§ Order for second Reading read.
§ 11.5 a.m.
§ Mr. Archer Baldwin (Leominster)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I have been balloting to obtain the privilege of bringing in a Bill for about five years, and had I been lucky twelve months ago my Bill would have concerned common lands. I was lucky enough, however, to be able to move a Motion about common lands which, I hope, has had some influence on the Government in appointing a Royal Commission. I hope that this Bill, which is for the improvement of rural transport by road, rail or canal, will obtain its Second Reading today.
Four problems face the countryside today—lack of rural transport by road, rail and canal; bad wages for the farm worker; social amenities, and the closing of village schools. They are all causing a drift from the countryside, and I am sure that both this and previous Governments have been rather alarmed at its continuance. I am glad to see that farm wages have now been increased, and I hope that that. combined with an acceptance by the Government of this Bill, will help to stop that drift.
The problem which has faced not only the present Chancellor of the Exchequer but his predecessors has been the trade gap. In my humble opinion, too much emphasis has been placed upon exports as a means of closing that gap. In a competitive world it will be extremely difficult to increase exports, and a much easier way of closing the gap is by decreasing imports, which can be done by improving the production from our own countryside. To get more production is easy, but there can be very few people who would say that we have yet arrived at anything like full production. The areas from which it can most easily come are the remote, rather desolate areas, but we will not get labourers—and particularly their wives—to live in those areas unless we provide amenities for travelling to and from markets which are comparable with those enjoyed in more populous 699 areas. The purpose of this Bill, therefore, is to make it easier for people in such districts to enjoy those amenities.
I do not want it to be thought that, because the major part of the Bill deals with railways, I look upon that form of transport as the most important. Omnibus services in rural areas are of equal, if not more, importance. Again, there is nothing in the body of the Bill relating to waterways. That is not because I had not considered that waterways were extremely important; it is because I thought that if the Bill was cluttered up with too many things it might not be accepted. The question of waterways, in my opinion, might well form the subject of a separate Bill. I know that there are many hon. Members on both sides of the House who are interested in canals and inland waterways, and I hope that some of those hon. Members will speak today because, although there is nothing about waterways in the body of the Bill, its Title will enable them to speak about canals.
After having listened recently to the many experts in the House talking about waterways, I am more than ever impressed with the importance of the reconstruction of our waterways system. If we are to get a progressive, up-to-date inland waterways system, it must be divorced from the Transport Commission. Such a system will take an immense amount of time to develop, but I do not agree that it should be under the Railway Executive, because a canal system should be competitive with the railway system and not be subsidiary to it. Instead of holding on to a few of the more remunerative waterways and closing canals in various parts of the country, the canals should be brought up to date in order to take some of the heavy traffic off the roads. I am convinced from what some of the experts have said that this is possible. It will reduce the very heavy traffic on the roads, and this can be done remuneratively.
I wish to deal quickly with the Clauses of the Bill. Clause 1 makes it necessary for the British Transport Commission, when it wants to close a branch railway, to give notice in a local newspaper and to every local authority whose district is comprised wholly or partly within that area, 700 of its intention to discontinue the use of such railway. The notice is to contain particulars of
The statistical information to be provided to the local authorities should be such as is in the instructions given to the area transport consultative committee at the present time. It is a very full and detailed explanation of the expenses that may be incurred and the reasons for which the railway is to be discontinued. I hope that those detailed figures will in future be made available.
- "(a) the places between which and the purposes for which the use of the railway is proposed to be discontinued;
- (b) an office or offices at which copies of the reasons of the Commission for so discontinuing the use of the railway and of the statistical information … can be purchased …"
Clause 2 enables the local authority or any other person to request the Transport Tribunal to ask the Transport Commission to show cause why the use of the railway should be discontinued. I want to stress that this matter does not rest entirely with the local authority. If the local authority is slow to move and there is any other body, such as a county council or a body of railway users who may want to prevent the railway being closed, they have an opportunity of doing so. Subsection (3) of this Clause enables applications to be made to the Transport Tribunal to prevent the Commission discontinuing the use of the railway pending the decision of the Tribunal.
Clause 3 enables a local authority or other body to make application to the Transport Tribunal requiring the Commission to show cause for the discontinuance of the use of a railway which has been discontinued within the period of five years before the passing of this Measure. The important point to be noted there—I am not sure that it ought not to be amended to a longer period—is that the authorities must bear in mind that if they wish to apply to the Tribunal they must make application within three months after the passing of this Measure.
That means that if there is at present any railway closed which has been closed for any period up to five years, if this Bill is accepted there will arise an opportunity for the local authority or any other body to make an application to the Transport Tribunal requiring the Commission to give reasons why that railway should not 701 again be operated. That is very important because there are many branch railways which have been closed in the last few years, and I hope that as a result of this Bill, if the local people still want them in use, they will take the necessary steps.
Clause 4 is particularly important, because it alters the present procedure which takes place before branch lines are closed. Under this Clause when the application is made to the Transport Tribunal under Clauses 2 and 3 of the Bill, the Transport Tribunal shall hold a public local inquiry. That is extremely important. When I say "a public local inquiry" I mean a real inquiry. Although it is not so stated, it would appear necessary for a representative of the Transport Commission to be present to substantiate the reasons given by the Commission for wishing to close the railway. The list which I have in my possession is the one which the Transport Commission now has to give to the consultative committee, and I want to make it necessary for similar figures to be given to the Transport Tribunal.
Not only must these figures be given, but a representative of the Transport Commission should be present to be questioned and to be made subject to cross-examination. Otherwise, it is difficult to see how the Tribunal can arrive at a correct decision. It should not be possible for the Transport Commission's representative to adopt the attitude which was adopted by the chief regional officer of the Railway Executive when he attended the Isle of Wight inquiry. I dare say that many hon. Members will remember that that inquiry was held by the Railway Consultative Committee, at which 40 different bodies in the island who were anxious to prevent their railways being closed were represented by a very prominent Q.C.
The chief regional officer at that inquiry said, "I will answer questions, but I will not be cross-examined." If a case is taken before an arbitrator or to a court, every witness, in my experience, has been subject to cross-examination in order that the arbitrator or the court could arrive at the right conclusion. If it is not possible to do that, I do not know how the Transport Commission dares to submit figures. If it submits figures, it should be prepared to substantiate them and to have them examined.
702 Subsection (2) of Clause 4 states that if the Transport Tribunal decides that it is not expedient for the Commission to operate the railway, it may make recommendations or give directions with respect to the operation of the railway as a light railway by the Commission or by some other body, the relaxation or modification of provisions relating to the operation of the railway as a light railway, and the manner in which the railway when discontinued shall be dealt with or disposed of. The Tribunal may include in its decision a requirement that the Commission shall sell or otherwise dispose of the railway to the highest bidder. That provision was included for this reason.
I do not think it right that the Transport Commission, which is a privileged body, should close a railway and refuse to operate it when others are prepared to take on the job. Subsection (4) gives the tribunal power to decide that If the part of the railway proposed to be discontinued forms part of an economic length, then the whole length shall be treated as one.
There are many instances—and I have one in my area—where the closing of a small length of railway for both passenger and goods traffic has made the whole length of line ineffective. The closing of a small branch line in my area has made the whole length of line running from Worcester through my constituency into Wales virtually ineffective for a great deal of its length. The closing of a branch line has a snowball effect. When this branch was closed people were unable to get from Wales or the northern part of my constituency to London without going a considerable distance round.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Hugh Molson)
Would my hon. Friend say which branch line this is?
§ Mr. Baldwin
The branch is a line which runs from Worcester through Bromyard to Leominster, through King-ton, a branch to Presteign and going up to Brecon and Radnor. The length between Bromyard and Leominster was closed about three years ago. It is strange to think that as a boy I saw that line being made and that I have now seen it closed.
703 The effect of closing that line has created a great difficulty. In the old days anyone who wanted to go from the Leominster area to London could do so in a day. They could do a full day's shopping and get home the same day. They could catch the first train in the morning to London and return from Paddington on the 4.45 p.m., getting home the same day. Now that the branch is closed they cannot do so.
§ Mr. Baldwin
The hon. Gentleman does not know the area. They would need at least half-a-dozen buses and it would take them most of the day to get here
The closure of that branch line is having an effect on the small length of line which is left, from Bromyard to Worcester. Before the length was closed the last train from Worcester connecting with London arrived at Bromyard at 8.20. When the train arrived at Bromyard at 8.20, after the closing of the branch line, it then went back to Worcester so that the driver and his mate could go to bed.
This late train has now been discontinued, and when people in the area want to get to London now they motor to Worcester and take the train from there. This is an example of driving traffic off the railways on to the road, and one thing which is essential is to reduce the amount of traffic on the roads. It is easy to say that a branch line is not unremunerative, but I defy anybody to advance figures for any particular branch line to prove that. Figures can be made to prove almost anything, but the fact is that if these small pieces of line are closed it will have a tremendous effect -on the entire railway system.
We are saying in the Bill that if the Transport Commission decides that a particular section is not remunerative it shall not be entitled to close that portion and offer it to somebody else. We say that the whole length of the line, from station to station, must be considered as a whole—for instance the line from Leominster to Worcester—and must come under the same operation. The Transport Commission should not be allowed to pick a small length which 704 may be remunerative and forget the complete length of the line and the convenience of the public. For them to ignore the whole length of the line is retrograde. I hope it will be accepted that if a section of line is given up then it shall be considered as an entire economic length in which that section is situated.
I have not put much in the Bill about road transport, because the machinery for the improvement of transport on the roads already exist. We are trying in the Bill to put a little oil into the machinery and to make it function a little more effectively than at present. I hope we shall be able to infuse a little practical knowledge into the bloodstream of the licensing authority, and we hope that the authority will wake up and realise that it is supposed to be looking after the transport in this country, whether it is the main bus routes or areas which are not served by transport at all.
At present, the licensing authority can attach such terms or conditions to licences granted by it as may be necessary or desirable to give effect to recommendations or directions. I believe that in some areas the licensing authority takes steps to lay down conditions when it licenses a bus route and says that the company operating that route must be responsible that an area at present not served will in future be served by light buses or in some other way. I believe the authority lays down that it will not be possible for a bus company to cream off all the main route services and to leave other districts completely isolated.
I can again quote an example in my own area where there is a five or six mile stretch of country lying between two bus routes. The local railway line down the middle has been closed. When they go to market women have to walk three or four miles, in all weathers, to get to the bus route, and they have to carry their parcels three or four miles back when they return in the evening. Such a state of affairs should not be allowed to continue.
I hope that as a result of the Bill the licensing authorities will consider getting the bigger bus companies to run light vehicles for such outlying districts. Every district must be treated on its own merits. It does not mean that we are asking for big buses to go to the isolated 705 districts. We want something which will replace the old carrier's cart of forty or fifty years ago. Women then travelled to market in some discomfort, but at least they got there. Nowadays, the carrier's cart has disappeared and nothing has taken its place.
§ Mr. Davies
Does the hon. Gentleman want to compel the bus companies to introduce these services? He is aware that many have been cut out because they are unremunerative. Does he intend to compel private companies to introduce unremunerative services?
§ Mr. Baldwin
Certainly not. The Bill does not try to compel people to do anything. We say that the licensing authority should make it plain to a bus company that if the company is not prepared to serve an isolated area, then the authority will license other operators who are prepared to do so. When the bus companies see others prepared to do the job they may do it themselves. In some areas a shooting brake might do the job. Someone in the area, privately, perhaps a garage owner, might be prepared to run a taxi service in a small shooting brake to enable local inhabitants to go to market or to the cinema, for instance. I think that the licensing authorities should license that without demur.
§ Mr. Davies
Has the hon. Gentleman any evidence that the licensing authority has refused such applications from these people? If there are no services and a service is required, would not the authority grant a licence?
§ Mr. Baldwin
I think that is so, but very few people know that it is possible. The Bill seeks to put a little oil into the machinery so that local people can apply to the bus company and, if the company refuses, to the Transport Tribunal, so that the Tribunal will take steps to apply to the licensing authorities to ask them to look into the case. We want to advertise that there are facilities at present, but that they must be used, otherwise the districts will not be served.
One rather disturbing feature I have found since this Bill was printed is that 80 per cent. of the bus services in rural areas are under the control of the Trans- 706 port Commission. The House probably realises that I am against bureaucratic bodies, against monopolies, and that I want to see a little competition brought into the road services, as in other walks of life. I do not want all the controls to be in the hands of the Commission.
Clause 5 (3) deals with the operation of branch lines under the Light Railways Act, 1896, and enables the traffic to be carried on them without applying out-of-date regulations relating to such things as signalling, level crossings, and so on. What I have in mind is the out-of-date method of controlling level crossings. If we can control road traffic with traffic lights and the traffic moves at 60 or 70 m.p.h. it should be possible to do it with level crossings by the same-method, particularly if the line is operated with light vehicles, which can be more easily stopped and accelerated. If the Transport Commission, or some other body, ceases to operate a section of a railway under the Light Railways Act this Clause enables that to be done.
Clause 6 excludes the jurisdiction of consultative committees. I daresay that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary may have some objection to this Clause, but I will explain the reason for proposing to replace the consultative committee by another body. We should realise that the Central Transport Consultative Committee is housed by the Transport Commission. I believe that its secretary is paid by the Commission. Therefore, one feels it is hardly likely that the Consultative Committee can be entirely unbiased. We are reinforced in our ideas about that because up to June last of 118 cases sent to the Consultative Committee by the Transport Commission only two recommendations were turned down by the Committee. We therefore propose that, instead of going to the Committee, air appeal should go to a Transport Tribunal.
I cannot help referring again to the closure of the Isle of Wight railways. That case was heard by the Consultative Committee in London, when a very eminent Q.C. took part in the proceedings. I am sure that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has read the report on the inquiry. If he or any hon. Member has not read it, I advise that they should do so. It gives a telling example of what 707 can happen before a consultative committee. This is what the Q.C. said:You have been presented by the Railway Executive with a set of figures that are false, possibly by carelessness or inadvertence. It is no part of my function to assign motives, but the figures have now been demonstrated beyond any doubt as quite wrong. If the same form of accountancy as has been applied to the island were used for the whole of British Railways, their 1951 profit of £34 million would be turned into a loss of £40 million.The Transport Commission had been using figures, as anyone can, to prove a case and to show that these branch lines had been run at a loss. That is why we want a hearing before an independent transport tribunal.
I want to quote a case of what can happen if a railway is converted into a light railway and lighter vehicles are used on it. The case is the most glaring I have had put to me and I give it as an extreme example of what results can be obtained. In the County of Donegal a branch line was closed, but steps were taken to see whether it could be continued. The railway was converted to a service of diesel rail cars. The result was that the mileage was increased 86 per cent. and the cost reduced by 33 per cent. That is the kind of argument we want to use in this debate. Using a steam engine, with one or two coaches, to pick up one or two passengers at a railway station is completely out of date. We should adopt steps to do away with that method.
I have had sent to me an extract from the Railway Gazette of the United States of America, dated 1953. There the same kind of problem which faces us has been experienced. A section of 18½ miles of line was closed. The inhabitants of one town served by the railway got together and bought the line. They purchased a diesel rail car and started to work it. The result has been that now they are paying 4 per cent on their total outlay and getting increasing business brought back to that railway. I am quite sure that if that sort of thing can be done in the United States we can do it in this country.
I am not advocating, and do not want to see, the Transport Commission selling to anyone else because I know that certain difficulties would arise, especially if a private company were running to and from a junction with a light rail car using 708 lines which were the property of the Commission. I hope, therefore, that instead of being compelled to sell a section of a line, the Commission will wake up to the fact that it is possible, by up-to-date methods, to keep that line in service.
I have an idea that if rural branch lines were brought back into use and modernised they could be used quite considerably in school transport service. At present, in my county transport of children to school involves a colossal figure. I cannot help thinking that light rail cars running on branch lines might be of assistance to county councils in that way.
§ Mr. Baldwin
That all depends on where the school is situated. Maybe there could be a stopping place near the school. Our idea is that the rail car would stop at request stops and not necessarily at railway stations, many of which are completely wrongly sited. We want a rail car to be used on the railways in the same way as a bus is used on the roads, stopping where passengers wish to get on or off.
I do not suggest that lines which are completely uneconomic should be continued, but I ask the House and the Government to think of this problem. In two instances to my knowledge—one in the Isle of Wight and one in my constituency—branch lines have been discontinued, but the overhead expenses still go on. The railways are still in being and are to be kept in being. The reason is that whenever there is a question of pulling up some of the lines one of the Services steps in and makes recommendations that nothing of the sort should take place.
For instance, on the Bromyard—Leominster line the War Office representative attending the inquiry held by the consultative committee was asked whether he had anything to say. He replied that he was not interested in the traffic on the line; the only interest he would take would be if there were a suggestion that the line should be pulled up. Therefore, for three years that line has been completely devoid of income, but still has to be maintained. The sides of the line have to be kept clear of weeds, 709 bridges have to be maintained, and all sorts of expense goes on with no revenue in return. That seems rather absurd. I suggest to the Government that if the branch lines are of use and are required for defence purposes a contribution should be made by the Services towards the overhead expenses for track maintenance, and so on.
