HC Deb 23 November 1956 vol 560 cc2100-8

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

11.51 a.m.

Mr. Julian Ridsdale (Harwich)

I intend to discuss three items: the closing of the Harwich-Antwerp steamship service; the loss of life in the Colne sand barges on passage between Brightlingsea and London; and the traffic on Eastern Avenue.

Before doing so, however, I wish to say how pleased I am with the co-operation which has been established between the North-East Essex Transport Committee and British Railways. This Committee was set up after the debate we had in this House over a year ago about the transport problems in North-East Essex.

The closing of the Harwich-Antwerp steamship service has been of concern to many people and not only in North-East Essex. The "Dewsbury", a vessel of 1,686 tons, is to be replaced by a vessel now being built without a vestige of passenger accommodation.

I know that the argument which will be put forward by the Parliamentary Secretary is that the passenger service has been in existence for some years and has not been used very much. But this service has hardly been advertised. Like some of the branch railway lines, although capital equipment has been considerably improved, not enough imagination seems to have been used to make these services more competitive. I am sure that, given adequate but not expensive publicity, the Harwich-Antwerp service would prosper.

At the present, bookings are discouraged. No proper provision exists for the issuing even of tickets. All manner of difficulties are placed in the way of potential travellers. For two years the clerks at Liverpool Street's Continental booking service were instructed to deny the existence of the route to casual inquirers. The Minister may well say that the new London-Brussels sleeper service will provide the alternative route to Antwerp, but I suggest that the trouble is that the official view of this service seems to be influenced by accountants with "London" minds.

The new London-Brussels through sleeper service will not in any way provide an alternative route to Antwerp for people living between Colchester, Chelmsford and Cromer and, indeed, outward from there west up to Cambridge. In any case, it will cost £19 compared with £8 on the Harwich-Antwerp service. If a little imagination were used, it would be quite possible to provide limited passenger accommodation in the new ship which is to replace the "Dewsbury".

All I ask is that there should be some passenger accommodation in this new packet. Were such accommodation properly advertised and provision made for the transportation of cars as well, I am sure that it would be a paying proposition for British Railways, as well as serving a public need and helping the inhabitants of East Anglia, many of whom have close connections with Belgium and Antwerp, to get over to the Continent that way.

Secondly, I wish to raise with the Minister the problem of preventing the loss of life on the Colne sand barges. The sand barge "Alpheus", which was lost with two young Colchester lives on passage from Brightlingsea to London in early November, was the fourth in the trade to be lost within about a year. On Trafalgar Day, 1955, the "Helen of Troy" was lost with two lives. Beside this loss of life the crews of the "Fence" and "Shawford" were fortunate to be rescued at that time, and it should not be forgotten that the "Away" was lost just before the war, with her crew.

I wish to ask the Parliamentary Secretary why, despite these disasters, the Ministry of Transport, which is so meticulous about its safety demands and standards for coastal shipping, regards the passage from Colchester to London as a safe and easy one and that no Plimsoll mark is required. I understand that alteration of the safety precautions does not require legislation, as I was in touch with the Ministry last week. If it had, I should certainly have endeavoured to have covered it in the opportunity I had last Wednesday for private Members' legislation. I understand that this is a matter of regulation, but I cannot understand why motor barges trading from London to Harwich are subject to various regulations which do not apply to the Colne.

Perhaps the argument is that on a land map it is a shorter distance to the Colne than to Harwich, yet anyone knowing anything of the East Coast appreciates that really dangerous waters are common to both voyages. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to inquire most fully into these losses and to see whether stricter loading regulations are required and whether other precautions are necessary.

Finally, may I ask the Minister why his Ministry has not been able to deal with the suggestion I made over a year ago regarding Eastern Avenue? I am convinced that the gaps in the barrier between the double track roadway are a cause of accidents, several of which I have seen myself. They are also a most unnecessary brake on the speed and flow of traffic out from London. I should like not only to see these gaps in the roadway closed, but, also, traffic allowed to enter Eastern Avenue only by the roundabouts. It is tragic to see this road, which is just as good as many of the motorways on the Continent, being spoilt and made almost a secondary road because of lack of foresight and imagination. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure me that some bold planning is under way for Eastern Avenue.

Those are the problems that I wished to raise with the Parliamentary Secretary. I hope that the Ministry has particularly in mind the need of the small man and will not look upon the railways just from the London point of view and making them pay. Unless the small man is looked after the railways will not pay, because there will not be displayed sufficient imagination to make them pay.

