HC Deb 28 July 1953 vol 518 cc1254-64

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith.]

11.15 p.m.

Mr. E. M. Cooper-Key (Hastings)

The subject I wish to raise tonight is the closing of the local railway services, and I wish to protest first against the proposal to close the Kent and East Sussex branch line passenger service which operates for the most part in my constituency. Second, I wish to question the outlook and approach of the British Transport Commission generally to the closing down of the local railway services throughout the country.

As regards our own local branch line, this line runs between Robertsbridge and Tenterden. It runs at right-angles to a number of roads from the coast to London and serves villages of various populations—Northiam, Udiam, and a few smaller centres such as Salehurst and Ewhurst, whose populations are mostly engaged in farming and hop-growing.

During the week ended 25th July a daily average of between 27 and 30 persons used this little railway, which was higher than the previous week when a census was taken. Many of these passengers are season-ticket holders travelling from Northiam to Tenterden for their jobs. As a first result of the closing of this passenger service, these men will either have to change their homes or their jobs. The alternative method of getting from their homes to their place of work at Tenterden would be a long bus ride, which would bring them into Tenterden at 10 o'clock in the morning. Others use this branch line to attend Robertsbridge market or to catch the main Hastings-Charing Cross train at Robertsbridge to enjoy a day's shopping in London. For those in this category the only alternative to the railway will be to take a taxi or to start an hour earlier and end an hour later at night by going through Hastings.

It is no exaggeration to say that the closing down of this line would be inconvenient to many and disastrous to some, and it is not correct to say that there is at the present time alternative public road transport. It is true that this matter has been referred to the Transport Users Consultative Committee, but nobody locally seems to know who these people are or where they meet. At the same time, nobody doubts that the Transport Executive intends to close this service and has powers to do so.

It is no use hon. Members going to their constituencies and upholding the necessity for amenities for farm workers if the Transport Commission goes about the countryside closing down amenities. This is precisely what they are doing. Lord Hurcomb, in a letter he sent me today, in a spirit of achievement writes that between 1948 and 1952 541 miles of route were closed to all traffic and 1,005 miles of route to passenger traffic, with an annual saving of£1 million a year. Now this Robertsbridge-Tenterden line is to be closed down to effect a saving, but none of us is surprised that these small branch lines are losing money. Twenty years ago this particular line went bankrupt under private enterprise, but today it is still being operated on the same schedule and the same system as it was at that time. It is not sufficiently good for these executives to allow an inefficient service to continue and then to close it down on the grounds of inefficiency.

At the present time on this branch line there are 23 people employed, and Mr. Burton, who is the clerk employed at Robertsbridge Station, has worked out a scheme to increase the efficiency of the schedules and to reduce the staff from 23 to 14. I would point out to the right hon. Gentleman that there is no intention of closing down the goods service—merely the passenger service—and we who live on the spot are getting the worst of both worlds. This suggestion which has been sent through by Mr. Burton indicates that very strong reduction of overheads and increased efficiency can be made in this instance, and it is thought that this can be multiplied throughout similar branches in the country if only the executive will take the energy and the trouble to find out how it can be done.

One does not need in this time or age all this complicated rather brass-hatted set-up. In Newfoundland where I was a few months ago, where distances are very great and the population very sparse, they use a small diesel rail car which is operated by one man, and is operated very efficiently over hundreds of miles. It does not cost a great deal to man. If it is being experimented with in this country, I have yet to learn where such a car can be seen, I believe that a lot could be done with a more energetic attitude.

In conclusion, I hope my right hon. Friend will urge upon the Railway Executive the need to make local rail services efficient and attractive instead of doing the easier thing and close them down as inefficient. Secondly, I hope he will impress upon the Railway Executive that these nationalised industries have a responsibility to the country areas. The example is before them of the Post Office, which has modernised and made more efficient their services in country areas. Finally, I hope the right hon. Gentleman when he comes to reply, will agree to withdraw the threatened notice closing down this railway line.

11.22 p.m.

