HC Deb 16 December 1955 vol 547 cc1575-615

1.40 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Hirst (Shipley)

I beg to move, That this House views with concern the closure of the Halifax, Bradford and Keighley railway line to local passenger traffic serving those towns and adjacent villages; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to take such action as may be necessary to ensure, by the reinstatement of this service, an adequate public transport service. The House will appreciate that the Halifax, Bradford and Keighley Railway concerns a number of constituencies and, also, more villages than at first would be the impression. The closure of the railway to local passenger traffic will affect a large number of villages. They are Clayton, Cullingworth, Denholme, Great Horton, North Bridge, Holmfield, Ingrow, Wilsden, Ovenden, Queensbury, and Thornton.

This is an important question which has been going on for fully eighteen months and which has involved me in slightly more than 200 communications with various authorities and constituents. Some of them have been courteous blanks. I used to serve on the Staff under an officer who wrote letters to me which meant nothing. When I asked him why, he said, "It is my job to write courteous blanks." I have had a few, and I have also had a lot of information, and if my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary thinks that in certain parts of my speech I am a little sticky, although I will try to be reasonable, he will appreciate that this matter has been tough going.

Of these stations I am mainly interested in Wilsden, Cullingworth and Harecroft, which is included in Wilsden. These villages, especially Harecroft, stand on very high ground, lovely in the summer, but hard hit in the winter, and the only communication which is now offered to that particular spot is two buses in the morning and two in the evening. That is shamefully inadequate. In any case, these moorland roads are the first to be snowed up, and it is worth mentioning that in the winter of 1947, which of course was a difficult one, Harecroft was cut off for nearly eight weeks. Many who live there and at Wilsden work elsewhere, but they were able to get to work in the neighbouring towns, because of the railway service. In present circumstances, under conditions such as I have described, they would have no facilities at all for travelling.

What is sometimes overlooked in these cases is that a railway has cuttings and tunnels to enable it to overcome its difficulties, while a road winds, following the contours of the land; I think that a colleague of mine on the other side of the House will be able to give some information on that point. Some bridges are completely unsuitable. If they are not entirely unsuitable for bus traffic almost all the time, they certainly are in the winter. I hope that I shall not be thought too rude if I say that it would do the B.T.C. good if some of its specialists had to stand in a bus queue on top of Harecroft on a nasty day.

My colleagues in this matter, who belong to all parties, like myself recognise that this is not the sort of matter which should be brought to Parliament in the first instance. It should first be energetically and strongly pursued through other channels. I owe it to the House to give a brief account of the history of the case. My first official approach to the B.T.C. followed representations in June, 1954, when the closure of this line to passenger traffic was then only a proposal. More than a month later I got a reply saying that nothing could be said to me, because the matter was before the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for Yorkshire.

Mr. C. R. Hobson (Keighley)

The same old story.

Mr. Hirst

On 9th August I wrote another letter, and after a lot of jerking for no less than three months I got a reply on 8th December to say that the Committee supported the B.T.C. At this stage, especially following the debate of last Friday which had some reference to this topic. I must make some complaint about the machinery of the consultative committees.

There was no effective publicity in this case, and very short notice was given to possible objectors. The result was that, apart from a few official bodies with large staffs to help, there was no opportunity for an organised and fully informed case to be made by local objectors to counter the cut-and-dried case of the B.T.C. That is something in which the House should interest itself, whatever hon. Members may think about nationalisation—and it is no part of my case to argue that matter.

The machinery was set up, and the House was reasonably satisfied that there was a safeguard in that machinery for interested individuals. This is not the only case, but I should be out of order to discuss others, like electricity, where the machinery sometimes fails. It is difficult for people without a great deal of experience in this sort of matter to present cases to these bodies to counter the set-up of consultative committees supplied with a secretariat from the powers that be. It is a highly technical matter. I do not want to go too far in my remarks, but I am afraid that there are occasions when the committees act as a whitewashing body for the authority concerned.

I must say, in passing, that I am shocked that in speaking of branch railways my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary referred to the fact that the Central Consultative Committee intended to stop the use of counsel. If I am wrong, I hope that he will correct me, but I assume from what he said that objectors will not in future be allowed to be represented by counsel. That ought not to happen and it is a little highhanded. If I am wrong, I shall be delighted to know it.

To return to the main theme; about 8th December, Sir Brian Robertson of the B.T.C. wrote to me to say that he agreed with the decision taken by the Consultative Committee, providing that there was a new and improved bus service. He included details of the alternative service, and my constituents were supposed to swallow the proposal for this new and improved service with glee. That was obviously impossible.

As in some measure the Parliamentary Secretary's ease will rest upon the alternatives which have been provided, and which are supposed to justify the closure without upsetting local residents, I must refer to the alternative programme. I shall give only one or two instances, because I do not want to weary the House. From Wilsden to Keighley is a very short distance. There was previously a rail service for workers at 7 a.m., getting to Keighley at 7.13 a.m. There is now a bus—weather and bridges permitting—at 6.30 a.m. arriving at 7.15. That is 47 minutes, or three and a half times as long as the railway took.

From Wilsden to Denholme is just around the corner. There was a rail service at 7.18 a.m. which arrived at 7,21 a.m.—the enormous time of three minutes. The bus starts at 6.30 a.m., arriving at 6.50 for people who want to get to work at 7.30, and so they have to hang about for 40 minutes. That is seven times as long. They have to get up considerably earlier in the morning, which is no fun and games on these dark mornings. They have to hang around until the works gates are open, and yet this is the new and improved bus service.

Returning to my village from Keighley in the afternoon, there was a train at 4.18 p.m. which arrived at 4.34, that is to say, it took 16 minutes. There is now a bus at 3.50, which is just too soon for the school children—there is one substantially later, which means that the children have to hang about for 1¼ hours—and it takes 40 minutes, which is very much longer.

From Thornton to Wilsden the actual time taken by the alternative service, with only two buses available, is six and a quarter times as long as it was by train. I could quote many instances much worse than that, but I want to be fair in my analysis. In fact, there is one to Denholme which takes fifteen times as long.

Nobody can seriously argue that this is an improved bus service, though I suppose it is true to say that it is new. Needless to say, in the light of this and of the representations made to me, I naturally wrote again to Sir Brian on 21st December explaining the position and asking for a complete reconsideration of the case. I am still asking for that today. The reply of the British Transport Commission—a reply always takes a month—dodged the issue of reconsideration completely. I never had an answer on that point at all by the Transport Users' Consultative Committee, but a conference in Leeds was suggested.

This took place in March this year between certain village representatives, the representatives of the Hebble bus company and the railway representatives. I was given notice of the conference but by error—I do not think that it was intentional—only a few hours before it took place, and I was not present. Unhappily, my constituents draw different conclusions from that, but I want to be fair and to say that notice was short. In case my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary might say that I did not trouble to go, I say that I did not get any notice except by telephone the night before.

That conference proved to be a whitewashing affair, and nothing more came of it. I therefore wrote again to the B.T.C. and, though up to then I had received courteous letters, on this occasion I received a very "snooty" reply asking me to reflect that justice had been done. In view of the arguments which I have put forward most seriously, I really feel that that was a classic piece of impertinence.

Mr. Hobson

On the point about short notice, which is important, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary might care to know that I was not even informed.

Mr. Hirst

There was an unhappy slip. Obviously the time had come—and here I choose my words with immense moderation—the time had come with a vengeance to approach my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport. This I did in March, when I drew a most courteous blank.

I had more consultations with the Transport Users' Consultative Committee but those did not do any good, and I wrote again to the B.T.C. and asked for a senior representative to attend a meeting of those concerned at Harecroft, which is in my constituency. I suggested that representatives should come from places in the valley and the hills. This was fixed, and the meeting was held on 21st May in a hall packed to suffocation. It happened to come after the announcement of the General Election and, though it had nothing to do with that, it was attended by no fewer than seven Parliamentary candidates, of whom four are now Members of this House. Of the latter, three were former Members—myself, the hon. Members for Keighley (Mr. Hobson), Bradford, South (Mr. George Craddock)—and the other was the present hon. Member for Halifax (Mr. Maurice Macmillan).

