspaper stories, to the future of provincial services.

The public service obligation is accepted. Payment is made, by way of subsidy, to the maintenance of that part of the railway service which we know needs support because it cannot be run solely on financial grounds.

Reductions have been made in the public service obligation recently. Some may think that that bears out the allegation that we are looking with a baleful eye on the future of those services. However, although there are financial constraints, reductions in the PSO are not dramatic and there are no preparations for the sort of action that we have been accused of.

In the 1977 transport policy White Paper, a £20 million reduction in the PSO grant by the end of the decade was announced by the previous Government. Of that reduction, £10 million was imposed this year. The remaining £13 million—I have changed from 1977 survey prices to 1979 survey prices—will take effect in 1980–81.

As a result of the recent public expenditure review, which is where the present Government come in, my right hon. Friend announced on 1 November a further £9 million reduction in the PSO limit. That means that of a total reduction in provision for passenger support in 1980–81 of £22 million, for which some have criticised us, £13 million had already been planned for by the previous Administration.

We hope that that can be dealt with, certainly in part, by low-cost operation, improving productivity and running the services in the rather shoestring way in which uneconomic services serving a social need have to be maintained. There is no point in my dilating on the future of railway investment or in giving detailed figures, except to say that the railways have had a fairly stable level of investment in recent years. I do not say that it is the level that British Railways wants or that it considers adequate for the future. It has had a fairly stable investment level, and there has been opportunity to invest quite heavily in high-speed trains, advanced passenger trains, and new freight rolling stock to deal with the anticipated increase in coal traffic. All that is coming along, and, to return to where we started, the new station at Newton Aycliffe was opened not too long ago.

We shall be considering with the Board the future of its investment needs. The current year's investment ceiling has not been cut. The June budget reduction of £15 million in the Board's external finance cash limit did not necessarily impose a corresponding cut in investment. It was open to the Board to meet the reduction in other ways, especially by cutting costs and improving efficiency.

I have dealt at sufficient length with the general subject of railway finance. A debate about the Bishop Auckland to Darlington line is not an adequate vehicle in which to do justice to the subject of future railway finance. I touch on the subject to try to illustrate that the Government intend to take a serious long-term view, in discussions with British Railways, at the whole range of its business, and that will include looking at the problems that it has been pointing out to us for some time—financial problems with the provincial services. The background to that will not be in secret talks. The Government's policy is, and always has been, that there will not be wholesale rail closures. There is a limit to the number of ways that we can say that. I can give an assurance that the fears in Bishop Auckland, Newton Aycliffe and Shildon are quite groundless and that this service has every prospect of being maintained in the foreseeable future.