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British Rail Engineering Limited (Springburn)

Volume 98: debated on Wednesday 4 June 1986

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

10.44 pm

I am grateful for the opportunity to draw to the attention of the House the problems of my constituency, especially the major problem at the British Rail Engineering Ltd. works. Just before the Whitsun recess, it was announced that within just over a year the work force at Springburn would be reduced from 1,000 to fewer than 200 and that BREL would cease to operate as a company in Springburn and, indeed, in Scotland, and that the organisation would be taken over by ScotRail.

This is a sad occasion for me and for the community, because at one time Springburn employed about 10,000 people in the railway workshops. There were four workshops employing a highly skilled work force, and between the 1930s and 1960s one was considered a bit eccentric if one travelled outside Springburn to seek employment. It was a boom town in those days. I have lived in the community since I was 15, I served my apprenticeship there, I married a girl from Springburn and I now live in the community, and it is sad to see the problems from which we suffer now.

I asked the Library to give me the latest unemployment figures for Springburn. I do not have much time at my disposal tonight, so I shall not go into every detail of the problem, but I can get the picture across by saying that the latest figures show that 8,747 men and women are unemployed in my constituency. The Department of Employment does not give unemployment percentages for constituencies, but in Glasgow it is more than 22 per cent.

I wish to use this Adjournment debate to ask the Minister questions that have been asked by the work force at the BREL workshops in Springburn, and I took the liberty of telephoning the Minister's Department to forewarn him of the questions so that he could be helpful to the community and to the House. Why did BREL refuse to allow the press on to the premises, especially when a delegation from the Scottish TUC was visiting them last week? The media were allowed into the Swindon works, and we see no reason why, especially when we are considering a public asset, the media should not be allowed in to see for themselves the facility at Springburn.

The contract known as the gangway modification, which has been ordered by the Strathclyde passenger transport executive, has, in part, been completed by the Springburn work force. It is my understanding that the PTE, which is an organisation run by Strathclyde regional council, is satisfied with the work. Why is the remaining part of the contract to go to Wolverton? It seems ridiculous that Strathclyde regional council ratepayers should have to pay for this work. There is no harm to the work force south of the border, and it seems strange that the work should go south of the border when Springburn is in dire straits. It would be helpful if the Minister could give an answer as to why the contract is going to Wolverton.

If the proposals of BREL are to be carried out in full, it means that all major contracts will have to be carried out in Derby, York, Crewe or Wolverton and major repairs will also have to be carried out in those places. This means that any work of that nature in Scotland will have to travel anything between 270 and 370 miles to be carried out. Can the Minister, who has always had a mind for economies, and has always put the case for them before the House tell me that that makes economic sense?

A fortnight ago an announcement was made about ScotRail taking over and that those who were fortunate enough to remain with ScotRail at Springburn would be involved in a method of repair known as component exchange. I should like to know whether this method of repair has been tried and tested in any other part of the United Kingdom. If not, it means, in effect, that Springburn is getting an experimental programme, and that makes the prospects for the remaining work force very unsure.

Mention has been made of the work force of the electronic department at the railway workshops. This department is graded as A1, which is a high grading for electronic work. Currently there is only a small work force consisting of 12 people. However, it is an area which the work force regards as having potential. It is the only section under BREL and British Rail that is involved in the repair of railway signal systems. There could well be room for expansion but there is a worry that under ScotRail this department could be taken away and that outside organisations will be left to do the work. I would be happy if the Minister could give me some reassurance.

The other area that has been mentioned is the upgrading of railway bogies. This has been mentioned in the press, and some people are giving the impression that it could bring a lot of work to the railway workshops. However, the work force feels that it would bring enough work for only six skilled fitters. I should like the Minister's opinion on that matter.

As with any company which is in difficulties, one is always concerned about asset stripping. With that in mind, I ask the Minister to say what will happen to the new high-tech machines, such as the CNCs and the brake presses, which were purchased recently at a cost of £500,000.

I feel sad whenever I pass the apprentice training school which is incorporated in the workshop. The school opened in 1979, shortly after I became a Member of Parliament. At that time BREL showed that it had some commitment to apprentice training. The school has facilities for 110 apprentices. Sadly, not one apprentice has been trained at the school for the best part of 18 months. When my son took part in a YTS scheme he did some training there. I know at first hand that the facilities exit at the school. Machine tools, machines and classrooms are lying waste and there are padlocks on the doors.

It is a scandal that the industrial base of an area which has a proud record in engineering is being destroyed to such an extent. If we do not train young apprentices, we shall destroy the seed corn. There has never been a greater chance to train them—even if the economy does take a turn for the better. If the Minister is serious about the training and care of young people, he should end the scandal of the school lying empty. Something should be done.

