HC Deb 21 March 1955 vol 538 cc1838-46

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. E. Wakefield.]

8.36 p.m.

Mr. Græme Finlay (Epping)

I am grateful for this opportunity of raising a local problem which is of exceptional interest to those of my constituents who live in the borough of Chingford. The borough is, of course, situated within the fringes of Metropolitan London and upon the edge of Epping Forest. Its present size is the result of very rapid growth in the inter-war years when North-East London was spreading. The borough has very largely a dormitory population, who find their daily work within the Metropolis, and so the question of good rail and road communications to the City is of the utmost importance to them.

Unhappily, the existing services leave a very great deal to be desired, as my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will be aware from the terms of a letter which was addressed to him on 16th March by the Mayor of Chingford. That letter came directly as the result of a town meeting which was held on 3rd March to discuss transport services in the borough. It was a very well-attended meeting and provided undoubted evidence, genuine and substantial, of public concern at the unsatisfactory nature of the transport services, both rail and road, provided to the borough.

The two matters to which I desire to direct myself principally are these: first, the Chingford to Liverpool Street railway service, and secondly, the No. 38 London Transport omnibus service, which runs from the edge of Epping Forest to Victoria. To deal with the railway first, it would, I think, generally be conceded that the Eastern Region of British Railways is not the best favoured of the British Railways system. That might be deemed to be an understatement, but I prefer to put the matter in a thoroughly moderate way.

The Eastern Region inherited a very unhappy history from its predecessors, and the results of that history are with us today. My constituents have, not unnaturally, made me aware of these deficiences from time to time, and I therefore cite a fairly typical letter, which I received on 21st January this year, complaining, amongst other things, of defective heating apparatus, poor lighting and dirty coaches. I cite the letter:

Last night's trains arrived at Chingford from one and a half to two hours late. I understand a carriage door fell off a train at Clapton. If this is so (and this is not the first time I have heard that such an incident has occurred) it further confirms my contention above. The writer goes on: Last night, the trains left Liverpool Street in such a congested condition that people could not close the doors and the men were holding the doors when it was found the compartments were too full for the doors to be closed. The train I was on last night stopped under Bishopsgate Tunnel for half an hour whilst we were choked with sulphur fumes. … It made many efforts to restart, and I am told it could not move but had to wait for the next train to come along to give it a bump so that it could restart. We certainly felt the bump, and as one passenger who boarded the train at Wood Street remarked that the engine was almost falling to pieces, this statement seems to be quite feasible. No attempt was made to notify the stations up the line regarding the failure, the lateness of the trains, etc., and as some of the staff complained, quite rightly, We are told nothing. We are quite ignorant of what has happened, and then the public don't like it because we can tell them nothing.' Surely, it should be the first duty of someone to make every station master au fait with the position. That is the letter. There we have it.

In addition to the complaints which I cited before reading the letter, we have complaints of late time-keeping, congestion, discomfort from sulphur, and bad public relations. These antiquated locomotives and their ramshackle coaches which ply between Chingford and Liverpool Street, which is probably the most depressing station in the country, are pure Emmet, except that they are void of the humour and charm the artist gives to his pictures—and they are certainly devoid of that from the point of view of the unfortunate traveller who has to make use of those railway services to and from the City, particularly after a hard day's work.

I know of the recent proposals of British Railways about modernisation and re-equipment include the electrification of this line, and with my Chingford constituents I rejoice at that decision, but, unhappily, it does not appear that that can be implemented until at least two or three years have gone by. If that is so the question then arises, what can be done in the meantime to mitigate and alleviate this situation? Surely matters like late timekeeping, heating apparatus, dirt, and better public information can and should be attended to at once? That would not prejudice the implementation of this scheme or delay its starting date in any way.

The conditions are quite intolerable for the passengers, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be in a position to tell me of some proposed improvements. As regards dirt, he will no doubt be greatly helped by the promise of the Government about the way in which they are going to deal with smog. That, of course, is a very considerable factor in making the rolling stock and locomotives and the railway lines dirty, and it is very disheartening for the train crews who have to clean them.

