HC Deb 01 December 1950 vol 481 cc1543-52

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

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Alport (Colchester)

When any right hon. or hon. Members on this side of the House draw the attention of the House to any of the difficulties of a nationalised industry, hon. Members opposite invariably assume that we are doing so out of malice to the industry in question, the same sort of malice with which they invariably pursue the farming interest in this House and outside. They do not realise that, critical though we may be of their political policies, we have keen sympathy for the industry itself, and a close interest in the problems of those who work in it.

Although I do not claim to be a railway enthusiast in the sense that I would, as some people recently did, join a party to go to say farewell to the last of the Atlantic class engines, I have always been fascinated by railways, and I have always tried to be jealous of the good name of the British railway system. I agree with John Bright, who once said that the railways had rendered more service and received less gratitude than any institution in this country. For example, I think that it would be very proper, in view of the services which the railways have rendered to the nation, in peace as well as in war, that His Majesty should be asked to grant to the British Railways the additional title of "Royal," and for them to be allowed a more dignified symbol to replace the present one.

Therefore, in raising this matter, let me assure the right hon. Gentleman that I am not seeking to score any political points. My purpose is to direct the attention of the House to one aspect of the services provided by the railways which clearly requires, and has ever since the war required, urgent improvement. My immediate reason for raising this matter is the evidence supplied to me by a highly reputable firm in Colchester, which discloses a serious state of affairs.

The original complaint which I received from this firm related to the loss of certain equipment dispatched from Birmingham to Colchester in October. That in itself might not be of particular significance was it not the fact, however, that the firm had made, during this year alone, more than 200 claims against British Railways for loss of or damage to goods in transit. Indeed, more recently, during this last week, I have had a further complaint from the same firm about an expensive machine, which, although properly crated and protected for the journey, was substantially damaged.

If one looks at the figures of the cost of the claims made against British Railways during the last two years, they are seen to be indeed alarming. In 1948, the total value of the claims against the railways was £3,857,000. In 1949, the figure was £2,864,000. It is true that a substantial improvement took place, but even so a loss, through loss of or damage to goods in transit, of nearly £3 million a year must clearly be rectified. I ask the right hon. Gentleman what progress has been made during the past year in improving the methods of handling not only freight but also parcels? May I also ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he is able to tell the House whether the figure for 1950 will be an improvement on the figures I have already quoted for the previous two years?

I know very well the various factors to which this state of affairs is attributed. The first is the railways' loss of experienced manpower during the last 10 years. But I would like to know how far steps have been taken, not merely to improve the standard of experience of the manpower engaged in that section of the railways' business, but also to assist them in doing the job by the installation of machinery. How far have their problems been studied in relation to modern techniques and methods? In the 1949 Report of the British Transport Commission, it is stated: The Commercial Investigation Bureau was set up to centralise research into modernised methods with the object of improving efficiency. Has this organisation tackled the particular aspect of railway organisation with which I am now dealing? Has it made any recommendations, and, if so, have any of those recommendations been put into effect?

I have been to a good many parcels offices at the various railway termini in London, and I have seen no indication of any change, either in methods or in the machinery available to the men, since before the war. One sees no gravity rollers, conveyor belts, hoists of any sort, and, incidentally no improvement in the environment in which the men have to work. It is not sufficient merely to blame the railway workers for carelessness in causing this damage, because anyone knows that, in humping heavy goods and in trying to get a mass of parcels or packages moved at speed merely by the use of manual labour, as at present is the case, the inevitable tendency is to throw or push the parcels along, thereby causing them damage. Therefore, what I am asking is how far the railways have already, or intend in the future, to introduce mechanised methods of handling freight and parcels traffic.

The second place in which it is said damage takes place is the marshalling yards. One knows that, when the trucks are being marshalled, very often in the absence of expert shunters or of proper electrical methods of marshalling, the trucks run into each other when going down a gradient, with the result that there is a jolt and damage to the contents. I am informed by the British Transport Commission that it is intended, in the near future, to introduce shock-absorbing wagons. What steps have been taken to implement that policy, because, clearly, if the railways are to be able to maintain their competitive position in the carriage of freight in this country, they must improve the standard which has so far been operated.