I refer to the holding company which was formed to try to bring more industry to the site at Springburn. BREL boasts about the company. It tells us that it has been successful in other parts of the country and that it intends to attract new employers on to the site and will pay a subsidy for a year to every unemployed railway worker employed by the new company. I understand that the subsidy will not be paid to a company doing subcontract work for the railway industry, yet in England such subsidy is allowed.

We have a community which was one of the best railway centres in the world. We have a railway engineering base which has existed for generations — since the last century. Does BREL wish to destroy that base completely? It appears that that is what it intends with the holding company.

We intend to fight in the community, against the proposals. We are conscious of the fact that hundreds of people have left the factory because of redundancies. In view of unemployment and the redundancies that have taken place, there is a need to attract new industry —railways railways or whatever—into Springburn. I want to know what steps the Minister and his Government are taking to create work and to co-ordinate efforts by BREL, the Scottish Development Agency, Glasgow district council and Strathclyde regional council. I am grateful for the opportunity to put the case before the House.

10.59 pm

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin) has been forthright in arguing on behalf of his constituents for the retention of the British Rail Engineering Ltd works at Springburn, and, quite reasonably, asked a number of questions. I join him in his profound regret about the proposed job losses affecting his constituency.

As the House will know, BR has recently announced, with great regret, proposals for substantial reductions in capacity at a number of its engineering workshops. These proposals include the rundown of the works at Springburn and the setting up of a regional maintenance depot on the site, employing some 200 people. I stress that these are proposals made by BR management. They are now the subject of the normal processes of consultation with the railway unions. It is right that the hon. Gentleman should seek some explanation for these proposals.

BR's requirement for rolling stock maintenance is declining sharply. This arises from the fact that it is undertaking a major programme of heavy investment in modernisation and new rolling stock. Since July 1984 alone, the Government have approved 10 major investment projects, worth over £630 million in total, including nearly £400 million of new rolling stock, and £200 million for new electrification. Some £700 million of investment in new rolling stock is planned by BR over the next five years.

This investment helps British Rail to give a better service to its customers, and provides important engineering work for British industry. I know that this policy of modernisation commands support from both sides of the House, but investment in modern equipment also means less work for British Rail's maintenance and repair workshops. The new rolling stock can be used more efficiently, and so the same services can be provided by a smaller fleet of vehicles, each of which in turn needs less maintenance than the one it replaces.

The hon. Member will perhaps be familiar with an example I have quoted to the House before, of the new Sprinter diesel multiple units. On average, BR needs only two new Sprinters for every three old units, and each new Sprinter needs 30 to 40 per cent. less maintenance at BREL than its predecessor. Overall, there is a reduction of over 50 per cent. in BREL's maintenance work load for these services. It is a desperately unfortunate but undeniable fact that if there is less maintenance work, fewer maintenance men are required.

Furthermore—this is a point that I believe is not always fully appreciated— from the moment that BR takes the decision to order new rolling stock, heavy maintenance ceases on the old stock that is to be replaced. By heavy maintenance I mean the sort of general overhaul that a locomotive or coach would receive at a BREL works every eight to 10 years. It obviously makes no sense to do any more of this type of work on stock that will be scrapped in a couple of years' time. Although all the necessary day-to-day maintenance continues to be done on these vehicles, BR handles that in its local depots, not at BREL.

I move on from the general principle of what is happening to the more precise effects on Springburn. Scotland is particularly affected by the decline in maintenance requirements, because BR is improving services there through major fleet changes. In a few, years' time, a very high proportion of Scottish services will be operated by modern low-maintenance vehicles.

There is new electrification, with over £100 million being invested in Scotland in the east coast main line and the Ayrshire schemes. There are likely to be Sprinter-type vehicles on many services that currently use loco-hauled coaching stock, such as Glasgow to Fort William. There are also likely to be more high speed train type services, for example between Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness.

I know that the hon. Gentleman will join me in deprecating the desperately unfortunate consequences of what is happening. On the one hand, we all want to see a modern BR, able to compete and provide the sort of services that the travelling public wants, so that it will use the services. On the other hand, to do that BR has to modernise its equipment and fleets. It is a desperately unfortunate byproduct of that, that it does not have the maintenance requirement that so fully occupied the works before. Over a year ago, BREL told its trade unions that the lower maintenance work load meant that the work force at Springburn would need to be reduced to about 500 by March 1987. British Rail was not able to give figures beyond that date, but Springburn's long-term prospects were clearly very uncertain.

That announcement was naturally unwelcome to the hon. Gentleman and his constituents. During the past year, BR has been giving further study to the best way of organising its maintenance arrangements in future years. It is seeking ways to improve efficiency, and it has concluded that in future, most light maintenance will be done by exchanging parts at depots. That helps to get vehicles back into productive use while the defective parts are taken away to be repaired separately.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether this was a tried and tested method, or whether it was experimental. It has already been in use for several years for some of the fleets used on the southern region of BR. That way, vehicles need go back to the main works for refurbishment only every eight or 10 years. It is in use, for example, at Chart Leacon, Ilford and Selhurst Park. The latest position is that last month BR announced the details of the new BREL organisation. British Rail made it clear that without a change in strategy, continuing reductions in the maintenance work load would have led to the complete closure of Springburn next March. But instead, BR's new strategy of greater reliance on component exchanges at depots offers a new role for Springburn. British Rail now proposes that Springburn should become the regional maintenance depot offering work for up to 200 people.

