In view of the announcement that is expected this week about new investment schemes for the Channel tunnel project., can the Minister give a preliminary indication that British Rail will be allowed to invest in Wales, Scotland and the north of England, and that there will not be just another bonanza for south-east England? Will the Minister bear in mind that the port of Calais is a relatively deprived area, but stands to gain considerably from the Channel tunnel project?
British Rail expects to publish its study on Thursday. The hon. Gentleman will know that British Rail is planning to invest about £3,800 million over the next five years. Moreover, whatever area of the country may be the subject of viable British Rail proposals for investment, I shall consider them sympathetically.
My hon. Friend has been instrumental in securing improved road transport facilities for north-east Kent. When he last met the chairman of British Rail, did he impress upon him the need for a rail service to replace the rather mediocre one from which we suffer at present, which, in these days of high-speed trains, transports passengers at an average speed of 40 mph?
Does the Minister agree that it is vital that investment in the so-called regions of the United Kingdom be increased? Is he aware of the high demand for increased electrification of the east coast line north of Edinburgh, and of continuing demand for a rail crossing at Dornoch Firth? Both are of vital importance if we are not to be disadvantaged when the Channel tunnel comes on stream.
Investment in British Rail is designed to meet the volume of passenger or freight demand. In the further regions of Scotland the passenger volume is a great deal less than it is in some other parts, but wherever British Rail has a viable business project to bring forward for investment purposes we shall look at it very carefully.
When my hon. Friend saw the British Railways Board, did he stress that when the board brings forward proposals for privatisation it will not be thought acceptable for British Rail merely to be transferred to a private monopoly? What Conservative Members want is competition.
These are very early days in our plans for the longer-term future of British Rail, with privatisation as an option, but I shall of course keep my hon. Friend's point in mind.
When the Minister next meets the chairman of the board, Sir Robert Reid, will he impress on him the need for proper facilities for both passenger and freight traffic arising from the Channel tunnel development? Those facilities are necessary across the provinces and regions, and particularly in the west midlands.
Will the Minister also insist that on-train customs and immigration facilities should be provided on cross-Channel trains, in the same way as they are in the rest of Europe? Will he ignore the reactionary views of the Home Office, which predictably wants more bureaucrats than passengers on the trains?
I shall of course ensure that the hon. Gentleman's comments about proper facilities for Channel traffic are conveyed to the chairman. Substantial consultation is taking place about the services, particularly freight services, that should be provided from north of London and throughout the country to maximise the benefits from the Channel tunnel.
When I next meet the chairman, I think that I should tell him that we are very pleased to learn from his recent report that he is getting there—and getting there much faster than we expected. After all, 1987–88 was an outstanding year, with the highest operating surplus in British Rail's history. Passenger volumes were the highest for 27 years, and passenger earnings were the highest in real terms since nationalisation.