§ 3.36 p.m.
§ The Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Harold Watkinson)
I beg to move,That this House takes note of the Ninth Annual Report, Statement of Accounts and Statistics of the British Transport Commission for 1956.I am grateful to the Opposition for raising this matter on one of their Supply Days so soon after the publication of the Accounts. It is much more helpful to the House to have a debate on a very wide-ranging matter of this kind when the facts and figures are fresh in everybody's minds. I shall try to be as factual and as objective as I can in covering the immense scope of the Commission's work. Perhaps I should apologise to the House now, and not later, if I am rather long 383 in doing this, but, as the House will recognise, this is the country's largest single employer of labour and an essential requirement to our general industrial efficiency.
The only other general point I want to make is that I think that it will be most helpful to hon. Members if I devote most of my remarks to the railways. They are the crux of the problem and are responsible for the very large sum of money with which the Report deals. I think it will be most helpful if I deal generally with the railways, leaving my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to deal with any matters that are raised in the debate when he winds up the debate.
Hon. Members will recall that in the White Paper setting out the proposals for the railways, which was presented to the House last October, the Government and the Commission reviewed the whole rôle of the railways in a modern society and came to the firm conclusion that railways were vital to the economy and that it was, therefore, in the national interest that they should be modernised and developed. Nowadays, one hears a certain amount of talk about the railways being an outmoded form of transport. The Government, in their policies, have rightly never claimed a privileged position for the railways, but in opening this annual debate it is right that I should say, as we all know, that there are certain traffics which the railways can move more efficiently and more economically than any other form of transport, whether by land, sea or air, if they are given modern equipment and methods.
It is the railways which are the central feature which we ought to examine most carefully and as objectively as we can. I should be the last to lay down, or to try to lay down, any hard and fast rules as to what form of transport was most suited to particular traffics. That is the kind of quicksand into which one falls if one tries to integrate or plan these things too closely. None the less, one must not lose sight of the fact that the railways are ideally suited to the carriage of passengers over long distances, the carriage of commuter traffic round big cities, and as carriers of bulk freight. It 384 is from that aspect that I hope to examine them today.
I do not think the House, or the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. G. R. Strauss) and his colleagues, would wish me to traverse again in great detail the financial problems posed by the necessity to underwrite the modernisation plan. We did discuss this very fully in the House last December, and at that time, of course, the House gave an unopposed passage to the Railway Finance Bill. There was general agreement then in the House, I think, and in the country, that we must press on with modernisation, and that the Government were generally right to tide the Commission over these difficult years until modernisation could pay off.
The first thing I want to examine is the progress of that operation. The Commission's Report and Accounts for 1956 are the first check that we can have on the accuracy of the forecast made in the White Paper, "Proposals for the Railways". In paragraph 9, page 13, of the White Paper, as I think hon. Members will remember, the Commission envisaged an overall deficit of about £50 million in 1956. The actual deficit reported in the Accounts is, of course, £54.4 million, which is not far out of line with what was estimated. As paragraph 218 of the Report makes clear, the difference of about £4 million is accounted for by rises in costs and by the fall in certain traffics, partly due to the general recession in industrial production, and to other causes. Thus, the first thing that I want to say is that, so far—I agree that it is only the very beginning of a very complex operation—it appears from the Commission's current Report that its estimates were as accurate as one could reasonably expect them to be.
The amount the Commission is entitled to borrow under the terms of the 1957 Act, £54½ million, is also in line with the £250 million limit of borrowing powers under the Act in the period ending 1962. In fact, as the House knows, the Commission received an advance of £52 million on account of this sum in March.
Perhaps I might point out, in passing, as I think hon. Members will know, that the form of the Commission's accounts has been changed, of course, as provided by the 1957 Act, to show that clearly 385 the relief from the obligation under the Transport Act, 1947, to pay its way, taking one year with another, to use some rather famous words, and the amount which it has been thought proper to give relief from is clearly set down for all to see in the Consolidated Revenue Account which appears in the second of the Commission's documents, the Financial and Statistical Accounts in pages 2 and 3.
I thought that I should just make that plain for hon. Members who have not, perhaps, yet examined it. Thus far, then—I say again that it is only the beginning of the operation—I think that it is fair to say that things seem to have gone to plan.
The importance of the debate is that we have an opportunity to try to look forward and to see what the future holds, to consider whether the Commission seems to have charted the right course, and that Government support which has been given to it is support which will bring about, at the earliest possible moment, an efficient, modern, and, I hope, reasonably low-cost railway system.
First, I ought to deal quite briefly with the policies which successive Conservative Ministers of Transport have tried to implement to achieve this end. It is our view that the Commission, in 1951, was too monolithic a structure. At that time, there were six Executives with responsibilities for the railways, London Transport, and so on. Between them, they had no fewer than 36 boards, all of which were appointed by the Minister.
Theoretically, of course, they acted as agents of the Commission, but I think that most people, looking back, would agree that, in fact, they developed a position of considerable strength and highly centralised management. It was the view of my predecessors, as it is certainly my view, that that, probably, was not the best kind of management. It was too remote from the customer, and, I think, also, too inflexible to face a very competitive world.
I just want to note the progress in our main objective, which has been to decentralise and reorganise the railways on a regional basis and to try to devolve management as far down the line as possible. The Commission refers to this matter in paragraph 9 of its Annual Report. Incidentally, it might be of 386 interest to the House to know that this Report is, of course, the Commission's Report. The Commission neither needs to consult me, nor does it consult me, about its terms or its wording, and the Report is, therefore, a completely unbiassed and factual statement of how the Commission thinks things are going and should go. It is interesting, therefore, to see the tribute which the Commission pays to the progress made by the area boards, and the way in which they have relieved the Commission of a great deal of work which had been undertaken at the centre, but which the Commission and the Government think is much better undertaken in the regions.
The regional boards have given a great deal of attention to the development of the modernisation plan, and I think that most people who are interested in the railways will agree, also, that they have taken a great interest in staff and welfare matters. Members of area hoards have given the railways very good value and very good service in the way in which they have devoted a very large share of their time to trying to make the railways more efficient, more productive, and, on the whole, I think, a prouder industry to work in. I think that the country should be grateful to these men who give such a lot of their time to this task.
§ Mr. Ernest Popplewell (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West)
The Minister referred to the six Executives and 36 appointments. I cannot quite understand why he should make that point. Will he say, also, how many regional boards have been appointed and how many appointments the Minister now makes to the regional boards? I think that he ought to draw the comparison both ways, because, as we all know, before the Conservative Party came into this there was the idea of decentralisation, and it was only a question of method and timing for putting that sort of thing in motion. Whether the decentralisation would have been the same in other circumstances is a rather debatable matter.
§ Mr. Watkinson
As I am sure that the hon. Member knows, since he has taken part in many of these debates, I have—I regret to inform the House—a long speech to make. The comparison I was making was quite a fair one, and I am not arguing as to whether the Opposition would have done the same. I am merely 387 saying that I and my predecessors wished to help the Commission in this great task of decentralisation because we thought that was the way to make its work more efficient. I doubt whether the House disagrees.
§ Mr. Popplewell
Further to the Minister's reference to the 36 appointments, would he now give the number of other appointments which the Minister now makes?
§ Mr. Watkinson
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would allow my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to deal with that when he winds up the debate. I am not making a point about the number of appointments, but I am making the comparison between centralised and decentralised management.
Perhaps I might just go on to say that the Commission, too, has made a great deal of progress in decentralising management within the regions, which is, of course, its responsibility. I will not go into details, but hon. Members who take an interest in this subject will know that the regions themselves have been reorganised, the Eastern Region, for example, on a line basis, the Western Region working on devolution from regional headquarters to areas, each subdivided into districts, and so on. There is, and it is most important for the success of the modernisation that there should be, a constant attempt to re-organise and get the right kind of management to fit the task which lies ahead.
I would say, as the Government have said in their White Paper, that, on the whole, we think that the right kind of framework has now been set for this great business. After all, that is what it really amounts to—and we think that it is right that the Commission itself should be relieved of some of its day-to-day duties. We think, too, that it is right that it should much more resemble a parent company looking generally after large policy issues and leaving most of the day-to-day management to the regions.
Of course, this is not the end of the process and the Commission will, no doubt, have to continue to re-examine its structure and methods as it develops its modernisation plan and all the changes that that will present. As I have said, 388 however, the Government believe that the right broad framework has now been established.
The House is familiar that apart from the area boards, there are separate divisions for British Road Services, the docks and waterways, hotels, and so on, not forgetting London Transport Executive. I have made this point—it is a not unimportant one—because it could be held, and held fairly, both on the other side of the House and on this, that if one took what might be called the full application of both Socialist and Conservative views, it might be said that the present solution requires further treatment. For example, it might be said to require further measures of denationalisation or renationalisation. The view of the Government is that this kind of middle of the road, to some extent compromise, solution that we have obtained is the right one.
I was very interested to read, therefore, in paragraph 6 of the Commission's Report, some words which I commend to the House, bearing in mind, as I have said, that these are the Commission's own views. After detailing some of the steps which the Commission has taken, paragraph 6 states that the Commission hopes that itwill now be allowed reasonable freedom and a period of stability to press on with reconstruction, and that the whole fabric of public transport will no longer be subjected to periodic and seismic upheaval on political account.
§ Mr. Watkinson
That is a fair statement and, I think, exactly represents the position to which the Government have now brought the Commission. I will come presently to the question of balance between public and private enterprise, but I think it is right to draw the attention of the House to that statement.
It is equally right to say that that is, in the Government's view, a statement which they hope will be followed. The Government, as I have said, think that the essential task now is to encourage and help the Commission to go forward with its modernisation plan and to see that it can undertake the serious obligations to which it is committed under the underwriting process of the plan. Therefore, this is an appropriate moment to make that position quite plain.
§ Mr. Popplewell
Do we understand from what the Minister is saying that if at some future date the Commission puts to the Tribunal a case for the adjustment of freight rates or passenger fares, the Tory Government will not prevent the Commission increasing its charges to meet increased costs when it has previously been agreed with the Tribunal? We all remember that the Government did that in the past. They are largely responsible for quite a lot of the £54 million deficit in the Commission's accounts.
§ Mr. Watkinson
I remember that both Governments have interfered with the Commission in the past. Perhaps the hon. Member will allow me to make my own speech, when he will find that I deal with the specific points which he has raised.
I want now to turn to the year's figures. There was, of course, a deficit of no less than £57½ million on British Railways, made up of a deficit in net receipts of £16.5 million and £41 million which is the railways' proportion of the Commission's central charges. In saying that this is in line with the Commission's forecast—which, of course, it is—I by no means underestimate this formidable total; but so that the House may get as balanced a view as possible it should be seen against the figure of £730 million which is the total of B.T.C. receipts for the year.
There is one other point which may interest the House. The deficit in net receipts conceals a rise in gross receipts of £26.2 million over 1955, but, unfortunately, costs rose to a greater extent, by £44.5 million. On its other activities, the Commission had a surplus of £3.1 million. Its deficit, therefore, as I have said, was £54.4 million.
The Special Account set up by the 1957 Act consists, therefore, of the accumulated deficit at the end of the 1955£69.8 million—and the 1956 deficit, together with interest on borrowing during the year for capital purposes on British Railways, which amounted to £282,637. These figures are clearly set out in the Commission's accounts. That is for the past.
I want now to see what pointers we have to the state of efficiency reached by the Commission, which may give a clue 390 as to whether the future will show improvement. One of the most significant of these is the graph, diagram No. 7, in page 66, which shows the trend of passenger traffic. The Commission's use of graphs in setting out these things is extremely helpful and gives an idea of general trends. In 1956, passenger miles on British Railways were higher than in any year since nationalisation. When I come to the modernisation programme, I hope to say something about how the modernisation of many suburban and rural services by diesel train sets has contributed to this improvement.
There is little doubt that fuel rationing helped, too. As I told the Chairman of the Commission at the time—on behalf. I am sure, of the whole House—the railways did amazingly well during that period and the good will that they won during the emergency will, with the promise of increased efficiency, stand them in good stead for the future. Indeed, that is shown by the fact that passenger figures, at least in the current year, continue to be very encouraging.
Those figures are not only due to the fact that during petrol rationing probably many people found that it was surprisingly convenient to travel by train. Although these are not spectacular features, it was also because of things like better cleanliness, better punctuality, more keenness and courtesy in railway staff, and a general toning-up and improvement in the service. To that extent, there is fair reason for saying that there are signs on the passenger side of the improvement which we shall certainly need if we are to bring off this great undertaking.
Turning now to freight traffic, diagrams 10 and 11, in pages 70 and 71, give the trend of freight traffics. These are by no means such a pleasant picture. The trend is a decline. Indeed, the whole weight of what has to be done on the railways, the Commission believes, should be directed against this trend by introducing into operation methods and equipment which will arrest the decline and regain for the railways the traffics for which they are well suited. It is a difficult task, and it is particularly difficult to produce results quickly, but I am sure that if hon. Members study the graphs they will see that the position is 391 one that must cause the Commission considerable concern.
While waiting for big improvements from the new marshalling yards and the completion of the continuous brake programme, and so on, the Commission cannot afford to overlook any method which will improve the efficiency of its existing services. If hon. Members would care to turn to the graph in page 74, that is, diagram 12, they will see that at least the Commission achieved much greater efficiency in the loading of wagons. Bearing in mind that many, perhaps the greater proportion, of its wagons are completely out of date and outmoded—one has only to compare the average wooden rail wagon with the average modern road vehicle to see how much out of date they are—it is to the Commission's credit that it has at least improved its efficiency in using its freight equipment.
These graphs, of course, cannot tell the whole story. The railway modernisation programme was launched only at the beginning of 1955, and, therefore, it is only just beginning to bear fruit. I hope that some hon. Members—I know some did—had the time to have a look at these first fruits of the modernisation programme which were to be seen at a small exhibition which the railways recently held at Battersea Wharf. As the Chairman of the Commission rightly said, it certainly showed the first fruits of the modernisation programme, and that it has had some fruits, and it was very pleasing to see the new rolling stock, the new diesel train sets.
It pleased me very much to have a chat with one of the old railwaymen there, who has served the railways all his working life. I asked him what he thought about this new equipment and it pleased me very much to see the pride with which he replied that given this kind of equipment the railways could succeed in their task. If that spirit is general on the railways we can take some comfort for their future. One of the features of the exhibition was the diesel train sets. It is worth telling that by the end of 1956 nearly 400 of these vehicles had been delivered. That was two and a half times more than in the previous year. Remarkable increases in receipts have followed the production of 392 this kind of train. It seems that if British Railways can get the new equipment they can not only make good use of it, but attract freight and passenger custom.
The next stage is the diesel locomotive, and the House may like to know that present orders for diesel main line locomotives are for 230 locomotives. Deliveries have begun. Of this total, 43 locomotives are being built in British Railways workshops and 187 by outside contractors. Further orders are about to be placed, and as the whole procurement programme totals only about 2,500 main line diesels it can be seen that the next stage from the multiple unit diesel is now well in hand.
The Commission announced on 22nd November, 1955, its decision to purchase 174 diesel locomotives as pilot models. The Commission has since come to the conclusion that if it is to maintain its planned programmes it has to go ahead more rapidly with diesel locomotives, and, therefore, as I have said, it is proposing to order more locomotives. I think that this proposal may well bring the rate of production of diesel locomotives in the country above the figures quoted in the White Paper.
The next stage is electrification on which the Commission's main hopes are based, because the diesel, on main lines at any rate, is only an interim phase. After 1961 the Commission hopes to step up the pace of electrification. It may be interesting to the House to know that the first main line electric locomotives are expected to be in operation in October, 1958, on the Manchester to Crewe section. So that part of the programme is certainly going according to plan at the moment. There are many works on the track, signalling and structures to be undertaken.
I come back again, because I think that this is the crux of the Commission's future, to the freight traffic position, and to some of the features of the Report which deal with the modernisation of the freight services. I say very sincerely that although we differ on some things I am not sure that we differ on the main objective, and the question which must worry any Minister of Transport, as I know it worries the Commission is, frankly—and I am talking of freights—not whether the railways will achieve too little, but whether they may achieve it too late to 393 regain the traffics which they are losing and hate lost to the roads because if they do regain them too late they cannot regain solvency. It is a very worrying problem. That is why I say that it is the crux of the modernisation plan
That is why I will tell the House briefly a little about the work that is going on. I am afraid it is, at the moment, only a sign of progress. As the Economist said recently:The promise of what is possible provides the only present foundation for the necessary act of faith in modernisation.I think that is not unfair at this early stage, so I will say a little about what the promise of what is possible.
The fitting of continuous brakes is obviously the most urgent matter, and the planned programme for that is being exceeded in the current year. That is going well, and I think that traders are getting a hint of things to come in their use of the "Export Express Service" which guarantees next day delivery from certain industrial areas to the docks. This is only a beginning, but I think that it shows that the Commission is at least making progress in this very important sphere.
Whatever is planned for machines will be disappointing in its results unless the men who operate them can work together towards the end of making the railways efficient and prosperous again, and I think it still needs saying again, although I have said it before, that the money spent on modernisation really cannot serve the nation's needs and give a proper return unless it is matched by a new approach by the men—and by the men I mean every man, whatever his station, in the Commission—by a new approach to current problems.
It has always been my fervent hope that the enormous demands of this great task will bring a change in the mental outlook of every man and woman who works for the Commission and so for the nation. I believe that the railways have come a long way in this since I first came into contact with this problem, when I was at the Ministry of Labour, and that there has been a sharp change, and one of which the House should take note, in the attitude of the railwaymen to their task.
I think that the House should take note of these significant words in an article by Mr. James Campbell, the General 394 Secretary to the National Union of Railwaymen, in its journal, the Railway Review. Talking about the general position of the railways Mr. Campbell said:It should be obvious to us as employees in the industry that our future depends in a large degree on the contribution we make, both individually and collectively, to improving efficiency. What we put in is every bit as important as what we take out.Those, I think, are important as well as wise words coming from somebody who leads the great majority of railwaymen, and if one can see that kind of approach in action I think that the modernisation programme will succeed and that the British Railways Productivity Council, which plays such an important part, will succeed, too.
In my visits to various parts of the railways—and the Parliamentary Secretary will have something to say about this when he winds up—while I did see various things that one can criticize, things with which one cannot be satisfied, I saw progress in the determination of management and men to make a success of the task of matching the modernisation of methods to the railwayman's approach to his job.
The Commission has a Work Study Training Centre, at Watford, where training schemes are carried out on maintenance, stores organisation, station working and in the drawing office, and they will be of great help in producing work on maintenance at lower cost and, therefore, assist productivity.
Therefore, I think that, on the whole, it is fair to say that the Government took the right decision in March, 1956, when they asked the Commission to undertake a detailed review of its policy and prospects. That, of course, led, in the end, to the underwriting of the modernisation programme. At that time I said that I hoped that I saw in this nationalisation some of the spirit that makes private enterprise profitable, and that all concerned were willing to work together and get on with the job. I think that I can claim, and not in any political sense, that events have proved that I was right in my belief. Some may say that my intervention at that time was interference.
§ Mr. David Jones (The Hartlepools)
I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Commission itself said in its 395 Report that he interfered, because he gave the Commission instructions not to increases its charges.
§ Mr. Watkinson
The hon. Member would have done better to let me finish my sentence. With the knowledge of events that have flowed from that decision, I do not regret it, nor does the Commission. I believe that given good will and lack of industrial conflict, the Commission will pull off this great operation, but it does need the good will of all concerned, and of industry as well.
We face a very difficult problem on the freight side and the Commission is very conscious that it will be some time yet before modernisation, however well it goes, can really show the kind of advantage to the transport manager of a large concern that he can get from road services offered to him by either British Road Services or by private enterprise.
To some extent, therefore, there is this difficult interim phase, during which the railways have to try to regain traffics with equipment not yet modernised enough. The Commission is doing a great deal to meet the problem, but it is no use the House deluding itself that we are not in for a difficult phase until, on the freight side in particular, modernisation can pay off. Whilst I have given examples of what the Commission is doing, they are not examples of what will bear fruit at once. The Commission is introducing 400 wagons of a newly developed design to enable cement to be transported in bulk and discharged under pressure. Most hon. Members have seen what the Commission is doing in building railway containers and pallets suitable for the conveyance of bricks, tiles, slates, and so on.
The Commission is also evolving a new standard of container to carry a much greater pay-load, and developing fork-lift trucks and new types of cranes which will handle lorry loads to be landed from a lorry, or perhaps sometimes in the body of the lorry itself. All these works are being pressed forward as far as possible. I hope that traders will take careful note of what these developments portend for the future and that transport managers in large firms will keep a careful eye on the progress of these trends so that they can 396 make use of them as soon as they are available to them.
§ Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
Will the right hon. Gentleman say something about the promise which he made some months ago to modernise the transport of perishable goods from north-east Scotland, particularly fish to Billingsgate?
§ Mr. Watkinson
That is a very good example. As I think the hon. and learned Member knows, the Commission is building a special stock of fast freight wagons, which will be used as far as possible only between Aberdeen and London and which should give a considerably better service, the Commission hopes, for that most perishable of traffics. Therefore, the Commission is trying to meet that problem. There are other problems, and I wish the Commission well.
§ Mr. A. E. Cooper (Ilford, South)
The main delays in handling goods occur at the collection and delivery points and not so much in transit, for example, between London and Birmingham. It is quite common for goods going from Mitcham for delivery in Manchester to take ten to fourteen days and for the whole of that time, with the exception of one day, to be taken up at some depot in London. It does not need a great deal of money to correct that.
§ Mr. Watkinson
That is a very interesting point. If he takes part in the debate. I hope that my hon. Friend will develop it.
The Commission realises that it is no use having an overnight service by rail if these very long delays are experienced in loading and unloading. That is the principle behind the development of new freight terminals, where the clearance of goods should be much quicker. This is also an example of the fact that a terminal cannot be modernised and re-equipped in a few months. If my hon. Friend does not develop the point in a speech, perhaps he will let me have details of particular problems, which I should be happy to pass on to the Commission.
It is, perhaps, rather odd to have said all that I have said so far against a background of increases in charges by the Commission, and I should say something about that at this stage. I know 397 that the Commission does not like increasing charges, because of its inevitable effect on traffic. But to try to get as balanced a picture as we can, I should point out to those interested that if they study diagram 4 in page 62 of the Commission's Report they will see that in terms of money at 1938 purchasing purchasing power, fares in real terms have fallen while real average wage earnings have risen by about half. In other words, taking 1938 as 100, fares stand at 200 and wages stand at 286. Therefore, perhaps passenger rail travel is not so bad a bargain.
The freight position is much more difficult. Here, even if the most favourable comparisons are made, we have to face the fact, as I have tried to tell the House before, that almost any increase in freight charges is enough to drive traffic away from the railways to the road. There is no time, nor do I wish, to traverse matters which have been discussed in the House before, but this was the view that I took in March last year over the question of the Commission's increasing its freight, dock and canal charges. In other words, at that time I did not think that it was wrong to limit the increase to what expert advice thought the traffic might bear, having in mind particularly that at that time the Commission was handicapped by a completely outmoded system of freight charges.
