HC Deb 21 April 1950 vol 474 cc564-72

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn."—(Mr. Royle.)

4.0 p.m.

Mr. Wingfield Digby (Dorset, West)

I think I need make no apology to the House for raising the subject of transport on this Adjournment Motion, because I think the problems to which I shall refer relating to my own constituency are of interest from a much wider —indeed, a national—point of view. The reason for that is that the Budget which we have just been discussing undoubtedly places serious burdens on road users of all kinds, about which many of us on this side of the House feel very strongly, and I should like to add my voice to the protests which have been made. Besides, there can be little doubt that indirectly this new impost will assist the railways, and I will speak a little about railway services in my division presently. As regards the bus services, to which I shall also refer, I should like to point out at the outset that public ownership has a virtual monopoly of these services as well, so that I do not see how the Transport Commission can escape responsibility for both types of transport.

Bus services are already inadequate in many of the outlying villages in my constituency and, no doubt, the new tax proposals will not make fares any cheaper in the long run. There are a number of difficulties with regard to these services to which I have drawn the Minister's attention on more than one occasion. For example, in the case of some villages which lie on the borders between Dorset and Somerset bus services run only into Somerset, whereas the administrative services—the local food offices, and so on—are in Dorset, and can be reached from such villages as Trent and Bradford Abbas only by walking or by hiring a taxi. I think that that is a fact which should be appreciated by right hon. Gentlemen opposite when they speak of visiting local food offices, or whatever it may be, as being always naturally a matter of the greatest ease.

Another factor of importance is that the bus services from these villages are particularly bad on Saturday afternoons, which is just the time when many of the villagers have their only opportunities of going to neighbouring towns to see football matches or to visit a cinema or to do other things they may wish to do. This is aggravated, under the new set-up of the Transport Commission, by the increasing difficulty of newcomer buses providing those services which are lacking.

When we come to rail services in west Dorset we find that the position is even worse. For historical reasons, both the old Southern Railway and the Great Western Railway converge on Dorchester. I believe there was a race as to which would get there first, and that as the Great Western Railway won the race, it it necessary, in going to London from any point west of Dorcester to go by the Great Western Railway via Yeovil, which is a considerable detour. Here, again, I have had some correspondence with Sir Cyril Hurcomb, Chairman of the Transport Commission. I appreciate the difficulty of trying to co-ordinate these two railways in this part of the country, but it seems to me to be an outstanding example of a case where common ownership of the two lines should be able to provide better services. I am very disappointed to find from his reply of 24th October that the Transport Commission seem to have no plans for improving the position.

Indeed, the position is worse with regard to these services than it was before the war. Then, it was possible to travel from Bridport down the branch line and up to London via Yeovil on the 8.30 train in the morning, which got in soon after 11 o'clock. This was of the greatest use to businessmen. It is now impossible to reach London before 1.10 even if the earliest train is taken. There is the strongest case for reviving that earlier train. It may be said, in reply, that it does not pay, but I believe a convenient service tends to justify itself very much more quickly than might be imagined. I hope the Transport Commission will give attention to this matter.

There is a second question concerning the integration of these two services, which were formerly the Southern and Great Western lines, and this, too, should receive early attention. I refer to the interavailability of tickets. I was somewhat surprised recently when a constituent of mine wrote to me stating that, although both railways had been nationalised, tickets from Bridport to London were still not interchangeable, and that if a traveller went down the long line via Yeovil he could not go back on the short line, changing stations at Dorchester. That seems to be a case where co-ordination can be carried out by the Transport Commission.

In their report the Commission outline a number of ways in which they propose to provide co-ordination, and I am a little surprised that interchangeability of tickets was not one of them. They give other examples, one of which seemed rather ominous and concerned the closing of branch lines. When I took up this question of the interchangeability of tickets between Bridport and London I received this reply from Sir Cyril Hurcomb: The whole question of interavailability is bound up with the railway fares' structure and this is now under review in connection with the charges scheme. The problem is a very complicated one, and any attempt to alter the existing arrangements at the moment would clearly be undesirable. That seems to show the need for pressing on with this charges scheme which is already very much behind. It seems to me to be a negative attitude, if the Commission are really attempting to achieve a little more co-ordination, that they are not prepared to tackle at once even as simple a question of co-ordination as this.

