Orders of the Day — British Railways Board (Increase of Compensation Limit)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:57 pm on 10th February 1981.

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Photo of Mr Albert Booth Mr Albert Booth , Barrow-in-Furness 8:57 pm, 10th February 1981

Under this order the limit of the public service obligation will be subject to increase. The obligation was introduced in 1974 and was intended to enable British Railways to maintain their network. It was the way that the House had of saying "No more Beechings. We do not want railway services cut. We have had too many cuts. We want to maintain our railway services."

Like those who are concerned about keeping the network, the Secretary of State should realise that it is increasingly apparent that the network of 1974 cannot be maintained by the present level of public service obligation. The strain of attempting to maintain it has created serious problems for British Rail. I am not saying that there has been a dramatic change in the Government's concept of the public service obligation. As we wish to have a constructive debate, I hope that hon. Members will accept that the public service obligation has, in real purchasing power terms, been roughly maintained at the level set when it was introduced. It may have fallen a bit, but it is about the same.

It is my contention—supported, I think, by most people who have studied the railway service—that this PSO will not sustain the network. There is evidence of that on every hand. If I give a few examples from Cumbria, not because I maintain that Cumbria has a worse service than any other part of the country—of course, it is a more important part of the country because my constituency is there—but because they show that there are a number of lines in difficulty.

I shall start with the main line from Euston to Carlisle. On that line, there are arrears of track work in Cumbria which require the relaying of 2¼ miles of track, reballasting for several miles and some earthworks. Because of the condition of the track, from June next the timetable will have a 10 minutes addition placed upon it. In spite of that, I am told by British Rail that, even with that additional time, the punctuality targets will be revised downwards.

The signalling system on the coast line—serving the constituencies of Barrow, Workington, Whitehaven and Carlisle, and the constituency of the Home Secretary—which is contended to be still safe—dates back to 1879. They must have built good signalling systems in 1879, because they still work today. Indeed, 60 per cent. of the boxes date back to the early 1900s. Obviously they are labour-intensive. Perhaps that casts some reflection on what the Secretary of State said about productivity. On that line, there are arrears of track work which now require the relaying of 13 miles of the track, and reballasting of four miles, to say nothing of the work that needs to be done on the sea defences.

Let us consider the rolling stock on the lines that serve my constituency. The diesel multiple units, which were built to last for 10 to 15 years, are now over 23 years old. I cannot believe that an estimate cannot be given of how much it would cost to keep these diesel multiple units on the track. I have been to the workshops where the DMUs are refurbished. The cost must be known because so much of that work is done.

It is not unusual in the Preston division, which operates from the south into my constituency, to start the morning with seven out of 40 units short. It is a wonder that there is so little severe disruption in the service. I imagine that the only reason is the very skilled manipulation by the BR controllers of the very outdated DMUs.

About 3,000 miles of the 12,000 miles of the country's network are at risk of being put under speed restriction and ultimate closure because there is not enough investment. Signalling systems such as the one I mentioned on the coast line are not hard to find. They will soon be incapable of repair and will need replacing. Viaducts which carry vital rail links are in need of replacement, and some are in danger of collapsing. Carriages are threadbare, and in many areas rolling stock is at the end of its useful working life.

All these facets of the system are calling out for investment. They reached their peak of service years ago. What will the future be if we maintain the same PSO regime, using the powers of this order to keep it going for another few years? In other words, why has the situation developed?

I contend, first, that it has developed, in part, because the cost of replacing railway equipment has increased since the PSO was set while the PSO has not increased. It is not for want of increases in fares. There have been substantial increases in fares. We have probably the highest fare levels in Europe. But the proportion of the cost borne by fares in maintaining social lines, even if they maintain their fare income, still leaves that remaining proportion more expensive to finance in terms of replacing the equipment on those lines.

Of even greater significance has been the postponing of investment by British Rail to keep within its PSO and external financing limit. The Secretary of State was unfair when he quoted an occasion on which British Rail went outside the limit, because its record of staying within its PSO and financing limit is extremely good. Generally speaking, it keeps within the PSO limits by a margin which shows that it is a careful cost controller. However, it has kept within the PSO margins only by delaying work. It has said "If we are to keep within the limits this year, we cannot afford to carry out this or that investment project or this or that piece of track maintenance. We shall not be able to replace this signalling system or these DMUs."

Increasingly, British Rail is facing higher operating costs because it is using outdated stock. It is obviously more expensive to operate an old life-expired DMU than its modern equivalent. Therefore, that adds to the cost.

It is not inappropriate to draw an analogy between British Rail and a man who is deciding whether to replace his car. In making a decision whether to replace one's car, one estimates how much it will cost to keep it on the road for another year or two years. One considers what major repairs will need to be carried out and whether the tyres will have to be replaced. One may come to the conclusion, having made such an assessment, that it will be cheaper to buy a new car than to retain the old one, even if one has to borrow money at present high interest rates to buy a new car. British Rail is very much in that position. It is clear that British Rail is determined that there will be no reduction in safety standards as a result of these arrears of track maintenance and because it is operating with outdated life-expired stock.