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Commuter Rail Services (London)

– in the House of Commons at 10:13 am on 19th December 1980.

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Photo of Mr Roger Sims Mr Roger Sims , Chislehurst 10:13 am, 19th December 1980

I am grateful for the opportunity to ventilate my concern and that of commuters throughout South-East London about the proposed reductions in rail services in the area. Since, in the next few minutes, some of my remarks will be less than complimentary towards Southern Region, I wish to make clear that I am by no means unappreciative of the difficulties of the task that faces those who run British Rail's commuter services. They shift thousands of people daily, often in a relatively short period. They operate a very complex and closely integrated rail network. They have some achievements to their credit. Southern Region has a good safety record, particularly in the commuter areas. It has installed new signalling at London Bridge and Victoria, with the minimum of inconvenience to regular services.

The services that Southern Region offers to South-East London are very good, on paper. Unfortunately, only sometimes are those promises realised. I can get a train from my local station to the City, a distance of 14 or 15 miles, which takes 20 minutes. That is no small achievement when it is on time. Alas, often it is not on time. The trouble is that the service advertised cannot be relied upon. There are daily cancellations and delays. Needless to say, I was 10 minutes late arriving in town this morning. Southern Region is now planning to reduce the quality of the service even further.

This is a very important issue for my constituents. I have had many letters from constituents expressing their concern. A number of constituents, including rail passengers—I am a commuter myself—have spoken to me. I come up to town daily by rail from my constituency. When they see me sitting in the train, people do not hesitate to express their views forcefully. The volume of this reaction is hardly surprising. A large number of my constituents and people throughout South-East London rely entirely on British Rail to get to and from work. I have 10 stations within, or on the edge of, my constituency boundaries, serving my constituents and bringing them to town.

The proposed reductions take various forms—a reduction in the frequency of services, the early closing of certain London termini and the closing of suburban stations on Saturday evening and Sunday. It is proposed to cancel certain peak-hour trains and to reduce the off-peak service from a 20-minute interval to a 30-minute interval service. That will be inconvenient. I shall not, however, raise any strong objections to that aspect of the proposals, provided only that the timetable will be adhered to. The present timetable is unreliable. I would much prefer to have fewer services that ran on time than a large number of services advertised but not materialising.

I have had correspondence with the chairman of British Rail, Sir Peter Parker. In a letter to me, he implied that the sort of ad hoc cancellations suffered at the moment due to staff shortages are far easier for British Rail to organise than the straight withdrawal of certain services. It may be easier for British Rail, but it is not easier for the passengers. It is no consolation, on missing an important appointment, to be told that, unfortunately, the train has had to be withdrawn. I hope that any revised timetable can be relied upon and that the trains will be punctual.

The proposed closure of stations is not as drastic as was predicted in the widely circulated leaks. They are nevertheless still extensive. In particular, it is proposed to close Cannon Street and Holborn Viaduct stations at 7.30 pm. There are a number of City workers who, on a regular basis or occasionally, work well after that hour in the City. There are also those who like to have a drink at a pub before they go home. Why not? There are quite a lot of people who are still in the City at 7.30 pm who will be considerably inconvenienced by the proposed closures. I would like to see some well-supported figures to justify the claim that it is reasonable to close these two termini.

In a debate earlier this week, the Minister quoted figures from British Rail showing that there are 14 departures from Cannon Street after 7.30 pm, with an average of 10 passengers on each. Having used Cannon Street myself from time to time, I query those figures. I wonder whether they were taken over a period, or on just one evening. I wonder whether some services are used more heavily than others. I suspect that the station is used more heavily between 7.30 pm and 8.30 pm than it is between 8.30 pm and 9.30 pm.

My hon. and learned Friend the Parliamentary Secretary also said the other day that, after all, only 10 minutes' walk away from Cannon Street is London Bridge station, which will remain open. That is true, but it is 10 minutes' walk over and above a passenger's walk from his office to Cannon Street station, and much of it is a very exposed walk across London Bridge itself, which is not all that agreeable on a wet and windy winter night.

