Skip to main content

British Rail: Status

Volume 476: debated on Tuesday 17 June 1986

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have any plans for changing the status of British Rail.

My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for that extraordinarily informative reply, may I ask him whether he is aware of the steady deterioration of services on Southern Region? Perhaps I may give him the example that a journey from Oxford to Brighton, which used to be by through-train taking two hours 20 minutes, now involves two changes of train and is timed to take four hours? May I further ask the noble Viscount whether he is aware of a continuous and expensive publicity campaign by British Rail to dress up deteriorating services as though they were improved services? Finally, does the noble Viscount agree with me that to call Southern Region Network South East only makes sense on the assumption that a net is something in which you catch helpless commuters?

My Lords, I am sure that those concerned in British Rail read Hansard and they will take note of everything that my noble friend has said. I do not think I can comment further than that.

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that I use the southern network daily and I can say that the services, particularly between my station, Westminster and London, have improved immensely and are not likely to be further improved by any idea of privatisation?

My Lords, I am not aware of the actual line on which the noble Lord travels; but I am delighted to hear that he thinks that services have improved. I should like to say that the Government are extremely keen on privatising certain areas of British Rail, particularly in the catering field. Since May, train catering has come under Inter-City management, and British Rail are spending £12 million in switching to high quality at-seat catering with food services supplied by the private sector. I think that noble Lords who use British Rail will agree with the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, that catering services have improved dramatically since they have been tendered out to the private sector.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Beloff referred to a journey between Oxford and Brighton. I do not expect my noble friend on the Front Bench to have statistics with him, but could the answer perhaps be that nowadays there are fewer demands by dons and others for journeys to Brighton than there were in the past?

My Lords, may I ask the noble Viscount whether the privatisation of catering services that he mentioned has extended to the buffets? As a practically permanent traveller on British Rail I have not noticed the slightest difference in the food at the buffets. They have the same sandwiches.

My Lords, I do not know where the noble Baroness finds the old British Rail sandwich, but I am told that it is fast disappearing and is being replaced by a very modern and very tasty one.

My Lords, whatever may be the view of my noble friend about the status of British Rail, will he use his formidable and not necessarily monosyllabic eloquence to persuade them to take a more positive view about improving the performance of their railway lines and consequently their image? Can he get them to realise that their present, somewhat narcissistic practice of congratulatory self-contemplation is not enough? Will he urge them to substitute action by way of improving the position for the travelling public, in particular at stations, by improving the cleanliness and conditions, by the use of an increased supply of porters and luggage trolleys, and even perhaps by having a few seats for the accommodation of patient and weary travellers to save them from despondency and despair?

My Lords, to answer my noble friend's polysyllabic question, I take note of what he says.

My Lords, is it not the case that there is always room for improvement and are not British Rail one of the least publicly supported railway networks in Western Europe, particularly in contrast to those of Germany and France? If the purpose behind the question of the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, is privatisation, is it not also the case that the only undertakings that the Government dispose of are those which are a success, usually as a result of the work put in by public ownership?

My Lords, noble Lords will remember that British Rail has already privatised Sealink Ferries, 29 hotels, the hovercraft business and over £400 million of surplus property. British Rail attracts a grant of £800 million a year and is doing its very best to attract more and more customers by using private methods and private contracts.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the deterioration in the service of British Rail may be due to the old rolling stock that exists? Is it consistent with maintaining an efficient railway system when substantial redundancies are declared in the railway maintenance workshops?

I seem to remember, my Lords, that when I last answered a Question on the subject I was able to tell your Lordships that British Rail was introducing a whole range of new railway stock over the next few years.

My Lords, may I hasten to assure the Minister and ask him whether he is aware that I certainly had no idea of privatisation in mind when I asked my original Question? I was cured of any interest in privatisation by his noble friend's defence of British Telecom. I should like to ask the Minister whether he will suggest to his right honourable friend that, as part of the Channel tunnel deal, the French railways which run very well take over the whole of Southern Region.

My Lords, I shall tell my right honourable friend of my noble friend's suggestion.

My Lords, is it not true that the French railways run very well because they are subsidised by their government?

My Lords, in relation to the noble Lord's first supplementary question, who wants to go to Oxford anyway?

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord and I both had the good fortune to go to another place, and so I would agree with him.

My Lords, does the Minister know that I wish to go to Oxford? I live there.

Maybe, my Lords, but my noble friend does not want to go from Brighton.

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that the Swiss railways, which are perhaps the most efficient in the world, run perfectly happily with a partly private but chiefly nationalised system?