HC Deb 11 December 1947 vol 445 cc1319-28

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Joseph Henderson.]

10.1 p.m.

Mr. A. Edward Davies (Burslem)

In the few minutes which I have at my disposal, I wish to direct the attention of the House to a question I have raised on several occasions, namely, the subject of road and rail fares—a vastly different subject from the one with which we have just been dealing, but one, nevertheless, which is of importance, to a large number of my constituents and to the generality of people in this country.

On 11th August I addressed a Question to the Minister of Transport in the following terms: Whether he is aware that, owing to the disparity between omnibus and railway fares, many short-distance trains are lightly loaded; and whether he will arrange a more flexible basis of charges so that in appropriate circumstances reduction in the standard railway fares may be applied. The Minister replied: Differences in fares are only one of the factors affecting the distribution of traffic between omnibus and local train services. While there are various types of rail fares designed to meet the needs of different classes of users, including fares below the appropriate standard, local departures from the normal basis of any type of fare create difficulties in relation to other parts of the same railway system."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th August, 1947; Vol. 445, c. 1917.] The Minister went on to say that in due course this would be a matter for the new Transport Commission to consider.

The same question has been raised on several occasions, and not only from this side of the House, and I want to ask the Minister tonight to note that, while many people coming to work and going about shopping are standing in bus queues, there are many facilities on the railways which are unused, particularly in the Provinces. My view is that we are not doing sufficient to encourage the use of all the existing facilities and, with the cut in the petrol ration, the position is made more difficult. I am aware that there has been some flexibility exercised and that in the provinces, I believe throughout the railway system generally, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thurs- days, cheap fares are available. However, what I want the Minister to note tonight is the position in the Home Counties and London, where it is undesirable to have the main lines overloaded with surburban traffic, does not necessarily apply to the provinces.

I submit that in the Provinces many trains are running about lightly loaded, that this is a luxury we cannot afford at the present time, and that if the fares were more in line with the bus fares, many people would be attracted to the railways. I mean that the rail fares should be reduced. I am not anxious, I want to make that perfectly clear, to increase the road charges. I will give one or two instances to illustrate my point. I hope I may be forgiven for quoting places in my own constituency, but I know that area best, though what I have to say is generally applicable to the whole country. Hanley is a most important town near my constituency, and a single railway fare from there to Congleton in Cheshire is 2s. 5d., whereas the bus fare is 1s. 1d. The return fare between the same points is 3s. 3d. on the railway, and 1s. 10d. by bus. Over a shorter distance, between Stoke and Hanley, which are contiguous towns, the single railway fare is 6d., but if the passenger walks down the road a few hundred yards he can travel by bus for three halfpence, which is 25 per cent. of the railway fare. Workmen's fares, which are supposed to offer some advantage, are 5d. return between Stoke and Hanley on the railway, but the bus fare is 3d. return.

It has to be recognised that there are certain standing charges on the railway whether the traffic is light or heavy; the overheads are pretty much the same. They have to maintain signalmen, platform staff, train crews, and so on, whether traffic is light or heavy. I suggest that if the fares were reduced it would be better to have 300 passengers paying 4d. a time on a train for a short journey than to have 100, or less such as are carried now for 8d. a time. That would not only be giving the public an advantage, and the railways increased revenue, but would relieve traffic on the streets very considerably.

I know the Minister will probably say this is a matter of some complication, and affects many parts of the country, and that at this late hour of the day it would be a proper job for the Commission to undertake. I hope the Commission will direct attention quickly to this matter, and will not necessarily go to the full time limit set down in Part V, Section 76 of the Transport Act which lays down the date upon which they are to report, in a period of not later than two years, or such other period as the Minister may arrange, a system of charges and fares for the railways.

We want more flexibility about the charges arrangements not only in respect of passenger fares, but of goods rates also. I will not deal with goods rates tonight. It is no use people sitting in Whitehall, Marylebone, or anywhere else, and thinking that the conditions in and about London are the same as those which obtain in the Provinces. Whatever is done, note must be taken of local needs, and I hope that whatever machinery is devised for dealing with the problem it will be sufficiently sensitive, and that power will be given at the right point to the people on the spot to arrange the tariffs so that they will have some kind of sense, flexibility, and a relation to the needs of the people on the spot.