A few days before that meeting I wrote again to Sir Brian Robertson, because I knew what would happen even if nobody else did. I knew that there was certain to be a rumpus. I advised Sir Brian as to what the situation might well be. On the eve of the meeting, at great cost to myself, I sent Sir Brian a 78-word telegram of appeal in relation to the matter. You will know, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that that was a very costly business.

The meeting was long and the people were somewhat outspoken. I do not want to mince words. We talk straight in Yorkshire; I do, as a Yorkshireman. There was plenty of straight talk at the meeting. The representatives of the railways, had, to use a colloquialism, to "take some stick." However, the meeting showed remarkable restraint—and I pay tribute to it—in the resolution, the only resolution, passed. If I had been able to stay, it would have been much stronger, but it was restrained and asked for a modest service over a trial period of three months, perhaps with diesel-engined trains.

That I forwarded to the B.T.C. and I am still awaiting acknowledgment of its receipt, but I have heard that it has been received. In July I appealed again to the Transport Users' Consultative Committee, and this time I mentioned in detail the conditions of the weather and the inadequate bridges—in other words, the whole bag of tricks—so that they should know the circumstances which I felt should give the opportunity for reconsideration. I do not think that at any time the committee was in full possession of the facts, because prior opportunity to present the facts was never given.

The reply I received was that the matter of roads and bridges was one for the Traffic Commissioner. That is fair enough, but in due course this intrigued me tremendously because I heard that, after the approval of the new bus route, the Traffic Commissioner had been prevailed upon to inspect—I can only assume that that had not been done before—the roads and bridges, and as a result he said that had he known what the roads were like in the area he would not have granted the licence.

Now where are we? Who is to take responsibility? I know this area, and so do other hon. Members. Who is to take responsibility in the light of that?

Mr. Hobson


Mr. Hirst

It was only about this time, in July, that I realised that the closure applied only to local passenger traffic. I acknowledge that, looking back in the light of my knowledge now, the letters which I received refer only to local passenger traffic, but I did not assume that it was only that. I thought that this great economy move was to get rid of the whole line and thus make a substantial saving. I admit that at times this faced me with a problem. I do not want to be dishonest with the House. There are hon. Members present today who have heard me talking about economy.

But my shock, and the shock to the whole of the village, was colossal. None of us had appreciated that the line would continue to be fully maintained and fully signalled not only for goods traffic but also for passenger traffic though not local passenger traffic. In the area no fewer than eight local transport users' committees had been formed in recent months, with a co-ordinating committee which happens to be presided over by one of my constituents in Harecroft, with another of my constituents as secretary. I pay tribute to Mr. Tetley the chairman, and Mrs. Brooks, the secretary, for the tremendous amount of work they have done.

In October, almost at my final gasp, I wrote to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, and again I received a courteous reply. I never ever receive anything but courtesy from him, but of course it had to be a pretty well negative indication of the lack of power that the Minister has in the matter. My argument today includes the fact that powers ought to be sought to remedy precisely this sort of situation.

Whatever may have been intended when this House passed the nationalisation Acts, I do not think that the House was entirely wise in what it did. Of course, I have my own views about that, but I am being careful because I do not want to be party minded. Those Acts divorced the essential control of major matters of policy from the Minister and set up another type of machinery. I say definitely that my case includes that powers should be sought. As a result I tabled a Motion, supported by nine hon. Members from all three parties, and we all took part in the Ballot. Here we have the Motion.

I now come to the question of cost. It has been put to me that the cost, or rather, I suppose it is the saving, involved in this action is £40,000. I have heard higher figures. There is a good deal of conflict of evidence, apparently, by officials on this matter, and I should like to go into that at some other time. But we must get some of these figures into proportion. We can never secure a breakdown of them. When Members of Parliament are fighting for and looking after their constituents and find themselves with these problems to face I think it reasonable that they should have better information. These global sums cannot be broken down to suit the ordinary intelligence even of people like Members of Parliament.

I cannot break down these figures, bearing in mind the fact that it is only local stations which are closed—some of them are still receiving stations for goods—and that the line is still fully maintained for passenger purposes. No one, least of all myself, would argue that the whole system should be put back to what it was before. It was not efficient or successful. The number of passengers was quite insufficient. But I argue that the old conditions should be replaced by something modern and more efficient. Nothing like so many trains as before would be necessary, and those that were provided should be of a modern type and character, less expensive to run. I suggest that it requires a little imagination, less "chair-borne" decisions from London and more human thought for the people living in these hill villages.

The position is rather farcical. Although dozens of excursion trains have been run over the line during the last six months, and goodness knows how many goods trains, there is no local passenger service on this fully maintained and signalled line. I have heard all the talk about, and read all the speeches on, the subject of diesels and gradients. On this line between Halifax and Keighley there is no gradient greater than that at Laisterdyke on the Bradford—Leeds line, where a diesel now runs. I do not want to mention individual railway executive officers by name, but I have letters telling me that diesels will not run on this line, and that they are not economic. The fact is, however, that from the point of view of gradients, these diesels could be run. There are cases where a loss has been turned into a profit by this method.

The fact that there is now a large and growing housing estate near the line at Ovenden and Holmfield seems to have been overlooked by someone. There is a R.A.O.C. camp at Ovenden, where the people feel sore about this, because they have to travel for about twice the length of time and at 2⅓ times the cost by reason of the closure. We do not feel that there is a case for putting back the old steam trains but we think that there should be some method of overcoming the difficulty by some form of diesel traction.

I have read the speech made by the Minister last Friday, and noted the difficulty about rail cars and light diesels and so on. But in the interval I have obtained some information which does not indicate to me that these engines are so expensive as was stated, or that they need to be, provided that they are used properly. It may be that at the moment a railcar costs £22,000 as against the cost of £26,000 of a light diesel. I am not disputing the figures, but I am disputing that there is a true comparison. Were there a proper policy for the use of some new form of light traction in this and other cases, the cost of a comparatively small railcar—a 40-seater—would be nearer £9,000 or £10,000, and I could put the Minister in touch with manufacturers who would be pleased to have an order for 200 or 300 of them.

I ask the Minister, who, I know, is considerate in these matters, to imagine the feelings of my constituents. Many of them live near the railway line, and when I visited them it was possible to see the trains flashing by—incidentally I "got it in the neck" on those occasions. But imagine the feelings of my constituents when they see the trains go flashing by, and realise that they cannot use the line because there is no local service. They find that very hard to swallow.

Last Friday the Minister said: 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…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th December, 1955; Vol. 547, c. 778.] In this case it is not passenger trains which have been withdrawn, but the local passenger service for my constituents. The high cost of the maintenance and operation of the line which, last Friday, was the excuse for arguing against the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) is present in this situation, and that rather upsets me.

In spite of the understandable and large-scale opposition which there has been in my area and round about, like most Yorkshire folk, the people there are perfectly reasonable and prepared to listen to reason. But they have had little chance of doing so, and there was little to bite on in the correspondence which I have had with five different sections of authority. I do not expect the Minister to give a complete answer to all the points that I have raised in this somewhat detailed speech, but I hope he will be able to give to me and my friends in these villages an assurance that he will not slam the door on this matter. I hope that he will promise to keep it under consideration and ensure that at least they have a fair deal.

2.8 p.m.

Mr. C. R. Hobson (Keighley)

I beg to second the Motion.

This Motion seeks the reopening of the passenger traffic line between Keighley and Bradford via Denholme and the junction at Queensbury for Halifax, about which I shall have something to say in a moment. The Motion is the result of a co-operative effort by hon. Members on both sides of the House whose constituencies are involved. It should be understood by the Minister that the closing of branch lines in Yorkshire will lead to trouble—not only in York, but in Berkeley Square where he will hear more than the nightingales singing. In the heavy industrial areas of the West Riding of Yorkshire we consider that we are entitled to an efficient passenger and freight service.

When I say that there will be trouble, I am not speaking in an arrogant manner or in any threatening way. But to the whole of the economy of the country the West Riding of Yorkshire is of paramount importance. So far as the balance of payments is concerned, it is the only part of the country which has a surplus. It is the most highly productive part of the country, and we take a dim view of the attempt to close down this branch line.

