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Railways (Reopened Lines)

Volume 884: debated on Wednesday 15 January 1975

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asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many railway lines have been reopened in each of the past five years; and how many proposals he is currently considering.

Two in 1970, one in 1972, three in 1973 and one in 1974 were authorised for reopening as light railways. In addition the Railways Board reopened their Peterborough-Spalding line in 1971. There are two other current proposals.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a sad record in view of the considerable need to improve public transport? Does he accept that if urgently required railway lines, such as the Walsall-Cannock-Rugeley line, are to stand any chance of being reopened, we cannot depend on local authorities or British Rail but that there must be additional Government money? Does he agree with many hon. Members on this side of the House, who do not accept the cry to reduce public expenditure, that there is an urgent need for a considerable injection of Government capital into British Rail?

I note my hon. Friend's views about there being no need to reduce public expenditure. Unfortunately I have to work out my programme from instructions which come from my right hon. Friends who think that there is a need to reduce public expenditure. I have every sympathy with my hon. Friend's interest. This kind of proposal must come from the local authorities and/or the Railways Board. Under the Railways Act, which we enacted last Session, I shall be required to find between £300 million and £400 million for revenue support for the railways under the new system.

Is the Mid-Hants railway, the so-called "Watercress line", one of the two proposals currently under consideration?

I am not sure whether that question should be addressed to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The two proposals which are currently under consideration are the Taunton-Minehead and Sheringham-Weybourne lines.

In view of the need, even at this late date, to try to repair some of the vandalism of the Beeching era, may I ask whether my right hon. Friend agrees that it is a mistake for British Rail in any area to sell off assets, to demolish station buildings or to remove the track bed or embankments of railways closed in the past which may very likely need to be reopened in the near future?

It is difficult to make a blanket statement. My hon. Friend says that it is a question of whether they are likely to be reopened, and that is the kernel of the argument. It must remain largely a matter for British Rail. I accept the great importance of British Rail, but I am rightly under strong pressure to do even more than we have been able to do to support road passenger public transport as well.

In view of the further closures which are being announced by British Rail—for instance the Bridport-Maiden Newton line, which is now to be closed in May, and the Alton to Holtwhistle line at the same time—will the Minister take action to ensure that the lines do not close, particularly in view of the problems facing people in rural areas anyway?

In the summer I cancelled the proposed closure of a considerable number of lines, but on economic considerations I did not feel justified in continuing the subsidy on the Holtwhistle line. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will let me know about the other line. I am not at the moment aware of the current position on that one, because closure proposals emanate from British Rail.