I know that the British Transport Commission has made a number of investigations into these complaints, and I should like to deal with a few points that arise out of those investigations. First of all, there is the reduction of services as contrasted with those of pre-war years, notwithstanding what the borough council says as to the increase in the population. British Railways apparently take the view that the population figures for the area do not support the council's contention that an increase of the population has taken place. So far as Chingford is concerned, at any rate, there is a sharp conflict of evidence. Although it is said that the borough has now about 4,500 inhabitants more than it had before the war the numbers of trains have been substantially reduced. I cite the figures. In 1939 on weekdays there were 125 trains a day; in 1955 there are 84 only. On Saturdays in 1939 there were 126 trains a day; in 1955 only 75. On Sundays in 1939 there were 68 trains a day. On Sundays in 1955 there were 35 only.

The shrinkage of these passenger figures, which are today relied upon by British Transport Commission is, of course, strictly related to this reduction in the number of trains, which I think is conceded, as well as to the deterrent effect of the bad travelling conditions and the provision of increased bus and trolleybus services to the borough. The sooner the facilities of this line can be improved and the other road services relieved of the strain and congestion to which they are subject at present, the better.

There is also a sharp conflict of evidence between my constituents and the Commission officials about overcrowding and time-keeping. As to the former, the Commission says that there is normally no overcrowding on the Walthamstow-Chingford line in the accepted sense of the term. The Commission praysin aid certain train loadings taken by it in the course of a full census on 2nd November, 1954. The Commission says that only one train, the 5.40 p.m. out of Liverpool Street, was overcrowded. But how can the Commission possibly reach the norm upon the basis of one day's sample only?

That sort of survey is just not adequate in the face of the testimony of my constituents who make constant use of the line and suffer on it every day. It is not good enough to take one day and rely upon that in the face of such testimony. It also would be a mercy if some due notice could be given to passengers about cancellations of trains, otherwise they are liable to be very seriously inconvenienced. A series of suggestions for bettering these conditions have been placed before the authorities. I hope that not only will they receive the most careful consideration, as I am sure they will, but they will produce really concrete improvement and that it will become a more comfortable and more convenient business than it is at present to travel between Chingford and Liverpool Street station.

I turn now to the No. 38 London Transport Executive omnibus service between Victoria and the Royal Forest Hotel on the outskirts of Epping Forest. I know that on this route, travelling straight through the heart of London, the largest city in the world, there are difficult problems. The streets of London are heavily over-encumbered with motor cars and other road traffic. That is a fact which I am certain has engaged and will engage the most assiduous attentions of my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation. I know also that the exceptional difficulties are due to shortage of staff and other factors like road improvements which the Executive has had to experience in connection with this service in recent months.

Unhappily, Chingford suffers particularly in this way because it is, as it were, at the end of the road. Here again I have a catalogue of complaints. The principal ones are irregular running—sometimes it has been recorded that as long as half an hour to three-quarters of an hour delays are not uncommon—one bus coming directly at the back of another, that is bunching, and short running. There is also the turning of northbound buses at Chingford Mount regardless of the number of passengers waiting there, thereby depriving citizens of that area of a service between the Mount and the Bull and Crown. They are deprived in order to help other citizens who live further on in the London area. In other words, it is indeed a disadvantage to live at the end of the road.

I do not intend to go into the details of these proposals, because that would take a very great time. I want however, to say this, that I would much welcome my hon. Friend's assurance that these complaints and the constructive proposals which have been put forward by the council to ameliorate the position will be very searchingly looked into with other constructive suggestions that may come from a fuller examination, because I know there is real substance behind these complaints, and they are founded upon a genuine sense of public grievance.

8.51 p.m.

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

My hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mr. Finlay) has availed himself of the privilege of a Member of the House in order to bring to our attention the grievances that are felt by his constituents and the difficulties under which they labour. It is not primarily the duty of the Ministry of Transport to deal with particular services, whether in London or elsewhere. Machinery has been set up by which they are able to make their representations to those who are responsible. It has, however, been the practice of successive Ministers of Transport of both political parties that they should be represented when matters of this kind are raised by hon. Members on behalf of their constituents.

I have listened with close attention to what my hon. Friend has to say. I will certainly make sure that those who are primarily responsible for the provision of transport services in Chingford and along the routes to which he has referred pay attention to what he has said this evening.