I accept that it may not be necessary to keep these two termini open until 11 or 12 o'clock at night, but I hope that some sort of compromise will he reached of, say, 9 pm or 9.30 pm.

Again, the predictions of the extent to which suburban stations would be closing on weekdays have not been fulfilled, with two exceptions—Sundridge Park and Bromley North, both of which serve my constituency and which it is proposed will close on weekday nights at 10 o'clock.

Why does British Rail propose 10 o'clock? For the reasons that I have indicated already, 7.30 pm would be objectionable, but at least it would be understandable, in being immediately after the peak hour. But 10 o'clock will inconvenience people coming home from theatres, restaurants, and so on, in the West End. Closing these two stations less than a couple of hours earlier than normal seems to effect the absolute minimum economy and to cause considerable inconvenience.

The same arguments apply with a good deal more force to the proposal to close no fewer than 32 stations on Saturday evenings after 7.30 pm and all day on Sundays. That list includes Bickley and Elmstead Woods, which are in my constituency, as well as the two stations to which I have referred already.

Nearly all these 32 stations are in residential areas. Those who live there depend on the trains. It must be remembered that in South-East London we have no Tube service to supplement the other forms of public transport. People came to live in these areas because of the convenience of the trains for pleasure as well as for business. I should be interested if we could be given figures of station use at these stations. Presumably British Rail has the figures and can make them available.

My impression is that many people use the stations in my constituency on Saturday evenings and Sundays. What are they expected to do if these stations are closed? The bus services are poor, and some of the stations on the list, including Elmstead Woods and Sundridge Park, have no buses serving them. What are elderly people coming home late at night to do? What is to happen to girls who have been up to town during the evening and who are coming home late at night on their own? Are they supposed to go to the next station, either before or after their own—if after, presumably they have to pay more—and then walk home alone? In some cases they could not even do that, because, going through the list of 32 stations, one discovers that in at least three instances two adjacent stations are being closed, resulting in an even longer walk.

There would he uproar if it were suggested that people should be prevented from using their cars as a means of transport on Saturday evenings or Sundays, yet this is a comparable form of action, because many people rely completely on the trains. If these stations are to be closed, people will be effectively isolated throughout this period.

There will be other effects, too. In my constituency and those of a number of my hon. Friends, there are several homes for the elderly and the handicapped. Staff on evening, night and weekend shifts rely on the trains to get them to and from work. Those homes will lose their staff if they find that they cannot get to the stations near to the homes. It will also cause hardship to those wishing to visit friends and relatives in those homes on Saturday evenings and Sundays, which are popular visiting times. The same applies to people who like to go to hospital visiting to see people in other parts of London on Saturday evenings or Sundays. They, too, will have difficulty.

The proposal will also affect the trade in West End theatres and restaurants, for which Saturday evenings are very popular. My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Montgomery) emphasised this strongly in his Adjournment debate earlier in the week. People will think twice about an evening out in the West End if they know that they cannot return to their local stations on their way home.

What is the purpose of all these closures? What will the savings be by running the trains through stations rather than stopping them? The saving in labour costs must be minimal. Quite often at that time of night, if the stations are staffed at all—and often they are not—there is only one person on duty. The only saving would appear to be a saving in electric light.

The impression was given by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in reply to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) recently that she believed, as many of us did, that the stations would simply not be staffed but would be available for people to get on and off trains. That no longer appears to be the case.

The West End trade is also affected by another feature of the proposals which does not seem to have received much publicity so far. It is that last trains are being scheduled to leave earlier than they do at the moment. Most last trains already leave before midnight. After June, they will leave 20 minutes earlier. On the Orpington and Swanley lines, at least we have had our last train at 24 minutes past midnight. I know it well, because I often use it. After these new proposals come into force in June, the last train will leave before 11.15 pm.

