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Railways (Electrification)

Volume 931: debated on Wednesday 11 May 1977

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asked the Secretary of State for Transport what is his policy towards trunk route electrification on British Railways.

I look at any schemes the Railways Board submits to me on their merits.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Britain ranks only sixteenth in Europe in terms of rail network electrification? Is there not a lesson to be learned from this about the better use of scarce oil resources?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We must, in all our responsibility, consider the energy problems as a background to the decisions which have to be made. I would only say that there are no proposals for electrification before me at present. I think my hon. Friend will agree that electrification is not always necessarily the best formula. The British Railways Board should be free to make proposals in the light of its own judgment and experience.

Does not the Secretary of State agree that British Rail faces a painful dilemma in building what it believes to be an operationally and financially secure base for the railways with the pressures of the public and Parliament to go on spending money on uneconomic services? Would it not be much more realistic for him to say that if we want electrification, the advanced passenger train and better rolling stock, we shall not be able to continue to support wholly unremunerative branch lines or continue with overmanning?

I do not think that I agree with the hon. Gentleman, although he tries to put his question in a persuasive way. The whole House has agreed that it is important to maintain a national rail network. That is the starting point, and to do that we must rely on support out of the public purse as well as support from fares. There are choices and the British Railways Board must face them. Unless we are able to spend much more than we are spending now, which means spending less in some other areas, the only way to increase revenue is to increase fares. Either we increase fares or we increase taxes. If we do not do that, at the end of the day there will have to be a reduction in the present standards or, alternatively, in some way in the quality of services.

Does the Secretary of State realise that the electrification of a route gives one at least the possibility of a decent service? Will he take care that in future electrification plans we do not get daft mistakes such as that in the South of Scotland when the line from Glasgow through Beattock to Carlisle was electrified in order to suit the inter-city whizz kids while neglecting the line through Kilmarnock and Dumfries to Carlisle, which goes through many more centres of population and which would have served many more people in the South of Scotland?

I am not entirely sure what conclusions I draw from the hon. Gentleman's question, whether he thinks that investment went into the wrong place or whether he thinks that there should have been more of it. We must, however, keep a sense of perspective about this. There are some first-class main lines which are not electrified. I enjoy one up to the East Coast. Electrification is not the be-all and end-all of an efficient system. My hon. Friend was right to ask his Question, but let us retain a sense of perspective and leave it to British Rail to bring forward proposals that it can make within the ceiling available to it.

When my right hon. Friend meets the chairman of the Board, will he refer to the question of the second man on a locomotive? Several hon. Members have today criticised overmanning. Will my right hon. Friend inform the chairman that the second man plays a very important part in preventing accidents when the train is moving?

Order. I allowed the hon. Member to ask his question, but really it was related to another Question on the Order Paper.