HC Deb 21 February 1951 vol 484 cc1413-22

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

9.59 p.m.

Mr. Harrison (Nottingham, East)

I say at once that my purpose in raising this subject is to bring to the notice of the House the effect of the special position that has arisen because of the contraction of rail passenger services due to the need for economy in coal—

It being Ten o'clock the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Harrison

I want, first, to discuss the responsibility of these restricted services; second, I want to obtain, if possible, some information about the period that these restrictions are likely to remain in operation; and third, I want to survey generally the temporary and permanent effects these restrictions have had and will have on railway operation in general, with particular reference to the financial position.

Before discussing the detailed aspects of the present position I think it would be convenient if I quickly ran over the present position. The total consumption of coal by British Railways is in the region of 290,000 tons a week, and the economy expected from the recent cuts in passenger services amount to about 10,000 tons a week. To achieve this saving of 10,000 tons a week, between 3,000 and 5,000 services have been discontinued. That is a terrific restriction in the normal passenger services operated by British Railways. It is claimed by some, including some who have a responsibility in this matter, that there is still a substantial service running. I would point out, however, that the effect of these restrictions on the whole network of passenger services is most unfortunate because of the great inter-dependence of one service with another.

In this connection, I cannot do better than use the word which the "Economist" used the other week, when these restrictions were described as "debilitating."—They weaken the whole service.

While it might be said that looked at in one piece the restricted services do not represent a large proportion of the whole, yet the effect of these reductions is considerably greater than appears from a superficial examination.

The general expenses of running a line continue, in the main, just the same. We have mounting costs, and the track maintenance, signalling services and all the other expenses continue the same as before, despite the cuts. Therefore, any economy in that direction cannot offset the loss of passenger fares which must arise from discontinuance of these services.

The other day, at Question Time, the utilisation of staff was mentioned rather forcibly. Fortunately for the assessment of the financial damage of these restrictions to British Railways, owing to the extremely wet and cold weather most of the staff liberated by the discontinuance of these services have been utilised on other duties. I would remind the House that continuous wet and cold weather particularly affects shunting train crews, who are one affected, in the main, by these cuts.

I would like to make one observation regarding the economies that are expected to be made in London transport. It is expected that 700 tons of coal per week will be saved in this transport. This is not coal which goes through the locomotive fire boxes, but coal that is supposed to be saved at the generating stations. I am personally of the opinion that it is impossible, if we are to keep the generating plants running, to save 700 tons of coal, and that the amount of saving which could be made by London transport in this direction is so small as to be insignificant, compared with the amount of inconvenience caused by the reduction of the passenger services on the London tubes, etc., which is so annoying the travelling public. I am afraid that I am not being very helpful to the Minister up to now, but I think that this position is one which should be ventilated. I feel rather strongly on some of these matters, as the Minister is aware.

I want to say a word about the responsibility for this state of affairs, which is most unpleasant. On 5th February, I asked the Minister a Question. I put it, in the first place, to the Minister of Fuel and Power, and was informed that the Minister of Transport was responsible, if anybody was responsible. Therefore, we have the Minister of Transport here tonight, and we are going to tell him something about it. In my Question I asked to what extent he accepted financial responsibility for losses incurred by the British Transport Commission as a result of his directions to them to cut their passenger traffic on the railways. The answer I was given was: I have not directed the Commission to cut their rail passenger services. In common with industry the railways have had to accept a reduction in their deliveries of coal, and to meet this have found it necessary to take off a number of trains. I am not in a position to accept any financial liability for any losses which may result."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th February, 1951; Vol. 483, c. 169.] My contention is that the Government did, in fact, instruct British Railways to cut their train services. They could not cut the freight service, and therefore it was inevitable that the passenger train service should be the one to suffer.

In the debate on 16th February, we had the Minister taking a slightly different view. He said: the economy which the railways have to secure in their use of coal has to fall entirely on the passenger services."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th February, 1951; Vol. 484, c. 857.] He pointed out that these cuts were not really the responsibility of the railway management. It seems, therefore, that the Minister does accept some degree of responsibility for this state of affairs. I would like to submit this very pertinent point, that British Railways should have been treated like any other public utility. It is impossible for anyone to suggest that they should cut their freight services, and I think that it would have been far better to have treated the railway service as a public utility. I do not think that the small economy of coal that has been made possible justifies the inconvenience to the general public and the loss to British Railways. I think that it would have been better to treat them as a public utility and to have left them running fully. The position of British Railways is bad enough—

Mr. Nabarro (Kidderminster)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Harrison

—without increasing the difficulties by these recent cuts in the services.

