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Rail Services (Bradford)

Volume 87: debated on Tuesday 26 November 1985

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Peter Lloyd.]

11.41 pm

I am pleased to have this opportunity to discuss Bradford's rail services. To understand the mounting concern in Bradford about rail services it is necessary to explain the city's unemployment crisis, the efforts that are being made to regenerate the city's economy and the city's anxiety about resources being deployed with a wrong sense of direction and priority.

The jobs crisis is massive. During the period 1961 to 1978, manufacturing industry in Bradford lost 54,000 jobs, 45,000 of them in textiles alone. Between 1978 and 1981 a further 23,000 jobs in manufacturing industry were lost, 16,000 of them in textiles. The rate of unemployment has increased from 2 per cent. in 1974 to 16 per cent. in 1985, and 35,000 men and women are desperately looking for work. Wage levels remain well below the regional and national averages. The result is that millions of pounds have been taken out of the pockets of the men and women of Bradford and the rates revenue of the local authority has rapidly diminished.

Car ownership in Bradford is very low. Only half of the families in the district own a car. There is substantial poverty and extensive deprivation. But the people of Bradford have a gritty independence. They want to help themselves. However, they are rapidly coming to the conclusion that although the Government have offered support to enable the people of Bradford to help themselves their help is inadequate. It is not being provided with the sense of urgency and commitment that the people of Bradford believe to be necessary. We have seen the city council, which is the city's largest employer, losing millions in rate support grant and paying millions to the Government in rate penalty. We have seen the university, the city's second biggest employer, suffering extensive cuts in 1981 and having to pay for substantial redundancies, and we have seen other unacceptable consequences as a result of those cuts, which are estimated to have taken another £6 million out of the local economy. All these pressures have led to extensive efforts being made by the city employers and others to diversify, to compensate for the losses experienced by manufacturing industry, by expansion of the service employment, especially in tourism.

Transport services are obviously of vital importance to the city, and this concern led Bradford council and British Rail to enter a joint review of inter-city services and to issue a joint report recently. The report highlighted the importance of transport, particularly rail services to Bradford, and the extensive and mounting concern about the future of our rail services in the city.

The chamber of commerce, trade unions, including the Transport and General Workers Union, by which I am sponsored, the Confederation of British Industry and many others, have stressed the importance that they attach to improving the transport services. The CBI, at its annual conference recently in Harrogate, devoted a considerable amount of time urging the Government to spend more on public works of all sorts, and there were numerous references to the need to improve transport services.

Bradford should have one of the best rail services in Britain, and should not be condemned to having one of the worst. Bradfordians using public transport, including rail services to work, business or pleasure are entitled to services that are reasonably priced, comfortable and convenient. Sadly, this is not the case today, and unless the Government intervene, the prospects are that Bradfordians will be asked to pay higher fares for an increasingly third class service.

It would be ludicrous for the line between Bradford and Leeds not to be electrified when the line between Leeds and the east coast main line is to be electrified, we hope by 1989. The investment for that electrification amounts to more than £300 million. The Government must find a way to give British Rail the £4 million that it needs to electrify the Bradford to Leeds line. The Government must ensure that British Rail expands the direct inter-city service between Bradford and London, which is now worse than it was 20 years ago.

The joint report prepared by Bradford city council and BR, commenting on inter-city services, said that 10 years ago there were five through trains from Bradford to London, and six in the opposite direction. Now, there are three in each direction, all via Leeds.
"It is unfortunate … that the Inter City service to and from London is worse in 1985 than it was in 1965. Industrialists comment about the length of time it takes to get from London to Bradford when a change has to be made at Leeds. They also criticise the scruffy, slow and often crowded nature of the link between Leeds and Bradford. Conferences are being, and have been lost because of the declining rail service between Bradford and London. Most tourists come by coach or car … Journey time, comfort and convenience by rail from London particularly, are important for many new and developing industries. At the present time, Bradford is at a great disadvantage. Decision makers and investors will not be attracted to Bradford if it becomes the largest city in the country without an Inter City rail service, or if it retains the worst Inter City rail service of any of the top six metropolitan districts in the country."
That is a succinct description of the concern in Bradford about rail services and particularly about the inter-city service.