The closing of the line will inconvenience people in my constituency who work in Bradford, particularly those who use stations like Clayton, which are on the periphery of Bradford, where there are large industrial establishments. They have now to use the alternative line to Bradford, which involves the added expenditure of bus fares from the centre of Bradford to its outskirts which are covered by the station of Clayton. Consequently, my constituents take a very poor view of this decision.

Further, of course, the closing of the line has resulted in delay to freight. If the line is closed, all traffic between Halifax and Keighley would have to go via Normanton or Skipton and Colne.

Mr. Ernest Davies (Enfield, East)

It is open for freight.

Mr. Hobson

At the moment it is open for freight, and if my hon. Friend would wait he will hear precisely what decisions the Transport Commission took.

The idea is to close the line. That was the statement made by Mr. Hill, in York. It means that people who have to travel between Keighley and Halifax—and freight also—instead of travelling a distance of nine and a half miles, will have to travel thirty miles. Consequently, there will unquestionably be delay and added cost.

There is also the very important point that this line provides an adequate connection between London and my constituency. I will give the Minister one example. A train which is very frequently used by business people travelling from Keighley to London is the 9.10 a.m. White Rose, a very fast train. It arrives in Bradford about 1.9 or 1.12 every week day, and at about 1.20 there was a connection from the next platform which enabled business people to arrive in my constituency by 2 p.m. But now they have to change stations, or, if they go by bus, they have a considerable walk uphill to the bus station.

Whatever may be the virtues or advantages of the City of Bradford, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. George Craddock) will agree that the bus station in Bradford is quite a distance from both railway stations. Therefore, direct connection between London and Keighley now involves the changing of stations. It is no good saying that people can use the old Midland line, because the average speed on that line is only about 35 miles an hour and on some trains it takes 51 hours to get from Leeds to London via the Midland route. It is no good advancing that argument.

I wish to reinforce the plea made by the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Hirst). In the winter, the roads between Denholme, which is at 900 feet, Keighley, Shipley and Bradford are frequently closed. It is utterly impossible for traffic of any kind to travel on the roads, because they are blocked with snow. The only form of communication for people in that area is the railway. The railway has very rarely been blocked by snow, and, when it is, it is very easy to clear it. In the highest part of the moorland territory, the trains go underground through tunnels and are not subject to the vagaries of the weather.

Last winter, some schoolchildren in my constituency had to walk about three miles across snowfields to get to the nearest place where the buses could come. These villages on the Yorkshire moors are very frequently isolated, and, therefore, I think that my constituents are entitled to particular consideration.

Does not the Minister think that these people are entitled to transport in order to get to work and get the supplies to the shops? This is a real problem in Yorkshire. We are not dealing here with the flatlands of Middlesex, but with very high country. The alternative of running a bus service has been put forward. Let us examine that very carefully. First of all, before any bus company would agree to put on an additional service to cover these villages, it wanted a subsidy of £3,000.

Mr. David Jones (The Hartlepools)

Will my hon. Friend explain why it wanted a subsidy of £3,000?

Mr. Hobson

Because it would not have paid the bus companies to run such a service. It would not have been an economic proposition. I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised that point.

Mr. Ernest Davies

What bus company was it?

Mr. Hobson

It is a fact that for a good many months of the year it would be absolutely impossible for buses to use the route, even if a service were established. The gradients and the bridges are not meant for this form of traffic at all. It may interest the hon. Gentleman to know that I have here a picture from one of the Yorkshire papers of no fewer than four lorries which have overturned since the closing of the railway near Wilsden owing to the steep gradients and sharp curves that exist on the roads.

Reference was made to chairborne people in London, and I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he should visit this area and travel on a single-decker bus between Keighley, via Denholme and Wilsden, to the 'City of Bradford. I can assure him that if he does that, by the time that he gets to the end of the journey he will want something more than a double brandy. He will certainly not want an aperient. As has been shown by the hon. Member for Shipley, it is absolutely impossible to have a bus service adequate to the needs of the district with the roads as they are.

Reference has also already been made to the housing estates which exist at Ovenden and Holmefield. The people living on those estates now have to take two buses at double the fare in order to get to Bradford because the railway has been closed to passenger traffic. Does the Minister think that fair, just or equitable? It seems to me to be an entirely wrong attitude to be taken up by whoever is responsible for closing the line. Of course, other housing estates are being developed, and there will be more and more people who will have to get to work in Bradford and Keighley. They are surely entitled to have adequate transport facilities.

As stated by the hon. Member for Shipley, at a meeting on 15th July, Mr. Hill, who, I understand, is from the Eastern Region Headquarters, at York, made the categorical statement that no trains would run over that track. Subsequently, there was correspondence between myself, my constituents and the British Transport Commission as a result of which that statement was qualified, and today there is a certain amount of freight traffic on the line.

During the summer months numerous excursions were run over this line. I assume that that was because of the great density of traffic on the alternative routes, or probably because it was a shorter distance. I have here the waybills and advertisements for excursions to Blackpool, Southport and Morecambe actually run over that line.

What is more important—and this really is astonishing—is that at the end of June or in early July a new track was laid down between Great Horton and Queensbury. Furthermore, it was not laid during the week; it was laid on a Sunday. The gangers therefore had to be recruited from elsewhere, and it was only appropriate that the overtime rate had to be paid. This either shows complete and utter incompetence or a lack of co-ordination between the people running the Eastern Region—or it is prima facie evidence that the line will be kept in existence. The Minister cannot have it both ways.

If the line is to be kept in existence for freight—and I suppose that that is what we shall be told—and excursion trains are to be run "as and when required," in the beautifully generalised phrase that is used, why cannot a few trains be run in the early morning and late at night, besides one at noon, when the workers are going to and leaving their work, in order to bring them from Bradford, Denholme and Keighley? Either the railway should be completely shut down, or passenger traffic should be allowed upon it.

We shall probably be told that the reason why freight is still run over it—in spite of Mr. Hill's statement of 15th July—is, as the hon. Member for Shipley stated, that the gradients are not safe for heavy road traffic. It seems to me that the Minister ought to look again at this matter. I renew my invitation to him to have a ride in this area himself.

I now want to deal with the question in general terms. Hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that the transport of passengers and freight is a public service. We cannot expect every form of bus service or every railway line to pay if we did, half the bus services in the country would be shut down. Indeed, the London Underground railway would be shut down, because the buses help to pay for it.

Mr. Ernest Davies


Mr. Hobson

My hon. Friend will be able to make his own speech later, instead of muttering while I am speaking.

There are certain bus services in London which do not pay but which are essential for the travelling public. There should be a broad vision and a broad conception about these branch lines, and if they are carrying out a public service they should not automatically be shut down.

I think I shall be within the rules of order if I say that we must look at the 1947 Act again. My view is that the House should decide whether or not a branch line should close. The decision should not be left to an official in York, or in one of the various control points of British Railways, and it should not be necessary to go through the paraphernalia of appearing before a transport users' consultative committee, of whose proceedings some of the people affected are notified and others not. I cannot see any objection to bringing in regulations, and it would then be competent for any hon. Member or group of Members to pray for the annulment of the appropriate regulation. I urge the Minister to think upon those lines.

Mr. D. Jones

In other words, a pressure group.

Mr. Hobson

Not necessarily. Whatever may be one's constituency—whether it be highly industrialised or in a rural or semi-rural area—the people living in it are entitled to adequate transport. That is my point. Those who argue that these branch lines should be automatically closed are always quick to suggest that bus services should be provided. But bus services cannot be provided just like that. I do not know whether the Minister has power to direct nationalised or private bus services to run services for the benefit for the people of a certain area, but I very much doubt it.

Leaving aside all considerations of weather, locality, and the topography of the area concerned, the people living there are being very unfairly singled out and dealt with. I hope that the Minister will say that the door is not closed and that he is prepared to consider the stretch of railway between Keighley and Bradford, which, I understand, has been in existence since about 1879. It is absolutely essential for the people in my constituency who are living 900 feet above sea level. In winter, it is necessary for the schoolchildren and those who have to work in Bradford—especially in the east of that city.

