HC Deb 30 November 1951 vol 494 cc1983-94

3.57 p.m.

Mr. James MacColl (Widnes)

At the end of a rather protracted and emotional week, it is perhaps appropriate that on this last Adjournment of the week I should raise a matter which, I hope, is not particularly controversial and which certainly has no party political aspect. The position is, perhaps, a little ironical in that I, who believe very strongly in nationalisation, desire to make some fairly severe criticisms of the Transport Commission and the Parliamentary Secretary, whose views on nationalisation are, to say the least, lukewarm, is called upon, I hope, to put forward on behalf of a nationalised industry some answers to my comments.

I wish to keep my main remarks as general as possible, although the two particular cases that have occurred in my own constituency have led me to make inquiries about this question and to try to think out an answer to some of the problems involved.

I want to talk about the policy of the Transport Commission in closing small railway stations and branch lines which have been found to be unremunerative. I do not in the least quarrel with the general principle that the Transport Commission have got to make their concern reasonably pay its way and that if they are faced with a line which is not justified by the circumstances, they have to consider closing it. I recognise that the closing of a line is bound to cause a good deal of local concern, but that does not mean that it is necessarily wrong. My criticism is that in their policy on this matter, the Transport Commission show themselves to be unimaginative, lacking in foresight, and without really constructive thinking.

The two particular instances I have experienced are, first, the closing of the railway line between St. Helens and Widnes, a long established line with a very ancient history, which in its time has played a major part in building up the industries of Widnes, and which still, up to its closing, was carrying quite a lot of industrial traffic, taking workers between St. Helens and Widnes.

It being Four 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. Studholme.]

Mr. MacColl

The other is the quite different case of the closing of a particular station on the Liverpool and Manchester line which goes through Widnes and Warrington. The area is very largely suburban and contains people working it Liverpool and Warrington. It is very rapidly expanding.

I do not think that the Transport Corn-mission give nearly enough attention to the public relations side of this business. They do not take into consultation the local people, and above all do not ensure that there will be adequate bus services to take the place of a line which they are closing. In an area like this there is already a serious road transport problem, and the buses are already overcrowded and congested. There is no guarantee of being able to get on to a bus between its terminal points. The traffic which is carried by these buses is suddenly increased through the closing of a line. Responsibility is passed over to the local authorities or in this case to Crosville's who are in this case the local bus concern.

A general policy of retreat on the part of the railways cannot be the right answer to the problems which are involved. The railways represent a very heavy capital expenditure over many years, involving very considerable engineering work to build the shortest and most level line of communication between two places. It cannot be right to close that level, convenient, straight line in order to put more traffic on to winding country roads which are not built for the purpose, and to increase the congestion of the bus traffic.

Let us take the particular case which I am quoting of the line between Liverpool and Widnes. It is well known that during the rush periods it is very unwise to try to board a bus going into or from Liverpool, either in Halewood or in Widnes. One can never be sure of being able to get on a bus. One must go to one of the terminal points to be certain of getting on.

The comment is very often made that railway stations are inaccessible. It is very easy to argue that a bus is accessible because it goes past the house, while the railway station is a quarter or half a mile away, but at the important times of the day you just cannot get on to a bus even though it stops outside the front door. It means having to go a very considerable distance, very often in bad weather, to queue up and get on the bus, at the Pier Head, Widnes Town Hall, or some similar terminal point. That is the experience in my constituency and it must be the experience all over the country.

What can be done about this? I recognise that it is unfair to criticise a policy unless one is prepared to make some kind of alternative proposal. There are three important things that have to be done about the small, rather old-fashioned railway lines. We have to supply a speedy service. The great advantage which the railway has over the road bus is that it is short and quick, and that we save time in getting from place to place. That is an advantage which the railroad should expand and develop by providing a really quick service.

