HC Deb 10 April 1952 vol 498 cc3078-84

4.42 p.m.

Mr. Rupert Speir (Hexham)

I am very grateful for this opportunity to raise, however briefly, the question of the closing of branch line railways by the British Transport Commission. The policy of closing branch lines all over the country which is now being pursued is causing acute anxiety and inconvenience in many rural areas. I quite realise that the Transport Commission have statutory obligations to try to make the railways pay and that they cannot be governed by sentiment, that they must harden their hearts and close these branch lines from time to time.

I certainly do not want to base my argument against the closure of these lines on grounds of sentiment. I want to deal with the problem objectively. Nevertheless, when a branch line is closed and the station goes derelict, the local community suffers a very definite and sensible loss, not to mention the personal loss which is suffered by the staff and their families, who often have lived in those localities for many generations and who are then uprooted and moved on elsewhere.

I know it is always said that when branch railway lines are closed, adequate alternative services of buses are supplied. Unfortunately, I think we know that that is not always the case. Indeed, even if buses are supplied to take the place of the services which were formerly provided by the branch lines, the fact is that buses cannot provide such a good service in many directions. To mention just two examples, the buses are incapable of dealing with heavy luggage such as, for instance, prams and bicycles which are of considerable importance to a place like Rothbury, which is on one of the lines about which I wish to talk and which is much used as a holiday resort. Again, buses are more liable to be held up by frost or snow, and that, again, is an important matter in outlying areas like the wilds of Northumberland where they have a long winter and a late spring.

I should like to point out that we are now beginning to feel the full effect of having given the Transport Commission their monopolistic powers. They are beginning to use them very ruthlessly. They are ordering the public about and telling them how they are to travel and how they are not to travel. In Scotland, they have recently been telling the public that they must go by train and not by bus, but in Northumberland, a few miles south, they are telling the public that in future they must go by bus and not by train.

A feeling is growing up that the gentlemen in Whitehall are having altogether too much to say and are not paying sufficient attention to the requirements and conditions of the local communities. The feeling is also growing up that if the gentleman in Whitehall cannot make these services pay and keep these ventures going, they should make way for private persons or companies who think they can do so. But with their monopoly the question does not arise. Competition is not permitted. Certainly, I am not alone in criticising the actions and, above all, the lack of initiative and enterprise, which is being shown at present by the Transport Commission.

I notice that the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl), who wholeheartedly supported the setting up of this nationalised transport industry, when speaking in the House on 30th November, said this: My criticism is that in their policy on this matter … that is, their policy with regard to the closing down of branch line railways, the Transport Commission show themselves to be unimaginative, lacking in foresight, and without really constructive thinking."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th November, 1951; Vol. 494, c. 1984.] That is the charge I make against them this afternoon—that they are not acting with enterprise. There are many branch lines which could and should be kept going and which could be kept going successfully if only the Transport Commission, acting through the Railway Executive, would make more use either of diesel rail cars or of steam push-and-pull coaches, or if they would adopt a more sensible policy in regard to converting these branch lines into light railways.

By doing that they could get rid of many of the onerous statutory duties which are placed upon branch lines—duties which are laid down in Acts passed in the horse age, such as the Railway Consolidation Clauses Act of 1845 which, under Section 68, imposes very rigorous obligations on branch line railways. In general, although we accept the principle that the Railway Executive must make the railways pay, we would rather see them pay by producing a better service than by cutting down the existing service.

It is quite true that by cutting out many of the branch lines they will save hundreds and thousands of pounds; but we think it would be better if they would provide services which would attract more custom and be more remunerative. I should like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary if he could say a word about the two branch lines in Northumberland which are now threatened with closure, namely, the Reedsmouth Junction—Morpeth line and the Rothbury—Morpeth line.

Already in Northumberland the Transport Commission have closed two lines—the Hexham to Allendale line and the Morpeth to Bedington line. Can my hon. Friend give an assurance that there will be a limit to the closing of these branch lines in Northumberland and, in particular, can he give an assurance that the Border Counties line between Hexham and Riccarton Junction will be kept in full maintenance both for freight and for passenger traffic.

Second, can he say a word or two about the alternative bus services which will be provided for those areas which will be affected when the passenger train services are removed from the Reedsmouth—Morpeth line? Third, can he say a word or two about any plans which the Railway Executive may have for introducing economies on branch lines, both in regard to motive power and manpower, with a view to making them pay better?

4.51 p.m.

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

During recent years it has not been possible for the representative of the Hexham Division to intervene in our debates, for obvious and distinguished reasons, namely, that your predecessor in the Chair of this House, Mr. Speaker, represented that constituency. When my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Speir) joined us last October, it was not long before he made his presence felt on the back benches, and certainly he has raised a matter of importance today.

