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Railways (Investment)

Oral Answers to Questions — Transport – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th December 1980.

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Photo of Mr Peter Snape Mr Peter Snape , West Bromwich East 12:00 am, 10th December 1980

asked the Minister of Transport what is his policy towards future investment in the railways; and if he will make a statement.

Photo of Mr John Evans Mr John Evans , Newton

asked the Minister of Transport when he next expects to meet the chairman of British Rail to discuss the rail investment programme.

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I meet the chairman regularly to discuss a range of subjects, including investment. We have, in fact, made no cuts in the investment ceiling which the last Government judged adequate for the British Railways Board and which this year stands at £325 million.

Photo of Mr Peter Snape Mr Peter Snape , West Bromwich East

Is the Minister proud of the fact that he presides over a railway system with the highest fares, the worst level of wages and the lowest level of investment in West Europe? Is it not time that he granted the British Railways Board and the railway unions the 30 per cent. increase in investment for which they have for so long and so rightly campaigned?

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I do not accept anything of what the hon. Gentleman has said. The external finance limit and the investment that we have set for British Rail are fair. However, I have announced today that, within the present external finance limit, the passenger grant ceiling has been it creased by £23 million. That means that the passenger grant ceiling for 1981 will be £678 million. That is a direct grant from the Government to the passenger railways. The money is earmarked for passenger services. I hope that the effect will be that the present level of fares will be held for the next 12 months.

Photo of Mr Terence Higgins Mr Terence Higgins , Worthing

Is my right hon. Friend aware that he has struck the right balance on financial assistance to British Rail? If he were to go further at this stage, it would greatly increase the public sector borrowing requirement, put pressure on interest and exchange rates and further deflate the economy, with bad effects on British Rail.

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I agree with my right hon. Friend. We have sought to recognise the special difficulties that British Rail has had during the past two years. We increased the external finance limit last year, and the external finance limit for the coming year is £920 million. A vast amount of money is going into direct support for passenger services. The support going from the taxpayer and the ratepayer to passenger services is running at £2 million a day.

Photo of Mr Albert Booth Mr Albert Booth , Barrow-in-Furness

If it is not the Minister's intention to cut British Rail's investment programme, why has he refused to approve every investment proposal that British Rail has put before him since May of this year? Is British Rail still awaiting his approval for the electrification of the rail network in East Anglia, the renewal of signalling in the west of England, the EMUs, the locomotive and freight wagon rolling programmes and the introduction of a number of advanced passenger trains?

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Minister of State (Department for Transport)

The right hon. Gentleman has mixed up a number of matters in that supplementary question. First and foremost, he must accept that our investment ceiling is the same as the investment ceiling that we inherited from the Labour Government, of which he was a leading member. The main electrification proposals have just arrived. There are 95 HSTs being built or approved, and there is an existing rolling programme of 220 EMUs. Considerable resources are being devoted to the railways. I wish that the right hon. Gentleman would recognise with some consistency what happened under the Labour Government.

Photo of Mr Albert Booth Mr Albert Booth , Barrow-in-Furness

Wilt the Minister answer the question? What investment proposals from British Rail has he approved since May of this year?

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Minister of State (Department for Transport)

As I have just said, we are continuing with the rolling programme of 220 EMUs. We have given approval for 25 freight locomotives. We have received the electrification proposals literally in the last few days, and we shall respond to them, as I have already said. The right hon. Gentleman cannot get away from the fact that the investment ceiling being observed by the Government is the same as the investment ceiling that was set by the Labour Government. It begs all credibility if the right hon. Gentleman changes his position after only 18 months in Opposition. The laws of arithmetic do not change.

Photo of Mr Robert McCrindle Mr Robert McCrindle , Brentwood and Ongar

Will my right hon. Friend call in the leaders of both British Rail and the trade unions and make it clear to them that before there can be any increase in the capital investment programme there will have to be substantial evidence of an improvement in productivity and efficiency? Will he also tell them that to the many commuters in Brentwood and Ongar who travel to and from London each day there is ample evidence of areas in which increased productivity and efficiency could be achieved?

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Minister of State (Department for Transport)

My hon. Friend is right about improvements in the productivity and efficiency of British Rail. After all, that is what the British Railways Board is trying to achieve. It is in the interests not only of the customer, who is the most important person in the debate, but of the railway industry that opportunities for improved efficiency are taken.

Photo of Mr Russell Kerr Mr Russell Kerr , Hounslow Feltham and Heston

When discussing the investment plans of British Rail, will the Minister bear in mind the fearful and permanent economic damage caused by the ill-judged cuts of 20 yew's ago under Dr. Beeching as an object lesson to be avoided at all costs?

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I have made my position clear on Beeching-type cuts in rural services. The Government are not prepared to see such cuts take place again. To that extent, I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Mr Roger Moate Mr Roger Moate , Faversham

Does my right hon. Friend accept that there will be a warm welcome for the extra support that he has announced today for passengers within the same external finance limit? Does he accept also that it is nonsense for the Opposition to attack his investment programme when he is not only maintaining the level of investment that he inherited from the Labour Government but is increasing the amount of support? If the Opposition are truly concerned to improve the railways, should we not have a condemnation by the spokesman for the Opposition of any threat of industrial action by the unions, based on the present levels of investment?

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I hope that the advice of all in the House on the prospect of industrial action will be that the situation should be cooled. We should remember that industrial action can only harm the railways and their customers. I very much hope that that message will come from both sides of the House.

The external finance limit for the railways is tough but realistic and, as far as I know, it is accepted by the British Railways Board.