British Rail

Part of Orders of the Day — Supply – in the House of Commons at 4:06 pm on 21st June 1982.

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Photo of Mr Albert Booth Mr Albert Booth , Barrow-in-Furness 4:06 pm, 21st June 1982

The threatened strike by the National Union of Railwaymen is not the cause of the rail crisis that the country now faces. Rather, it is the result of a conviction among a large number of people who work on British Rail that the Government are pursuing a course that will result in a collapse of the railways and that that course is being pursued at a time when it is clear to anyone who studies the railways that major investment is needed to reequip and modernise if there is to be a future for our railway network.

That view has been represented to the Government time and again. A significant example of that occurred in March last year when the British Railways Board decided to publish a rail policy document in which it submitted that it was crucial that a decision should be taken soon. It did so following the submission of a paper in May 1980 which called upon the Government to recognise what was needed for the renewal of equipment on the railways, if only to maintain the operational reliability and safety of British Rail.

That rail policy document pointed out that the physical effect of continuing the level of investment that then existed would be that about 3,000 track miles of British Rail would have to be taken out of operation within the decade, that there would be a fall in main line locomotive availability of about 50 per cent., and that the availability of diesel multiple units, which cater for many of our feeder lines as well as some of our main lines, would fall to about 60 per cent. In other words, there was no prospect of maintaining our existing post-Beeching rail network without an increase in the amount of investment expenditure in British Rail. The Government have yet to reply to that rail policy document submitted by British Rail last year.

More notably, on one of the major investment propositions—electification of the main lines—the Government expressed no willingness to adopt any of the five options that were unanimously agreed by the Department of Transport and British Rail. Instead, British Rail has been subjected to a series of changes in the Government policy on electrification, told that the basis of the five options is no longer acceptable, told to do its calculations again line by line and told to calculate on the basis that the proposals apply only to those parts of the mainline network that will be viable by 1985. It was told to do the calculations again because there had been an ASLEF strike. Some people at British Rail's headquarters must be sick of doing new calculations on investment proposals for electrification.

The proposals did not ask for something vastly ambitious. Even the largest of the five options would have resulted in only about 80 per cent. of passengers and 70 per cent. of freight being electric hauled. That would have brought our railways up to the standard that the French attained in 1970, the Belgians in 1947 and the Italians in 1940. Our electrification is inadequate by any of the standards accepted by our European partners.

If we are to bring about a major improvement there must be a commitment to choose one of the options. To do it line by line makes nonsense of attempting to plan an intelligent, long-term investment programme for British Rail. A decision to go for one of the options would mean much work for Scotland and South Wales. It is clear that if we do not electrify our mainline network we must replace our diesel locomotives with engines that are heavier, less economic and more costly to maintain than the electic locomotives in which we could now invest if we were modernising our railways.

Irrespective of whether we electrify, it is necessary for operational, safety and efficiency reasons to spend more on the railways. The Secretary of State and the Government know that. Their response was not even to sustain the existing inadequate expenditure on investment, but to reduce it. Expenditure by the British Railways Board on investment in 1979, at mid-1981 figures, was £379 million. This year the board forecasts investment to be £265 million, which is a drop of £100 million in expenditure on what was held to be a level inadequate to maintain our railways in their present state.