British Rail receives finance from the Government for what it describes as "passenger service obligation", which recognises the unprofitability of commuter traffic. That figure has just been raised by £23 million to £678 million, which is a substantial sum. Yet, as British Rail receives this sum and imposes yet another hefty fare increase, it is announcing proposals to reduce the quality of the service in the manner that I have indicated. In the document announcing these reductions, British Rail claims: The total package is designed therefore with the following in mind…To maintain the region's wide network of services for commuting and optional travel. How is that claim possibly met by closing 32 stations over the weekend?

In his reply to the debate earlier in the week, the Minister said that British Rail must improve its efficiency and productivity and meet the needs of the customer. That is a sentiment with which we will all agree, and we urge British Rail to do this rather than to curtail the service.

Cannot British Rail look at ways of improving the service by, for example, providing later trains? A few later trains during the week would be extremely convenient for people who, for example, like to go to the theatre and have supper afterwards. That is quite impracticable, given the present train timetables.

Why cannot British Rail make greater efforts to fill trains during the off-peak period? We have heard a good deal recently about the £1 old people's ticket, which, if anything, has been too successful. People have complained about overcrowded trains and about the extent to which the facility has been used. A pensioner has been able to travel from Land's End to John o' Groats for £1 on British Rail. It costs my constituents more than that to travel less than 15 miles to London on an off-peak return for shopping or the theatre. Is there not scope there for some improvement in the fare structure to encourage more business? I suggest that there is plenty of scope for improving services and no justification for curtailing them. I do not think that these proposals have been properly thought through. I do not think that the implications have been considered fully.

In its covering letter, British Rail tells us that these proposals are still a matter for staff consultation. May I suggest very gently that there are one or two other people as well as the staff who might be consulted? What about the passengers, for a start? What about the passenger organisations? I suggest that British Rail might even consult local Members of Parliament, who are not totally uninterested in these matters.

It is curious that, if British Rail wants to close a station, the matter has to be taken to the transport users' consultative committee and an inquiry has to be held. No such consultation is legally required if the station is simply to be closed during certain periods, such as weekends. I suggest, however, that there is a considerable moral obligation on British Rail to undertake consultation. I appreciate that detailed management matters are not the responsibility of my hon. and learned Friend, but he should urge British Rail to think again about plans that will cause widespread inconvenience and distress to my constituents and to many of the people living in South-East London.

Photo of Mr Chris Price Mr Chris Price , Lewisham West 10:31 am, 19th December 1980

I congratulate the hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) on having raised this crucial matter on our last day before Christmas, because so far it has not received enough publicity. I want to say a few words about the effect on my constituency.

Of the 12 stations within and adjoining my constituency, nearly half—five of them—are now disappearing at weekends, and others are being closed at an earlier hour during the week. The five that are going are Ladywell, Beckenham Hill, Sydenham Hill, Crofton Park and Lower Sydenham. The result will be a tremendous deprivation in the normal public transport arrangements which people have relied on in the past and, indeed, for as long as they can remember.

Genuine anger is felt in my constituency. Indeed, some of the letters I have received contain expletives to which it would be unfair to expose the Minister. As the hon. Member said, that is on top of an already unsatisfactory situation, quite apart from the irregularity of the trains. In the rush hour, trains are still overcrowded and unreliable. Sometimes they are half the required length.

In the short time at my disposal, I want to put three points which have been brought to my attention by my constituents. First, it is felt that these cuts are discriminating against South-East London, an area which is already deprived in the overall London public transport system. One of my constituents says: I travel daily from Sydenham Hill station to London and this is the line which will apparently be almost non-existent when June comes—closing down after 7.30 pm in the evenings, closed altogether on Sundays and a lot of cuts during the rush hour.I do feel that we commuters in the south-east are really badly served for transport, with buses unreliable and no underground." That feeling is strongly held in South-East London. The second point that has been put to me by my constituents, and I give only a representative sample of the letters that I have received, is that the South-East network has suffered far more from lack of investment over the years than any other part of the public transport system in London. Another constituent says: why or how they"— that is, British Rail— lose millions of commuter services is beyond my imagination, and how they think people who work in the evenings are going to travel to work, if they cut the rail services is even more mysterious. If the fares were more reasonable, a great many more people would gladly travel by rail, as things are now drifting it will only be the rich who will be able to afford to consider a train journey. I urge the Minister to take note of those remarks. I realise that he is not responsible for the detailed management of British Rail, but other parts of the country are not so badly affected. I used to be a Sheffield councillor and I was up in South Yorkshire the other day and travelled by bus a distance of five miles for 5p. I do not suggest that British Rail could reduce its fares to that level, but there is a point beyond which, if services are cut and fares raised, money is not saved. In fact, more money is lost.