Over the years, the declining rail service has had spinoff effects on other services. The Bradford post and telecom advisory committee wrote recently to a senior executive at the Post Office expressing concern that Bradford had been excluded from the new dedicated intercity transport service, which will be operating between the main cities of this country. The letter said:
"We have recently reached the stage where the 19.43 Bradford/Kings Cross train has been withdrawn and vans are having to be sent to Sheffield and York to catch trains there. This means that the evening posting time has had to be advanced in some districts by at least half an hour. This causes tremendous inconvenience to the business community who would normally be posting between 5.00 and 5.30 pm and who how have to get their mail to the Post Office before 5.00 pm.
We find it difficult to understand why Bradford has been excluded from the new service, yet Leeds with a far better transport network has been included. Surely it would be preferable to include in the dedicated service those large cities which are suffering from a poor network."
I raised the issue recently with a Department of Trade and Industry Minister and I regret very much that he gave me a dismissive and off-hand reply, saying that he was not prepared to raise the matter with the chairman of the Post Office.

The Government must take action to ensure that local rail services are maintained. The usual spiral of deteriorating services, leading to fewer passengers, trains being axed and lines being closed, must not be allowed.

There is also mounting concern about services to Keighley and Ilkley, and it is a genuine based anxiety. Clear assurances must be given by the Government. They must take action to ensure that those services are not only maintained, but improved.

The Government must recognise the vital importance of all transport services and do everything possible to find the money necessary to maintain and improve Bradford's services. The city council has suggested that we need an interdepartmental Government task force, representing the Departments of Transport, the Environment and Trade and Industry to ensure a joint Government approach so that our transport services, particularly the rail services, can be defended and improved.

Ministers visit Bradford fairly frequently, but not many travel by train and few experience the overcrowded, uncomfortable and inconvenient arrangements suffered by most passengers on trains from Leeds to Bradford. I urge the Under-Secretary to come to Bradford to meet the city council and discuss its proposals for ensuring that the Leeds-Bradford line is electrified, and its proposals for maintaining and improving the inter-city service. Such a visit would be welcomed by the council and would give the Minister some experience of conditions for passengers between London and Bradford.

Good transport, including a good modern rail service, is central to Bradford's efforts in providing new jobs, encouraging existing firms to expand or new firms to come to Bradford and in attracting visitors to the city.

I end by quoting a good editorial in the Bradford Telegraph and Argus on 5 November:
"If short-term, cost-cutting economic factors are the sole consideration in deciding whether or not to keep open the nation's main transport arteries, we are likely to end up with a few highly prosperous major cities, such as Leeds, surrounded by vast areas of neglect such as Bradford.
We believe it is time for the Government to take a longer-term, social view, before cities like ours are allowed to sink further into decline."
That view is generally held in Bradford, and the Minister can help to dispel it tonight. He can only hope to do so by promising action and cash. We are told that BR cannot electrify the line between Bradford and Leeds because of the stringent financial controls imposed by the Government, and that BR must show a proper rate of return on any investment made to proceed with that investment.

For those reasons and arguments, to give hope to Bradford, to give positive and practical help to back up the self-help it is already involved in, to try to overcome the unemployment crisis, and to help our efforts to revive our economy, I appeal to the Minister tonight to give clear assurances that he places the highest priority on ensuring that our rail and transport services are saved. That is what the people of Bradford want to hear. I hope that he can give those assurances in his reply.

11.55 pm

I have listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) has told the House about rail services to Bradford, and the general economic prospects of that city. I can well understand the desire of his constituents, and those visiting Bradford by rail, to be able to use good quality rail services. I can also understand their concern at changes in service levels and their worries about those levels in future. I am sure that they will be grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the concern that he has shown on their behalf and for raising this matter this evening.