This is an important point. Looking at the trend of freight traffic since then, I consider that that decision was prudent in the railways' interests. The railways have a new railway merchandise charges scheme in operation at last, and they have much more flexibility in charging. The House is familiar with the various obligations from which the railways have been released. Now that the new charging scheme is in force, the railways, for example, do not have to publish the actual charges but only the maximum charges. That puts them on a much fairer basis in relation to competitors who are not under any obligation to publish their charges.
The Commission can vary its charges according to local circumstances and market needs. Where the rates are too low it can raise them, and where more traffic is needed it can lower them.
§ Mr. Hector Hughes
While the right hon. Gentleman is on this question of freight charges, will he say whether, in the near future, there will be a revision of the tapering system, which at present is unsatisfactory to north-east Scotland?
§ Mr. Watkinson
I know how strongly the hon. and learned Member and his compatriots feel about this, but I do not think that I ought to enter into it now. I will certainly ask my hon. Friend to reply to him if the hon. and learned Member takes part in the debate. Of course, the hon. and learned Gentleman will not expect a new statement of policy on tapering railway charges on this occasion, though no doubt he would like it.
A policy of relating charges more nearly to the use of resources ought to greatly help the future profitability of the railways. The Commission has a very big job in explaining and selling all this to businessmen, and it is trying to make it plain to traders that it will charge commercial prices in the course of competition with other providers of transport. It is against this completely changed background that we must set the Commission's recent proposals for an increase in freight charges, which have been genuinely misunderstood in many quarters.
I must, first, remind the House of what the Commission said in the memorandum which is appended to the White Paper, "Proposals for the Railways." It said:…it is a basic assumption of this paper that …if their costs should rise they must be free to adjust their charges.Indeed, if that is not so, it cannot keep the very serious undertakings which it has given in connection with the underwriting programme. The Government, at that time, in paragraph 21 of Command Paper 9880, said:This does not mean, of course, that the Commission will not impose selective increases in their charges during the next five or six years …if they are to overcome their present financial difficulties.Therefore, it should not be a great surprise to business circles if the Commission has to increase its headroom for its commercial charges, but it does it in a completely new and more flexible system, and, equally, it is now able to vary its charges according to what it thinks the traffic will bear. It is a new situation, as compared with any which ever obtained before.
§ Mr. James Harrison (Nottingham, North)
The right hon. Gentleman will realise that it is our custom, particularly in these debates, which tend to become rather technical, to interject in the Minister's speech, and I hope that he will forgive me for doing so now. The point that interests me is the falling off of freight traffic. The right hon. Gentleman has not yet mentioned that the bulk of this freight traffic is minerals, coal and coke. He is now talking about charges, but the greatest inroad into that freight traffic recently has been caused by the conveyance of this mineral traffic within the 40-mile orbit of the pits on the roads.
The Transport Commission has to compete, so it tells us, with the prices charged by road haulage, and, in the Midlands we now have road transport running about, very often with dangerous loads, cluttering up the roads, and all the time the Commission's graphs are indicating that the quantity of freight carried on the railways is coming down at a very alarming rate. Will the Minister say something about that?
§ Mr. Watkinson
I quite agree that freight traffics have fallen very seriously, but the hon. Member will know that a good deal of coal, though not as much as the Commission would like, has gone back from the roads to the railways. I hope that more will do so, because it is one of the Commission's main objectives to get back in the mineral traffics all the coal that can be carried efficiently by the railways; and that is certainly more than is at present being carried. The Commission is trying in many ways by new methods, but one cannot expect it all to happen at once.
I want to end my remarks on the charges position by saying, because it is fair to the Commission to do so, that since the last increases in freight charges were made, the Commission's working costs have increased by £40 million, and it is very interesting to see that out of that £40 million, £21 million is due to increases in wages, and £19 million is due to increased costs of coal, steel, road fuel, tyres, and so on. Therefore, it is worth noting, to be fair to the Commission, that many of the Commission's suppliers did not try as hard as the Commission itself to hold down their prices.
400 It is equally fair to take account of a point made by the Economist on 6th July, when it said that the increases both of the railway authorities and the Coal Board represent only an increase in rail costs of less than one-half per cent. of the national income. So, again, perhaps we should try to keep these things in proper proportion. The fact is, and this House has to face it, that the Commission are now bearing this extra burden of £40 million, £30 million of which applies to the railways alone, and that the only way out of the Commission's difficulties, if it is to keep faith with the White Paper and the promises it made therein, was to try to increase its charges.
I therefore wish to make it plain that, in reviewing these rates, under the new 10 per cent. headroom, actual rates charged—because that is what matters to the individual trader—will be the subject of discussion with them on a commercial basis. I do not think that we should assume that this is a blanket increase of 10 per cent. It is an increase of 10 per cent. in the new circumstances which I have outlined.
Before I leave the subject of charges, I should remind the House that the Commission has said that it will have to make some selective increases in passenger fares as well. It has authority to do this and has already submitted to the Transport Tribunal a new draft passenger charges scheme. The Commission wants to keep its prices and costs down as much as anyone else, but it has to keep faith with the undertakings which it has given in the White Paper. In the completely new charging circumstances which it faces, I think that it will now be able to apply its charges in a much more sensible and I hope more profitable manner.
To sum up, I think that 1956, difficult though it has been for the railways, may well, as the Chairman of the Commission said recently, mark the turning of the tide for the Commission. The Government believe that the Commission has correctly charted its course, and that it should be left alone and encouraged to press on with it and make a success of it. By that, I do not mean for a moment that it should regard itself as being free from the detailed examination and criticism of this House. That is part of its lot.
401 Although one of the very difficult tasks which confronts a Minister with responsibility for a nationalised industry is to find the right balance between the need to leave the Commission free to manage its own affairs and the need to ensure that Parliament and the nation have the means of satisfying themselves that it is actually doing it, I would say from my own experience that the only way to maintain that balance is by the very close co-operation and friendly consultation which I have always enjoyed with the Chairman of the Commission, and which the Ministry has enjoyed, at all appropriate levels with the Commission.
If this is "interference," I personally make no apology for it, because I feel that it is the only way in which a Minister can discharge his very great responsibilities to the House and the country. It is quite unthinkable that a large industry, such as the railways, should not be able to feel the pulse of Government policy in this way.
Perhaps I can best sum up what I have tried to say this afternoon in the words of the Financial Times, words which are a fair summary of the present position:In general, things appear to be going ahead well. The railway modernisation plan is at least up to schedule. The labour shortage (except for technical staff), has eased a little, productivity has gone up, good progress is being made with decentralization, and the new freight charges scheme should result in a much better utilisation of existing assets. Public transport has a more healthy air about it than for many years.That may well be held to be a somewhat optimistic view, and I should like to end by saying that that kind of view can only be realised if all goes well. By that I mean if we are reasonably free from industrial disputes, if modernisation goes according to plan, if the Commission and its suppliers work well together, if the Commission is subjected to constructive and not destructive criticism, and if, generally, the House and the country take the view that the Commission should get on with its task of creating the modernised transport system, which is competitive and efficient, which we must have in this highly competitive world.
I wish the Commission well in its task. I hope that I have been able to show the House that it has at least made a start, that it has produced the first fruits, and produced them on schedule, that, as the Chairman of the Commission has said, 402 this may be the turn of the tide in its affairs. If I may end on a personal note, whether this House agrees, as obviously it cannot, that everything one has done is right or wrong, nobody can wish more than I do that this is really the turn of the tide in the Commission's affairs.
§ 4.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Ernest Davies (Enfield, East)
I am sure that the whole House will echo the last words of the Minister in wishing the British Transport Commission well in the task which confronts it. The House will appreciate the care which the Minister has given in presenting the Report of the Commission today. It was only when the right hon. Gentleman departed from the objective and factual statement into the realm of politics that he was inclined to trip up.
The Minister quoted paragraph 6 of the Report, in which the Commission suggested that public transport should no longer be subjected to periodical upheaval on political account. We all agree with that, but what I can never understand is why the party opposite always thinks that if it intervenes and imposes its policy, that is desirable and acceptable, but when a party which happens to hold a different view implements its own policy, that is undesirable and is considered to be playing party politics.
The Minister suggested that compromise and a "middle of the road policy"—which was the phrase he used about the Government's lack of transport policy—was bringing results. He also implied that it was partly responsible for the position of the Commission today. I was rather surprised that he took this attitude. I half expected the right hon. Gentleman to come here a little repentant over the results of the policy which has been imposed by this Government upon the Transport Commission. I would remind the Minister that he is in no small measure responsible for the very heavy loss which is reported in this Report, and that it was partly due to the Government's policy of attempting to hold prices, and instructing the Commission to do so, which has resulted in the very heavy loss that we are considering now.
Further, I was glad to find that the Minister was quoting those graphs in the Report which show that the charges of the Commission today have not gone up anywhere near as much as have costs—
§ Mr. Davies
In the case of passengers.
As far as one can make out, it is claimed that the cost of freight has not gone up as much as the general rise in the cost of materials and the rest. I would remind the Minister that he cannot take any credit for that. The Government's inflationary economic policy was responsible for the difficulties of the Commission but, in spite of that policy, the Commission has succeeded in meeting the gap to some extent by improved efficiency, so the greater efficiency of nationalised industry is responsible for this.
I do not want to be more political than that, and I shall deal, as the Minister did, largely with the future of the Transport Commission. Parliament must concern itself with that, since it is our responsibility, and we cannot but view the results of last year with serious concern. For the first time since the railways were amalgamated, in 1921, into the main line companies, taken as a whole they report a working loss.
In other words, for the first time, taken together, the railways have failed to cover their working expenses by the very large sum of £16½ million. Previously, they had been in difficulties and not able to pay all their debenture interest, and so on, when they were under private enterprise, but there was never a time when the main line railway companies, taken together, were in a similar position.
That is a serious state of affairs. It is true that because the Transport Commission has other undertakings it is able to set off that loss to some extent by its other principal carrying activities, and, taking into account the ancillary undertakings, there is the small surplus of £4½ million to meet the very heavy capital charges which, when they are taken into account, leave a deficit of £54.4 million, as the Minister pointed out. This is carried to the Special Account and that makes this large loss a burden on the future; that is to say, transport users of the future will have to find the money to pay back the deficit which is now being covered by borrowing and also, year by year, will have to meet the interest on this deficit.
When the Transport Railway Finances Bill was before the House we on this 404 side suggested that it would be far better if the Government made a direct subsidy to the railways to meet the deficits, or at least part of them, which would be incurred during the transition period. We argued that if they did not do so, and the money was met by borrowing, the future liability on the Commission would be so great that the estimates in the White Paper could not be fulfilled, or would be very difficult to fulfil.
If one takes the current deficit and works out the interest which will have to be paid, the picture is alarming. The Report states that the Commission borrows from the Treasury at present at the rate of 5¼ per cent. on a 25-year loan. The interest on this year's deficit comes to £2.85 million per annum, to be paid back on the deficit, and over the period of twenty-five years this will amount to over £70 million. Thus, by financing the deficits in this way the Commission is being burdened with interest of £70 million over a period of twenty-five years in order to have its present deficit of £54 million lent to it.
In my view, that is crazy financing. It is unfair to the Commission, to the travelling public and to those who send goods by rail to burden them with this heavy interest charge and to postpone the day when it will be met. It would be far better if the Government faced the position as it is, and decided to meet these deficits out of a direct subsidy.
The task of Parliament in this debate is to inquire into the causes of the loss, as the Minister did, to see whether they are likely to continue, what can be done to minimise them, and, ultimately, to eliminate them. The Commission gives three main reasons for the heavy loss last year. First, there is the decline in the freight carryings and in the London Transport traffics. Secondly, there is the freezing of the Commission's fares and charges. Thirdly, there is the continuation of inflation.
The first, the decline in freight, is not, as it were, the cause of the Commission's failure; it is rather a symptom of the disease. That is to say, the traffic is there but the Commission has not obtained it. The position is not quite the same for the London Transport Executive because, owing to the deteriorating position in London's traffic problem, the London Transport Executive has been 405 unable to maintain its services and people have been deserting public transport for private transport.
In those circumstances, it is quite understandable that the London Transport Executive has been unable to hold its travelling public. It means that something must be done about London if the London Transport Executive is to be able to provide the public service to Londoners which they need. We do not wish to debate that this afternoon, but I am convinced that this problem is not being tackled with the imagination and energy which it requires.
Much more important elements in last year's results are the freezing of the Commission's fares and charges and the continuation of inflation. I do not wish to recount the history of the Government's policy in this respect. It was decided that the Commission should not be permitted to put up its freight charges by the full 10 per cent. which it had requested. The Minister decided to set aside the recommendation of the Transport Tribunal that the Commission's request should he granted and permitted an increase in charges of only 5 per cent. At the same time, the Commission postponed the increase in its passenger fares which it had the right to impose and withdrew at that time a further application from the Transport Tribunal.
This interference by the Government and the readiness with which the Commission, subject to very persuasive influence by the Minister, responded to his request, cost, as is stated in paragraph 277, £16 million in a year. In other words. £16 million of this loss is directly due to the Government's policy of requiring the Commission to attempt to hold down its charges.
Somewhat to my surprise, as it reflects on private enterprise, the Minister referred to the fact that although the Commission had hoped that the cost of the materials which it used would also be held down, that had not occurred and the Commission had been disappointed. It is stated in paragraph 46,The Commission also expressed the hope that their various suppliers would apply similar restraint and that their customers would recognise the substantial effort the Commission were making to keep down their charges. In these respects the Commission were perhaps overoptimistic.I will say they were!
§ Mr. Cooper
Is it not a fact that one of the biggest suppliers of the nationalised transport undertaking is the National Coal Board?
§ Mr. Davies
It is by no means the only supplier. Coal is only one of the commodities which are consumed by the Commission, and in this paragraph it is referring to the whole range of products which it consumes. Evidently private enterprise did not believe in the Prime Minister's plateau, and in the event they were right. This is an unhappy episode in last year's history of the Commission and it is partly responsible for the unfortunate results which we are considering this afternoon.
The Report deploys some other arguments or explanations of the poor results which are presented to us, but however much we juggle with these financial figures it cannot be disguised that the Commission did so badly last year because it was unable to attract sufficient traffic to pay its way. That is the blunt truth and we cannot get away from it. The future success of the Commission, therefore, depends upon whether it can get the traffic in the future. It is not only a question of finance and it is not even a question, as the Minister partly implied, of charging enough to cover costs, because if one attempts to do that one drives some of the traffic away. Putting up charges does not recapture traffic which has been lost.
In respect of the attempt to gain traffic, the Report makes rather sad reading. One is very glad to see that, on the whole, passenger traffic was held and there was a slight tendency for it to increase. As the Minister stated, this is almost certainly due to the modernisation which is progressively taking place in dieselisation and electrification. The story about freight, however, is very different, and except in minerals other than coal there has been a decline. Even for coal the tendency was downwards.
The severe fall, of course, took place in general merchandise. It was a very substantial fall in traffic. We all know the reason for it; the traffic has gone on to the roads. The Commission blames the increased competition of road haulage following the disposal of a part of the fleet of the British Road Services. It says 407 that there was consequent increased competition, which resulted in excessive competition from the roads, and a decrease in the efficiency of the road haulage services generally. It blames, equally, the increase in C licences and in private cars, and in respect of public transport it blames road congestion.
All those reasons are true enough, but what one has to ask oneself is: why is there this increase in private transport at the expense of public transport? What steps can be taken to stop this flow of traffic from public to private transport and to get it back to public transport? If an answer could be found to that question, then some of the problems which confront the Commission might well be solved.
Dealing, first, with British Road Services, the competition within the industry is, of course, excessive. Prices have been cut in the road haulage industry and considerable traffic has been creamed off the railways. That cannot be denied. I think that every hon. Member will agree that an increasing amount of traffic is being carried on the roads which could equally well be carried by the railways and that in a well-organised transport system it would be carried by the railways.
I would point out to the House that, in spite of the difficulties encountered by British Road Services last year owing to the continued disposal of its vehicles, up to the point when the Government were forced to stop the sales because industry did not want the trunk service network broken up and disintegrated, B.R.S. succeeded in obtaining a surplus of £1.8 million during 1956. One cannot help but reflect how much better it would be for the Commission and how much better its results would be if there had been no denationalisation of British Road Services and if, instead of only £1.8 million being available to set off against the losses, there had been the same surplus as that of the previous year, £4.3 million, or the year before, £8 million.
I would remind hon. Members opposite who do not wish to face this fact that the Report concludes the sordid story of the disposal of the British Road Services fleet. This is given almost in parenthesis in Notes 22 to 24 to the Accounts in the Second Volume of the Report. This 408 story is not a thriller, but it is a shocker, and a bit of a mystery, too. The disposal of three-fifths of the fleet—that is, 20,000 out of 35,000 vehicles—cost almost as much as did the acquisition of the whole fleet. In other words, £1,170,000 was spent in disposing of the vehicles, whereas the expenses involved upon the acquisition of the vehicles was not much more—£1,300,000. The Report states that £2 million may still be required to meet further expenses and any losses not yet accounted for.
The net result appears to be that disposals realised £26 million. These vehicles, were sold at a book value of £13½ million. Therefore, on book values —they being the level to which the vehicles and property had been written down out of the revenue of British Road Services and the Commission—there was a profit of £12½ million. But against that must be set the goodwill of £31½ million, which had been carried in the books of the Commission as a result of the prices which were paid for the businesses acquired when nationalisation took place. Against this, also, there was the levy, the final figure of which came to £12¼ million. so that when all these figures are balanced one against the other the net result is that there is still a debit in the books of the Commission of £10½ million, which is set aside as the remaining goodwill of the existing fleet.
From these figures one could argue the question whether or not there was a profit or loss on the actual assets according to whether one took the book values or the book values plus the goodwill. One could argue either way according to one's political lights, but the fact remains that £10½ million stands in the books of the Commission, in regard to the remaining fleet of about 16,000 vehicles, as an intangible asset called goodwill.
§ Mr. Norman Cole (Bedfordshire, South)
Does not the hon. Member think that £10½ million of the total goodwill of £31 million is in fair proportion to the fact that 15,000 vehicles remain with the Commission against the 20,000 sold?
§ Mr. Davies
No, because I do not consider that the original goodwill figure of £30 million was the real value for the goodwill of the businesses acquired. This is one reason why the values of the vehicles were written down so much by 409 the Commission. I do not consider that a successful concern like British Road Services should carry these intangible assets in its balance sheet.
This does not answer the question that I attempted to raise, which is: why should there be this continuing increase in private transport at the expense of public? There are two main answers to this question. One is that there has been a change in transport policy since the present Conservative Government came into power in 1951—this switch-over from an economically planned transport system to one of free competition. We are now reaping the fruits of Government policy, and they are sour fruits, too.
The second and much more important reason, front the point of view of considering the Report, is that within the competitive system which the Government have preferred to the planned transport system that we were endeavouring to create the railways are unable to compete with private transport and other forms of transport because they have an out-of-date system. I fully agree with the Minister that when we talk about an out-of-date system we do not mean that the railways are by any means outmoded; it is simply that before the war private enterprise was not spending sufficient to bring the railways up to date. In many cases, although not all, they were allowed to run down into a very poor condition. Secondly, since the war Governments of both complexions have, until recently, starved the railways of capital investment, and the railways have thus not been permitted to bring themselves up to date. Only now are they being permitted to do so.
This has prevented the provision of the required services at competitive prices. The railways are not giving the services which those who would use the railways desire. The experience of fuel rationing proved that, if proof were necessary. During that period the railways increased their traffics to a maximum of about 20 per cent., at one point, but as soon as restrictions were relaxed and finally ended the railways lost the traffics which had reverted to them, and they have now gone back to their old position. They are now still faced with declining freight traffics, for the most part.
410 It is interesting to note that the Commission states that during the height of petrol rationing it was actually reaching the point where it was paying its way. Paragraph 220 of the Report says:During the early weeks of 1957…the increased earnings of the Commission's services were large enough to put the Commission within measurable distance of balancing their accounts in total. This fundamental reversal of fortune was occasioned simply by the fact that the public transport facilities were being used more nearly to the capacity for which they were designed.This shows that the railways are able to carry the traffic, and that if the traffic flowed to the railways they would be able to pay their way. The problem is: how are we to get that traffic on to the railways so that they will be in that position permanently, instead of only during what was for them a fortuitous period?
Any hon. Member may point to the deficiencies in certain of the services. In spite of considerable improvements, there is still great unpunctuality in passenger services. Many hon. Members who travel at weekends to keep political appointments, and often do not travel on the main "crack" expresses because they have to go across country to their destinations, become very annoyed at the long delays and the unpunctuality of the services.
Here I think that some improvement could be made if a new approach were taken. The most infuriating thing of all is to arrive at a station, more or less on time, only to experience a long delay whilst parcels are shovelled out of the guard's van and mails put in. The time has come when British Railways should consider the cessation of this system of carrying parcels by passenger train. I believe it is the intention ultimately, under the modernisation plan, to run express parcels trains to eliminate the delays which are inevitable with this manhandling of small parcels on and off passenger trains.
There are many antiquated systems which still survive. It is ridiculous when, arriving at a station with a package which cannot be taken into the carriage, one has to hand it to a porter, see it being labelled, and then see the porter put it into the guard's van. It is ridiculous that that system should still prevail. In many countries there is straightforward registration of luggage on arrival at the 411 station and straightforward collection of it the other end, in the way that it is done when one travels by air. Any hon. Member could draw attention to a number of small details of this nature. It makes me wonder sometimes whether the railway management has ever sat back and looked afresh at the systems employed on the railways today.
What the passenger needs is clean and comfortable compartments to travel in and fast and punctual trains, and that will come ultimately with dieselisation and electrification. Some hon. Members recently visited the French railways. We were all very greatly impressed by the very high overall average speeds which the French railways are able to maintain by using diesel trains and electrified services. The consistent speeds at which the trains travelled and the maintenance of an overall average of 70 miles per hour, including stops, impressed all of us.
I wonder whether British Railways have set themselves this target in their modernisation programme. Are we to have, as we ought to have, so far as is possible in our different circumstances —greater density of traffic, and so on —fast diesels running not only from London to the North, the West and the East, but across country? What I should like to see would be a network of diesel services, combined with electrification.
Another impressive thing in France is the enthusiasm which modernisation gives the staff. The staff is enthusiastic in carrying out its work and determined to maintain the high standard of service which it has set itself, this including consistent punctuality. Modernisation will bring improvements on the passenger side and on the freight side. The Minister referred to the running of fast freight trains.
The expenditure on modernisation will provide the materials and the tools. That is, as it were, merely the hardware. The traffics will not automatically come to the railways simply because there are diesel trains, fast freight trains, and so on. There has to be a combination of the commercial and operational sides in providing the right pattern of services for transport users. I sometimes doubt whether the management is sufficiently aware of this, whether it is always imaginative and 412 amenable to new ideas and tackles them with the determination, vigour and enthusiasm necessary if the needs of the public are to be met.