It is all very well British Rail writing to Members of Parliament and saying that financial savings are expected to be between £2½ million and £3 million per annum. I am not remotely convinced that there will be any savings at all as a result of the cuts. I suspect that they will just add to the mounting deficit.

My third and final point concerns a matter which was raised earlier in an Adjournment debate—namely, that these cuts simply add to the decline of London. Many constituents have written to me on this matter, a number of whom are not Labour voters. One of them says: I am a floating voter with no really strong party affiliation. This insane measure proposed by BR, but having its real source at the Ministry of Transport, has so incensed me as to tip the voting scales in favour of Labour. I do not receive letters like that very often. In one way I am pleased to receive such letters, but in another way I am not, because I think that the Minister has a responsibility for the basic structure of the public transport system. If these cuts go ahead, there will be real deprivation in South-East London, and I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some words of comfort today.

Photo of Mr Ivor Stanbrook Mr Ivor Stanbrook , Bromley Orpington 10:36 am, 19th December 1980

One-third of the population of my constituency travels to London every day, and more rail passengers travel daily to London from Orpington station than from any other station in the London area. It is, therefore, a matter of great importance to my constituents that any adjustments or alterations in rail services should be made with due regard to the interests of rail passengers. It cannot be fairly said that the recent proposals do that. Those of us who live in South-East London, especially on the fringe, are badly served.

As has already been said, South-East London does not enjoy all the transport facilities that are available in the rest of the metropolis. In particular, we have no Underground services. Nor do we have all-night buses. So all that the proposals achieve is a serious cut in our quality of life. The proposed reductions in weekend travel and off-peak travel are in just those areas where people, other than those who are travelling to work, like to enjoy themselves, travelling up to town for entertainment and culture. Stations are closing in our area, an area which has no all-night buses.

My constituents who live near stations that are to close will be deprived of a service that is essential if they are to travel at all. Many of them will be stranded. My constituents will suffer because late trains have been cancelled and because of the inadequate provision of buses, particularly all-night buses. It will be particularly hard, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) said, for children and young women travelling back home. British Rail should give some thought to that matter.

The reason for all this, according to the communication that I have received from the general manager of Southern Region, is that the financial position of British Rail has deteriorated and it feels obliged to make economies in order to reflect market trends. All one can say is that that is not good enough and British Rail can do better.

South-East London is already penalised as regards fares. The fare structure is biased against the short-haul traveller, who gets less value for money than commuters who travel longer distances—for example, from the Kent coast.

South-East London is penalised also as regards rolling stock. I have not seen so many dirty carriages and vandalised seats as I see in our area. Seats seem to be impregnated with dirt and grease. Windows are near opaque, and all too often the floors are littered with debris when one travels at off-peak hours.

Most of all, a fair criticism of the proposals is that they reflect inadequate consultation with those in the best position to offer advice. My hon. friend the Member for Chislehurst made the sound point that the channels of communication are not always those which serve the interests of the travellers. They are quasi-statutory bodies which, like all such bodies and quangos, serve the public interest inefficiently. It would be far better to consult much more those who come into the consultation business of their own free will, determined, with a public-spirited attitude, to serve the interests of people like themselves who desire improved public services. There are many rail commuters'associations in the London area which should be consulted. Mine in particular, the Orpington and District Rail Passengers Association, has on its committee expers on the subject who could be of great assistance if they were consulted by British Rail.