I must make it absolutely clear at the outset that the quality and level of services on particular routes, and the timetabling of those services, are matters entirely for the Railways Board. Ministers have no powers to intervene.

The Government are responsible for setting the broad strategic objectives for the Railway Board, and we take a close interest in the progress that the board makes towards achieving those objectives. We have made it clear that we consider that the railway has a vital role to play in our national transport arrangements.

Our aim is to see the development of a modern and efficient railway system, which provides good value for money to passengers and taxpayers alike. That aim is reflected in the guiding objectives that we have given to the chairman of the Railways Board. We have also told him that rail services should be reliable, attractive and punctual. They should be at acceptable fares and charges, and the cost to the taxpayer should be reduced. We believe that that is the way to achieve a secure future for the railway and to permit worthwhile investment to go ahead.

In addition to those guiding objectives, we have set the Railways Board a number of specific business targets, including targets for its inter-city sector, and for that part of its passenger business which is supported by central Government grant through the public service obligation.

Successive Governments have followed a firm policy that there is no justification for subsidising inter-urban transport, whether it is provided by rail, road or air. The Government have followed this policy, and have built on it by giving British Rail's inter-city sector a commercial target. We have asked the chairman to ensure that the sector achieves a 5 per cent. return on its assets by 1988–89. We have also said that from 1 April 1988 onwards the sector will be ineligible for public service obligation grant.

This approach is consistent with our policy towards domestic airline services and long-distance coach operations. All three modes of transport are in competition. There is no case for favouring one at the expense of another. We believe that this competition will spur the operators towards providing attractive services, which travellers want, and in a manner that is efficient in its use of resources. BR's inter-city sector is already under a strong challenge from airline and coach operators and I emphasise that it is beginning to respond well.

I must stress, however, that the nature of the response, and the way in which BR works towards achieving the target is for the railways board. It is responsible for managing the railway. It must use its commercial judgment in determining such matters as service levels, including those to cities such as Bradford.

I turn to the specific points raised by the hon. Member, especially his concern at the recent reduction in direct inter-city services between Bradford and London. I understand that prior to 30 September, BR ran three through services in each direction on each weekday. I understand also that from 30 September, BR withdrew the weekday evening train to London and arranged for one of the evening trains from London to be terminated at Leeds. I believe that these changes were introduced because of light passenger loadings between Bradford and Leeds.

As I have already explained, these changes, and the judgments underlying them, are the responsibility of the Railways Board. It is not for me to second-guess its decisions. However, I do note that it is continuing to cater for travellers who would formerly have used these direct evening services. I understand that it is providing connecting services to Bradford for passengers arriving at Leeds, and is providing a service from Bradford to Doncaster to enable Bradford passengers to connect with the Edinburgh to London services on the east coast main line.

There is also some good news for Bradford inter-city passengers. First, the prestige "Yorkshire Pullman", which starts from Leeds in the morning and runs through to Bradford in the evening, has, I understand, been very successful. As a result first-class business travel to Yorkshire has increased significantly. This service should be beneficial to the economy of Bradford and the surrounding area.

It is worth remembering that through trains from Bradford to London take 176 minutes for 195 miles, an average speed of 66 mph. The Pullman back in the evening is even quicker. Some of the journeys requiring a change at Leeds can also be done in under three hours. This is much faster than by car.

Secondly, Bradford passengers should benefit from the electrification of the east coast main line, which will be completed to Leeds in 1989. I understand that with this electrification scheme, BR has no plans to withdraw through services to Bradford, as some had feared. These services will be provided with the very latest rolling stock. The locomotives will be changed at Leeds.

The east coast main line electrification scheme is a very good example of the commercial approach being taken by BR's inter-city sector, which is sponsoring the project. This project, at a value of over £300 million, is the largest for British Rail for over 25 years. BR was able to demonstrate that the scheme will be financially worth while, and we, therefore, were pleased to give it our warm approval.

