HC Deb 20 July 1956 vol 556 cc1645-56

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

3.53 p.m.

Mrs. Joyce Butler (Wood Green)

I am very glad to have this opportunity of raising the question of the Alexandra Palace branch railway, because it has been very much in the public eye in the Alexandra Park and Muswell Hill areas for a considerable time, and there has been very strong feeling in that area about the closing of the branch railway line.

I should like, if I may, to say just a little about the history of the line, because I think that that helps to put the matter into perspective. The line was built as an extension from Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace, partly to serve the needs of that then growing residential area, and partly also to link it with Alexandra Palace which, at that time, was quite a centre in north London for various functions and amusements, and for the general public to find recreation.

Unfortunately, Alexandra Palace fell on hard times, and so did the branch railway line. The service became much less satisfactory than it had been, and in October, 1951, it was suspended completely. There was so much opposition from residents in the area to the suspension that the line was partially re-opened in January, 1952. A month later the service was increased, but it was still not a full railway service.

There were trains in the morning and in the evening on week days. There were trains on Saturday in the morning and in the afternoon. There was no midday service during the week and no Sunday service, and even the trains which were provided were irregular, to say the least. The service was not what one could call a highly efficient, satisfactory service but nevertheless it did meet a need for the people in that area. It was used by people living in Alexandra Park, Muswell Hill and neighbouring districts as a means of linking them with Finsbury Park, the City and the West End.

Towards the end of 1953 notice was given that the line would be closed com- pletely once again. That aroused a storm of protest from many local organisations which met the Transport Users' Consultative Committee in February, 1954. The deputation that met the Committee included representatives from Middlesex County Council, from Finchley, Hornsey, Islington and Wood Green Borough Councils, from Friern Barnet Urban District Council, the Alexandra Park Trustees, Hornsey Chamber of Commerce and the Federation of Ratepayers' and Kindred Associations in Middlesex. I think it will be agreed that that is quite a formidable list of local organisations gathered together to protest about the closing of this branch line and appealing to the Committee to reopen or to continue the operation of this public service.

Unfortunately those representations were of no avail, and the branch line has been closed. Recently not only has the line not been operating but steps have been taken to dismantle Alexandra Palace Station, to pull up the lines in the vicinity of the station, and to prepare the way for car auctions to take place where the station used to be.

It may seem that this is perhaps not a very appropriate moment for raising this question, but quite recently, on 14th June, the North London Passengers' Protection Association, which was formed in the area at the time of the closing of the railway, sent a deputation to the Transport Users' Consultative Committee about the closing of the branch line. Since the matter has been so recently reopened it seems appropriate to raise it today.

I sent a copy of the statement of that deputation to the Minister. I hope that when the Joint Parliamentary Secretary replies he will make some answer to the points that were made. Before he does so there are one or two things I should like to say about this branch line and its closing, and matters related thereto. Alexandra Park area is extremely badly served by public transport. By the very nature of things—I think the Transport Commission would be the first to recognise this because of the number of times it has referred to the hilly nature of the district—it is a somewhat isolated part of north London. This branch line, therefore, was a very vital link with Finsbury Park and the rest of the London area.

The bus service which the Commission suggests should be used as an alternative to the branch line, the 233 bus route between Alexandra Palace and Finsbury Park, in the peak period runs ten buses an hour, which is scarcely adequate for the amount of traffic required in that area.

It being Four o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mrs. Butler

I personally use the 233 bus service at the other end, from Alexandra Palace towards Northumberland Park, and I know how extremely intermittent that service can be and how very irregular it very often is. It is not a satisfactory alternative to even an unsatisfactory train service. There is a point here about which I hope the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will have something to say, because not only is Alexandra Palace not well served for transport but the Muswell Hill area suffers some similar difficulty.

The alternative for many people in that area is either to take this 233 bus service, on which there is not a very large number of buses per hour, or to do as some of them do, namely, take the bus to Bounds Green tube station and there add to the already great congestion on the Piccadilly Line, or take the 134 bus, or another bus, to Archway or Highgate stations and transfer there to trains going to the City and West End.

None of these alternatives is really satisfactory. It is, in my opinion, very unsatisfactory that, when the transfer is made to buses, it inevitably adds to the congestion on the roads. The Transport Commission maintains that this is not so because, so it says, if additional buses are run to replace the branch railway line, they are run only in this north London area and do not affect the position in the City and West End. It is, however, quite natural for people who get on to a 134 bus to tend to stay on it rather than get off at Highgate or Archway, and come to the West End, by bus, because the bus runs through Westminster and beyond. Even if not a great many people do that, it is surely important to have some alternative to keep those people from adding to the congestion on the bus routes and to transfer them to a rail service, if at all possible.

