HC Deb 10 December 1953 vol 521 cc2323-32

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Sir Cedric Drewe.]

10.53 p.m.

Mr. John Baldock (Harborough)

I wish to raise a question this evening which is of particular concern to local interests in my constituency, but which I think is also of some general importance in so far as it relates to the amenities of rural communities in general.

On Saturday I went to see a train leave Market Harborough Station. It was larger than the customary trains which have been leaving on that line for a considerable time, and it was headed by a very ancient Midland engine. On the platform were a very large number of people to see this train, the last ordinary passenger train on this line to leave Market Harborough for Melton Mowbray. I understand that there was a considerable crowd at Melton Mowbray also to see it on its last return journey. Many who witnessed the departure at either end were wearing mourning clothes with black ribands and armlets. They were "in at the death" of a service which had ren- dered considerable assistance to the rural communities between Market Harborough and Melton Mowbray on a piece of line which had served 11 rural stations. On each side of the line is the finest feeding land in Britain.

All those 11 stations between Market Harborough and Melton Mowbray were originally intended to be closed to passenger traffic thereby, in many cases, entirely cancelling all public passenger traffic "between them on three or four days a week. After representations by the East Midlands Area Transport Users' Consultative Committee, a modification of this suspension has fortunately been introduced, so that, from this station at any rate, workmen's trains will operate, one in the morning and one at night, allowing those who earn their livelihoods in Market Harborough or Leicester still to continue in their occupations, which would otherwise have been quite impossible for them.

But it is my representation tonight that this is insufficient, that it is not a satisfactory alternative to a proper passenger service which these villages have enjoyed for the past fifty years, to find themselves with only one train a day in each direction. It is hardly a satisfactory position for a housewife who wishes to go and do her shopping in Market Harborough, the natural centre for the area about which I am speaking, if she has got to leave at 7.40 in the morning, remain in the town throughout the day, and return at 6.30 in the evening. She would probably find she had to neglect many of her other duties and that she would certainly, in the normal way, wish to return very much earlier than this, or leave much later.

The particular communities about which I am concerned, and which are in my own constituency, are served by Hallaton Station—the villages of Blaston, Horninghold, Slawston and Stockerston. These villages are now, apart from this early morning and late night workmen's train, entirely without transport for the first time in 50 years on three days in the week, Monday, Thursday, and Friday. No alternative bus services have been provided as, I think, everyone knows, was to be done when this normal passenger service was cancelled, and these people find themselves as I have said, entirely without public transport on three days in the week.

The bus service which was promised originally as an alternative would, in any case, not have been satisfactory for those who wish to go to Market Harborough or Leicester to earn their living, because, whereas the train took 10 minutes to get from Hallaton to Market Harborough, the buses take 45 minutes to one hour, which would add considerably to the day for the man travelling into Market Harborough to earn his livelihood.

Fortunately, this has been overcome by continuing, for the present at any rate, this workmen's train, but I believe there is a danger that even that facility may be withdrawn, and I want the Parliamentary Secretary to consider this matter most earnestly, and to see the predicament in which those who work in Leicester and Market Harborough, who travel from these villages every day, would find themselves in if they were not even provided with this workmen's train. But in the meantime they are running, and the chief inconvenience to the people in this community is that they are without public transport on these three days in the week.

It seems to me that, at a time when it is the policy of Her Majesty's Government to improve the amenities in the countryside, and when the people in the countryside are rightly expecting improvement in their amenities, it is a most retrograde step that the public transport of these isolated communities should be deteriorating instead of improving in this year of 1953. The East Midlands area is particularly bad so far as agricultural workers are concerned. There is the tremendous magnet of the large urban populations in Rugby, Leicester, Northampton, and other towns in the East Midlands, and the whole time there is a steady drift away from the land.

This surely is a situation which is going to be aggravated by any reduction in rural amenities. Here is a case where an important rural centre covering a very large area of very productive farmland, a very fertile district, is left far worse off in the matter of public transport than it has ever been since the growth of the railway age. Surely this is a most retrograde step. I have found that the East Midlands Transport Users' Consultative Committee, the chairman of which is Professor Peers, admits to this dilemma. He says that there is need for economies in our whole transport system. But, surely that runs counter to the equal necessity for preventing the drift from the land and encouraging agricultural productivity.

