HC Deb 14 June 1956 vol 554 cc904-12

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

10.11 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

Last March the small station of Culkerton, which is on the branch line between Tetbury and Kemble in my constituency, was closed to passenger traffic. It remains open for freight traffic, and during the spring and autumn important quantities of agricultural produce and requirements will continue to be transported through this station, as has been the case in the past.

Culkerton Station stands amidst the very quiet countryside of the Cotswolds, and except for the railway tied cottage owned by the Transport Commission, in which lives the railway employee who, for the past 18 years, has looked after the station, there is hardly a house in sight; and the casual visitor to the station might well be excused for thinking that this is a station of little transport consequence.

In fact, he would be wrong, because not very far away, hidden by the hills of the Cotswolds and by the woods and copses of the neighbourhood, there stands a fairly extensive rural community. The villages of Culkerton and Ashley and various hamlets such as Trull and Hazleton, and the village of Cherrington a little further away, all have used this station for their railway requirements. This rural community is not extremely large, but, of course, it is essential to the agricultural industry in which everybody in that neighbourhood is engaged and is necessary for the food production of the country.

It would, I anticipate, not be in order if I argued too much from the general to the particular and said that rural communities in all parts of the country have recently been suffering a great deal of deprivation of the transport facilities available to them, even though that may be so; but I can say—and remain within the rules of order—that this community has had a substantial cut in the transport facilities available to it through the closing of this station, and that that is irritating for the community and harmful to the country because of the loss in food production which is likely to be the result.

The closing of this station has diminished the transport facilities available to the neighbourhood. I know that there is a bus service to Tetbury and to Cirencester, and the Bristol Traction and Tramway Company, which is always extremely helpful in these matters, has improved the bus service since the withdrawal of the trains. But there is now no public transport of any kind from this area to Kemble Station, and only by getting to Kemble can one go to London or, in the other direction, to Stroud, Gloucester and Cheltenham. The present buses are not so frequent as the previous buses and trains which ran in this area.

I understand that the South-Western Transport Users' Consultative Committee has considered this matter and has recommended that the station shall not be kept open for passenger traffic, but I do not know what were the circumstances which it considered with the matter or what facts and figures it had before it. I understand that the Committee is not bound to consult any particular class of people and that its procedure is entirely a matter for the Committee.

I am making no attack on the Committee. It certainly would be intolerable if a public inquiry were demanded every time that Committee made a decision which was not particularly agreeable to every interest that might be concerned. I do know that its procedure on this occasion was unsatisfactory to the extent that it did not inform the Tetbury Rural District Council about the decision and that the council learned of it only from an announcement in the Press.

I am also aware that the financial losses of British Railways are growing, and apparently show no signs of improving in any way. It is, therefore, no good my complaining about that and, in the next breath, demanding that an uneconomic line or an uneconomic station be kept open. But in this case I believe that much better financial arrangements could be made and that the financial arguments which are adduced for the closing of the station are inadequate.

The branch line from Kemble to Tetbury does pay and, I understand, pays quite substantially. It is not proposed that the trains which run on this line should be diminished in number. The same number of trains will continue to run through Culkerton station as before. The only difference will be that the trains will not stop for passengers to alight. I imagine that they will frequently stop for freight to be put down, but that a passenger wanting to go to Culkerton will be compelled to go on to Kemble or Tetbury as the case may be and to walk back. I recently heard of a friend of mine who attempted to board a train in Reading Station, but was told by a porter, "You cannot do that. This train does not stop here." Perhaps that will now be happening in Culkerton.

I further understand that the staff of the station consists of one man. He will not be dismissed, but will continue to function for part of the day at Culkerton and for part of the day at Tetbury. I understand that the cost of keeping him there, as it affects Culkerton Station, will be about £380 a year. If the station were kept open and he was on duty all day that cost would rise, but my suggestion is that the station should be made an unstaffed halt.