As a result, additional benefits will flow to British industry in general and to Yorkshire in particular, about which the hon. Gentleman rightly spoke passionately. The Government recognise the potential advantages of electrification in the right circumstances, where the benefits justify the high costs of installation, and we are ready to approve projects where the financial basis is sound.

Our record is proof of our good will. Since we took office in 1979, and including the east coast main line scheme, we have approved electrification schemes involving about 630 route miles—about 1,580 track miles—at a cost of about £570 million at today's prices. But it must be for BR to determine its investment priorities and to bring forward proposals for Government approval. I understand that it considered the case for electrifying the line between Bradford and Leeds in 1982 but found that it could justify spending only some £2 million to £3 million against an estimated cost for the scheme of £10 million.

It has been suggested that appraisals of possible electrification schemes, such as that between Leeds and Bradfford, should not be determined solely on a commercial basis, and that was the thrust of the case made by the hon. Gentleman.

Our position, however, is firmly to believe that BR's inter-city sector, where the responsibility for a Leeds-Bradford electrification scheme would fall, should operate efficiently and invest efficiently. In making investment proposals for the inter-city sector, BR must demonstrate a commercial rate of return.

The Government are willing to authorise such proposals if they are commercially viable and sufficient funds are available to BR to meet its investment needs. It would be wrong to ask inter-city to make uncommercial investments. That would impose a continuing loss at a time when its competitors are free to meet their customers' requirements on a commercial basis.

Is there not a case for at least considering making funds for investment available to BR through the regional assistance programmes operated by the Department of Trade and Industry? Is that something that he would be at least willing to consider, in conjunction with his colleagues at the Department?

I have made the Government's position clear on inter-city services. If there is time, I shall talk about the local services on which the hon. Gentleman may be focusing his attention.

I understand that the issue of seeking a European regional development fund grant has also been raised in connection with a Leeds to Bradford electrification scheme. I should say that once a project, approved by Government as necessary, is firmly established as part of BR's investment programme, it is for BR to decide whether to prepare and submit an application for a European regional development fund grant through the Government. The initiative here rests with BR.

I refer to local rail services affecting Bradford. Our objective for BR's local services generally is that they should provide modern, cost-effective transport at less cost to the taxpayer than at present. In pursuit of the objective of making savings to the taxpayer—the taxpayer currently supports BR to the tune of £900 million per year—the provincial services sector is cutting its requirement for central Government grant while still funding a massive programme of investment, replacing old rolling stock with new. That is the right way to achieve the modern, efficient railway that I am sure we all want, including the hon. Gentleman.

In the metropolitan counties, responsibilities for local rail service, rests with the passenger transport authorities. Abolishing the county councils has not changed that. Decisions on local railway services are still a local matter. That is as it should be. PTAs and their executives are in the best position to judge the value of local railway services within the overall provision of public transport in their area.

On the subject of local services, I am aware of the views that have been expressed about a potential service between Bradford and Sheffield. That matter has been raised in connection with British Rail's proposal to close some link lines in the Halifax and Huddersfield area. Under the statutory closure procedures, the transport users consultative committee for Yorkshire has submitted its report to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. It is now being considered. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall take account of all the relevant factors, including any points that he has made in reaching a decision on BR's closure proposal.

In replying to the hon. Gentleman, I have tried to put the subject of Bradford's rail services into the wider context of the Government's policy towards the provision of railway services, both inter-city and local. I have explained the broad strategic objectives that we have set for the Railways Board, which act as a framework within which it runs the railway and decides on such matters as service levels, timetables, investment and fares.

The chairman of British Rail has accepted those objectives and is pursuing them with vigour. Like the Government, BR wants to provide good quality services at acceptable charges to its customers and at less cost to the taxpayer. It recognises that there is a long way to go but is trying hard to improve its services overall and its financial position.

I am sure that British Rail will pay close attention to what the hon. Member has said tonight in raising this issue. It is for British Rail to listen to what he said. The responsibility for management of the railways lies with British Rail, by statute.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Twelve o' clock.