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British Railways

Volume 959: debated on Wednesday 29 November 1978

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10.

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

23.

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

24.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he is due next to meet the chairman of British Railways.

When the right hon. Gentleman meets the chairman of British Rail, will he give him an extra incentive to remove the cause of the unofficial strikes which have created such havoc for commuters, by saying that the proposed fare increases will be delayed by one month for every day's unofficial strike?

The simple answer is"No, I certainly shall not make such a preposterous proposal ". I am trying very hard to work out the logic behind it. For the moment I am defeated.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the service from Liverpool Street to Chingford is possibly the most unreliable commuter service in London? The number of cancellations is so great that they are not even advertised. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that British Rail tells me that that is because the wages of a signalman or a guard are scarcely higher than the unemployment benefit for a married man with three children? How can the right hon. Gentleman help British Rail overcome this problem?

The question of the wage structure on the railways is very important. It is curious that although I am often urged in the House to draw the attention of the chairman of British Rail to the need for greater productivity, meaning lower levels of manpower, there are at the same time substantial numbers of vacancies in the country, which must be filled. I hope that the productivity agreement, if it is negotiated between the Board and the railway unions, will result in the removal of anomalies of the kind that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Will my right hon. Friend take advantage of the meeting to congratulate Sir Peter Parker on the tremendous advance that is now taking place in the railway industry? Will he ask Sir Peter to discuss with him the plans for the further electrification of the railways, particularly the east coast route? Will my right hon. Friend also talk to him about the possibility of going further ahead with the Channel tunnel venture?

British Rail is discussing with the French railways a proposal of its own for a Channel tunnel. I have not yet received the proposal, and it has not yet been published. But I think that in due course it will be a matter that the House may well wish to consider.

As for electrification, there is a joint working party on the matter between British Rail and my Department. The work involved is considerable, but as soon as the results are available I expect that hon. Members will wish to be informed about it.

I was very glad to hear what my hon. Friend said about the chairman of British Rail. I think that on both sides of the House there is an appreciation of all that he has done in his two years of office.

As journey-shrinking has been going on apace between Edinburgh and London and between Cardiff and London, will the right hon. Gentleman consult the chairman of British Rail about the possibility of shrinking the journey time between Belfast and London by reinstating the Dumfries-Stranraer railway line? Will he undertake to consult his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about the advantages that that would have for the people of Northern Ireland?

I note what the hon. Gentleman says, and I shall discuss the matter with my right hon. Friend. The problems involved are often those of cost, but I shall look into the matter.

When my right hon. Friend next meets the chairman of the British Railways Board, will he point out to him that we carry the lowest amount of freight by rail in the EEC? Will he recommend ways of improving the position—for example, by maintaining subsidies to freight? Does my right hon. Friend accept that grants under section 8 of the Railways Act 1974, for example, are not enough to redress the drift of freight from the railways? Will my right hon. Friend urge the chairman to carry by rail dangerous cargoes, such as those from Flixborough?

I agree with my hon Friend that section 8 grants alone are not sufficient to ensure the transfer of freight from road to rail which he and I would like to see. I believe that the marketing policies of British Rail are more likely than they were in the past to enable the railways to carry the freight to which they are best suited. If a transfer can take place, so much the better, but I cannot change my policy of giving no subsidy for freight.

As the Secretary of State today appeared to make an announcement about the Channel tunnel, about which the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe has been trying to find out for some six months, will he guarantee that he will advise the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe what he is really up to in this connection?

The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) is quite right to draw my attention to his particular interest. My reply to the question which he did not ask is that the Government's position remains unchanged since the announcement made by the then right hon. Member for Grimsby, the late Anthony Crosland, some years ago. This study has been taking place between British Rail and French railways. It is their document, and it is for them to decide what to publish and when.