When the late Government introduced the Transport Act, 1947, they were at pains to provide that the general responsibility for the day-to-day running of the British Transport Commission and the London Transport Executive should lie with those bodies themselves and should be subject to criticism by the bodies also setup by Statute. The party opposite, when they were nationalising the transport system of the country, felt that it would be undesirable for the Government of the day to be responsible for every detail of the transport system. The Conservative Party, which was in opposition at the time, although opposed to nationalisation, entirely agreed with the line taken.

I must therefore make it perfectly plain to my hon. Friend that we cannot be responsible for the detailed running of particular services by the British Transport Commission or the London Transport Executive. Having said that, however, I should like to draw my hon. Friend's attention to the system set up for trans- port in London. It is one of the general duties of the British Transport Commission to provide, or secure the provision of, an adequate and properly co-ordinated system of passenger transport for the London Passenger Transport Area, due regard being had to efficiency, economy and safety of operation and to the needs of the public, agriculture, commerce and industry. This means that different, and in some cases conflicting, considerations have to be taken into account, since the Commission must have regard to economy of operation as well as to the needs of the public.

The fact that at present the London Transport Executive is not paying its costs and meeting its charges to the British Transport Commission, obliges that body to be as economical as it can in the administration of its services. Those who use the transport have recourse to an independent body which can take into account their needs and their requirements. There is the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for London to which any one who is dissatisfied with the transport provided, may have recourse—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris)

I am not sure that I follow this discussion accurately. If I understand the Joint Parliamentary Secretary correctly, the matters that were raised by the hon. Member were not matters for which the Minister was responsible, and the matter with which he is now dealing merely shows what the hon. Member may do as an alternative.

Mr. Molson

I was coming on to say that if the constituents of my hon. Friend made representations to the Consultative Committee, and if that Committee took the view which he has been putting to the House, in that case, and only in that case, would my right hon. Friend have power to issue a directive to the British Transport Commission to require it to provide additional transport services. With due respect, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I think that my hon. Friend is entitled to raise this matter upon the Adjournment. There are a number of matters—such as, for example, the closing of branch line railways—which have frequently been raised and where it would only be possible for the Minister to issue a directive if the Consultative Committee were of the opinion that the facilities were being unreasonably withdrawn. It is, I think, also proper for me to say that my right hon. Friend has no direct responsibility in this matter but that, if the grievances put forward this evening were, in the opinion of the Consultative Committee, substantial, my right hon. Friend would have the power to issue a directive under the 1947 Act.

A recently published annual report of the Central Transport Consultative Committee stated that: Although many communications are received from individuals, it is probable that the public at large are not yet fully aware of the opportunity which the Committee afford. We feel, therefore, that any steps your Ministry can take to increase this awareness would be of service to the travelling public. I welcome this opportunity to draw the attention of my hon. Friend and his constituents to the way in which it would be possible for them to argue the difficulties from which they are suffering at present with a body appointed to represent the travelling public.

Mr. Finlay

I am already aware of the procedure about the London Transport Users' Consultative Committee. In fact, on 10th March of this year the borough council made use of that procedure.

Mr. Molson

If the procedure were adopted only on 10th March; does my hon. Friend know whether the Consultative Committee has found that the complaints were well founded?

Mr. Finlay

As I understand it, the position is that they have been asked to look further into the representations on these matters which have been made and to report to the next meeting of the Consultative Committee which will probably be held in about three months' time.

Mr. Molson

In that case, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, you will understand why it is that I have adopted a certain attitude of detachment.

It appears to me that my hon. Friend has shown a certain impatience, which is highly creditable to him, because of his zealous concern for the welfare of his constituents. But a certain procedure has been set in motion, and since the matter is still being considered by the Consultative Committee, I can only say that I hope my hon. Friend will be prepared to await the conclusion of its deliberations. As I have made quite plain, it would only be possible for my right hon. Friend to intervene if my hon. Friend and his constituents were able to satisfy the Consultative Committee that they had a substantial grievance. The attitude of the British Transport Commission has always been to pay the greatest respect to the views expressed by the Consultative Committee. If the matter is still under consideration by that Committee, it would be most undesirable for me to go any further in expressing a view about the representations made by my hon. Friend.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Nine o'clock.