I ask the Minister why these cheap fares, although they are not cheap enough should not be available every day, even now? I do not know what the experience is in terms of numbers and crowded trains in and about London, but I am sure that in the Provinces this facility could very well be extended. The facts about railway travel and the conditions attaching to it are that whereas one can take a return bus ticket at the end of the street, or at some other convenient point, and can use it on any day within a reasonable period—there is no limit so far as I know—when one takes a ticket by rail one is supposed to use it, so far as cheap fares are concerned, upon the day of issue only. Why should it not be available for a reasonable period, perhaps a month? We know some of the difficulties from the operating point of view, but in the old days we liked to think that we could carry back the traffic we had carried out. I suggest that those conditions no longer obtain.

My main aim in bringing this matter to the notice of the House tonight is, first, to ensure that we shall use all the existing facilities to the best advantage in a time of difficulty. For well-known reasons, we are not likely to get the number of new motor vehicles we require on the roads and there is this problem of queues and waiting about, which is a national problem—it is not peculiar to any one district. If times were more propitious we should encourage the making available of more vehicles, but we know there are difficulties arising out of our national and international financial conditions which make this difficulty likely to continue for some time. In these circumstances we should use existing facilities, but we are not likely to get people to walk to a station, at some inconvenience, to pay a fare which is considerably greater than they have to pay by bus.

In view of these considerations, this is a matter about which the Minister ought to make firm representations, if that is his prerogative, to his friends on the Transport Commission, so that they may really get down to this problem, and see whether they cannot do something in the ways I have suggested. Those are to make cheap fares available on every day of the week in the provinces, make the tickets available on any day over a number of days within a reasonable period, and, if possible, reduce the fares, and, when they come to the major problem of arranging the tariffs, to allow the maximum flexibility to the people in the regions, so that they may have regard to local needs.

10.14 p.m.

Squadron-Leader Kinghorn (Great Yarmouth)

I welcome the opportunity to follow the lead so ably given by my hon. Friend the Member for Burslem (Mr. Edward Davies). He is, as we all know, an expert of many years' standing in transport matters. For my sins, being a Yorkshireman, which has its drawbacks—I shall mention the main drawback in a moment—and also being the representative of an East Anglian constituency, I have some really bitter words to say about this matter of transport fares and, what is connected with transport fares, the value for the money we have to pay when we travel on that relic of the "Fanny by Gaslight" era in our history, the London and North Eastern Railway. I hope that when the new nationalised company takes over, it may begin by having a switch-over in the British National Railways by taking some comfortable rolling stock, say of the Southern Railway, and bringing it into East Anglia and parts of Yorkshire, and letting the people in the South of England realise what we have been putting up with since about the time of the Franco-Prussian War.

As the representative of Great Yarmouth, I have to do journeys on a sort of triangular route between London and Great Yarmouth, London and Leeds and then out to my home in the country. I know of no more bitter moments than those I experienced during the journeys I had to make in the last two bitter winters from Yarmouth to London, London to Leeds and out to my home, and then perhaps across country—if I dare risk such a journey in bad weather—to Yarmouth via York. Those journeys included many of the most dreadful moments of my life. Three times I caught influenza and in the third instance I almost succumbed in the arms of my town clerk's wife.

This is a thing that we shall probably laugh about when we look back on the years of excellent service from the nationalised railways. We shall look back upon it with a sort of wonder, as we look back upon some other experiences during the war. But at present it is pretty grim. I remember going from York last year to Great Yarmouth. The usual thing happened. On the time-table there was no indication of what was to happen at March. March belies its name. It does not march; it stands still for many hours together. Eventually the train arrived. For some reason there were only two first-class carriages on this very long train. Gradually it got darker and darker. I stopped the man in a peaked cap, and said, "What about the light? The gas ought to be turned on." This was one of the compartments with gas lighting which the American G.Is. viewed with wonder and enthusiasm at first sight, but of which they soon got tired. Eventually the sun went down, and darkness came. The man with the peaked cap went round to the spot where the man usually taps the wheels with the hammer. He looked for the gas, and finally he said, "No gas: they have forgotten to put it on." For several hours I travelled in total darkness—and that is only one instance of the service given by the railways at that time.