This is no criticism at all of the railway staff, who are coping, as the Minister said, as well as they can with great difficulties and with poor material. The Minister is right in saying that, unless the materials are matched by the men and there is a new approach, the results will not be forthcoming. On the railways we have very responsible staff, and if they are given the opportunity, I am sure that they will go ahead and that modernisation will succeed.
However, I have considerable doubts whether the present regional set-up, with the general managers having more and more power and the area boards acting, as it were, as a cushion between the general managers and the centre, is the right form of organisation. I do not think that it makes for quick decisions and standardised policy. I think that it leads to considerable delay, because each region has to be brought in, there is a discussion on policy, and then the centre may not be able to impose its decision.
The future success of the Commission depends on attracting the traffic, which, in its turn, depends upon its offering good, speedy and reliable services, and the ability to do so depends on the speed with which the modernisation plan is carried out. I was glad to hear the Minister say that so far it has gone according to schedule. I should like to know whether the expenditure on modernisation is what was estimated when the White Paper appeared. It was then estimated that modernisation would cost £1,200 million. That was two years ago. Since then costs have risen all round.
One-third of the orders have now been placed, and it should be possible to assess the accuracy of the estimates and see whether or not they were roughly on the right lines. It would be interesting if the Joint Parliamentary Secretary could tell us whether any new estimates of the likely financial requirements of the Commission have yet been made, and, if they have been made, whether the finance will be forthcoming in spite of the fact that it will presumably be considerably higher than was originally estimated.
This is important not by any means as a theoretical exercise, but because the 413 White Paper estimated that equilibrium would be reached by 1961 or 1962 and that by 1970 a surplus of some £50 million would be realised. Those estimates are, of course, based on the expenditure of £1,200 million, and, as interest has to be paid on all the capital expenditure, if the capital expenditure is higher, the interest charges—incidentally, they have already gone up—will be higher, and then the surplus will be less.
In fact, for every £100 million more which has to be spent in capital investment, the interest charge is £5¼ million; thus, there is £5¼ million less available towards the working surplus which it is hoped ultimately to realise. If, as I have heard suggested, the cost is now likely to be nearer £2,000 million than £1,200 million, then the investment surplus will soon reach vanishing point.
I wish to refer to the question of the contracts which are being placed by the Commission at the present time. It is equally important to keep the costs as low as possible, and the basis on which contracts are placed will determine whether or not the costs are as low as they could be. My hon. Friends and I are somewhat concerned about the position, because we understand that the system employed by the Commission is not always that of inviting tenders to contract. When contracts are to be placed, the Commission does not always follow the system of inviting all appropriate firms to tender and then accepting the lowest tender or one of the low tenders according to the requirements in the circumstances.
It appears that on occasions certain experienced firms which have been contracting with the Commission over long periods are employed without alternative tenders being invited. I can understand the reason for that. Engineers and technicians with long experience know what their requirements are, and they may for a long time have been dealing with one firm, and it may be far easier for them to continue dealing with that firm, because they know that if they do they will obtain the quality that they require; but that is not good business.
There is a danger that this system will meet with approval so long as it is the technical staff which is responsible for placing the contracts. I understand that the Commission inherited this system 414 from certain of the old railway companies. In the past, certain main line railway companies permitted the technical staff to place contracts and there was no supply or services organisation with the qualifications necessary for buying the goods or placing the contracts. It would be far better were there a fully qualified buying staff responsible for placing contracts. In view of the huge orders now being placed, the Commission's principle should be that in all but exceptional circumstances competitive tenders should be sought from all suppliers with the necessary resources. I do not think that anyone would quarrel with that.
If, for a special reason, this system has to be departed from, there must be adequate safeguards. The system of contracting on a cost-plus basis should be avoided as much as possible. Invariably, such a system results in far higher costs than have been estimated. We heard of some cases where this principle of competitive tendering had been departed from and where there had been cost-plus contracts, or even contracts without a price being finally determined in advance.
I will not go into details at this stage, because my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. G. R. Strauss) will speak about that at greater length. I refer to it now because I should like the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to tell the House later what system is followed at present by the Commission to ensure that the very large orders now being placed for modernisation work are placed at the lowest possible cost.
I should like the hon. Gentleman to tell us whether there is a properly coordinated buying policy within the Commission and to what extent there is centralised placing of contracts and how much is still done by the regions. I understand that recently an internal inquiry into the system took place, because the Commission was not satisfied with the system which it had inherited from the former railway companies. It would be helpful if the House could be informed of the recommendations which followed that inquiry and whether they have been applied.
I wish to impress upon the Minister the importance attached to this matter by hon. Members on this side of the House. We know that the Commission has been concerned about this and it might help 415 the Commission were we informed on the subject, as we should be, in view of our responsibilities for the moneys involved in the modernisation plan. My comments are not made in any spirit of adverse criticism of the efforts of the Commission which, as was stated by the Minister—and we agree—have been highly commendable under difficult circumstances. Its Report is a disappointing document, but it refers to the past and reflects a faith and confidence in the future which, in view of what the Minister has said and what we know of the conduct of the Commission, we can expect to be fulfilled.
The Commission has failed to attract and to hold its share of the traffics offered. That is because of the inadequate and out-of-date system it must employ. The situation has been aggravated by higher charges chasing after rising costs together with mounting losses. The extent to which the Commission can help itself is limited, of that there is no question. It can modernise its system and provide the services required, but after it emerges from the period of deficit and achieves financial equilibrium it will have to be relieved of some of its present liabilities. I do not think that it can cope with the past, as it is expected to do by taking on this liability for past losses with the present modernisation plan, and, at the same time, mortgage the future.
The Commission is suffering from the Government's lack of a constructive transport policy. The Government's policy of reverting to the jungle of competition has failed, as is evidenced by this Report and the congestion on the roads —and, incidentally, the high accident rate. There are bound to be chaotic conditions because there will be excessive capacity with its resultant waste and inefficiency. The railways are not being used to capacity, but the roads are congested. Unfortunately, that is not a new situation. Neither the railways nor the roads have a modern, efficient permanent way.
I consider that a fresh assessment of transport needs is called for. Were that made, I am certain that the recommendations of those who have inquired previously would be confirmed; that an 416 efficient and economic transport system is dependent upon its co-ordination under common ownership. That is the position to which the country will be forced to return, and within it the Commission can look forward to playing a happier rôle than it is being allowed to play today.
§ 5.16 p.m.
§ Mr. Leslie Thomas (Canterbury)
I wish to confine my remarks to the modernisation of the railway side of the activities of the Transport Commission. But first I should like to take up one or two points made by the hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies) which are outside the immediate sphere of railways. The hon. Gentleman recalled the view of his party when the Transport (Railway Finances) Act was before this House, He said at that time, and he has emphasised that he retains the same view, that hon. Members opposite would prefer a direct subsidy. In that statement the hon. Gentleman underestimates the ability of the Commission and is now highly critical of the estimates it has made of the future on the basis of plans now laid.
I would remind the hon. Gentleman that in paragraph 103 of the White Paper Cmd. 9880, just above the signature of Sir Brian Robertson, it states:In this situation the Commission urgently recommend that some financial plan should be adopted which, while it avoids subsidy, will place their organisation on a firm, sound basis during these critical years of reconstruction. They expressly request that any relief temporarily accorded to them in relation to their immediate obligations should be strictly limited in time and amount.I feel, particularly in view of the last remarks of the hon. Member about our policy leading us into, I think he said, "the jungle of competition", that his views—and the views which he said were those of his party—are obviously, by his own admission, doctrinaire, in that they are not even acceptable to those who have the responsibility of running this great industry.
§ Mr. Ernest Davies
I do not think the hon. Member should make that statement categorically regarding the views of the Commission. The White Paper does not make it as clear as all that. I understood from the White Paper, and otherwise, that the Commission does not want a permanent subsidy with all its defects.
§ Mr. Thomas
That may be, but I am satisfied that the last thing the Commission desired under any circumstances was a subsidy with all that a subsidy means, permanently or temporarily. Having met many of the railway men and having taken the closest interest in railways for many years, I have great confidence in the ability of the railway men of this country to pull this great industry round without permanent assistance, and they would like to do it without the temporary assistance of any Government by way of financial subsidy.
On the question of the disposal of vehicles, what the hon. Member for Enfield, East realy said was, "We are going to re-nationalise." In the unlikely event of their ever getting back to power—
§ Mr. Thomas
We do not propose to try it tomorrow. We give our people a run for their money rather than running away with their money.
§ Mr. Thomas
On the question of disposal, apart, of course, from the political action of denationalisation, I do not think the hon. Member for Enfield, East, or any other hon. Member, can say that we have, in the various actions taken for disposal, really played party politics. It must be admitted—it is certainly admitted by my hon. Friends, but, of course, hon. Members opposite will disagree—that we have struck now a fairly happy balance as between the two industries of road and rail, having in mind the measure that the Commission has been allowed to retain. After all, if we had been really doctrinaire in the policy of denationalisation, we could have gone on selling those vehicles. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Oh, yes, in considerable numbers.
§ Mr. D. Jones
The hon. Member will, no doubt, remember that the present Colonial Secretary, when Minister of Transport, anticipated that in twelve months from the beginning of denationalisation, the whole of these vehicles would be sold. Not more than 418 slightly over half of them were sold in four years.
§ Mr. Thomas
In the process of time, I am quite certain that we could have done it had we wanted to. We did not do so because we wanted to strike a correct balance. I will, however, get away from that controversial point. I feel that this Report has a particular significance, in that it is the first Report to record the the progress that has been made under the scheme of modernisation and re-equipment. It records—and I think that it is important that it should be recorded here—that by the passing of the Transport (Railway Finances) Act last year a realistic financial basis has been provided during the difficult transitional period with which the Commission is faced in order to carry out its modernisation. This Ninth Report will, I think, provide the basis for future comparison and analysis when assessing whether, in agreeing for a limited period to underwrite the industry, the acceptance of the basic assumption that the railways could become self-sufficient was really justified. I am sure that the hon. Member for Enfield, East and other hon. Members will agree with me when I say that I think that assumption will be justified.
There are one or two points in the Report upon which I should like to comment. Concerning charges, it is perhaps unfortunate that the Commission had to announce an increase of 10 per cent. on the very day when the new charges scheme should come into operation. Under this scheme, the Commission enjoy greater freedom of action and has greater flexibility. This is an important element in making the railways more competitive, and I hope that full advantage will be taken of it. I do feel that improvement in the standard and the quality of the service by faster trains and quicker deliveries will bring back the traffic. That is really the point which the hon. Member for Enfield. East dealt with at great length, and I entirely agree with him. Given better tools, the men have the technical ability.
We saw that in France in the high morale of the railway men there who are enthusiastically working this modern equipment. It is those things that will bring back the traffic, or bring to the railways that new traffic which they require to fill the wasted capacity at the 419 moment, rather than the competition of charges. This can only come about, as I have said when the equipment is completely modernised.
As the Minister pointed out, where we have modern equipment, in the passenger service particularly, the returns have been really remarkable, as was emphasised in the White Paper last year. As the hon. Member for Enfield, East so rightly said, the railways at the moment are not able to attract the freight traffic which is really their real traffic and which is so profitable to them.
Like him, I had the pleasure of going to France with several other hon. Members and there can be no doubt that we were all impressed by the quality of the service, the speed and comfort of the passenger trains, the modern methods of cleaning the carriages, the fast goods trains and so on. We were all impressed by the high standards of service that can be given when the large amount of equipment which is required by the railway industry—probably the greatest industry in this country—has been modernised.
I hope that, whatever restrictions my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer may put at any time on capital investment, he will leave this great industry out of it. One urgent need at the moment is to push forward with this modernisation plan in order to bring it to fulfilment, not in the fifteen years envisaged, but more quickly, because this is a vital industry to the economy of this country. That, too, will require the co-operation of industry. If it expects to receive from the British Transport Commission orders for large contracts for rolling stock, signal equipment or whatever it may be, it must put its plant in order and expand it, if necessary, to ensure that this great railway industry gets its demands and gets on its feet quickly.
There are one or two other points in the Report with which I should like to deal. I hope the Commission will keep the need in mind for pushing forward continuous automatic braking, the reconstruction of marshalling yards and terminal and trans-shipment facilities as top priority in its reconstruction programme. It is in the field of freight traffic that it must regain its reputation.
420 I was a little disturbed to read on page 15 of Vol. 1 of the Annual Report a comment upon another nationalised industry, the coal industry. The Commission complains ofthe inferior quality of coal now being supplied to the railways,and, of course, at an ever-increasing price. I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport that he might discuss this matter with the Minister of Power with a view to seeing that our second biggest consumer of coal, which is the main product of that other nationalised industry, gets a better quality. If coal is to go up in price it should also go up in quality.
In regard to safety, I would like to see the Commission take the fullest advantage of the intensive road-safety campaign that is being carried out by all sections of the community in order to reduce road deaths. Against that background, I would point out that not a passenger lost a life on a British railway last year. It is the safest place in the country. I hope that the Commission will take advantage of that fact against the background of tremendous mortality on the roads, and so emphasise the safety of railways. It should be a good commercial point for the Commission.
Finally, I would emphasise the point which has been made today by the Minister and which is referred to in paragraph 6 of the Report. This great industry has been the shuttlecock of party politics for too long. Let us give it a rest and push forward. Let us give the men modern tools. They have the knowledge and with modern tools they will have the morale. In that way we can get the greatest and most efficient railway industry in the world.
§ 5.33 p.m.
§ Mr. Julian Snow (Lichfield and Tamworth)
I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies), who spoke from the Front Bench, on his painstaking survey of the railway industry today.
Having said that, I must call attention to the form in which the information is presented to us in these Annual Reports. They are very technical documents and do not provide the ordinary Member of Parliament with the background information he needs when speaking in the 421 interests of the ordinary travelling public. I do not know whether the Minister has seen the equivalent report issued by the French State Railways. It omits a great deal of the technical information provided in the Commission's reports, and such information as it gives seems to be better presented and is more informative to the travelling public. I would draw attention to the last page of the French document where reference is made to the quality of service. This matter is certainly missing from the Commission's Ninth Annual Report. There is very little in it which deals with poor service and poor communications.
I would like to deal firstly with one or two constituency matters. I make no apology for this, because today is one of the few occasions we have for asking Ministers in the House about day-to-day matters. What plans are there for the rebuilding of the Lichfield-Trent Valley Station which was burnt down so disastrously a few weeks ago? Main line railways in the Midlands often place a burden upon the travelling public in getting to the stations. At Rugeley and Lichfield, for example, the stations are quite a long distance from the townships concerned. This matter is mentioned in passing in the Report, where reference is made to small bus services. The Commission is wrong in apparently being afraid of the capital investment needed to provide adequate feeder services.
I have had some experience recently relating to the Transport Users' Consultative Committee. There were certain objections to the quality of the service to my constituency and about fares. My impression is that the committee is simply not understood by the ordinary public and is rarely used. In any event it is normally used by commercial interests. Either it is not being properly used or the structure is wrong.
It is a pity that the reports deal in such a cavalier way with reliability and punctuality. No information is given on page 7 about punctuality. The actual remark is:In spite of the amount of work being done on the track at this time, the general standard of punctuality improved slightly during the year.That is all I can find in the reports about punctuality. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, East dealt with reliability of service, the difficulties with which the 422 provincial passenger has to cope, and the nightmare cross-country journeys which we have all experienced.
On the question of passenger amenities, very few hon. Members have dealt with catering on the railways. I propose to discuss the provision of refreshment rooms. A legend has been built up that railway amenities were good before nationalisation, or before the war, but that is not my recollection. Investment in refreshment rooms nowadays seems better than before the war, but what I find highly objectionable is the way the refreshment rooms are run.
I was at New Street Station, Birmingham, a few months ago on a Saturday evening, so help me. I went into a brand new refreshment room at about 7 o'clock in the evening. It was absolutely disgraceful. It was like a scene from some picture by Hogarth. Tables were swimming in tea or beer, and there was a reek like a disorderly house. Service simply did not exist. When I inquired for the manageress I found she was not there; she was away. There was nobody in charge. Although I get awfully impatient about such questions as, "What would the foreigner say?" I am bound to say that if a foreigner went in there he would get a pretty bad impression.
§ Mr. Snow
My hon. Friend says that it is not so bad as at Leeds, but I can mention one I know which is worse, and that is Rugby, where a week ago last Friday I went into the refreshment room whilst waiting for a train. That refreshment room must have had hundreds of pounds spent on it recently, but there was the same ghastly reek, the same condition of the tables and the absence of service. I hope the Commission will look into this matter.
I wish to ask the Minister how many refreshment rooms were closed during last year. As one travels about one finds that such and such a refreshment room has been closed yet it is at a junction where people have to wait a long time for trains. That has happened, for instance, at Nuneaton, where the refreshment room closes sharp at six, in spite of the fact that certain feeder services concentrate on Nuneaton to feed the late London trains. I should like to know 423 why they have been closed and why something cannot be done to offer the franchise to operate those refreshment rooms to local interests if the Commission feels it cannot do so itself economically.
§ Mr. Frederick Gough (Horsham)
Obviously the hon. Member has made a very careful research into this subject. I wonder whether he has looked into the question of the method of making tea and coffee, for both those beverages appear to be undrinkable in these establishments.
§ Mr. Snow
I have tried to avoid that sort of detail, but since the hon. Member has mentioned it, I should say that at Nuneaton I found a vast stock of very up-to-date coffee-making equipment stored away in a cupboard and not used.
I wish to deal with the question of dining cars. I think the standard of equipment and furnishing of dining cars on British Railways is very good indeed. I think the service tends to be very good. All that is wrong is the food. Many hon. Members who have been abroad know that the quality of food and of meals served on the Continent is insuperably better than those served in this country.
§ Mr. Snow
I know that in France on restaurant cars operated by the Wagons-Lits Company about one-third more is charged than on British Railways, but the food is incomparably better. I am not saying that we should emulate the sort of meals they have over there. Usually they consist of more courses than we in this country would want. Certainly the food is very different and we would not necessarily demand that, but I have discovered a better system in the Wagons-Lits restaurant cars on the Continent which we might have here. I drew this matter to the attention of the Commission some three years ago, but nothing was done about it. I found that the manager 424 of the dining car has certain discretionary rights as to the sort of menu he puts on. In fact, he has his own menu and his own duplicating machine to print it and can change his menu. There is no doubt that on the Continent there is provision for the use of a great deal more initiative than there is here. Meals in dining cars here are poor and ought to be improved.
Now I wish to deal with the question of comfort. More than one hon. Member has mentioned the question of cleanliness and in the Report there is a very short comment about dirt and discomfort being attributable to a small minority of the public and caused by steam haulage. I do not quite understand that. There were services before the war and before nationalisation on which one got a high degree of cleanliness of the carriages and the outside of the locomotives. Why cannot that be so now? I do not think it has anything to do with nationalisation, but is a question of bad management. The locomotives, which are fine engineering propositions, half the time have a simply disgraceful appearance. They provide a bad impression, not only to the travelling public but to the workers themselves.
I was at Waterloo Station the other night seeing a boat train off and I saw main line expresses starting off in a thoroughly dirty state. I do not think that should be allowed. As for the internal cleanliness of carriages, we all know that there is an element of the public who do not treat the carriages and public conveyances as they should. That is a matter which I think only public education will improve. Here I want to put in a word for the Commission. Quite recently, I have seen grooming of the carriages carried out very well indeed. For instance, trains which come in from Ipswich and East Anglia to Liverpool Street are met by a small army of cleaners who do a very good job on them before they go out again. That is one of the things which is being done quite well.
Mention has been made of safety on the railways. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. L. Thomas) drew attention to the fact that in 1956 there were no fatalities on our railway system, in contra-distinction of course to 1955, when 425 the record was poorer. Since hon. Members, including myself, have been eulogising the French, I should note in passing that the French record last year was not so good. What about communications for the travelling public? Why is it that the telephone is supposed to be an instrument which is not usable by the ordinary travelling public? If one goes to an ordinary station in the country one finds there is no telephone on the platform. In contra-distinction to the more modern service in Europe, I do not know any service in this country where one can telephone from the train. There is no real technical difficulty about that. It is a matter which should be looked into.
Mention has been made of loss of freight traffic and those more competent than I am have dealt with that question in great detail. The Report, in paragraph 33, deals with the increased number of C licences which were taken out by commercial firms in order to run their own heavy freight services. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, East emphasised the plea we make from this side of the House for reconsideration of the whole question of co-ordinating transport. I do not know what the House feels about it, but quite obviously far too much heavy freight is going by road. Apart from the loss to the railways, there is the terrible destruction of our roads and the fact that our roads simply are not designed to cope with that volume of traffic. There is the wastage of manpower. It could be far more economically dealt with by rail. If it is a question of commercial customers feeling that it is more convenient to go by road from factory to plant, or between whatever the two points of despatch and delivery are than by re-loading by rail, I think that is a problem which in a large proportion of cases of conveyance of heavy freight could be dealt with satisfactorily by a little intelligent application of the mind.
Those who have experience of roads running, say, from Birmingham to Nottingham and Leeds and so on cannot but be amazed at the sort of loads that are permitted on our roads. They are dangerous to the public, they result in substantial loss to the railways and cannot but be uneconomical from the national point of view. I think the Government ought to think in terms of taking positive action about this problem.
426 I know that hon. Members opposite will say that if this policy is adopted towards freight it will encourage rates to be levied at the expense of the producer and the manufacturer, but surely we have enough checks and balances in our constitution to avoid that kind of thing. The fact is that we cannot continue like this, certainly not while our road development programme is so restricted.
I want next to refer to the accessibility of the passenger public to these consultative committees. I found in my constituency that the consultative committee was obviously not functioning. Objections were being raised by members of the public and yet, under the existing rule, the Transport Tribunal Rules, 1949, first of all an individual could not approach the transport tribunal and, secondly, local authorities with populations under 50,000 were not entitled to appear before the Tribunal and to cross-examine witnesses.
Purely as an exercise, therefore, I made a submission to the Transport Tribunal objecting to certain aspects of fares and services operating from my constituency to London. I found that I was allowed to make this submission but that I could not cross-examine. What is much worse, however, I found that the smaller local authorities, which together make up a county, themselves have no standing before the tribunal. As far as I can gather, they are subordinated to the county in this matter.
That would be all right if some encouragement were given by these consultative committees to the co-ordination within a county area of the objections and proposals by the public, but that is not done. All that we have before these tribunals are submissions and the right to cross-examine by the major county boroughs and the big local authorities. The smaller authorities who comprise the vast majority of the country, are not co-ordinated and are not encouraged to fulfil their part in making submissions and cross-examining witnesses before the tribunal.