It is fair also to mention the campaign waged by The New Standard and its two predecessors, the Evening News and the Evening Standard, to improve facilities and gain a better deal for rail passengers.

It is only by the unremitting vigilance of the travelling public, through their associations, that we can prevent a further fall in standards.

Photo of Mr Cyril Townsend Mr Cyril Townsend , Bexley Bexleyheath 10:40 am, 19th December 1980

I should like to add my voice on behalf of the commuters of Bexley, an area built up round the railways. The road system is inadequate to take any increased traffic. In the rush hour it takes me one and a half hours to cover the 12 miles to my constituency.

British Rail is entitled to close stations, and it should operate its services flexibly, but what it has proposed is unacceptable and unrealistic. I hope that it is just an opening salvo in its battle against the Treasury. I do not accept the concept of a downward spiral—fewer passengers justifying fewer services.

The 7.30 pm deadline is ridiculous. Many of my constituents do shift work. They have to work late on an order. Some have to visit granny in hospital. The entertainment facilities for them are not in my constituency but in central London.

I receive continual complaints about British Rail services—the cancellation of trains, dirty trains and the fares increases. The cuts on top of all that are too much.

British Rail still operates 200 marshalling yards, which cannot be justified, and has more than 1,000 manned level crossings. It has guards on new suburban electric trains, and I believe that the failure of guards to turn up is one of the main causes of the cancellation of commuter trains.

A compromise is needed. I hope that the Government will make clear today that the proposed draconian measures are unacceptable to them.

Photo of Mr John Hunt Mr John Hunt , Bromley Ravensbourne 10:42 am, 19th December 1980

I echo the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) on initiating the debate. My constituents, like his, are angry and alarmed about the cuts and closures proposed by Southern Region. Some of them might be prepared to accept some cuts in trains, or service rationalisation, as Southern Region chooses somewhat quaintly to call it, if at the same time they could be assured that the remaining trains would run to time, without cancellation.

At present the Southern Region timetable is a work of fiction. It is difficult to describe the sense of frustration and exasperation that comes from the sudden cancellation of trains, on both the morning and evening journeys.

What has aroused real resentment in my constituency is the early closure of London stations, such as Cannon Street and Holborn Viaduct, and, at the local level, the changes involving Bromley North, Shortlands and Sundridge Park and the weekend closures to which other hon. Members have referred. British Rail must remember the extent to which its captive commuters in South-East London, without the advantage of the Underground railway which serves other parts of the capital, are dependent on its surface railway.

Faced with its undoubted and acknowledged difficulties, British Rail has taken the easy option of cutbacks, closures and fare increases, without tackling the perennial problem of overmanning and general inefficiency. I hope that, in the light of this debate, when my hon. and learned Friend the Parliamentary Secretary next sees Sir Peter Parker he will put these points to him forcefully and forthrightly.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Parliamentary Secretary (Ministry of Transport) 10:44 am, 19th December 1980

I know how strongly my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) and his constituents feel on this issue. My hon. Friend was present at a very later hour only a few nights ago when we had a similar debate, and this morning he has again pressed upon me his concern about the reductions in the level of service in the area of his constituency.

The Government and I also appreciate that underlying the concern expressed by all the hon. Members who have spoken today is a continuing concern about the level of service given to commuters generally in the South-East. Ministers are in no doubt, and I am sure that the British Railways Board is in no doubt, that there is a very low level of consumer satisfaction at present with commuter services in and around London. It is felt on all sides that there is considerable room for improvement. Therefore, it is not surprising that reports of service reduction and early station closures have given rise to another upsurge of feeling.

The Government have recognised the particular problems of the commuter and have tried to make a positive contribution towards solving them, first by choosing the services for a special examinaton by the new Monopolies and Mergers Commission. The first report that that body produced gave rise to some valuable recommendations on means by which the services might be improved.