The second point is that we have to provide a frequent service. It is no good having one train at some unknown time during the day. People do not use the railways because they never know when there is a train on the line. We have to provide a regular and frequent service and to see that railway timetables are as easily accessible as bus timetables.

In the centre of a village, one finds the bus timetable stuck up in a prominent position, but in order to find a railway timetable one has to walk right up to the railway station. Therefore, it is not surprising that people do not use the railways. If a quick and frequent service can be provided, one can overcome the difficulty that railway stations are often inaccessible, because people will then know that they will be able, because of the speed of the journey, to save the extra time they spend walking to the station. In London, for instance, one would walk to an underground station rather than run the risk of not catching a bus just outside the door, because if one is in a hurry one can be quite certain of reaching the destination in time by travelling on the underground.

The third point is that we need to save manpower. One of the problems is that the railways are so heavily overloaded with ticket collectors, booking clerks, porters, guards, drivers and so on. Railway traffic should be serviced in the same way as bus traffic is. One or two people on the rolling stock itself should be responsible for collecting the money and issuing the tickets. That is not a revolutionary idea because it is done on the railways in some parts of the country, and, if it can be done in some places, I cannot see why it should not be done more generally.

The answer is the development of the diesel railcar or something on the lines of the French Micheline rubber-tyred rail bus, which can be serviced by one person or, at most, two persons, which will obviate overloading of staff at small wayside stations and at the same time provide a quick and frequent service. It is something like 20 years since the Micheline railcars were tried in this country. Why has there not been any real development of that kind of service to meet the problem? I gather that there is no difference of principle about it.

When it was last discussed in the House, in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg), my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Barnes), who was then Minister of Transport, said: …although the diesel car is much more expensive initially than the steam locomotive. I recognise with him"— that is, my hon. Friend— that in many of these areas we must look to a new form of motive power for the purpose of contributing towards a solution of this problem."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 16th April, 1951; Vol. 486, c. 1623.] I recognise that there are difficulties about capital investment at the moment and that one cannot suddenly have re-equipment on a large scale, but the public would like to know if the Transport Commission have a clear idea whether they really intend to provide this type of service as and when they can do so, or whether they are merely putting up their hands, conceding the victory, and saying, "We cannot make the railways function efficiently because of the shortage of capital, and we shall therefore let them die a natural death." It would be some comfort if we could feel that it was a matter of putting up with inconvenience for a short time so that we might later get efficient local railway services, but it would be foolish to let the railways, which represent years of capital investment, decay at a time like this, for that would be a thoroughly short-sighted policy.

There are two problems which can be tackled, and ought to be tackled, by the railways rather than the buses. The first is that of communications in the great built-up areas. I am a provincial, but I spend most of my time in London, and I admit that I am terrified on going to a provincial city such as the Parliamentary Secretary's own town of Bristol and seeing the uncertainty and the dangers to life and limb in trying to clamber on a 'bus at the rush hour. We are spoilt in London because we have such an easily accessible railway system. The Southern Region system is a fine example of how a heavy load of suburban traffic can be carried by providing fast and frequent services.

It is ironical that Halewood, which is the particular station relevant to what I have been saying, is indicated in the Lancashire development plan as a new town. Whether it becomes a new town or not does not matter, but it is contemplated that in that area there will be a big influx of population. It is quite absurd in an area where we have a big surburban population in between Liverpool and Widnes on the main Liverpool—Widnes—Warrington—Manchester line that instead of developing the railway line to the maximum efficiency and providing services comparable with those which the Southern Railway provide for London, we are proposing to sit back and allow it gradually to sink into obsolesence. It would be difficult to conceive a more short-sighted and unimaginative policy.

That brings me to the question of rural traffic. In many cases rural railway lines could be made to provide a better service if railway buses were used instead of the old-fashioned steam cars, because we could get away from the inaccessibility of the village railway station by having halt stations at road bridges or where the line is contiguous to the ordinary road. I would emphasise that one of the great advantages of rail over road buses is that they can carry bicycles; the tourist can take his bicycle with him and return by rail to his base.