There is another point to which I should like to refer briefly, and that is the question of the villages with inadequate bus services, which have railway lines running through them hut which cannot get rail service because they are served neither by railway stations nor by halts. One of the villages to which I referred earlier, Bradford Abbas, is an illustration of what I have in mind. Another case about which I have had considerable correspondence with the Minister concerns the village of Loders which is three miles from the nearest town of any size, where a branch railway line runs right through the village, but the villagers cannot have the use of this ser- vice. The only way in which they can return from Bridport at night is to walk a considerable distance or to hire a taxi, which many people cannot do.

After receiving representations from the parish council, some years ago, I wrote to the Minister on this matter on 18th June, 1946. He eventually replied on 29th April, 1947, as follows: The provision of a halt at Loders has been approved in principle. Unfortunately, there has been some difficulty in obtaining possession of the land required for the approach to the new halt and this may necessitate an alteration in the position of the platform. In the circumstances, it has not been possible for work on the site to commence, but good progress has been made with the manufacture of the precast concrete units which will be used for the construction of the platform. Apparently, the platform was constructed not less than three years ago, and it is only natural that the hopes of the villagers should have risen high on the basis of these words of the Minister, which were given wide publicity throughout west Dorset. I understand that in January, 1947, the directors of the Great Western Railway gave their approval for the work to go forward. Only a few days ago, I received a letter from Sir Cyril Hurcomb telling me that the Railway Executive—after this delay of three years since the original promise was made, and I think it fair to call it a promise—had cancelled the authority for the halt, and that it would not now be built. That has been a grave disappointment for the people of Loders. I am sure that the Minister would not wish to disappoint them in this way, and I hope that he will agree that it is not right that they should be disappointed. There is no doubt whatever that there is still a large demand for this halt.

We know that one of the difficulties of our railways at the moment is that, whereas the cost of overheads and maintaining the track is something like 85 per cent. of the cost of the railways, many trains are running comparatively empty. One estimate for 1948 was that the trains were only 27 per cent. full. Here, we have trains running and passengers who are only too willing to go on them if only they would stop. There are many other examples of the same kind. Here, I think, is one way in which the railways can improve their affairs by taking these passengers who have no alternative means of transport. It may mean the development of diesel trains and of other one or two coach trains. It may mean no collection at these halts but on the trains, but it seems to me that with little additional cost to the railways they could in this way improve their affairs.

In this connection I must refer to the failure to set up regional consultative committees. It is matters of this kind that should be threshed out by those committees. As we know from recent Questions and answers in the House, they have not been set up anything like so quickly as was envisaged at the time when we discussed the Transport Bill.

In conclusion, I hope that the Minister will realise the disappointment he has given to these people. There is little doubt that there is every justification for this halt. It will not be an expensive project. We know that the units have already been manufactured and the land acquired. I can see no real reason why this very small expenditure should not be undertaken. I hope that the Minister will remember the points I have brought forward about the bus services in Dorset and will see if he cannot help us in this respect as well.

4.16 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Barnes)

I should like to express my appreciation of the way in which the hon. Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Digby) has raised, various transport issues concerning his area. If I do not adequately cover all the points he has raised, that will not prevent r..e from examining them later in detail. The hon. Member referred to the delay in establishing regional consultative committees. Both he and I went through the laborious process of considering the Transport Bill, when the need for consultative committees was discussed at very considerable length.

I do not think it is quite right to say that there has been delay in establishing the regional or area consultative committees. It often occurs to me that there is insufficient consideration or appreciation of the great task which the British Transport Commission has had to undertake in taking over a vast and varied range of transport properties. I do not think it would have served any very useful purpose if the whole machinery of the con- sultative committees had been brought into being during that very difficult transitional stage.

I sincerely hope that these committees will be a success, and I fully appreciate the problem of making any form of consultative committee effective in regard to day-to-day management operations. My view has been that if I had created them too early it might have damaged the effect of these committees. The National Committee was appointed in the first place, and then the Scottish and Welsh Committees, followed by the London Consultative Committee. I felt that it was the proper course to appoint these committees in the order of their importance; it is not right to suggest that there has been any unnecessary delay. I now agree that the time has come to consider the areas and the formation of these consultative committees. I think that they can go forward speedily in the future.

As for the halt at Loders, the hon. Member has stated the facts quite fairly and correctly. It is true that the Great Western Railway Company envisaged the establishment of this halt. At the time when I wrote to the hon. Member I was conveying to him the decision of the Great Western Railway Company, The Railway Executive are now responsible for these affairs and have reviewed the situation. They are now under very stringent directions in regard to expenditure of capital resources over the vast field of undertakings and requirements that are pressing for their attention. In the information submitted to me on this point it appears that, as far as they can estimate the situation, the upkeep and the maintenance of this halt are likely to be—am I stating the position incorrectly?

