Orders of the Day — Rail Service (London-Cleethorpes)

– in the House of Commons at 11:35 pm on 17th June 1992.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Robert G. Hughes.]

Photo of Mr Michael Brown Mr Michael Brown , Brigg and Cleethorpes 11:42 pm, 17th June 1992

I am most grateful to those who determine whether we secure Adjournment debates that I should have the good fortune to be able to raise the subject of the direct rail services between London and Cleethorpes. I am delighted to see attending the debate the Minister for Public Transport, who is to reply, my hon. Friends the Members for Lincoln (Mr. Carlisle) and for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh), and the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). They too have an interest in the debate following the recent proposal by British Rail to withdraw the high-speed 125 train service that operates once a day in the morning from Cleethorpes to King's Cross and calls at the stations of Cleethorpes, Barnetby, and Habrough in my constituency, and then at Great Grimsby, Market Rasen and Lincoln before joining the main line at Newark. So the train services my constituents and those of the other hon. Members whom I have listed.

I know that my remarks will be heard by British Rail because of the forceful support offered by the constituents of my hon. Friends.

This train is the premier service to London from north Lincolnshire and south Humberside. It was introduced 10 years ago in 1982. Until then, we had four direct trains in each direction with full first and second-class carriages. They were diesel-haul locos with buffet and dining car services. Those four trains were withdrawn in 1982 and BR said that they were to be replaced by a single, but premier, train which would arrive in London about 9 am, and that there would be a return train in the evening. That train has been well used and well supported for 10 years by local people in all our constituencies.

Four years ago, when BR proposed to introduce the new 225 trains—the trains with electric overhead wires —my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle and I wondered what might happen if all high-speed main line train services were only 225 trains. We recognised that there was no electrification between Newark and Cleethorpes. In 1988, we took the trouble to press BR very firmly about the future of high-speed train services between south Humberside and north Lincolnshire and London.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle and I wrote to BR stating that we noted the tremendous investment that the Government were making available to BR for the 225 electrified trains. We said that it might be possible that one day the diesel electric-powered 125 trains, like those on the Cleethorpes to London service, might wear out. We wanted to know what would happen then.

We were accused of raising fears where there were none. However, we were very specific in what we said to BR. Back in 1988, I wrote asking specifically about the future of that train after 31 December 1991—just 150 days ago. I received a letter from Mr. Prideaux, who was then the managing director of InterCity. He wrote in 1988: Thank you for your letter of 21 April. I would confirm the assurances given in the letters of my InterCity marketing manager at York that we plan to continue the operation of a through service between Cleethorpes and King's Cross for the foreseeable future. We have not reached the stage of planning timetables beyond 1991, but it may help if I say that we have already decided to retain a number of refurbished high-speed train sets to operate services beyond the electrified area including that to Cleethorpes after that date.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle was taken to task by Mr. Holland, the InterCity marketing manager, when he wrote to BR in similar terms to mine. Mr. Holland assured him: May I support the assurances about the future of the train which you have already received from Chris Austin British Rail's parliamentary affairs manager. The train performs reasonably satisfactorily in the financial sense and serves an area with potential for future growth. There is no (nor has there been) any intention of withdrawing it. We cannot of course unconditionally guarantee its continued existence for ever any more than any commercial business can indefinitely underwrite any product since its survival will obviously depend on its usage and earnings remaining satisfactory. But I am puzzled as to why you should believe that this train is to be withdrawn. Can you elucidate upon the cause of your fears? My hon. Friend was taken to task in no uncertain terms by BR. Those assurances today are not worth the paper on which they are written.

I took the trouble to write to BR when the announcement was made 10 days ago, and I received responses from the parliamentary affairs manager and Mr. Brian Birdsall, the director of the east coast main line. He refuted my allegation that BR had misled my hon. Friends, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby and me. It denies that anything that it said in 1988 was at variance with the position in 1992. Never again will I treat anything that I see on paper from British Rail as anything other than worthless.