To come back to the L.N.E.R. route. I live quite near a railway line and we see a lot of heavy goods traffic. We like to see that because we regard it as a sign of recovery. But, throughout the night and day, passenger trains pass and, certainly when they travel in one direction, they always seem to be empty. That direction is from Harrogate and Wetherby to Leeds. So far as I can see, they are empty because the prices went up. One has to pay 2S. 6d. return for a ticket from Wetherby to Leeds and one is only able to use that ticket under the restrictions already outlined. Alternatively, there is a bus at the top of the road which drops passengers practically on their own doorsteps. The charge for that service is 1s. 4d. return, and one can travel on any day of the year. Poor people have to decide, and they decide to go by bus. As a result, the trains go empty.

Recently I picked up my wife and two children in Bournemouth. I got them on to a pleasant Southern Railway train and had a good journey to London. We crossed London by taxi and then travelled by L.N.E.R. from Kings Cross to Leeds. Because of a breakdown, my car was not waiting at Leeds. We had to rush to our local line to travel to our lovely little station. We caught a train, and in the half hour of the journey home, my two children got so dirty that they looked like nigger minstrels. That was after they had travelled from Bournemouth on the Southern Railway to London, and then from there to Leeds in almost spotless conditions. In that half hour on the local line they became as grimy as the little boys who used to climb the chimneys in the days of Dickens.

The railway system is the life blood of the two major industries of my constituency, and we are wondering what is to happen next year with no basic petrol. We are very much concerned about this problem. We hope that it will not be fobbed off until the national companies introduce a proper organisation in the years to come. We hope that some strenuous efforts will be made now. I heartily support every word uttered by my hon. Friend the Member for Burslem.

10.21 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. James Callaghan)

The last occasion on which the principles of railway fares were discussed in detail was after the 1921 Railway Act. It then took a period of rather more than six years to work out the principles which were to govern them and to bring them into operation in 1928. I calculate that I have precisely nine and a half minutes to do the same job this evening. I think it is a good thing that my hon. Friend the Member for Burslem (Mr. Edward Davies) should have initiated a discussion on a matter of this importance, because I do not think we have sufficient public discussion about the principles of railway fares, or of what system and what method are going to be followed in running the biggest industry in our country.

I have suffered as the hon. and gallant Member for Great Yarmouth (Squadron-Leader Kinghorn) has, and on just as many occasions. When I was at Lowestoft during the war, and was sent to join a ship at Glasgow it used to take all night. What is quite clear is that one of the first problems to which the British Transport Commission has to turn its attention is the future relationship between road and rail. There is no escape from that problem. If I may interject a passing point—not that there is anyone on the Opposition side to dispute it—I would say that nationalisation is one of the major blessings in helping us to co-ordinate road and rail transport in the way that it has got to be tackled.

The more I look at this problem the more certain I am that railways would have degenerated, and the road operators would have made fantastic profits, if we had allowed to continue unchanged the existing developments between road and rail as they were before the war. What my hon. Friend the Member for Burslem wanted was obviously a reduction of rail fares. Nothing would give the Minister greater pleasure. I am sure he would welcome the opportunity of announcing to the House that he was in a position to reduce rail fares. But I would put this to the hon. Member for Burslem. He knows that the rail fares were increased in October, because of the increased cost of the railways, which, to some extent, arose from the wage increases that were conceded during the summer. The only effect that would be achieved at this moment by reducing rail fares would be to increase the loss.

Mr. Edward Davies rose——

Mr. Callaghan

I think I know what is in my hon. Friend's mind and I will deal with it. He is going to say, as he has already said, that it would be better to have 400 passengers at 4d. than 100 passengers at 8d. I am going to deal with that in a moment.

