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Railways (Electrification)

Volume 975: debated on Wednesday 5 December 1979

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asked the Minister of Transport what capital programme for electrification of British Railways is envisaged in 1980–81, 1981–82 and 1982–83.

In its last investment programme the British Railways Board indicated that it was considering investment of the order of £10 million to £15 million in each of the years in question in suburban electrification and links with the existing electrified network.

In that context, is the Minister aware that it would be extremely foolish to close the Wood head route, which can be made compatible with a general electrified system, at little cost, by upgrading the existing track and other apparatus?

The Wood head tunnel is electrified, but on a much older system which dates back to the 1950s. The estimated cost of changing to a modern system is about £25 million. It is for the Board to decide priorities for modernisation and electrification, and it would be wrong for the Government to direct it to invest in a freight route if the Board were eventually to judge that it was redundant.

Why is the principle of cash limits which is applied to local authorities also applied to British Railways? British Railways have income, whereas local authorities do not, other than through rates. If British Railways could finance their electrification programme through borrowing in the market, should not the Government encourage that?

Cash limits have always been applied in one way or another to the nationalised trading sector. Any investment by the British Railways Board is public sector investment, and therefore takes the resources of the public rather than the private sector. The investment ceiling of British Rail has not been changed by the present Government and remains at the level that was set by the previous Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) asked a question about the capital programme of British Rail for electrification up to 1982–83. Does the Minister's answer mean that he has no intention of making a start on the proposed extension of the electrified system of British Rail which was incorporated in the study produced by his Department and British Rail? Surely, given the premium fuel value of the diesel oil that is being used by British Rail, it makes sense to take a decision within these time limits about the major extension of electrification.

The right hon. Gentleman is right, and I shall clear up the matter. The answer that I gave relates to the last announced investment programme of the Board. We are now in the middle of a survey of the long-term electrification needs of British Rail. The final results of that survey are expected in the spring of next year. We hope to move on to quick decisions at that time.

Does the Minister know whether British Rail has applied to the EEC for financial assistance for particular electrification schemes? If not, will he try to persuade British Rail to do so—in particular for the electrification of the line between Southampton and Portsmouth?

I am not aware of any particular application by British Rail. However, such matters can certainly be considered. My right hon. Friend will be discussing in Brussels tomorrow with his EEC colleagues in the Council of Ministers the possibility that has been put forward by the Commission of a transport infrastructure fund. That will enable European funds to be available for transport expenditure in this country.