I understand that the objection to making it an unstaffed halt is that the platform of the existing station is said to be unsafe. I saw it last Sunday and to me it looked to be one of the most solid things I have ever seen. I may be wrong and that in some way or other it is unsafe, but it certainly does not look it. Even if it is unsafe, the platform is almost 100 yards long. Surely the whole of it is not unsafe. I venture to suggest that that part of the platform nearer to Kemble could be quite easily cut off and the rest demolished, burnt down or disposed of as British Railways think fit. The short bit could be so made that the one-coach or two-coach trains could easily set down and pick up passengers.

If that part of the platform was considered unsafe and not worth considering, would it not be possible merely to have sleepers laid on the ground for the use of passengers boarding or alighting? I understand that in that case it would be necessary to fix steps to the coaches which use the line, in the way that diesel cars have them fixed already. That would cost almost nothing and would meet the case for an unstaffed halt.

The revenue purely from passengers is, of course, small. It averages about £30 a year, but the possibility of this rural community being able to use the station is one of the facilities which the railway offers to the neighbourhood. Every time one of the facilities is withdrawn it makes it less and less likely that the people will use the railway at all, and more and more likely that they will use buses or private transport. It is one more blow to the amenities of the countryside.

From the financial point of view I believe that if arrangements were made on the lines I have suggested it would result, if not in a profit, certainly in a very small loss indeed. I know that my right hon. Friend has no powers to direct that the Transport Commission shall keep this station open, but I hope that he will be able to draw the attention of the Commission to the possibilities which I have ventured to outline. I believe that if the Transport Commission go into the matter again on those lines, it will find it quite possible, financially, to keep this station open. If it does so, it will perform a great service to the local community in Culkerton and Tetbury and, incidentally, to farm production in this country.

10.21 p.m.

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

It is often my task to seek to justify to my hon. Friends and to the House the closing of branch railway lines and stations, and, it may well be in the near future, the closing down or withdrawal of an increasing number of stopping passenger services.

The House must, of course, remember that under the Transport Act of 1947 there was an obligation imposed upon the British Transport Commission to cover its costs, taking one year with another. We have indicated to the House recently that the Commission is operating at present at a very substantial loss. On each occasion when hon. Members have raised the question of the closing of branch lines or stations, I have had to state quite plainly the position of the Government.

The position of the Government is, first, that we have no power to intervene in these matters unless, as a result of representations from the local people ad- versely affected by the closing of services, the Central Transport Consultative Committee makes a recommendation to the Minister that the services should be maintained. That, of course, has not been done in this case, and my right hon. Friend has, therefore, no power to intervene.

I want to be perfectly frank with the House and with my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw). Even if my right hon. Friend had power to intervene, he would not think it proper to do so in this case. We have a number of cases where quite substantial communities are being deprived of rail services as a result of the closing of unremunerative branch lines. Wherever it is possible to do so, the Transport Commission tries to arrange that there shall be an alternative means of public transport to take the place of its branch lines.

In this particular area, I should have thought it was true to say that the bus services are reasonably adequate, and that, in certain respects, they are more convenient than the railways. The bus service from Bristol to Cirencester runs through Tetbury and Culkerton village itself, thus bringing public transport closer to the inhabitants of Culkerton than it is possible for the railway to do. It goes also through Rodmarton and Coates, about two miles north of Kemble.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud complained that it did not actually serve Kemble, but it does go reasonably close to it, providing six trips a day in each direction, with an extra five trips on Saturdays. This compares with the eight services in each direction that were provided by the railway. Kemble Junction is the only place served by the railway to which there is no bus connection, although, as I have mentioned, the bus passes through Coates, which is not far away. Therefore, in the closing of this station it cannot be said that the local inhabitants are without a fairly reasonable bus service to most places in the locality.

I come now to the amount of use that was made of the railway line while the station was open. The existing passenger revenue was only £30 a year. The average number of passengers who used Culkerton Station was between one and two per day. It really is impossible to ask British Railways to maintain a station for passengers when the number who seek to avail themselves of the railway service is as small as that.

Collection and delivery traffic will continue in the future to be dealt with from Cirencester; this was the case even before Culkerton Station was closed. Parcels and freight facilities, which include the use of a weighbridge at Culkerton Station, will continue to be dealt with between 8.45 and 10.45 in the morning from Monday to Saturday. That in itself, I understand, probably will not cover its costs, but it will be going a long way to try to meet the convenience of the rural population to which my hon. Friend referred.