I hope that we shall not have a merely formal reply, but that the Minister will say he is prepared to reconsider the matter and see that the constituents of Keighley. Shipley, Halifax, and Bradford have an adequate service over that railway line.

2.26 p.m.

Captain J. A. L. Duncan (South Angus)

I beg to move, after the first "of" to insert: branch railway lines and in particular of. Perhaps it would be convenient for the House if the other Amendments in my name, to leave out "railway line" and insert: and Arbroath/Forfar railway lines and to leave out "this service" and insert "these services," were discussed at the same time.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Hirst) for wording his Motion in such a way that I was able to put down these Amendments, to make it possible to bring to the notice of the public and the Government the feeling of frustration and injustice felt by local authorities and people in my part of Scotland about the closing of a certain branch line. This branch line consists of a 14-mile stretch between Arbroath and Forfar, in the County of Angus, seven miles of which is main line in any case. It is really not an ordinary branch line but, rather, a link between two main lines—one being the King's Cross to Aberdeen line, up the east coast, and the other the Euston to Perth and Aberdeen line, up the west coast.

The best thing I can do is to tell the story of the closing of this line. In March, notification was received by the local authorities concerned that the line would be closed. There was an immediate reaction not only from the people in the district, but from all the local authorities concerned. The Angus County Council, and the Town Councils of Arbroath and Forfar, formed a joint body to make the necessary protest. They did this to the local transport users' consultative committee. Eventually, on 10th June, they were heard. When they went into the room they were faced, among other people, by a representative of British Railways and a representative of S.M.T.—the nationalised Scottish bus services—who were members of the committee. They immediately felt that those two people were bound to be prejudiced against them and their case, and they came away completely unsuccessful and dissatisfied with the hearing they had received.

I will read one sentence from the letter which the Town Clerk of Arbroath sent to me: We have in mind that the worse feature of this whole affair …"— that is, the appearance before the consultative committee— is the inadequate machinery. The Transport Users' Consultative Committee are at once a toothless body who have no form of procedure and their whole actions are entirely informal. The British Railways and the Scottish Bus Group are represented on the Committee and the extensive knowledge of these gentlemen on transport matters sways the opinion of the whole body. That may or may not be right, but that is the feeling that they came away with.

Then they appealed to the area board, and Sir Ian Bolton and Cameron of Lochiel saw them on the 4th October. They got no change out of the board, because they were told that the objectors had produced no new fact, and, finally, they were told that if the authority desired to pursue the matter further it would have to be through either the transport tribunal or direct to the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation. They chose the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation and asked me to arrange a deputation to be received here by the Minister.

I am not blaming the Minister in the least that he refused. He said that, in view of the terms of the 1947 Act, he could not say "Yes" or "No" to the deputation when it came, because he had no responsibility in the circumstances, in accordance with the terms of the Act. Therefore, it would be a waste of time for these busy gentlemen, prominent local people, to come all the way from Scotland to see him. On 5th December, the line was closed to passenger traffic.

What is the effect? The radiographer from Arbroath has to go to Forfar every day to do some of the work for the Angus Hospital Board. She used to go by train at the cost of a few shillings. Now she has to go by taxi, costing £3 a day to the Angus Hospital Board. The passengers—and I will deal with the numbers later—have to go by bus, and the bus takes 55 minutes by a tedious route, instead of the train's 30 minutes. The fisher-women of Arbroath used to carry their creels to the railway, and from there go round the countryside, selling their freshly caught fish from their creels. They are now finding great difficulty in getting alternative routes so that they can serve their customers.

Along the old railway route there is an inefficient service of buses, and no sufficient service of buses has yet been established along that route. The bus route, of course, goes a different way. Lastly, the train connection to Glasgow is almost impossible at the present time. When one wants now to go from Arbroath to Glasgow one has to go via Dundee, where there are two stations. One is underground and the other is above ground, about 200 yards away. There is five minutes between the arrival of one train, if it is punctual, and the departure of the next train—which will not wait. If, therefore, the train is not punctual, one misses the connection altogether, and even if it is punctual, one has to be athletic to get up the stairs, along the street and into the other station to catch the train. The reverse also applies. These are a few of the facts, probably by no means all, of the closing of this line.

I do not want to go into great detail of the broader picture of this story. It seems to me that one of the first things which the Government really must look at is the inadequate procedure of the transport users' consultative committee. When the local authority's delegation went to Edinburgh they were told by the railway authorities present at the inquiry that this line was losing £17,000 a year. They had no chance of criticising They were never given a chance to break down that figure into detail, and, quite frankly, they do not believe and I do not believe that that figure could be saved by the closing of this line only to passenger service.

After all, the maintenance must remain. Seven miles of the line is main line, and the rest will still be used for goods. Another line, running through my estate, was closed three or four years ago, and the same number of gangers are on that line today, although it has only one goods train a day each way, as it had when it was open to passenger service. That is a fact. I do not believe that there can be very much saving from the maintenance of the line, from the signaling—

Mr. Thomas Steele (Dunbartonshire, West)

How many maintenance men are there?

Captain Duncan

Three—the same number are still there. If the hon. Gentleman wants confirmation of that he can go to the Alyth junction station and find out. There will be no saving in signals, no saving in the upkeep of the level crossings or of the wages of the watchmen to guard the gates, but, of course, there will be a saving in coal because without the passenger train coal burning will be saved.

This leads me to the next point, that there should be an alternative method of propulsion. I do not mind whether it is diesel, electric battery cars, or what it is. I have submitted to the Minister—and I think that he has my submission in his hands—the facts which have been supplied by an eminent railway engineer, not in the service of British Railways, saying that diesel rail cars can be operated at between 26 and 33 per cent. of the cost of an equivalent steam train. Those costs included everything—maintenance, operating costs, interest on capital. If my hon. Friend or the Transport Commission can dispute those figures, let them do so.

One reason why we are so dissatisfied is that we can never get the Transport Commission to explain the figures of loss that it gives or why it does not experiment more freely with diesel rail-cars. It says that the cars cost too much to make. If so, let us have all these facts out at a proper inquiry and let us all know them, because it is only by knowledge that we shall make progress.

Meanwhile, Arbroath, Forfar and the surrounding districts are cut off from the west of Scotland. This is very important, not only for business travellers but for the holiday traffic. Arbroath has about 20,000 inhabitants, but on the Saturday of Glasgow holiday week, about 10,000 people, an extra 50 per cent., are added to the population of Arbroath, and they come not only by road but by holiday trains from the west.

Mr. D. Jones

What happens on the other fifty-one weeks?

Captain Duncan

I can give the hon. Gentleman a figure which will convey some idea of the development of Arbroath as a holiday resort. It is estimated that during the last holiday season this year, visitors from all sorts of places, including visitors from America, brought £500,000 to this small town of 20,000 inhabitants. The town has spent an enormous amount of money on successfully developing its holiday attractions. It fears that it will lose a large part of the effect of this expenditure, because it will be cut off from the west of Scotland.

My first request to my hon. Friend, apart from the terms of the Motion which asks for this line to be reopened, is that at least an inquiry should be held to see whether we can reopen it in the holiday months for passenger trains. That would put Arbroath back on the map in relation to the west of Scotland.

My second request is that we should have from the Minister and the Transport Commission complete reconsideration of the machinery, methods and procedure of the transport users' consultative committee. I very much regret my hon. Friend's statement last Friday that the committee proposed to dispense with counsel at inquiries. It is not fair for provosts, town clerks, farmers and local authority people to have to argue on transport matters with experts from the consultative committee which is composed partly of experts in transport.

My third point is that the Transport Commission should cease its completely negative attitude on the closing of branch lines and should give consideration, which, I believe, has not been given, to using diesel or battery rail-cars. We should take advantage of the Light Railways Act so as to get rid of some of the extra expense. The Transport Commission has bought diesel engines, but they are all between 600 and 2,000 horsepower. I have no objection to that. No doubt the hon. Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones), who is an old railwayman, will agree that many railwaymen have a prejudice against diesel locomotives.

