HC Deb 24 May 1954 vol 528 cc169-76

May 17th, 1954.

Dear Mr. Jones,

We of this Branch, representing all railwaymen in this area from Corwen to Dolgelley and Blaenau Ffestiniog, were very pleased that you have secured the Adjournment Debate in the Commons for the 24th inst., and are grateful to you for choosing the subject of through connections to Blaenau Ffestiniog. We attach the greatest importance to this subject as it is believed that the success and development of this branch line devolves mainly upon its accomplishment. You will be aware of the case that has been put up by the various Local Authorities, but perhaps you would like to have one or two points from practical railwaymen who envisage the implementation of the scheme as the focal point of daily 'bread and butter.'

The British Transport's case is that the Branch line is uneconomical and that an extension would simply add to the costs. If, however, the scheme which you will be pleading for was brought to fruition what is to stop them from running what is known as a Land Cruiser from Chester, via Llangollen, Bala, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Bettws-y-Coed, Llandudno Junction and along the coast back to Chester? It is only two seasons ago that the Commission began to run such a crusier from Rhyl via Corwen, Barmouth, Afonwen, Llandudno Junction and back to Rhyl, and the experiment immediately proved to be a huge success.

What rugged splendour is the better, however, than the Vale of Cwm Prysor and the Fairy Glen of Bettws-y-Coed? The economic stability of Merioneth depends very much on the influx of tourists, both native and foreign, and with the assistance of the Welsh Tourist Board there are distinct possibilities of making greater use of the beauty of our countryside to the advantage of the Transport Commission.

On occasions we have seen wagons of coal or flour sent to Blaenau Ffestiniog along the Bala branch line but intended for the former L.M.S. station. Consequently, these wagons had to be sent back all the way through Bala—Corwen—Rhyl—Llandudno Junction and again to Blaenau Ffestiniog. This would cause a delay of three days, yet the distance between the two stations is only a few hundred yards. Owing to the impossible connections at Blaenau, people from the Edeyrnion and Penllyn areas are discouraged from making trips to Llandudno and other coastal towns, with the consequent loss of revenue for the Transport Commission.

Let me give a case in point. If one takes a train from Bala to Blaenau Ffestiniog intending to spend a day at Llandudno, unless the train arrives at Blaenau before time, which is incomprehensible, one must take a taxi from one station to the other to catch the other train for Llandudno. For the return journey the situation is even worse from the point of view of timing. Here's wishing you every success next Monday.

Yours sincerely,

On behalf of the Branch, J. W. Roberts."

I am sure that the House will readily agree that that letter clearly shows the absurdity of the present position and that the writer has admirably stated the merits of the case for which I am pleading tonight.

Here is a district which has a valuable labour force in a declining slate-producing area. The simple solution, of course, is depopulation—that dreaded curse with which we in North Wales are only too familiar.

Mr. Tudor Watkins (Brecon and Radnor)

And in Mid-Wales.

Mr. Jones

We are trying to overcome that solution with all our power. Such a policy of drift which will lead to dereliction is not in harmony with present thought and policy and must be condemned. How can we stop the rot of depopulation unless we can establish new industries? How can we hope to establish new industries unless we have satisfactory transport facilities?

Blaenau Ffestiniog is a distinctively Welsh town. Welsh is the language of the homes, of the streets and of the workshops. I do not think that I have ever spoken a word of English when I have visited the town. When areas of this kind are depopulated Wales loses its very soul. No one must dare tell me that any price is too high to pay to preserve the distinctive culture of Wales which we so highly value.

Even the long-established quarrying industry is suffering badly under the present arrangement. At a recent conference held to discuss this question, Major Homfray, of the Associated Slate Quarries, said that a through connection would be of great benefit to the slate-quarrying industry. First, it would provide the shortest and most direct route for slates. Secondly, it would ensure the minimum delay in reaching the customer. Thirdly, it would result in less damage to the slates in transit. The less the shunting the less the damage. Fourthly, it would cheapen the cost of the slates since transport costs had a bearing on the cost to the consumer.

Not only would a through railway system be an added attraction to industries in the area, but it would open up one of the most delightful areas in the Principality. Anyone who has visited this district will agree with me. I have seen there an ex-Prime Minister spending his holidays, and only last year I saw an ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer. I am sure that those people are particular about where they spend holidays. This facility would attract the tourist and also develop the tourist industry. This railway passes up the beautiful Vale of Llangollen, the Prysor Valley and down the Lledr and the Conway Valley to the North Wales Coast.

When the two railway systems were owned by two different companies, the chances of linking them up were very remote. The two companies were rivals and very jealous of one another. Had there been only one company this problem would not have arisen as that company would have been wise enough, in its own interest, to provide a through railway. The railways now belong to the same authority—British Railways. I can assure the House that hopes ran high that at last the long-felt need was to be met. Alas, the disappointment.

In August, 1948, the then Chairman of the British Transport Commission stated in a letter that the proposed central station would in principle present some advantages. He said that the estimated cost would be £50,000 and that the local authorities would be requested to meet part of the cost, approximately £5,700. Within a month, Merioneth County Council agreed to this. This spontaneous and immediate response reveals in no small way the eagerness of the county council to see the scheme brought to fruition. This fact alone, I submit, deserves special consideration, and the initiative of the county council, always alive to what is good for the county, should not be dismissed lightly.

Up to this point in time the difficulty was that of capital expenditure. The scheme presented no real technical difficulties. It was considered in principle to have some advantages. The difficulty arose from the policy of the Government of the day to economise in capital expenditure. That was understandable. Unfortunately, there is a strong tendency now to scrap the scheme on other grounds for, at a conference held at Dolgelly in December, 1953, it became clear that the attitude of the authorities had completely changed.