Another example, concerns a line, in a quite different part of the country to which I have been referring, which has not been closed but which has threatened to close for many years. That is the Ballachulish-Connel Ferry line. That line is very much shorter than the road because a considerable amount of money has been spent on building a railway bridge. It sometimes happens that when the last train is late the railway executive will run motor cars for the passengers over a bad, winding road and would rather do that than use the railway line for small traffic.

This seems to indicate how completely out of keeping with the needs of the present moment is the rolling stock equipment which the railways are using. No doubt, in due course, that particular line will be regarded as obsolete, and it will be closed. We shall have double decker buses hurtling around the narrow country lanes with danger to the public, because no one has had the initiative, imagination or constructiveness to think out some solution of these pressing problems, arising out of the closing of these country lines and small stations all over the country.

4.15 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Gurney Braithwaite)

The hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) who has put his case with such reasonable moderation, commenced his remarks by saying that there was a certain reversal of roles this afternoon, but I think he was right when he added that there is really no party point here. At any rate, I shall endeavour to demonstrate that in the course of my reply.

We are talking today about the withdrawal of passenger facilities; these branch lines will continue to carry freight. I confess that I approach this subject with feelings of melancholy and, indeed, of nostalgia. I think hon. Members will agree that there has always been something homely and comforting about branch railway lines and the stations, with their flickering oil lamps. Many memories haunt their deserted platforms. Perhaps we have come home there from the school holidays, years ago, or returned to duty after leave during one or both of the World Wars, loved ones have gone from a little station overseas to found their home there and we have said farewell on their platforms to many a happy pair after being united at the village church.

All these pages of life are so often bound up with the village railway station and I have a pang of my own in connection with this recent procedure for. at the age of seven or eight, having made friends with the engine driver, I frequently travelled on the little branch line from my birthplace of Burnham-on-Sea to the adjacent junction of Highbridge many times a day. It is strangely ironical that my arrival at the Ministry of Transport synchronised almost to the day with the departure of the last train from my native town.

Hon. Members will also recall that earlier this year romance invaded one of our branch lines where the train service was suspended for some 10 days owing to the absence, on honeymoon, of the fireman of the locomotive. I remember in the days of my youth, or perhaps I might here use the possessive plural, and say "in the days of our youth" there was a musical monologue which achieved considerable popularity entitled, "The Fireman's Wedding," although my recollection is that it dealt with activities other than those which we associate with the railways. There is undoubtedly a feeling of loss of dignity and prestige in the local community when a railway station closes and perhaps none are more vociferous than those who have not used it for many years past.

Our duty in this House is to be objective, and to the hon. Member for Widnes I would say—and I do not think he would contradict what I am going to say—that whether the railways had been operated by the British Transport Commission, or by their previous directors, this process of closing branch lines would have been inevitable. Indeed, I go further and say that if the railways had been originally laid down during the motor, instead of what our American friends call the horseand-buggy, era, these branch lines as feeders for the main services would never have been constructed.

To take now the main points raised by the hon. Member, and to start with the overloading of buses in consequence of the closing of railway branch services, I must tell the hon. Member that careful inquiries have been made and that there is very little evidence of this, mainly because the number of rail passengers has been extremely small before the trains were withdrawn. And the withdrawal of the service has been because the majority had already transferred themselves to the road for a reason given by the hon. Member, that it is often more convenient because the buses pass through the centres of the towns and villages.

The hon. Member suggested, as one reform which might be made in this connection, the substitution of diesel rail cars where the fares could be collected en route. It would appear that the advantages of the diesel car have been considerably over-estimated, both as regards operating and maintenance costs and their ability to give speedy service with frequent stops, as compared with the steam push and pull units which have operated hitherto. However, I would assure the hon. Member that the Commission has not closed its mind, to their extended use on suitable sections. The point is that in no case where a branch line has been closed down would a diesel rail car have turned a non-profitable service into a profitable one. I sympathise with the cyclists the hon. Member mentioned, but these decisions cannot rest on the desires of them alone.