Mr. D. Jones

Not at all.

Captain Duncan

My local railway people overcame that prejudice long ago. Stationmasters, porters and signalmen in my area are looking for this sort of modern outlook on transport. It is the people at the head who seem to be "sticky." I beg my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, in the hope of reopening these lines, if not for the holiday traffic at any rate in the future, to consider how we can get these lines economically and efficiently run, and can use light rail-cars or battery rail-cars for rural transport.

I do not want to add anything to what the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Hobson) said about the needs of the countryside. My countryside is prosperous. Farmers have their own cars. The people I am speaking for are not the farmers or the farm workers, who are well enough off now to get about on motor cycles and even in motor cars in some cases. I speak for the farm workers' wives. They have to do the shopping. Cutting off rural transport hits the person who is the key to rural prosperity, the farm worker's wife. She will not stay in the country unless she can get to the shops.

Mr. Jones

Quite right.

Captain Duncan

We must, therefore, do all we can to get rural transport going. If we cannot, it will be a bad day for Scotland.

2.46 p.m.

Mr. Julian Ridsdale (Harwich)

I beg to second the Amendment.

I am concerned about the policy of British Railways in closing so many branch lines. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South Angus (Captain Duncan) has brought forward very well the arguments against closing of branch lines in rural constituencies. I can understand the case for closing lines on grounds of economy, though I sympathise with my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Hirst) when he said that he was not able to see clearly the breakdown of the figures presented by British Railways. It is difficult when we are asked for economy in the running of branch lines, when we see wastage in other sectors, particularly at level crossings. There is a man on duty and old-fashioned methods are used, leading to waste of money.

Mr. D. Jones

What does the hon. Gentleman suggest should be substituted for a crossing keeper at level crossings to maintain the same degree of safety?

Mr. Ridsdale

I am grateful for that intervention. I would suggest traffic lights, as are used on roads, or a method of putting the road under the railway. The capital expenditure would be worth while in the end.

Mr. Jones

Get some money out of the Minister of Transport to do it.

Mr. Ridsdale

Are we looking ahead far enough? I am certain that branch lines would come into their own with a wider use of diesel cars. In my constituency there was a proposal to close the branch line from Brightlingsea to Colchester, but I am glad that British Railways were good enough to reopen that branch line. The fear I always have is that the time may come again when British Railways say that the line is not being run economically.

I sympathise very much with the feelings of my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley and the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Hobson). I know that figures have been given showing why these branch lines are not paying under present conditions, but I do plead most sincerely with the Minister to give very close consideration to the use of diesel cars on these branch lines and, before such lines are closed, to have a trial period when these cars can be used.

Amendment agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, proposed.

2.51 p.m.

Mr. George Craddock (Bradford, South)

As I am interested in the Bradford—Halifax branch line, and in particular with Bradford and Queensbury, I wish to revert to the terms of the Motion proposed by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Shipley (Mr. Hirst). The people on the southern part of the branch line have been saddened by the fact that it has been closed in what they think to be a most unfortunate manner. I want to stress four points. They are: the needs of this vast population; the reason for the closing down of the line as given by the Commission; the present use being made of it; and alternative forms of travel.

This branch line has existed now for more than eighty years, and has served primarily Bradford, Keighley and Halifax, as well as certain small villages. It is very important to note that those three places together have a population of more than 450,000, and I cannot understand why the Commission has not done more to make known the facilities provided and to persuade the travelling public to use them. It has been said that this line has been used less and less in recent years, but when one considers that within a very short distance of each other there are three large and growing industrial towns, it seems strange that the Commission has had to take this step.

We have been told that to close the line means a saving of £48,000 a year, but it would appear that there was no real intention to close it. It has remained open for some traffic, and this summer it has been most noticeable to people living adjacent to the line that through excursion trains have been running along it. In addition, freight is carried regularly. Can the Minister tell me when a line is closed? I certainly understood that to close a line meant that rolling stock would no longer pass along it. That is not the case here. All that has happened is that local trains only have ceased to run. It is being used as before for through traffic and for the carriage of freight.

I am particularly interested in the junction at Queensbury, which has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Hobson). For many days and weekends now work has proceeded on the laying of a new track. It is surprising that the Commission should take this line out of service and then, at a most important junction which serves the branch line, should lay—and are still laying—a new track. The local people cannot understand why it is that though to them the line is closed, from their kitchen windows they can see passenger trains passing by.

These matters are not dealt with sufficiently deeply by the appropriate body, and I think that it is time there was more effective machinery for the purpose. After all, we have a system of railways not merely for the purpose of making every mile of track pay its way but to aid the economic, social and industrial life of the community. If we proposed to do everything on the basis of making every small part pay we should never do anything at all and never make the slightest progress.

We have been informed that there are suitable alternative forms of travel, but, from my own experience, I can tell the Minister that this is not the case. This is an extremely hilly district—very rough terrain—and in winter there is a gigantic risk to life and limb if all traffic is to be forced on to the roads. The Commission has been extremely fortunate that, since the line was closed, we have so far had a comparatively mild winter. Had we had a really severe one we might have had some very serious accidents on the road contiguous to this branch line.

Nor can we understand the suggestion that a compensatory sum of £3,000 should be allowed to those who are to run the road services which will take the place of the closed-down branch line. It is amazing. This is a matter which should be considered by the Commission and by the consultative committees, because the railways exist to render a national service, to provide an efficient passenger and goods service for the whole country. I agree with the hon. and gallant Member for South Angus (Captain Duncan) that in the more distant parts of the country, where the going is very much harder, there is a likelihood of a growing tendency not to use and finally to close branch lines, although in such districts there may be a possibility of economic and social developments, particularly in those in Scotland.

It seems to me entirely wrong policy and quite preposterous to close the Halifax—Keighley—Bradford line for a saving of £48,000 by the Commission, having regard to the service which could be given if the Commission did what it could to make the travelling public more conscious of rail travel. I must protest at the way in which the meeting of the Transport Users' Consultative Committee was called in March this year. Bradford City Council considered the closing of this line and wrote to the city's Members of Parliament to ask them to take steps to get the line reopened. I think that the Members of Parliament for the City of Bradford should have been notified of that meeting so that we could have attended and given our opinion.

I sincerely hope that the Minister will give very serious consideration to the matter, and that he will prompt the people concerned to do something about it, so that we can have this branch line reopened. I am sure it would be to the advantage of the country, and in particular to the many hundreds of thousands of people who could be served by that branch line.

3.1 p.m.

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

I have listened with a good deal of interest to this debate, but I think we have to consider the national as well as local interest. We in Parliament asked the British Transport Commission to pay its way taking one year with another. Since we have done that, it is, I think, very unfair to the Commission that we should oppose it when it seeks to make economies, when it proposes to save £40,000 or £17,000 a year. Obviously, such proposals ought to be considered extremely carefully when the nation as a whole is asking that economies should be made in national expenditure and in the expenditure of the nationalised corporations.

Captain Duncan

I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend says, but our point is that if the Transport Commission would only use modern propulsion the railways could be made to pay.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

If my hon. and gallant Friend will bear with me I shall come to that matter in a minute.

It may be, of course, that some of the branch lines will never pay, however operated. It may be that they will never pay as long as the engines are operated by steam. I should like to consider for a minute or two whether there are possible ways of making the lines pay. Of course, if they can never pay the passengers must go by road, and use what is, after all, a fine network of bus services throughout the country. After all, buses go nearer to people's homes and places of business than do railway trains.

Mr. Archer Baldwin (Leominster)

But they are often not there.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

I ask myself whether it is possible to, so to speak, degrade these branch lines to tramways and thus cut out signals, cut out level crossings, cut out porters and other people at the stations, and so on. I ask myself whether they could be conducted as tramways by the use of light diesel buses on rails. From my knowledge of industry I think that to put a diesel bus on a railway line costs between £7,000 and £8,000, not a very heavy capital expenditure. It could be run by one driver and possibly a conductor to collect the fares, which should certainly be much cheaper than keeping going a signalling system, level crossings, and the like.