I regard this as a weakness, because it must leave the Commission in very severe ignorance of what the public thinks, and I therefore suggest that this is a matter which should be looked into. During 427 May I wrote to the Minister putting before him the fact that these complaints apparently were not being looked into properly and that the whole structure of consultation seemed to me to be far too rigid. He replied in a very full letter in which he said:There is, however, a new draft passenger charges scheme now before the Transport Tribunal who have fixed 20th May, 1957, as the date by which any objection or other representations with respect to the draft scheme must be lodged. This would provide an opportunity for anyone who feels that Clause 35 in the existing charges scheme operates to the disadvantage of passengers—I went to the tribunal to find that I was completely powerless and that it is a highly unsuitable body for a Member of Parliament to attend. I believe that it is now in its eighteenth sitting day, and no Parliamentarian could spare the time to attend all those meeting. I should therefore like to emphasise that the machinery of consultation with the ordinary public needs to be improved. Certainly the ordinary member of the public cannot use his Member of Parliament in these matters. On how many days during last year were we able to make this sort of plea and to speak on these matters? Very few indeed.
Lastly, I want to deal with the question of local publicity. I had a very helpful meeting with the traffic manager at Euston some weeks ago when I made certain suggestions about improving the passenger services from Lichfield to Birmingham. Here, may I say, I congratulate the Commission on the provision of the new diesel services to Birmingham. As I understand it, during 1956, with the introduction of these new services, more than 400,000 additional passengers, compared with the previous figures, were carried on this line. The only small criticism which I have to make is that the waiting time in the service is far too long and that it could effectively be speeded up.
It seems to me that more power should be given to local station-masters to attract new custom. May I illustrate this by referring to the main line from the Midlands up the Trent Valley, where the townships are frequently remote from the stations. It is extremely difficult to find out what time the London train goes. There is no central point in the town 428 where this information can be obtained. It seems to me that local station-masters should be given some authority and some account which they can use to devise their own ways of attracting new customers. For instance, they could run a small bus service. Manufacturers are now making eight, ten and twelve-seater buses which are economical to run, and these could be used to pick up passengers for known London or northward-bound services.
At any rate, it seems to me that the local stationmaster should have more authority and should be allowed to use his initiative in the same way as a shopkeeper selling his goods; he has to find his market. At the moment it is left to the public to take the trouble to find out what time these services run—and, believe me, the services to London from the Midlands or the Trent Valley are pretty poor and infrequent.
Reference was made by the hon. Member for Canterbury to the fine state of morale on the French Railways. I believe that that is perfectly true. I am afraid that it is equally true that the morale of our ordinary railway worker is not very high, but I think that is for very understandable reasons. I do not particularly wish to end on a controversial note, but I must point out that for years the Conservative Press have battened on the railways and the railway workers.
§ Mr. Snow
The railway workers are always being criticised and being told that they are responsible for a bad and unpunctual service. The pity of it is that in practically every other country in Europe the fact that the railway services are nationalised is not a political matter at all. The Conservative Party have made it a political matter here. To be in a nationalised industry like the railways in this country apparently sets up the railway worker as a target for irresponsible and very frequently unkind and unfair 429 criticism. In my judgment the Conservative Press have played a large part in lowering the morale of railway workers.
I hope that with this new programme and with the record of the past year, which is a record of improvement, their morale will improve and they will be proud to belong to this very great service. I hope, too, that the conditions of work, the retirement age and other matters with which I am quite sure my trade union colleagues will deal will be so improved as to make them comparable with some of the other European railways, which provide a better service and whose workers are proud to be in the service.
§ 5.59 p.m.
§ Mr. Humphrey Atkins (Merton and Morden)
The hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow) made a number of very interesting points during his speech and referred to a number of matters which he described as local matters. He said that he made no apology for doing so because the number of occasions on which we can raise detailed local matters in the House is very few. I propose to do the same thing and to raise a matter which is not confined my constituency, but is none the less local as opposed to national.
I want to refer to that part of the Transport Commission's activities which is concerned with the carriage of passengers in the London area, particularly southwest London and north-east Surrey. This problem of conveying vast numbers of people between their homes and their work in Central London each day is not new. It is fair to say, however, that in south-west London it is more acute than almost anywhere else. It is very well known to me, because one of the only two Underground lines in south London terminates in my constituency, at Morden Station.
Even if hon. Members have not seen and experienced them as I have done, they will be able to imagine the scenes at that station each day of the week, week after week and year after year. Morning and evening, thousands of people use it. They pour in and out of it. Constant streams of buses arrive to pick up and discharge passengers from the surrounding area, all of which is heavily populated. Cars in great numbers also arrive with passengers.
430 As is stated in the Report, steps have been taken to accommodate even more cars at stations. That is very good. The fact that at Morden the Commission has increased the car parking facilities by 43 per cent. is, no doubt, a great help towards solving the traffic problems of central London, but it makes it no easier to get on board the train. What stops people boarding the train is the physical impossibility of squeezing any more human bodies into the carriages.
The London Transport Executive has said that it is not possible to run any more trains on that line; that in peak periods they run as closely together as is possible. Obviously, the Executive is right, but the result is that my constituents, and a great many other people living round about, have to travel each day in these trains in conditions which, if imposed, say, on British prisoners of war in a foreign land, would raise howls of protest all over the country.
This is not a new problem. The Minister will remember that he saw a deputation not very long ago, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Sharples). The matter has been brought to his notice, to the notice of his predecessors, and to the notice of the Transport Commission time and again. Eleven years ago, the London Railway Plan Committee, which was set up by one of his predecessors—then called the Minister of War Transport—reported that acute congestion on the southern section of the Northern Line was apparent before the war—nearly twenty years ago—that even then the line was almost saturated, and that relief was imperative. The Committee proposed that high priority should be given to duplicating at least part of the line.
That was eleven years ago. Conditions have not improved at all since then. I know that the Report indicates a decline in the traffic on the London Transport Executive railways, but it goes on to say that it is a decline in off-peak traffic, and that peak traffic is no better, indeed, is slightly worse, than it was before. My impression is that rush-hour traffic in that part of my constituency is no easier than it was before.
Unfortunately, the solution proposed by the London Railway Plan Committee in 1946, to duplicate the line—which is, I think, the only real solution—seems to 431 be as far away as ever. We read in paragraph 167 of the Report that the new Victoria line, which has a higher priority than that which I am now discussing, has not been started. The reason given is lack of finance. Even when it is started, it will take a very long time to complete.
No one expects the Commission, particularly now, when it is suffering from financial strain and difficulties which will take a number of years to overcome, to be able to solve this type of problem at once, but I should like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary a straight question which, I hope, he will answer at the end of the debate. Can he really see any likelihood of this duplication of part of this line being put in hand in, say, the next ten years? It ought to be done, because I am sure that it is the only real solution, but if it is not to be done we should be told.
Although that is the only satisfactory long-term solution, there are two other ways in which relief could be given. The first is the scheme for staggering hours, which my right hon. Friend has in operation. The responsibility for arranging staggered hours has nothing to do with the Commission, and I mention it only because it is quoted in the Report as a means whereby the Commission can be helped to provide that efficient, speedy and comfortable service which it is its business to supply.
I do not want to dwell upon it, but only to say that I hope that the Minister will give every possible encouragement to the Fitzgerald Committee which is dealing with this matter. This problem exists in the United States of America. I understand that, in Washington, all Government Departments work staggered hours. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House what success he is having in persuading his colleagues to get their Departments not only to help by working staggered hours, but to give a lead which everyone else will follow? I hope that he is having some success in this direction and will continue to press for it as hard as he can.
A second way in which relief can be given is this. In the area of which I am speaking there are a number of stations under the control of the Southern Region of British Railways. Unfortunately, not 432 much passenger traffic seems to be carried to and from them. I believe that one reason for that is that the cost of travelling to London by Southern Region is, for some reason or other, higher than it is by Underground, and that a second is that the services are not very convenient —passengers have to change, and so on.
I cannot believe that some improvement could not be made here. Obviously, any improvement in those services which attracted some people from the Underground would be of great benefit to all. An approach has been made about this to the Transport Users' Consultative Committee in the London area, and I very much hope that good results will flow from that approach. Of course, neither I nor anybody who is concerned with me in making these approaches can tell the Transport Commission how to run its railways, but I should like the Minister to make it known that he is interested in the result of the discussions now going on with the Transport Users' Consultative Committee, and expects everyone to use his best endeavours to try to improve the services on these stations and lines so as to provide relief for the Underground.
Whether there are any suggestions additional to those that I have made I do not know—I am not an expert—but I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree, and that the House will agree, that every possible effort must be made to try to provide relief. My constituents, and those of many other hon. Members, are travelling daily in the most appalling conditions, and anything that we, or the Ministry, or the Transport Commission can do to improve those conditions really must be done—and must be done as speedily and energetically as possible.
§ 6.10 p.m.
§ Mr. James Harrison (Nottingham, North)
Most hon. Members will agree with what the hon. Member for Merton and Morden (Mr. Atkins) said about the appalling conditions at London depots during the rush hour but it would be a pity not to take up one of his statements. It would not be proper, or even wise, for us to attempt to tell the British Transport Commission how to run its business in every detail. That comment should be underlined. We must not fall into the danger of telling the Commission how to do its work.
433 The hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow) devoted most of his speech to the Midlands. He did not seem to realise that in the Midlands the difficulty of obtaining staff is tremendous, especially cleaning staff for the locomotive sheds and staff for the refreshments department. The Commission is finding it very difficult to recruit sufficient people for those two departments, and it is a major problem. I do not want to excuse slovenliness, but that fact should be emphasised.
§ Mr. Harrison
I want to draw the Minister's attention to the first paragraph of the Report which refers to:…several decades of under-investment…The railways are suffering from the results of severe under-investment for several decades. I want to stress the effect which that has had on railway employees. Another part of the Report talks about the drudgery of the job. The antiquated equipment of the old days, which is still being used, is of such a character that it has killed any initiative which might have come from the mass of railway employees and has frightened off many possible entrants into the railway service. Nobody who has not worked with such equipment can appreciate the difficulty of working with it.
I am very pleased to note the optimism in the House of Commons and in Transport Commission circles about what will be achieved in the very near future with the new modernisation plan. At the recent Battersea exhibition, which the Minister mentioned, we were shown what the, railways propose to do about modernising their equipment. I shall be satisfied if I can get across this one plea: I want the Minister to use all his powers of persuasion to persuade the Commission to take this wonderful exhibition—and it was wonderful—around the country, so that the 800,000 employees of the railways can see what the Commission wants to do. I am sure that that would do more than anything to improve the 434 morale of the staff. The proposed improvements in stations and in some locomotive sheds will do much to improve morale on the railways.
I was very struck to see the plans for new stations, new tracks, new engines and new goods loading machinery shown at the Battersea exhibition. They were magnificent in their conception and design. However, I can remember not many years ago driving an eight wheeled coupled engine which was tremendously powerful, but which needed an Atlas or Hercules to open the regulator. The man in the cab had to use two hands with all his strength to open the regulator, and to keep it open he had to prop it open with a pin or prop or stand there holding it for as long as he could.
This engine was so powerful that it could pull about ninety loaded wagons—if the adhesion to the rails was sufficient. Every time one operated the very weighty lever which worked the regulator, the wheels of the engine began to spin so that the engine slipped on the track and the regulator had to be closed. That is an illustration of how bad the design of recently built locomotives has been from the point of view of the people who have to work them. Because of that lack of concern about the design of machinery in the past, the Battersea Park exhibition should be taken round the country to stimulate the interest of railway employees.
In the Midlands we have recently lost much coal traffic. It is traffic limited to the 40-mile areas around the pits. I am told that it has been lost because the Commission's prices cannot compete with those charged by road hauliers. A common spectacle on Midlands roads today is overloaded coal lorries, the coal being stacked about 2 ft. higher than the sides of the lorry. If such a lorry had to stop suddenly, any vehicle following would probably find about two tons of coal falling around it. Such lorries are not only dangerous, but occupy valuable road space.
Would it not be possible, under the charging scheme to which the Minister referred, for the Commission to do something about tendering for that class of trade? Could not the Commission tender for it at uneconomic prices for the time being? I am sure that the long-distance hauling of coal and minerals—that is 435 more than forty miles—would compensate for any losses on the short-distance hauls. The increased amount of traffic would compensate also for the reduced price one charged for the short haul. I am speaking now, of course, of siding capacity, the loading of local engines from the pits to the sidings where the trains are made up. It is possible that things could be arranged so that competitive prices could be published, and this would relieve us in the Midlands of what I regard as a really serious menace.
There are those two points which I wish to bring to the Minister's notice, and I hope that he will take great pains to see what can possibly be done about both. We should make the Battersea exhibition a travelling one, since we cannot bring all railwaymen up to London, and something should be done to end the dangerous nuisance on Midland roads created by the short-hauling of coal from the pits in our district.
§ 6.21 p.m.
§ Mr. Norman Cole (Bedfordshire, South)
There is a great wealth of information in the Report and Accounts of the British Transport Commission for 1956, which we are considering today. I should like to take up, in particular, two points made by the hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies) in opening the debate for the Opposition. The first relates to the matter of subsidy, to which reference has already been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. L. Thomas).
Hon. Members know the past record of subsidies for various industries, and I find it difficult to believe, as will, I think, most hon. Members, that the solution of the problems of the Transport Commission on the railways lies in the granting of a subsidy, either temporary or permanent. I do not believe that it would be good for the Commission, for the railways, or for the railway men, and I do not consider that it would provide any sort of solution for the financial problem on the railways.
What is more, I do not believe that the Transport Commission, from what one can understand, wants it, either. In my view, the general plan we have had for granting financial facilities over the next 436 few years, side by side with the modernisation plan, offers the better solution. I hope that we shall not, in this House, at any time seriously proceed with a suggestion for subsidy on the railways. Important as they are, the solution will not lie in that direction.
The hon. Member for Enfield, East also said that if we had a well organised transport system in this country we should not have many of the problems which confront us today. By a "well organised transport system," we understand him to mean a completely nationalised transport system, which was the ambition of the party opposite when in power.
We, on this side, do not believe that. We believe that, above all things, always there should be freedom of choice for the individual consumer and the user of the transport services to choose that service which suits his convenience and pocket best. That is our doctrine and the principle by which we stand, in complete contradistinction to hon. Gentlemen opposite, who believe in a completely nationalised service, which would not, in many ways, provide that desirable choice.
In the Report, modernisation has figured very largely, as, indeed, it will figure during the next eight or ten years until the period of modernisation is complete. References have been made to modernisation which has taken place and which is at present going on on the Continent. I have been fortunate to see some of it myself. I am very happy indeed that there is co-ordination of ideas and that the Transport Commission and British Railways are acquiring new ideas from modernisations which have already taken place in other parts of the world. We can well learn in that way. In fact, we may be in a very happy position as the years go on, because we are, as it were, down the list in our modernisation, and we shall be able to learn from the experiments and experience of others who have already carried out schemes of modernisation on their railways.
I do not know whether it is generally realised in this country how great will be the changes. Judging from my experience abroad, we shall see very great changes in the picture and pattern of our railways; they will be quite different in their general atmosphere and the pattern 437 of their running, in the types of locomotives and coaches, in signalling, and all the rest. There will even he changes, in some parts, in the rails on the permanent way.
One or two hon. Members have made what have been constituency points, and perhaps I might make a constituency point, also. I sincerely hope that the towns in and near my constituency, that is. Dunstable, Leighton Buzzard, Luton, and the developing area of South Bedfordshire, of which hon. Members will know, will have their fair and definite share in this pattern of modernisation over the next few years.
Although we certainly can learn from the experiments and experience of other countries in modernisation, this country has in its rail transport system, as in many other ways, aspects which are very different from what may be found abroad, so that there may be some examples in modernisation abroad which can never be applicable to our system here. We should bear that in mind, so that there is no tendency to adopt slavishly every kind of method put into practice abroad.
As regards modernisation itself, we shall see on the railways a different picture and pattern in this country such as we, and those before us, have never seen before. In passing, one wonders what the small boys of the future will do as part of their daily occupation, without all the fire and smoke which they have learned to associate with railways and their local railway station. But, knowing the ingenuity of small boys, I am quite sure that they will find much on the railways to interest them in their collection of dates and data.
Modernisation of the railways was inevitable. It goes side by side with, and is part of the general pattern of, our prosperity which we hope to see—which, indeed we must see—during the coming years. It is quite inconceivable that this country could have gone on, with any prosperity, in, as my right hon. Friend said, a competitive world, without entirely overhauling and modernising what is almost its main industry, certainly its main transport industry, to carry our products for distribution at home and export abroad. It is, and had to be, part of the general pattern of progress.
I have been glad to hear references today to the part which the railway staffs 438 and railway men will play in the modernisation plan. Some hon. Members before me have, quite rightly and properly, remarked that all the tools and apparatus in the world will not give us a new system without the manpower and ingenuity of those who are to work the new system. I believe, from the records of our past, that the necessary ingenuity, application, morale and high spirit will be there. I have no fears on that score whatever. I believe that the apparatus, when it comes over the years, will find the men and the staff ready, happy, and willing to take their part in making our railways the lively and progressive enterprise we all wish them to be.
Comments have been made on the effect there would he on the staff in this respect. This, too, is important. I believe that the staff and the railway men, in their contribution to modernisation, will be grateful for the fact that they have new tools with which to do their job. It has become a motto in this country to say, "Give us the tools and we shall do the job." I believe that these tools, when provided, will enable railway men to do their job, which plays such an important part in the economy of our country as a whole.
To turn to something apart from modernisation itself, the Minister referred to the process of decentralisation. We in our party, in our Election manifesto of 1951, said that it would be part of our policy to decentralise the railways and to a large degree we have succeeded in carrying it out. I regard it as a good thing.
I do not know whether the actual pattern so far carried out is the best—I am not sufficiently expert to know—but I am quite certain that an industry of the size of our railways, which has to be in business competition in so many directions and in so many of its ways, must have a large measure of autonomous power in the local regions which are responsible for their own operation. How best that power is carried out, through one kind of organisation as against another, I know not, but it makes for high morale in those responsible for managing the regions and it makes for the general efficiency of the whole service if there is a large measure of responsibility in the respective areas.
439 In paragraph 6 of its Report, the Commission quite properly uses the word "businesslike." That is very appropriate. It is a description to which all of us in this House would heartily subscribe concerning any nationalised industry. I am, however, bound to say that there is something more in the way of responsibility on a nationalised industry than there is on any other kind of industry. The Commission itself refers to this in the same paragraph. I refer to working in the national interest.
The Commission is not an individual corporation whose function is to carry out a financial operation. It seems to me, therefore, that the Commission, like any other kind of nationalised industry, has two main and dual functions. Both of them are equal and interdependent. On the one side, the Commission has to conduct its affairs on a proper businesslike basis, without a subsidy. On the other hand, it has at all times to have regard to the national interest and to the high degree of responsibility which is its lot as a nationalised industry.
Those two functions and duties must run side by side. Neither of them can be forgotten. Both of them are vitally important for the happiness and for the economic prosperity of the country.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams (Manchester, Openshaw)
Are we to take it from what the hon. Member is saying that private industry should have no concern for the national interest'?
§ Mr. Williams
We cannot possibly impose all the national interests on these industries in particular.
§ Mr. Cole
The hon. Member, who is wise and experienced, has given me a useful qualification and I am grateful to him. I did not intend to say that any business enterprise, large or small, should not have its degree of responsibility for the national interest. I was trying to underline, although perhaps I did not use the best of words, that Parliament in its wisdom had decided that a number of major industries, vital to our economy, to our happiness and to our future—in short, they are indispensable—should be run under public ownership. That is something which has been decided in the past.
440 Therefore, to the degree of their importance to the economy of the nation, they have an equal degree of responsibility in the national interest. They are not only nationalised industries; they are also national. I was seeking to underline that side by side with their very proper necessity to be run on a businesslike basis, they must also, at all times, have regard to the fact that they cannot be run on a businesslike basis without full regard to the national interest.
My last point is to reiterate a remark made by my right hon. Friend. I have already referred to the prosperity of the country being dependent very much upon the modernisation of the railways. What is also true is that the future of the country depends, as my right hon. Friend put it, upon our power to remain competitive in a competitive world. Therefore, it follows that to be successful in that competition in the world, our railways must play a great and lively part.
I welcome, as we all do, this modernisation. I welcome the indication in the Report of the Commission's lively appreciation of its great responsibilities. I believe that if it can go on in that same way, side by side with all the benefits that modernisation can bring, we shall be able to remain competitive in a competitive world.
§ 6.35 p.m.
§ Mr. A. Fenner Brockway (Eton and Slough)
I desire to raise one specific matter, of which I have given notice to the Minister, in relation to the use of station ranks by taxicabs. This may seem a somewhat detailed matter, but I hope to show that an important principle is involved.
In our Metropolitan area of London, we have an open service for taxicab owners and drivers. Any licensed taxicab is allowed to use the station. Except for periods of special pressure, it will be recognised that good service is given to the public and that there is fairness to all in the industry.
That has not always been the case, however, even in London. Prior to 1907, the exclusive right to use stations was limited to certain privileged proprietors. Under, perhaps, the influence of the emergence of the Liberal Party at that time and a greater sense of equality, an Act was passed in 1907, by Section 2 441 of which the railways were forbidden to give preferential rights to one cab proprietor over another.
While this anachronism has been ended in the Metropolitan area, it still continues in many parts of the country where the pre-1907 London position persists. In a large number of towns, only a limited and privileged number of taxicabs are permitted to pick up passengers at the station.
As in many other good things, the agitation on this subject began in Slough, but it has now become a nation-wide agitation. It is to be found in Leeds, Coventry, Nottingham, Manchester and Salford, Liverpool, Newcastle, Oxford, Reading, Norwich, Ipswich, Folkestone, Bournemouth, Coulsdon and—I wish the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) were here to support the case—in the constituency of Woodford, at Loughton, Debden and Buckhurst Hill.
Let me describe the situation in Slough. The number of licensed taxicab drivers is between thirty and forty. Only seven of them are permitted to use the station rank. One may be fortunate enough to find a cab available at the rank in the forecourt of the station, but if a cab is not available in the station forecourt, one has to seek the services of a taxicab driver on the public rank 100 yards away. One may be burdened with luggage and it may be raining, but the taxicab driver on the public rank is not allowed to come to the station to pick one up, and one must carry one's luggage that hundred yards.
I do not want to deal with this matter only from a constituency point of view because, as I have remarked, it has now become one of national agitation. In Leeds, for example, the use of the railway station is restricted to the members of the Proprietors' Association, and they number only 50 per cent. of the taxicab drivers in that city. In Manchester there is the absurd situation that at the London Road Station and at the Central Station any taxicab driver may utilise a station rank, but at the Exchange Station only a limited, privileged number of taxicab drivers are permitted to do so.
At Question Time hon. Members for Manchester and Salford have described how passengers, overburdened with luggage, when there are no taxicabs at the 442 Exchange Station rank, have to seek a cab some distance from the station. I am very glad that one of the Members for Liverpool, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock) is in the House, and I need not describe the situation there. My hon. Friend is a member of the Liverpool Watch Committee.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams
I would remind my hon. Friend that he need not have dealt with Manchester, because a Manchester Member is here, too.
§ Mr. Brockway
I am very sorry. My hon. Friend had his back to me and I did not recognise that there was a Member for Manchester here. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I confess that I was thinking of Members from Manchester and Salford who have been associated with me in this matter, but I have no doubt that other hon. Members have been just as active.