Could I appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary to consider very seriously that aspect of this matter? Nobody suggests that the railways be given additional burdens and expenses which they cannot afford, and which could be avoided, but, on the other hand, it was generally understood that in a great nationalised service, such as the Post Office, and later the railways and the electricity supply, one side balanced the other. In other words, I do not think that any particular electricity line, or any particular pillar box or telephone kiosk, was expected necessarily to be economic in itself. Rather, in a broad national sense, it was considered that one part of the service which was successful—in some cases, very successful—would balance with the other to provide a service for those who needed to enjoy it. But that does not seem to be taken into account in this particular line which is not economic, and it must be closed to passenger traffic.

Could not these two dilemmas be reconciled? Could not a diesel car be intro- duced? I think that that has often been suggested in this House, but by that means could not this rural area enjoy transport at least as good as it has enjoyed for fifty or a hundred years? That would provide transport at least as good as these people have enjoyed. Could there not be a light diesel rail-car, which could be operated by one man acting in the joint capacity of driver and ticket collector, without there being any staff on the stations and thereby reducing considerably the running costs and expenses of this line? It would allow of the people in this remote community having an amenity which they have enjoyed in the past and which they should be able to anticipate enjoying in greater measure in the future.

11.2 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Wilson (Truro)

I intervene only for a moment or two to say that I hope the British Transport Commission will use due caution in this matter of the closing and diminution of branch lines. It is a popular policy in the popular Press that branch lines be closed in the hope of adding to the revenues of the railways by getting rid of services deemed to be uneconomic. But I do appeal for great caution, because what is gained in the one direction is apt to be lost in another. We have seen the prospect of trouble in the Isle of Wight in connection with the closing of lines since a sudden flood of traffic on the roads of the island would be quite inappropriate; indeed, might very well lead to an impossible situation. This might probably mean that more would have to be spent on the roads to make them fit for an alternative service to the railway.

The greatest caution ought to be exercised in approaching this question of closing branch lines for that reason. There was a report made, I believe by the International Union of Railways, in February, 1951, on the position of European Railways and their difficulties, the causes of those difficulties and possible remedies. The copy I have is only a translation from, I believe, the French; but it does give an insight into the question of comparative costs. It states that the cost price by rail of large quantities of traffic is approximately four or five times less than the cost price by road. It depends, of course, on what the quantities are; but if large sums have to be spent on improving roads to carry some means of transport alternative to the railway, little is saved by cutting a rail service. If, as apparently is happening in the case which has been mentioned, some rail service is being maintained, it seems questionable that there is any saving.

I was interested in the suggestion made tonight, and which I have made on other occasions, that there should be exploration of the possibility of adapting a system of light railways, particularly the Continental system of using the standard tramway. It might be possible to get rid of railway fences, platforms and ticket offices, and to run a light car as a tram, with a driver and conductor. This would probably require amendment of the law, but it is a possibility which might well be explored.

11.7 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Hugh Molson)

We all, I think, have a sentimental sympathy with the case put by the hon. Member for Market Harborough (Mr. Baldock), and we felt this particularly as he described the gathering of the inhabitants in mourning clothes when the last train ran along the line which had served them, and with which they had been familiar for 50 years. At the same time, I am bound to say that, because of the development of road transport, it is essential for the state of economy and solvency of the Transport Commission, that uneconomic lines shall be closed.

The attitude of the Government was expressed by my predecessor as recently as the 21st October, when he said, The policy which the Transport Commission are pursuing—that of pruning uneconomic services wherever adequate alternative facilities exist—is one which has received the support of both the previous Government and of ourselves, and is one which we continue to support."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 21st October, 1953; Vol. 518. c. 1994.] Responsibility in this matter rests with the British Transport Commission, and the only opportunity for intervention which my right hon. Friend has is if an intended closure of a line by the Transport Commission is disapproved by the Central, or Scottish, or Welsh Transport Users' Consultative Committee. The proposal for the closing of this branch line was put before the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for the East Midlands Area on 25th February.

