HC Deb 28 February 1924 vol 170 cc804-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a supplementary sum, not exceeding £10, be granted to His Majesty to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1924, for the salaries and expenses of the Post Office, including telegraphs and telephones.


This matter was raised earlier in the week, and on that occasion the Committee desired information in regard to the Post Office Tube Railway, which was not at that time in my possession. Therefore the matter was adjourned to enable me to supply the Committee with that information. In order that we may not have hon. Members asking questions to-night on matters which were referred to in my statement on Monday, it may be necessary for me to repeat to a certain extent such statements as I then made, so that hon. Members will have the facts that I gave to the Committee on that, occasion. I was asked on Monday night whether the railway did actually exist or not, whether the tubes were round or square, and I hope I shall be able to enlighten Members to-night on any point on which they would like information.

8.0 P.M.

The Post Office Tube Railway extends from Paddington to Whitechapel, a distance of about six and a half miles. It passes under and connects with two railway stations, Paddington and Liverpool Street, and also with six of the largest sorting offices connected with the Post Office. The object of the construction of this railway is to accelerate the distribution of the mails between the stations and the offices en route, to simplify the organisation within the sorting offices, and to secure more frequent and regular outlets which the railway will provide. In addition to that it will have the effect of relieving from much congestion the streets in Central London. The scheme for the railway was approved in 1913 by the House of Commons, and an Act, passed in that year, authorised the expenditure of £1,100,000 on the construction of this railway. The work was started in 1914. During the War progress was interferred with, as it was with most other undertakings. By the end of 1920, however, the whole of the tunnelling and generally speaking, the whole of the underground work had been completed with the exception of the permanent way, the electrical equipment, and provision of the rolling stock. In the latter part of 1920 when the tunnelling had been nearly completed—tenders were invited for the electrical equipment. The tenders were so high—the lowest, I think, being £650,000, as compared with the pre-War estimate of £156,000—that it was considered the price quoted was excessive, and so the work was not gone on with. Since then, the matter has been under review on several occasions, and in August of last year the late Government decided to put it into operation, to put the work in hand to help with the solution of the unemployment problem. The question has been raised as to the method of commencing this scheme. I have already said that the limit imposed by the Act of 1913 was £1,100,000. The latest estimate for completing and equipping this tube railway is £1,650,000. In order to secure that that additonal money shall be obtained, it was necessary to put down this Vote in order to have the matter discussed. I was asked on Monday last why we were seeking to put this money on the Estimate rather than get it by way of loan. That is a matter which is not within the decision of the Post Office, but rests with the Treasury, and the Treasury, after considering this matter for a considerable time, decided that the future cost should be borne on the Estimates of the Post Office, rather than obtained by way of loans, contending that it was good policy, as far as practicable, to pay our way as we go along and not borrow unnecessarily. It will be necessary to incur large commitments, and this Supplementary Estimate had to be laid before the House in order to obtain authority from Parliament to exceed the limit laid down in the Act.

Already considerable commitments have been entered into. Well over £100,000 of commitments have been entered into by the letting of contracts with the authority of the Treasury, and the work is proceeding, and such commitments as become due are being met from the Civil Contingencies Fund, awaiting the authorisation of Parliament which is sought by this Vote. I think I told the Committee on Monday that tenders had been accepted and the work put in hand of completing the permanent way. Tenders have also been invited, but have not yet been accepted, for the electrical equipment of the undertaking. With reference to the wisdom of completing this undertaking, I would point out that we have at present a capital expenditure of something like £1,135,000 lying idle. To complete the railway and bring that capital into use is the object sought now by this Vote. The result will be to accelerate and simplify the distribution and handling of mails to relieve the congestion in the streets of central London. I would like to answer some questions which were put to me when this matter was under discussion before. First of all, as to the method of operation. This railway will be worked electrically and automatically. There will be no drivers and no persons will be employed in connection with the trains. The tunnel itself is 9 feet in diameter. There will be a double track on which will run steel wagons, each conveying about 10 cwts. of mails. It is estimated that something like 800 trains per day will run at a speed of about 34 miles an hour. Even when we have motor vans for the conveyance of mails, whatever the possible speed of the motor may be, it is held up by the traffic in the streets, so that you can seldom get more than five, six, or seven miles an hour out of it, whereas the underground trains will travel at 34 miles an hour.

The daily traffic handled by the railway will exceed 40,000 parcels, more than a quarter of a million of newspapers and packets, more than one and three-quarter millions of letters and postcards, and the total traffic will amount to 750 tons of postal business each day. As a matter of fact, it is estimted that 60 per cent. of the total postal traffic of London will be carried on and dealt with by this railway. I would like also to say that the railway is to be constructed of such dimensions as to be able to cope with any increase of traffic that may take place in the next 40 or 50 years. I have been asked why it has been extended to Whitechapel. That was part of the original scheme, and there is a very good reason for extending it to that district, because in Whitechapel we have a very large sorting office which deals with the postal traffic of the whole of the East End of London, and great facilities in dealing with these mails will be achieved by this railway. Another question which hon. Members asked was whether any portion of this railway had been running up till now. One right hon. Gentleman spoke with an air of great authority on this subject, and declared that a part of the railway had been running from Paddington to the Post Office for many years past, and we were told that all it was doing was to convey postmen and run about with bags. As a matter of fact, no portion of this railway has yet been put in operation. All that has been completed is the mail tunnel. The permanent ways are now being made, and provision is being made for electrical equipment. Another point on which information was sought was as to whether it is intended to extend this railway in any direction. I gather that it was contemplated under the original scheme, that at some future date we might extend the railway to the North, and link up with Euston, King's Cross and St. Pancras. But no such extension is, at present, contemplated, and none of the expenditure now proposed is for that purpose.

Another hon. Gentleman desires to know whether fair wages are being paid on the work performed. I am sure that all the contracts that are being entered into contain the fair wages clause required by the House of Commons. Then I was asked to state how many men would be employed if this business proceeds or how many may be employed on the scheme. I will endeavour to get that information for the Committee, but it is difficult to get any reliable estimates on this point, because none of the work will be done by direct labour. I can say this, that at present there are employed on the non electrical work, 85 persons, and in the near future there will be 200. In addition to these men there will be sub-contractors' men employed in the provision of more than 800 tons of iron and steelwork, 3,500 tons of cement, and 16,000 tons of ballast, and the men employed in carting these materials and the sleepers. It cannot be stated how many men will be employed in the manufacture and installation of the electrical equipment, but I think hon. Members will realise that the expenditure of something like £500,000 on this scheme must, in the nature of things, provide a considerable amount of employment. I would like just to refer to one other point, which is the financial position. As I stated on Monday, it was never estimated that this would be a scheme that would cheapen the work of the Post Office in dealing with the mails of London. Not speaking about labour and other costs, up to the time we take into account the principal charges and the repayments on the loan, there will be a net loss of £10,000 a year. But, as I have already said, the scheme is being operated on a basis to make provision for development in the future. Had this railway been constructed merely to meet the needs of to-day, it could have been worked at a profit, but in making provision for the future it has become more costly.

It being a Quarter-past Eight of the Clock, and there being Private Business set down by direction of the Chairman of Ways and Means under STANDING ORDER No. 8, further Proceeding was postponed without Question put.