I have given the facts and the figures about the use that was made of Culkerton Station. But, unfortunately, not only was the station being operated at a heavy loss, but recently it became apparent that it would be necessary to carry out extensive repairs to the platform, costing about £300. Although the annual loss which had been made was the difference between staff costs of £385 a year and passenger revenue of £30 a year, with a certain amount of assistance from the freight, the additional fact that if the station was to be kept in operation it would be necessary to carry out these extensive repairs brought the matter to a head, and British Railways decided to put to the South-Western Transport Users' Consultative Committee its strong case for closing the station.

It is true that it was bitterly opposed by the Tetbury Rural District Council and by the Ashley Parish Council. They were fortunate in having as a member of both the Consultative Committee and the Tetbury R.D.C., a Mr. Archer, who appeared and expressed his views most forcefully and, I believe, very eloquently to the Transport Users' Consultative Committee. He failed, however, to persuade the Committee that it was desirable that this station should be kept open. He was able to advance sufficient arguments for the Committee to consider it on two occasions, but the Committee came to its—conclusion that the closing of the station was justified—unanimously except for one person, and that was Mr. Archer.

The matter was then considered by the Central Transport Consultative Com- mittee, which, at its meeting on 10th January, this year accepted the recommendation without any comment. In those circumstances, surely British Railways were abundantly justified in closing the station on 5th March.

I should like to indicate to my hon. Friend how important we believe it to be that the British Railways should try to rationalise their services. I said on 16th December that the country would probably have to face a very substantial change in the services provided by British Railways: The Commission accepts … 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."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th December, 1955; Vol. 547, c. 1613.] The House is not justified in asking the British Transport Commission to run its services without a loss if, at the same time, it does not accept the need for closing down services like the station at Culkerton where the income is only a fraction of the cost of maintenance.

Mr. Kershaw

May I ask my right hon. Friend if he knows whether the Transport Users' Consultative Committee ever considered whether the station might be made an unstaffed halt, or whether it never addressed its mind to that proposition at all?

Mr. Molson

The Committee considered this matter on two occasions. Mr. Archer stated very forcibly the case for keeping it open, and I am sure that he would not have overlooked an argument of that kind.

10.33 p.m.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

I think that the closing sentences of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary's speech deserved a rather larger audience than he has had this evening because they were a reiteration, applied to a particular case, of a statement which, when originally made by the right hon. Gentleman, on 16th December, 1955, caused very considerable alarm and misgiving.

I happen to know this district fairly well. I go to Coates when I want to cross the railway line to go to the Tunnel Hotel, which stands at that end of the Sapperton Tunnel. It is a very interesting example of the way in which rural transport is being successively made difficult for these districts, for down to the beginning of this century the Thames and Severn Canal ran by the side of the railway through this very famous tunnel. That has disappeared; the ruins of the tunnel are now merely of archaeological interest.

The hotel, which at one time dealt with the considerable custom of the bargees using the canal, is, as far as I could see, now practically derelict, and now the railway station is also to cease to function. It is increasingly important that there should be a considered view of how far we are to expect rural transport to be what is called a paying proposition, which is adjudged not by service rendered to the community, but by whether, when we have the kind of arithmetic to which the right hon. Gentleman has treated the House tonight, we produce a balance sheet which shows a loss.

I should have thought myself that the suggestion that this station should be an unattended halt would have been a quite reasonable suggestion for the British Transport Commission to have considered, and I hope that its members will read the debate in the OFFICIAL REPORT and then find a way of ensuring that that facility is kept, even if only one or two people want to use it. I am told that bankers always welcome small accounts in the belief that, with a little luck, they may grow into big ones. It may be that in the future, if this facility remains, even as a comparatively inexpensive halt, as the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw) has asked, not quite so dreary a prospect as it is now.

There is a feeling of hopelessness growing in rural areas because of the continual withdrawal of transport facilities from them, and the House ought to be aware and take notice of it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes to Eleven o'clock.