The third reason for the extensive damage taking place is, I am told, the decision to speed up the discharge of trains at stations. We have all watched how, in perhaps a very short time in a station, the guard and porters combine to get the parcels out of the luggage van as quickly as possible, and, necessarily, they must throw them out on the platform. They are forced to do so because of the existing time schedules and a very proper determination to keep trains running to schedule. I would have thought, however, that there was a good case for re-timing some of the services at any rate, and concentrating in those services the parcels traffic, so that more time is given at the stations to discharge the parcels contained in them.

The last reason that I attribute to this present problem are the conditions in the parcels offices themselves. I have always regarded Liverpool Street—and the right hon. Gentleman knows Liverpool Street as well, if not better, than I do—as very similar to the description Milton gave in the first book of "Paradise Lost" of the place to which fallen angels had resort after being thrown out of Heaven: A dreary plain, forlorn and wild The seat of desolation, void of light Save what the glimmerings of these livid flames Casts pale and dreadful.

I have seen—and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman has seen—on many occasions on a winter's evening the murk, and, amid the eerie sounds and the clash of the trains, the clouds of steam and the black figures toiling at the furnace door, and the tormented streams of passengers on the glistening platforms. I have always thought I was looking down through the mouth of Hell. But I have also been—and perhaps the right hon. Gentleman has not—to the parcels office at Liverpool Street in the days just before Christmas. That is hell itself, because no attempt is really made, by expanding the facilities there, to meet the Christmas traffic. This is a particularly appropriate point for this time of the year because, very shortly, they will be facing exactly the same problems at Liverpool Street as they have faced year by year of trying to deal with an enormous increase in the traffic with the turmoil, the confusion and the inefficiency which inevitably results.

I believe that the particular environment in which the workers in the parcels offices at the various London stations, and, indeed, elsewhere, have to work is one of the reasons for the inefficiency, the losses and the damage which occur. I am quite certain that if I were called upon to work in those sort of conditions I could not give the care and the pride of job to the work which is so essential.

We have on many occasions in this House, even during this Parliament, discussed the problems of the railways. We have suggested, as, indeed, have right hon. and hon. Members opposite, ways in which we can improve the efficiency of this service. I am quite certain that whatever the right hon. Gentleman may do in trying to bias freight charges in favour of the railways against the roads, in the long run it is only by being able to maintain competitive levels of efficiency that the railways will continue to exist and fulfil their economic function in this country. Therefore, anything that can be done to improve these levels of efficiency is obviously essential, not only to us as taxpayers, but to the general economic health of the country. That being so, I have taken this opportunity of bringing forward a point which I realise well has been discussed in this House before, but one which affects not only the future of the railways, but also the speed and efficiency of British industry in all its various forms in this country at the present time.

4.14 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Barnes)

I should like to say how much I appreciate the action of the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Alport) in raising this matter, and the logical, calm and persuasive way in which he has presented his facts. I appreciate also the tributes he paid to the railway system of this country in his opening remarks. They were very well deserved and they applied with equal force both before and since nationalisation.

I think the hon. Member would agree that many of the problems that he has mentioned have applied to stations like Liverpool Street for many years. They are no new thing. They are inherent in the difficulties of that station and of railway administration generally. The figures he mentioned of over £3 million in 1948 and £2,852,000 in 1949 not only cover damage but also loss and pilfering, and, on the total figure, as he must admit there was a reduction of £1,226,493 in 1949 over 1948. That is a reduction of approximately 30 per cent.

I submit that one cannot secure a reduction of 30 per cent. on these total claims without showing that very careful, determined, and particular attention has been paid to this problem. I think both the railway managements and the whole of their staffs deserve commendation for obtaining that very substantial improvement. While I state that, I do not wish it to be inferred, for a moment, that the present situation is satisfactory. It has by no means reached the point of efficiency that prevailed before the war but it does indicate that the Railway Executive and their staffs are very familiar with this problem, that they recognise the seriousness of it and are paying attention to it.

As to the figures of freight damage, upon which the hon. Member's case primarily rested, these, again, are encouraging. In 1947, the value of the claims the railway companies had to meet was £1,105,590. In 1949 it had declined to £1,002,186, an improvement of £103,404. As everyone appreciates, prices were still rising in those years and, therefore, that represents an improvement of well over 10 per cent. on direct freight damage—that is goods that are delivered to the railway, handled by the railway staffs and delivered to the customers, and not lost or pilfered in transit. I think those figures should convey to the hon. Member and to the general public that the Railway Executive are paying attention to this matter and that a steady improvement is taking place.