I would now come to the specific stretch of railway to which the hon. Gentleman referred, between Widnes and St. Helens, and I would intimate the result of the researches I have made. The line is 7¼ miles in length. Passengers are confined almost entirely, as he told the House, to work-people and to a few—a very few—season ticket holders who travel outwards by early morning trains and return in the late afternoon. Of these an average of 120 alight at Farnworth and 130 at Appleton or Widnes.

There is an hourly bus service between Widnes and St. Helens and the Commission made contact with both local authorities who anticipate no difficulty in dealing with the displaced rail passengers. As the hon. Members well know, road fares are considerably lower than those which prevail on the railway. The annual passenger receipts on the Widnes and St. Helens section were only £1,700 and there will now be a saving of £9,500 and of 14 staff posts.

Now I come to Halewood Station and the hon. Member will appreciate that the Commission has to deal with the situation as it is now, rather than as it may be should the new town of which he spoke develop. Although there is a reasonable service of trains, the average number of passengers joining and alighting daily at Halewood totals only 36. The alternative bus service have agreed to additional and amended timings to cover these displaced passengers, with an estimated annual saving of £129.

Mr. MacColl

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves that point, I am told that there is not an adequate bus service from Widnes to Halewood at half-past five, which is the critical time when Widnes workers are wanting to travel back from work.

Mr. Braithwaite

That, of course, will now be on the record and I should like an opportunity of examining that particular point.

As regards Ballachulish there is no proposal to withdraw the rail services, but the Railway Executive may well have been making a preliminary survey there, as they have in many other areas.

Now I wish to turn to the broader issue and to give the House the anticipated financial consequences of closing these various branch lines and individual stations. The annual saving is estimated at £800,000. I know we have become accustomed to talking in millions. We live in an age of big figures. The noughts stream across the pages of Departmental estimates, and, indeed, across the headlines of our newspapers, and, in the words of the right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Arthur Greenwood) many have come to regard them as "meaningless symbols."

But the country is up against harsh economic realities, and £800,000 is £800,000. Certainly, those of us who sit on these benches have always urged every practical economy in operating the nationalised services. I was unable to obtain the figure of saving on coal which will result from the closing of these branches, but it must be a not inconsiderable figure. Of course, that is of the highest importance today, when every ton is of untold value. I assure the hon. Member that this action is taken only after the very fullest local consultation, and that in no case has it been necessary to reverse the decision of the Railway Executive to withdraw a branch service as a result of discussions with local interests. Also, of course, there are the area consultative committees, which do useful work when these matters are under consideration.

The hon. Member was disturbed about double-decker buses hurtling around narrow and winding roads, if I got his phrase correctly. The route and type of vehicles used for providing substitute passenger services have to be approved by the licensing authorities for such vehicles, who can control these matters when dealing with applications for road service licences under the Road Traffic Acts. I assure the hon. Member that the licensing authorities are very much alive to this problem created by the closing of branch railways. The authorities cannot, of course, compel operators to provide new or augmented road services, but they can, and do, draw attention to the need to provide adequate substitute accommodation.

Local authorities have the right to make representations to the licensing authorities either before a branch line is closed or afterwards, should the substituted service prove inadequate. None the less, I assure the hon. Member and the House that my right hon. Friend is particularly anxious, if I may borrow a phrase from our Rent Restrictions Acts, that "adequate alternative accommodation" shall be available to compensate the public for the closing of branch rail- ways. While the policy is right, economically, and, indeed, inevitable, I assure hon. Members that if they have any evidence that the alternative services are inadequate, my right hon. Friend will be only too pleased if they will draw his attention to such defects.

Question put, and agreed to.

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