The Government could also take into consideration the fact that every time a branch line is closed, more traffic is driven on to the roads, thereby increasing expenditure on the roads. The more traffic that can be kept on the railways, therefore, the less will be the cost of road maintenance and improvement. Accordingly, there is no reason why the Government should not take steps to help with maintenance and some of the overheads.
Some figures have been given to me by an expert, a practical railway engineer, who has had experience of the working of railcars. This has been an eye-opener to me, but the figures can be examined if the Transport Commission so desires. The expert tells me that the great thing about light railcars is that it is possible to get a continuation of facilities by providing faster journeys, of increased frequency, at substantially lower cost. One of the advantages of the use of the railcar is frequency of service. Services do not call for simply one journey in the morning and another at night. In this case, the suggestion is for six journeys in each direction per working day.
The line chosen for this illustration is ten miles in length. It is in my constituency. The gradient is not more than 1 in 80. The gradient makes a difference to the type of vehicle to be used. There are two types that can be used. One is the diesel rail car and the other is the battery electric vehicle. With a level track, the battery electric vehicle is probably the better method. It is simple to operate and the batteries can be recharged at the main depot during the night, when the cost of doing is at its lowest.
These figures of costs have, if anything, been fractionally overestimated rather than underestimated. The vehicle proposed is of about 30 ft. in length, capable of carrying thirty passengers seated and fifteen standing. This should be quite sufficient to deal with any rural area. The prototype vehicle would cost £9,000 710 but if vehicles were ordered in batches of, say, half a dozen, the cost could be reduced to between £5,000 and £6,000. When one considers the extraordinary cost of a railway locomotive and the coaches that follow it, it must be appreciated that rail car of this kind makes for operation at very low cost.
The cost of running the rail car on a 10-mile section, covering fuel, maintenance, depreciation, interest charges, together with an allowance for personnel and allowing £60 a mile for track maintenance, would come to 15s. per journey of ten miles. This is an astounding figure and should give us cause to think. This rail car, running a distance of ten miles at a cost of 15s., would provide not only for passengers but for a parcels service also. It would stop at, say, ten places in the course of the ten miles. The great advantage is that it is a light vehicle which can be stopped and accelerated easily and quickly.
A figure of £60 a mile for track maintenance seems to me excessive, but my informant has purposely given a figure that cannot be challenged as an underestimate. If the line in question is already being used for goods services, the track maintenance should be attributable substantially to the goods side, for the cost of rail and track maintenance for a light diesel car is infinitesimal compared with the cost of track maintenance for heavy vehicles. I have other figures, but will not take up the time of the House by quoting them, for I know that a number of my hon. Friends are anxious to speak in the debate.
In our 1951 Election manifesto, we promised, among other things, that we would introduce better transport in rural areas. I am now calling upon my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to impress upon the Government that so far they have not fulfilled that promise. I can, in fact, say quite fairly that rural transport has worsened and not improved. This is not a threat, but my hon. Friend must realise that unless steps are taken to implement that promise, a great deal of frustration and bad feeling will be caused in country areas. There is already widespread feeling in rural areas throughout England, Scotland, Wales and, I suppose, Northern Ireland because of the lack of transport.
711 I hope that my hon. Friend will give the Bill his blessing. If he feels that modifications are necessary, we shall endeavour to meet his suggestions in Committee. I hope, however, that he supports the Bill on Second Reading.
§ 11.47 a.m.
§ Mr. David Renton (Huntingdonshire)
I beg to second the Motion.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) on his good fortune and good sense in introducing the Bill and for the cogent way in which he has done so. It is an honest attempt to deal with a most difficult but vital problem. I stress that the Bill should not be embarrassing to the Transport Commission or to anybody else. It would not compel the Commission to continue to operate any line which it could prove to be already unremunerative and not capable of being operated remuneratively.
There is a slight distinction between the past and the future. If the Commission can prove that it neither has been able to operate the line remuneratively nor can do so, there is provision for the Commission themselves to be allowed to close the line but to give the opportunity of running it to somebody else who feels so inclined and who can persuade the Minister of Transport, by an application under the Light Railways Act, that it would be right for him to be allowed to do so.
I have always been in favour of the closing of clearly unremunerative branch tines and other railway services, and I have said so in the House several times. When we say that branch lines should be closed, I think that most of us refer to branch lines in other people's constituencies, but take a very dim view when somebody tries to close a branch line in our own constituency.
I am sorry to have to make the comment that, so far as the consultative committees are concerned, their view seems to be that branch lines should be closed, if the Transport Commission simply says so. Out of 118 cases of branch line closures which came before the consultative committees up to the middle of this year, there were only two cases in which the consultative committees asked the Commission to think again, or rather in 712 which they clearly said that they did not think the Commission should close the line. That, in view also of the somewhat haphazard procedure of the consultative committees, has raised doubts in the public mind as to whether they really are the most suitable bodies, as at present constituted, for considering this vital matter.
If we accept the principle that no branch line should be closed until the British Transport Commission has conclusively and publicly proved that it is unable to operate it without a loss, and has proved it in the normal British way, with the calling of evidence, with cross-examination, and with reasons given for decisions, at a proper inquiry, publicly held by people qualified to hold it, there would be much more easiness in the mind of the public, when they are deprived of these valuable facilities. What my hon. Friend says in the Bill is that. if neither the Commission nor anybody else can operate the railway at all, either as a light railway or as an ordinary railway, then the Transport Tribunal should consider what should happen to the line and should consider what alternative facilities it would be desirable—I put it no higher than that at the moment—for the public to have.
Very often, owing to the necessities of draftsmanship, and in view of the past history of the law, we cannot express in a Bill all the intentions underlying it; but I would express the hope that, as the Bill is drafted at the moment, one of the things which the Transport Tribunal might consider, when it has finally decided that a line must be closed and cannot be operated by anyone, even as a light railway, is whether the line should be converted into an ordinary road. With that in mind, I should say that the Transport Tribunal could very usefully make a recommendation to the local highway authority, or authorities, asking it to consider the conversion of the line into an ordinary road; and that that would get round the difficulty which was mentioned in the brief exchange between the hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies) and my hon. Friend. If the railway happened to go by the very direct route, and the existing roads went by devious routes, it might be useful to have the railway converted into a road. That is one 713 matter the Tribunal might usefully consider.
Another question is whether alternative means of transport should be provided to take the place of those which the branch line provided. In that connection I wish to stress that my hon. Friend, as he said, is not compelling any bus company to run a service, and is not compelling a licensing authority for passenger vehicles to do anything which is at present a matter within its discretion and upon which it exercises a quasi-judicial judgment. All that he is saying is that the Transport Tribunal, having carefully considered the matter, should have power to make a recommendation to the licensing authority for passenger vehicles that a bus service should be operated, if anyone will make an application to operate one.
Hon. Members are, no doubt, familiar with the fact that in a licensing authority's court, when applications for service licences are made, the licensing authority frequently uses a certain amount of gentle, tactful persuasion on bus companies, whether nationalised or otherwise. It says to a company "You are going to be given a virtual monopoly along that very well populated route, where you are certain to make a good living, and if you want that monopoly you have to take your fair share, along with others, of some of the unremunerative routes." So we should bear that in mind, when considering this power, which would be given the Transport Tribunal, to make recommendations to the licensing authority for passenger vehicles as to the desirability of a bus service being operated.
My hon. Friend said that canals and inland waterways are not mentioned in the Bill. I think he overlooked one small reference to them which comes in Clause 4 (2) (c), in which we find that the Transport Tribunal, when considering the provision of alternative means of transport, may make a recommendation as to(c) the operation, whether by the Commission or some other body, company or person, of other means of transport whether by rail, road or water.That is not the least bit fanciful. I can recollect a case in the Highlands of Scotland, which may be familiar to you, Mr. Speaker. The railway is the West Highlands railway. I hope it is extremely 714 unlikely that any part of that railway will ever be closed down; but, if it were by some misfortune closed down, then in view of the fact that long stretches of it run alongside lochs, whether inland lochs like Loch Lomond or sea lochs, the provision of a waterbus, where the railway line ran, might be very useful indeed. So that to that modest extent the Bill does deal with waterways as well.
A word about railway lines which have already been closed. I personally think it would be a very rare case indeed in which the Transport Commission could be compelled to reopen a line which had been completely closed, and all goods and passenger trains stopped, and all the stations had been closed. In practice, that is not likely to be the sort of case which Clause 3 would affect. The case that Clause is getting at is the one where the line has been closed for, say, passenger services only, but is still being kept open for goods traffic. With a bit of further thought and imagination it might be considered worth while to reopen that line for traffic. That is the sort of case my hon. Friend is getting at by means of Clause 3.
I should explain why, in my opinion, my hon. Friend is wise to suggest that the Tribunal should do this work instead of the consultative committees. The consultative committees, in my opinion, are not suitable for these reasons. First, their members are part-time members, and they are busy people; secondly, they hold only rather rare meetings at each of which they have a long agenda; thirdly, experience so far shows that they do not have the chance to penetrate below the surface of the issues with which they are faced, and, incidentally, they have not been encouraged to do so, as the remarks of the Transport Commission's witness, whom my hon. Friend quoted, clearly shows. The consultative committees have had to accept the facts given to them by the Commission, and they have had no procedure for effectively challenging witnesses by cross-examination, no procedure for compelling the production of documents in the ordinary way.
Experience and public feeling about consultative committees show that, with the best will in the world and the keenest efforts on their part, these committees are not suitable for this work as they are at present constituted. If they were to 715 have sub-committees with a legally qualified chairman and members with the right experience, possibly including an accountant, and formed themselves into quasi-judicial tribunals, they might be very much better.
Why do we say that the Transport Tribunal is suitable? It has a legally qualified chairman of good standing. He is assisted by expert members, including generally an accountant, and the Tribunal's procedure would enable it to make inquiry into the matters at issue. The Tribunal's tradition is derived from the Railway and Canal Commission and the Railway Rates Tribunal. That tradition already makes the Tribunal familiar with the sort of issues that they would have to decide. It is interesting to note that the question which they would have to decide under the Bill is very similar to an issue which the Tribunal would still have power to decide under Section 2 of the Railway and Canal Traffic Act, 1854, as to the provision of reasonable facilities. That is still part of the law.
If the Transport Tribunal must tour the country, as it obviously would have to do, in order to hear the cases which are envisaged in the Bill, and if it happens to have a lot of work in London, as it has at the moment—although it has not always had that work since it was constituted—I foresee practical difficulties. These difficulties could be easily overcome, however, by the Transport Tribunal having another division added to it, with a chairman of that division and other members to be appointed to sit with him.
It would, of course, cost something extra, though I think nothing very great. It is difficult to say how much, but I should think it would be at least £10,000 a year; and a Money Resolution would be necessary. We look to the cooperation of my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and of the Government in this matter. If my hon. Friend is unable to co-operate in that way, which would cause a great disappointment to hon. Members on both sides of the House, we must think of another alternative in Committee.
I therefore ask the House to support my hon. Friend the Member for Leo- 716 minster and give the Bill a Second Reading. I ask it to do so, in order that we may see whether by our combined efforts we can help our country people, on whom so much depends. I ask the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to be really handsome, as we know he can be, and give us a helping hand and offer the valuable assistance of his Department in the later stages of the Bill.
There is nothing revolutionary about the Bill. In a way, it is merely a collation of old principles because, under the Abandonment of Railways Act, 1850, which is still part of the law, the Commission can sell or lease a railway. To that extent, incidentally, one of the Clauses of the Bill may be slightly redundant. Under the Railway and Canal Traffic Act, 1854, the Commission is still obliged to provide reasonable facilities; and under the Light Railways Act, 1896, the Commission or anybody else can already apply to the Minister for permission to run an existing railway as a light railway. Therefore, what the Bill does is to gather up some threads and give the Transport Tribunal the power to make an important decision, which, I feel, the public would welcome.
§ 12.5 p.m.
§ Mr. Will Owen (Morpeth)
I think the House appreciates the nature of the Bill in so far as it directs attention to a certain rural problem. There may be doubts about the wisdom of the proposals embodied in it, but I am certain that in moving the Second Reading the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) has called attention to a matter for which the Government must accept some degree of responsibility within the immediate future.
It was of more than passing interest to hear the hon. Member's comment in reminding his Government and his party of the promise that was made in 1951 to deal with the problem of transport in the rural areas, and to realise that that promise still awaits fulfilment. I am sure that what evidence I can bring to induce hon. and right hon. Members opposite to expedite some action to ensure the fulfilment of that promise will be welcomed by the hon. Member.
Without doubt this problem is by no means confined to the hon. Member's constituency. It is a national problem, but 717 each of us in turn will find evidence within his own limited field to enhance the emphasis that this matter is nationally important. Within Northumberland there is challenging evidence of the urgent need for consideration of this question of rural transport. Voluntary organisations within the county have for some considerable time devoted efforts to providing substantial evidence to show the need for the Government to deal with the matter.
Between the wars, we grew familiar with the concept that the development of road transport would help to unify the urban and rural communities and in so doing spread the amenities of a developing civilisation. We subsequently find that while the opening up of new means of communication has brought the rural communities into more direct contact with their urban neighbours it has not been a two-way traffic. It has tended to be singularly a migration from the rural areas into the towns, and that depletion of the countryside is a challenge to the need for development of Britain's agricultural industry.
It has been stated that during the postwar years about 10,000 workers left the rural areas of Northumberland. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of that figure, but it has secured a fair degree of local publicity. If it be so, then one must seek the reason for this depletion of the rural areas of this important county. The hon. Member for Leominster, in introducing his Measure, expressed the opinion that one of the limits that may be recited as the cause of the difficulties that give rise to this problem is the inadequate wages of the agricultural worker. I still think that that is a vital factor, quite independent of the recent increases which have been made, because the glamour of the towns, the incentive of limited hours and higher remuneration are attractions that can only be met by an equal challenge in the rural areas in terms of the pay packet and of the development of local amenities.
Secondly, and without question, there is the challenge of the depletion of rural transport—the inability of the rural community to move freely from the villages to the towns and in the reverse direction. I am informed by the North-East Industrial and Development Association and the Northumberland Rural District Council's Association that, during the 718 past two years, in the County of Northumberland 38 miles of railway and 13 railway stations have been closed. This in itself has had a serious effect upon the transport facilities of the rural communities.
It is within my knowledge that, arising from representations by the local people, efforts have been made to persuade local bus companies to maintain reasonably adequate bus services. It has been pressed to the point of consultation and investigation, and, as one of my hon. Friends in an interjection reminded the House, we cannot compel an authority or a local bus proprietor to maintain an unremunerative service. It is true that over recent years, a number of the small proprietors, setting out undoubtedly with a desire to establish a service and hopeful that it would be a source of effective remuneration, have found that there are not the passengers available to maintain the service.
§ Mr. Baldwin
Will not the hon. Gentlemen agree that one reason for that is that when a small operator starts out from a very remote district and comes to a main bus route, he is not entitled to pick up passengers on that route, whereas we feel that he should be entitled to do so? If anybody wants picking up on emerging from a remote district to a main route, the operator should be entitled to some of the traffic on the rest of the journey.
§ Mr. Owen
There may be something in that, but, frankly, would it not be more advisable to look at the whole problem comprehensively and see what are the possibilities of co-ordinating the interests of the small proprietors, so that a more established and generally effective service is developed by a larger company?
It will be of information and interest to the House that in the County of Northumberland, the United Company is on record as proclaiming that 50 per cent. of its rural services are unremunerative, but it has maintained a solvent balance-sheet by successful services in the thickly populated urban areas. We have over the past two years sought to interest the British Transport Commission in this problem, which I believe is one that can only be ultimately resolved on a national basis, with the willingness of the Government to recognise a degree of responsibility for ensuring a community service 719 for those people who are isolated here and there throughout the countryside.
§ Mr. David Jones (The Hartlepools)
Is my hon. Friend aware that the British Transport Commission has attempted, by an area scheme, to integrate and reorganise the whole of the road transport services in the North-Eastern area, and that it was only defeated by the opposition of hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite and their friends?
§ Mr. Owen
I thank my hon. Friend for that reminder, and I am hopeful that his comment will have been duly noted by the Minister and taken into account in his assessment of the importance of the Measure now before the House.
Let me conclude with this comment. I believe that this is a national problem. I believe that it will be effectively resolved only on the basis of the public ownership of transport services being extended in its fullness into the rural areas. The experience of the last four years has provided added and conclusive evidence that the desire to rebuild private enterprise is not by any means the answer to the problem.
§ 12.17 p.m.