12 noon

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

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale) for having given me advance notice of the points which he said he would raise in the House this morning. I am also grateful to him for giving me an opportunity of saying something about these three very important matters, particularly from the point of view of East Anglia.

My hon. Friend asked that my right hon. Friend should pay particular attention to the small man in respect of railways. It is my right hon. Friend's intention to see, in so far as he is responsible for these matters, that not only the large centres and the businessmen should be served from what my hon. Friend called "the London point of view", but that the new plans for the railways should take into close consideration the requirements of all and sundry all over the country.

I share with all hon. Members a sentimental pang at the withdrawal of the "Dewsbury", the vessel which normally performs the twice-weekly Harwich-Antwerp run. Everybody is sorry to see the passing of an old friend. The "Dewsbury" is 46 years of age, and old age is just as serious a matter in a ship as it can be in a human being. The "Dews-bury" is now reaching the end of her allotted span of economic life.

The Commission has placed an order for a replacement vessel which should be delivered some time in 1958. The "Dewsbury" will, of course, continue in service till then. In the design of the new vessel particular attention has had to be paid to the efficient conveyance of containers, for which there is an ever-increasing demand. The Commission has most carefully considered the question of incorporating passenger accommodation in it, as in the "Dewsbury", but I am afraid it has had to be decided that, owing to present-day costs of building and maintenance, the provision of passenger accommodation would be financially unjustifiable. That is the reason why that cannot be done. To provide room for passengers would necessarily reduce the space available for cargo and containers, which would in turn affect a very valuable export traffic. I understand that the Commission's views on this matter conform with those of other shipowners in similar trades.

There are, even now, alternative routes for passengers travelling from the South of England to Antwerp, by way of Harwich and the Hook of Holland, and via Dover-Ostend. I readily recognise that they will not help people living in East Anglia very much. These facilities will be augmented in the summer, when a through sleeping-car service will be introduced via Dover and Brussels, with a connection to Antwerp provided by the half-hourly electric train service, the journey time of which takes about forty minutes. This new through sleeping-car service should provide a most convenient means for people travelling from the South of England, in general, to Antwerp. Passengers will be able to leave London in the evening and arrive at Antwerp in good time the following morning, after a night's sleep.

The main point made by my hon. Friend at the beginning of his remarks was that one of the reasons for withdrawing the passenger element of this service was that it might not seem to have been successful but that the real reason was that there had not been proper advertising. I cannot agree with my hon. Friend to that extent. There has been space for only 12 passengers on the "Dewsbury," and that has been advertised and still is advertised in the British Railways Continental timetables and also in timetable folders relating to the services to Belgium. The only reason for the stopping of the passenger element is that the Commission has decided, because of the alternative means of travel—though perhaps from my hon. Friend's point of view they are not so suitable—that it would be wrong to make space available for passengers in the new vessel and it should be kept to serve the general interests of a valuable export trade.

Mr. Ridsdale

Can my hon. Friend honestly say that the advertising has been adequate for that service? Is he aware that the service has not been known to many people who have been travelling on other routes? It has been in the official handbook, but no steps have been taken to draw it to the notice of the public. If that had been done I am sure that many more people would have used it. Indeed, I can mention myself; I did not know anything about the existence of this route, and I am the Member of Parliament for Harwich. I would ask that further consideration be given to this point of view. My hon. Friend seemed to skate over the point very lightly.

Mr. Profumo

It would be very remiss of me if I were to assert that anything had been done adequately if the Member of Parliament for the division was unaware of it himself, particularly as my hon. Friend is assiduous in his duties. I will not go as far as to say that I am satisfied that the advertising has been up to the standard which my hon. Friend and many of his constituents would require, but I would point out that there has been the normal, standard advertising.

The real point is that there have been places for only 12 people and that even if there had been advertising in a large way—which the Commission would regard as an uneconomic spending of money—the "Dewsbury" could carry only 12 people. Even if those 12 places had been most constantly taken the Commission still feels that it would be an uneconomic use of space to provide for passengers in designing the new ship, as there are alternative ways and means of getting across. I will not labour this point, as I cannot expect my hon. Friend to agree with me, but that is the reason.

I will leave the question of the barges till last, as it is the most important matter that my hon. Friend raises. I will pass to the question of the London—Colchester road. I naturally reread the speech which my hon. Friend made on 15th July. I read the speech, of course, at the time. He asks this morning why nothing has been done since that debate and since he has raised various matters concerning the London—Colchester road. I hope that I shall be able to reassure him on those points.