I would point out that the representatives of the various bodies at that conference were unanimous in their support of the scheme. The only objection came from the Transport Commission. They turned it down because they could not embark on expenditure of any nature that did not show concrete return for the money expended. Here is a scheme which would open out an entire country. It would certainly yield its returns in due course, I am convinced—returns in an enriched community life and activity which would later reflect itself in the balance sheet of British Railways.

11.5 p.m.

Mr. Goronwy Roberts (Caernarvon)

I wholeheartedly support the plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for Merioneth (Mr. T. W. Jones). I feel sure that the whole House, and particularly the Minister, whom we know to be highly intelligent and deeply sympathetic to this kind of plea, will have listened to the speech of my hon. Friend with pleasure, so factual and eloquent was it.

I intervene because I represent Caernarvon, the constituency adjacent to Merioneth, and we have some interest in the development for which my hon. Friend has pleaded. The House and the Minister will know that the entire area of North Wales—the three counties of Caernarvon, Anglesey and Merioneth—boast an unenviably high record of unemployment, the figure running between 7 and 10 per cent. of the insured population. As my hon. Friend has said, the development of the transport and communications system of the area would appreciably help us to retain at their present strengths our existing industries, particularly the traditional and depressed slate industry, and induce new industry of a suitable type to come to the area. That is abundantly true.

I feel sure that the abjection in respect of capital cost will weigh heavily with the Transport Commission and the Minister, but it is not a very high price to pay for completing the circuit of railway transport in this part of North Wales. The sum of £50,000 has been mentioned. I agree with my hon. Friend that this is a cheap price to pay for the social, cultural and economic rehabilitation of a traditional part of Wales.

11.7 p.m.

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

When we have these Adjournment debates dealing with attractive parts of the country whose representatives are asking Parliament to give special attention to their problems, I always hope that it will be possible for me to give a sympathetic reply.

I am fully aware that the level of unemployment in Merioneth and the two neighbouring counties is higher than not only the average for the United Kingdom but also that for the counties of the Principality. Naturally, as the Government desire to preserve high and stable employment, this is a matter which concerns us, and we have every desire to do what can be done to bring employment to the people in those counties. However, tonight I am obliged, as Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, to deal with a special proposal for large capital expenditure upon transport services.

Clearly, it would not be consistent with the responsibilities of the British Transport Commission to undertake large works in Blaenau Ffestiniog—I am grateful to the hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. T. W. Jones) for sending me detailed instructions on how to pronounce that name—for the sole purpose of relieving unemployment. Under the Act of 1947 the British Transport Commission is obliged to try to balance its accounts taking one year with another, and at the present time it is rather closing down branch lines which are uneconomic, and, therefore, it would not be possible for it to undertake works upon lines if there was no prospect that ultimately the capital investment would earn a full return.

Blaenau Ffestiniog is only a very small town. The hon. Member for Merioneth referred to it as the largest town in the county, and so indeed it is, but the total population does not total 7,000, and it is, of course, an unfortunate historical survival that the town contains no fewer than three termini. The narrow-gauge railway line between Ffestiniog and Port Madoc is at present closed. It was closed to passenger traffic in 1939, and to freight traffic in 1946. There has been formed by enterprising and enthusiastic people a preservation society, and an inspecting officer of railways will shortly carry out an inspection in order to advise what work would be needed before this narrow gauge line could be made suitable for carrying passengers.

That leaves the problem of the two railways which are still working. The hon. Gentleman suggested that it was desirable to link them. That would be justifiable only if it were the case that after they had been linked there would be a very great increase in the through traffic. The British Transport Commission sees no reason to suppose that the hon. Gentleman's optimistic view about this great increase in traffic would, in fact, be justified. Nor is he quite correct in what he says about the past discussions of this matter.

The original scheme about which Lord Hurcomb wrote to Mr. Emrys Roberts, at that time a Member of this House, was for building a new central station. Later, in view of the really prohibitive expenditure that would be involved for what is, after all, only a small town, a modified scheme was put forward for the rebuilding of the present central station. It has never been the view of any of the railway operators that large capital expenditure upon greatly increased facilities in Ffestiniog would ever be remunerative. It really is not the case that before nationalisation the only reason why these two lines were never connected was the jealousy between the railway companies. They were not of the opinion that to link up would result in a scheme that would be remunerative.

The cost would really be very large indeed. £50,000 for the proposed station has been quoted by the hon. Gentleman, but that is only a rough sum made before any detailed plans had been prepared, and the view now is that the expenditure necessary would be very much larger. In addition to that it would not be possible to operate the two lines for through traffic merely by linking them up. Through services could not be established between Llandudno Junction and Bala Junction unless considerable changes were made to the railway lines. They are at present single tracks passing through difficult country, and with only one or two passing loops.

It would, therefore, be impossible to operate through trains merely by linking the two lines. Much heavier expenditure would be necessary in the way of signals, passing loops and so forth for through working. In view of this and the need to spend over £70,000 on work at Blaenau Ffestiniog Junction, it is the considered view of the British Transport Commission—a view shared by the companies operating these lines previously—that it would not be profitable to the Commission to carry out this large capital expenditure. As I have indicated, the British Transport Commission is under an obligation to make certain that its transport concern is not worked at a loss.

Let me say, in conclusion, that because I am unhappily unable to hold out any prospect of this railway development taking place, it does not mean that Her Majesty's Government are not deeply sympathetic to the case which has been put forward tonight for development in that part of Wales which will in any way help towards a reduction in the unemployment which, I do assure hon. Members, causes us very real concern.

Adjourned accordingly at Sixteen Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.