Mr. W. F. Deedes (Ashford)

I am glad to add a word to the case which has been presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings (Mr. Cooper-Key) because a large part of this line travels through my own constituency, possibly better known as the Weald of Kent and passes through four major villages of Wittersham, Sandhurst, Tenterden and Biddenden. It is perhaps not a particularly well-known railway line, but those who have read Mr. Siegfried Sassoon's "Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man," may recall that it features very largely throughout that classic.

I hope my right hon. Friend will make a reference to the cutting out of dead wood and that process which we are going through now. It has been discussed on previous occasions, and on all occasions a case has been made out for British Railways that the closing down of such railways is an essential economic step because they are uneconomic to run. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend will have no difficulty in making out a good case along those lines. He will tell us that the passenger and goods traffic is insufficient, and although the 30 or 40 passengers and the farmers in my constituency who use this line will suffer great inconvenience, nevertheless the greater economic interests of British Railways will gain the day.

The unfortunate thing about all this economic argument is that it is the rural area who seem to suffer from this policy of retrenchment by British Railways. We pay a great deal of lip service to retaining rural amenities, and then we provide overwhelming economic arguments for stopping them.

I only want to make one point. This line, as far as it affects my constituency, is the only traffic route which bisects the quadrilateral known as the Weald of Kent, which is roughly bounded by Tunbridge Wells, Ashford, Maidstone and Hastings. I personally would hope that that quadrilateral would remain undeveloped, and any hon. Member familar with that remarkable territory would probably agree. We hear a great deal, however, about the expansion of London, and in the long term this railway line must play a very large part in any development of that kind in this part of Kent.

Once the railway is closed down, as it is going to be, it will not be long before it becomes derelict. It will eventually—it is, obviously, on the way out—become, as the branch lines do become, a breeding ground for rabbits, and it will never be opened again. That will shut the door to the development of the Weald of Kent, industrial, agricultural—in a big way—and, from the point of view of any major movement, as regards population, as anyone who knows the roads of this part of Kent will realise.

I hope that that point is recognised by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport. I hope he realises that in the closing of this railway, not only are the economic interests of British Railways being served, if they are being served, but that quite a large part of a Home County is having its major traffic route closed for all time. I make a present of that information to the planners, although I myself have no wish to see development in this part of the county progress. I shall be interested to hear my right hon. Friend's response to this aspect.

11.26 p.m.

Sir Edward Boyle (Birmingham, Handsworth)

I have a sentimental interest in this branch line which is under discussion, for I live in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings (Mr. Cooper-Key) only because many years ago my grandfather, who was a Member of the House, was connected with a railway rating problem over this particular branch line.

It certainly is my experience that this line does fulfil a need. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings has said, it is a useful connection for people living in the Weald of Kent with the main London-Hastings line. It all the more fulfils a need because the population of the villages which are served by the Kent and East Sussex Railway has increased considerably during the last 10 years or so. I should have said that the population has definitely been on the increase since the war.

If it is necessary for economic reasons to close this branch line, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will give consideration to the problems of the people living in the area. If one looks at the railway map of England, there is no doubt that the area between the London-Folkestone line and the London-Hastings line is not well served by rail transport. The people there are really badly placed from the point of view of rail transport.

11.28 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Alan Lennox-Boyd)

I am sorry that a matter of such great importance to a large number of people in the area should fall to be discussed at a comparatively late hour, and more particularly as no action whatever can be taken in this matter until next year. I need hardly add to my three hon. Friends who have spoken, quite rightly, so warmly in this matter, that I have myself been for 20 years and more a Member for a rural constituency, that nearly all my interests are rural interests, and that I, like them, realise the importance of rural rail or road facilities.

To my three hon. Friends, the Members for Hastings (Mr. Cooper-Key), Ashford (Mr. Deedes) and Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle), I can certainly say that there is nothing settled in this matter; nor does it in the first place fall to me to settle it. There is a clearly defined procedure in matters of this kind which is well known, I think, to most Members of the House and to most local authorities. This involves the Transport Users' Consultative Committee in the area. If they have strong exception to any proposal there or elsewhere, they refer it to the Central Transport Users' Committee. No branch line whatever has ever been closed if the Central Transport Users' Committee object. Should there be a problem in which they feel strongly and the Commission take another view, then, and then only, does it come to the Minister; and then, and then only, am I in a position to issue a directive in the matter.

