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British Rail: Productivity

Volume 416: debated on Tuesday 20 January 1981

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3.1 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 by British Rail in increasing productivity and how does United Kingdom performance in this sphere compare with that of other EEC countries.

My Lords, British Rail's manpower productivity has improved substantially since the early 1960s but the rate of improvement has slowed in recent years. The latest information available indicates that British Rail generally compares well with other European railway undertakings in this area. Nevertheless, both the Government and the board recognise that there is considerable scope for further improvement and that this is vital to the future business prospects of the railways. We therefore welcome the board's commitment to productivity and efficiency improvements set out in their 1980 corporate plan, published last December.

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl very much for his reply. Since I put down the Question I have received an admirable summary of the European railways performance comparisons and I am glad to see that our railway system compares quite favourably. However, I hope the Government realise that this is a vital service and that it is desperately important that enough investment should be made in it. I hope the noble Earl will support the British Railways Board in their efforts to try to improve the services which they give to the public.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question. I, too, have the European railways performance comparisons in front of me and I agree with all that she has said. I assure her that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport is bearing this report very much in mind.

My Lords, is the noble Earl able to give the House any figures of performance related to the different categories of workers—both those concerned with traffic movement and other members of the staff of British Rail? Also, is it correct to say that there must be some relationship of performance to investment and that the investment in British Rail is the lowest in any European country?

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, has looked at these comparison tables, as I have. They are interesting but they do not produce any particular trend; lots go one way and lots go another way. The Government have adopted a realistic attitude towards railway finance. We have increased the board's external finance limit for the current year to compensate for traffic losses due to the recession. We have increased the limit for next year above previous plans. We have increased the cash ceiling on subsidy for 1980–81 to help the board to maintain the 12-month interval between fare increases. Both the Government and the board recognise that productivity improvement lies at the centre of this.

My Lords, could my noble friend tell the House, which does not have the figures in front of it, how the Government borrowing of £700 million by British Rail in the current financial year compares with the borrowings by rival and competitive railways in Western Europe?

My Lords, my noble friend ought to read this report. All I can say is that comparisons are particularly difficult. They suffer from general inadequacies, such as differences of accounting convention characteristics. This is particularly so in the financing of the railways.

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that in his first Answer he did not refer to the United Kingdom's performance in this sphere compared with other EEC countries? Is he also aware that he could have answered his noble friend who raised the last supplementary question by informing him that investment by the German Government in the German railways is three times the amount that is invested by the United Kingdom Government in British Rail?

My Lords, then may I ask the noble Lord whether the product is the same at the end of it? I think he will find that British Rail's labour productivity, measured in terms of output of train kilometres per staff employed, is broadly comparable with other European railways.

My Lords, could my noble friend tell us whether increased cleanliness is included in the increased productivity, compared with European railways?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question. I have no statistics of relative cleanliness as between our country and European countries, but I do know that in our country British Rail is paying particular attention to it.

My Lords, notwithstanding the number of train kilometres per members of staff employed, would not the noble Earl agree with the remark made by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, a minute ago that these figures can only be compared between the British and the European railway systems if you know what are the capital investments in those different systems? Therefore, instead of purely looking at productivity per British Rail staff, should not the noble Earl relate that productivity to the amount of total investment? And is not this a figure which emerges from the comparison?

My Lords, I think the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is very much using the same equation as the noble Lord opposite. The answer is that you need every single one of these statistics to make the final equation. That is very difficult to do. Anybody can try it on an accounting basis.

My Lords, although much of the criticism which has been made is valid, is it not also true to say that the Inter-City line in Britain is one of the best in the world? Furthermore, would the noble Earl ensure that the Cambrian coastline railway, one of the most picturesque and important in Britain, is kept open?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord very much for his excellent remarks about British Rail. I feel sometimes that they are being hit on all sides. If we look at the pamphlet which we have been talking about, we find that we come top in one or two of the leagues, as well as not so high in others.

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that as a regular traveller I am loud in my praise of British Rail staff who are engaged upon sleeper attendance tasks? However, could the noble Earl urge the railway authorities to encourage station staffs to provide luggage trolleys where passengers want them and not have them reserved for the private use of porters?

My Lords, although I thank my noble friend for that question, I feel that it falls a little outside the topic of the present Question. However, I will bring it to the attention of the railways authorities.