Furthermore many people in that area who formerly went by train, have either purchased cars, or, if they already possessed them, are now using them for journeys to the City. They also are adding to the ever-growing congestion in the City area by taking their cars there. It seems strange indeed that the London Transport Executive should be publishing advertisements urging people not to bring their cars into the City area while, at the same time, by its policy in this particular place, encouraging people to do just that.

The argument in favour of the closing of the line has been very largely one of economy, that the line was not paying, and therefore it had to be closed. The irregularity of the service, even scheduled trains sometimes not running at all, and the sort of thing included in the charges made to the Consultative Committee, for instance tickets often not being collected, and people being able to use them again, or tickets sometimes being dropped on the platform where other people might pick them up and use them, do not conduce to the economic use of the service.

It is the belief of residents in the Alexandra Palace area that if the authorities concerned had really wanted to make a live and well-paying service—although it is not suggested that it could ever have completely paid for itself—they could have done a great deal more than they did to make it a more paying proposition.

It is pointed out—I think, quite fairly—that it is not to be expected that every branch line should completely pay for itself. There will always be some lines which will run at a loss, but this line could have been run at a much smaller loss than was actually shown had there been a desire to make it an efficient service and to put on trains to attract the public to use the line—shopping trains, trains for students and pupils going to and from school, weekend trains, late night trains, etc.

There is the further point that Alexandra Palace itself, which was one of the main reasons for building the line in the first instance, has quite recently undertaken a great many improvements, which are again attracting the public to come to the Palace. The Great Hall has been rehabilitated, the King George suite, which caters for social functions, will be coming into operation again, and a great many attractions have been recently introduced which are putting Alexandra Palace once more "on the map". It is rather sad to reflect that at the time when Alexandra Palace is once again becoming a Mecca for people in north London, the line which served it is out of action and they are forced to depend on buses or other means of transport.

I will refer briefly to the question of cheaper fares. One of the difficulties was that when the line was working, the rail fare was higher than corresponding bus fares. Apparently, no action was taken about that, although I understand that at Richmond, where fares were reduced because of a similar situation, a great increase in passenger traffic resulted. Something similar to that could certainly have been tried as an experiment on the Alexandra Palace line to see whether it would attract more people to use it.

The question of electrification has loomed very large in the discussions which have taken place about this branch railway. It had been understood for many years, right up to 1949 and even for several years afterwards, that the line would be electrified. It was part of a much bigger scheme, but the Transport Commission claims that because the bigger scheme was dropped it could not carry out the electrification of this line.

The fact remains, however, that even though the circumstances which led the Commission to drop the bigger scheme were, perhaps, quite fairly regarded by the Commission as forcing it to drop the bigger scheme, sufficient consideration was not given to the great advantage to be gained by extending the electrification of this line only a mile or two to link up with the line to Barnet and Mill Hill, which would have linked the line in the outward direction with Edgware, forming an alternative route from Edgware to the City and West End. The linking of this part of North London with Edgware would probably have relieved some of the ever-growing congestion on the North Circular Road, which is the main link between this part of North London and the Edgware area and its many factories.

The point about electrification which seems to have frightened the Commission so much was the cost. Three hundred thousand pounds had already been spent on the preliminary work of electrifying the line. The Commission claims that a further £2 million was necessary to carry out the electrification, but so far as I know that figure of £2 million has never been broken down to explain exactly how and in what way the money would have been spent. There are many people much more expert than I in these matters who claim that nothing like that figure would have been necessary.

There are rumours in the area about waste of the electric installations which had already been made—for instance, that the conductor lines were pulled up to provide work for redundant workmen, and that other necessary parts were allowed to rust in a depot not very far from London. Whether those rumours are correct or not I do not know, but it would seem that not only was a considerable amount of money spent on electrification but that some of it was wasted because of those things, and that not so much more would have had to have been provided to have completed the scheme.

However, whether electrification is regarded as a workable possibility or not, there are other suggestions which have been made. We should be perfectly content if the steam trains came back. We ask the Minister to consider whether diesel cars can be usefully employed on this line, or whether there is some other way in which the line can be reopened.