Photo of Austin Mitchell Austin Mitchell , Great Grimsby

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. It shows great initiative and the determination of hon. Members to oppose the proposal. He is telling a story of deceit and incompetence. As a supporter of British Rail and public transport—indeed, I am a frequent user of it—I find it very hard to love British Rail or even to support or condone its behaviour. It made promises that it obviously had no intention of keeping and which it is now betraying, and it is badly letting down our area. Like the hon. Gentleman, I want it to know that we shall oppose its proposal tooth and nail with every weapon at our disposal.

Is not the most appalling aspect of the sorry saga the fact that British Rail is not only judge and jury in its own case but able to manipulate the evidence as well? It says that usage has not been adequate, but it is the controller of that usage. It looks as though it has set out deliberately to run down usage of that valuable service to our area by bringing the times forward to 6 am, a very inconvenient time, and changing them later in the evening so that people find it more difficult to spend a day in London and get back quickly. It has reduced services on the train, particularly breakfast and restaurant car services. Most appalling of all, it has cut out cheap fares on the service with the deliberate intention of keeping places empty, to fill up at Newark and beyond. In other words, it is depriving the people of Grimsby and Cleethorpes of the service by increasing the fares so that it can fill the train later on.

Does not that show that British Rail is prepared to fiddle the evidence so that it can use the remaining 125 trains for other purposes elsewhere which are more convenient to it but not to the area? Does not that show also that it will do the same thing again? If it takes off the service, it will then use the form in usage—

Photo of Miss Janet Fookes Miss Janet Fookes , Plymouth Drake

Order. That is a speech, not an intervention.

Photo of Austin Mitchell Austin Mitchell , Great Grimsby

I am most grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker, I—

Photo of Miss Janet Fookes Miss Janet Fookes , Plymouth Drake

I am sorry, but that is enough.

Photo of Mr Michael Brown Mr Michael Brown , Brigg and Cleethorpes

I could not disagree with anything that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby has said. He is absolutely right about deliberately running down the service. British Rail has attacked me for making that allegation. Indeed, I have gone even further than the hon. Gentleman. I have accused British Rail of sabotaging the service, but that is what is happening.

Until last year, it was possible for passengers from Cleethorpes, Grimsby, Market Rasen and Lincoln to use the cheapest fare of the day on that train. Last year, British Rail withdrew that cheapest fare. If a housewife wishes to go to London as a casual passenger—perhaps she wants to do a day's shopping in London—she is encouraged not to use that train, because the cheapest fare of the day is now not available until after 9.30.

As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby has said, British Rail is judge and jury, yet it wants to have it both ways. Normally, one restricts the use of cheap tickets on a train in the morning and evening rush hours because it is a full train and one wants to use a pricing policy to ensure that those who travel on the train regularly, such as season ticket holders or business men, can get seats. Until last year, the casual traveller was encouraged, with all sorts of promotions and advertising deals, to take advantage of that train. Now they are denied the opportunity. Then British Rail has the cheek to advise the four hon. Members who represent north Lincolnshire and south Humberside that the reason that it will suspend the service with effect from next year is because not enough people use the train between Newark and Cleethorpes. That is a ridiculous argument.

British Rail is proposing that we should have small regional connecting services between Newark and Cleethorpes. That will simply encourage more people to drive their motor cars to either Newark or to Doncaster. In two or three years, British Rail will say, "Oh well, none of you is using the line between Cleethorpes and Newark, so we are certainly going to close it between Barnetby and Lincoln," leaving my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle without any railway service whatsoever in Market Rasen.

We are already seeing the beginnings of that plan of attack. British Rail is making it more financially worthwhile for a passenger to travel to London via Doncaster from Grimsby and Cleethorpes and Barnetby. The ticket via Doncaster to London costs £31. The cheapest ticket via Newark costs £38. British Rail will encourage more and more people to travel via Doncaster to London to enable it to reserve its position on the total closure of the line in three or four years.