As to the efforts the railway administration are making to improve general efficiency in the handling of freight traffic, I think the hon. Member should appreciate that the railway management have not functioned in the most favourable conditions in the post-war period. The over-riding necessity to restrict capital investment has prevented them from carrying out many improvements they would desire to make. The bulk of expenditure has had to be directed to repairing war damage and the exhaustion of railway stock that takes place during a war.

It is not a question of their decision. Government policy and national necessity have not permitted the railway management to do this work, and that would have applied even if the railways had been under private enterprise. Those factors have prevented the management from directing capital investment into the many directions which naturally they would have desired.

Among the improvements that the railway administration have introduced has been the increasing use of containers in freight traffic, and that represents a considerable improvement in handling. The hon. Member referred to the damage that can be incurred during shunting processes in the marshalling yards, and he said that it had been indicated that shock absorbing wagons would be introduced that meet that difficulty. I am in a position to inform him that something like 3,000 special shock absorbing wagons have already been built, and many more are on order. That stock of shock absorbing wagons will be increased in the future. Others are to follow to deal with earthenware goods. I take it that the hon. Member was referring mainly to damage to machinery. If he would care to notify me or the British Transport Commission of any special instances of damage to machinery I am sure they will have special attention. In addition, special cradles for conveying sheet plate glass have been designed. Experiments with those cradles have proved to be successful and 62 are now in service, and others will follow.

Reference was made to the handling of parcel traffic when trains arrive at stations, and the prompt delivery of goods and the time factor are of extreme importance to merchants and traders. The Railway Executive have followed a policy of introducing fully braked freight express train services running mainly between the producing and distributing centres for the purpose of giving one-day delivery. I was also asked whether steps were taken to train and improve the efficiency of the staff in handling freight. I am informed by the Railway Executive that they provide staff lectures on claim prevention, and there is also an educational training scheme for the station staff.

There is one point which I should like to emphasise. When dealing with a problem of this character it is quite natural that attention should be directed to the body that is providing the service—in this case the railways. But when we are engaged in a discussion of this kind it is desirable to appreciate that it is not always those who handle the freight who are responsible for damage. It should be borne in mind that owing to the shortage of materials—timber, fibre boards and so on—in many instances the packing arrangements of traders are not so efficient; they are not so generous with their use of materials—not because they cannot afford to do so, but in some cases because they cannot get the necessary supplies.

The packing facilities generally used by trade and industry are not up to the standards that prevailed before the war when supplies of timber, fibre boards and things of that description were plentiful and easily obtained. That is undoubtedly a contributory cause. Very often the railways have to bear responsibility, in criticism and in claims, but undoubtedly the decline in the standard of packing owing to the causes which I have indicated have been a contributory factor in adding to the volume of claims made. British Railways have become very conscious of this fact, and they are taking steps to establish a special advice department for the purpose of advising traders on this difficulty of packing. They have issued pamphlets on this problem and circulated them to traders.

We welcome the type of criticism and suggestion which has been offered this afternoon. I can assure the hon. Member that his remarks will be carefully perused and that if there are any new methods which the railway administration can adopt within their available resources I am sure they will be adopted. It should be borne in mind that it is in the interests of railway revenue that these heavy claims should be reduced. The railway administration are fully alive to the problem. I know that, because I have been in constant contact with them.

One of the first general indications of my own view which I gave to the railway administration, both management and staff, when the railways were nationalised, was that this vast sum of claims undoubtedly represented a decline in both the morale and efficiency of the railways. I indicated that when any trader or citizen handed over any of his property for delivery, then the railways were under an obligation to deliver it safe, intact and undamaged to the person who was supposed to receive it. On the other hand, knowing all their difficulties. I must say that the inroads they have made into the total of these claims have been encouraging. I am sure that the discussion we have had this afternoon will further emphasise the importance of the question.

I close on the note which the hon. Member himself introduced into our discussions—that, despite their difficulties, the railway administration of this country is one of the most efficient in the world. Possibly the biggest tribute that we can pay to the railways is that, despite all their difficulties, and even taking into consideration their deficiencies, railway transport and railway travelling is the safest method of transport we have in this modern world today.

Question put, and agreed to.

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