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British Rail

Volume 167: debated on Monday 12 February 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he next expects to meet the chairman of British Rail; and what subjects he expects to discuss with him.

I regularly meet the chairman of British Rail to discuss a variety of railway issues. The last meeting took place on 17 January, and I next plan to meet the chairman tomorrow.

When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State meets the chairman tomorrow, will he draw his attention to the inconvenience that is caused to the rail-travelling public by the often marginal twice-yearly changes in InterCity train services? Will he draw his attention to the fact that printed information about alterations to the timetable is often not available beforehand?

I shall draw those points to the attention of the chairman of British Rail.

Will the Secretary of State congratulate the chairman on the excellent advertisement about InterCity trains? However, when I travelled from Leeds yesterday on Intercity trains, the advertisement bore no relationship to reality. It would be helpful if we knew that trains are not going to run on time, that we must change at Doncaster and that we shall arrive in London an hour and a half late. The same thing happens going the other way. It would be a good idea if somebody told us that we shall be late for appointments.

I shall draw those points to the attention of the chairman. Included in the objectives that we have set for the next three years are not only financial but performance objectives, including punctuality and cleanliness. The results will be announced at regular intervals. The right hon. Gentleman will be able to see the improvements for himself.

When my right hon. Friend sees the chairman tomorrow, will he explain that, since 1980, the public service obligation grant that the Government make available to British Rail has never reached £1 billion? Every year since 1980, the West German federal railways public service obligation grant has exceeded £3 billion. Will my right hon. Friend explain to the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) that one reason why trains are constantly late is insufficient money for staff and for on-going improvements, to keep the service up to scratch?

My hon. Friend knows that I totally disagree with his diagnosis. I have not met any German transport Minister who is proud of the subsidy. They think that it is an outrage that the German taxpayer is forking out £3 billion a year to subsidise the railways.

Will the Secretary of State discuss with the chairman of British Rail his recent disgraceful comments on a radio programme two weeks ago, to the effect that long-distance commuters must pay an extra 40 per cent. on what are already among the highest railway fares in Europe? Does the Secretary of State think that such stupid and ill-informed comments will endear the Conservative party to commuters in the south of England who, for years, have made the silly mistake of voting Conservative?

The stupid and ill-informed comments have just come from the hon. Gentleman. As the hon. Gentleman knows, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) had my job a year ago, he announced that long-distance commuters, who represent 18,000 of British Rail's customers—less than one half of 1 per cent.—were receiving a discount of over 60 per cent. on their season tickets. They were paying less per journey than the cheapest discounted off-peak ticket. He felt that that gap should be closed, but he never said that they should pay 100 per cent. This year, on an annual basis, the cost of season tickets has been increased by 13·5 per cent. The hon. Gentleman should get a grip of the facts, stop relying on his prejudices and start talking sense.

When my right hon. Friend meets the chairman of British Rail, will he raise with him on behalf of my 12,000 commuting constituents the cleanliness of trains and their timekeeping? What will be the benefits to the Chelmsford to Liverpool street line as a result of the record investment that was announced by his Department into services on Network SouthEast?

I welcome the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who shouted, "See you on Wednesday", to his first televised Question Time—the rest of us have been here three times.

I have good news for my hon. Friend: the whole of the Liverpool street signalling system is being modernised and work on his line, costing £19 million, is due to begin in the early part of 1991.