§ Mr. Brockway
Yes. I want to refer to two other places, and the first is Bournemouth. At the Central Station at Bournemouth there are fifty-nine privileged taxi cab drivers and proprietors. There are sixty-two taxi cab drivers and proprietors who are not allowed to use the station. At Bournemouth West Station there are thirty privileged persons and ninety-two who are not allowed to use the station.
I have a letter from one of the taxi drivers there, and in it he uses these phrases:On fast trains from London the service is totally inadequate. From late trains, midnight and after, passengers often have over half an hour's wait. At peak periods in the season there are queues, often 400 to 500 people. Yet non-privileged drivers are continually going into the stations, to deliver passengers, but are not allowed to pick up, which causes further hardship to the public
§ Mr. Brockway
The second place I want to refer to is Woodford. I have a letter from one of the privileged taxi drivers who is allowed to use the rank at Buckhurst Hill, but he says:I am as much against the privileged ranks as the cab drivers you are fighting for.He instances Debden, where the station is often unattended by any taxi cab 443 drivers at all. There is within fifty yards an open rank, but cabs using it cannot pull up in the station. He says that at Buckhurst Hill:I hold the privileged rank for one cab and here I maintain one cab cannot cope with all the work.At Woodford itself there is an open rank within thirty yards of the privileged rank, but the drivers on it are not allowed to pick up at the station. I think it is clear from these instances that the limitation of these rights to a few taxicab drivers means that the public has a less adequate service.
We have been working upon this issue for many years now. My distinguished predecessor in the representation of Eton and Slough, Mr. Benn Levy, raised the matter in the House when he was a Member. We have been on deputations to the Chairman of the British Transport Commission as well as to Ministers. We have been at a loss to discover what are the reasons for maintaining this system in the provinces when it has been ended in the London areas.
So far as we can find out, there are two main reasons. The first, which is not emphasised by the Commission, is the cost of the upkeep of the forecourts of the stations. Some rent, therefore, is charged to the limited number of taxicab owners and drivers who use those ranks. I emphasise that all the drivers with whom I have been in touch about the matter are perfectly prepared to share the cost of the rent of the station ranks, so there need not be any loss to the Commission.
The second reason, which is the reason most emphasised by the Commission, is that:The present system enables us to exercise supervision in the best interests of our passengers to an extent which would not otherwise be possible.The Commission says that if it limits the number of taxicab drivers responsible to the regional manager or to the local stationmasters, it can be ensured that the drivers give an adequate service.
I believe that the scheme which has been put forward by the taxicab drivers in Slough would completely meet that requirement. The taxi association there is willing to give an absolute guarantee that eight drivers will be available from 444 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., and that there will be eight substitutes at meal times to be certain that the station is always manned. In addition, the taxi association is prepared to see that six men will be on duty to meet all excursion trains irrespective of the time they arrive. The secretary and the treasurer of the association are prepared to be responsible for this, and they are prepared to see that action is taken by the association against any drivers if they fail to fulfil their duties without reasonable excuse. In that sort of way it would be possible for the railway authorities to be sure they would have a continuous service from the taxi drivers.
There is another detail in the Slough scheme which it may be of some value to bear in mind, and that is the suggestion that there should be a telephone at the station rank, to enable taxis to be hired by passengers who wish to be put down at the station, as well as by those wishing to depart from the station. I have no hesitation in saying that that scheme, put forward by the taxi cab drivers and owners in Slough, would give a better service to the public than that given at present.
The House generally takes very great notice of any combined decision by the workers in an industry and by the employers in that industry, particularly when it is supported by representatives of the public. That is the case in this matter. The proposal which I have been putting forward has the support, first of all, of the Transport and General Workers' Union. One of the last letters that Arthur Deakin wrote was a letter to me supporting this case. I have now also a copy of a letter from the Transport and General Workers' Union in which it put its case to Sir Brian Robertson. It says that the view of its members is:… that the railway premises should be open to the operator of any taxi cab licensed by the local authority, so as to permit them to give service to the travelling public to a much greater extent than is possible with the limited number of cabs which are now permitted on certain railway premises".This view has the support also of the National Taxi-Car Association.
In addition, I draw the Minister's attention particularly to the fact that these proposals have the unanimous support of the Working Party on Hackney Carriage 445 Law which was appointed by the Home Office. The final Report of that Working Party, on the law relating to hackney carriages in the provinces, makes the same proposal as I am now putting forward. In paragraph 129, headed "Privileged Cab System", it says:The Working Party have considered the privileged cab system at railway stations, that is, the system whereby one or more cab owners have the exclusive right to use the station rank, possibly on payment of a rental. It was generally agreed that provision should be made on the lines of the London law, i.e., that station ranks should be open for use by all owners and drivers except at places where the Secretary of State was satisfied that an adequate service would not be provided by this means. It is recognised, however, that the British Transport Commission must have the right to limit the numbers of cabs allowed to rank at any one time, and this means that licensing authorities should be prepared to appoint adequate ranking accommodation outside the station, from which the station rank would be fed. Similar arrangements should be considered for airports, docks, etc.The Working Party emphasises the need for a nearby public rank. The proposal as it would be applied to Slough is that the station rank, as it became empty, would be fed from a neighbouring public rank. That seems to me such an obviously sensible proposal, supported by the Home Office Working Party, that I will not emphasise it any further.
When we have seen the Chairman of the British Transport Commission on this matter, he has said that no national principle is involved and he is prepared to leave it to the regional management. I urge that there is a principle of great national importance. A public service should not perpetuate a system of privilege for the few. It should not permit a kind of House of Lords at our railway stations for a limited number of taxi drivers and taxi owners.
I hope that I have been able to show that the proposals which I have been urging would provide both a better service to the public and equal opportunities to all taxicab drivers and owners.
§ 6.55 p.m.
§ Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)
I was delighted to hear the unsocialistic attack by the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Fenner Brockway) on control and licensing, and his vigorous support of free enterprise and freedom from control. We are looking forward to seeing him on the benches on this side of the House in the near future.
§ Mr. Brockway
The hon. Member has entirely missed the point I was saying that a public service should not retain any system of privilege. It is the hon. Member's party that stands for privilege in the country.
§ Mr. Gresham Cooke
I will not press the point, but I understood that the British Transport Commission was pursuing a policy of licensing taxi cabs. [An HON. MEMBER: "Limited licensing."] But there must be a certain amount of change of opinion on the benches opposite on the subject of competition. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies) is not now in his place. He devoted three-quarters of his speech to attacking competition but finally said that there was not enough competition amongst suppliers to the Transport Commission.
§ Miss Alice Bacon (Leeds, South-East)
The hon. Member has completely misunderstood the case for taxi cab ranks. We are not arguing the point one way or the other, but we are saying that the public should be enabled to have a better taxi cab service than it has at present.
§ Mr. Gresham Cooke
I quite agree. I have a good deal of sympathy with what the hon. Lady says, but I understood that a better service could be provided by a freer enterprise than by a system of licensing.
§ Mr. Gresham Cooke
There is a certain amount in what the hon. Member for Eton and Slough has said, in the sense that I do not think that the Transport Commission is sympathetic to taxi cab drivers as a whole. I have had this difficulty in my constituency. A brand new station was built at Twickenham and there was no room in the forecourt of the station for taxi cabs. It was only after I made representations to the Commission that taxi cabs were allowed there.
Later, it was found that a telephone had not been provided so that taxi cabs could be called. Again, I had to make representations to the Post Office and a telephone was provided. That shows a lack of imagination and enterprise on the part of the Commission. It is not up to Members of Parliament to go out for traffic on behalf of the Commission. It 447 is up to officers of the Southern Region to attract the traffic.
We have not had a debate on the Report and Accounts of the British Transport Commission since 1955. We have only debated the fifth and seventh Report, and now we are presented with the ninth. We are shareholders and customers of this organisation and we ought to have our annual general meeting at which these matters can be debated.
§ Mr. Gresham Cooke
It is a matter for both Front Benches, and I was glad to have the support of the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow) for more debates. We ought to have more opportunities of presenting criticisms and suggestions to our board of directors, headed by Sir Brian Robertson. The fact that the Westminster portcullis appears on the armorial bearings of the Commission as set out in the Report typifies the Commission's responsibility to Parliament.
In view of the many criticisms which we have heard today, we ought to give a mead of praise to the Commission for this Report, because on reading it one must be impressed by the large number of new ideas and new schemes, such as new marshalling yards, and improved stations, which have found their way into the pages of the Report. It demonstrates commendable initiative and energy on the Commission's part. So far, so good, but, as has been pointed out, the losses of the railway side of the Commission's activities are now very considerable. The railways deficit is over £50 million in all, so that the regaining of the prosperity of the railway system is really the major problem before the Commission.
It is easy for the Commission to say, as it has said, and as was said by one hon. Member opposite, that the decline in freight carrying by the railways is due to the growth of C licences and private transport. In my view, the trader must be free to run his own transport. If we ever give up that principle, we shall be getting into a quagmire of illogicalities. Where shall we get? Let us suppose that we have the misfortune of a Socialist 448 Government, and that London Transport was losing money very heavily. Of course, it would be perfectly logical for the Socialist Government to pass a law that we must not walk to the House of Commons or our offices, because that would be unfair competition.
I can hear them saying, with a good deal of pious sincerity, that "Shanks's pony" must give way to more modern forms of transport—the London bus—to keep the public transport system going. That is the logic behind the attack on the C licensees, but if traders are not allowed to use road transport or their own lorries, or if they are to be restricted to a radius of, say, 25 miles, what would happen to the cost of living?
Let me give the House one or two examples of the additions to the cost of living that would come about. A firm in the West Country, manufacturing butter and cheese, was good enough to let me have its comparative rates only a short time ago. This firm states that while it did its best during petrol rationing to put its goods on the railway, it suffered considerably thereby, and so did the public. This firm has a daily traffic of about 5 tons of butter from its factory to London, and equal loads to the Midlands. It tells me that to send a 5-ton load of butter from the West of England to London every day, the railways charge 65s, 11d. per ton, while the road charge would be 43s. per ton.
Likewise, for equal loads from London to the Midlands, the railways would charge no less than 83s. 11d. per ton, whereas the road charge would be 32s. 3d. per ton. From London to East Anglia, the railway charge is 75s. 6d. per ton and the road charge 33s. 9d. per ton. That is the sort of difference with which traders would have to burden themselves if they were forced to send their traffic by rail rather than by road.
Again, this firm says that it has irregular traffic loads of 5 or 10 tons of milk powder, and it is quite easy to telephone the road hauliers for 1s. 6d. and get a competitive quotation. To get a competitive rate from the railways—a rate which had not been quoted before—the railway authorities would have to telephone head office at a cost of 4s. or 5s., and the reply would take two or three hours to get. These are the sort of difficulties still being faced, and they 449 emphasise the need for more decentralisation of management throughout the railway system.
This also illustrates the wisdom of the policy of decentralisation which was encouraged by the Transport Act, 1953, which Act, incidentally, also gave the railways power to fix their charges on commercial principles. In the British Transport Commission (Organisation) Scheme Order, 1954, I noticed that Article 9 states that the Commission was to supply certain statistics of operating costs in respect of each area, but I do not believe that it has yet done so. I ask my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to look into that point to see whether Article 9 of that Order is being complied with or not.
I was sorry to see that in the Report so little is said about the unremunerative services of the Commission. A good deal is said about closing down stations, route-miles, and so on, but this question of unremunerative trains is what has been described by transport officials themselves as the "guilty secret of the railways". Every hon. Member has experience of this. We all know of cases of non-paying trains, particularly in the industrial areas in the North, trains that wander about the countryside at mid-day almost without passengers. The average loading of railway trains is only about 27 per cent., and if it falls to 10 per cent. or even 5 per cent. it is not only very wasteful but very costly indeed.
Cost is the problem that faces the railway system at present. We find two and a half pages of the Report devoted to wages and salaries, and the Report underlines the concession that was given by way of wages and salaries in January, 1956, which amounted for the whole year to no less than £34½ million, of which the railways had to carry £27 million. In 1957, there was a further wage increase which totalled another £15 million. Although the railway workers may have been underpaid in the past, and I am not arguing that, it is a fact that every businessman thinks that the concessions given in the early months of 1956 and 1957 were directly responsible for the round of wage increases that has taken place since.
We all know that these wage increases have added to costs by increasing prices, by depreciating the £ and leading to 450 inflation. Because the Commission controls a nationalised industry, the businessman may have thought that the Government were responsible for that round of wage increases, and, therefore, we ought to say to the Commission that it is in a special position vis-à-vis the rest of the country, and that it behoves Sir Brian Robertson and the members of the Commission to remember that they themselves have added to the inflation of which they complain as one of the causes of the Commission's deficit.
To add £50 million to the costs of the Transport Commission in the last two years, as it has done, through increased wages, is to put a burden on the railways and the buses that can only be recovered in due time, in my view, by increased freights and fares. That will lead to increased prices of such things as coal, for instance, which adds to the cost of living, and also adds fuel to further wage claims in every industry.
I was rather alarmed at yesterday's decision of the Transport and General Workers' Union to reject the Government's suggestion to set up an economic advisory body on wages, and its decision to reject the policy of wage restraint. Does the eloquence of Mr. Cousins foreshadow further wage claims in the transport industry, leading to further rises in costs and further increases in fares and freights? The public will want to know the answer, and I hope that hon. Members opposite will admit that there is a connection between wages and prices and will perhaps counsel restraint by the Transport and General Workers' Union.
§ Mr. Gresham Cooke
Well, at any rate, we have heard some changes of view on the benches opposite today.
§ Mr. D. Jones
I do not seem to remember ever seeing the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) going into the Lobby to vote against the Government when they were deliberately forcing up the cost of living.
§ Mr. Gresham Cooke
I am not aware that the Government have deliberately forced up the cost of living at all. These decisions were decisions made by the Transport Commission.
451 Turning for a moment to one or two smaller matters, I was particularly glad to see the attention given in paragraph 53, and subsequent paragraphs of the Report, to work study and productivity. We must all agree that there is a great field for minor improvement of the railway system if the frustration of passengers and consignors of freight is to be avoided. I will give a small example of this. A year or two ago if one arrived at Paddington on one of the main trains from the West, and tried to deposit a suitcase at the cloakroom, there would be a queue of 10 or 20 people who would take five or 10 minutes to get through.
The reason was that the unfortunate man at the desk had to perform at least four operations in taking the bag. He had to write out a ticket, turn round and take the bag to the back regions, then come back with the ticket, and then turn round again to put the money into the cash desk behind him. A work study of those operations would have reduced them to one, simply by placing his tickets and cash desk before him. His job would then have been easier and the queue would have been processed through much more quickly.
§ Mr. Gresham Cooke
—but that is a minor example. There are others.
Here the hon. Member for Openshaw (Mr. W. R. Williams) will support me, because we had the privilege of visiting the Volkswagon works only a few weeks ago. There we saw no less than 90 per cent. of the daily output of motor cars taken away from the works by railway trains, by double-decker transporters. Each train consisted of about 25 wagons, each wagon carrying 10 cars on two platforms. The cars were driven on to the wagons and there were no less than 12 train loads a day.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned that, because I am fully in agreement with him that something similar ought to be done here.
§ Mr. Gresham Cooke
I am very much obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his support. It is rather a different state of affairs in this country, where not 90 per cent. of the cars are taken away by rail but 10 per cent.
Before I conclude there are two London points which I ask my right hon. Friend or his hon. Friend to answer, if possible. I see that in paragraph 125 of the Report consideration is being given to a railway line from Victoria to London Airport, via Kew, for carrying passengers from Victoria to London Airport and vice versa. As part of that line touches my constituency, and as many of my constituents could go to work to London Airport on such a line if it were built, I would be extremely obliged to know whether the Minister has further information about that line, if it will be economic, how much it is likely to cost, and whether such an idea is likely to go forward.
The other London point, in which many London Members will be interested, is whether there is a likelihood of a tube being built from Victoria to the North-East of London, as envisaged in paragraph 167 of the Report, passing through Oxford Circus. If such a tube were built it would be of great advantage to those living in the South-West of London who want to work in the North-East and vice versa.
In passing, may I say that although we find it extremely difficult to build tubes and tunnels in this country, at the moment there is a tube no less than 19 miles long being built under London in the shape of an 8 ft. water main from Hampton-on-Thames to Chingford, in Essex, without any difficulty, and without this House being consulted on the financial merits.
Despite the financial difficulties in which the railways find themselves, the Report is encouraging. It seems to me that in the last few years the Conservative Government have put new life into the railway system. The Transport Act of 1953 has given the Transport Commission freedom to fix its own charges, which has not been the case since 453 the nineteenth century. The rate of capital investment in the railways is double what it was four years ago. Last year, it was £90 million, and it is now apparently running at the rate of £120 million a year. The policy of decentralisation and management is beginning to show returns in efficiency and in increased public satisfaction.
Lastly, as has been mentioned, passenger journeys and passenger miles increased in 1956 as compared with 1955, and still show an upward trend in 1957. In the debates over the last few years we have settled the fundamental basis on which the B.T.C. works—
§ Mr. D. Jones
Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to interrupt again? While he is calling attention to the improvement, will he also notice that the present Minister of Transport has succeeded in doing something that none of his predecessors succeeded in doing? He has compelled the B.T.C., for the first time, to make a deficit on its operating costs during the past year.
§ Mr. Gresham Cooke
As I understand, that has nothing to do with the Minister of Transport. If the hon. Gentleman had been listening carefully to what I was saying, he would know I have explained that the major factor in the loss of £16 million made by the railways was the increase in wages and salaries of nearly £35 million in 1956. As I have said, in the last few years we have settled the basis on which the Commission works, and I hope that this will not be changed. We ought now to leave the Commission to get on with its work, to see whether it can make a profit in the future, and to render a service to the nation in the years to come.
§ 7.17 p.m.
§ Mr. G. Lindgren (Wellingborough)
I am pleased but also sorry to follow the hon. Gentleman the Member for Twickham (Mr. Gresham Cooke). No doubt there is an area of operation in which he is expert but I doubt if railway transport represents one of them. It is nice to start by expressing agreement and, therefore, I join with him in paying a compliment to the British Transport Commission on the form of its statement of accounts. If the hon. Gentleman could persuade private enterprise business, which is very largely a private monopoly affecting the 454 public to a considerable extent to present accounts in such detail and in such a form, this country would know about private enterprise industry to an extent which is not possible at the moment. Its accounts are presented to mystify the public. The Commission's accounts are presented in order that the public may know what is going on within the industry it owns.
§ Mr. Gresham Cooke
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can be in touch with modern industry. If he looks at the accounts published by the first-class companies, he will get a very full description of their operation.
§ Mr. Lindgren
I disagree. Now I want to deal with a point which I would not have raised if it had not been for the speech of the hon. Member for Twickenham. As many hon. Members know, I am an official of a trade union associated with the railway industry. The hon. Gentleman rather criticised the B.T.C. for granting increases in wages over a period of time. As one who has had to negotiate with the Commission, I would say that it is difficult to negotiate with it. I have never come away from such negotiations satisfied with the results; they have generally been the best we could get at the time. I still say that throughout all the grades of the railways service men are underpaid in relation to the responsibility they carry, the uncongenial terms and duties they perform, the general nature of their work, and to the pay and salaries available in private industry.
The Government are the direct cause of the increases in wages which the Commission has had to give. It was not the Labour Government which withdrew food subsidies and sent prices rising. As one of those responsible for the salaries and conditions of those in the railway service, I say that we will not stand aside and watch prices rise as a direct result of Government action and allow our members' standard of life to be lowered. An increase in prices while wages remain the same represents a lowering of the standard.
The hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends during recent months have laid the basis for a further claim for an increase in wages with the Commission. Notices are going out to millions of 455 tenants informing them that their rents are to be increased. I say quite bluntly that my hon. Friends and I will not stand aside and watch the landlords pocket £100 million a year at the expense of the standard of living of our members. If rents are going up by from 10s. to £1 a week, industry must face increased wages, and this applies to the Commission. Let it be remembered when the Commission receives these wage claims that they are the result not of the Commission's actions but of the actions of the Government and hon. Members opposite.
§ Mr. Gresham Cooke
The hon. Member knows only too well that council house rents are going up as much as any other.
§ Mr. Lindgren
I nearly became unparliamentary then. The hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends have increased council house rents. They have put up the rates—
§ Mr. Lindgren
A large proportion of the Commission's costs is wages. The hon. Member for Twickenham said that the Commission was wrong in conceding the wage claims presented by the railway unions. I submit that this was necessary because the Government increased council house rents and private rents, which will make still further wage increases necessary.
I join with the Minister in saying that the Commission has done its best to improve general relations at top level. The hon. Member for Twickenham said that we should allow a complete free-for-all on the roads and that any trader should be permitted to have any form of transport he wished. That is just anarchy. He talks of economy. The C licence is the most uneconomic means of transport in this country. C licence holders carry their own goods, and in nine journeys out of ten the vehicles return empty. An empty wagon is an uneconomic journey which sends up the costs. In any sensible transport system there must be some restriction on the use of vehicles by private persons, unless we are prepared to spend a tremendous amount of public money on the roads.
456 The Minister and the hon. Member for Twickenham referred to the Government's efforts at improving the efficiency of the railways by decentralisation. There is no evidence whatever that schemes of decentralisation, which were instigated by the Government and not by the Commission, are increasing efficiency in any shape or form. In fact, part of the lower morale which arose within the railway service was due largely to the upset resulting from this attempt at decentralisation. There is grave doubt among practical railway men, including myself, that this method of decentralisation will add anything to efficiency. In fact, it will impede efficiency.
The hon. Member for Twickenham has spoken of greater freedom for stationmasters and goods agents in quoting rates. He would be the first to complain if the station-master at Twickenham quoted 10s. a ton for a commodity while the station-master at Birmingham quoted 8s. There must be a general relationship in rates charged for the same commodity in one part of the country and another, and equally between one trader and another.
§ Mr. Arthur Holt (Bolton, West)
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, perhaps not in the exaggerated form in which he has just given an example, there is to be some discretion under the new charges scheme.
§ Mr. Lindgren
Of course, the railways have always had that discretion, particularly when picking up certain bulk loads. For instance, they pick up Players cigarettes at Bristol. It was always open to the railways to make an arrangement with a trader in connection with special bulk traffic. But a person in the West Country should not telephone two or three road hauliers and try to cut down their charges, one against the other, and then say that the local station-master should not be allowed to quote a special rate. Of course, there must be a relationship between rates charged for similar traffic throughout the country.
Because there are others who wish to speak, I shall not pursue these matters much further, except to say that the decentralisation scheme means more jobs for the boys on the boards of the various areas. That is about all it does, except that there are a few more people to muck about the staff and keep changing 457 the arrangements. My prediction, with forty years of railway experience, is that we are going back to the days before the 1921 Act and to some of the fallacies which were exploded even during the time of the old London and North Eastern Railway.