How much safer these lines are than the roads. I had the advantage the other day of travelling by diesel train on a main line. Sitting near the front one had a complete feeling of safety. There were no pedestrians crossing the line, no other traffic and no overtaking. It is easy even to drive a diesel train. How much easier it is to drive a diesel bus on railway lines at about 30 m.p.h. I have no doubt that the passengers would prefer to go by diesel bus rather than by the old-fashioned steam railway train.

In the West Riding, traffic has increased by 40 per cent. since diesel operation began and, of course, diesel operation is very much cheaper than steam operation. A diesel train costs about 13d per mile to operate whereas a steam train costs about 37d, per mile. Therefore, great economies can be made.

Summing up the general observations, fortunately without having a branch line in my own constituency to worry about, I would say, first, that we cannot ask the B.T.C. to operate an unremunerative line for ever. Secondly, if there is no traffic offering, the Commission must close the line and we must agree. We cannot keep it going for sentimental reasons. We cannot keep a line open for the reason which I understand a Westmorland lady pleaded—because there was a harmonium in the railway station. It may be that if we entirely de-graded these lines into tramway operation they would attract traffic and could be made economical. The cost of operation would be very much less.

3.8 p.m.

Mr. Thomas Steele (Dunbartonshire, West)

I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke), who has brought some reality into the debate, but before I deal with his proposals I should like to say something about the history of this matter. I am sure that we are all concerned at the fact that a debate of this kind should be necessary. We are all concerned at the fact that branch lines are being closed. No one is more concerned than I am. I believe hon. Members know that I am the only stationmaster in the House. I have served for 25 years on the railways, and I appreciate that my fellow railwaymen look very sadly and regretfully on the closing of these lines.

One of the stations at which I served as stationmaster has now been closed. Whether it was the result of my inability to secure traffic or not, I do not know. Another one has unfortunately been degraded because of the loss of traffic, and the station at which I started work as a boy on a branch line is now on the list for closing. I speak, therefore, with some feeling on this matter, but, irrespective of that, I have to face the realities of the situation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Hobson) said that Parlia- ment ought to have more control of these matters, and that regulations should be brought before us to deal with the closing of branch lines. I say to him that the administration of railways in the past has been bedevilled because of Parliamentary interference, and the railways would have been in a better position to face modern competition and needs had they not been hamstrung by the legislation passed by the House.

My hon. Friend said that the branch line to which he referred was built in 1879. That is one of our problems, because when these branch and main lines were built many landlords and other people raised objections to where the line should be, and one of our difficulties today is that no cognisance was then taken of serving the community, so that the stations were built away from the villages. So we are suffering from that fact as well.

The main problem which the House must face is the new conception of transport and the habits of people. No one will walk to a railway station today if he can get a bus at his door. Many of the branch lines I know, which can only put on a service for morning, midday or evening travel, must compete with bus services operating at fifteen minute intervals from seven o'clock in the morning until ten o'clock at night.

Mr. Ernest Davies

And they are often cheaper.

Mr. Steele


I have seen this competition. During the campaign for a square deal for the railways I tried to help my employers to bring home to the public what was happening. As well as the bus traffic we must bear in mind the number of people who have cars today, because they are the ones who previously, in the main, used the railways more. Their change of transport resulted in heavy loss of traffic for the railways.

The hon. Member for Twickenham put forward a proposal which he genuinely felt might help the maintenance of branch lines, and it linked up with the proposal of the hon. and gallant Member for South Angus (Captain Duncan). This is nothing new. Before the war the railway companies experimented with what was called the Camel Coach. That was a small coach seating about sixty passengers which could run backwards and forwards. Despite that, and despite the fact that it gave a better service, the public did not use it because buses were more convenient.

Now I will give some information to the House which I am certain will amaze hon. Members. Not only do we have this problem on branch lines where the stations are inconvenient but we have it also where stations are conveniently sited in the centre of a village and provide a good service. I know one station where the people go to the entrance where the buses stop, and they prefer to pay 1s. 6d. for a return trip in a bus rather than go by train for 6d. return.

Mr. Hobson

My hon. Friend is quoting certain examples which are known to him. I should like to tell him this absolute fact. As a result of dieselisation between Leeds and Bradford and Leeds and Harrogate and Knaresborough traffic has been more than trebled. The British Transport Commission holds this to be a successful new venture, and I suggest that it could reasonably be adopted on other lines.

Mr. Steele

I agree, provided the essential traffic is there. That is the point. However, with many of these branch lines the traffic is not there to begin with. In the case I mention, the traffic existed to sonic extent but the people preferred to travel by bus. This comes about through the changing habits of the people, and the Commission must have cognisance of that fact, just as the bus services must.

Mr. Hirst

The hon. Member is arguing largely about cases where there are adequate alternative bus services. I am sure he will appreciate that the force of the Motion is directed towards cases where no such alternative exists, which is an important part of our quarrel.

Mr. Steele

The hon. Gentleman has just given me an introduction to the next point that I wanted to make.

The argument has been that the branch lines should be maintained despite the loss which the Commission says will be involved. In the course of the arguments which have been advanced, we have learnt that the bus companies, before they would be prepared to operate an alter- native service, required a guarantee of £3,000. If the bus services want such a guarantee, surely that must be evidence that potential traffic does not exist. That answers the hon. Gentleman's point.

Mr. Hirst

That does not answer the case. My hon. Friends and I have explained at great length that the roads in our neighbourhood are completely unsuitable for that sort of transport. The hon. Member speaks from great experience, and his case is tremendously sound in general, but there are certain peculiarities about our area and it is not suitable for bus transport, no matter what subsidy may be given.

Mr. Steele

I have not visited that area, and I appreciate that the hon. Member knows the district better than I do. However, in some parts of my constituency and in some parts of the constituency which I had the honour to represent from 1945 to 1950 until the constituents thought otherwise, the gradients were very great indeed—such as on the road along Clydeside from Garrion Bridge to Kirkfieldbank, which is a winding area, and on the hills from there up to Lanark along Kirkfieldbank Braes—and one would have thought them almost impossible for a single decker bus, but double decker buses are, in fact, making that journey today.

The main argument that was advanced was that the railways should be kept open because of the danger of storms in the winter. Surely we cannot ask the British Transport Commission to keep open railways merely because of that. The main point which I want to make is that if it is necessary to give a subsidy of £3,000 to the bus companies for this purpose, surely it is wrong to argue that the Commission should keep open these lines and should operate them at a loss. Why should the industry bear the cost? Here I speak as a stationmaster on leave of absence. If my constituents reject me at the next Election, I shall go back to my job. When my trade union makes an application to the Commission for a pay increase, it will be emphatically told that the Commission has no money with which to grant it.

From the point of view of my association it cannot be argued that branch lines should be kept open—those which will cost the British Transport Commission money—at the expense of the conditions of service of railway employees.

Mr. Hobson

Alter the Act.

Mr. Steele

My hon. Friend says "Alter the Act." It is scarcely likely that the present Government will do that.

The public is entitled to a good service, the best service that we can give. If the nation says so, then the Government must face the responsibility, and if branch lines must be kept open for strategic purposes, or for serving any community, the cost should fall, not upon the Commission, but upon the Government. That is our argument.

Finally, I am convinced that the Commission is not prepared to close down these branch lines without consideration. It is as anxious as we are to make them pay. It is only after very careful consideration that branch lines are closed.

I hope and trust that we shall not criticise the consultative committees in this way, because they are composed of public spirited people who are doing a good job and who are anxious to serve the community and who are prepared to go to some expense. There should not be levelled at them the criticism which has been voiced this afternoon.

3.24 p.m.

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

It is one of the charms of the House of Commons that while at one moment it is dealing with the broadest matters of national and international policy, it is still both the privilege and duty of hon. Members to raise matters which affect the convenience and comfort of their constituents. I therefore make no complaint that hon. Members have availed themselves of the good fortune of the Ballot to raise these matters today.

It usually happens on such occasions, however, that the putting forward of the point of view of a particular constituency or locality provokes some hon. Members into expressing a broader and more national point of view. I am glad that the debate did not conclude without the speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) and the speech of the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, West (Mr. Steele), both of which have gone a long way to put the problem before us into its proper perspective.

