Orders of the Day — Railways Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:30 pm on 2nd February 1993.

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Photo of Dr John Marek Dr John Marek , Wrexham 6:30 pm, 2nd February 1993

I will not give way, as I have only 10 minutes. It is one of the problems of limiting speeches to 10 minutes, and I apologise to the hon. Gentleman.

The public certainly do not agree with privatisation, and the civil servants in the Department of Transport do not know much about it, as the Department is heavily road-oriented. As an example of that, the document entitled, "Railway Privatisation:—A Voice for the Passenger" has on its back cover a map of the railway system which has completely forgotten the Wrexham to Chester railway. The Shrewsbury to Wrexham part is there, but not the rest. That is typical of what we get, simply because the Government do not rate very highly the railways and railway investment.

The only ones in favour of privatisation are the Secretary of State, the cheap and cheerful Minister sitting next to him and some right-wing Members who agree with the proposals. So why will the Bill go through? Basically, Conservative Members, with a few notable exceptions, do not use the railway system. They are more interested in claiming 68p a mile and using their 2000 cc cars to get to London. I would be quite happy if the Fees Office published a list of those who claim 68p a mile to get to this place. The country would like to know; then people would be able to judge those who support the Bill. By and large, the people who will vote the measure through this evening are hon. Members who do not use the railway system.

Let me say what I think will happen. First, it is clear that railcards will disappear. The Secretary of State has as good as said so this afternoon. The hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey) is quite right to say that we need a national timetable with good connections, but I fail to see how we will get that if the demands on making a profit mean that a connection will be missed. Will there be a regulator to say that a train will have to run five or 10 minutes late in the interests of a national timetable with good connections? I do not believe that will be the case. We may have a national timetable, but good connections will depend on luck.

We will have through ticketing, but will that, be at discounted fares? Again, the Secretary of State has as good as said that through ticketing will not be possible at major ticket offices. If a travelling guard can issue tickets, will that guard be able to issue through tickets as at present? I very much doubt it. That is another potential loss to the public resulting from the Bill.

Will there be a common set of conditions of carriage, or will the Secretary of State vary it for any particular franchisee encountering special difficulties, and apply special conditions? Will train service frequencies be retained, and will we still have evening and Sunday services so that any member of the public can travel anywhere in the United Kingdom, knowing that there will be a reasonable train frequency so that, although it may take a little longer than normal, they can reach their destination? I very much doubt that. I believe that evening and weekend trains will disappear.

Will there be national information and seat reservation systems? I very much doubt that, if there are to be different franchisees, all varying their timetables without notice, just as occurs in the present deregulated bus system.

What about access for disabled people? Will the Bill applying to rolling stock include a set of conditions which will guarantee and preserve the advances that have been made in access for disabled people to the railway system?

What will happen if a franchisee goes bust? If I turn up at the railway system and the franchisee has gone bust, or if that franchisee has only a few wagons or engines, or if the driver has not turned up because he had an accident on the way to work, or if there is a fault with the engine so that my train cannot run, will it be a case of: "Hard luck, mate—come back in three or four hours and we will try to get it repaired"?

I know that British Rail is not perfect, but, by and large, if I turn up at a railway station, I know that the train will run, or, if it does not, if the delay will be more than an hour or so, British Rail will put on alternative bus services. I do not believe that will happen under the Bill. There will be fewer staff on station platforms securing people's safety, especially at night. Staff cost money, and that eats into profit.

If the Government privatise rolling stock, will the quality of build be maintained? As we all know, there will be no build in Britain, as the manufacturing industry here is about to go bust, but will the orders and specifications placed for that rolling stock be up to the quality and strength of that which we have today?

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) was far too kind to the Government when he spoke about safety. Between 1980 and 1985, the Government made conditions applying to level crossings easier, so that British Rail could spend less. The effect was to allow car drivers to kill themselves, until the disaster near Hull when the Government finally saw common sense. The Government deliberately loosened conditions at level crossings to save money.

As British Rail has been forced into privatisation, there are bound to be arguments about platform space and about whether the platforms are owned by Regional Railways, a franchisee or by InterCity. If there is a delay or something goes wrong, and a train has to use a platform that is not part of the franchisee's domain, extra charges will have to be paid, as happens now between Regional Railways and InterCity. The franchisee may say that, as passengers have to wait only 12 minutes or thereabouts, they can wait outside the station to avoid the extra cost. That is what bringing accountants into the service would do.

Unfortunately, we have the worst Government this century; there is no doubt about that—[Laughter.] Conservative Members are laughing, but only one or two of them. We have the worst balance of payments crisis that I can remember, and the worst public sector borrowing requirement. Indeed, the PSBR is worse than it was in 1976, when we suffered an oil price rise, and now we have the benefit of North sea oil.

According to the official figures, 3 million people are unemployed, but really it is more like 4 million. We also have a clapped out railway system; time and time again, I am amazed at how it manages to run. We spend 0.14 per cent. of GDP on rail, whereas Germany spends 0.57 per cent. and France 0.61 per cent. The Government are in no position to put it right, and the Bill does nothing to put it right. I appeal to 12 Conservative Members to put the Government and the Secretary of State out of their misery at 10 o'clock tonight.