I know that there has been a word bandied in railway circles for some time—"frustration." This is another factor that will cause even greater frustration among the many men who are seriously trying to make a good job of railway operating. Railway traffic is shrinking and costs are substantially rising, and on top of that discouraging position we are now to have these passenger service cuts. It may be said that this frustration among our people may be due to the fact that they had not got the picture in its true perspective, and because it takes a long time to organise such a large undertaking as British Railways.

Then, we have a considerable amount of staffing difficulties. It means that British Railways will have an additional burden of about £10 million a year. We have accumulated losses of £50 million over the last three years, and it seems that our difficulties are mounting tremendously and that we should be receiving greater encouragement from the Minister than we are getting at present. My right hon. Friend should not consider that these passenger service cuts will be only a temporary loss to British Railways. These cuts will certainly have a permanent effect on our passenger traffic. People who have been accustomed to travel by rail will now be taking to buses, and they will probably never go back to the railways.

The most important thing is how long these cuts are to last. It will soon be Easter, and the Easter and summer schedules take a lot of planning. I hope that the Minister can give us a firm statement about the ending of these restrictions.

Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

What about the Cup Final?

Mr. Harrison

That is something we have to consider. This is also Festival year, and British Railways ought to be given an opportunity to attract their rightful quota of transport business during such an important year.

10.14 p.m.

Mr. Nabarro (Kidderminster)

The hon. Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Harrison) brings a unique personal experience and knowledge of railway operational matters to the House. Members will, therefore, have observed with considerable interest that he used the words "debilitating" and "frustration" as applied to a number of aspects of railway operations today. This subject is much too large to be dealt with in so small an amount of time, but, nevertheless, it is a matter of grave moment to all of us. When we consider, as the hon. Member has observed, that railway losses are tending to increase year by year, we must measure carefully all aspects of railway revenue.

I was not fortunate enough to be called in the last transport debate, so for a few moments I should like to draw attention to a particular type of railway service that is not yielding the revenue we could obtain if arrangements were reorganised. I refer to the passenger half-day excursions between London and the principal provincial cities. Every Sunday these excursions run from London termini at return fares which are, on an average 250 per cent. above the pre-war rates. That is an astonishing comparison compared with the increase in standard passenger fares. I understood the Minister to say during the last transport debate that the general increase in passenger fares in 1950, compared with 1938 was of the order of 60 per cent.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Barnes)

Fifty-five per cent.

Mr. Nabarro

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. In the case of the excursions, particularly the half-day excursions, the increase is no less than 250 per cent. Let me quote some examples. The pre-war half day excursion fare from Paddington to Bristol was 6s., from Paddington to Birmingham, 6s., and from Paddington to Gloucester, 6s. The cost of each of these today is 15s., or 250 per cent., above the pre-war rate. Between Marylebone and Sheffield (Victoria), the pre-war excursion fare was 8s. Today, it is 19s. 6d., or an increase of 2371 per cent. The pre-war half day excursion rate between Paddington and Wolverhampton was 6s. 6d. Today, the charge is 16s. 6d., or an increase of 254 per cent. That yields an average of about 250 per cent. above the pre-war rate, compared with the general increase of passenger rates of only 55 per cent. The loss of railway revenue derives from the fact that the majority of these excursion trains are being run half empty.

Mr. David Jones (The Hartlepools)

Half full.

Mr. Nabarro

I am not worried which way we phrase it. To put it technically, the trains are loaded to only 50 per cent. of maximum potential capacity. There may be exceptions, but, by and large, these excursion trains are only loaded to 50 per cent. of capacity.

The average capacity of the excursion trains is 1,200 passengers. If the fare from Paddington to Birmingham is 15s., for the half-day excursion, with 1,200 passengers on board the maximum potential revenue to British Railways would be £900. If the train is only half loaded, the revenue is only £450. My appeal to the Minister is that it would be better to reduce the half-day excursion fare from Paddington to Birmingham from 15s. to 10s. and load the trains to capacity, which would yield a revenue of £600 instead of the present £450.

Mr. Harrison

The hon. Gentleman must be absolutely certain that we get the extra number of passengers before we can operate that scheme.

Mr. Nabarro

The hon. Member is quite right. I am pleading the case here for a reduction in excursion fares in order to attract a greater volume of traffic. I am quite sure that in the long run it must pay handsome dividends in consideration of the fact that, at present, very many people cannot afford to pay the inflated excursion fares that are being charged by British Railways. Although I have not warned the right hon. Gentleman, I hope he will consider these points during the next few weeks and investigate the cases that I have quoted tonight. I could give him 30 or 40 more such cases in support of my contentions that the increase in excursion fares averages 250 per cent. compared with 1938, whereas the passenger increases are only in the order of 55 per cent. I still hold the view that the principle of fully laden trains at lesser fares is much better than half filled trains at higher rates. Thus we could show a substantial increase in the revenue of British Railways.

