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 Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes criticised British Rail for not offering super-saver tickers, which were withdrawn, but at least saver tickets are still in existence and that is almost unique.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.