HC Deb 17 February 1927 vol 202 cc1251-6

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Commander Eyres Monsell.)


I am obliged to the Minister of Transport for arranging to take quite briefly into consideration to-night the question of the serious position which has arisen owing to the congestion of rail-delivered coal. In the Eastern Counties the position is far more acute than in other parts of the country, and I am particularly anxious that the Ministry of Transport should give immediate and sympathetic consideration to the needs of the traders, but more especially of the consumers, in that area. Let me take one or two cases by way of example. In the City of Ipswich we have a very large co-operative society, which requires a normal delivery of 51 wagons per week to supply the consumers in its membership, and during the last fortnight the society has received only 40 wagons, or 33 per cent. of its normal requirements, and although, as a matter of fact, they have paid for and have advices in regard to between 90 and 100 wagons, ready for delivery. The same thing applies to Newmarket, and to Sawston, where they have no stock and no arrivals. The same is the case at Witham, and the same thing was operating until a week or two ago at Colchester and Chelmsford, but owing to the extreme muddle in which the railways have got, Colchester and Chelmsford have train loads of coal consigned in such a state that the sidings are choked with them, and they cannot handle what they have got. It seems to me a great pity that after five or six years of the co-ordination and re-organisation of the railway systems of the country, we should now find ourselves placed in such a position as that.

The only other thing I want to say is this: We are being asked to reduce the price of coal, and the price of coal ought to be reduced. If the coalowners would give another reduction from the December prices, which they might well do now, and if the distributive trade—and I am speaking of the co-operative section of it to-night—so handicapped by lack of space and having to meet all overhead charges, were able to rely upon delivery of supplies, if delivery of supplies could come now with some regular certainty, there is no reason why, in a very few days, the price of coal should not be reduced. I want the Minister to bend his energies, as I am sure he will, to securing an improvement of the transport position at the earliest possible moment.


I should like to support what the hon. Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander) has just asserted in regard to the general failure of the railway companies to deliver coal, and I should like to talk also on the ground of the lack of wages to the colliers in the mining industry of the country and the amount of short time which is being worked, entirely owing to the chaotic condition of the railways. There is hardly a colliery company in the country that is not working at least one day a week short, entirely due to this reason. I would like to appeal to the Minister of Transport to bring the utmost pressure to hear upon the railway companies to put their house in order as soon as possible, so that min at the pits may be able to work full time, seeing that there is a demand for coal, and so that the consumers may get their coal at a lower price, which they undoubtedly would if the delivery were more in order.

Major GLYN

Before the Minister replies, I would to mention one small point. The hon. Member opposite seems to forget that, owing to the coal stoppage, a great many wagons have been used for imported coal, and the result is that as these contracts are still running, a considerable number of these wagons are being used in that connection. There are, as a matter of fact, a large number of wagons standing in the sidings full of coal waiting for distributors to discharge them. With regard to the point raised by the hon. Member behind me, I think it is only fair, from the companies' point of view, to say that every attempt has been made, and is being made to-day, to get back to normal conditions. Nothing would suit the railway companies more than that all collieries should be working full time, and as far as London and the Eastern Counties are concerned, coal is available in the trucks, but is not being discharged by the distributors.


I would like to bear out what has been said, not only about the disorganisation of railways in regard to coal, but, what is equally important, the disorganisation in regard to iron ore add pig iron. I know in my own constituency the risk run by the inability of the local blast furnaces to get adequate railway wagons to remove the pig iron. Quite possibly something may be said on behalf of the railways regarding the imports of foreign coal affecting coal trucks, but there surely cannot be any similar argument regarding the imports of foreign pig iron, and I venture to think that if the Minister would bring pressure to bear on the railways to remedy the present disorganisation, we should not only get better results, but we should improve employment, not only in the coal mines but in regard to coke ovens, blast furnaces and steelworks.


I do not know whether I shall be in order in drawing attention to the pithead price of coal. I know that the pits in Mansfield are working practically at normal, but I find—and. I have taken the trouble to look into it—that I am paying 10s. a ton more at the pithead than I was before the strike.


The miners are not getting it.


I do not think that is reasonable; in fact the pithead price of coal to-day is scandalous. It is important that we should try to get the railway companies to overcome their difficulty.