The question as to what services are run and what branch lines are kept open is a matter for the British Transport Commission. This is a matter of day-to-day administration which has been entrusted to them, and not to the Minister of Transport, under the Act of 1947. To protect the travelling public against any danger that the Commission might take decisions of this kind without due regard to the public interest, Parliament set up the transport users' consultative committees to look after the interests of the travelling public.

It is provided by Section 6 (8) of the Act of 1947, as amended by Section 29 (2) of the Act of 1953, that where the Central Transport Consultative Committee makes a recommendation to the Minister about a proposal of the Commission the Minister may intervene and give a direction to the Commission. In both instances which have been mentioned this afternoon the appropriate transport users' consultative committees have approved the Commission's proposals. My right hon. Friend has, therefore, told the hon. Members who raised these matters today that he has no locus standi to intervene at all.

It is because I believe that the conclusions of the transport users' consultative committees can be abundantly justified that I am glad that my hon. Friends have raised these matters, because it gives me an opportunity to explain why the decisions were taken by the Commission and why they were approved by the committees.

In the case of the Halifax—Bradford—Keighley branch line, these three important industrial towns are well supplied with transport, and even after this branch line has been closed they will still continue to be well served by main line railways. It is only this little branch line that we are discussing. It is of triangular formation with a mileage of 18¼ miles, and it has on it no fewer than 11 stations.

Some years ago the train service was cut to economise in coal. It was not thought at that time of coal shortage to be justifiable to keep all these trains running for the benefit of the small number of passengers whom they were carrying. Since then there have been only about seven trains in each direction per day. On an average of these 14 trains, fewer than three passengers have joined and fewer than three passengers have alighted at each one of the 11 stations. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Hirst) quoted the case of Mr. Tetley. I understand that he was the only regular passenger on the 7.18 train for quite a substantial distance from Wilsden.

Of course it is true, as, indeed, I pointed out last week, that the Commission, by means of the use of diesels is anxious to encourage, to maintain and to develop services where, in the words of the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, West, there is the potential traffic. But, surely, the very fact that it is doing so in West Cumberland, for example, about which I gave figures last Friday—and again, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Hobson), even in the vicinity of this branch line—shows that it is fully alive to the advantages of diesel as compared with steam traction.

If it is not doing so on this branch line, it is because, taking into account all the circumstances and the facts which I have just been giving, it is obvious that however much diesels may be better and cheaper than steam locomotives there would still be no chance of making this branch line pay. The financial saving, estimated at £48,826 by the Transport Commission, arises entirely out of the economy created by the discontinuance of the passenger service. I mean by that a reduction in the number of stall which may be as high as 50. This includes stationmasters—no one would wish to economise the services of the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, West, but he recognised that stationmasters cannot he retained where there is no use for the station—clerks, guards, porters, and engine-men. The total cost of the service was £56,939 and the receipts were only £8,113.

My hon. Friend complained, and was supported by the hon. Member for Keighley, that only passenger services were discontinued, and asked why it was that, as he said, dozens of excursion trains had been run last summer. His eloquence led him into a slight hyperbole. There were not dozens, but 17 excursion trains. Five passenger trains were run in one direction during the holiday season, on Saturday, 23rd July, and five back on the following Saturday. Those are the only trains of which I have a record.

Mr. Hobson

There were trains run on 12th September.

Mr. Hirst

Football "specials."

Mr. Molson

That may be, but tile answer is that now the passenger services have been withdraw, the maintenance of the lines will not be continued at passenger service level. The line will be allowed to deteriorate, and as soon as it is shown by inspection that it is no longer safe for passenger trains, excursions and holiday trains will be discontinued on that line.

The hon. Gentleman referred to certain new track being laid at Great Horton and Queensbury. I do not know why he should trouble to raise the matter again, because on 22nd August the Chairman of the Transport Commission wrote to him and explained that new rails were laid at Great Horton because it was necessary for freight working, and a small item of track maintenance was necessary at Queensbury Station to keep the line in working order for the time being. It may well be that before long the line will be closed to goods traffic, as the Queensbury and other tunnels are extremely difficult and expensive to maintain. That is under consideration, and, if decided on, the line will go out of use entirely, with a further saving of expenditure to the Commission.

This matter has been most carefully and conscientiously considered by the Transport Users' Consultative Committee of Yorkshire. I should like to associate myself with what was said by the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, West about the very valuable and conscientious work which is done voluntarily by the gentlemen and ladies who sit upon these consultative committees. They went into this matter very carefully to find out what alternative transport was likely to be available.

On 26th July, a sub-committee came to the conclusion that the alternative road transport would not be adequate. It accordingly asked the Commission to go further into the matter, and, as a result, fresh proposals were made which were examined by the sub-committee on 15th September, 1954. As a result, the subcommittee concluded that: In the opinion of the sub-committee the alternative road facilities now proposed were satisfactory and met the objections which had influenced them previously in recommending that one or two morning and evening trains should be maintained.", and recommended that: subject to the introduction of the alternative road passenger services set out in Appendix A. no opposition should be raised to the complete withdrawal of the passenger train service. That was the conclusion of a subcommittee, and subsequently it was considered by the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for Yorkshire, which unanimously agreed with this recommendation on 30th November and said that no opposition would be raised to the complete withdrawal of the train service.

I listened with close attention to what my hon. Friend said about the experience which has been gained now that the rail service has been withdrawn. There is no constitutional way of reopening the matter or of referring it back to the T.U.C.C., but I will certainly give my hon. Friend an undertaking that I will write to the Chairman of the Transport Commission and draw to his attention the matters raised by him rid also by the hon. Member for Keighley.

I turn now to the case of the Forfar—Arbroath branch line, but I am bound to say that very much the same conditions seem to apply there. Neither Forfar nor Arbroath will be deprived of rail communication as a result of the closing of this branch line. Nor will Arbroath even be deprived of direct rail communication with the West of Scotland.

Out of respect to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South Angus (Captain Duncan), and because I understand him to be critical of the procedure of the Scottish T.U.C.C., I have been at some pains to read the proceedings. I will read what was said by the advocate who was opposing the closing of the line. He said: Somewhere in the neighbourhood of 20 people at least go daily from Arbroath to Forfar to work. They are going to be hit by this. There are a few, but not many, who possibly use the train from Forfar to Arbroath for their daily work… Then there are people who go to Arbroath from Forfar from time to time during the day on business. If I might give an example,…you have members of the Angus County Council who reside in Arbroath and wish to go to Forfar to attend the council meetings…Then day trippers from Forfar use it, and holiday traffic. We really cannot keep open—at a cost of £17,000 to the Commission—a branch line which carries such a small number of travellers. As a matter of fact, Mr. Selfe, representing British Railways, was extremely frank and very generous. He corrected those figures, and showed that more people were using those 14 trains than Mr. Maxwell had supposed. He showed that 73 people made daily journeys over the branch line, of whom 39 were schoolchildren. In addition, business people were travelling daily, and he was able to give the numbers who joined the trains at each station. When the number of people habitually using a branch line is as small as that it really would be irresponsible on the part of a transport users' consultative committee not to support its closing.

I should now like to say something about the procedure of the consultative committees. I hesitate to say anything about the Scottish Transport Users' Consultative Committee; I am sure it would be most unwise for an Englishman to intervene upon a subject of that kind. But I want to pay a tribute to Sir John Erskine, the Chairman, who, I believe, enjoys the general confidence of the travelling public in Scotland. I believe that the Scottish Committee, which is quite independent, shares the views of the Central Consultative Committee which, in its report for the year ended 31st December, 1953, said that it thought that it would be generally better for there to be a round table atmosphere and not to be too much formality, such as naturally arose when an advocate made his opening speech and sought to cross-examine.

It then consulted the regional committees, and came to four conclusions on this subject. I shall read the one which is most germane to this point: That for the present, when Counsel or solicitors are instructed to appear on behalf of objectors, the Chairman of the Committee must decide what licence should be given to them, bearing in mind that the proceedings should be kept as informal as possible. I believe that that is a wise recommendation, and I am sure that the chairmen of the committees will exercise their discretion in a responsible manner.