But as this particular case does not go to the local transport committee until 3rd December next, there is quite a long time in which local feeling can be marshalled and expressed. I need hardly add that, as I said before, I feel strongly about the need for adequate rural facilities. At the same time, as Minister, I also feel strongly that if the railway system of this country is to play its proper part, it must have regard to economic circumstances. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford suggested I would advance some figures to justify this closing on economic grounds. I will do no such thing because, although the matter is not strictly sub judice, there is to be an inquiry.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings did not know the people who would conduct the inquiry, although I thought they were well known; but I will send him the names of the members of his own Transport Advisory Committee, and the address of the Committee. Many people can send their objections. There is a very enterprising officer of the railways who can put forward views, and I think it is a good thing when railway servants have ideas for making the railways more prosperous that they should put them forward, and I cannot believe that any difficulty would be put in his way. I will send the details to my hon. Friend.

I must, however, point out certain facts on behalf of the railways. If they are to face the future, they must run themselves as a business entity, and in the Transport Act the Government have given, for the first time, a measure of freedom to our railways which, I believe, is unique in the world. As a result, I hope the railways, far from passing out of transport, will have a new and more effective future. However, even if I had the power, I could not compel them to work lines where the local people have already withdrawn support to such an extent that there is no chance of an economic success. When the railways, by closing branch lines, are already going to save£1,250,000 annually, that amount may enable them to give a better service to the teeming millions who use British Railways.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings, referred to the possibility of using diesel cars instead of closing branch lines. This is an attractive possibility. I have been interested in this problem since I have been at the Ministry of Transport, and I have gone into it in some detail. I was interested in the remarks made about Newfoundland; because of this British Railways are wholly convinced about a 100 per cent. substitution of diesel shunting locomotives. But the railways are going to experiment with multi-unit diesel cars for hauling passenger trains in Yorkshire, Glasgow, and Edinburgh; and experience suggests that only where there is a very heavy density are they economic. I am surprised at what my hon. Friend says about Newfoundland, about which I know too, for, as he says quite rightly, there is not a high density of population. I will gladly make inquiries into the sources of that particular experience. The initial cost of a diesel locomotive is considerable and can only be off-set by a high density of traffic, but if experience shows otherwise, that is a strong factor in the consideration.

Mr. Cooper-Key

The car I had in mind was an eight-seater light diesel rail car.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

The hon. Gentleman is entitled to say that. No doubt that will be a consideration in the minds of the South Eastern Area Transport Users Consultative Committee when on 3rd December they deal with this problem.

That is the drill laid down by statute. This matter goes to the Railway Executive. They consult the Transport Users Consultative Committee. Before they even go to the Transport Commission they have the views of the local people on the proposal. The local authorities—Mr. Burton as well as anybody else—can appear before that local inquiry. Then they go to the Commission. The local inquiry will look, among other things, at what other facilities are available. There are a number of bus facilities though I agree that they may not be quite so adequate as the railway facilities. If the Transport Users Consultative Committee wish, the matter then goes to the Central Committee and, if there is any difficulty there, it eventually comes to me.

The precise proposals here appear to be that the line between Headcorn and Tenterden Town should be closed entirely and the passenger service should be withdrawn between Tenterden Town and Robertsbridge, but Robertsbridge to Northiam should be made available for hop-pickers' trains when required. I hope that, as I have a certain personal interest in the hop farms of that district, I shall not be accused of a vested interest when I say that, as I learned for the first time a few days ago, this facility might be retained. I will not pre-judge the issue because it has its proper constitutional course to run.

It is up to the local people to make a strong and convincing case, but I cannot avoid mentioning that, when I asked the Railway Executive about the amount that this railway was used—and no doubt other days might yield other figures, but I am sure that this was not a carefully chosen date to give a certain impression—I was told that in the week ending 28th January last year the maximum number of passengers using any one train was eight. The daily average was five. The total number of passengers carried over the line throughout the whole week was 118 in 80 different trains.