I have dealt with British Rail for many years. I have seen its promises on pieces of paper. I have quoted those promises today, four years later, in the House. I can see exactly what will happen. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that there is at the least a case for local Members of Parliament saying to British Rail that, as the Government intend to privatise it during the next 18 months to two years, it should defer its decision? In the event that a private operator wants to take over the service, it should still be in operation on vesting day when ownership and control of British Rail or its track authority passes to the private sector. It would be an act of sabotage if British Rail ran down services and the direct train, in particular before the private sector had an opportunity to operate in the new environment that the Government intend to create in later years.

British Rail wrongly and unfairly seeks to put the blame on the Government. In its letter of 15 June, it says that anything that it said to me in 1988 is made redundant by the new targets on assets employed which the Government require it to meet. I do not accept that. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would elucidate on whether that is just another of British Rail's lame excuses.

I believe that, properly marketed, the train could continue to be as viable as it has been in the past. It is our only link with London. We used to have an air service from Humberside airport. We used to have competition. That competition spurred both Air UK and British Rail to provide a good service. For a time, we had true competition. There is no longer a direct air service between south Humberside and north Lincolnshire and London. Now there is not to be a direct railway service.

At the least British Rail should defer its decision until ownership has passed from the state to the private sector. I understand that it will be possible for private companies to operate over British Rail tracks when new legislation is in place in about 18 months. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister can confirm that that is the case.

In the meantime, I hope that the attendance of my hon. Friends the Members for Lincoln and for Gainsborough and Horncastle and the hon. Member for Great Grimsby will be noted by British Rail. I agree with every word that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby said. I hope that British Rail will take the fact that the debate has been attended by all the Members of Parliament for north Lincolnshire and south Humberside as a signal that we are all angry on behalf of our constituents. We shall not let the train go without one hell of a fight. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State can give us some words of encouragement.

Photo of Mr Roger Freeman Mr Roger Freeman , Kettering 11:58 pm, 17th June 1992

This is an important debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) for the vigour and clarity with which he argued his case. I understand that he made the same speech in a debate earlier this evening. That is a great credit to his ingenuity as a parliamentarian but also clearly underlines the importance of the subject.

The presence on the Front Bench of two fellow Ministers who represent contiguous constituences, straining at the leash to contribute to the debate but having to remain mute, is a great stimulus to provide what I hope will be a constructive response. I find it interesting, but not entirely surprising, that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) has joined in the debate and that there has been apparent agreement between Members on both sides of the House on the issue. British Rail has not proposed to close the line. We are concentrating on the absence of a through service from Cleethorpes, via Great Grimsby and Newark to London. The existence of a through service is often a crucial factor when business men and women decide how to travel to London. I accept, as I am sure that British Rail accepts, that a connecting service—albeit a frequent class 158 service—on the line from Cleethorpes to Newark will not be acceptable to some passengers. They might prefer to drive direct to Newark, with consequences for the road system, or to drive straight to London. That is not an acceptable or a sensible consequence environmentally or in terms of the best usage of our rail system, and it is important to look for solutions.

British Rail has tried to encourage patronage of the line. As far as I am aware, the line is almost unique. I can find only one other example where saver tickets are issued on an InterCity line. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes criticised British Rail for not offering super-saver tickers, which were withdrawn, but at least saver tickets are still in existence and that is almost unique. The truth is that fewer than 100 passengers use the through service on the line beyond Newark—there is one through service in either direction each day.

I am sure that my hon. Friend understands that I have no power to intervene in British Rail's decision. There is no way in which the Government can direct British Rail to continue a through service after May 1993. One can argue the case—as I am sure that my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Great Grimsby will do with vigour—but the Government cannot issue a direction.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes asked two key questions. First, he asked me to comment on InterCity's objectives and, secondly, to look to the future. What are the possible solutions for the service, if British Rail perseveres with its intention to withdraw it?