Colonel ASHLEY

The only grievance, if grievance there be, for which it is in my province to answer, is that of the transportation of coal. The question of price, though of vital importance, does not fall within my province, and, indeed, the hon. Member for Hillsborough (Mr. A.. V. Alexander) who raised this question, did not expect me to deal with it. This subject has given me considerable anxiety, and has been under my close attention, not only since the resumption of work, but during the coal stoppage, and, in fairness to the railway companies, we must remember that the general strike and the coal stoppage imposed a heavy strain upon those companies. In the first place, they had to diminish their own consumption of coal very considerably, and that made it extremely difficult for them to carry on their normal operations, made it impossible, obliging them to leave scattered about their system a large number of wagons which otherwise would have been marshalled in their appropriate areas. At the same time, they had to reverse entirely their system of transporting coal. They had to bring imported coal, landed from overseas, from the ports to various inland centres, doing exactly the opposite of what all their plans are laid for, namely, to take coal from the centre of England to the ports. Then, when work was resumed, they had to try to send back to the private owners the hundreds of thousands of private wagons, while at the same time carrying on an imported coal traffic to which they were not used. Directly work was resumed, also, they had to rush large quantities of coal to coal merchants and to industries, which were crying out for it, and that put another strain upon their resources. Finally, when they had sent these extra supplies of household coal to coal merchants, this position arose, that the coal merchants—I need not go into the reason why it was so—found that this coal was not bought by the public to the extent which was expected, and thousands of wagons were left lying idle in the depots. It was through no fault of the railway companies that the wagons were not cleared, and that added congestion to the other difficulties of the situation.


That may be the statement made to my hon. Friend by the railway companies, but it is not in accordance with the statements of the large distributors.

Colonel ASHLEY

I will give a few statistics to prove that what I say is in accordance with the facts—at any rate in some cases. I think I may claim broadly that the four great railway companies, at any rate three of them, have coped with a difficult situation very suc- cessfully indeed, and that on three out of the four lines normal conditions are rapidly approaching. There are two areas—one was mentioned by the hon. Member for the Hillsborough Division (Mr. Alexander), the Eastern Counties, and the other is the London area, where I have received many complaints, though it has not been mentioned in debate this evening—where there have been great difficulties, in some cases, in people getting coal for industrial and for household purposes.

May I give some facts about the London area to show that though I admit, and the railway companies admit, that in some cases there has been a shortage of coal, yet broadly speaking, and over the London area, the railway companies concerned—the four lines come in here—have dealt very successfully with this extraordinarily difficult situation. Take the 10th February, the last date for which I have statistics, so far as London as a whole is concerned. On the 10th February there were 7,523 laden coal wagons on hand at London depots, and there were, further, 3,919 wagons waiting to enter the depots, waiting acceptance by the coal merchants, a total of 11,442 loaded coal wagons which had been sent to London by the four great systems for the use of the consumers of coal in the London area. On the 9th February there were 2,378 clearances, so that on this basis the railway companies had on the 10th February—seven days ago—provided five days' supplies of coal for the inhabitants of the metropolis. I know there were individual cases where the railway companies had failed in that respect to do their duty. Take the London and North Eastern Railway which was referred to by the hon. Member opposite. On 15th February there were standing under load 3,354 wagons, of which 1,116 were unloaded, and that was three days' supply. I admit that that is not as much as the average, but three days' supply does not indicate a universal or large coal shortage.

Now I come to the particular area which Las been referred to, namely, the Eastern counties, I have communicated with the London and North Eastern Railway Company to-day, and they say that two days ago, on the 15th February, at seven of the larger towns in the Eastern counties 807 wagons were standing under load while only 166 were unloaded. Broadly speaking, I think this shows that the London and North Eastern Railway, in regard to those larger towns, had not failed in their duty and two days ago were supplying five days' supply.


I was told at the head office at Liverpool Street that 14 loaded wagons were supplied to Ipswich, and I found that seven of them had been there over a week and had already been unloaded Therefore I do not think the figures given by the right hon. Gentleman are at all reliable.

Colonel ASHLEY

I do not think I can accept that statement, and I must assume that unless some direct evidence to the contrary is forthcoming, that the statistics which have been supplied to me are correct. I admit even after these figures that the Eastern counties are in an unsatisfactory state. The London and North Eastern Railway had a. difficult task when it took over several other lines which were not provided with rolling stock facilities like the other great lines, but the companies have informed me that they have decided to make sidings at March, near Peterborough, and they have undertaken to proceed with the work as soon as possible. This will cost the companies a large sum of money, but it will ease the situation. At the Ministry of Transport we have received a representative deputation of coalowners and coal merchants trading in the Eastern counties. They have laid all the facts before me, and some of them were very striking facts. They have promised that they will do everything in their power to ease the situation.


May I ask the Minister whether he will pay some attention to the statement made by the hon. Member for Central Nottingham (Mr. Bennett) about the price of coal at the pithead and will see whether that has anything to do with the high price of coal at the present time? As he may say he can do nothing, will he in any event urge the Prime Minister to take as much trouble in making these people disgorge some of their ill-gotten gains to the miners as he took to increase their hours and reduce their wages last week?