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West Coast Main Line

Volume 227: debated on Monday 28 June 1993

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8.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he last met the chairman of British Rail to discuss services on the west coast main line.

I met the senior management of the west coast main line in Birmingham on June 18 and I reaffirmed my support for improvement of the west coast main line, infrastructure and rolling stock for the whole of the route.

The managing director of the west coast main line, Mr. Ivor Warburton, has told the west coast main line all-party group that without substantial investment during the next 18 months there will be a "catastrophic failure" of track and/or signalling on that route. In the light of the Minister's letter of 23 June to the chairman of the all-party group, how does he propose to maintain the rail links to and from Europe for the industrial heartlands of the west midlands, the north-west and as far as Glasgow if the private sector fails to provide the necessary capital investment to effect the improvements?

The hon. Gentleman will know that British Rail is to start design work for improving the signalling on the west coast main line this year, and will commence the work next year.

I agree with both the hon. Gentleman and Mr. Ivor Warburton about private sector investment. A satisfactory formula for private sector investment—particularly in signalling, which does not count as public expenditure—would be welcome. I hope that by early autumn we shall have resolved a correct formula for the introduction of private sector capital. British Rail and Railtrack will then be able to place a contract for investment in the line. That will advance the date on which we can say truthfully that the west coast main line is the premier route in the country.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm to the House that in bygone years the Great Western railway was the very best in the country? If one travelled on the Great Western, one travelled first class in every department. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we mean business about attracting the Olympic games to Manchester, we need a good west coast main line with good rolling stock? Does he agree that it is important that the InterCity 225 rolling stock is obtained for the western line? Will my right hon. Friend continue his good work and ensure that the money comes to the west coast main line?

Clearly, some of the rolling stock on the west coast main line—in particular, that which is now 30 years old—is badly in need of replacement. That is why, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, British Rail is considering placing an order. Whatever the results of that exercise, my hon. Friend knows that I am committed to work with British Rail for further orders so long as they comply fully with the Treasury guidelines on what is an operating lease. The Treasury gave the criteria for such operating leases in the latter half of last month. I hope, therefore, that it will be a question not of Networkers or 225s but of both.

Given that we know that west coast main line passengers must expect franchised services at some stage, will the Government take this opportunity to clarify the welcome but rather ambiguous undertaking given during the Report stage of the Railways Bill that franchise agreements will require

"participation in discount schemes for senior citizens, the disabled and young people"?
Is that not in marked contrast to the specific commitment that railcards for disabled people would be
"on broadly similar lines to present arrangements"?—[Official Report, 25, May 1993; Vol. 225, 762–63.]
Given the worries that have been expressed since then by British Rail and other groups, will the Minister clear the matter up for us? Will participation be at about the same cost and bring about the same benefits as existing schemes and will the schemes be universal?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport made it plain on Report—[Interruption.] He did. My right hon. Friend made it plain that the franchising director would require all franchises in Great Britain to include discount railcards for the disabled, young people and elderly people. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman should be in no doubt that the great advantage of those discounts—which we firmly believe that the market will provide—will be retained. We decided to require the franchising director to write that requirement into each franchise.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the excellent letter of 23 June to which the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) alluded. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, among many important points, the letter says that when cross-subsidisation between rail lines no longer exists, there will be revenue support for such main lines, as required?

I can certainly confirm that routes—for example, possibly the west coast main line—will qualify for support by the franchising director if they require subsidy. At present, InterCity has a commercial remit. Profitable routes such as the east coast main line cross-subsidise others such as the west coast main line. The Conservative party believes that where public money is to be used, we should all know precisely where that money goes. We have given every assurance that whether the service is InterCity, Regional Railways or Network SouthEast, it will continue to receive support if it is socially desirable.

Would not the people who use the west coast main line and, indeed, those who use other main lines in need of investment be better served if the Government instructed or allowed British Rail to invest in the future of those lines instead of constantly spending money on restructuring? Will the Minister confirm that, by next April, having recently undergone a major reorganisation, British Rail will have to divide itself into no fewer than 65 companies comprising 26 train companies, 10 rail track companies, 16 infrastructure companies, three train leasing companies and 10 commercial service groups in order to meet the Government's privatisation plans? How much will all that cost? Will the right hon. Gentleman express that figure as a percentage of the£170 million that British Rail has apparently lost in the last year? Will the Minister bear in mind that whereas workers at Timex face a£60 a week loss, he has just given Railtrack's three-day-a-week chairman a£100,000 increase?

The chairman-designate of Railtrack, Mr. Bob Horton, is excellent value for money. He is already planning with his staff for the commencement, subject to Parliament's approval, of Railtrack on 1 April next year. As to British Rail's organisation, the hon. Gentleman should realise that British Rail already runs its passenger operations on the basis of 26 profit centres; there are another nine freight profit centres, and so on. That is how modern industry is organised. As I travel the country—sometimes ahead of the hon. Gentleman, sometimes behind him—visiting profit centres, I find that morale among senior British Rail managers is excellent now. They are getting on with the job of preparing the rail industry for its reorganisation and improvement.