Skip to main content

Railways: British Rail

Volume 749: debated on Tuesday 12 November 2013


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have any plans to mark the passage of the legislation enabling the privatisation of British Rail.

My Lords, at the express request of my noble friend Lord Spicer and on his behalf, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, the Government have no plans to do so but note that a recent European Commission rail comparison study found that since the 1990s Britain’s railway is the most improved in all European Union countries.

My Lords, does my noble friend recall that when privatisation was proceeding and being implemented, the Government made two strong and clear commitments: first, that privatisation would reverse 40 years of decline in the use of railways, which has manifestly been the case; and, secondly, that there would be a huge input in private investment over and above anything that the taxpayer could contribute, which has also obviously taken place? Will my noble friend confirm that both those things have been the product of the privatisation of the railways?

I can certainly confirm those comments from the noble Lord, Lord Mawhinney. He is absolutely right that at the time of privatisation— 5 November 1993, which I assume is the date to be commemorated in the Question in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Spicer—the railway essentially was expected to fall into decline, having had a long history of underinvestment and of stop-and-start annual budgets. Since then, the UK has seen a doubling of passenger journeys to the highest level since the 1920s; 4,000 more services a day than in the mid-1990s; a 60% increase in rail freight; and the fastest growth of European railways. The UK railway now carries nearly 20% of the EU’s passenger journeys.

My Lords, has any assessment been made of the sort of railway that we would be enjoying today had the British Railways Board received the same levels of support and investment —much of which has come from the taxpayer, despite what the noble Lord, Lord Mawhinney, said, but has been made available to privatised industry—and had the railway not been subject to the negative influences of decline and contraction, to which the Minister rightly referred, largely at the behest of Her Majesty’s Treasury?

The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, gets to the heart of the problem. Under a system in which this was a Government-run industry, an essential feature was the constant stop-start and underinvestment. It is by putting in place a structure with the ability to set up arrangements that force the Government into long-term decision-making and long-term commitment that we have been able to rebuild the infrastructure.

Did not the privatisation of the railways simply follow the pattern of previous privatisations, which was that priceless national assets acquired by the great Labour Government of 1945 were sold off at knockdown prices by a Tory Government to a small number of investors, who made huge sums of money overnight? Does the Minister share my near despair that precisely the same pattern has been followed with the sale of Royal Mail, which was grossly undersold against the wishes of its previous owners—that is, me and everyone else in the country? Incidentally, as my assets have been sold off against my will, at the very least I ought to receive a cheque for the value of the assets sold.

My Lords, I will resist the temptation to go into the territory of Royal Mail. The privatisation of the railways may not have been perfect; we certainly had Railtrack going into administration in 2002, and there have been other issues. The question is: do we have a system that has delivered a significantly better railway for customers and freight in this country? I would argue that we very evidently have. Does this give a basis for moving forward and providing yet further improvement? I think that argument is also made.

While I am delighted to travel by rail most of the time, all the way down to the West Country, I am very sorry to see, after all these years since 5 November 1993, that raw sewage is still going out on to the lines. Before we rush forward to HS2—to which I am looking forward enormously—I urge our new Minister to think about the men working on the lines and in the stations who have to deal with this excrement.

The comments of my noble friend totally resonate. It is utterly disgusting. It speaks to the fact that customer service has not always been at the centre of the railways, because I think customers are very concerned about this issue. Beginning in 2017, the current InterCity 125 trains will all be replaced by the new Class 800/801 intercity express trains from Hitachi, which will solve that problem on the intercity lines. It is a tougher issue on the local diesel trains, which are gradually going out of service, and we could use some help from the industry in tackling that problem.

The Question was whether the Government would mark the passage of the legislation. Is this the legislation that, within 10 years, saw the bankruptcy of Railtrack? Is this the legislation that saw the franchise fiasco on the line from Paddington to south Wales a short while ago? Is this the legislation that insists that a publicly operated company, which produces £47 million of profit to invest in the railway and hands £800 million back to the Treasury as extra profit, is disbarred from competing for the franchise against German and French state railways?

My Lords, Network Rail plans to invest £38 billion into the system between 2014 and 2019, which will shortly bring into the system Crossrail, the upgraded Thameslink, a northern hub cross-Manchester link that will provide electrification linking the core centres of the economy in the north, the West and East Midlands and Yorkshire. Today, the south of England has 75% of passenger miles on electric trains. I assume that the noble Lord was talking about the east coast main line franchise and, as he knows, it was always intended by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, that this would be in public control only temporarily. He said:

“I do not believe that it would be in the public interest for us to have a nationalised train operating company indefinitely”.—[Official Report, 1/7/09; col. 232.]

The public sector—DOR—has done an excellent job of stabilising the system, but now returns it to a period of investment, which requires private sector engagement.