I would ask the Joint Parliamentary Secretary one or two questions, which, I hope, he will be able to answer. I wonder if he realises how strong local feeling is on this issue of the closing of this line. It is a local feeling which is reflected in many other parts of the country about the closure of similar branch lines, and it is important that some regard should be had to public opinion in these matters.

I would ask him, too, if he can answer the claim which has been made that there is no authority in any of the Transport Acts to authorise the closing of any branch railway. I wonder if I am right in understanding that the East Grinstead railway users have received from the Ministry some support in putting that argument forward. I do not know whether I am or not, but I have seen some reference which seemed to suggest the Ministry have supported that point of view. If that is so, how does that affect the closing of the branch line to Alexandra Park and the closing of the station and its use for an alternative purpose? We should be very grateful indeed if the Joint Parliamentary Secretary could make some statement on the legal position which appears to have baffled so many people, and about which we feel so unhappy because we think that work of this kind has possibly been undertaken without full legal authority.

I hope that the Minister will also look into the problem of the bus services which are now the alternative to the branch line, and will see that they are adequate to meet the needs of the public. There are still long queues at the bus stops. There are still many complaints from residents that they cannot get on the buses, that the buses sometimes arrive in bunches, and that at other times there are long gaps between them, and that there is a great deal of congestion at Finsbury Park Station on the return journey. There is considerable dissatisfaction about the whole position.

I would ask him to see that at any rate no further destruction of the line takes place. A change of policy has already been made about electrification. It is quite possible that another change of policy could be made. If the railway were completely destroyed, it might then be too late to reinstate it. I believe that public opinion is swinging away from the move to encourage people to travel by road and to send their goods by road, that there is a swing back to greater use of railway services for goods and passenger traffic. If that develops it may mean that a change of policy may be contemplated at Alexandra Park.

I hope that the Minister will give his personal consideration to this matter to see whether he can, having examined it afresh, give instructions, or take whatever steps are open to him, to induce the appropriate authorities to reopen this line and to restore a much needed public service in the area.

4.15 p.m.

Sir David Gammans (Hornsey)

I should like to endorse entirely what the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) has said. She and I represent two constituencies which are very much affected by what has happened and our constituents are very angry and upset about it. Perhaps I can best summarise their views by asking two or three questions. Before the war, when this railway was owned by a public company, it was decided to electrify it. The idea was to electrify the line as far as Finsbury Park and run it underground to form part of the Morden Line to the City. A large sum of money was spent and then, for some reason, the scheme was abandoned. What happened between the decision to electrify and the decision to abandon the scheme? The area and the population remained the same, and there was no difference in the situation. What happened to induce a change of mind?

Our constituents are very much annoyed at the somewhat peremptory manner in which British Railways have closed the line. Our constituents were not consulted or told. British Railways just did it. This action has given a very bad reputation to British Railways in that part of the world. Whether that was done in this way because of bad public relations, I do not know. Our constituents are convinced, rightly or wrongly, that British Railways deliberately puts on a worse and worse service and a less frequent service so that it can have an excuse to close the line finally. I agree with the hon. Member for Wood Green in hoping that the track will not be pulled up. I believe that diesel trains could be used on the line, thus providing a more efficient and cheaper service because fewer men would be needed at the stations and on the trains.

As to the legal aspect, we are given to understand that when the railway was first set up, the company could be compelled to run a certain number of trains per day but that since then the nationalisation Acts have removed that liability. That matter might be decided in the courts, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport can give us some indication of his feelings on that point, especially in view of the case south of the Thames not long ago. I support the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green, and I am very grateful to her for having brought this subject to the attention of the House.

4.18 p.m.

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

I am here, and it is a pleasure to be in attendance on this "thickly crowded" House, in order to explain the policy that has been adopted by the British Transport Commission. The Minister of Transport, however, has no responsibility in this matter at all. The closing of railway lines is regarded as being a matter for the day-to-day administration of the railways, and it is not a matter in which normally my right hon. Friend has any power to intervene.

Indeed, the Commission is not even under an obligation to consult the transport users' consultative committees, though in fact it invariably does so. The committee was consulted before the line was closed. That is the answer to the third point put by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Sir D. Gammans) when he said that the closing was done in a peremptory manner. The Transport Users' Consultative Committee is the body which is constitutionally representative of the users of the railways, and it was certainly consulted.

Sir D. Gammans

Will my hon. Friend allow me to intervene?