§ Mr. W. G. Leburn (Kinross and West Perthshire)
I rise to address this House for the first time, and in so doing I am confident about only one thing, and that is that my very small contribution to this debate Will be received with the usual tolerance, kindness and understanding accorded to hon. Members when they are faced with the prospect of undertaking the task that lies ahead of me. In return, I promise that I shall be brief, because I am deeply conscious of my shortcomings, and because, if I may quote, I have it on the highest authority of this House, Mr. Speaker himself, thatIt is a matter of simple arithmetic that if an hon. Member takes 20 minutes to make a speech, there is time for another speech of the same length. If he takes 40 minutes, one speech is cut out."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th June, 1955; Vol. 542, c. 8.]I assure you, Mr. Speaker, that I shall not even take the 20 minutes.
In choosing this occasion today, I am well aware that many hon. Members more experienced than myself will deem me to be unwise, but I can justify my decision, at least to myself, by saying that there is no interest that lies deeper 720 in my heart than that of the countryside; and, if I may discriminate, may I also say that of the Scottish countryside, which, I hope, we may be able to preserve for our children and our children's children to enjoy.
But our considerations must range wider than the preservation of the countryside for enjoyment, because the plain fact understood by most people is that the contribution made by the rural areas, in agriculture, in forestry, in tourism, and so on, plays a vital part in the well-being of this island of ours.
Already, great strides have been made in providing amenities and necessary services. The Government and the local authorities have made great progress in providing modern houses, piped water supplies, good drainage schemes, improved roads, electricity and telephone installations. The modern trends in planning are, rightly I believe, towards providing agricultural houses in groups, or "cluchans" so that wives may be better able to visit towns and children better able to get to the schools. All the advantages of these services and amenities will be lost—in many cases they have been lost—unless adequate transport is provided.
In my constituency, Kinross and West Perthshire, there are many rural areas where no public transport whatever is provided. In these days agricultural workers will simply not take up positions in the industry unless such services exist. This has inevitably resulted in good arable land being put down to grass. Arable land needs men and machines working together. Machines will not work by remote control. The same tragic situation is arising in our noble glens, like Glendevon and Glen Lyon, perhaps the noblest of them all, where sheep farmers are finding it virtually impossible to engage shepherds. The same problem arises: shepherds will not just accept appointments, unless some form of public transport is available.
The North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, as you know, Mr. Speaker, is required by Parliament to carry out, so far as its position and powers permit, any measures for the economic development and social improvement of the area in which it operates. This work is of great importance to the depopulated parts of the northern counties of Scotland, and 721 many of the experiments and researches being carried out by the Board or in co-operation with other bodies are providing, and could still further provide, much stimulus to life in the Highlands. This also will be seriously retarded unless transport facilities are provided.
I hope that my remarks about the Hydro-Electric Board will not encourage my hon. Friend the Member for Kidder-minister (Mr. Nabarro), who is inclined from time to time to upbraid the Board, to consider what I have said as controversial. I would remind him that he has as great an interest as anyone else in our glens carrying a heavy population of sheep, for the sheep provide the important raw material for the carpet industry in his constituency. I would remind my hon. Friend that there are perhops more than "two black sheep on the Braes of Balquidder."
We have heard of "the drift to the towns" or "the drift from the countryside." I do not know which is correct, but I know that the towns and the countryside are drifting wider apart, and that is to the detriment of both. The drift will continue unless we do something about it, and something can be done about it. Agricultural workers have the right to the same services as workers in the towns, and if the agricultural worker and his wife cannot get these services they will inevitably move to the towns and, as sure as night follows day, we shall find that the countryside is seriously denuded of workers. I see in the Bill the start of action to safeguard public transport in rural areas, and it is for that reason that I support it.
I have hopes that the Bill may yet be improved to safeguard existing road transport and even to make provision for new services in remote rural areas where there is none. Even if this cannot at this stage be achieved, I feel that the Bill makes a start with the problem. In the remoter parts of the countryside, where orthodox methods of transport might prove uneconomical, I believe that much can be done by resorting to unorthodox methods, such as using buses or other vehicles of a size more in keeping with the number of passengers to be carried, using a small vehicle carrying six to eight passengers and having a driver who also collects the fares. I believe that if such methods were adopted 722 many of the routes could be made to run economically.
I have already had some experience of railway lines being closed. I have attended and given evidence before transport users' consultative committees considering the closure of branch lines. I have been far from convinced that the support which the committees have given to the Transport Commission's proposals to close the lines has been warranted.
In fairness, however, I must draw attention to a case now being considered in my constituency relating to the Gleneagles—Crieff—Comrie line. The consultative committee came out against the Commission and found that no case had been made out for the closure. But, even here, what action was taken? The Commission decided to run the railway for a further six months and to decide on the result of that working whether or not the line should be kept open. There is no safeguard that when the six months are up in February, irrespective of any recommendations which may be made by the consultative committee, the Commission may not decide, willy-nilly, to close the line. The line serves a population of about 10,000 people engaged in agriculture, industry, forestry, and a not inconsiderable tourist traffic.
My constituency is faced with the danger of many stations being closed, and hardship will be caused unless this action is stopped or alternative arrangements are made. I know that when a branch line is closed the general manager of British Railways in Scotland is very willing to co-operate with bus companies to arrange an alternative bus service, but either the service is never provided or there is always the danger of the buses being withdrawn after running for three or four months. This Bill provides safeguards against such practices.
In conclusion, I suggest that movement, whether applied to our daily lives, to agriculture or to industry, is the most important single factor as a means to the end. This is particularly important in rural areas because of the distances involved. Without movement, not only should we lose efficiency but everything would come to a standstill. Therefore, anything that we can do to facilitate or improve movement by means of transport in rural areas is, taking a broad view, a 723 step in the right direction, and I believe that the Bill has this object in view.
§ 12.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Clifford Kenyon (Chorley)
I am sure I am expressing the feelings of the whole House when I say how heartily we congratulate the hon. Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Leburn) on the excellent way in which he has overcome the first hurdle facing a new Member. I am sure that the quiet confidence with which he delivered his speech is one of those features most acceptable to the House. It was obvious from the sincerity and comprehensiveness of his speech that he was speaking from experience. That is another feature which the House is always willing to accept. The House will look forward to more speeches from the hon. Member, especially when he is speaking on a subject he fully understands. There was one thing that puzzled me as the hon. Member comes from over the Border. I could hardly have said from his speech that he was from over the Border. If he wants to become a good Member of the Scottish Grand Committee, he must roll his r's a little more or put some other inflection into his voice.
I have some very mixed feelings towards the Bill which the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) has introduced. I am sorry I cannot give him the same full support I have always given him on subsidies, because I feel that almost the whole purpose of the Bill—I will not say all—can be dealt with by existing legislation and through the Minister and the British Transport Commission. I am at some loss to understand why the road services, which are so great a part of the rural life of the country, find so small place in the Bill. Most of the Bill is directed to the Transport Commission and to the railways, but the Commission does not close down railways if they are remunerative. If the Commission can get hold of money by running railways, it will do so. It is when the railways become a loss, or when they will become a loss through required renewals of track and so forth, that the Transport Commission closes them down; or when there is an adequate service of road transport which becomes the major service and takes the traffic.
The key to the problem is a comprehensive, co-ordinated service of rail, road, 724 sea and canal traffic, throughout the length and breadth of the country, so that wherever traffic is profitable the greatest use can be made of it and the unprofitable section can be run because of the profitable sections. The Government have sabotaged the Transport Act, 1947, which, under the Labour Government, introduced such a comprehensive scheme. The Bill goes to show that some damage is already being done by splitting up the services which existed under that Act.
§ Mr. Rupert Speir (Hexham)
It is only since the nationalisation of the railways and the setting up of the British Transport Commission that the branch lines are being closed down in such a wholesale manner.
§ Mr. Kenyon
The hon. Member must not make a statement like that. Everyone knows that this has been taking place for many years. It will be within the memory of many hon. Members, especially those from rural areas, that we experienced the closing down of branch lines—and if the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Speir) will look at the history of the British Railways, he will find it so—for many years before nationalisation.
I was interested in the statement of the hon. Member for Leominster about how cheaply certain rail cars and so on could be run. The most economic vehicle I ever saw on a railway was in Queensland, where on a single line was a truck that was driven by two men working a lever. They travelled along at a very good speed. It was most amusing when two of these trucks met. The workers got off, tipped one up and allowed the other to go past, and then put their truck back on and each truck then went its own way.
§ Mr. Baldwin
That sort of thing is operated in England. Gangers go up and down the line with similar vehicles.
§ Mr. Kenyon
To have some of these vehicles on the small branch lines would seem to be a solution to the problem. It struck me at the time that it would fill with great delight the hearts of many schoolboys.
Solving the problem of transport in the rural areas is not the solution for preventing the exodus from the land. The reason for the exodus of agricultural workers from the land goes much deeper 725 and is far more comprehensive. So many things enter into it. In the first place, there is the natural human desire for company. That is a desire which we shall never eradicate from the human heart. No matter to what country one goes, one will find the same thing—for example, in the far reaches of Australia and New Zealand, where we are trying to populate the country. In Australia, for instance, 85 per cent. of the population lives within 100 miles of the coast line. One cannot get people to isolate themselves, unless they have a calling and a bent that way.
The great desire of people to associate in company is the main factor for the loss of the rural population to the towns. It could be overcome, in a small way, by the provision of good transport. The provision of electricity would also help, but there again we are up against the same problem as that which we face with transport. The electrification of the countryside will cause a tremendous financial loss to the British Electricity Authority.
§ Mr. Baldwin indicated dissent.
§ Mr. Kenyon
Yes, it will. I have been chairman of an electricity authority for too long not to know that. We must face that problem. The areas where electricity is provided at a profit will have to spread the profit over the country generally before the whole of the land can be electrified.
Another feature is that today the farm labourer wishes to send his children to a good school. Unless we are able to build good secondary modern and grammar schools of which children in rural areas can take advantage, the parents will move nearer to the towns where facilities are available. There are a hundred and one different considerations which are bringing the rural population from the country to the towns. It is not merely a matter of transport.
I want to discuss the position of the bus operators. In my constituency, the Ribble Motor Services, Ltd., has an absolute monopoly. It operates all the buses, and it is no use saying that small operators can come in. When the bus company ceases to operate a service because it says that it is totally unremunerative—first it cuts the service down from one an hour to one every two hours, and then every three hours—and the small 726 operator makes application to the Traffic Commissioner for permission to run a service, who objects? It is usually the company which is failing to carry out the job. It makes objection to the Commissioner and puts facts and figures before him. I have yet to see the application of a small operator succeed so that he can start to run a service.
There is a monopoly for the private bus company. It is a monopoly operated under the safeguard of the Traffic Commissioner. It is astonishing that the Traffic Commissioner seems to allow increases of fares whenever the company makes application. This is a company which makes a good profit. It could run many of these rural services out of this profit and thus serve the population in the countryside. Its profit would be less, but the service would be provided. But it refuses to do that and also refuses to allow other operators to provide a service.
§ Sir Peter Macdonald (Isle of Wight)
Surely it is the duty of the licensing authority to attend to a situation of that kind. I do not know why the hon. Gentleman should say that any monopoly should have the right to keep any other company off the road if that company has a case and can prove need.
§ Mr. Kenyon
This has been before the Traffic Commissioner in Manchester on a number of occasions. No small operator has yet succeeded, in face of this huge monopoly of the very large undertakers. The matter has been examined, figures have been given, the appeal of the people in the districts concerned has been considered, but the monopoly still exists, and it is worked under a power provided by this House.
§ Mr. Baldwin
I do not want to keep on interrupting, but the hon. Gentleman cannot have read Clause 5 (2) of the Bill which gives authority and power to the Transport Tribunal to deal with the licensing authority when representations are made. This is what we are doing. We are giving them authority to do away with the monopoly which exists at present.
§ Mr. Kenyon
Surely the hon. Member does not mean to say that he really believes that this House will take away the powers of the Traffic Commissioners? That is what he would be doing by his 727 Bill. He would be overriding the powers of the Traffic Commissioners. The Traffic Commissioner considers the operation of all the buses in the whole of an area, and all the transport facilities available, and if small bits of the area are not served they are just not considered when the whole is taken into account.
I hope that the British Transport Commission will consider far more seriously than it appears to have done in many instances the closing down of small branch lines. I believe that there is still a possibility that small branch lines might at least be able to carry their own weight, if not make profits. I suggest that the solution lies in the more modern methods of transport suggested by the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin). The diesel engine and the electric train can cut costs considerably.
The Commission is considering the question. It is developing these ideas in many parts of the country, and we are informed that in the Rossendale Valley before Christmas steam trains will be replaced by diesel trains. That will be an advantage. However, much of the cost of these services which falls on the Commission arises from the upkeep of the stations along the line where it is necessary to have a station-master, a booking clerk and a porter.
The day will come, I believe, when modern trains on these lines will have a conductor to sell the tickets on the train, just like a bus conductor. The Transport Commission could introduce that system today, without the Bill. It is quite unnecessary to put that in the Bill, when it can already be done. That would take away the tremendous cost involved in the upkeep of the stations and the provision of booking clerks, and so on. It would bring down the running costs to such an extent that these branch lines would become economic.
§ Mr. A. J. Champion (Derbyshire, South-East)
Just for the sake of the record, I should like to say that it happens that my first job after the 1914–18 war, back on the railway, was to act as a conductor similar to a conductor on a bus. I issued the tickets, so this is by no means a new idea. In fact it is done to advantage.
§ Mr. Kenyon
I am glad that hon. Members are helping me with my speech, but surely my hon. Friend must agree that the Commission has not gone quickly enough into this question, nor did the private railways. If this method operated after the First World War I must say that it does not exist in many places. It could have existed in far more if the authorities had pursued the matter. I hope that the Transport Commission will get on with the job.
I am somewhat disappointed with this Bill. I feel sure that if the hon. Member for Leominster had introduced a Bill to deal with subsidies I could have given him more wholehearted support. Only yesterday I saw in the newspapers a statement that the hon. Member was not proposing to take part in the next General Election. I am very sorry about that, but I hope that in the next few years, if he is again successful in the Ballot, as I hope he will be—I seem to be a poor gambler and am never successful—he will bring forward a Measure which may be far more effective than this one.
§ 12.50 p.m.
§ Sir Peter Macdonald (Isle of Wight)
As the representative of a constituency which has suffered more than most from the activities of the British Transport Commission, I welcome this Bill, because it deals with a great many of the problems which have confronted my constituents for the last few years. Several references have been made to the Isle of Wight, where our complaint is that no long-term policy regarding railways is being pursued by the Transport Commission. We are forced to the conclusion that the Commission is determined to lop off the branch lines one by one and to divert the traffic on to the roads. A number of branch lines in the Isle of Wight have been closed completely in the last two or three years and another one is to be closed in the next two or three months.
There is, first, the question of the amount of notice given to local authorities before a branch line is closed, in order that they may be able to prepare their objections and to put a case for the users against the closing of the line and, if possible, offer alternative proposals. That has not been provided until now. The Transport Commission is aware that the roads on the Isle of Wight are not suited to heavy traffic.
729 There are, of course, no trunk roads and there are no through roads, and the existing roads cannot carry the traffic diverted on to them by the elimination of these branch lines.
In a recent inquiry into the closing of a branch line, it was revealed that several villages would be left without transport because the residents relied on the railway to convey them into the towns. One village, Alverstone, will be cut off from rail or road transport. We were informed by the surveyor that to prepare the existing road facilities by means of lay-bys, and so on, would cost £15,000. No provision has been made for that, and the surveyor states that the work would have to take priority over other work at present being carried out. Even so, he does not think that he could have the work completed by the time the branch line is closed, or until midsummer. That is one illustration of the problem which confronts local authorities when branch lines are closed, and, therefore, I welcome the Clause in the Bill stating that ample notice should be given to local authorities to enable them to prepare their objections and provide an alternative method of transport.
The branch line which is shortly to be closed in the Isle of Wight is, we maintain, an integral part of the whole railway system on the island. It links up towns with the coast and the ferries, and to close it down would weaken the whole system. Traffic will not be diverted to the remainder of the railway system. Therefore, the railway will experience a loss and in time the Commission will maintain that it is losing money on the whole system and will probably close the system altogether. That is what alarms the local authorities. We are convinced that it is the policy of the Commission to divert as much traffic as possible on to the roads especially in places like the Isle of Wight where it controls all the ferries, except one, the railways and the road services.
It is not surprising that the local authorities and the residents are alarmed at the way in which they are being treated by the Commission. At a public inquiry before the Transport Users' Consultative Committee the local authorities took the matter very seriously and prepared their case carefully. They employed counsel and accountants, and put a convincing 730 case before the Committee. The counsel, an eminent Q.C., who put the case for the local authorities, pointed out that the figures presented by the Railway Executive would not bear inspection, but the Transport Commissioners' representative said that they would stand by their figures and would not be cross-examined.
I disagree with the present set-up of the Transport Users' Consultative Committee, because it is quite ineffective. To be effective, it should be given powers similar to those of the Estimates Committee or of the Select Committees of this House so that evidence could be given on oath. That should apply to any tribunal set up by the Government. Otherwise, it is possible for people to spend a great deal of time and money preparing a case and employing counsel, and then have their case more or less completely ignored. When these cases go to the central body, local authorities, again, are denied that right of putting their case. The next thing they know is that an arbitrary order has been issued that the line must be discontinued. The present position is extremely unsatisfactory from the users' point of view.
That is a very serious matter in an enclosed area such as the Isle of Wight. The position there is unique. There are three alternative routes to the island, but because of the policy adopted by the Transport Commission most of the traffic is diverted to one route. One of the chief arguments in favour of maintaining the Sandown—Newport line—which it is proposed to close down in February—is that it would divert some of the very heavy traffic from Portsmouth to Ryde on to the Cowes—Newport—Sandown route. If that line is closed there will be no direct route from that coast to the other coastal towns except through Ryde, and that will result in even heavier congestion of traffic.
On one day last year 67,000 people landed on and left the island on the Portsmouth—Ryde route. Such numbers put a very heavy burden on the boats and on those running them, and on the railways, and I must give those concerned full marks for the way in which they handle that traffic. With all those people congregating on Ryde pier and wishing to get to other parts of the island one can well imagine the size of the traffic problem. It is, therefore, vitally 731 important that these other routes should be given more prominence and steps taken to divert some of the traffic to them, but I know of no effort made by the Transport Commission, the Traffic Commissioners or anyone else to try to deal with the situation. Ryde pier is a quarter of a mile long and provides no shelter. There are sometimes queues stretching the full length of the pier, waiting in the sun or in the pouring rain for hours to get on the boat, but though we have been pressing the railway to do something about that nothing has yet been done. The railway service to the island is first class, but we claim that the Transport Commission does not give the public a fair deal on the island.
Certain parts of this Bill may help us. Here I must address myself to the Minister, because I think that the Minister allows the Transport Commission to get away with too much. It is true that the Commission is a statutory body, and no doubt any Minister is loath to interfere with it in the discharge of its functions. Nevertheless, the Minister has a right of veto in most cases and has to give his approval to any elimination of branch lines. As I say, I think the Minister lets the Commission get away with too much. Up to now I do not know of any case where he has refused permission to close a line. He certainly has not done so in the Isle of Wight, where three of four branch lines have been or are being closed.
I can well understand the Minister's reluctance. The House has told the Commission that it must make its services pay. We do not want to ask it to run unprofitable lines, but by improving efficiency much can be done to improve the economy of the service. That is another complaint we have. The Commission gave a two-year respite to the Sandown—Newport line, but has done nothing during that time to improve the service, to make it more attractive to the people or to make it pay. It has merely let it run its course.
A great deal more could be done to make the railways on the island more efficient. The Commission should be made to justify its figures when seeking to take a line out of use. Although we have pressed the Commission to do so, it has not produced figures and, in addition, it ignores the figures produced by 732 the users. If these tribunals are to be of any use it is vitally important that the evidence given and figures produced to them should be on oath and subject to cross-examination when necessary. Otherwise, they are utterly and completely useless. It is also time that some of the accounting methods used by some of our nationalised industries were investigated. If any private firm produced figures in a like manner in order to try to justify profits or losses it would find itself either in Carey Street or in the Old Bailey in no time.
I give this Bill my wholehearted support. I hope that the Minister also will support it, in order to try to put a little reality, life and substance into these bodies which are supposed to represent the interests of road and rail users. I do not see any chance of an improvement in our road and rail services so long as a monopoly body like the British Transport Commission owns, as it does in the Isle of Wight, all means of travel in an enclosed area, and can arbitrarily use its powers to suit its own convenience, regardless of the condition of the roads on to which it is throwing the heavy traffic. I hope that the Bill will get a Second Reading and that every facility will be given to enact it at an early date.
§ 1.10 p.m.
§ Mr. David Jones (The Hartlepools)
I should like to invite the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Sir P. Macdonald) to repeat the closing sentences of his speech outside the precincts of this Palace so that the people he has maligned may be enabled to take him to court for slander.
§ Sir P. Macdonald
I have not said anything in my speech which has not already been said at a public inquiry by an eminent counsel.
§ Mr. Jones
Let me remind the hon. Gentleman that if he reads the Report of the Public Accounts Committee for 1952 he will find that the then chairman of the Commission and its chief officers were examined by the members of the Public Accounts Committee, and that evidence is contained in the Report for that year, together with the assistance of the Comptroller and Auditor General.
I had the temerity to address a question to one of the public auditors who audits the accounts of the British Transport Commission and I invited him to tell the Committee whether, if he was auditing the accounts of a public company, he would supply as much, or more, or less information to the shareholders than the British Transport Commission supplies to the Members of this House in its annual published reports. The reply of Sir Harold Barton was that he would not be thanked by any body of shareholders of any company with which he was connected if he burdened them with half the information that the British Transport Commission supplies to the 625 Members of this House who care to read the Report.
I invite the hon. Gentleman, therefore, before he makes a speech of this kind again, to examine that Report. It is no part of my business to defend the British Transport Commission, but those of us who take an interest in transport affairs know perfectly well that the Commission publishes voluminous evidence and information relating to its operations. Indeed, it publishes a good deal of information about the subject of this Bill.
§ Mr. Renton
No doubt the hon. Gentleman appreciates that however much information one may publish in support of one's own case, it is quite valueless unless one allows somebody else who may disagree with that information to cross-examine about it.
§ Mr. Jones
Exactly. I make no complaint. The hon. and learned Gentleman says that it is useless to publish a report unless one is entitled to criticise it. I 734 suggest that he has done his share of criticism, and so have I, and I make no complaint on that score. But it is unfair to make a criticism of that sort of the accounts of the British Transport Commission which are examined first of all by public auditors appointed by the Minister of Transport and not by the Commission. The Report submitted by the Commission is debatable in this House, and, indeed, opportunities are taken on all kinds of occasions to debate the affairs of the British Transport Commission.
§ Sir P. Macdonald
If what the hon. Gentleman says is true, what objection could the British Transport Commission representatives in the southern areas have to giving evidence on oath or being cross-examined at the Isle of Wight inquiry about three years ago? They refused to be cross-examined. What justification could they have for refusing it?
§ Mr. Jones
I do not know the circumstances or the details of that occasion. All I know is that since the British Transport Commission has been established, certainly since 1951, I have in my own humble way offered criticism both in this House and by communication to the chief officers of the British Transport Commission, and I have always met with complete courtesy and a full answer. Of course, I have not always been satisfied with the answer. Sometimes the Commission has not done the things that I have asked it to do, but that is not unreasonable to expect. If the hon. Gentleman likes to write to the chairman of the Commission, I am sure that he will get a full answer. I am certain that I am not treated preferentially. It is unfair to make this kind of criticism.
I apologise to the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin), who is not at present in his place, for not being here to listen to his speech, but my absence was unavoidable. The objects behind this Bill are admirable, but I do not think they will achieve the purpose. I do not think anybody in this House or outside will deny the concern that is felt by everybody about the denuding of the countryside of its more virile population. My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon) said that it is not peculiar to this country. The hon. and learned Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Renton) knows that I made the same point in another 735 context at a meeting which he and I attended a few months ago. Even in the Dominions there is the same complaint of the drift from the countryside to the big towns. Anyone examining the population of Australia will find that more than half the population of each of the States lives either in or on the periphery of the big cities.
I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley was right when he said that the drift to the towns is inevitable. We have got to do everything we can to avoid it. I believe it will be a sorry day for this country if the agricultural industry should be so denuded of its population that we have a decaying industry. Therefore, everything possible ought to be done to encourage men and women to live and rear their families in the countryside.
The rural worker is entitled to the same standard of amenities as the town dweller enjoys. He is entitled to the same standard of education for his children, and unfortunately he often does not get it today. He is entitled to all the advantages of modern amenities, such as electricity, gas and piped water. Unfortunately, there are many cases in which these amenities are lacking in the countryside. There are still many villages in the border counties of Wales through which the high pressure pipelines pass on their way to the big cities in England, and yet these villages still have to rely upon a stand pump at the end of the street.
The same applies to rural transport. It is necessary that transport should be provided in the countryside in order that the people may go about their business from day to day. We must recognise, however, that many of these rural services must inevitably produce a loss at the end of a given period. The degree of traffic which is to be carried is so small and is so spread out, that however much the services are spread out, the lay-over time which the bus crews have at each end of the journey makes it so expensive to operate the service. How much more difficult is it for British Railways to maintain a profitable service in rural areas.
I heard it suggested that the diesel rail car would provide a considerably cheaper service. I admit that on the evidence available, we can reduce the costs of 736 operating a branch line service if we introduce a diesel rail car with two men aboard instead of the proverbial three on the steam train. The permanent way must be maintained, the signal boxes must be maintained and staffed with qualified people, the overbridges and underbridges must be maintained and the fences on both sides of the line must be maintained to keep animals from straying on to the line. All these things mean that the cost of operating a diesel car is considerably more than is popularly believed.
§ Mr. Renton
This is based on the assumption that the railway is continued to be operated as an ordinary railway. The costs which the hon. Member has mentioned could be very much reduced if it were operated as a light railway under the Light Railways Act, as envisaged in the Bill.
§ Mr. Jones
That is not the case at all. It can be operated as a light railway only if the speed of the vehicle travelling over the light railway is reduced so that it is capable of stopping within its length. Otherwise protective measures must be taken. If there are likely to be two, three or four goods and passenger trains mixed up, even when operating in that way, there must be signal boxes. If there are overbridges crossing roads, rivers or ravines, they must be maintained. If there are bridges under which the railway passes, they must be maintained. If animals, grazing in the fields on the side of the line, are to be prevented from getting on to the line, fencing must be maintained.
This matter has already been considered by the British Transport Commission and by the Central Consultative Committee. We read in paragraph 41 of page 7 of the 1954 Report:The Central Committee, at the request of the Minister, expressed their views on the reorganisation of the railways; on road passenger contract carriages and on other matters in the Thesiger Report …The Committee goes on to say:The Central Committee also studied the use of diesel passenger train sets on lightly-used branch lines, and were satisfied that the change-over to diesel train units would not necessarily turn an unprofitable branch line into a profitable one.
§ Mr. Renton
The hon. Gentleman has missed the point. The passage which he 737 read assumes that the railways will continue to be operated as an ordinary railway and not as a light railway under the 1896 Act. A light railway is very similar to a tramway.
§ Mr. Jones
I fully appreciate that. I am answering the point made earlier that the use of a diesel rail car would solve the problem of branch lines, whereas in fact it does nothing of the kind.
There have been a number of cases in which the branch line has been abandoned for passenger traffic but still used for mineral traffic. In such cases the railway authority can save a substantial sum. For example, the standard of the permanent way need not of necessity be as high for a slow-moving goods train as for a passenger train. The one-train-in-section system can be used, whereby the driver in charge of the vehicle gets a staff from the signal box at the commencement of the branch line and until the staff has returned to the box no other train is permitted to travel on the railway. That cannot be done with passenger trains.
The Ministry of Transport insists upon a minimum standard in its regulations, and where passengers are being carried, whether it is described as a light railway or any other kind of railway, and whether diesel cars are used or steam engines, the standard laid down in the regulation must be observed.
It therefore seems to me that, while the purpose of the Bill may be admirable, it does not solve the problem. I think the present system is much better. The Bill as drafted in Clause 4 (3) is highly dangerous. Perhaps the hon. and learned Member for Huntingdon might give his attention to this point. As I entered the Chamber earlier I heard him dealing with some of the Clauses. Perhaps he will tell us what is meant by Clause 4 (3) which reads:For the purpose of giving effect to any such recommendation or direction as aforesaid the Transport Tribunal may include in their decision a requirement that the Commission shall sell, lease or otherwise dispose of the railway to the highest bidder.Does this mean that it is possible for it to be rigged in advanced? What does the Bill mean when it refers to "railways"? If hon. Members turn to the 738 interpretation Clause they will find that "railway' includes part of a railway." Does that mean that the railway must be disposed of to the highest bidder in proper working condition and that the fences, signal boxes, permanent way and all other constructions must be in working order when it is handed over? What evidence is there that the highest bid, whatever it may be, will be anything like the value to be handed over?
§ Mr. Renton
The hon. Gentleman has invited me to explain what this means. I think he is adopting an extremely perverse and ideological approach and has taken the subsection out of its context. If he will read it in the light of the Abandonment of Railways Act, 1850, he will see that this is nothing to which any reasonable person could object.
§ Mr. Jones
I am afraid that that explanation is no more satisfactory than the subsection.
The burden of the debate has centred around the suggestion that the necessity for the closing of a branch line should be examined by such a body as the Transport Tribunal. In my judgment, the Transport Tribunal is not a competent body to do the job. The hon. and learned Member for Huntingdon well knows that it is composed of three or four people. In his speech he said that it was likely to cost £10,000 to keep this body almost permanently and full-time on the job, but I think that is a very low estimate and I think the cost would be considerably more than £10,000. In any case, I do not think the Transport Tribunal is a suitable body to do the work.
If we turn to the 1951 Report of the British Transport Commission we read in paragraph 11 on page 9:Reference was made in paragraph 30 of the Third Annual Report to the general policy of the Commission in closing branch lines where rail services are no longer justified by the limited requirements of the public, and where road services are able adequately and more economically to meet the public needs. The Commission have continued their survey of such lines in conjunction with the Railway Executive.It goes on to indicate the services and mileage withdrawn and then says:Before authorising the withdrawal of rail facilities the Commission satisfy themselves that alternative road services are available and that the local authorities have been consulted.739 I think that is the answer to the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight. The Report also states:With the setting-up of Area Transport Consultative Committees, all important proposals are now referred to these bodies for their views.We do not take that in isolation because, if one turns to the 1954 Report, we find on page 7, paragraph 39:The Commission have closely co-operated with the Transport Users' Consultative Committees, which are appointed by the Minister, and continue to give them every practical assistance. While identity of view on all occasions is neither possible nor necessarily desirable, there has again been no occasion on which the Minister has felt it necessary to issue a direction as a result of a recommendation made by a consultative committee.Those recommendations have included a considerable number of branch line closures.
The Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation receives the minutes of meetings of this central consultative committee and it issues an annual Report which obviously can be referred to in this House. Therefore, if there were any feeling that a branch line had been closed unnecessarily, it would have been perfectly competent for the parties referred to by the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight to have submitted evidence to the Minister—
§ Mr. Jones
—and which invited him to issue a directive to the British Transport Commission to prove that the figures it had submitted contrary to the figures the accountant appointed by the local authority felt it incumbent upon him to put forward. I suggest that if there was any complaint whatever about the closure of branch lines in the Isle of Wight that should have been be done.
am sorry I have never had the privilege of spending a holiday in the Isle of Wight, and I cannot argue the merits or demerits of the case, but, as I heard the hon. Member say that on one day in the summer this year 67,000 people passed through the quays there, I would remind him that there are 365 days in the year in which all those facilities have to be kept in up-to-date condition if they are to be maintained for public use. It is useless saying that on one day in the summer there were 67,000 740 people if on the other 364 days there were not more than a couple of thousand.
§ Sir P. Macdonald
If the hon. Member came into my constituency any time during June to the end of September he would find that the facilities are quite inadequate for the numbers of people because thousands come and go to the island every day.
§ Mr. Jones
I readily accept that, but I would remind the hon. Member that the period from June to September comprises 16 weeks; what happens in the other 36 weeks? Is he now suggesting that the British Transport Commission can earn sufficient money in the Isle of Wight in 16 weeks to maintain a staff and all the appliances necessary for 52 weeks in the year? I suggest that it is quite impossible and that it is fantastic to expect this body—charged by Parliament, as I shall prove in a moment—to make both ends meet in that way.
I would refer again to the 1953 Report of the Commission which, on page 9, says that there has been considerable consultation. Indeed, I do not know of a single case where there has not been consultation with the local authorities concerned and the trade unions concerned. As I know to my cost, the trade unions do not always agree with the British Transport Commission, but irrefutable facts are ugly things. One has to face the fact that in many of these cases considerable sums of money are having to be spent by the British Transport Commission in maintaining these establishments—and, I say with due humility, to the detriment of the conditions of many thousands of railway workers.
If one were to examine the cause of the decline in bus services as alternatives to rail services in the rural areas of this country one would see that the responsibility can fairly and squarely be placed on the shoulders of the party opposite. The 1953 Transport Act sought to destroy what was attempted to be built up in the 1947 Act. May I remind the hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire that Section 63 of the 1947 Act said:The Commission may, at any time, prepare and submit to the Minister a scheme as to the passenger road transport services serving such area as may be specified in the scheme, 741 being a scheme devised for the purpose of promoting or facilitating the promotion of the co-ordination of the passenger transport services serving the area,When the 1953 Act was going through the House the hon. and learned Member quite blithely and gaily spoke and voted —quite deliberately, I believe—for the exclusion of that provision of the 1947 Act. If that provision had been operated it would have enabled the British Transport Commission and its subsidiary companies to organise and integrate transport services in the areas, including rural areas, for the purpose of making the profitable urban routes pay some of the cost of operating unprofitable routes in the rural areas.
§ Mr. Renton
Will the hon. Member explain how it was that although his party was in power for four years after the 1947 Act came into operation, it did nothing whatever to implement the power it took under that Section?
§ Mr. Jones
That is not true. Of course it is quite untrue, and no one knows that better than the hon. and learned. Member. An attempt was made very early on to establish a scheme in the North-Eastern area, and the hon. and learned Member knows better than I do why it was destroyed. Let him ask the directors of the British Electric Traction Company, the directors of the Northern General Transport Company and the directors of the Sunderland Motor Omnibus Company how much money they spent in the North-East of England to prevent that scheme coming to fruition. I invite him to ask them.
§ Mr. Renton
I do not know what the Icon. Member is getting at, but he is making very serious allegations about gentlemen outside this House—very serious allegations indeed. I do not know whether he is prepared to substantiate them here or outside, but I think he ought to try to do so if he can. Is not the truth of the matter that that area scheme in the North-East was turned down because Socialist-controlled local authorities with their own transport systems would not support it?
§ Mr. Jones
No. That is the second time that statement has been made. The right hon. Gentleman who is now Colonial Secretary had to make an admission at the Dispatch Box that that state- 742 meat was not correct. I frankly confess that some of the Socialist-controlled authorities in the North-East objected to certain aspects of the scheme, but they never objected to the principle. The Northern General Transport Company plastered every one of its buses with slogans. It took a leading part in setting up the Omnibus Owners' Protection Society, and one of the slogans used at that time was:If your services are nationalised your fares will be increased.Let the hon. and learned Member ask the people in the North-East what has happened to their fares since October, 1951.
§ Mr. Jones
Of course, their fares have gone up, but they have increased under private enterprise. The area scheme could not be introduced because of opposition.
I assume from what the hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire now says that he would be prepared to support an area scheme. He knows perfectly well that the rural services cannot be run unless they are supported by the much heavier traffic of the urban services. He knows it perfectly well, and I know it only to my cost. For 12 years I was chairman of the municipal transport committee, which had the job of trying to use the heavy traffic services to maintain services in the semi-rural areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion) knows that it was true, because he was a member of that authority at the same time.
Therefore, I say that the Bill will not in any way help to provide the rural services. Some other method must be employed. We must get back to the principle of integrating the rural and industrial services one with another, in precisely the same way as is done with the Post Office. To whatever part of the country one sends a letter, the cost is 2½d. If I had the temerity to address the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight, the cost in physical effort of sending the letter from London to his constituency would be more than 2½d., but that is all that it would cost me. It is only done because letters which are sent only a short distance cost considerably less in 743 physical effort, and the gain on the one is used to offset the loss on the other.
The only way we can get the rural services is not by a Bill of this kind, for it would do nothing in that direction. The only way is to integrate the whole of the services into areas, as was envisaged in the 1947 Act. If hon. and right hon. Members opposite want to do something for the rural areas, they will as quickly as possible rescind the 1953 Act, one part of which, we have been promised, they will rescind quite shortly. If they repeal the remainder of it, we can then get on with the area schemes, which will give to the rural areas the transport services they require.
§ 1.44 p.m.
§ Mrs. Evelyn Emmet (East Grinstead)
As a representative of a rural constituency, I should like briefly to support the Bill. It is true that my constituency is relatively well served, but we have had our troubles. We have had a small branch line closed down. The consultative committee which came down to the district unfortunately left the impression, probably quite unintentionally, that the local consultation had not been very profound or satisfactory. I think it is the duty of every representative of a rural area to support the Bill, which, we hope, will facilitate transport in the more scattered and isolated districts.
I should like especially to mention the difficulties of the key worker in the rural area. By "key worker" I refer to the rural housewife, not simply the farmer's wife, but the wife of any man whose work is in the country. I rejoiced with my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) when he mentioned the increase in farm wages. I only hope that this increase will find its way into the housekeeping purse. I trust that the housewife has made a note of the "appointed day."
But apart from wages, transport is not just an amenity but a necessity for the housewife. A man may be an agricultural worker whose work is "on the spot," he may be given transport by his employer or he may possess a motorcycle, but the housewife who sets out to do her shopping to obtain the necessities of the household, or who perhaps takes her children out, must either walk or rely on public transport. Every time a branch 744 line is closed, every time that a bus service is reduced, the women who live in the country are hit either directly or indirectly; and unless the women living in the country are happy, families will not stay there.
I especially welcome Clause 4 of the Bill, which provides that if the Commission finds itself unable to carry on a railway service the way should be left open for energetic private enterprise. I have very much pleasure in giving the Bill my wholehearted support.
§ 1.47 p.m.
§ Mr. Grant-Ferris (Nantwich)
I should like to add my word of praise for the maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Leburn). I could not help thinking when he made it how wise it is to get these difficult speeches off one's chest on a Friday, when the atmosphere in the House is so congenial, friendly and quiet. As I was thinking about that, however, I could not fail to notice the change that came about and how this quiet atmosphere once again begins to pop.
I feel rather as my hon. Friend felt, for although this is not a maiden speech, at least it is my first speech for ten years. I hasten to add, in case "Cross Bencher" or somebody like that should be watching me, that it is through no fault of my own that the interval is so long, it is merely that a sufficient number of people in other places decided that it would be better like that.
I should like to address the House for a few moments, and, perhaps, pour a little oil on the vexed question of the railways, by talking about that part of the Bill which has not as yet been very much dealt with. I refer to the improvement of rural transport by water. The Long Title states that the Bill is:To make provision for the improvement of transport in rural areas by rail, road and water. …I therefore turn my attention to the canals and to the fact that the Transport Commission and its predecessors have done very little to make the canals usable and an amenity to the countryside. I have to be careful of what I say in criticising statutory bodies, for I understand that they might sue me for slander. I hope, however, that the hon. Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones) will not think it necessary to take that step in this case. 745 The canals have been in a sad condition for many years.
§ Mr. D. Jones
All I suggested to the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Sir P. Macdonald) was that he should repeat his allegations outside so that the people whom he maligned should have an opportunity of defending themselves.
§ Mr. Grant-Ferris
I appreciate what the hon. Member says, but surely it is true that if statutory bodies took exception to things that were said by Members of this House, on either side, they would have heavy legal charges to bear in their accounts.
In giving my wholehearted support to the Bill, I should like to see its provisions relating to waterways strengthened, so that our inland waterways may be improved. Our canals have many villages on their banks, and I would point out what either is not generally known or is often forgotten, that in those villages are wharves which could easily be used again. There is so much material which at present is transported by road or rail which could most conveniently be taken to farms and villages by water, especially such goods as fertilisers, grain and coal.
One agricultural product I have especially in mind is sugar beet. Much of it is transported in lorries in the autumn when the roads are often damp. It happens that much of the beet falls off the lorries. Moreover, the lorries bring mud out of the fields on to the roads. It would be interesting to know whether the Parliamentary Secretary has any statistics to show the number of road accidents caused by skids due to beet falling off the lorries and being squashed, and due to mud deposited by the beet lorries on the surfaces of the country roads, thus making them slippery.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams (Manchester, Openshaw)
What is to prevent a remedy for that now, without having a new Bill? I have often wondered myself why something is not done about it.
§ Mr. Grant-Ferris
I do not know what there is to prevent something from being done about it now, but it does not seem to me to be done, and I should like the Bill to make it obligatory for it to be done. The question is one we shall hear a great deal about in the not-too-distant future.
746 I would call the attention of the House to practical instances of the way in which the waterways can assist rural life generally. I instance, first, the lower Avon. I do not mean the other Avon, about which we shall hear so much before long. I speak of Shakespeare's Avon which, up to two years ago, was in an appalling condition. Between Stratford and Tewkesbury it was quite impassable. Through tremendous voluntary efforts by some people, helped by public subscription, that river is now navigable again all the way from Tewkesbury up to Evesham —or will be by the end of this year.
Already, there is a transport company being formed, and there are many inquiries about the carrying on the river of fertilisers, seed, beet and nitrates. If the Transport Commission would get on with the job of putting right the upper part of the Avon between Evesham and Stratford it would be a tremendous boon. The produce of the Vale of Evesham could then be sent by water to one of its great centres of distribution, Birmingham.
Everyone knows that fruit, especially soft fruit, and vegetables are delicate and extremely perishable, and there is a great advantage in sending that sort of produce by canal, instead of subjecting it to the jolting of rail or road travel. It would be very valuable indeed if it could be sent by water instead. That is an instance of what is being done with beneficial results, and of what can be done, if only people have the will to do it, and the difficulties on the roads today are an incentive to making the canals workable.
In the Fen district are many waterways which are only partially used, which are not used nearly as much as they should be for rural communications. This country is particularly apt to water travel. Naturally, by reason of the terrain, very few locks are necessary. I know a farmer who sends much of his beet by these waterways, as much as he can. He cannot send as much by water as he would like because the water transport facilities are not available, but they could be and ought to be made available. He says he would much rather send his produce by boat for two very good reasons, that it is cheaper and very much quicker than sending it by rail or road.
747 I will give another instance of a canal which, if it were brought into use again, would become easily profitable. I refer to the Ashby Canal, in Leicestershire. A branch railway line and a station have been closed in that area, and, in consequence, the local inhabitants have a difficult transport problem. There is a typical instance of how a canal, which already exists, could easily be developed to help the local people whose railway line had been closed.
Since the decontrol of wheat, wheat is being carried extensively on the Waveney River, and the Beccles, but barges are being pushed away from the quays by the busy wheat barges now being used again for the first time since 1939, thus showing that as soon as water transport is made possible people will certainly demand to use it. Of course, in transport, and especially in passenger services, it is essential that there should be absolute regularity of service, but if there is regularity of service the demand will certainly come. I am sure that there can be no possible doubt about that.
In thinking about the opening up of rural waterways we must not be unmindful of the great boon those waterways could be to the local rural industry of boat building, which could and should begin to boom again.
I must say one word about a very valuable service which was closed in 1939 on the Berkeley-Gloucester Canal. There was a waterbus that plied between Berkeley and Gloucester and was a most valuable means of communication for all the isolated villages which, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, you know lie alongside the Severn, and which are very inaccessible. A substitute bus service by road was put on, but it has not been satisfactory. The buses do not run regularly. The waterbus is greatly missed by the people of that area. The waterbus still exists. It is lying, I believe, at the village of Saul, and it ought to be set to work again.
One cannot discuss the waterways without thinking of the Kennet-Avon navigation, which is threatened at the present time. There is so much to be said about what can be done about that, of the traffic which that navigation could carry, of the importance it has in the life of the rural communities along its banks, and 748 about the great oil dumps at either end of that navigation, by the Thames and at Avonmouth. Much oil is used by rural communities, and it could easily be conveyed to them by that waterway, if it were made available again for use, as it should be.
I hope I have said enough in these few words to indicate what a great part in the life of our rural communities and, indeed, of everybody, the waterways of England can play. This is a subject about which hon. Members on both sides of the House feel very strongly. There is, thank goodness, no party feeling about it. From my own personal experience I know that the overwhelming majority of hon. Members on both sides of the House wishes to see the waterways of England function properly again. We shall certainly hear more about this subject very soon. I most heartily support my hon. Friend's Bill, and I hope it will go through, and I hope that it will be possible in Committee to strengthen it with provisions which will help to improve the waterways, whose importance I have had the honour to stress to the House.
§ 2.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Rupert Speir (Hexham)
I am very glad to be one of the sponsors of this Bill. It has been complained that it is a modest Bill and does not go far enough in dealing with a difficult problem, but any Bill which can direct attention to the lack of public transport facilities in the rural areas should be welcomed. Anything which will result in improved transport will discourage the further depopulation of our rural areas which is now proceeding at an alarming rate.
It has been said that the Bill mainly directs attention to the retention of railway transport in the rural areas. My constituents do not mind very much what kind of transport they get, provided that they have some. There are areas in Northumberland where, owing to the closing of branch railway lines, the population has been left stranded. We have been told frequently that branch lines are closed down only after the matter has been referred to the appropriate consultative committee and it is known that alternative bus services will be available, but we have found that these alternative services have not been made available. It is useless for someone like the hon. 749 Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies) to intervene in the debate and say that in areas from which the trains have been removed somebody should catch a bus. The buses are just not there.
It is a pity that it has been left to a group of back benchers to bring the Bill forward, because it is time the Government realised that this is a problem which requires to be dealt with on a national and comprehensive basis. We have had many Adjournment debates and debates on various Motions in the past suggesting that the time has come when the problem should be dealt with on a national basis, but all we have had so far from the Government has been pious expressions of regret and sympathy. It is more the pity that we are not taking steps to improve transport facilities in the rural areas or even preventing their deteriorating still further because since the war we have made very good progress in providing better services in the way of water, sewerage, telephones, and electricity in these areas.
We have been going forward on a broad front, but, unfortunately, the public transport in these areas has been going backwards rather than forwards. It has been dwindling, and in some areas it has completely disappeared. It is a foolish and, indeed, a tragic thing that we should allow this situation to continue, because it is leading to the depopulation of these areas. There must be something wrong with our policy if we are spending millions of pounds on providing the other services in the rural areas and, at the same time, owing to the lack of transport, ensuring that there will be a drift from these areas and the depopulation of towns and villages.
In Northumberland alone, during the last five years we have spent over £1 million in providing water and sewerage schemes in the rural areas. We are proposing to spend another £1 million on these services in the next few years. The drift from the land has a snowball effect. A vicious spiral is created because the greater the drift from the land the more difficult it is to pay for and maintain the services, and yet the fewer amenities there are the greater the drift from the land. Thus we have a cumulative effect if depopulation is allowed to continue.
750 The danger point has been about reached in many of these areas. This is a grave social problem which requires Government attention. The problem in the North-East has been receiving considerable attention. In particular, two bodies have been surveying the whole position there. The North-East Industrial and Development Association and the Northumberland Rural Community Council have reported that the feeling is strong among country people that their needs have never been met or recognised. These bodies say, in a report:Passenger transport services are deteriorating and are likely to continue to do so if no action is taken … A negative policy should not be accepted …I am afraid that it is of the negative policy of the Government that I have to complain.
The Transport Commission, on the other hand, has adopted a positive policy. There is nothing negative about its attitude to the problem, because for the past few years it has been doing its best to kill off these branch lines. One by one they have been closed down. The Commission's policy is obviously to destroy them as quickly and as quietly as possible. They have been closed without any serious attempt being made to try to make them pay. Not a single branch line that has been closed down, and there have been almost hundreds of them in the last few years, has been converted into a light railway.
We say in the Bill that attempts should be made to transform some of these branch railways into light railways and to run them like trams in the countryside, stopping the trains wherever people want to get on or off, and reducing staffs and overheads. In Northumberland, in the last two years, 38 miles of branch lines have been closed. I understand that there is a scheme on foot whereby 50 more miles of branch lines in Northumberland alone are immediately threatened.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) said, we do not suggest that branch lines should be kept open if it can be shown conclusively that they will never pay. At the same time, we think it is rather unfair that the operators of buses should continually be told that they are compelled to run unremunerative services whilst British Railways should never have to run them.
751 We feel that British Railways should set off to a certain extent the profits made in the urban areas by maintaining the services in the rural areas. We believe that if British Railways used more foresight and imagination they should be able to make some of these branch lines just about pay their way, or, at any rate, incur only a small loss.
At present, in some areas of Northumberland and the North-East there are no public transport services whatsoever, railways or buses. It is small wonder that in these circumstances the public are complaining, that the younger generation are moving away and that villages are becoming derelict. I believe that the provisions of this small Bill will force the Transport Commission to be more thoughtful and more imaginative. In short, I think that the Bill will make the Commission stop, look and listen. It is for that reason that I hope it will have a Second Reading.
§ 2.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Denzil Freeth (Basingstoke)
As a representative of a country constituency, I naturally welcome any Bill which will help to improve transport in rural areas, but, of course, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Speir) has just said, this Bill covers only a small part of the very large problem of rural transport today.
The Bill deals in the main with the railways, and I think it is important to notice that the Clause particularly referring to roads is a Clause which does not, in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin), compel anybody to do anything. We have heard quite a lot about the attitude of the large bus companies to the small rural bus undertakings, particularly when those small rural undertakings emerge on to a main trunk road and are not allowed to pick up passengers and thereby compensate themselves for the uneconomic country routes.
But, in the short time I have been in this House, my experience in my own constituency has not been that it is a case of the small rural bus companies wishing to expand, but of their finding it quite impossible today to make their routes pay with the high tax on petrol, high wages, high costs of replacement and, above all, the higher standard of living 752 of a large number of people in the countryside, which has led them to buy motor cycles, occasionally to buy cars, and also bicycles. That has meant that in fact there are fewer people today who wish to use rural bus services, but unfortunately of course, although there are fewer people who wish to use them, the needs of those who still wish to use them remain equally great.
I think we are going to find that, if the standard of living of our people continues to rise, and if more people buy motor vehicles of one kind or another, we shall reach a situation in which the number of people needing rural transport is smaller, but their needs remain equally pressing, and we must try to do something about them.
We have in this country probably the most highly intensified network of railway lines of any country in the world. One of the great problems which our ancestors left to us is the over-capitalisation of the railways and the large number of branch lines which were shot out from the main arteries in the nineteenth century and which today are a problem for the British Transport Commission. I think it is fair to realise that they are in many cases millstones round the Commission's neck. We have heard today about the problem of the Isle of Wight, but the County of Cornwall, for example, is extraordinarily lucky in that its branch lines from the main arteries all go to seaside places, where sufficient revenue can, on the whole, come in. There are, however, many other branch lines which not only have no holiday traffic, but, in addition, now connect towns or villages which needed to be connected in the nineteenth century but which, as a result of population changes, no longer have that need today.
Therefore, I agree that we must think of this problem in its two-fold aspect, a problem indeed of rural transportation and of enabling people from the countryside to move to their nearest market towns and so on, but we must also think of it as a problem for the railway system of this country. The British Transport Commission may be very efficient, but I doubt it. I do not subscribe to the view expressed, or at any rate implied, by one hon. Member opposite, that one ought not to criticise the British Transport Commission, but the fact remains 753 that at the moment it is operating its railways at a loss.
It is trying to cut out that loss in future years by a £1,200 million development programme, by getting greater flexibility in its freight rates and also by closing branch lines that are unremunerative. I cannot help feeling that this is possibly too easy a way for us to leave in the hands of the British Transport Commission, and I support this Bill because it tries to make a distinction between those branch lines which are unremunerative and those which could be made remunerative if turned into light railways or something of that kind.
I must confess that I am not immensely attracted to the idea of diesel or electric cars. I do not believe that the resulting fall in maintenance costs would be as large as has been suggested by those who are very keen on this form of transport. Even if we decided that the man who drives the car also has to collect the fares, we should still have a large number of buildings, stations, signal boxes and so on to be dealt with. If we are to make a success of running branch passenger lines in the rural areas as light railways, we shall probably have to reduce the standards of track maintenance and so on which at present are demanded for light railways carrying passengers. I think it is important to note, though I do not think it is decisive by any means, that the Central Transport Consultative Committee in its report on diesel cars in 1954, said:We are satisfied that a changeover to diesel train units will not necessarily turn an unprofitable branch line into a profitable one.The Report goes on to say one or two other things which I will quote in a moment.
After all, a diesel car is by itself an 'expensive item of equipment. I find it rather hard to believe that one car costs £9,000, but that an order for half-a-dozen would reduce the price to between £5,000 and £6,000. This I quite honestly find hard to credit. If that is indeed so, it is an excellent piece of news, but I remember that one of the great joys of my childhood years was the Selsey—Chichester Light Railway. It had the great advantage that it had virtually no gradients in it, and, when I knew it, the railway consisted of two ancient Ford single decker, 20-seater buses. 754 were placed back to back, with a truck between them. The wheels had been removed and railway wheels substituted. This peculiar three-unit train used to chug back and forth, with a very rickety and noisy petrol engine, the nine miles between Chichester and Selsey. The fare charged was less than on the buses. The track maintenance, I am quite certain, was not up to the standard which it should have been. But nobody was willing to buy it when it was put up for sale at the end of the 1930s, and today the tracks have been removed and it has gone. It might be possible for something of that nature again to happen on certain branch lines without going to the expense of diesel cars where the gradients are very small.
One thing which pleases me about the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend is that the private owner comes back again. There is always one query about private owners. I realise that I am on somewhat tender ground in speaking of certain other private owners in transport. One can put something up for sale, but one has always to get someone to buy it. I rather wonder whether the private owner today really wants to come back into the railway business. There would inevitably be considerable difficulties where the branch line joined the main railway system at a junction, not least because the Commission does not in general, I think, take kindly to the private person in transport, and I doubt whether it would take very kindly to the private owner who had to come into a bay or platform or cut across the main lines in a station.
I said that one of the difficulties in respect of branch lines at present is the population changes which have taken place since the branch lines were constructed. In its 1954 Report the Central Transport Consultative Committee says:Several factors, such as the situation of the stations in relation to the population, the density of the traffic, the road services available and the use made of them must be taken into account. Passenger traffic has often gone to road for reasons of convenience, which no amount of fare cutting or increased intensity of rail services can hope to combat.Although one may use railcars, turning the railway into a sort of tramway where one can have halts as on a bus route and where one does not have to employ people in a station because all that needs to be done can be done by the man who 755 drives the car, at the same time do people necessarily live near the railway line? We must think of Mrs. Jones from the cottage by the farm who does not necessarily want to traipse over three muddy fields in order to get to the railway line.
§ Mr. Freeth
No, indeed, but once they get to the road nearest where they live they can usually get to a bus route without crossing fields, if they are prepared to walk round them.
No matter how cheap and frequent one can make branch line trains, I feel that one will be wasting money and time in trying to do on a railway what a bus route can do much better. I honestly do not believe that a branch line, whether or not one makes it into a light railway, can function remuneratively unless one has a large volume of freight to carry, and that means that one must have reasonable track maintenance. It also means that the line must run from the place where the merchandise is produced, whether it be sugar beet, nitrates or milk, to its destination.
I congratulate my hon. Friend in particular upon Clause 4 (2, c). If the Bill is passed, we are to move into a situation in which the Commission, if it closes a branch line, will have, by law, to make a determined effort to ensure that alternative transport is provided. At present this alternative transport is provided for a short time, and then it often peters away. The fact that reference is made to other means of transport by rail, road, or water gives those of us who are interested in our waterways hope that they will also be used.
I am also glad about the inclusion of subsection (2, d) and subsection 3. One of the troubles today is that when the Commission decides that it is no longer going to operate a railway it tends to leave the lines where they are or to leave the track over which the lines ran. In the heyday and joy of an expanding railway system, a line was built in my constituency from Fullerton Junction to Hurstbourne. It has now been closed for a great many years. On part of it the rails have been removed. Yet the person through whose grounds the railway runs has to look upon the track as something belonging to a 756 foreign owner. If a former railway track can be used as a road, that is excellent, but one has to consider whether a road is actually needed between the two termini. If it is not desired to use that railway as a road there is a very definite case for offering the track to the people through whose land it runs so that they may absorb it into their estates.
The great point about the Bill is that it provides a method whereby justice and right not only may be done but may be seen to be done. Today people do not believe that local authorities or ordinary individual citizens stand any chance at all in opposing the Commission. Those of us who live in Hampshire on the mainland were very shocked at the cavalier manner in which the Commission behaved over the Isle of Wight railway. That impression is equally strong among ordinary men and women in other places where branch lines have been closed. My hon. Friend's Bill has the very great merit of making certain that ordinary men and women can have a public inquiry and that the public inquiry shall be followed by some action on the part of the Commission.
I wish to express my very great gratitude to my hon. Friend for this step forward, which I hope it will be, in improving rural transport, and I hope that the Minister will give the Bill his general support.
§ 2.28 p.m.
§ Mr. A. J. Champion (Derbyshire, South-East)
The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Freeth) has made an excellent contribution to the debate. It was constructive and well balanced, and he certainly showed an appreciation of the position that we have not had in all the speeches which have been made on the subject.
As the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) said, this is a subject of great importance. He, with his deep knowledge of the countryside, who is usually so well-informed when he speaks on agricultural matters, has brought home to us the necessity of somehow trying to ensure that we continue an amenity which is absolutely essential to the continued population of the countryside, adequate rural transport. My difficulty is that I cannot see the Bill doing just that.
757 Before I go into that, I must mention the excellent maiden speech by the hon. Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Leburn). It seemed to me to be made in such a manner as not to call for the rather excessive modesty which caused the hon. Member to make it on a Friday when so few people were here to listen to it. It deserved a wider circulation. It was a speech which dealt with a problem which he obviously understands. He brought into this Chamber something of the smell of the heath and almost a feeling of the long-haired wool —although it is mostly wire—of the black-faced sheep of the Highlands. Certainly, we can congratulate him upon the speech and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon), who said that on problems of this sort the House will listen to him in the future with respect.
We on this side agree that this is a problem with which we must attempt to deal, but I am absolutely sure that the Bill cannot deal with the problem of providing transport for the rural areas. It is true that the Bill has an ambitious Long Title. It is:A Bill to make provision for the improvement of transport in rural areas by rail, road, and water; and for other purposes.However, it does not live up to that title, for it does not seem to make a single sensible provision for the improvement of rural transport. A better Long Title would read something like this:A Bill to make it more difficult to close branch railway lines no matter how little used, to give power to a tribunal, never designed for the purpose, to give certain directions without making any provision for the finance to enable it to ensure the carrying out of the direction.That would be much nearer to what the Bill actually does.
The object of the promoters of the Bill, with which, of course, I agree, is somehow to improve rural transport. The promoters set out to achieve two things, either to prevent the closing of branch railway lines, or, if they were closed, to ensure equal transport facilities to people living within the area. I can well understand that that is what they think they are doing.
They propose to achieve that, first, by taking away from the consultative committees certain duties set up in the Transport Act, 1947; secondly, by placing those 758 duties in the hands of the Transport Tribunal; thirdly, giving the Transport Tribunal powers beyond those possessed by the consultative committees to enable the Transport Tribunal to give directions either to the B.T.C., or to some other body, or bodies unspecified, to force either one or other or several of these undertakings to carry on a form of transport in the area.
What is the position before a branch railway line is closed? It has been admirably set out in paragraph 182 of the British Transport Commission's Annual Report for 1954. That paragraph states the procedure very succinctly:In continuing the closure of unremunerative branch lines and little-used stations, the railway managements ascertained as far as was possible in every case, before making their recommendations, that reasonable alternative road services were available or could be made available in the localities concerned. The established procedure was invariably followed whereby the prior approval"—and this is the point to which I am coming—of the appropriate Area Transport Users' Consultative Committee was sought wherever a branch service was to be withdrawn,The proper procedure has been followed in every case that I have examined and in those about which I have been able to ascertain.
§ Mr. Baldwin
I would refer the hon. Member to the Railways Reorganisation Scheme which, in paragraph 27 (e), could place responsibilities on the area authoritiesto ensure that contact was maintained with those who use the railways within the areas so that their requirements might be met to the fullest possible extent consistent with the observance of a proper relation between revenue and costs.Have they done that?
§ Mr. Champion
The Commission has a duty, which it has carried out at enormous cost to transport users in the country and, indeed, to railway employees, who, to some extent, are affected in their salaries and conditions, and so on, by the amount of any loss made by the B.T.C. in carrying on services of that sort. I was talking about the procedure to be operated by the B.T.C., and which is set out in the Report. It is true that in paragraphs 180 and 181 the Commission has a little grouse about this procedure. I ask hon Gentlemen to read 759 those paragraphs. I shall not read them now, for obvious reasons.
What is the body to which cases of this sort when a branch line is closed down would be referred? It is, of course, the area consultative committee. That committee is a statutory body with an independent chairman and its members were appointed, after consultations with bodies representative of the interests concerned, to represent agriculture, commerce, industry, shipping, labour and the local authorities and some members were appointed by the Commission. The composition of the area consultative committees ensures that they are far more representative of people living in the areas concerned, knowing the locality, than could possibly be the case with the Transport Tribunal which is far removed from the immediate locality.
Area consultative committees have a close knowledge of the areas which they cover and in the main are composed of people who represent business interests within the area covered by the committee. The reports of these committees, which are presented to the House annually, show that these people who know the area exercise the greatest possible care in the examination of the closing of branch lines. In the main, they are interested in trying to ensure that the area is adequately covered for transport. As far as I can tell, there has been no case of the closing of a branch line until the area consultative committee has been convinced that there is no justification for the continuance of the line.
As the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Freeth) said, the use of light vehicles on these lines has been examined. He read part of the appropriate paragraphs from the Commission's 1954 Report. Those paragraphs make it clear that the Commission has carefully examined this matter and has had memoranda presented to it and has gone into the various characteristics and so on of the light diesel units. My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley talked about a system in which there would be vehicles of this sort with a conductor whose job it would be to collect fares. I interrupted my hon. Friend and pointed out that the first job I bad after the 1914–18 war was to become a conductor on that type of vehicle. I had to issue tickets to the passengers who 760 joined at wayside stations where there were no booking clerks, no buildings, nothing to cause exceptional expense, or even any considerable expense.
The fact is, however, that although it was a busy line in 1918, it has long since been closed for passenger traffic. People found it more convenient to be picked up virtually at their doors and transported to the nearby town by bus. The line lost a tremendous amount of money and as a result it has been closed—and that despite all the suggestions about saving branch lines. That was my personal experience in the matter and, therefore, I can speak with some knowledge.
The Central Transport Consultative Committee and the area transport consultative committees make recommendations to the Transport Commission where they are not satisfied and think that something should be done. In practice, when recommendations have been made the Commission has loyally carried them out. For example, in the case of the Sandown—Newport line, mentioned by the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Sir P. Macdonald), if I remember aright the recommendation was that there should be a further trial period of two years. That period followed, and I think that the Commission continued the service though it was losing between £30,000 and £35,000 per annum.
§ Sir P. Macdonald
Those figures were disputed by the local authorities. Alternative figures were suggested, but they were not accepted by the Commission.
§ Mr. Champion
I heard the hon. Gentleman say that earlier. Alternative figures were advanced by learned counsel employed by somebody to state the case. Understandably, it was the job of learned counsel to make the best possible case for those who employed him; but it is also true that the Commission has no desire to close down remunerative services. The Commission has shown that it is prepared to continue a service which is not paying as well as might be desired. Indeed, it is carrying unremunerative services on many lines and has made no attempt to close them down.
What sort of services are being affected by the closing of some of these branch lines? The 1954 Report of the Central 761 Transport Consultative Committee for Great Britain, says, in paragraph 10:It will be observed that the estimated annual savings total is approaching the £ million mark. We are satisfied that these estimates were compiled by the Commission on a very conservative basis; in a number of instances, after the service had been withdrawn, it was found that the saving was approximately double that of the estimate.I am assured that the figure has now reached nearly £1½ million per annum as a result of the closing of these lines. This is appreciated by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. In the debate on the Commission's Report and Accounts, on 11th July last, he said:Economies on the railways can also be made by reducing the uneconomic and largely unused services which the railways are still providing to travellers and traders, and which date from the pre-motor age. Great savings have been made, and far more can be made, by closing down branch lines and small stations and by discontinuing scantily used trains. It was right when the railways had a monopoly of mechanical transport for them to be required to provide these services which, of course, at that time were much less costly than they are now. Now that the people can, and whenever it suits them do, use motor transport and roads, there is no justification in a great many cases for maintaining these redundant services at the cost of the general travelling public. The transport users' consultative committees have been very reasonable and helpful, and I hope that we shall make even more rapid progress in the future." —(OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th July, 1955; Vol. 543, c. 1583.]That seems to be a true appreciation of the situation.
I can well understand the local interests making a great squeal when it is suggested that a branch line should be closed. I say nothing against that; it is understandable. It might mean the loss of a service which they might use at some time. Indeed, to some it means the loss of a service which they use regularly. But eventually, after all the procedure has been carried out, we get the final stage where, if the Central Transport Consultative Committee permits it, the railway is to be closed.
Then often we have a sort of funeral rite, a getting together to deplore the passing of the branch line. Many of those who attend to deplore the passing of the dear departed may not have been near the railway for many years before. They are deploring the departure of one that they had not seen for a very long time. They had a sentimental attachment 762 to it, perhaps, but very little else. It seems very much like the story of the preacher who, in a funeral oration, said, "Our dearly beloved brother is here for the third time in seventy years: once, when he was christened secondly, when he was married; and now he is being carried in." That often applies to the mourners. It is certain that at the passing of some of these branch lines the mourners had not been near for a very long time.
What body is it proposed should carry out the tasks now performed by the area consultative committees? Under the Bill, the task is to go to the Transport Tribunal. Under the Act of 1947, the Tribunal is mainly a charges Tribunal. The Bill proposes to add to its tasks something for which it was never designed. As I have said before, and as I stress now, these bodies are remote from the locality where the branch line exists. Their business is conducted in a legal atmosphere. Counsel are employed and the formal atmosphere is unsuitable for the sort of task which it is now proposed to place on them.
I believe that the less formal, and quite searching examination by the area committee, which has a round-the-table atmosphere, is very much better for this purpose. There an examination is conducted by people who really did know the requirements of the district concerned. It seems to me that the heart of this Bill is in Clause 4, which refers to the Transport Commission having to give notice, and so on. The intention is that the Transport Tribunal should be given certain powers tomake such recommendations or … give such directions as may seem to them expedient or desirable in the circumstances of the case for the purpose of securing the continuance or provision of adequate means of transportation in that area.One is bound to ask the promoters of the Bill, to whom is the Transport Tribunal to give directions? Obviously, if the purpose of the Bill is to be carried out, it must be able to direct someone other than the B.T.C. to perform certain tasks. Will the Tribunal be able to direct private operators to increase their bus services, regardless of the financial consequences to them? Will the Tribunal be able to say to an undertaker, not at present operating in an area, that, from the date of the closing of a branch line 763 in that area, he must provide a service? The hon. Member for Chorley mentioned the Ribble undertaking. Will it be possible for the Tribunal to say to the Ribble undertaking, "You must provide a service"? If so, there should be placed at the disposal of the Tribunal sufficient finance to enable it to cover the loss sustained by the Ribble undertaking.
§ Mr. Baldwin
There is no compulsion in the Bill. The Transport Tribunal cannot compel any undertaking to do anything. All we ask is that the Commission should substantiate the ridiculous figures which it has put forward and, if necessary, that its chief regional officer should be cross-examined. If it is then decided that a line is not economic, the Commission must offer opportunities for private individuals to take over the service. If no one comes forward, the line should be removed and the land returned to its agricultural use.
§ Mr. Champion
In that case, the Bill is completely ineffective, and I can only conclude that the hon. Gentleman has not read some of the Clauses in his own Bill with sufficient care.
Power is provided to give directions. I imagine that directions would be given to some body other than the B.T.C., and that there would be finance available to ensure that the directions are carried out without loss to the undertaking carrying them out.
§ Mr. Renton
If the hon. Gentleman will look at Clause 4 (2) he will find that the Transport Tribunal may make recommendations or give directions. In suitable cases they will give directions and in other cases make recommendations. The hon. Gentleman is, I am sure, quite capable of using his commonsense to decide when directions would be appropriate and when recommendations would be appropriate.
§ Mr. Champion
The Tribunal can make recommendations or give directions in all cases referred to in paragraphs (a) (b) (c) and (d). If it is proposed to improve rural transport or ensure methods of transport when a branch line is closed, there must be power to give directions in the way envisaged in this Bill.
I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Hunitingdonshire (Mr. Renton) that in the main, I suppose.
764 directions would be given to the Transport Commission as the statutory body set up under the terms of the Transport Act. But even then someone must ask who is to make up the losses incurred by the B.T.C. in running a service which is no longer sufficiently used to justify its continuance. That can only be done by other railway users, or by the general body of the railway employees having their standards and conditions kept lower than they ought to be, or by the taxpayer. There is no provision in the Bill for the taxpayer to meet any such losses.
§ Mr. Renton
I am reluctant to interrupt the hon. Gentleman again, but as he is speaking from the Dispatch Box opposite I think that he should try to get the matter right. If he will look at Clause 4 (2) he will see that it states that… the Transport Tribunal, having regard to the public interest and the statutory duties imposed upon the Commission … may … make recommendations or give directions. …The hon. Gentleman knows as well as anyone else that among the statutory duties imposed on the Commission is the duty to pay its way, taking one year with another. Therefore, there is no question of the Commission being compelled to operate anything at a loss.
§ Mr. Champion
In that case, this Bill is completely meaningless, and it seems a pity that we should be wasting time with it. But as I gather that there is a possibility of it getting a Second Reading, we must go on with our examination of its provisions.
It must be remembered that the Transport Commission is now mainly a railway undertaking. It was part of the deliberate policy of this Government to destroy anything approaching a monopoly in transport held by the Commission. There was no complete monopoly created by the 1947 Act, but there was an element of monopoly which was removed by the Act of 1953, introduced by the Tory Government of the day following the publication of a White Paper on Transport Policy, Cmd. 8538, of 1952, which stated, in paragraph 14:The Commission will be given greater latitude to vary their charges schemes so as to improve the ability of the railways to compete with other forms of transport.765 The White Paper ended with these words:Trade and industry will get a better service, and the distribution of traffic between road and rail will be determined by the advantage which each has to offer to the trader. This in the opinion of the Government should lead to better and cheaper transport than could possibly result from the 'integration' contemplated by the Transport Act, which in any case would have tended to subordinate the needs of the trader to a plan rather than to adapt transport to his needs.Everyone must accept that, if there- is to be competition, the loser must be allowed to succumb. If the loser is not allowed to succumb, then, clearly, the resulting cost ought to be a charge on the public purse and not upon the defeated undertaking.
I understood the hon. Member for Leominster to say that he wanted the waterways and railways to be fully competitive. He wants road and rail to become fully competitive, in which case he must carry the logic of competition to the end. The logic is that the loser must be able to succumb even if it hurts some people. Let me say at once that if there existed a monopoly charged with running a system of transport as a social, and not as a profit-making, service, I would agree that such a body should be under the obligation to provide a public service as complete as that provided by the Post Office.
Here I agree very much with my hon. Friend the Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones). It is right that the Post Office should be charged with the task of delivering a letter to the Western Isles for 2½d., but I could not agree to that if, at the same time, the Post Office did not have the monopoly of delivering letters in London and the big cities from one street to the next. A service such as the Post Office can only continue to deliver for 2½d. the letter to the Western Isles at the expense of Post Office users in the close urban areas.
I just cannot see how the Government can permit this Bill to find its way on to the Statute Book. They have deliberately created conditions in which, in my opinion, it would be quite unfair to saddle the B.T.C. with any more unremunerative services when it has been told that it must pay its way—
§ Mr. Champion
It would be quite unfair to other transport users, to railway employees, and to the members of the Commission whose task it is to run a great undertaking with many controls still clamped on it which are the outcome of an age when a transport monopoly was rightly feared. The hon. Member for Leominster has just said that the matters of which I have just been talking have never been suggested, but what I have said is really the logic of the Bill he presents today. I agree with what he tries to do, but I am here dealing with the means whereby he seeks to do it and, of course, this Bill cannot possibly achieve what he is seeking.
I have some sympathy with the idea in the hon. Gentleman's mind. I have from time to time been privileged to speak from this side on agricultural matters. I recognise the importance of keeping the countryside populated, but this is not the sort of Bill which will help us to do that. If the promoters really want to achieve what is behind the Bill they must set about creating a real transport monopoly, in public hands, charged—with what? Charged with the task of supplying transport as a real social service. That would be to give the B.T.C. not only a job, but the tools for the job.
As I see it, this Bill attempts to make the B.T.C. undertake a task which would further hamper it in its struggle for existence. If it is desired to achieve the sort of competition which the Government say they wish to see in this field of transport, I would say to them, "Free the British Transport Commission. Do not further saddle it with the sort of conditions, directions, and so on, which are contained in this Bill."
§ 3.4 p.m.
§ Mr. J. E. B. Hill (Norfolk, South)
The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion) referred to the solemn, funereal processions which have marked the closing of certain branch lines. Judging from the reports I have seen, the star performer has always been a very old and heavy steam locomotive pulling some equally old coaches—a sort of Titfield Thunderbolt enjoying its last flash. I have not seen a closing in which a small diesel bus has featured.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) for introducing this Bill, because I do 767 not think that we can overlook any possibility, however tenuous, of improving rural transport. By a curious paradox, in some ways the serious state of rural transport has been aggravated by the very prosperity which has come to the countryside, because so many new car owners have appeared that much of the old traffic in the country has been lost to the public services, whether bus or rail.
I wish to refer to the problem of the abandoned railway track. By closing a track one does not lose sight of it for ever. It is not just a white elephant; it may often become a long dead snake lying across the countryside. I speak with some experience of that, because it so happens that a derelict railway track runs past my house and through my farm. It is lying down but it is not dead. It belonged to an old private company which, unfortunately from my point of view, was not nationalised. The rails disappeared during the war to provide beach defences, but the track remains.
In the short space of something less than twenty years between the running of the last train and when I first came there, the track had become a veritable jungle. I sought permission from the receiver of the company to try to do something about it in order to cure some of the ills which were affecting the surrounding land—a complete interruption of the drainage system, the harbouring of vermin and the aggregation of weed-bearing plants. Until the coming of myxomatosis, the difficulty of controlling rabbits on a derelict railway track has been very great indeed.
When a British Railways track is closed it is now usual for the terms of closure to include provision for what one might describe as the negative maintenance of such a track. I was interested when my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster mentioned that the Service Departments occasionally require tracks which the British Transport Commission may wish to close to be maintained on a care and maintenance basis, on the ground that such tracks may be required in a future emergency.
The question I wish to pose is this. We know that it will cost something to leave a track unoccupied, if only to keeping the drainage system going and in preventing the track becoming a nuisance. But it may be that the margin 768 between that degree of maintenance and the degree needed for a light diesel railcar to operate is not very great. I think that when the British Transport Commission has considered the closing of any branch lines, it has generally done it from the standpoint of its own very high requirements—generally a steam train pulling goods often after a passenger service has been withdrawn. As has already been said, that involves the manning of level crossings and the running of a train that can stop only at fixed stations. I believe there may be cases where the margin of cost between running the lightest kind of diesel railcar and leaving the track alone unoccupied may not be very great.
It seems to me, therefore, that if the Bill becomes law and if, at one of the inquiries, the B.T.C. proves that a line has been uneconomic in the past and will be uneconomic under operation in the future, it may yet be possible for some private person or small group of persons to operate a diesel rail car on the footing that it is not necessary to man the stations and level-crossings. To man a level-crossing involves a set of wages or part-time wages. Not only is it extremely difficult to get level-crossing keepers, but, in addition, their wages have a direct bearing on the profitability of a little-used line.
It seems to me that it might well be possible for a line which the B.T.C. would otherwise close to be turned over to a private body of people on some form of lease. The B.T.C. might, not unreasonably, be expected to contribute whatever sum it would have had to continue to spend on the track in the event of its own services being abandoned. It would therefore cost the B.T.C. no more to allow another group of persons the opportunity to operate a service on an otherwise empty track.
It has been suggested that the area consultative committees are sufficiently near to the locality to appreciate local needs. With great respect to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East. I feel that in many parts of the country, particularly in isolated districts, the area or regional city in which the area committee sits may seem as remote as Whitehall.
I cannot help feeling that that suggestion represents a rather negative approach to the problem. If we go through all 769 the motions of the present appeal arrangements, we enable the B.T.C. to prove that the line is uneconomic, but the purpose of the Bill is more constructive and is to encourage groups of local people to get together and by collaboration to form some body, possibly a small company or a partnership, sufficient to run a small diesel railcar service. That is not properly within the purview of the B.T.C.'s activities.
If the Bill can produce one such diesel railcar service and if one branch line can find a new life on a lesser scale, then in my opinion the Bill will have amply justified its existence. A little earlier in the debate it was agreed that it could be said of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, "Handsome is." I hope that in doing what he can to further the purpose which lies behind the Bill, he will enable us to say of him, also, "Handsome does."
§ 3.15 p.m.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Hugh Molson)
Whenever my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) addresses the House, I am sure that we all feel he brings a breeze of the border districts between England and Wales to our debates and, as such, is always a most welcome contributor.
Today we have also greatly enjoyed the maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Leburn). He expressed the problems of those who live in the delectable Highlands. I am sure that many of us who have spent agreeable holidays in those parts listened with nostalgia to the beautiful names of Glenlyon and the Braes of Balquhidder. I hope that on many occasions we shall hear my hon Friend; and I am sure it will be always with the same pleasure as we heard his speech this afternoon.
In order to understand the position with which we are confronted at present, it is necessary to remember the circumstances in which these branch railway lines we are discussing were originally built. There was an orgy of railway speculation in the 1840s. Large numbers of lines were built in rural districts which were not even then likely to become very profitable. But at that time the railways enjoyed a monopoly of transport, unless we are to regard the horse as having been a com- 770 petitor. It was because of that monopoly that Parliament imposed upon the railways certain restrictions with regard to fares and freights in order to make sure that there should be no profiteering by them at the expense of the public.
Usually, however, even in those days, Parliament did not go so far as to oblige the railways to operate at a loss and they were free to close railway lines if they wished to do so. With the twentieth century came the internal combustion engine and competition from the roads. Buses, taxis and private cars took away passenger traffic and lorries took away large quantities of goods traffic, including much that was most profitable. It was for that reason that during the 'twenties and the 'thirties of this century railways frequently acquired buses, which they sought to use as feeder services to their lines. During this period of bitter competition between road and rail, a number of proposals were made for dealing with the problem, culminating in the conference presided over by Lord Salter.
Nationalisation as such has not really altered the fundamental position. It has, however, brought this question prominently into public affairs, because Parliament imposed upon the British Transport Commission by Section 3, subsection (4) of the Transport Act, 1947, the obligation:All the business carried on by the Commission… shall form one undertaking, and the Commission shall so conduct that undertaking,… as to secure that the revenue of the Commission is not less than sufficient for making provision for the meeting of charges properly chargeable to revenue, taking one year with another.So long as the railways were privately-owned, Parliament was not in theory much interested in their profitability. Now that the Transport Commission's transport loan carries a Treasury guarantee, both Government and Parliament are deeply concerned to ensure that the revenue shall be sufficient to pay the interest on the loan. It was perfectly natural, therefore, that in the Act of 1947 provision should have been made for the closing down of branch lines and also that the transport users' consultative committees should have been set up in order to make certain that before drastic steps of that kind were taken the interests of transport users should be fully considered.
771 My hon. Friend has said that we are entitled to expect of the Transport Commission that it shall be enterprising in seeking new techniques and in trying by new methods of traction, such as diesels and so on, to meet the problems of the day, including, in particular, this one of transport in rural areas. There is, I know, a widespread view, not only in this House, that the Commission has not been sufficiently enterprising in this way. I do not think that that view is fair, and I want to give a fairly full statement to the House of what the Commission has tried to do.
The first and most important of these new developments is the multiple unit diesel, which is proving extremely satisfactory. Figures available from the West Cumberland group of services, centred on Carlisle, show that operating costs have been reduced from £150,000 to £80,000 per annum despite a 30 per cent. increase in the mileage operated. Traffic has increased as a result of the greater attractiveness of the new locomotion and receipts have risen from £45,000 to £70,000 per annum. That is the kind of improvement to which hon. Members have referred as being likely to result from diesel traction. In fact, it is already taking place where this kind of diesel traction has been introduced.
In the case of those lines around Carlisle, however, even this improvement has not resulted in the receipts covering the outgoings, though the gap has been greatly diminished and we hope that in time it may be completely removed. I must, however, point out that these multiple unit diesels are not suitable for use on the small branch lines which we are discussing today. Their considerable seating capacity, usually 130, and high initial cost make them inappropriate for this kind of traffic.
The second experiment of British Railways is with light four-wheel diesel train sets such as those that run between St. Albans and Watford. Last Wednesday, knowing that this debate was coming on, I went for a run in one of them. This type does not show any great advantage over the bogey multiple-unit type. Three carriages cost approximately £22,000 as compared with the cost per multiple unit for two carriages of £26,000. Although it is cheaper, it is not, therefore, a great deal cheaper. Again, even in this case, 772 the seating accommodation would be greatly in excess of what is required for a rural service.
Unfortunately, the steel tyres on these light wheels wear out after 10,000 miles as compared with 60,000 miles in the case of the tyres on bogey wheels on multiple unit diesels. This involves taking the vehicles out of work and sending them back to the works. There is every indication at present that they will not prove to be a very great success. They do not have any advantages over the multiple unit diesels and they are very nearly as expensive.
The fact that these steel tyres wear out so rapidly is proof of something which I had not realised before and which is appropriate in considering what my hon. Friend has suggested about a motor bus on rails. Where the motor bus travels on steel wheels, the constant hammering as it goes over the gaps between the rails very quickly rattles the more delicate parts of the engine to pieces. It was for that reason that experiments have been made, both in this country and in France, with pneumatic tyres. I am sorry to say that they have proved unsuccessful, largely because of the tremendous wear by the steel rails and especially by the necessary flange. It has been found that the wear on the tyres is such that they are not likely to be economical, and the experiments have been abandoned in France as well as in this country.
The next proposal is one which has been mentioned today and which was also mentioned in a debate on the Adjournment on 13th July. It is for electric cars propelled by their own batteries. The great trouble with these is the immense weight of the batteries. A single 25-ton vehicle requires batteries weighing about 10 tons, and the result is that these vehicles cost several times as much as a comparable bus to operate on the road. I have listened with close attention to the figures given by the expert friend of my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster, but there is no information at my disposal that suggests that these vehicles can be made or run at the price that he suggests.
I am glad to say that, largely as a result of the debate we had in this House, the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board is making current available at a very low rate, ¾d. per unit, for an experimental period, and British Railways are 773 going to see whether in the North of Scotland it may be possible to provide a useful service in rural areas. I am not very hopeful of this because these vehicles cost about three times as much as a diesel bus, and, of course, the diesel bus enjoys the great advantage of being able to go anywhere on the roads. I have dealt at some length with these matters because the general argument which has been advanced is that British Railways have shown themselves lacking in imagination in trying to produce new and cheaper kinds of locomotion.
What, then, is the outlook for the future? I have mentioned that the Commission is under a statutory duty to put its present unsatisfactory finances on a sound basis. The three ways in which we hope that will be done, as my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Freeth) mentioned, are first of all the modernisation plan, secondly the greater freedom in the freight rates that it may charge, and thirdly the closing of unremunerative services.
I have shown that, despite what is being done to produce new and better forms of traction, these, although highly successful on secondary lines, are not likely to prove of very great value on the sort of branch lines we have under discussion. While one is naturally attracted by the suggestion that was made by my hon. Friend that buses on rails should stop by request, I would ask him to consider in the case of any ordinary line at how many places it would be convenient for the passengers to be set down. To what extent would he and other farmers like him be particularly pleased if these rural buses stopped and the pedestrians came across neighbouring agricultural land on their way home? It is not a proposal which is likely to prove usually workable.
§ Mr. Baldwin
I am not suggesting that diesel rail buses should stop in the country at points where there are no footpaths or roads, but that there should he a request stop where there is a footpath or road, possibly every mile or so. I see no disadvantage in that.
§ Mr. Molson
There are not many places of that kind on the existing lines to make this an easily workable proposition.
774 Apart from the traction, the high cost of maintenance and operation of railway lines is a very heavy burden. It can be reduced by withdrawing passenger trains, but it can be brought to an end only by closing the line. This will have to be done in a number of cases, and the number of cases tends to increase with every increase in wages and other costs.
It has been suggested that the economies which British Railways claims from the discontinuance of passenger traffic are exaggerated and unreal, but the opposite is the case. The economies which British Railways puts forward are only those which result directly from the discontinuance of the service. They are such things as savings of fuel, wages and so on resulting from the actual cost of operating and handling the trains in question, but the many indirect costs, such as for track maintenance which must be at a much higher level for rails on which passenger services are run, are not included. These are indirect economies which are added afterwards but are not put forward for the purpose of justification.
British Railways has adopted a very modest basis when calculating economies and has shown itself extremely conservative in the estimates it has put forward. The minutes of the Central Transport Consultative Committee of 11th October last contain a table, which is available to hon. Members, showing the estimated economies and the actual economies that were made after the closing of lines and services. What was estimated at £83,384 has, in fact, turned out to be £113,190.
Various steps can be taken, of course, to reduce the cost of operating and maintaining lines. Wherever it is possible, this is being done. Our Ministry of Transport safety requirements are rather exacting, but I do not think that the House would wish them to be reduced, especially in view of the railway accidents which we all have in mind. Nevertheless, our Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways assures me that he tries to agree to less costly safety precautions as far as he can, having due regard to his responsibilities. For example, when passenger services are withdrawn, block signalling and other safeguards can be modified. These and the lower standard of maintenance of the permanent 775 way are important indirect savings additional to the direct savings which alone are put forward before the consultative committees.
As for the down-grading of a railway into a light railway, I am advised that this of itself does not appreciably reduce the cost of upkeep, but it may relieve the British Transport Commission of the obligation to maintain watchmen at level crossings. It is, however, clear from what I have said that even this will not make a very great deal of difference to the cost of operating the branch lines with very small traffic upon them which we are discussing today.
§ Mr. Renton
When my hon. Friend speaks of the cost of upkeep, presumably he is speaking in the limited sense of the cost of maintenance of the permanent way and not in any sense referring to operating costs. He is not, presumably, including such considerable costs as the cost of signals, which as he knows can be practically eliminated in the case of light railways.
§ Mr. Molson
I have dealt with this matter of signalling. I am advised that, under the safety requirements, a change from the normal railway to a light railway operating under the Act of 1896 would result in no substantial economy in the signals. Requirements for signals really depend upon the amount and character of the traffic upon the line, and whenever possible, even where it has not been down-graded to a light railway, we do authorise such economies in signals and other safeguards as are proper, having regard to the circumstances of the case.
I now come to the record of the Transport Users' Consultative Committees as a whole, and my first criticism of this Bill is its criticism of these bodies. Since there has been a good deal said against their work, I want to defend them in what they have done. They consist of public men giving their time voluntarily in order to represent the interests of transport users. I do not intend to attempt to read out the very long list of names, and to mention just a few of them would quite obviously be invidious, but they are representatives of industry, agriculture, commerce, great employers of labour and trade union leaders—men who are representative of the community as a 776 whole, and men of high standing. They have given much time to investigating proposals by British Railways, and they have often made constructive suggestions of the kind we have heard this afternoon before accepting the need to withdraw services. They have always carefully considered the proposals, and have not always accepted all the proposals put to them by the Commission. If in the majority of cases they have done so, it has been because so far the cases put forward by British Railways have been such extraordinarily strong and clear ones.
The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East is quite correct in thinking that already the economies achieved amount to well over £1 million a year, and the figures which I have quoted, and more which I could quote, show that it really is not necessary to make any very detailed investigation of these figures, because to anyone who looks at the lines and knows what the general costs of upkeep are, it is obvious that the lines are unremunerative.
The procedure of these committees, it is true, has been informal. The Central Consultative Committee deprecates, and has decided to stop, the use of counsel by objectors. The idea was to have something in the nature of a round-table conference, which it was thought would, on the whole, be more effective for the purpose. My hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Wight (Sir P. Macdonald) has dealt at some length with what has happened in his own constituency, and several hon. Members today have quoted the remarks of counsel who was arguing against the closing of these lines, and who said that the figures put forward by the British Transport Commission could not be substantiated, as though they were the findings of a court. This was an ex parte statement by counsel who was doing his best to disprove the figures which were being put forward. The figures were, in fact, after careful examination, accepted by the area consultative committee and were examined again by the Central Consultative Committee.
It was alleged by counsel for the objectors that the Commission proposed to close the Brading—Bembridge, Newport—Freshwater and Newport—Sandown lines to effect a total saving of over £90,000 a year, but after supporting 777 details had been supplied to the consultative committee, that body agreed that the economic case had been made out. It agreed to the closing of the Newport—Freshwater line, but it was evenly divided about the Brading—Bembridge line on which the proposal to close was agreed to by the Central Committee.
The area committee, however, recommended a two-year respite for the Newport—Sandown line, and the recommendation was accepted. The two years have just expired, and it is interesting to note that when the Newport—Sandown proposal was re-submitted this month, the figures were accepted by the Committee without comment. On this occasion the figures have been discussed and explained in detail to representatives of the objectors who said that they were bound to agree with their presentation and had no quarrel with them. In fact, the position is that each time the figures have been questioned by consultative committees, they have been substantiated to the satisfaction of those committees.
In the case of the Brading-Bembridge line, it is interesting to note that the road services running in competition with the railway were already carrying six-sevenths of the total number of passengers wishing to travel between those places. As regards the Sandown-Newport line, to which my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Wight referred, the figures are most striking. He told the House that the cost of building a road in order to connect one of the villages with the nearest road would be £15,000, and the annual saving resulting from closing down the branch line is £30,000. There could hardly be a clearer indication of how amply justified was the proposal of British Railways to close down a service of that kind and to allow to be substituted another which is very much more economical.
§ Sir P. Macdonald
All right; I will accept that if my hon. Friend will provide the £15.000 to build the road. There is no indication so far that he intends to do anything whatsoever to provide an alternative service or to help the local authorities to do so.
§ Mr. Molson
The question whether there should be trunk roads in the Isle of Wight is one which I have previously argued with my hon. Friend, and I have 778 pointed out that the roads in the Isle of Wight are of only very limited value to through traffic.
I now turn to the disadvantages of imposing these duties on the Transport Tribunal. In the first place, I must remind the House that the Transport Tribunal has plenty of work to do at present. It is the legal successor of the Railway Rates Tribunal which was established by the Railways Act, 1921, and it has the jurisdiction of the Railway and Canal Commission. The Transport Tribunal has also had very heavy additional responsibility imposed upon it of hearing appeals against refusals to grant A and B licences. At present it is dealing with the new freight maximum charges scheme propounded by British Railways. I very much doubt whether it could deal with the additional work it is proposed to impose upon it.
In the second place it is a court of record and requires everything alleged before it to be proven in accordance with legal procedure. This naturally makes its procedure extremely slow. I have, however, informally consulted the president of the Transport Tribunal, and I gather that he would consider it quite inappropriate for a judicial or semi-judicial body like the Tribunal to be given the duty of making constructive recommendations as to the provision of alternative transport, as provided for in Clause 4.
I think that the supporters of the Bill are not so much concerned with the exact procedure which is contained in it as to obtain for their constituents an assurance on four main points which have emerged again and again in the course of the debate. First, they want to be assured that rural railways are not closed unnecessarily. I frankly accept the statement of my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Mr. Renton) that it is not their purpose that a line running at a substantial loss should be kept open permanently at the cost of the rest of the travelling public. I am therefore emboldened to think that upstairs they will be willing to accept Amendments which would give full effect to the assurances which they have given on the Floor of the House today.
I feel bound to point out to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire that I believe that the 779 hon. Gentleman the Member for Derbyshire, South-East was correct in saying that under the Bill as drafted the Tribunal would be able to give a direction to the British Transport Commission to keep a railway open. That is contained in Clause 4 (1).
§ Mr. Renton
A direction to keep it open; but only if the Transport Commission is unable to prove that it is unremunerative and cannot be operated remuneratively. It all depends on what the Commission can prove, and the burden of proof will be upon the Commission.
§ Mr. Molson
I am obliged to my hon. and learned Friend, but he will agree that, as drafted, the Bill is not entirely clear. I am much relieved that he and his hon. Friend will be willing to accept Amendments which would give full and clear effect to the assurances which they have given.
Hon. Members want to be assured that the figures given by the Transport Commission are correct. I entirely agree that the rural areas should be enabled to assure themselves on that, but I should not like to commit myself on what exactly is the best way of doing it. There must also be a time limit.
In the second place, I believe that my hon. Friends desire to be assured that before a line is closed every possible expedient has been considered for keeping it open, including the possibility of reducing it to the standard of a light railway.
Thirdly, and this is an extension of that idea, they want it to be open to private enterprise to take over and run the line, if private enterprise believes that it will make a good thing of it when British Railways were unable so to do. Provided that we have adequate safeguards about the price paid to British Railways, I see no objection at all to that in principle. I can only mention that the rails have been left in the Isle of Wight right to the present time—that is, for two years—waiting for some enterprising speculator to start running a service, and so far no one has been willing to do so. However, I accept the principle that British Railways have no desire to be a dog-in-the-manger. If they cannot run a line with success, they will be happy to say, 780 with a slightly mocking smile, "If somebody can do better than we are doing, we are only too glad."
Fourthly, they want full consideration to be given to the provision of some other means of transport, usually by bus. I want to say a few words about bus services. The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon) was not, to the best of my knowledge, justified in saying that there are instances of small men anxious to run bus services but being refused licences to do so. The difficulty has been to get anyone to run bus services in these rural districts.
I should like to say to some of my hon. Friends that it is my considered view, as well as that of the Thesiger Committee, that the licensing system has proved remarkably successful in keeping rural bus services going. Those concerned are using their powers of persuasion to induce operators to run unremunerative services in return for licences to run the more profitable ones. In the western area the percentage of unremunerative mileage varies from 31 per cent. to 45 per cent., and in Yorkshire it varies from 34 per cent. to 44 per cent. It is normally only possible to get the larger concerns to run the unremunerative bus services provided they are safeguarded against other people coming along and taking the cream of the traffic and leaving them with the unremunerative parts.
I am prepared to suggest to my hon. Friends a number of Amendments which I hope would enable the four purposes which I have indicated, and which I think fairly represent the general line of argument among those who have been supporting the Bill, to be given full effect. First I beg hon. Members not to insult the consultative committees by taking away from them work which in my opinion they have done admirably and thrusting it upon the Transport Tribunal which does not want to do it. It would be a most extraordinary and unworkable anomaly if the closing of urban lines remained the responsibility of the transport users' consultative committees and the closing of rural lines became the responsibility of the Transport Tribunal. It would indeed be an interesting problem to decide where the rural ended and the urban began. As my hon. Friend has mentioned, he is most anxious that 781 the railways shall be treated as a single unit of transport.
My second proposal would be to amend Clause 2 to provide that when representations against the proposed discontinuation of a railway service have been made to the local transport users' consultative committee, the Commission shall not discontinue the railway until the T.U.C.C. has made its report to the Central Consultative Committee and the latter has either reported to the Minister or indicated that it did not intend to do so. There would obviously have to be a time limit.
Thirdly, I propose to ask my hon. Friends to amend Clause 4 so as to secure that the Transport Users' Consultative Committee should hold a properly advertised local public inquiry. Exactly how that would work out is a matter upon which I cannot commit myself now.
I have listened with interest to the argument advanced this afternoon that some people affected by the discontinuance of these services do not feel that they have had either a full opportunity of expressing their views or an adequate opportunity of probing the figures put forward by the Transport Commission. It has been the view of the Central Consultative Committee that the work could be better and more acceptably done by a round-table conference and without having examinations and cross-examinations by barristers. I can see the arguments for and against, but I think that a matter which may be considered with advantage in Committee.
Fourthly, I propose that a consultative committee when reporting should pay due regard—this is an attempt to give effect to the points I have mentioned—to the possibility of the operation of the line as a light railway; to the use of any alternative kind of rail locomotion; to
§ the running of the railway by someone other than the Commission and to the provision of an alternative means of transport, whether by road, rail or—as I know would be highly acceptable to my hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich (Mr. Grant-Ferris)—by water.
§ I think on further consideration my hon. Friends will agree that the onus of proof should rest on those who are trying to keep a line open rather than on the Commission which wishes to close it. I ask for the dropping of the retrospective operation of Clause 3. The only justification for this Clause would disappear if the consultative committee, which in every recent case has approved the closing of these lines, remained the body for considering these matters. I am sure that in every case so far the closures have been abundantly justified.
§ Although the Government are concerned about the difficulties of rural transport, they do not think that the proposals in this Bill in their present form are satisfactory or workable. We are anxious to meet what we believe to be the reasonable wishes of the rural community for a full, public and fair consideration of any proposal to close down a rural line. If this Bill is given a Second Reading, I hope that my hon. Friends will be willing to accept Amendments during the Committee discussions on the lines I have indicated.
§ 3.59 p.m.
§ Mr. Baldwin rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.
§ Question put, That the Question be now put:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 31, Noes 27.783
|Division No. 78.]||AYES||[3.59 p.m.|
|Allan, R. A. (Paddington, S.)||Heath, Edward||Moore, Sir Thomas|
|Bell, Ronald (Bucks, S.)||Hicks-Beach, Maj. W. W.||Nicholls, Harmar|
|Boyle, Sir Edward||Hill, John (S. Norfolk)||Nugent, G. R. H.|
|Buchan-Hepburn, Rt. Hon. P. G. T.||Hornsby-Smith, Miss M. P.||Pitman, I. J.|
|Crosthwaite-Eyre, Col. O. E.||Howard, John (Test)||Robertson, Sir David|
|Doughty, C. J. A.||Hurd, A. R.||Speir, R. M.|
|Emmet, Hon. Mrs. Evelyn|
|Errington, Sir Eric||Legh, Hon. Peter (Petersfield)||Walker-Smith, D. C.|
|Freeth, D. K.||Lucas-Tooth, Sir Hugh||Ward, Dame Irene (Tynemouth)|
|Garner-Evans, E. H.||Macdonald, Sir Peter|
|Grant-Ferris, Wg. Cdr. R.(Nantwich)||Maclay, Rt. Hon. John||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Grimond, J.||Macleod, Rt. Hn. Iain (Enfield, W.)||Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Renton.|
|Beswick, F.||Griffiths, Rt. Hon. James (Llanelly)||Morrison, Rt.Hn. Herbert (Lewis'm,S.)|
|Bevan, Rt. Hon. A. (Ebbw Vale)||Hall, Rt. Hn. Glenvil (Colne Valley)||Mulley, F. W.|
|Brockway, A. F.||Holman, P.||Robens, Rt. Hon. A.|
|Callaghan, L. J.||Hughes, Emrys (S. Ayrshire)||Robinson, Kenneth (St. Pancras, N.)|
|Champion, A. J.||Hughes, Hector (Aberdeen, N.)||Stewart, Michael (Fulham)|
|Davies, Ernest (Enfield, E.)||Hunter, A. E.||Taylor, John (West Lothian)|
|Deer, G.||Jeger, Mrs. Lena (Holbn & St.Pncs, S.)||Tomney, F.|
|de Freitas, Geoffrey||Jones, Elwyn (W. Ham, S.)|
|Delargy, H. J.||Lipton, Lt.-Col. M.||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Edwards, Robert (Bilston)||Mitchison, G. R.||Mr. Mason and Mr. D. Jones.|
Question put and agreed to.
§ Whereupon MR. SPEAKER declared that the Question was not decided in the Affirmative, because it was not supported by the majority prescribed by Standing Order No. 30 (Majority for Closure).
§ It being after Four o'Clock, the Debate stood adjourned.
§ Debate to be resumed upon Monday next.