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British Railways (Freight)

Volume 979: debated on Wednesday 20 February 1980

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asked the Minister of Transport what is the financial target for British Railways freight services in 1980–81.

We propose to announce a short-term financial target for the freight business very soon.

Does the Minister agree that, whatever the financial target may be, the chances of achieving it will not be enhanced if British Rail goes ahead with its proposal to close the valuable trans-Pennine Woodhead line through the most modern rail tunnel in this country and cut out the modern marshalling yards at Tinsley?

British Rail is still consulting about that proposal. Indeed, it has been consulting for months. As I have indicated in previous replies to the hon. Member and others, there is no ministerial role in the decision about the future of a freight-only line. It is modern, but it is electrified to a different system from the remainder of the electrified track. The future of the freight business depends in part on concentrating on the right traffic and the right facilities and altering the nature of the freight business to make sure that it matches its market more exactly.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is no case for subsidising British Rail freight? Can he say whether the financial target will allow for freight to carry its fair share of track costs and also make a full return on capital?

I accept what my hon. Friend says. There is no case at all for subsidising freight traffic. I cannot anticipate my right hon. Friend's announcement about the actual level of the financial target, but getting a proper return on the capital employed must be one of the criteria to be aimed at.

The Minister says that a decision will be made soon on the financial target for freight. Will he acknowledge the need to listen to the views of hon. Members and those members of the trade union movement who are interested in transport, particularly in the trans-Pennine lines, before the target announcement is made? Talks have taken place but we have not yet made representations to him. Will the hon. Gentleman agree to listen to our views before the financial limits are announced?

In the context of British Rail freight services can my hon. Friend say how many section 8 grants are being processed by his Department.

I cannot give an exact answer but section 8 grants are welcomed by my Department and are always granted in suitable cases. We have rejected only one application since we came to office.

Does the Minister agree that the subsidy now being paid to British Rail's main competitor the heavy goods vehicle—is totally unjustified in that those vehicles do not meet their full track costs? Why does he not behave as a true Tory and withdraw that subsidy as soon as possible?

The aim is that all modes of traffic should bear their proper track costs and receive no subsidy from public funds. My right hon. Friend has already announced our intention to alter the rate of road vehicle excise duty on heavy goods vehicles as soon as legislative time is available in order to achieve that aim.