The hon. Gentleman raised several detailed points about the implications of BR's proposals. Those details are management matters, which BR and BREL will need to consider in the consultation that they will be having with their unions. As the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, in reaching final decisions they will have to take account of the cost of moving vehicles to England for heavy overhaul. But the distribution of work between BREL sites must remain a matter for the BREL management. I understand that BREL plans to complete the existing Strathclyde refurbishment order at Springburn, but that it does not plan to undertake any further major overhaul work there.

The hon. Gentleman also asked some specific questions. He mentioned that the press had been refused access to the Springburn works. That is not quite the position. The press had access to the conference room, but wanted to tour the works. There were about 40 journalists, and I think that the hon. Gentleman will realise that for safety reasons—[Interruption.] That is my information. The management took the view—as it was entitled to do—that for safety reasons people should not wander round machinery.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the question of upgrading bogies, and talk in the press of that work going to Springburn. I understand that the wheel shop will be retained when Springburn is taken over by BR, but I cannot predict the level of employment. Importantly, the hon. Gentleman also asked what would be done to help to provide alternative work. Regrettably, the new role for Springburn will still entail substantial job losses. I recognise that that causes deep anxiety and distress to all those concerned, as well as to me.

I share the hon. Gentleman's sadness about those job losses. I have explained this evening some of the reasoning that has led the British Rail board to put forward these proposals. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that British Rail will be doing all that it can to soften the impact of these changes. A senior BR director will co-ordinate measures to help those affected, working with BREL to find alternative jobs both within BR and outside the railway industry.

BREL has offered a major job creation package for Springburn on similar lines to that offered at other sites affected by works closures, making available £1 million at Springburn. The Scottish Development Agency has also committed money to the area. Scottish Ministers have indicated that they stand ready to deal with any selective assistance or regional development grant proposals for the area.

No. There is a very important point that I want to make.

I hope that every possibility for bringing new industry into the area will be explored. Unfortunately, I gather that progress continues to be held up by strained relations between some of the bodies involved. May I ask the hon. Member for Springburn to urge all the interested groups to work with BR and the Scottish Development Agency on trying to find the best means of promoting alternative employment to replace the jobs that have been lost.

The hon. Gentleman will know that I am personally committed to helping in new job creation. Last autumn I went back to Shildon in County Durham to see the progress that has been made since BREL had to close its wagon works there. I was much encouraged to see the results so far. Over 700 jobs have been created in the area since the closure and a further 1,100 are in the pipeline over the next three years. That is a significant achievement in an area already hard hit by the decline of traditional industries.

I hope that similar success can be achieved at Springburn. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will join me in that thought, and I should be happy personally to ask him to join me on a visit to Shildon so that he can see the effect of maximum co-operation between all those who are able to help in the important task of job creation.

Before the Minister resumes his seat, may I ask him to deal with the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Springburn about an apparent restriction on the kind of work that will attract grant assistance in the attempt to rehabilitate the area?

I should like to write to the hon. Gentleman about that point.

There is a very important point that I want to make. The hon. Member for Springburn — who, perhaps under-standably, is emotional, as he represents an area where there have been job losses —talked about fighting to prevent this. I hope that he will allow nothing to happen, because of the fighting talk that he uses that will inhibit in any way proper co-operation between the work force, the unions, the local authority, BREL and BR to ensure that the maximum is done to create new jobs in the area. That would be very unfortunate.

At Swindon strained relations led to substantial delay in the start of progressive work to create new jobs in the area. I hope that Glasgow will have the good sense to follow the pattern of Shildon rather than the disappointing pattern at Swindon. It makes a difference to the speed with which new jobs can be created in the area. I know that the hon. Gentleman would like job creation to be a success, and I hope that he will not do anything, or encourage anybody to do anything that would damage its effectiveness.

The next step is for British Rail to take forward its consultation with the work force. BR's proposals will, I am sure, be subject to critical and searching examination. It will then be for the management to decide how to proceed, but I hope that it can proceed in an atmosphere of co-operation, concentrating on how to cope with the adjustments which are necessary to bring our railway system into the 21st century. I am sure that BR does not see its proposals as immutable in every detail.

It is absolutely clear that we must modernise our railways if they are to flourish and survive. That inevitably means dramatic changes in the maintenance requirements associated with massive investment in modern rolling stock that does not require the amount of maintenance that was required by the old-fashioned equipment that British Rail has used for so long.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Eleven o' clock.