Mr. David Jones (The Hartlepools)

Will the Parliamentary Secretary make a further point that the £43 million has something to do with it?

Mr. Callaghan

The hon. Gentleman has made it for me and I am obliged. If the loss is increased, assuming there is a standard number of passengers, who is going to pay for it? Are we going to pay for it by means of the taxpayers providing a subsidy, or by the people who are sending freight being charged more, or by increasing the railway fares on other bodies of persons who will not get these concessions, or by appropriating some of the profit from the bus industry and using it for railway revenue? There is no escape from this dilemma at the moment, on my assumption that the number of passengers is not likely to be substantially increased. If that is so, and railway fares are reduced, then the loss will be increased. The railway companies are not going to be a gold mine to the nation in the next few years. Frankly, I could not give to this House, on behalf of the Minister, any indication or any hope that railway fares might be reduced, and then have to come back later on and say, "We have now got to put our hands in our pockets and provide a substantial sum in order to recoup the loss."

Now I come to the argument that we will get an increased number of passengers. That I believe to be true in some instances, but it is not true in all. I know from my own experience down in the Valleys, where the railway and road run side by side, that people are preferring to queue, and for a long time, waiting for buses because they cannot afford the railway fare. That is quite true, and, at the same time, there is a railway running alongside with trains comparatively empty. I think that there are undoubtedly spots in the country where that is so, but, on the other hand, it is equally true that there are many substantial areas in the country, from which most of the fare- paying passengers are drawn, where it is not true.

The Southern Railway handles in one hour of the day over 30 per cent. of its load. That is, I believe, between the hours of 5.15 and 6.15 at night. We will not get another single passenger, nor would he be welcome, between those hours, if we reduced the fares. Indeed, that railway is placed in the position of having to carry over 60 per cent. of its load in two hours of the day and running a railway for the other 22 hours with less than 40 per cent., which makes a considerable difference to the cost. I think that is a point which the British Transport Commission might look at. I only say to my hon. Friend now that, in places where there is plenty of passenger traffic, it is not true to say that, by making this alteration, we shall get more passengers on to the railways at the present time. "The British Transport Commission must act quickly," my hon. Friend said. As he knows, the Act does provide for draft charges schemes from them in two years, or such longer period as the Minister may allow. That will be at least one-third of the time taken on the last occasion to settle the charge and bring them into operation. When one looks at the complexity of this problem one really cannot undertake that it can be done in much less time on this occasion.

Next, my hon. Friend suggested that we should have more flexibility in the fares now, and he asks for cheap fares every day. My right hon. Friend has been anxious to extend this facility and indeed, he took the lead in August in introducing cheap day fares on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays in each week, and there is no lack of zeal on his part to extend this concession as soon as he feels that it can safely be done without overtaxing the load. Here again, it is going to be spotty. There may be places in the country where we could have cheap day fares at the weekends and not overload the transport system. On the other hand, one of the reasons for providing cheap day fares on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays was to spread out the load from the weekend when it is highest.

This matter is constantly under review, and, from 1st January, it will be the responsibility of the British Transport Commission, and I have no doubt at all that they desire to move ahead with this concession as fast as they can, but the railways are limited at the moment by the restriction of their services that arises because of the lack of coal. Passenger services were reduced last year, and that is one of the reasons we are able to move more freight this year. We are not stocking coal at the pithead but moving it over the lines, and there are no major embargoes for freight on any lines today, and that is vastly different to the position a year ago. We are doing that, to some extent, because passenger services have been reduced. It is lamentable, and we want to carry passengers as well as freight, but I do not think any hon. Member would desire an advantage, when coal must come first, and that is why we have concentrated on it and have not been able to restore these facilities, as we desired to do.

I only say this in conclusion. I think these problems of rail-road relationship, and particularly fares, are going to continue to be most serious problems which will have to be faced during the coming months, or, at any rate, during the next two or three years. I think that the last time we faced it, we ducked and side-stepped at the last moment, but we have now reached the time when we must face properly this problem of road-rail fares, and I am sure that we shall do it.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-nine Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.