The report contained some praise for the level of performance of British Rail's line management, but it also made 36 positive recommendations for eliminating faults and improving performance to the general benefit of London and suburban commuters. It set out in particular suggestions for more effective targets for management, new methods to control costs and greater efficiency in the use of manpower, which might improve the present position. The report helped to underline some of the problems of absenteeism and the abuse of the sick pay arrangements in British Rail, which often give rise to cancellations.

At our meetings with it, the board has responded positively and has told us that it is taking action on each of the recommendations. We have already begun talks with British Rail about the clearer Government guidelines that the report rightly said British Rail needed on the basis on which it runs its commuter services. In drawing up clearer guidelines, we shall take on board the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook).

In the final resort, fares policy is a matter for the board, and the board alone, but the Government disapprove of any suggestion that there should be a weighting of fares increases or alterations in fares policy in future which discriminate against the captive commuter in London and the South-East. One of the commission's recommendations was that there was room in the area for services to be altered to match demand more closely. As several of my hon. Friends have conceded, in broad principle there is a case for saying that where there are lightly used services, and, therefore, wasted resources, British Rail must be entitled to take management decisions to alter its train services to match passenger demand. Some economies of that kind can undoubtedly be made in London and the South-East.

Yesterday, I saw that after the Rail Council meeting union spokesmen were quoted as being against service cuts anywhere, and at the same time wanting more resources for the railways. But, if service reductions save costs, that releases resources which can then be devoted to bettering the service given to passengers where there is real passenger demand.

As every hon. Member who has spoken has acknowledged, in putting that policy into practice British Rail has a management role which would not be assisted by Ministers directly interfering. It would not improve matters for Ministers to start taking political decisions about the times at which the trains run or fare levels and so on. Nevertheless, we are as concerned as hon. Members are that in taking management steps British Rail should make sure that it is genuinely saving costs and is not merely reducing services which are of some value to hard-pressed commuters.

Hon. Members pressed this morning for more figures to be made available. Figures of passenger usage must come to the Government from British Rail. I have no doubt that it would respond positively to any specific queries hon. Members put to it about passenger usage at particular stations and usage of particular services. It must have that information backing up the decisions that it has taken.

On Tuesday I gave the House some figures about the weekday closures, which particularly concerned hon. Members. It is true that only 14 stations out of 566 on Southern Region are proposed for closure after 7.30 pm on weekdays. I have also been given figures by British Rail which suggest that Cannon Street and Holborn Viaduct are very lightly used after 7.30 pm. British Rail says that the remaining 12 stations to be closed are each used on average by about only 45 people each evening, but I have no doubt that there are considerable variations in those averages.

For example, Sundridge Park and Bromley North, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt), are used by more than that average figure, and I have no doubt that Sir Peter Parker and the British Railways Board will bear in mind his submissions about those stations, as I hope they will bear in mind all the other submissions made about particular services by hon. Members.

The question of leaving stations unstaffed but allowing the trains to stop there was referred to in a parliamentary answer by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister a few days ago to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend). It was our understanding from British Rail, and it was the Prime Minister's understanding then, that that was widely proposed. There are already about 45 unstaffed stations on Southern Region.

The board tells us that cutting out the stops enables it to make better use of the rolling stock and staff time, but I have no doubt that it will consider, as it should do, whether many of these economies might be made by simply leaving the stations unstaffed but allowing the passengers to board as they like without needless supervision.

I turn now to the Government's role and some of the other implications of the point made in this debate that in some way financial cost lies behind these closures and that the Government are involved, first, as the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) said, because of our overriding obligation towards public transport and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath said, because of British Rail's continuing battle with the Treasury, which he felt lay behind these reductions.

I cannot emphasise too strongly that the answer to British Rail's problems in the commuter areas and elsewhere cannot in the end rest entirely on producing more money from the Treasury or from the customer. British Rail has had no cuts in its finances in recent times. Indeed, its resources have been increased. The Governmnent have shown flexibility, despite the present difficult economic situation, and there has been an increase in the taxpayers' contribution to British Rail's finances over the last few months. There has also been a substantial increase in the contribution by the passenger, with fares increases running well ahead of the level of inflation.