There have been complaints about the deficiency of the British Transport Commission. Practically the whole of the present deficiency of the Commission can be laid at the door of the Government. In the first instance, there is the general interference which has been referred to earlier. The deficiency at the moment is £70 million. It is likely to be £100 million. Of that, £50 million is due entirely to the lack of time that has elapsed between the increased costs and their effect on the Commission—wages, the cost of materials and so on—and the ability of the Commission to recoup itself by means of increased charges. No credit is given anywhere.
Most of the businesses with which hon. Gentlemen opposite are associated can take the raw materials and the cost of plant and wages and determine the cost of its product almost from day to day. Because of the general arrangement for the protection of the consumer, the Commission takes much longer. We have seen the Government interfering and preventing the Commission making charges which even a public tribunal has agreed that it should make and after the Commission has had to justify in public the increased charges it was demanding. The inflationary tendency brought about by this Government has increased the cost of materials and the rest, and that accounts for the other £50 million.
The Minister referred rather naively to there being no political interference with transport. This Government have been interfering politically and upsetting the activities of the Commission ever since they came to power. One need only examine the figures. In 1953, the receipts of B.R.S. were £8.9 million. In 1954 the figure was £8.7 million, with the Government getting ahead with their disposal activities. In 1955 the figure was down to £4 million, and in 1956 it went to £1.8 million. Hon. Gentlemen opposite will not realise—I say this as a railwayman—that if the railways remain common carriers, and even without the 458 cost of modernisation, it will not be possible for them to pay their way.
We should use the most efficient system of transport, whether by road, rail or air, for a particular commodity. Then we shall have a transport system which provides a service and which is not a "sport" as hon. Gentlemen opposite seem to think. We would not be using one section to make the biggest profit as quickly as possible irrespective of the effect upon the other sections. The passing of the 1953 Act and the disposal of the B.R.S. vehicles was an attack upon the Commission and its opportunities and possibilities of breaking even. It was also uneconomic from the national point of view. The disadvantages previously suffered by B.R.S. have gone to every form of road transport.
In private enterprise road transport the law of this country is being broken every day of the year. Section 19 of the Road Traffic Act is being violated every day in almost every town in this country. There is the case of a firm in my constituency. I am quite prepared to give its name, but it would be unfair, because the same thing is happening in hundreds of firms in all parts of the country. The case I am thinking of is that of a firm which operates its lorries from Wellingborough to Darlington and Stockton in one journey, and to Middlesbrough and Sunderland. The drivers return to Wellingborough the same night. Logsheets are altered en route in case the drivers are stopped by the police. When the men get back after working excessive hours, their logsheets are remade. For some reason which I cannot explain, the extra hours they have worked are put in the column headed "lubricating oil usage". Those extra hours are paid for.
Hon. Gentlemen opposite may smile, but this is being done by practically every road haulier in the country, except, of course, British Road Services. When I say "everyone", I must qualify that, because some the larger road transport companies do play the game. That is because their employees are organised within the trade union movement. But smaller operators in the smaller towns of this country break the law every day of the year. We are playing with death.
§ Mr. Gresham Cooke
If this terrible situation really exists on the roads, what 459 is being done by the Transport and General Workers' Union, whose object it is to watch these matters?
§ Mr. Lindgren
Unfortunately, it is the smaller companies who do this thing. They have been encouraged by hon. Gentlemen opposite. These firms operate the vehicles which formerly belonged to B.R.S.
I should like to hear what the Minister has to say about this. These things are known by the Traffic Commissioners, but no action is taken, and it leads some of us to believe that there must be connivance, or if there is not connivance, the Traffic Commissioners, when they know the facts, are encouraged not to take action.
§ Mr. Watkinson
I do not wish to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but he is making serious allegations. Perhaps he would be kind enough to send me privately the name of the firm he seems to know very well and I will see that the matter is properly investigated.
§ Mr. Lindgren
I shall gladly accept the Minister's offer, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that this is by no means the only case. It is happening in practically every small private enterprise firm throughout the country.
§ Mr. Watkinsonindicated dissent.
§ Mr. Lindgren
The Minister shakes his head, but some of us know these things, because we learn of them in other capacities, especially as magistrates at petty sessions. The only time we hear about unsound vehicles, vehicles which are not roadworthy, and where there are prosecutions for evasion of the Road Traffic Act, is when accidents happen. My point is that the roads of this country are dangerous, and anyone at any time—even if he is driving a sound vehicle and has not worked excessive hours—may be unlucky enough to become involved in an accident.
I do not think anyone will disagree with me when I say that if a man has left Wellingborough at three o'clock in the morning and does not get back until eleven o'clock at night, during the final hours of his trip, say from Sunderland, an accident is more likely to occur than if he had worked only six, seven or eight hours, or had kept within the terms of 460 Section 19 of the Act and worked only nine hours in an overall period of eleven hours. It is one of the jobs of the Minister to see that the Traffic Commissioners carry out their duties especially where information of this sort of thing is available to them.
I have spoken for longer than I intended, because I have been interrupted, but finally, I ask hon. Gentlemen opposite to remember that we must get back to a fully integrated transport system. I should have thought that the folly of their Suez campaign would have brought home to the Government the realisation that when we were up against it and petrol was in short supply the private hauliers would not accept the Minister's proposals for a temporary reduction in the use of petrol. The only people who co-operated were B.R.S. which transferred traffic from road to rail in order to reduce petrol consumption. Had we an integrated transport system it would have been much easier to conserve petrol than under the haphazard conditions which exist at present.
In spite of all the difficulties, many of which have been created deliberately by the Government, the Commission has been doing the best it can. I join with my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies) in hoping that in the not too distant future a Government will be returned to office who will enable the Commission to perform its functions properly in a fully integrated transport system which will provide a real service for this country.
§ 7.40 p.m.
§ Mr. Grant-Ferris (Nantwich)
I am sure that the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Lindgren) will forgive me if I do not take him up, as I would like to do, on many of the things he has said. I shall not be following him or any other hon. or right hon. Gentleman who has spoken so far this afternoon, because the subject about which I wish to address the House is inland waterways and canals.
It is so difficult to find anything on this subject in the Annual Report that we need a microscope. The references are broken up into different places and it is difficult to find out exactly what is being said. I am not altogether surprised about this. After all, the gentlemen who compiled the Report are not well known for 461 their undivided attention to the canal system of this country. They are, of course—and good luck to them—railway men, and I hope they will be successful. I hope wholeheartedly that they will help us to improve our railways, anti that the efforts to this end will come to fruition as the result of the undivided attention of those who are doing it.
One of the things that struck me as out of proportion was the dismissing of about 1,765 miles of canals in about seven lines of the Annual Report.
§ Mr. Grant-Ferris
Yes, I know, but I am talking about Class 2 and Class 3 canals. Class 1 receives more detailed attention, but, still, it is only half a page. In fact, all the matter about the canal system in a Report of more than 100 pages does not occupy more than two or two and a half pages.
One of the things which is conspicuously missing is any mention of the amount of money which has been spent upon the encouragement of freight traffic generally on the canals. I have never seen posters calling upon people to send their goods by canal or encouraging them to take their holidays on the canals, although I believe that the latter kind of poster is beginning to appear.
Another important matter which is dismissed in hardly a line is the considerable amount of revenue which can be obtained by the selling of water. I know something about this because, in my constituency of Nantwich, there is a notable example of what can be done. Starting there is a beautiful, and some people say the most beautiful, section of waterway in the country. It goes from Nantwich to Llangollen. Recently a contract was entered into between the British Transport Commission and the Mid-Cheshire Water Board by which about £20,000 a year will be paid for water from that canal. The cost of the maintenance of the canal is about the same figure.
That is what can be done by a little enterprise. To give the Commission its full due, I must say that it has started work on that canal. I understand that a stretch of about two miles is closed at the Llangollen end and is being improved, and that the Commission intends to improve the whole length of the Canal 462 down to Nantwich. I congratulate the Commission. It ought to go on with the work and then look at other places such as I shall mention in a few minutes.
The report lauds the fact that tolls have increased during the past year. Far be it from me to say that I hope the Commission will not get any more revenue for canal transport; that is not my purpose at all. I would remind hon. Members, however, that tolls on the Continent are fewer and lower than ours and that in the United States of America they do not exist at all, because use of the canals there is entirely free.
When we were enjoying those long, lazy days of the Whitsun Recess I made it my business to tour some of our canals. I visited the South Yorkshire and Barnsley Canal and the Dearne and Dove Canal. Let me deal first with the Barnsley Canal which is a legally abandoned canal. It was abandoned about four years ago. I would draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the following matters so that he may be able to say something about it when he replies to the debate.
This seems to be a fairly serious matter. I understand that when this canal was abandoned it was in reasonable user and that no less than £200,000 was paid in compensation to waterside firms, although it is generally considered that about £10,000 would have been enough to put the canal into thorough working condition again. I am not laying that down as an absolutely known and gospel fact, but it is an opinion of the facts which is very strongly held, and I should like to know whether what I have said is true. If it is, such a payment is out of proportion and should not be attempted again at any time by the Commission.
When I looked at the canal, which I did carefully, I noticed what was a very beautiful aqueduct of some considerable length carrying the canal at its junction with the Dearne and Dove Canal. I beheld one of the greatest atrocities in connection with canals that I shall ever see. This very beautiful structure—beautifying what is not, I suppose, by all standards, a very beautiful valley—had been partially demolished. The canal tract and the bridges of the aqueduct had been removed, leaving the gaunt pillars which held them standing in their places. Why this act of vandalism? Surely it would 463 have been better to leave this disused aqueduct there, a thing of beauty for everybody to see in a district which is not altogether well treated for things of beauty. I find it very difficult to understand.
I visited next the Dearne and Dove Canal, which is a statutory navigation. No attempt has yet been sought to abandon it. It lies between Swinton and Barnsley. I tried to inform the hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) that I would say something about this matter this evening. From what I heard earlier this afternoon I thought I had better do so, but unfortunately I could not find the hon. Member. I hope he will get my message, which I passed on through the usual channels.
This canal is about ten miles long between Swinton and Barnsley. At the Swinton end, about a mile and a quarter from where it joins the South Yorkshire system, which is one of the best and most used waterways in the country, is the great Manvers Colliery, or perhaps I should say "coal-producing plant", which is a more favoured term than "colliery" these days. The colliery is one of the biggest there is anywhere. It lies right beside the canal and is only a mile and a half at the most from where it joins a busy waterway. The canal is not used, but could very easily be used without any expense at all and 70-ton barges could come right up to the colliery.
I have taken photographs of the area and will gladly supply some to my right hon. Friend if he cares to see them. It can be seen that from the pithead, quite close to the canal, coal could be dropped into barges which could be sent down the canal to the main South Yorkshire system very easily indeed. For some reason which I cannot understand, the National Coal Board does not want to do that, and would rather send the coal by road or rail. I do not know of any other instance in the world where a great colliery lying beside a usable waterway does not use it to transport coal.
§ Mr. G. Darling
Surely the point to be taken into consideration is where the coal is to go. If the customer for the coal is not near the canal, there is no point in putting the coal on a barge.
§ Mr. Grant-Ferris
I agree, but the hon. Member will realise that the canal connects immediately with one of the main systems and coal can go very easily from there to many parts of the country. I should very much like to take the hon. Member there one day and show him how easily that could be done.
All along that stretch of canal are various atrocities, as we call them, illegal acts such as putting a water main or oil pipe across the canal in such a way as to obstruct what now is a statutory navigation. It is a positive, continuing, flagrant breach of the law that Barnsley Brewery, with the connivance of the Commission, is filling in the canal at Barnsley. I have photographs with me —very disgusting photographs they are; I could call them canal pornography—showing the tipping of refuse and men engaged on filling in the canal on behalf of Barnsley Brewery. As this is a statutory navigation, it is an illegal act.
The Bowes Committee is at present considering the whole future of our canals. It might easily recommend that the Dearne and Dove Canal should be reopened. Is it not entirely wrong that at this time someone should be filling in a canal and making it very expensive and difficult to re-open it, especially as it is not an abandoned canal, but a statutory navigation?
I now leave Yorkshire and the industrial use of canals and turn to the question of another canal. I am glad to see one or two Welshmen in the House. I told the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Watkins) that I would visit the Brecon and Abergavenny Canal, although I was unable to inform him that I should be referring to it this evening. I have travelled the whole length of that canal, which without doubt is one of the most beautiful waterways in the country. One can travel for about 30 miles from Brecon to Abergavenny and in all that distance there are only seven locks. There are four close together, two in another place and one at the beginning of the canal. It wanders about through the Black Mountains, mainly through what is a great National Park, and hardly ever passes through a flat field. The beauty to be seen there is simply beyond belief.
I am glad to say that there is water in that canal throughout its length and it is possible to canoe from Brecon to 465 Abergavenny, and, in fact, to Pontypool. For a relatively small expense, the locks, which do not work, could be repaired. I had an expert with me at the time and I estimate that for something like £20,000 something of amenity value quite beyond belief could be produced for the South Wales area. If I and my right hon. Friend, with whom I get on very well indeed, were to pursue that capacity of getting on well to the extent of setting up a boat business at Brecon or Pontypool, we could put the Commission into very great difficulty.
The Commission would have to say to us, "Please do not do this; you have a perfect legal right to do it, but do not do so. How much will you take not to do it? "We should be in the position of Mr. Gould who, as everyone knows, got £5,000 in settlement out of court for doing that very thing. There is nothing to prevent anyone setting up a boathouse, announcing that he is going to run boats right through, and demanding that the locks be opened and access given. Unfortunately, however, my right hon. Friend and I are not likely to embark on that project.
§ Mr. S. O. Davies (Merthyr Tydvil)
As a Welshman, I am certainly very interested in what the hon. Member has said about the Brecon and Abergavenny Canal. I know every yard of it. Will it add to his comfort when I tell him that the Commission has resolved to close down the railway which is a kind of artery for the people of North-East Glamorgan and Caernarvonshire by which they can travel to this lovely canal, to which they go in large numbers every summer?
§ Mr. Grant-Ferris
I am extremely sorry to hear that, but I do not want to be sidetracked into discussing the closing of branch lines, on which there are very heated arguments.
The question of the sale of water again comes into the picture. There are two very large factories on the banks of that canal. One is the British Nylon Spinners. The other is a chemical factory; I am not sure whether it is owned by Imperial Chemical Industries or not. Both factories get their water from the canal. I should like to know if they are paying a proper economic price for it because if 466 not, there is a case to show that the payment of an economic price would contribute to the maintenance of a very beautiful waterway. I know this is a point of detail in the whole vast subject we are considering and I do not want to labour it, but it is a typical case and there are others like it. I cite it because I can speak from personal experience, having visited the canal.
A point which I feel sure will interest the House is that a party of New Yorkers decided that they would like to spend a holiday on a British canal. I am glad to say that they have had their holiday. I entertained them here the night before last and heard all about it. I want to be fair to the Commission, which to a large extent organised the holiday and looked after the visitors magnificently; it planned a very fine tour indeed for them, and I heard all about it. They started at Stone in Staffordshire and came down the Mersey Canal into the Oxford Canal. In other words, they started in not quite so salubrious an area, perhaps, and came gradually into better areas. Eventually they debouched into the beautiful Thames and came down it to Westminster. They enjoyed the experience immensely and were looked after perfectly.
Of course, they saw what they thought was the British canal system, and after they have returned to America a book is to be written about it and there is to be an article in Life about what a wonderful canal system we have. I should like to ask Sir Reginald Kerr to take these Americans, next time they come, and show them some of the other canals, for instance the Kennet and Avon Canal, one of the most beautiful waterways we have. He should let them see that not everything is always beautiful and that there is a lot of ruin about, too.
I want to give the B.T.C. another pat on the back, if I may, and to say how much we appreciate the brochures which have been published on the advantages of holidays on canals, telling us how we can obtain all the necessities at different places as we pass by. This is good work, and much more good work is being done, too. I do not want the Commission to think that it is all criticism with no commendation. That would not be true.
I have tried to introduce a little lightness into the debate, but, whatever we 467 think about them, the inland waterways will play an ever-increasing part in the life of the country in the future. In America it has been found that after people have radios, television sets and washing machines, the next thing they want is a boat. As our standard of living rises, the demand for boats will become greater and greater and we shall be asked to provide proper facilities for people to enjoy boating.
All of us who have the interest of the canal system at heart hope that the Bowes Committee will offer a final solution to this vexed problem which has been with us for very many years. I am glad to hear that the Committee has taken an enormous amount of evidence. No doubt its conclusions will be far-reaching, and we hope that the Government will take action upon them. Sometimes one gets a little worried about this, however; one hears that Sir Reginald Kerr has been seen disappearing up a creek with Mr. Bowes, or that one of the top people of the Waterways Division has been seen with a member of the Committee.
Of course, that passes along the grapevine, and everybody thinks that this is the only side of the question which the Committee will hear. I do not think that that is so. I am sure that the members of the Committee are good men and true, that they will do their job well and that in the long run we shall get a satisfactory result.
§ 8.5 p.m.
§ Mr. George Darling (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
I should like the hon. Member for Nantwich (Mr. Grant-Ferris) to take my word for it that I agree with everything he said about the canal system and the need for keeping it going, but, of course, he has skated away from the problem, which is: who is to pay for keeping the canal system in the efficient way in which we should like to see it kept? Obviously, the whole burden of the cost of maintaining waterways which can return no income to the British Transport Commission cannot be borne by the Commission. We must await the publication of the Bowes Committee's Report to discover who is to pay. I hope that we shall be told who is to pay to keep the canal system going.
The hon. Member also said that he had not seen any advertisements by the 468 Transport Commission for the use of canals. I hope that the Commission will not advertise the canal system in the way in which the old Manchester Ship Canal Company used to advertise its services in the Manchester and Salford tramcars. Its notice always appeared next to another notice, so that the two ran together and read as follows: "Do not spit in the car. Use the Manchester Ship Canal".
I want to speak about railways. We are all agreed, for many different reasons, that we should like to see more traffic, both freight and passenger, being taken from the roads to the railways. The roads are overburdened, the railways could carry far more traffic, and we are all agreed that we want to see rail traffic better, quicker, cleaner and generally more efficient. We are all agreed that all this requires new equipment.
I must say that I have been very surprised at the optimistic note which has appeared throughout the debate on the modernisation plans and how they are progressing. In only one sentence does the Transport Commission mention that there have been difficulties about steel. This is only the beginning of the programme, it is hardly under way, but already the Commission has met difficulties about steel supplies. Goodness knows what the position will be in about two or three years' time, because I understand that the Iron and Steel Board's programme for greater steel capacity and production in this country will not be on the scale which some of us think is required and certainly will not come into operation very quickly. I am confident that a far more realistic assessment is required of this situation.
The Minister and the Transport Commission mentioned that the electrification of the first main line system has started. After two years of operation it has proceeded, I think,10 miles from Manchester. The Minister told us today that it was hoped to finish the Manchester-Crewe part in October, 1958, which is three years from the start, a rate of progress equal to 10 miles a year. It is about 180 miles from Manchester to London, which means that at this rate of progress the Manchester-London line, which is the first of the series of main lines to be electrified, will be finished in 1976. This is far too slow.
469 We are agreed that the railways will remain in the "red" until they are properly equipped with up-to-date locomotives and coaches, with electrification and other modernisation. That has been said time and time again. Nevertheless, at this rate we shall have 180 miles of main line electrified by 1976, eighteen years after the beginning of the operation. This is much too slow.
An hon. Member opposite referred to trucks taking Volkswagen cars from the Volkeswagen works in Germany in two layers. They could not get under a single railway bridge in this country. I cannot understand why we get such optimistic observations. Every bridge from Manchester to Euston will have to be raised to take the overhead wires which are to provide the electric current for that system.
That means steel girders for the bridges, but steel girders are also needed for our atomic power stations, for the tankers and the new oil refineries that are to be built, for the new harbour at Milford Haven, for coal mining re-organisation, for everything—even for the expansion of the steelworks themselves to enable them to produce the extra steel needed for this work. Steel plates and steel girders are already scarce, even before we begin any of these projects. We must be far more realistic in our observations about the railway development plan on which the railways at present, through no fault of their own, are making so little progress.
The Minister mentioned, as if it was a great achievement, that the Commission has 230 main line diesel locomotives on order, 47 of which are being made in railway workshops. I am not very good at mental arithmetic, but hon. Members can work out for themselves how long, at this rate of progress, it will take to replace our 19,000 steam locomotives with diesel, diesel-electric, or electric locomotives. The 15-year programme will be miles behind—
§ Mr. Watkinson
I was talking about main line diesels. The hon. Gentleman must not confuse the two, because there are many hundreds of diesel-shunting engines both in use and on order, and that paints a different picture.
§ Mr. Darling
I appreciate that. I, too, was simplifying my observations, but if we put the number of main line locomotives, both freight and passenger, at about 12,000, I do not think that we shall be very far out. I think that the Minister will agree that, at this rate of progress, we shall not finish the modernisation programme in anything like the period of time laid down by the Commission in its own plan, and in the White Paper.
I do not want to strike a completely pessimistic note. One of the great features of modernisation, as has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members, is the improvement in labour relations in this industry. I mention this to bring out something that has not yet been referred to. The Transport Commission and the trade unions together have done something about trade practices—sometimes referred to as restrictive practices—that ought to be copied in other industries.
The change-over from steam to diesel and diesel-electric locomotives will mean a great change in the craft set-up in the railway workshops. Fewer boilermakers but more electricians will be needed. Those who have worked on steam locomotives up to now will have to change over to internal combustion engines and electric motors. This change-over, as far as I can see, will be effected without any trouble about craft differentials. That will be done because the Transport Commission has done something that private employers facing the same kind of problem have not done.
The Commission has asked the trade unions for co-operation and, in return, has given guarantees. It has said that if a job disappears because of the change in technique, men will be trained to do the new job. Boilermakers will be trained to be electricians, for instance, and will be paid their full craftsmen's pay during training, and guaranteed work at the end of it. That can be done only in a big industry. But shipbuilding is a big industry, and there are sections of the engineering industry that are big and where the same kind of thing could be done. The Commission has set an example that other industries and other employers should follow.
A lot has been said today about how far in advance of ours is the French railway system. But I think that every-one will agree that there are parts of the 471 French system that are not up to standard. The most important point, however, is that there is no railway system in the world that carries such a pressure of traffic as does ours. When it is borne in mind that on the Crewe to Euston line there is a train every two and a half minutes during the day, it will be seen that our railways have to be organised to a point of perfection.
With all the good will in the world, and all the good technique available, it would be very difficult to run trains at up to 80 miles an hour for long distances on that line when we are also running stopping trains and freight trains every two and a half minutes. We are doing a very good job on our system with the tools we have, but everyone agrees that we must get better ones—
§ Mr. Ronald Russell (Wembley, South)
Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that the line he mentions has four tracks, and that stopping trains do not run on the express tracks?
§ Mr. Darling
I agree that it has four tracks most of the way—in some parts it has six—but the point is that they have to take fast and slow goods trains, fast and slow passenger trains and the like, and I am not sure that four tracks would be sufficient, in those circumstances, to run a very rapid service. But I mention that only in passing, so that we may get our comparisons with the French system into perspective.