It was decided to close 21 gaps in the central reservation where this trunk road, the A.12, has dual carriageways between London and Colchester, and to resite a a further eight. Nineteen gaps have now been closed and seven have been resited. In an attempt to make existing gaps more conspicuous, on the stretch between Margaretting and Widford the kerbs near the point of entry have been painted black and white, and small signs have been erected on the verge to indicate the presence of openings. My right hon. Friend is keeping a close watch on this road, and he will take such action as is necessary and practicable for the improvement of the layout, in the interests of safety.

Incidentally, my hon. Friend might like to recollect that it was not until 1st October last, when Section 45 of the Road Traffic Act, 1956, came into force, that my right hon. Friend had any clear powers under which to build continuous central reservations in existing roads, or to close existing gaps. I know that my hon. Friend appreciates that this trunk road was not built with motorway standards in view. Being an old road, it has been joined by many side roads, of which the public has made considerable use for a very long time. I have no doubt that the closure of the side roads would be opposed most vigorously by the local authorities concerned and by the public at large. Any attempt to consolidate these side roads by diverting them into fewer accesses to the trunk road would give rise to similar opposition. Such diversions would involve the acquisition of a considerable amount of property.

The rights of access enjoyed by the public would not be met by carrying the side roads either over or under the trunk road, nor would the expense of such an operation be justified on that particular road.

My hon. Friend, in his previous speech on this subject, mentioned the question of additional lay-bys for buses. So that he should not think that point has been overlooked by my right hon. Friend, I can say that additional lay-bys for buses are being and will be provided as and when funds permit. On this trunk road in Colchester 12 bus lay-bys have been provided in the last year.

Now I come to the question of loss of life on Colne barges. With certain exceptions, all ships registered in the United Kingdom must have a load line if they are to go to sea. Of course "ships" includes barges. In the application of the load line law, a ship is regarded as going to sea when its voyage takes it outside partially smooth water limits. As the voyage from Brightlingsea to London can be made wholly within partially smooth water limits, even during the winter season, it is not regarded as a sea voyage and barges engaged on it do not, therefore, have to have a load line. Several barges, however, do have a load line. For ships which have a load line it is the responsibility of the owner or the master to see that they do not proceed to sea in an overloaded condition.

For ships which do not come under the load line law, the responsibility of my right hon. Friend is limited to his general power for inspecting ships for seaworthiness. My Department's marine surveyors carry out such inspections when opportunity offers, but the responsibility for seeing that ships do not sail in an unseaworthy or overloaded condition, whether inside or outside partially smooth water limits, rests fairly and squarely with their owners and masters. It is quite true that a stretch of water like the Thames Estuary is subject to the effects of bad weather conditions to the extent that small vessels might find it perilous to sail at such times. Whether to sail or not in certain weathers is a matter for the judgment of the master, whether he is the master of a barge or of an Atlantic liner. Naturally, if he exercises judgment with prudence, and proper attention is paid to the weather conditions, as well as to the seaworthiness and capabilities of his ship, the voyage can be made with much greater safety.

There are about 150 self-propelled barges regularly engaged in trade in the Thames Estuary, and in the last ten years the number of these barges which have become total losses is fifteen. Of those fifteen, six have been lost by collision or fire. The remainder, on an average less than one a year, have been lost mainly because of the occurrence of a defect in the hull. The number of lives lost in the same period has, for all casualties, according to the information at my disposal, been eight, of which four resulted from collisions. Of the remaining four, as my hon. Friend mentioned, two were from the "Helen of Troy" in October, 1955, and two from the "Alpheus," to which my hon. Friend also referred.

A preliminary inquiry under the Merchant Shipping Acts into the latest casualty is now in progress. The purpose of that preliminary inquiry is to enable my right hon. Friend to decide whether a formal—that is, a public—investigation should be ordered. I know my hon. Friend will understand that as the matter is sub judice it would be improper for me to comment on the circumstances of that casualty. I can say, however, that the "Alpheus" had a load line.

My hon. Friend asked if we would inquire very carefully into the whole problem. Quite apart from investigations into the loss of lives, my Department is at this time reviewing the circumstances of the casualties in this area, together with similar casualties which have occurred around the coasts of the United Kingdom, in order that my right hon. Friend can decide whether or not there is any action which he can properly take to increase safety on barges on such voyages as those between Brightlingsea and London.

I hope that what I have been able to say on these very important subjects will have reassured my hon. Friend that the matters which he has so close to his heart are receiving careful consideration by my right hon. Friend and my Department. I can give him the assurance that I will read most carefully all he has said and that the Department will study the problems which he has raised this morning.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at a quarter past Twelve o'clock.