Mr. Digby

I am a little surprised that the estimate for running a small halt of this kind should be so large.

Mr. Barnes

I have not given the figure yet.

Mr. Digby

I have received a figure already from the Commission. This reversal of policy has been the subject of some anxiety, especially when so much talk is going on about the closing of branch lines I hope that the Minister will give me an assurance that there is no connection between the two matters.

Mr. Barnes

I could not say that there is any connection between the trend of the Transport Commission to close unremunerative branch lines and this decision. I appreciate the need for the utmost economy on the part of the Commission, in view of the heavy losses which are accumulating at present. It involves, as the hon. Member will appreciate, a recommendation of the Transport Tribunal, which is now under consideration, that freight charges should be increased.

In view of circumstances of that character, whether the sum is small or large, I would urge upon the Commission the need to exercise the greatest possible economy in every direction. I have three estimates before me, which, I understand, have been conveyed to the hon. Member in correspondence. They show that the yearly maintenance costs of this halt would be something like three times the amount of revenue that it is expected to gain from it. I therefore do not feel that I can in any way influence a reversal of that decision.

I come to the question of bus services. I understand that there has been an effort to meet this case, in that bus services now travel this route every day instead of only two days per week, as hitherto. The policy of endeavouring to provide for an intermittent or small volume of traffic by road services, in cases where it would otherwise mean uneconomic expenditure by the railways, is right. In that part of the reply given by the Chairman of the Commission to the hon. Member, to which the hon. Member took exception, the Chairman referred to the difficulty—or anomaly, or whatever we may care to call it—bound up with the charges scheme. I agree that if we take isolated instances and look at them singly, there appears to be no justification, but I would emphasise that these instances can be multiplied by tens of thousands of similar anomalies in the country. There are some in London, as elsewhere.

It is therefore, quite erroneous to assume that the Transport Commission or the Railway Executive can look at a single anomaly and deal with it separately. The policy of the charges scheme is to iron out and remove a lot of these anomalies. It is the method whereby we endeavour to resolve many of our problems. Surely we must consider the public interest and the machinery that was provided in the Transport Act. We have arrived at the stage of having a charges scheme, as we have now in London. The scheme will go before a public tribunal and everyone who is able to speak on behalf of passengers or traders will have an opportunity of putting forward his case and his claims. Surely that is a better procedure than endeavouring to pick up these things individually which, in my view, would occupy too much of the time of the Executive, and would represent a much slower process, in the long run, in the solving of this problem.

I do not at all dissent from or wish to challenge the view put forward by the hon. Gentleman that one of the consequences of public ownership ought to be the making of the interavailability of services and tickets much more general than it has been in the past. But this, again, is linked to a great variety of circumstances, and can only come about by a more general decision. It is not always possible to deal with them individually. I have been informed that at present the Commission are carrying on without any variation of the interavailability arrangements that prevailed between the two late companies. Although it may be said that there has been no advance in that arrangement, there certainly has been no disturbance of it.

Before I sit down, I should like to correct the inference of the hon. Gentleman that these road services belong mainly to the Transport Commission, because he referred to a monopoly. There is no question of a monopoly in this area. There are 13 operators of stage carriages who provide services in this area. It is true that Southern National, which is the largest organisation, is one of the road services belonging to the Commission. It is also true that it owns the greatest fleet of all the operators, and runs the greatest number of services. It has,109 buses and provides 27 services. The Bere Regis Company have 50 buses and provide 10 services. But there are other operators with 21 buses who provide 19 services. Therefore, during the last 12 months there has been an increase of 538 miles in the weekly mileage of stage carriage services in this area, and an increase of 12.5 per cent. in the number of vehicles on stage carriage services.

From my general knowledge of the situation throughout the country, I do not think that this area is being so sadly neglected. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the points he has raised will again be examined and that as far as possible within the resources at the command of the Transport Commission—and certainly with regard to the licensing authorities—they will be only too anxious to provide all the facilities possible at the present moment.

Mr. Digby

Can the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that if it is found to be impossible to go on with the construction of the halt at Loders, he will try to adjust the bus services, so that there are buses running later in the evening?

Mr. Barnes

I must make it plain to the hon. Gentleman that it is not within the power of the Minister to give assurances of that character, but I will certainly look into the problem from the point of view of the convenience of the general public.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Four o'Clock.