The possibility of getting the modernisation programme through quickly is, to my mind, rather remote. I do not want to be too pessimistic, but there is another factor to be taken into consideration. If we are relying on the modernisation plan to put the railways in the black, we have to reassess not only the progress of the plan but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies) has said, reassess the costs. I agree with him that the cost of the plan will be very much higher than we bargained for by the time it is completed, and that that is likely to throw all the calculations of future railway finances out of gear.
There is another point that has a bearing on this. It has been stated today that the railways have recently lost con- 472 siderable traffic—particularly freight traffic—to the roads, because the competition between road and rail is not altogether fair. In addition to complaints about law-breaking in regard to excessive hours, and so on, there is the question of safety on the roads, to which I do not think that we pay sufficient attention.
Railway engine drivers, firemen—everyone who is associated with running rail traffic—has to have special training, has to play a part in making sure that the railways are safely operated. On the other hand, we permit lorry drivers to go on to the road after having taken only the ordinary driving test. I am confident that a large number of them—and this is my observation in driving round—are not really trained to be safe lorry drivers. The standard required of those driving lorries ought to be much higher than that required of the driver of a small car.
I do not know how it will be done, but lorry drivers should have a higher standard of driving. It is quite true that British Road Services and the big C licence operators, the oil companies, the big distributors of goods of all kinds who have very big fleets of vehicles, lay down very stringent rules for their drivers and encourage safe driving, work to schedules which permit safe driving, and give awards for safe driving.
It is the small haulage man all the time who is the danger on the roads these days, the man operating a one-ton, two-ton, or three-ton lorry, with a driver whose standard of driving is not as good as it ought to be and who works for a firm where the importance of safe driving is not taken into consideration as it ought to be taken into consideration. The Ministry of Transport must pay strict attention to that and try to do something about it.
Cases of excessive hours of driving and of bad driving come to light, unfortunately, only when there are accidents. Something ought to be done to make sure that accidents are fewer. It would be a good thing and would help to provide fairer competition between road and rail to make sure that every driver of a truck, van or lorry had passed a driving test of a higher standard than is now the case and also to make sure that conditions of driving, and so on, were more scrupulously enforced.
§ 8.22 p.m.
§ Sir David Robertson (Caithness and Sutherland)
It is always pleasant to hear the voice of Sheffield in the House, but the hon. Member for Hillsborough (Mr. G. Darling) took a very pessimistic view of steel, quite unworthy of the great steel city of Sheffield. The history of the steel industry since the late 1930s has been a proud one. Every year the industry has produced increasing quantities of steel. I am confident that the industry will be able to produce all the steel that the British Transport Commission requires for its new and essential programme.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow) is not in his place. I am sure the House was very interested in his speech. He began by complimenting his hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies) on his speech, which was also very interesting. However, the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth said one thing to which a reply should be given as soon as possible, and I intend to give it. He said that a section of the Press was continually running down British Railways. I was not aware of that, and I have not seen those articles, but if that is the case, nothing will be achieved, because the overwhelming majority of the people know what a tremendous debt we owe to the railways. I shall never forget their work during the war, when they kept trains going and tracks open and were working in constant danger to their lives.
I am rising to voice Scotland's problems for the first time in the debate. I greatly regret that the Commission has applied for the 10 per cent. increase, and I still more regret that the Minister has agreed to it. I object, first, because it is inflationary—and anything which is inflationary is very bad at this time—and, secondly, because it adds to the cost of our exports and everything else, which is equally bad, and, finally, because it gets away from a fundamental principle of all industry and commerce, which is that what can come out of an industry must be earned.
This giant monopoly, if it is efficiently and well managed and helped by us—and no one is more anxious than I to do that —ought to pay its way. It has a monopoly of rail transport, and I am certain that if it faces up to its losses—and it has many losses—it will be able to remedy the 474 situation without any subsidies or increases in freights. There are many miles of railway in Britain today which are losing money. At the less popular hours of the day, many trains are run which lose money. Lines which can never pay in any circumstances are operated.
I sometimes think the Commission is apprehensive about protests in the House against the closing down of lines which do not pay. I urge the Commission—and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister will do more than urge it—to go ahead and to take its courage in its hands and close lines which have no hope of paying. Operating those lines is the cause of the losses and one of the causes of the increases in freight rates.
There is a very long track of railway running from the Highland capital of Inverness to the Pentland Firth, to Wick and Thurso. It loses £1,000 every working day, which is about £300,000 every year. That is not my figure but the estimate of the chairman of the Scottish Board of British Railways. Someone has to pay for those losses. That is part of the 10 per cent. increase.
I know of that case because I have been plaguing the railways and the Government to turn that line into a road. We are terribly in need of another trunk road in that part of Scotland. The cost of converting it would be about £4½ million, and the actuarial value of that loss is about £8 million. The road could be built without taking agricultural land and would relieve the railways of this colossal loss and permit them to compete for passenger transport and road hauliers on equal terms.
Maintenance would be borne by the State. It would be a road without bends and without hills which could take 100-seater buses. It would be a long straight road which would halve the time now taken for the journey and halve the cost. Instead of the railways losing £300,000 a year, they would make money. Such a road will come. It is bound to come, because the losses will compel it, but it should be built now when the railways are raising freight rates by 10 per cent. and threatening to raise passenger rates.
There must be many more such instances. I happen to know of that case because part of the line is in my constituency. Lines like that should be 475 closed when they are not paying. Why should the Exchequer or the fare-payer or freight-payer be taxed to pay for lines which have no hope of paying simply because a few selfish people come to the House with howls for attention? What justification is there for that? The sooner the Minister brings that to the Commission's notice the better. I am sure that their splendid Chairman, Sir Brian Robertson, who is doing so much for the Commission, will respond to my proposal.
The same applies to some mid-day trains. Need we run them, if the demand is only from a handful of people? Private industry cannot do it. Private industry could not carry on and live on its losses.
Hon. Members for Aberdeen are, unfortunately, not here. I received a telegram this week from the fishermen of Aberdeen asking me—no doubt, they asked other hon. Members, too—to oppose the 10 per cent. It is too late. It has been agreed. The fishermen cannot recover the 10 per cent. It will not add anything to the selling price. The fishermen, trawler owners and fish merchants cannot deal with it as the Commission is doing, adding 10 per cent. on fares and freights and recover it. They must stand it; it must come out of the cod end. Would anyone want to pay any more for cod or whiting or other fish because the freight charge has gone up? It can only come out of the money the fisherman gets. That is generally the position in the private sector of industry, unlike this monopoly which can apply a savage increase of 10 per cent.
My final reason for objecting to the increase is that it is bad for the Commission and bad for British Railways. By adding this 10 per cent., they are pricing themselves out of business. That is what it amounts to. The railways have been chucking business at the road haulage industry, and here is another 10 per cent. Surely, if there is one industry in the world, apart from the newspaper industry, which depends on its net revenue from turnover it must be British Railways. The lines are there, fully manned for seven days a week, night and day. The profits of the railways can come, and should come, from running on lines where their services are wanted, running at rates which attract traffic. There is no other 476 way whereby traffic can be attracted to the railways than by making it profitable to the man or firm or company to send them by rail.
A company with which I am connected operate a coal mine. We mine the coal, we bring it to the surface, and we load it into our road vehicles. At one time, we took it to the station so that it might go to the only market in Aberdeen, but British Railways charged us such a rate that the more coal we mined—a mineral more precious than gold we have heard it said from both Front Benches—the more we lost. We were driven to the roads. So, when we sent it by road we made money where previously we lost. That is my little story from my own limited experience. But, surely, hon. Members must realise the fundamental economic fact that, if it does not pay people to send goods by rail, they never will. Here is another 10 per cent. The danger signals should be flying mast-high. More and more traffic will be driven away, and all the modernisation in the world will not cure the situation.
The rating system on the railways is completely cock-eyed. When I was younger there were 300 railways in Britain, each one demanding its full pound of flesh for traffic over the lines. Naturally so—I do not find fault with that. Today there is common ownership. The railways belong to us. They are there. Another generation built them and paid for them, and we, through the State, acquired them at a price which was a mere bagatelle compared with what it would cost to build them today. Yet we cannot make them pay. We work the same system of freight rates and fares.
It is no longer a penny per passenger mile. Now it is 1´88d., almost 2d. per passenger mile, and the railways have a right to go to 2d. Freight is still charged at so much per ton mile.
§ Mr. D. Jones
In the heyday of which the hon. Member is speaking, railway men were being paid £1 a week, and working 72 hours a week.
§ Sir D. Robertson
Yes; the value of money was different then, and the hon. Member and I know what £1 is today. I think it was probably not a good enough wage.
§ Sir D. Robertson
Far too many people worked for too little, and too few got far too much. But we Tories speak in that way, too; it is not just the prerogative of hon. Gentlemen opposite.
I was speaking of this hereditary system which came to us from the little railway companies. Now, the great monopoly is charging so much per ton-mile. The further one goes, the more one pays. In Scotland we are worse hit, because we have paid more from the beginning. For example, it costs me £20 to take my wife to my constituency on the railway, with sleepers, which we need, of course, because it takes all day and night to get there. Now it will cost £22. I had to leave her behind when it got to £20, so now, I am afraid, my constituents will not see my very delightful wife. That gives some indication of where we are going, and of course, the railways will lose more and more passengers.
I submit to hon. Members, and I am sure that any cost accountaint worth his salt would agree, that the first thing the Commission must do is to reflect and look at its costs. Its first cost is the interest, the service of capital. Its second cost is manning the line, every signal box and station, from Land's End to John O'Groats, for seven days a week. These are costs which have to be met before a ticket is sold or a train begins to move.
Then there are a variety of other costs. Terminal costs are very high, and the costs of marshalling yards much higher still. There are maintenance costs of tracks, rolling stock and property. All these occur before the Commission begins to move a train. Yet freights and fares are charged on movement, and it is fundamentally wrong. It is another gross injustice to Scotland, because we rely—5 million of us north of the Cheviots —largely on the great markets of the South for so many of our supplies and for the sale of what we produce.
I urge the Minister to consult the Presidents of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in London and in Glasgow and to get them fairly to assess the situation and give it to the Commission. The suggestion that a train with an engine driver, a fireman and a guard, and perhaps an assistant guard as well, with coal, on its way from London to the Lowlands of Scotland or even to the 478 Highlands, must be taxed on a mileage basis is wrong.
The essential basic costs to which I have referred are, in the main, unrelated to movement. That was a good policy in the days of the private companies, when there were 300 more of them. Must we have the same policy today? The Minister was not correct when he told us that there were no special rates in the past and no means by which the railways could compete. The truth is that the railways have lived on special rates for years. They charged special rates because the traffic could not afford to pay more. All the rates for coal and minerals were low, but it was a constantly flowing traffic. The only difference today is that the Commission has the right to cut the price to Jones and not to Brown. That is a highly dangerous principle.
I can give this parallel concerning the movement cost anomaly. Would our people ever have gone to New Zealand if shipping companies had charged a flat rate of so much per mile? Could we have brought our raw material from all over the world, from Chile and Peru, for example, and food from Australia? Of course not. But that is what British Railways are trying to do in this small Island.
We all wish British Railways well. I was against nationalisation, and so were most of my colleagues, but we now have nationalisation. We cannot have a prosperous Britain without efficient railways. We have got to have them. They can be made efficient, but it can come only from good management and efficiency and good work in return for good wages. I hope that the Commission will address itself to these points.
§ 8.38 p.m.
§ Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)
I was surprised when I listened to the complaints of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir D. Robertson). I thought everything was put right about four years ago. We had forced upon us for Scotland a Scottish Transport Council. The hon. Member said a word or two in those days about what he would and what he would not do if the Council did not do its job, but he never mentioned it tonight. I gather, however, from what he said that he is not entirely pleased with what is happening.
§ Mr. Ross
No, I am not. I am drawing on the hon. Member's speech. I noticed that he was anxious to speak in this debate, so before I came in I took the trouble to read the speech he made in the 1953 debate.
The hon. Member's solution tonight is a strange one for Scotland. He says, "Close all the lines that do not pay." I wonder how many railway lines would be left in Scotland and how many local services would be run if that were done? If the same principle were applied to the Scottish Omnibus Group, how many of the Highland bus routes would be left in being? The hon. Member should appreciate that one of the things for which we are thankful in Scotland is that transport is nationalised and is a public service. One of the things against which there was most complaint was what the Government did to road services in Scotland by their actions in relation to British Road Services.
The hon. Member is quite right in saying that Britain depends entirely upon its transport services, both the road and rail. One of the main complaints that I have against the Minister is the part that he and his predecessors played in telling us that we should forget all our politics in relation to transport. The Commission's Report is addressed to him, and the Commission remarks that it hopes that it will be left alone to get on with the job. That is addressed not to this side of the House, but to the right hon. Gentleman, as Minister of Transport.
The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland also had something to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Hillsborough (Mr. G. Darling) about steel. He described my hon. Friend as pessimistic. Has he read the Commission's Report? If he has, he will have found, in page 5, in relation to development and equipment for this great modernisation scheme just started last year, that because of Government policy in other matters the Commission was told that it would have to cut its capital expenditure by 15 per cent. or about £22 million. Therefore, the Government last year actually retarded the modernisation for which they had called.
The point was made by the Commission that, in any case, the scheme 480 might well have been held up because of shortage of steel. If there is a shortage of steel affecting the Commission in its plans at this early stage, my hon. Friend the Member for Hillsborough was quite right in issuing a warning that things might not go too well.
The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland also spoke about charges and said that it was easy for the Transport Commission to raise its charges, but that it could not be done in the private sector. Did he listen to the Minister speaking today? I recollect that the right hon. Gentleman said that the financial position of the Commission worsened in 1956 to the tune of £19 million because of increased costs charged by its suppliers of coal, steel, and so on. If the private sector can increase prices in that way, where does the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland get the strange idea that prices do not increase except in the nationalised industries and in the undertakings of the Commission?
Actually, it is far more difficult for the Commission to keep up with increasing costs by increasing its freight charges or its other charges in London and elsewhere than it is for anyone else. The hon. Member knows quite well that the private road hauliers have a meeting and decide to increase charges, and up they go. It is as easy as that for them. It has been done and is being done. The hon. Member was very unfair to the Commission on that point.
Does the hon. Member appreciate the Commission's patriotic effort as a result of an appeal by the Minister not to raise its charges? Does he appreciate that when permission was given to raise charges by 10 per cent. the Commission raised them by only 5 per cent. and deliberately worked itself further into the "red" last year in an effort to help national price stability? If we attained a certain degree of price stability, we can see part of the price reflected in the Commission's financial figures today. It was rather poor thanks to the Commission to have the kind of speech we had from the hon. Member on that point.
I hope that the charges freedom now given to the Commission will lead to a greatly improved position in regard to freights. I do not think that there is any doubt that this fall in the traffic is serious for every one of us, and particularly for 481 the Minister of Transport. It is double-headache in his case, because of his responsibilities for British Railways, and, also in his capacity as Minister of Transport, his responsibilities for safety on the roads.
Let us look at the figures of what has happened in the past ten years in regard to C licences. In 1948, there were 601,000 C-licence vehicles on the roads. Within ten years—and it is getting worse every year—the figure has now become 1,028,000. Therefore, there is the problem of the congestion, danger and the inadequacy of our roads, with demands for increasing expenditure upon them, and, at the same time, the consequences of the falling-off in the freight traffic handled by British Railways.
I sincerely hope that the new power to make charges which the Commission has been given will help, but I fear that it will take far more than that, and that it will be many years before we get the right types of wagons and railway equipment to enable the Commission to cope with this kind of competition. When we see what is happening in the United States, where far more money has been spent, and is being continuously spent, all through the lifetime of the railway systems there, and we see how the railways there are faced with exactly the same kind of problem and are fighting for their lives at present, we realise how difficult this problem is.
Where, in the United States, the roads used to carry two ton-miles of traffic for every 50-ton-miles carried by the railways, it is now a case of 21 on the roads for every 50 on the railways—and that in a couple of decades. We see that, in regard to the share of the 30,000 million dollars transport market, where the railways used to have three-quarters of that traffic they are now down to less than half. It is very much easier over there to make railway freight pay, because of the greatly increased distances travelled, in this congested island even our longest distances would be regarded in the United States as quite short, and it is, therefore, much more difficult for us.
Let us not be too optimistic about what the railways have to do. It may well be that in his capacity in other directions as Minister of Transport, with the problem of the greatly increased number 482 of vehicles carrying goods on the roads, the right hon. Gentleman may be forced sooner or later to take some restrictive action.
I want to deal with some other matters not dealt with before in this debate. In fact, I doubt whether one of these matters has been dealt with at any time in the debates on transport. It is a matter relating to Scotland, concerning one of the principal activities of the Transport Commission which pays a handsome profit. I think that last year it provided over £2½ million profit. I refer to what is called the Scottish Omnibus Group, which seems to be one of those rather mysterious forms of nationalisation.
If one goes to Scotland, and to the Falkirk area, one will see blue buses carrying the name Alexander, while in another part of Scotland, one may see buses carrying the name Dawson. In the centre of Scotland, we find the name Central "S.M.T., Ltd." and in my own area "Western S.M.T., Ltd." Indeed, we find on the sides of the buses the same names of the general managers which have been there for years. These companies seem to carry on in the same old way in relation to their public and employees, yet they are actually part of a nationalised industry.
It is one nationalised concern. It is only right that Scottish Members should be given much more information of the operation of a firm of this character and scope, running transport from the very South of Scotland right up to the Highlands, its activities, its control, and its connection with the Transport Commission. I can assure you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that the employees of Scottish Omnibus Group are interested when they read, with reference to the rest of the Commission's employees, what we find in paragraphs 80 and 81:In fulfilment of an undertaking given during the wages negotiations earlier in the year, and after consultation with the trade unions concerned, the Commission introduced on 1st December, the first sick pay scheme for wages grade staff employed in British Railways, British Transport Docks and Waterways, British Transport Hotels and Catering Services, British Road Services and in London Transport "—But not in the provincial and Scottish Omnibus Group.
We cannot but wonder at a certain amount of grievance felt there when this 483 part of the activities of the Commission, which makes a considerable profit and works with considerable efficiency, has not the same conditions of service, sick pay and pensions enjoyed by members of the Commission's other activities. Therefore, I would like to know from the Minister how this can be adequately explained to these men. They want to be part of an instrument of nationalisation, but they also want the benefits for their section of the industry which are given to the others, and it is only right that they should get them.
I would also like to know whether or not we are to get a considerable improvement in the bus stations. I am thinking particularly of the central garages and bus stations connected with these services. Anyone who has experience of trying to get a bus in Glasgow to go to the coast or country from that station in the centre of Glasgow would not consider for a minute that it is adequate for the present traffic. Anyone who has gone to Kilmarnock would quickly have sympathy with the chief constable of that town, who is landed with an ancient garage in the busiest part of a main road, with double-deck buses wheeling out and in every minute of the day. The traffic problem there is bad enough without having this continuing difficulty. Is there to be any early development of more adequate bus stations and garages for the Scottish Omnibus Group?
I will conclude my speech, because my right hon. Friend is anxious to speak. In spite of all the difficulties with which it has been faced, I believe that the Transport Commission has done a good job. We should also remember that 800,000 of cur people are employed by the Commission. I deplore, whether in speech or in newspaper articles, a particular incident being used to smear the Commission and its employees.
The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland said that he had not come across any newspaper doing that kind of thing. Has he read the Scottish Press today? There were evidently some dirty trains at Largs, so they became the subject of the third leader in the Scotsman. Anyone who recalls the exceptional weather that we have had recently, and the rush of crowds to the coast, can understand how a train can become dirty.
484 People complain about a dirty engine. It is doubtful whether they knew whether the engine was just out of the locomotive sheds, or whether it had just finished a couple of hundred miles through the dirtiest of weather. There is far too much criticism which is not very soundly based.
If I speak with some heat it is because I come from a railway family and am proud of it. Railwaymen and transport men generally are proud of their service. Like them, I am anxious to see this modernisation programme going ahead so that they can have something worthy of their pride.
§ 8.56 p.m.
§ Mr. G. R. Strauss (Vauxhall)
We have had speeches today in the course of our debate on a large variety of subjects. Some of them may have been a little remote from the Report which is before us, but they were none the worse for that. Indeed, it is not surprising that a variety of subjects has been raised as the industry that we are discussing is by far the largest in the country, affecting many localities, and, of course, it is an industry upon which, more than any other, the prosperity of the community depends.
Perhaps the main feature of this debate today is that it is taking place within a week or two of the publication of the Report. I do not know whether the Government or the Opposition ought to be congratulated upon that, as it is we who have given up a Supply day for this occasion. What is quite certain is that a debate which takes place shortly after the publication of the Report is infinitely more valuable. When we are discussing one which has come out six months ago, we all feel that we are dealing with past history and there is little life in the debate as there is when discussing it as we are today.
§ Mr. Strauss
If the responsibility is mine, I will do my best to satisfy my hon. Friend. When we are discussing a Report which has only just been issued, as we are today, we all feel that we are dealing with current affairs and for that reason the debate is all the more vital and worth while.
485 The Report which we are debating is unusually interesting because the developments now taking place in the transport industry are more important, more critical and more exciting than anything that has happened since the change of ownership in 1947. For the first time since then, plans are beginning to operate which will change the British railways—the, core of our transport system—from an ill-equipped and consequently an inefficient system into one which will be up to date and maybe the most up-to-date and efficient in the whole world.
Apart from modernisation plans, two other things of importance have happened during the past year. One is that the haulage section of the Commission is no longer in a state of forced contraction and consequent demoralisation as a result of Government policy. Finally, although the financial outlook of the Commission, particularly of the railway section, is, in spite of the optimism expressed by some, including the Minister, still giving rise to anxiety, provision has been made to ensure that sufficient funds will be available to carry out the modernisation scheme during the next few years and to cover such losses as may be incurred meanwhile.
It is, naturally, that modernisation plan which forms the keynote of this annual Report and is the feature which dominates the transport scene today. Now that it is getting into its stride, we can look forward, I think, with confidence to saying goodbye to that period of stagnation which has far too long characterised our railway system, in spite of the remarkable but necessarily limited progress in efficiency which the Commission and its staff have been able to carry out.
The deficiencies from which the railways are suffering can only be effectively cured by large-scale and comprehensive re-equipment. We have already sufficient evidence to lead us to believe, indeed to make us sure, that when that re-equipment takes place, the result will not only be a substantial saving in operating expenses but, on the basis of experience in this and other countries, a gaining of substantial new traffics.
The prospect of modernisation and expansion confronting the railway system today must give special satisfaction to all railwaymen, particularly as this industry.
486 perhaps more than any other, inspires such a sense of devotion and participation among all those who work in it. They can look forward to seeing their industry changed in a few years from a state of obsolescence to one of very high efficiency; one that will give a far finer service to the community and which may, if our optimism is justified, even make a profit instead of a loss.