I have now dealt with the two particular cases which were raised, but much broader issues have emerged from other speeches, and the Motion before the House asks the Government to take measures to make themselves responsible for dealing with the closing of branch lines. I must make it quite plain that the Government are not prepared to take any steps of the sort. It might, indeed, be said that on the matter of leaving the Commission to run the railways free from political interference there is agreement between the two political parties. Under the Socialist Government, the Act of 1947 nationalised the railways and adopted a system which was intended to preserve sound business administration.

This view was put by the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) on 4th December, 1947, when he, who was largely responsible for that policy, made the classical pronouncement on the subject. He said: Under recent legislation, boards have been set up to run socialised industries on business lines on behalf of the community; and Ministers are not responsible for their day-to-day administration. A large degree of independence for the boards in matters of current administration is vital to their efficiency as commercial undertakings."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th December, 1947; Vol. 445, c. 566.] Under the Conservative Government, the Act of 1953 amended the previous Act, but it deliberately preserved this principle. In another respect, indeed, it showed a desire to leave the Commission enjoying greater freedom from control. Under Sections 20 and 21, the old restrictions upon the freight charges were done away with. The justification for this is that the railways no longer enjoy a monopoly. It is intended that they shall be free by charging lower freights to attract the kind of business that can be better carried by rail than by road, and by charging higher freights to repel business better catered for by road transport. They are no longer deemed to be a service obliged to treat everyone with equality.

Again, in the modernisation plan, which the Government have approved and which the House has accepted, it was made plain that British Railways would aim at expanding their great natural advantages as bulk and long-distance transporters of passengers and goods and of gradually transferring to the road traffic which was more suited to road transport. It would be completely inconsistent with this general principle for us now to seek to compel them to keep open unprofitable branch lines.

Last spring, when we were discussing railway matters, the Government made it plain, in answer in particular to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies), that the Government had neither been asked for a subsidy by the Commission nor would it pay it to them. We also said that for some time to come the annual accounts of the Commission were likely to show a heavy deficit. There was some discussion between the hon. Gentleman and myself as to whether the £25 million mentioned by the Chancellor of the Exchequer was a correct figure. As a result of increased costs and revenues being seriously reduced as a result of the railway strike, there is, I am afraid, little doubt that this year's deficit will be substantially in excess of the £25 million which I mentioned then. What it will be is, of course, still unknown.

We made it quite plain that there were three ways in which we expected the Commission to get its finances into balance in the long-run. The modernisation plan gave careful estimates which indicated a very substantial improvement in the railway's financial position over a period of years. While much of the benefit will have begun to accrue before the fifteen years are over, it has always been quite certain that the benefit would not accrue in large quantity in the first few years of the plan. Although the modernisation plan has got off to a very good start, we cannot expect great financial benefit in the next year or two.

In the second place, we believe that great benefit will accrue from the new flexible scheme of maximum freight charges. Unfortunately, however, there have been so many objections to the scheme that it will be some time before the Transport Tribunal will be able to give a decision. Even when it does, a certain amount of time will be needed to prepare the necessary tables and guides for the staff concerned before the scheme can be put into full operation. We must, therefore, regard as postponed, at any rate for some months, the financial benefit which we had expected would accrue from this new scheme.

That inevitably drives us to the third expedient for reducing the Commission's loss. Much as we all regret it, it is inevitable that the Commission should be obliged to close a number of branch lines and unremunerative services in order to reduce its losses. Lack of labour, shortage of coal and the need for a sound financial policy will tend to drive the Commission in this direction.

Mr. Hobson

Can the hon. Gentleman say whether he has power, when branch lines are closed for the reasons which he has given, to compel public or private bus companies to introduce services so that people can have adequate transport? Is so, what does he propose to do about it?

Mr. Molson

The answer is that we have not that power and do not propose to seek it.

The finances of the passenger services of British Railways are not satisfactory. The main long-distance lines are profitable, but the slow services are so unprofitable that, as a whole, the passenger services are heavily subsidised from the freight services. Since there is increasing competition in the freight field this position cannot continue. The main reason for the unprofitability of the passenger services is that in a very wide area, as was indicated by the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, West, road transport can do the work of the unremunerative railway passenger services at lower cost and with greater efficiency, and usually in a way more acceptable to the travelling public.

Mr. Hobson

Yet it will not do it in this case.

Mr. Molson

The Commission accepts these facts and knows that it will mean a far-reaching change in the existing pattern of the passenger service. Broadly speaking, it will mean leaving the railways to operate the fast, long-distance passenger services between the principal centres of population, and transferring local passenger services on both main and branch railway lines to suitable road services which already exist or are provided as a substitute for the services closed down.

The Commission believes that this will not only be to its financial advantage but for the general convenience of the great majority of travellers. Of course, any change in the transport pattern will inconvenience individual passengers, as has been made plain in the speeches we have heard today, but for the great majority the new pattern will, we believe, be more convenient and the economies will result in the travelling public and the users of the railways obtaining better value for their money. And, as the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, West pointed out, a number of uneconomical services being carried by the Commission makes the raising of wages extremely difficult.

It cannot be too often emphasised that under the law as it is at present the cost of uneconomic services such as we have been discussing today is carried by the whole railway-using public. The transport users' consultative committees realise this when they agree to the closing of uneconomic lines like the HalifaxBradford—Keighley and the Forfar—Arbroath lines. The committee was not thinking only of the financial position of the Commission or of the remote, contingent liability of the Treasury which has guaranteed the transport loan, but of the general value which is given by British Railways to those who, as traders or passengers, use its services.

In view of its serious financial position, the Commission is reviewing its many remaining unremunerative services. Something pretty substantial will have to be done, and I hope that the public will realise that they stand to gain by the elimination of uneconomic services. What can be done to ensure that alternative services are provided will certainly be done. I shall not forget the assurance which I have given to my hon. Friend, and I will also look into the points raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South Angus.

3.56 p.m.

Mr. Ernest Davies (Enfield. East)

I did not intend to intervene in this debate—which began as one concerning very much a local issue and was continued by another hon. Member on a separate local issue—but the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has, quite rightly, raised one or two broad issues. If, therefore, I intervene for the few moments that remain I hope that the House will forgive me.

In his closing remarks, the hon. Gentleman rather foreshadowed the likelihood of a very large number of other lines being closed down. For the reasons which he gave we can accept this, but one point should be borne in mind both by the British Transport Commission and by the Government. It appears to me that, very often, when the closing of branch lines is discussed and accepted sufficient consideration is not given to the possibility of creating new traffic. Several hon. Members have suggested that the traffic is there, but the Joint Parliamentary Secretary and the Commission always reply that there is not the potential traffic. The provision of good and frequent services at regular intervals with dieselisation and the like does create that traffic. That has been so with electrification, of which the electrification in the Southern Region is the great example. The Commission does not give sufficient attention to that point. It does not make sufficient allowance for the fact that if it provides the service it can create the traffic.

Having said that, I arrive at what is, to me, the rather unusual position of supporting the hon. Gentleman. There is no question that the Commission has had placed upon it the responsibility of operating its transport system as a commercial enterprise. That is laid down in both the 1947 and the 1953 Acts. If we insist on the Commission operating as a commercial enterprise, it must be left free to close services which it finds itself, because of losses incurred, incapable of continuing. The Commission, the Government and hon. Members have to decide whether the Commission should operate as a public service or as a commercial enterprise. Parliament has decided that it should operate as the latter. That being the case, we must leave it free to run its business in the way which it judges the best and most efficient from the commercial point of view.

There is the much larger issue of its operating transport as a public service, and we have had debates about that in the past. From the figures to which the Joint Parliamentary Secretary referred this afternoon it is quite clear—

Mr. Hirst rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put; but Mr. SPEAKER withheld his assent and declined then to put that Question.

Mr. Ernest Davies

As I was saying, we have to decide whether we wish to give financial assistance to the Commission and so enable it to run public services if those public services are unremunerative, but unless it is considered necessary to maintain them we must leave the Commission free to close—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.