Mr. Molson

I am afraid that I have not the time because I am trying to answer a number of points. It is only if the Transport Users' Consultative Committee disapproves of a proposal made by the British Transport Commission, and considers that the users of transport will be left with inadequate services, that under Section 6 (8) of the 1947 Act my right hon. Friend has power to intervene.

This railway line was closed two years ago. As the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) has said, the matter was carefully considered by the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for the London area. It received a deputation from the residents in that area and sat on two days to consider the matter. By a large majority, with only one dissentient, it recommended the closing of the line. The minutes were then sent in the normal way to the Central Transport Consultative Committee, which concurred in the policy that had been approved by the London area committee.

I will only mention three points in connection with this decision. It was shown that the saving to the railways would be £20,000. It was shown that there were good alternative methods of transportation. It was also shown that at that time only 5 per cent. of the travelling public was using that railway.

As a result, the railway line was closed. The only reason why the matter has been reopened is that it is said that new evidence can be advanced. I am sure that the Transport Users' Consultative Committee realises that normally it is most unwise, when a decision has been taken and acted upon, for a matter to be reopened. However, in view of the fact that fresh evidence had been produced, the matter has been considered by the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for the London area and its conclusions will be considered by the Central Transport Consultative Committee when it next meets in October.

In view of those facts it would be unwise, if not discourteous, to the Transport Users' Consultative Committee if I referred today in any way to the traffic matters which fall constitutionally within its purview. The hon. Lady, however, has asked me to give an answer to some of the points raised in the case presented before the Transport Users' Consultative Committee by the London Passengers Protection Association Ltd. I am the more willing to do so because the hon. Lady has herself asked some of the questions which are dealt with there, and it was my intention to give her a full answer upon the subject, so I can deal with both at the same time.

First it is alleged in that memorandum—and both the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend asked me a question about this—that there is no authority in any of the Transport Acts to authorise the closing of any branch railway line, and that a special Act of Parliament would be required to authorise this. That is a complete misapprehension. Except in the case of one or two individual cases, of which the East Grinstead case is one, the former railway companies were not under any obligation to keep open their railway lines, and no obligation has been put upon the British Transport Commission under the Acts of 1947 or 1953.

Indeed, by implication those Acts go the other way. Because by setting up the Transport Users' Consultative Committees to consider matters of this kind, it was clearly contemplated that in the changed circumstances of the present time, when there is such intense competition for the railways from the roads, it was likely that a number of branch lines would have to be closed down.

The Memorandum goes on to say that the object of the Transport Act of 1947 was to improve the service. On reading the Act, it is not very apparent that that was the main object of it; except indeed, as no doubt the hon. Lady would argue, that by nationalising the railways it may be expected—or it may not according to one's political views—that that would result. The deputation made charges against the efficiency of British Railways Eastern Region. The Minister of Transport has no evidence at all to support those charges. I am quite convinced that what was suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey about deliberate deterioration in the services is not the case. There could be no possible motive for the British Transport Commission to seek to damage a service provided on its own property. The fact is that it would have been necessary to incur a great deal of additional expenditure in order to maintain the line in good condition and to improve the rolling stock. On considering the prospects, it did not appear that an investment of that kind was likely to be profitable.

The deputation complained about the procedure of the Consultative Committee and said it is a judicial proceeding. That is not the case. It is a Consultative Committee with power to decide its own procedure. It has sought to conduct its proceedings in an informal manner, and the fact that it was not intended to sit as an independent arbitral tribunal is shown by the fact that under the Act of 1947 both the British Transport Commission and the London Transport Executive have representatives sitting upon it.

In the last two minutes at my disposal I will run quickly over the questions which the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend have asked me. I am aware that there is local feeling about this closure. There generally is strong local feeling when any branch line is closed down, and I know of many cases where those people most vociferous against the line being closed are people who never used the line when it was in existence. I have already said that no statutory authority is needed to close this line. The question of whether the bus and other alternative services are adequate is a matter for the Consultative Committee.

I can give no undertaking that the demolition of the line will not continue. But, of course, the matter is being examined again. It cannot be examined by my right hon. Friend, but by the Transport Users' Consultative Committee. On the general policy of closing down uneconomic lines, my right hon. Friend supports the British Transport Commission. We believe it to be essential in the national interest, and it must also be remembered that it is other users of the railway who pay for the uneconomic lines when they are kept running at a loss.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock.