Orders of the Day — Railways Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:40 pm on 2nd February 1993.

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Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham , North West Norfolk 6:40 pm, 2nd February 1993

The hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) mentioned that there were few Members on the Conservative Benches, but 18 Conservative Members are taking an interest in the debate, and only eight Members of the official Opposition are in the Chamber, so perhaps he can learn to count.

I intend to ask why we should privatise British Rail, comment on how we should do so and on some aspects of the Bill, and refer briefly to freight services to King's Lynn.

I was taught to subscribe to the dictum "If it ain't broke, don't try and fix it." However, it is broke—the whole culture is anti-consumer and we are talking about attitudes that look back to the 1960s, rather than forwards. That is why the Government could not stand still and do nothing, but had to move forward with the Bill.

I shall not dwell on the reasons, as they are self-evident. I like the Government scheme and its structure, because it is evolutionary, imaginative and highly flexible. However, I have one or two small nagging doubts, which I shall express briefly. First, the offices of director of franchising and regulator are to be set up. I have studied the Bill carefully, and listened with care to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I do not understand why those two offices could not be combined. Surely that would be a pragmatic and sensible step forward, and I urge the Secretary of State to consider it.

My second doubt relates to InterCity. British Rail was told to be more responsive to the public's requirements, to be more aware of what the punter wants, and to run a service for the benefit of passengers and not for the benefit of staff. To a certain extent, InterCity has achieved those aims. It has a successful brand name, and I would be sad if it disappeared. I understand the Government's argument, that they do not want to sell a vertically integrated company, but surely we could keep the brand name.

I would have preferred the option of privatising InterCity outright. My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) mentioned the advantages of the operator controlling costs, and I think that that has additional advantages. Also, the attractions of vertical integration are obvious if we want to get private sector capital into the infrastructure.

For example, it is apparent that delays can take place during electrification—the line to King's Lynn was electrified—and a close interface between the track infrastructure and rolling stock is required. If too many factors were outside the control of the operator, there could be disincentives and disadvantages to electrification. We must bear in mind that InterCity has to compete with other modes of transport. An operation that has 8 per cent. of journeys of more than 50 miles has only a very small segment of the market, and we want that share built up.

So far, we have been talking about two franchises being offered for InterCity. If the same organisation were to bid for both, I should like the Minister to keep open the option of a vertically integrated company, which would also own the infrastructure. It would be sad if that option were not kept open. I see that my hon. Friend the Minister is nodding, and I should like him to comment on that. The most important thing is to allow the very successful InterCity brand name to remain in existence.

Although I have been critical, I welcome the proposals, and I think that franchising will work. It has been carefully thought out. People say that it has not been given enough thought, but the Department has been considering the proposal for two and a half years, has consulted every possible organisation, has studied the matter carefully and has come up with proposals. Few Bills have had more work put into them. That is why the proposals can and will work, especially for the loss-making lines in Network SouthEast and Regional Railways.