I am conscious of the burden of transport charges on the mass of our people and of the great difficulties of our railways, and I could not casually dismiss an argument that where only 118 people enter 80 trains the railways have at least a good case which their critics have to answer. There is also the question of alternative facilities. I know that these are difficult. I gather that there is some difficulty in particular about a direct bus service from Bodiam or Northiam to Robertsbridge.

The railways have pointed out to me in their memorandum that on an average there were only five passengers a day between Bodiam and Robertsbridge. They do not feel that this justifies a special bus service. This is essentially a matter that the local transport users consultative committee must properly consider. I gather that Bodiam is on bus route 24 running between Hastings and Tunbridge Wells at two-hourly intervals. Buses between Headcorn, Tenterden and Staple Cross run at one-hourly intervals. There are also express carriage services to London from Northiam via Tonbridge three times daily and from Tenterden via Headcorn and via Cranbrook twice daily.

These matters will be thrashed out before the transport users consultative committee. I have many difficult problems and this is one of them: how best to preserve a railway system in this country which will hold its own against the constant and proper competition from the roads and how, at the same time, to see that proper facilities are ensured in the rural districts. I make no complaint that Members for country districts should raise these issues constantly. Life in the country has enormous advantages which to many people of a philosophical turn of mind far outweigh the disadvantages. But there are practical disadvantages of which I recognise that transport is one. It is quite right and proper that Members for rural districts should constantly stress their transport needs.

I can only say to my hon. Friends that this matter would go, as the Railway Executive have always done, to the area consultative committee. All the evidence can then be marshalled. If, later, it reaches the central body and eventually me, there are other courts of appeal. But, meanwhile, I would advise them to concentrate on any arguments they may find useful to their case and on any suggestions they may have for alternative transport in advance of the meeting that will take place in December of this year.

11.41 p.m.

Mr. C. J. M. Alport (Colchester)

I merely rise to support my hon. Friends on the other side of the Thames Estuary because we on our side in Essex are faced with precisely the same problem as they have been faced with, and we have already gone quite a long way along the line of procedure which my right hon. Friend has outlined as being appropriate to this matter, that is, we have represented the problem of the Brightlingsea Railway at the Transport Consultative Committee meeting of the area basis for East Anglia.

But there are one or two points to which I wish to draw my right hon. Friend's attention, because this is a major problem affecting, as he has admitted, not only Kent, but indeed all rural areas in the country. The first point is this. We have a clear impression that it is actually the Railway Executive's policy to close branch lines. I realise that that has been denied by a spokesman of the consultative committee of the Eastern Region in this case, but, at the same time, there is evidence that the attitude of the Railway Executive to these branch lines is that they are an administrative nuisance, besides being, possibly, an economic problem.

That, in my view, is a very wrong attitude to adopt because there is an obligation on the Railway Executive to try to make these branch lines pay before they write them off as being uneconomic. We have had evidence tonight from my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings (Mr. Cooper-Key), as indeed we had evidence in the Brightlingsea case, that the Railway Executive took no steps whatever to attract trade and freight and passengers to the branch line concerned, and that they were prepared to allow it to die on its feet in order to prove their point that these branch lines are uneconomic.

That is the first point which I think should be borne in mind by all consultative committees, and perhaps by the Minister, and, indeed, more especially by the Railway Executive, before they reach a decision of this sort which affects the livelihood and convenience of important sections of the community.

The other point I would make is that the position, when the matter comes before the consultative committee, is not entirely satisfactory because members of that committee are, in fact, representatives of the railway's case. The consultative committee does its best to reach an honest and honourable conclusion in the matter, but when one of its members with voting power, and in the case of the East Anglian committee, two of its members, are servants of the Transport Commission, then the consultative committee itself is necessarily placed in a very difficult position.

Surely, these consultative committees, when considering a case of this sort should be completely independent of both the local interest and also the interest of the Railway Executive. Would my right hon. Friend look into that point, because it is one which caused us great concern when we appeared before it?

The third point I wish to put to my right hon. Friend is that this procedure which he has outlined quite correctly with regard to hearing the point of view of local people causes the local authorities a considerable expenditure of money if they are to have their case properly represented. These are usually small communities, rural districts or small urban district councils, and they have to employ counsel to put their case for them.

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

Adjourned at a Quarter to Twelve o'Clock.