When one notices how heavily some in the railway community are campaigning on the issue of finance—even going in for expensive advertising out of their budget to seek to persuade the Government to give them more money—one should bear in mind the background. The railways are being given more money. Their external financial limit was extended recently by an extra £40 million, so that the passenger should not have to bear the costs of the problems with the freight business. We have just increased the PSO by £23 million.

We have not cut investment. It has been entirely spared from the cuts being made elsewhere, with investment maintained at the high level set by the previous Government, and 25 per cent. of it going to London and the South-East. So the railways are being financed—of course, not as much as those concerned would wish; but in the short term British Rail must look to making the best use of its resources and giving the passenger satisfaction out of the money going into the system.

Photo of Mr Chris Price Mr Chris Price , Lewisham West

I think that we are all grateful for the amount of public investment which goes into British Rail, but does the Minister agree that even so British Rail is one of the least subsidised public rail systems in Europe and that if we are to have the standard of the systems in other countries, that simply means more public investment, not less?

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Parliamentary Secretary (Ministry of Transport)

European comparisons are freely made in this area, but they are difficult to make with any accuracy because there is wide variation among the accounting methods employed in the different Western European countries and wide variation in the different ways in which individual Governments contribute to their rail systems.

Having said that, I accept that British Rail is one of the more successful of the European systems in making contributions from its own revenue towards its operating costs. However, that gives no ground for complacency and I see no basis in policy for taking examples from the systems of countries where internally it is regarded as a scandal that the railways cost so much and arguing from that that British Rail, with the present state of our economy, should be entitled to similar support.

Someone recently estimated that, over the entire EEC area, subsidising the railways costs the taxpayer more than the common agricultural policy. Britain should not be in the lead in raising subsidy to its railway system to get itself into line with the least successful systems in Western Europe.

Photo of Mr Roger Moate Mr Roger Moate , Faversham

In a debate on railway services in the South-East, the cutting of late-night services must be important, but is there not a particular problem in cutting Sunday services when that cuts off whole communities? When he is talking to British Rail about these matters, will my hon. and learned Friend bear in mind particularly places in my constituency such as the whole Isle of Sheppey and especially the town of Sheerness, which on a Sunday, even when ferry services from the town are increasing, will, it is proposed, be totally cut off, with bus and rail services diminished or eliminated? There are special social consequences here which should be calculated by the whole community. One hopes that British Rail will take such factors directly into account.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Parliamentary Secretary (Ministry of Transport)

My hon. Friend correctly brings me back to the underlying point of the debate, which is the immediate point—

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

Order I remind the Minister that he is addressing the House, not just his hon. Friend, and that I am included in the House.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Parliamentary Secretary (Ministry of Transport)

I accept that reproof, Mr. Speaker, and I apologise. It is becoming a habit with me, when pressed by my hon. Friends sitting behind my right shoulder, to turn and address them directly.

The whole House is concerned about these announcements of possible service cuts. Similar adjustments to services may have to be made in other regions. All those who have spoken have accepted the underlying need to match services more closely to passenger demand, and I think that they have accepted that there is a case for saving costs on lightly used services if the effect is that the resources released are used for the improvement of other services, for the benefit of more passengers.

This morning, widespread concern has been expressed about the particular effects of the recent announcements in London and the South-East. The problem is particularly sensitive in this area because of the dissatisfaction with the existing services. I hope that British Rail will study all the representations which have been made in the debate and will respond to them. As I said, when I am pressed for figures and details of the savings made from changes I can obtain them only from British Rail. I am sure that the British Railways Board will freely provide them for those hon. Members who have pressed for them.

In the end, I hope that British Rail will make as many economies as can sensibly be made in this area and that it will act not only on this recommendation of the MMC but on all the other recommendations as well and that in the long run we shall see a steady improvement in the present disappointing levels of performance by British Rail in London and the South-East.

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

It is near enough to 11 o'clock and I think that it will be for the convenience of the House if I call on the Secretary of State to make his statement now.