First, on the InterCity objectives, InterCity provides not a social but a commercial service. I am grateful for my hon. Friend's implicit acceptance of that policy. I know that he supports the notion that InterCity should seek to operate commercially and to cover its costs. There is no division between the two sides of the House on that issue. The Labour party and the Government are at one in expecting InterCity at least to recover its revenue expenses. We have set ambitious targets for InterCity. Clearly they have not been met for the past year and are unlikely to be met this year, because of the effects of the recession, but they are certainly more modest than the targets that would apply to the private sector, and do not entail the sort of return on assets that a private sector bus operator, airline, or any other provider of transport, would expect. However, it is not a social service, and British Rail is right to seek to protect its bottom line and to adjust the services it provides to strive to meet the objectives that we have set.

My hon. Friend asks whether British Rail is fair to blame the Government. If he is referring to the objectives that we have set for it, I am unrepentant. It is important that BR has targets to meet. It has not done so this year, but those targets are modest and, in a reasonable economic climate, achievable. I am sure that my hon. Friend would be happy for BR to achieve those targets in its commercial services.

The second, more important, question relates to the implications of our BR privatisation proposals for the service from Cleethorpes to London. I very much hope that the private sector will consider that service. I hope that the debate will stimulate its interest. In the past few weeks, I have spoken to several dozen potential freight and passenger service operators and a number would be interested in running such a service.

My hon. Friend wrote to me about the loading factors yesterday and he might be interested to know about them. British Rail has told me that passenger numbers on the two InterCity services between Newark and Cleethorpes are very low and have fallen in recent years. The south-bound morning train carried on average 170 in 1987, falling to 120 in 1990 and further to 90 in 1991. The corresponding figures for the evening return train were 130 in 1987, 100 in 1990, and 90 in 1991. So there are now barely 100 passengers to be found on a train with a capacity of 480.

Photo of Mr Michael Brown Mr Michael Brown , Brigg and Cleethorpes

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for obtaining those interesting and helpful figures for me. I am also grateful to him for kindly agreeing to meet a delegation next week from the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and myself. I can give my hon. Friend the reason for the fall in passengers. Those who are on a tight budget now wait until 9.30 before using the super-saver ticket on the train to Newark, where they change. If that super-saver ticket was once again available on the direct train, more people would use it.

Photo of Mr Roger Freeman Mr Roger Freeman , Kettering

I have much sympathy with my hon. Friend's argument. Our proposal for franchising passenger services will permit the operator of a privately run train to make such crucial decisions about pricing in order to tap the market.

Our legislative policies, which we hope will receive Royal Assent next year, will open access so that private operators are encouraged to run new services and franchise existing services. Next year, BR may decide to withdraw the Cleethorpes service. I have no power to stop it doing so—that commercial judgment is its responsibility.

A private sector operator may consider the loading factors and find them depressing. However, it might believe that the service could be improved if the fare structure was altered, the service was better marketed and the times of the trains were changed. Any such timetable change, however, would have to be negotiated with BR. We propose a right of appeal to a regulator should it be impossible to reach agreement between the potential operator of any particular service and BR.

A new operator may consider introducing the changes I have described and may consider introducing on-board services such as providing coffee and a newspaper for every commuter from Great Grimsby. Many private sector operators want to change the quality of such services and the timing of the trains.

There is a lot to play for. I hope that the private sector will not be put off by the raw figures. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be interested to know that the cost of running the diesel through-train service is £1 million a year. That train travels in the morning from Cleethorpes to London—presumably it stays there for part of the day—and returns in the evening. That figure includes operation costs, which are exacerbated by the need to provide on-train door assistance at stations with short platforms, and cleaning facilities at Cleethorpes.

The extra revenue for the portion between Newark and Cleethorpes is some £300,000 a year. Therefore, British Rail calculates a saving of £700,000 by withdrawing the service, on the assumption that passengers will transfer to other British Rail services and use east coast main line service trains where additional capacity exists. So no extra cost is entailed in providing that service.

There is a prize for British Rail for improving profitability, but also an opportunity for the private sector. When my hon. Friend comes to see me next week with the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, I shall rehearse at greater length the exciting challenge for the private sector in franchising and operating services on British Rail. I cannot foresee whether that will mean that a private sector train will be able to provide through services if British Rail withdraws them. There are 12 months to go, but the Government certainly intend to open up those opportunities, and I hope that they will be grasped.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Twelve o'clock.