This is the third occasion since I took office on which this question of branch lines has been raised on the Adjournment, and on the other occasions I endeavoured to make my reply as objective as possible. I think it may be of value if I spend a minute or two explaining the procedure which is followed when branch lines are closed.

The British Transport Commission's policy in regard to the withdrawal of these services is set out in Section 30 of their Report and Accounts for 1950, which I have no doubt my hon. Friend has studied with care. It may briefly be summarised as follows—that the Commission will continue to survey branch lines in conjunction with the Railway Executive and to withdraw services in all cases where a clear financial saving will be obtained and a satisfactory alternative can be provided, as, for example, by the provision of road passenger services in place of branch passenger lines.

In all cases where passenger train facilities are withdrawn, contact is made with Commission-owned or Commission-associated bus companies and, where necessary and practicable, additions are made to the road services. In most cases, however, it is found that nearly all the traffic has already been captured by the road services and that the small increment caused by the withdrawal of the railway services will not, in fact, create any serious problem.

It has all along been the policy of the Transport Commission to inform local authorities and other interests of their intentions to withdraw these services. This arrangement did not in every case produce a satisfactory examination of the problems, because there was not in all cases a reference to the appropriate Transport Consultative Committee, but during 1951 the Commission undertook that the Railway Executive would inform the appropriate Transport Consultative Committee, in addition to those interests to whom they had already been accustomed to make reference. I am very grateful to one of my hon. Friends for bringing me a glass of water. My voice, like the House, is in need of an Easter Recess.

The British Transport Commission have also agreed with the Central Transport Consultative Committee that detailed and comprehensive information shall be supplied in each case which will give the Committee all the knowledge they need to make an adequate judgment on the case.

My hon. Friend asked about the Hexham—Riccarton line. I am informed that at present there is no proposal to close this branch, but the Railway Executive have been examining the position here in the same way as they are investigating all similar lines. However, no final assessment of the position has yet been made. As I have stated, the users' interests are protected by the Consultative Committee machinery, and I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that any proposals which may be made by the Railway Executive will be subject to the fullest examination through that machinery.

Diesel cars were referred to in an Adjournment debate on the third day of this month when my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. N. Macpherson) raised the question, and I had to tell him, as I tell my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham today, that in these days of limited capital expenditure railway priority has to go in the direction of track improvements and freight waggons. There are serious speed restrictions at present owing to the need for restoring the track, and there are 100,000 over-age waggons in the service, and these are regarded as the greatest priority. But even if Diesel cars were to be functioning, these branch lines would still be uneconomic.

My hon. Friend talked about alternative bus services from Reedsmouth to Woodburn and other stations on the Morpeth line. I have made certain inquiries, and I understand that there will be daily bus services to Morpeth from Knowesgate, Scotsgap, Middleton North, Angerton and Meldon. There will not, however, be bus services from Reeds-mouth and Woodburn to Morpeth, but there are daily buses from Reedsmouth and Woodburn to Newcastle, and also train services from Reedsmouth. All these bus services are operated—and I am sure my hon. Friend will be glad to hear this in view of one remark he made in regard to private enterprise—by private undertakers—a word I do not verymuch like for it may be misunderstood—and they are obviously bound to have regard to the number of passengers who wish to avail themselves of any particular service.

If I may say so, I think my hon. Friend somewhat exaggerated the difficulties of handling baggage, perambulators, and the like, by bus, because even where branch lines are still running, our forefathers placed the stations at least half a mile from any village in nearly every case and the baggage has to be moved from the station to the destination. The real answer is the small road haulage operator, and H.M. Government will be bringing this aspect of the matter before the House in the very near future.

My hon. Friend talked about the Morpeth, Rothbury and Reedsmouth line. I have made inquiries about that, and I understand that on special occasions, such as race meetings and so on, excursions will be run if there is any demand, but patronage in the past has not been encouraging.

I know that there is nostalgia over these branch lines. We all feel it. People say, "They have been laid down. There they are. Why do they not carry passengers?" So we have the canals, which used to carry passengers, too. They exist. I have been refreshing myself by reading the life of my grandfather, who was born in the reign of His Majesty King George III, and who has described how he went from Kendal to Lancaster in a Swift canal boat at six miles per hour. Well, my hon. Friend will not, I think, claim that because canals exist we must go in for that form of transport. We must be realistic, and it must be admitted that the closing of these branch lines would have been inevitable, with or without nationalisation.

Mine is the last voice to be raised prior to the Easter Adjournment. May I be permitted, Mr. Speaker, to express to you, on behalf of the House, the wish that you, who are unable to pair during these lengthy Sittings we have, will be able to find some easement; and that when we return we shall return to an increasing respect for the Chair of this House, the greatest democratic function in a troubled world.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at One minute to Five o'Clock, till Monday, 21st April, pursuant to the Resolution of the House yesterday.