10.22 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Barnes)

I welcome the fact that hon. Members are ventilating these matters, because it confirms, as I have often said, that we have many opportunities of dealing with these questions, and therefore the argument often made in this House that we do not get an opportunity of discussing transport matters is not justified.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Harrison), has raised a matter which I feel should be ventilated because, in the first place, it affords me the opportunity of stating that there is no inconsistency between the replies to his Question and the statement that I made last Friday when this subject was raised on the Adjournment by the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. McAdden). The reason why I then amplified my statement was because I recognised quite clearly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East, has pointed out, that substantial cuts of this description in the railways services are bound to cause a good deal of public inconvenience. It is a very natural thing when people are inconvenienced by a service to blame the person nearest to them.

I felt it incumbent upon me to make it plain last Friday that this does not spring from any deficiencies in railway management, but from circumstances over which they have no control. They have had to make their contribution to the coal economy scheme in the same way as thousands of industrial undertakings throughout the country, simply because there is not sufficient coal to go round at the present moment. In the general field of industry that has led to discussions between bodies like the Federation of British Industries, the trade unions concerned and the Ministry of Fuel and Power. My hon. Friend himself has pointed out that the railways are very large consumers of coal, and it was inevitable that they should save some similar proportion in their coal consumption—

Mr. Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

Would the right hon. Gentleman agree that the country districts have suffered out of all proportion, in that the railway services from villages surrounding cities such as Peterborough, by making their contribution, have brought inconvenience of a much greater character than has been the case with the main lines?

Mr. Barnes

I do not agree with that at all. On the short services we do not economise to any great amount, and it is the long-distance main line trains that consume the coal more extravagantly. Therefore, for the purpose of achieving the economy that was necessary, the Railway Executive had to cut a considerable proportion of their main line services. I emphasise that because it is natural that there should be feeling directed against the Railway Executive, and I thought it was only fair of my hon. Friend to exonerate them.

The reason why I disowned responsibility for any financial losses was that, obviously, in circumstances of this kind, the Government were not prepared to meet—and could not meet—any loss suffered by any private industrial undertaking, and, that being the case, we could not apply a different principle to the railway services. As I have often pointed out, if that matter is ever to be considered, it ought to be considered on an entirely different plane from this. My hon. Friend stated that his remarks might not be very helpful to me. I have been in the House a long time and I have never expected it to be the duty of Members of Parliament to be considerate or helpful to Ministers; in fact, rather the reverse. So I do not complain about that.

I will now deal with the distribution of the coal at the disposal of the Railway Executive. My hon. Friend is quite right. Out of a consumption of not quite 290 million tons, possibly 180 million tons are consumed by the freight services. A knowledge of that situation brings out clearly the inevitable decisions of the Railway Executive. When facing circumstances of this kind with a coal shortage, the pressure on the freight services of British Railways increases. The type of haul, the necessity of always being there to shift coal and the necessity to keep industrial establishments working on minimum stocks, places an added strain at such periods on the railway freight services. So, instead of the consumption of coal for freight services decreasing in these circumstances, they are increased at such periods, and therefore, to meet the reduced deliveries to the railway system, the pressure on the passenger services has correspondingly increased.

Mr. John Hynd (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

Did my right hon. Friend say that 290 million tons of coal were consumed by the railways?

Mr. Barnes

I am much obliged to my hon. Friend. I should have said 290,000 tons per week and of that roughly a 180,000 tons is consumed by freight services. As I have indicated, if any economy is to be secured, it must be at the expense of the passenger services.

My hon. Friend referred to the small contribution of London Transport in these circumstances. I submit that when any administration is faced with a problem of this character and finds that it cannot depend on getting all the coal it needs, it must be left to the management to decide how it shall apply what it receives and secure the necessary economy. Therefore, if in the opinion of the Railway Executive, all branches of the railway administration have to make their contribution, I do not see that I could very well disagree with such a decision.

As to the question of how long the cuts are likely to continue, obviously it would be only so long as the cut in supplies, not only to the railways, but to general industry, operates. Without committing myself to any definite date, we know that the coal year comes to an end towards the end of March and I should think that it would be possible to restore these services to meet the Easter holiday requirements and requirements from then onwards.

I want to refer, in passing, to the point raised by the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro), about excursion traffic. I must confess that I am not qualified at the present moment to say whether the figures he gave are accurate or not. I know that the Railway Executive are very anxious to encourage excursion traffic and I can undertake at the moment to have those figures examined. This is the first time I have heard any complaints of a serious character against—

Mr. Nabarro


Mr. Barnes

It is all right—

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

Adjourned at Half-past Ten o'Clock.