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British Railways (Chairman)

Volume 931: debated on Wednesday 11 May 1977

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8.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport whether he will make a statement on his last meeting with the Chairman of British Railways.

I press the right hon. Gentleman to make a statement. Further, will he please now answer the Question, which he totally dodged when he last answered Questions on 6th April, and state whether he and the Chairman of British Rail will ensure that British Rail does nothing to obstruct the granting of licences to commuters who now seek to travel to work by coach?

If I wanted to obstruct them I could not do so, because it is not within my statutory power. I am all for encouraging endeavour and I think that British Railways provide excellent services, including their service to commuters, and could face the sort of competition that the hon. Gentleman has in mind. Certainly the Chairman of British Railways has not raised this as a matter that causes him anxiety.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether he has given any reply to the Chairman and Board of British Railways in their request for the investment programme to be put on a rolling basis, which would give British Railways better value for money and more security to the supplying industries? When can we expect a response to this reasonable and realistic request?

There is a later Question on the Order Paper about investment and it may be more appropriate to give a full reply then. But, of course, investment is one of the matters that I discuss with the chairman. It is difficult to make regular statements to the House, because the House would get bored with them. I have what I think the popular jargon calls an ongoing relationship with the chairman. For that reason, questions of investment are regularly discussed. I hope that my White Paper will help deal with the question that my hon. Friend clearly implies is a very important one both for the Board and for those who work on the railways.

When the Secretary of State next sees the Chairman of British Railways—

Order. The Question deals with the right hon. Gentleman's last meeting with the chairman. I think I had better call the next Question.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the totally unsatisfactory nature of the reply from the Secretary of State, I shall seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment at the earliest opportunity.

9.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he will next meet the Chairman of British Railways.

19.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he next intends to meet the Chairman of British Railways.

20.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he next intends to meet the Chairman of British Railways.

Good. In that case, in one of his ongoing meetings, will the right hon. Gentleman raise with the chairman the fact that many passengers are rather browned off with diesel engines constantly breaking down, and will he therefore raise the question of equipment or repair of these machines? [Interruption.] No, not expenditure. Will the right hon. Gentleman also draw the chairman's attention to the long time that he has taken over coming to a decision about pigeons and the carriage thereof?

Certainly I have discussed the first matter with the chairman from time to time. Indeed, the chairman is very anxious to run an efficient railway within the cost limits allowed to him to meet the needs of passengers so far as he possibly can. I am very impressed by what he and the reconstituted Board are seeking to do.

I know the hon. Gentleman's particular interest in pigeons. As he knows, and as I told him, the matter has now been discussed by the Central Transport Consultative Committee, and I am sure that decisions will be made by the Board as soon as it gets a reply.

Will the Secretary of State convey to the chairman that there is considerable concern about British Railways' attitude towards the increase in charges for unaccompanied livestock, such as pigeons and puppies, which is regarded as a mean, spiteful and vindictive retaliation following the thwarting of the Board's efforts to stop this traffic altogether? Will he ask the Chairman of British Railways whether he is willing to open his cost accounts to independent inspection, since he claims that he requires to put up the charges to this extent?

I know that this is one of the matters that have perhaps caused disproportionate concern from time to time. It has been well aired in the House, and the Chairman of British Railways was as surprised as I was at the strength of feeling on the matter. I do not think that there is anything vindictive about his action and I would like to believe that the hon. Gentleman is not endorsing such ungenerous thoughts. The chairman is aware of these matters, and if information can be made available to the House to enable it to see how the Board arrives at its figures I shall certainly make clear to the chairman and the Board that this is what the House would like to know.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman has got some useful ideas for his agenda when he goes to see Mr. Peter Parker. May I suggest that he raises also the question of double manning on the footplate, particularly on diesel engines, which I know, from my own observations, is widespread? The right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the publication of "Railway Rescue", referred to in the Press on 18th April, suggesting that the manning of footplates could be reduced by over 50 per cent. Does he think that is a useful matter to discuss with the Chairman of British Railways?

Questions of manning are ones that come up from time to time. I see no reason why, if this is something that is worth discussing, we should not discuss it. I must make it absolutely clear, and I repeat, that I do not believe it is the right course of the responsible Minister to get himself involved in detailed day-to-day matters. Equally, I think that the chairman is quite capable of dealing with matters raised by the public on, for example, the question of manning.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the chairman does make a point of seeing that the great majority of trains are no longer double manned. He is anxious to improve productivity, and so are the unions. If there can be discussions, and if there can be changes, so be it.

When my right hon. Friend next meets the chairman, will he explain that some of us believe that the time has come for some experimentation with regard to fares? For example, on the inner city runs we would like to see the reduction of fares for a period of time in order to see precisely how this works out. Many of us believe that if there were a real reduction for a period we would see people coming back to the railways rather than using their own transport or other forms of transport.

My hon. Friend may know that I made clear some time ago that I would welcome experiments in reducing fares on British Railways. That would have my blessing. I have also said that to the trade unions involved and I have said that it seems to me to be a proper business risk to try to reduce fares to attract traffic back to the railways. As my hon. Friend will also know, the Chairman of British Railways has recently announced a very interesting scheme for main lines between London and Scotland, and we must hope that it succeeds.

As my representations have failed elsewhere, I wonder whether the Secretary of State will be kind enough to make a plea to the Chairman of British Railways to treat rather better than they do at present passengers who unfortunately have to travel on Sundays. People who unfortunately have to use the Portsmouth line are regularly unloaded half-way down the track and put into totally unsuitable carriages. Many of them are old ladies with heavy bags. That is no way to attract people back to the railways.

I shall draw the chairman's attention to the hon. Gentleman's point. We have all been victims of the delays from time to time involved in Sunday travel, but most are due to essential engineering work. To be fair, if we are to maintain the track we must close it at some time.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that on the Southern Region—the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) mentioned the Portsmouth line—the recent timetable changes appear to have been introduced without consultation with either passengers or staff? In the circumstances, is he surprised that some of the staff have threatened industrial action? Does not he agree that British Rail—indeed, all the nationalised industries—should set the best example of discussions between staff and management? When he sees Mr. Parker, will he ask for assurances that in future, before major timetable changes are made, the outline of the proposed changes is discussed with regular customers and with the staff concerned?

I agree that the public sector should set an example in consultations with the trade unions and customers. However, this is very much the case. The level of consultation between the unions and the British Railways Board today is better than it has ever been. I do not know the details of the case mentioned by the hon. Gentleman but I shall make sure that the Chairman of British Rail looks into it.