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British Rail: South-East Commuter Services

Volume 416: debated on Monday 19 January 1981

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2.56 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what progress has been made to improve the efficiency of rail services on the commuter lines in the South-East of England.

My Lords, an important step was the Government's decision to ask the Monopolies and Mergers Commission to investigate the efficiency of British Rail's London and South-East services. In their report published last October, the Commission made a number of detailed and constructive recommendations for improving the performance of these services, most of which the Railways Board are now implementing. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport will be discussing with the chairman of the Railways Board the progress that is being made.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. In connection with the Monopolies Commission, has he any information about their investigation of British Rail's publication Towards a Commuters' Charter?

My Lords, the Commission concluded that in providing the London commuter services the board are not pursuing a course of conduct which operates against the public interest. Indeed, the report praised a number of achievements of British Rail's management. But the Commission did identify a number of serious weaknesses, and made positive recommendations for eliminating these faults and improving performance to the general benefit of London and suburban commuters. The 300-page report is a wide-ranging document, which is not easy to summarise in a few words, but it covers matters such as more effective targets for management, better methods for controlling costs and greater efficiency.

My Lords, would the Minister confirm the statement made by Sir Peter Parker recently on television, that the London commuter pays two-thirds of the cost of taking him from wherever he lives to the centre of London and back again, whereas the average commuter in Paris pays only one-third of the cost? Does the noble Earl not think that there is something wrong in such a comparison, and that the Government should be more generous in the grants that they make to British Rail for supporting commuter services?

My Lords, I cannot, of course, comment on the figures which the chairman gave on TV. I should, however, like to say that the proportion of the budget which goes towards London and the South-East area is 25 per cent., and that has stayed more or less constant, so that the South-East does get looked after well. As regards the level of money which the Government give to British Rail, this has stayed at a constant real figure and is the same as was given by the last Administration in 1978.

My Lords, in view of what the noble Lord said about the cheapness of travelling in Paris, would the Government consider saving Government money by holding the meetings of this House in Paris?

My Lords, does the noble Lord not appreciate—and if he does, will he call the attention of British Rail to it—the disappointment that is caused by the information that most of the improvements have already been implemented? That is in a situation in which, on one particular line, corridor trains are regularly run with the access from one coach to another permanently blocked, with the lavatories all permanently locked and where the trains stop at a station which is being rebuilt and has no lavatory.

My Lords, the investment by British Rail in commuter services generally is a constant figure, and is certainly not being stopped at the end of this year, or any other year. The Government have maintained British Rail's investment ceiling at the same level in real terms; that is, £325 million. The board itself must choose its priorities within the investment ceiling, but the Monopolies Commission found no justification for any conclusion of bias against the London commuter services.

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that it is rather strange to hear his statement about the efficiency of services in the South-East being increased, when a considerable number of stations are being closed at certain hours and when services are being reduced? To catch a train at Charing Cross is very much like entering the treble chance: either the train runs, or it is cancelled, or it is very late.

My Lords, rather like the recent press reports, the noble Lord is slightly exaggerating. The board have now published their proposals for changes to the Southern Region commuter services next June. These are much less severe than the impression created by the early press reports. The board's announcement explained that the already existing excess capacity on some London commuter services and the recent fall in demand for rail travel resulting from the recession means that, like any other business, they must act to bring supply more into line with demand.

My Lords, does the noble Earl the Minister agree that if the noble Baroness's statement was correct, as I am sure it was, his reference to a constant figure did not include constant running water?