In order that the matter should be carefully considered, that Committee set up a sub-committee which went into the matter very carefully. They concluded that nothing had been said by any of the objectors which would justify their recommending the withdrawal of the proposals. But they were of opinion that hardship would be caused in certain areas, particularly in Hallaton, and they were impressed by the fact that approximately 20 daily travellers from Hallaton and East Norton to Market Harborough would be deprived of transport facilities to enable them to continue in the work they were doing.

They, therefore, recommended that either a workmen's train service should be continued or that an alternative omnibus service should be substituted. The proposals of the subcommittee came before the main Committee which supported their recommendations and added a recommendation that there should be a similar service from John o'Gaunt to Leicester. When the matter was referred to the Central Consultative Committee it endorsed the proposals of the East Midland Committee and they were accepted by the British Transport Commission which has provided the workmen's services asked for.

Therefore, my right hon. Friend has no right of intervention in this matter, because the action of the Commission in reducing so drastically the services upon this branch line had been supported by the central consultative committee. My hon. Friend admitted that that was so, but he put the case of the other inhabitants of Hallaton who might not wish to use this workmen's train which leaves Hallaton early in the morning and returns in the evening. But in this respect the inhabitants of Hallaton are no worse off than those of many other villages. It is true that they have been accustomed for 50 years to having a railway service available, but it was clearly established before the sub-committee that the people of Hallaton had made very little use of the service while it existed.

The Commission is anxious if possible to arrange for a bus service to be provided on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays when the people of Hallaton have at present no transport to carry them into the neighbouring towns. So far it has not been possible to find any bus company willing to provide such a service except at the cost of a subsidy of £5,000 a year. Clearly, the Commission would not be justified in paying anything like that sum to provide such a service.

We have great sympathy with those who are, I think necessarily deprived of a service to which they have been accustomed, but in the general interests of the transport system of the country it is essential that uneconomic services should not be continued. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. G. Wilson) supported my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough in his reference to the possibility of a diesel service which would go some way to providing the kind of service which the people of Hallaton enjoyed before, but at much less expense. That matter has been investigated but it has been found that there is really no possibility of a continued rail service, even of a much more economical kind, being remunerative if it is provided on this line.

My hon. Friend questioned whether in, fact any substantial economy would be made by the closing of this line for passenger service. The estimated saving when the original proposal was put forward was just about £30,000 a year. As a result of maintaining this special workmen's service for the benefit of those who travel between Hallaton and Market Harborough and between John O'Gaunt and Leicester, there will be a continued charge of £3,500 a year so that the actual saving will be £26,500 a year.

Even although we do desire to provide the best possible transport system in the agricultural parts of the country, we could not possibly criticise the British Transport Commission when it takes the view that it is not justifiable to meet a loss of £30,000 a year for the benefit of the 22 passengers who, on an average, use the trains which have been in use upon that line. Although we are still hopeful that it may be possible to arrange for a bus service which will go some way to making up for the withdrawal of the rail service, my Tight hon. Friend feels he has no possible moral right, and certainly no legal right, to criticise the decision of the British Transport Commission which has been approved by the consultative committee.

Mr. Baldock

Before the Parliamentary Secretary sits down, can I ask him, arising out of what he has said, whether he will watch the position about the continuance of the workmen's train in the morning and evening, if there is any suggestion that it should be withdrawn, and secondly, whether he would undertake that some examination should be made into my hon. Friend's suggestion of a light diesel car with completely different safety regulations than those imposed at present on the railways which might be operated by one man in the joint capacity of driver, ticket collector and conductor on lines which are being retained in any case for goods traffic, and which would not require any station staff or any heavy expenditure in other directions.

Mr. Molson

I will certainly bear both points in mind, although it is quite clear I am not giving any undertaking as to what has to be done.

Adjourned accordingly at Eighteen Minutes past Eleven o'clock