Equally satisfactory to those who work in the road haulage section of this industry is the fact that, due to the events which took place last year and the Act passed by this House, they are no longer to be pushed about by a Government determined to hand hack this most lucrative section of the transport industry to private interests. The effort made to achieve this was an embittering experience indeed and one which did immense damage to the morale of all who work in the Commission.
It was all the more galling because it was felt that this process of disintegration was being insisted on by the Government not for any sound or indeed any technical reason, but on grounds of squalid politics. But, as we know, at a very late stage the spokesmen of British commerce reinforced the view expressed throughout by the Labour Party, and induced the Government—in spite of a rearguard action fought by some of their back benchers—to halt this disruptive progress. Consequently, British Road Services now have an opportunity of carrying on their activities with some sense of security.
I wish to make two short comments about the present financial position of the railways. I do not wish to repeat anything said by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies), or by other hon. Members who have made observations on this point. Some of the factors which have put the British Railways "in the red" are, as we all know, the result of the deliberate policy carried out by the Government, for good or for ill—we think for ill. But most of the others are not peculiar to Britain alone. We should bear in mind that, with one exception, every railway system in Europe is "in the red" today, and, one way or another, receives Government support; and that the conditions which brought about this situation here are common to all other countries.
487 I should like my second point to be pondered especially by Government supporters. It is that the fact that our railways are publicly owned has made it infinitely easier to deal with their financial crisis. I am sure that every hon. Member will agree that whatever the ownership of our railways may have been during the last few years there was bound to have been a substantial loss. Plainly, no Government could have dealt with the situation, had the railways remained in private ownership, in the same way as the Government have dealt with it. It would have been difficult for any Government to deal with that critical situation in any way while the railways remained in private hands, and to ensure that they received sufficient sums of money, the hundreds of millions of pounds that are needed, to carry out the modernisation programme.
There are two points, one minor and the other of considerable importance, that I want to raise in connection with the modernisation programme. The minor one may be considered petty, but I want to raise it nevertheless. It concerns the layout, by which I mean the appearance as well as the equipment, of the new passenger coaches which are to be built in considerable quantities during the coming years. We recently had an opportunity of viewing some of these coaches at an exhibition at Battersea Wharf.
While I may be, as I think I am, in a minority, I feel it my duty to say that instead of being impressed by those exhibits I thought they were disappointing and that the modern age of travel required something far better. I cannot believe that the designing talent we possess in this country was sufficiently brought to bear in designing the comfort, appearance and general atmosphere of these coaches. I hope that the carriage manufacturers will recruit experts from a wider field before finalising wagons which are to serve the British public for decades to come.
I am aware that these were only prototypes and I am not too cast down. I am also aware that the Transport Commission has set up a high-powered design panel to look after this very problem. I hope that from that design panel we shall get something good. What we were shown the other day might be all right as a first 488 shot, as long as nobody has it in mind that it is the last one.
My other point about the modernisation plan is of great importance and raises matters which are grave. It is one that is giving me and some of my colleagues much anxiety. It concerns the large sums of money, millions of pounds of public money, which will be spent on the re-equipment of our railways.
We were told that the total figure was £1,200 million. Since then, no doubt because of increases in cost and, maybe, new designs and specifications, this amount has grown. Several of my hon. Friends have already asked by what extent it is expected by those who draw up the plans that the original figure will be increased. I hope we can get a reply tonight. It may be that we have not got a figure yet, but, obviously, it will be more than the sum I have mentioned.
Out of that £1,200 million a substantial quantity will go in equipment for the railways; probably most of it. Therefore, the Transport Commission will require to buy many hundreds of millions of pounds worth of goods and will need them quickly. It must have them. It will have to place its orders with an industry which is already overloaded. Consequently, there will be a sellers' market. On one side there will be the demand for enormous quantities of goods with early delivery, and on the other side a limited number of suppliers who will be in a position to demand almost any price they like for the goods, knowing well that the Commission will be unwilling, and, indeed, unable, to get the equipment it wants from abroad.
Here, I suggest, is a position of great latent danger, which may add tremendous sums to the cost of the modernisation scheme thereby burdening British Railways for years to come with excessive interest charges, maybe of some millions of pounds a year. This is not a fanciful position. It is a realistic appraisal of the situation as it is today.
I am all the more concerned about this, because I am convinced that a weak point in the whole of the Transport Commission set-up is its purchasing system. This, I am sure, is recognised by the Commission itself, which, two years ago, appointed an internal committee to survey the whole field and took on from the Central Electric Authority a supplies and 489 production adviser who served on that committee. Its report, I understand, was broadly accepted, a few months ago, but, at the same time, rather surprisingly, the officer largely responsible for that report was asked to leave the Commission's service. I wonder whether we could be told why, and whether the Minister is satisfied that the present purchasing arrangements of the Commission are satisfactory and capable of dealing with the acute purchasing problems involved in the modernisation plan?
The situation is more difficult in view of the traditional policy of the railways to effect heir purchases of major equipment from a few well-known suppliers who have given good service in the past, rather than to go out for competition. This is a long-established policy which has been inherited by the Commission from the time when the railways were in private ownership, and I doubt whether it has been completely abandoned today. It is understandable that engineers responsible for buying equipment like to deal with old suppliers with well established reputations for the quality of their goods, but the danger in doing that when goods to be ordered are to be in very great quantities—greater than ever before —and when the suppliers are already working to capacity, is obvious.
Moreover, continuation of this practice today is causing considerable resentment among other sections of industry who maintain that they are able to meet either in whole or in part the requirements of the Transport Commission at equally good prices and to give equally good delivery. I do not know whether they can, but they maintain that they can. If I give one or two examples of what I am informed on the most excellent authority, from various sources, has been happening recently, I think that the House will realise the dangers of this situation.
I will not give the names of the companies concerned, but I have them available and will readily give them to the Minister or to any hon. Member. I understand that about a year ago the Commission wanted to make some purchases necessary in connection with the new vacuum braking system and gave an order for an essential part of the necessary equipment to a well-known firm which had supplied the railways with equipment for years with great satisfaction. The 490 quotation of £30 13s. 4d. per unit was accepted in the first place by the Commission, but, before it was confirmed at the instigation, perhaps—I do not know —of an outside competitive firm, or it may be the special supplies officer who had been appointed, competitive tenders were sought.
It was then found that other firms of equal standing were prepared to quote between £20 and £24 for that article. Hearing of this, the original firm reduced its price to £23. I understand that the order has been given to one or two firms at about that figure and, as the number of articles involved is likely to amount to about I million, the saving ultimately involved is substantial, amounting to about £7 million.
I am also informed that the original firm has been given the order for making and installing a major part of the signalling system required by the modernisation plan, which will amount, in total and at the end, to about £100 million. The order has been given to this firm without any competitive tenders being sought for either the whole or part of this equipment.
I will give only one more example. I am told that orders have been given to an old and large firm, very well known and for a long time a supplier to the railways, for the manufacture and installation of the overhead catenary, which is the wires, supporting posts, and so on, required for the electrification of the railways. The order is for all that quantity which the B.T.C. will want for the first five years of its programme. The total amount involved for the period is likely to be about £30 million. The contract has been placed on a cost-plus basis.
The important point here is that other firms of high standing in the industry asked to be allowed to make competitive tenders for sections of this work. Finally, they were allowed to do so, but they maintain that the conditions laid down by the Commission made effective competitive tenders impossible. They resented the situation very much and protested strongly to the Commission, but their representations were wholly ineffective.
Although I have given only two or three examples—I could give many more —I will add only one further point, and it is one which naturally increases our 491 anxiety in this matter. The new arrangements accepted by the B.T.C., as a result of the report of the internal committee, involved the appointment of a contracts officer in a position of high responsibility. The B.T.C. agreed to this some months ago, but I understand that no such officer has yet been appointed. With all that is going on at this critical stage in the modernisation plan and the purchase of materials for it, one would have thought that such an officer would be appointed immediately.
I am aware that the members of the Commission are themselves concerned about the purchasing arrangements in their organisation and the sellers' market which confronts them. This is shown by the fact that they set up the committee to review the position and accepted its recommendations. Nevertheless, in view of the importance of this matter and its background history, I feel that the Minister should satisfy himself, the House and the public that all is well and, in particular, that the traditional purchasing policy of the railways has been drastically revised not only on paper but in practice. As we all know, it is simple to produce a new plan which looks very nice, but if some who are to operate it are opposed to it the paper plan may be ineffective.
The Treasury is much involved in this matter, because it is underwriting enormous sums of public money, and I therefore suggest to the Minister that he might well seek to help the Transport Commission to overcome the difficulties that confront it. One way which suggests itself to me is that he might use the Government expertise on this matter. I know very well from my own experience in the Ministry of Supply that that Department has a large, exceedingly efficient and very experienced purchasing department which is well used to buying all the goods required for the three Services in times of crisis and emergency, such as the beginning of the Korean War. The Department does this while, at the same time, safeguarding, the public, as far as it is possible to do so and also bearing in mind, as it often has had to do the importance of quick delivery of the goods.
It may be that some of the officers, and some of the experience in that Ministry, might be useful to the railways today. However, I hope that I have said 492 enough to impress upon the House and the Minister the importance of this matter, and the deep anxiety which some of us in this House feel about it. I trust that when the Parliamentary Secretary replies—and, I have warned him that I was going to raise this matter—he will be able to relieve our anxieties to some extent, but that, anyhow, he will assure us that he will give this important subject, involving as it does, huge sums of money and the success of the modernisation plan, the closest attention during the next few years—in consultation, of course, with the Transport Commission.
Apart from this, the Report contains a vast amount of matter on which the Commission deserves the wholehearted congratulations of the House and the gratitude of the country. It is, indeed, a pity that the travelling public—and that embraces practically everyone who lives in the British Isles—is unaware of the remarkable achievements that have been effected in many directions by the joint efforts of the managers and employees of the Commission. There are one or two that struck me as being particularly encouraging.
One, which I think may be the most important, is the new spirit of co-operation between management and staff, for which the new Railways Productivity Council is largely, but not wholly responsible. There is today a real effort on both sides to get together, and to work in the interest of the service to a far greater degree than ever before. That is excellent.
This new spirit was sorely needed, and, of course, it takes time to develop its maximum benefit. A good start has been made, and one of its fruits has been a greater willingness for recruits to join the industry, to which trend the better pay which was agreed during the recent negotiations has, of course, been a contributing factor. The recruitment figures quoted in the Report show that compared with a loss of staff of 17,000 in 1954 and of 14,000 in 1955, there was, last year, a gain of 7,000. In this connection, no doubt, the excellent training scheme set up by the Commission has helped. Another important figure is the drop in turnover of London Transport. That has fallen from 18.9 per cent. in 1955 to 14.7 per cent. in 1956.
493 Turning to staff matters, I should like to add something which I do not think has been mentioned today—and perhaps the Minister may be loath to do so. I am sure that the increase in the salaries of the members of nationalised boards announced last week by the Prime Minister will have a beneficial effect on the future prospects of this industry. In many cases, the salaries of the people about whom I am most concerned—the small group of top managers and engineers on whom the successful operation of the Commission's work so much depends—were below those paid in private industry.
Before long, this situation was bound to have had a deleterious effect on the fortunes of the Commission. Some men might have been tempted to go over to private enterprise, but even more important is the danger that the most promising new material, the outstanding young men, would, if the prizes elsewhere were more glittering, not have joined the Commission's service, but would have turned for their careers in some other direction.
The rewards of the top men are, of course, largely conditioned by the salaries of the members of the Commission, as it is difficult for many reasons to pay the senior staff more than the members of the Commission. One reason is that if that is done nobody can ever be promoted to the Commission, of which membership should be the ultimate objective of the staff. I am, therefore, sure that the increase in salary of the top people will, in the long run, be of great value to all the nationalised industries, including the one we are discussing tonight.
On the subject of the Commission's membership, I want to express the personal opinion, that experience confirms the view which some of us have always put forward but about which others have had doubts, that part-time membership of first-class people on these public bodies is of very great value. I am certain that that is the case on the Transport Commission. The amount of time and effort and the value of the contribution made by part-time members has been outstanding.
I want to comment about the paragraphs in the Report which deal with the consumers' consultative committees. The central and the 11 area transport consultative committees are doing valuable 494 work, but I wonder whether they could not and should not do more to bring the transport user into closer co-operation with the men who run the transport system. Very few people who use the railways know of the existence of the committees. It is most desirable, if anybody using a public service has a grievance, justified or unjustified, that he should be able to feel that he can have it investigated.
The Commission and the regions should do much more to make it known to every user of the railways that if he has a serious complaint which he feels should be looked into, he should go, in the first place, to the stationmaster or to the appropriate official, and, if he does not get satisfaction there, he can go to a consultative committee. He should know how to get in touch with members of that committee.
§ Mr. Strauss
My hon. Friend may well be right. I am not aware that that is the difficulty, but if it is, it should be remedied. Everybody should know where the committees are and it should be easy for anyone with a grievance to be able to get in touch with them.
I know that all this is apt to be a nuisance to those who run the transport system, but I am sure that it is well worth while, in that it gives the users of the system a sense of participation and it gains their good will. Some steps in this direction have already been taken in one of the regions, but a great deal remains to be done and I hope that the Commission will consider what further steps it should take.
Further, I hope that the Commission will go out of its way to inform the public of the progress it is making with its modernisation plan, particularly in those localities where its effect will be most felt, so that people can know what is happening to their railways. We and the Commission have to keep in mind the whole time that people feel, or should feel, and if they do not, ought to be made to feel that the railways are theirs; that it is in their interests and their 495 responsibility to keep them up to a high standard of cleanliness and efficiency. We should enlist the public's support in all these matters.
Taking all these matters together, with the views expressed by my colleagues today, it would be fair to summarise the situation by saying that we feel a sense of general satisfaction with the progress reported in the Report, with some qualifications, some doubts, some queries on certain points. In other words, in spite of the grave troubles which have confronted the Commission and its staff during the past year, for most of which they were not in any way responsible they have served the nation well during the year.
We can add that we all hope that the Commission's ambitious scheme for modernisation and expansion upon which it is embarked will be wholly successful, will bring to all who work on the railways satisfaction, and will enable them to render even greater service to the nation in future.
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. G. R. H. Nugent)
We have had a useful debate today, and I appreciate the felicitous spirit in which the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. G. R. Strauss) wound up for his side. I share his sentiment, that the Commission is engaged on a vast undertaking which not only matters to them but matters to every one of us in the country. It was encouraging to hear the general sense of what the right hon. Gentleman had to say.
I will deal as quickly as I can with the many points which have been raised during the debate. If I cannot deal with them all, I will communicate by letter with any hon. Member whose question I miss.
I should like to deal at once with the important point put by the right hon. Member for Vauxhall, which was raised earlier by his hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies), which gave me the opportunity to consult the Commission and find out its precise position in the matter, namely the present arrangement for purchasing from and contracting with outside firms. The 496 position is that the Commission follows the general view, expressed earlier, that purchasing should be regarded as a special technique, that it should be in the hands of specially experienced men, and that the business of the technical staff is to define or design what is wanted and that they should be relieved of the commercial dealings involved in its procuring. This is the principle which is now actuating the Commission in its present rearrangements following the internal review to which reference was made.
As regards the division of purchase between centre and constituent managements, the area boards, the Commission reserves to itself the purchase of rolling stock, ships and certain other major items of equipment, representing a large proportion of the modernisation programme, and it controls the placing of large contracts for electrification, etc., when the expenditure involved exceeds the amount authorised to area boards. In other words, area boards have a limited authority to spend up to a certain level. But the Commission has instructed area boards to observe the same principle within the regional organisation and to ensure that the placing of contracts is in the hands of separate and expert staff. It has already been indicated that certain changes in organisation, both at headquarters and in the regions, are now taking place.
With regard to the very important matter to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, namely the general practice of the Commission in placing contracts, the Commission's general rule is to purchase by competitive tender. No exceptions are permitted without the express approval of the Commission itself. Every such exception is examined with great care, and particular attention is given to the special safeguards which have become necessary. In other words, the Commission acts as any sensible commercial firm would do: it recognises that there may be special circumstances in which it would be justified in purchasing without tender.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to one particular contract for a very large sum indeed for overhead electrical gear. I am informed that the position there was that the firm the Commission went to was the firm with the experience and know-how for the job, pre-eminent, in the 497 Commission's judgment, and alone capable of doing the designing work. A condition of the firm concerned was that if it was to do the designing work it wished to do the supplying as well. That, of course, created just the difficulties to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred in making it virtually impossible for other firms to come in to do parts of the construction work.
§ Mr. Strauss
It is only fair to say that those firms, which are of equally high standing in industry and have a worldwide reputation, maintain that, with the French experience, they can do the designing work just as well but were not allowed to show and prove their mettle.
§ Mr. Nugent
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising the matter. I am sure he would agree that this is not the place to argue it out in detail. My right hon. Friend and I undertake to look into the whole situation with the Commission and assure ourselves that the matter is being dealt with as well as is possible in the national interest. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman recognises that in the main we should trust the Commission to do these things on its own, to use its own commercial judgment, and that it will in that way get the best result. We will, however, certainly look into the question and put ourselves in a position to give the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends an assurance that this matter has been done in the most practical and effective way and that these contracts have been handled as well as they possibly could be. I shall be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman will send me privately the names of the firms concerned.
Among his other points, the right hon. Gentleman was rather critical of the recent exhibition of the style of coach design. There are two schools of thought. One likes a compartment coach and the other likes a saloon coach. Personally, I am in the second category. I do not doubt that the Commission will take note of what the right hon. Gentleman has said, in the same way as it listened to what was said that day, when there was comment about the lighter, brighter effect of the saloon coach. That may well be the kind of coach in which most people prefer to travel, although there are others who seem to prefer to go in a compartment coach.
498 The Commission is still in difficulty concerning colour. Until steam traction has finally disappeared, the problem of dirt will restrict the colours that can be used. For this reason, they cannot be quite as bright as one might wish.
I was very glad to hear the right hon. Gentleman so roundly commending the value of part-time members on the Commission. Men who have wide experience in other walks of commerce, finance and life can bring something of value to the board, and they are certainly justifying their place. I agree that the effect of raising the salaries of those on this level will greatly help amongst the senior ranks, where there has obviously been a real difficulty in holding the best men when higher rewards were offered elsewhere. That is of great importance.
Before I deal with the other railway questions, I should like to refer briefly to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich (Mr. Grant-Ferris), who asked about the special interest of canals. The points he has raised will be carefully looked into and I will take them up with the Commission. I will then get in touch with my hon. Friend to see whether we can meet his points. I know how interested he is in the whole question of canals, and I will do my best to meet him. On the question of bus services in Kilmarnock, raised by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross)—
§ Mr. Nugent
I will put myself in a position to deal with the hon. Member's point. I am not in the position to do so now, unfortunately.
§ Mr. Nugent
There could not have been a better solution, because I should have had to consult the Commission too.
The hon. Member for Enfield, East referred to the trend of passenger and freight traffics since the end of petrol rationing. His facts were not correct. Passenger traffics are still higher than this time last year and freights have been held at the same level. Since at this time last year they were in a declining trend, the 499 fact that they are today roughly parallel with last year shows an improvement.
The hon. Member also asked about the modernisation programme, as did his right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall. They asked whether £1,200 million would be still enough. The answer is that the Commission believes that it will be sufficient, that is to say its estimates were prepared on a sound basis and, in the White Paper of 1956, "Proposals for the Railways" it made the comment that the figuresare now likely to be increased, though not greatly.In other words, the Commission expected when it wrote that White Paper that there might have to be some revision. The Commission is now in process of reviewing its programme, and when this review is completed it will no doubt be letting us know whether any modification is needed.
§ Mr. S. O. Davies
There is a question on that matter which is not unimportant to us who live off main lines. How much of the Commission's new programme will apply to branch lines? At the moment, the Commission is showing a terrific avidity to close down branch lines and is making no effort to modernise them.
§ Mr. Nugent
I do not want to spend too long on any one point because I have many to answer. The broad answer here is that the Commission has gone to great lengths to try to find means of keeping these branch lines going, most of which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, are losing large sums of money. The Commission has tried out a light diesel set, the four-wheeled diesel car, as one means of meeting the need, and where it is being tried it is attracting traffic. I saw one on the Banbury—Bletchley line. But even that will not solve all the difficulties of branch lines. After the consultative committees of the regions have considered a particular instance, at the end of the day the Commission often has to decide to close down the lines, but I can give the hon. Member a broad assurance that the Commission is trying hard to keep the lines going, in spite of the expense.
§ Mr. Davies
So far we have no evidence in the valleys of South Wales that any effort is being made.
§ Mr. Nugent
I should like to ask the hon. Member for Enfield, East to make plain his meaning in the peroration of his speech. He made a powerful ending to his speech to the effect that only by a system of common ownership of transport, with complete co-ordination, could there be a successful system of transport. As this had followed a very heavy criticism by the hon. Member of the system of C licences and their present rate of increase, I should like him to make plain what his intentions are in regard to C licences. I would gladly give way for him to do so.
§ Mr. Ernest Davies
Obviously, this is not the occasion on which we on this side of the House will put forward our policy, but I said that we considered the time had come when we had to have a review of transport needs and facilities and that a review was called for in view of the fact that there is a conflict between private and public transport to the detriment of public transport.
§ Mr. Nugent
I do not think the hon. Member's remarks will give much reassurance to those whose anxieties were aroused by what he said earlier.
The hon. Member for Enfield, East made the point that the present system of finance was a mistake and that it would have been better to finance modernisation by direct subsidy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. L. Thomas) has said, the Commission has shown that it prefers to be independent and to finance its plan by means of a loan, and I feel pretty confident that it has the vigour to make this scheme work. If I have the chance, I should like to make some remarks on that matter later, but, certainly, there are no signs that the Commission would welcome the hon. Member's suggestion.
Turning to the many points made by the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tam-worth (Mr. Snow), he told us that the Commission's Report compared unfavourably in form with that of the French railways. No doubt the Commission will take note of that and see if it can make the popular form, which the hon. Member no doubt knows, a little more attractive and readable, instead of being just extracts from the main Report. The main Report itself is, as I am sure 501 the House generally will agree, an admirable document for us here and for others who wish to study these matters in detail.
On what plans there are for rebuilding Lichfield station, I am afraid I cannot give the hon. Member much direct information tonight. The immediate intention is to do some temporary repairs, and the bigger project of rebuilding the station is now under review by the Midland Regional Board. With regard to the hon. Member's strictures on catering arrangements, particularly in regard to cleanliness of refreshment rooms, I think he was to a considerable extent answered by his hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. J. Harrison). The fact is that it is extremely difficult to get domestic staff, either for catering or for such things as coach washing and so on. It is the intention of the Commission gradually to replace handwashing by mechanised washing, which will greatly ease this problem, but at the present time they have a very real difficulty.
With regard to the hon. Member's comments about dining cars, my own impression—and I quite often have a meal in a dining car—is that on the whole the meals are good. I agree that they are expensive, but that is inevitable because it is a very expensive business to put on a meal in a railway dining car. I think the meals are good and well served, and, as he rightly said, compare very favourably with what one has to pay anywhere else. I was glad that the hon. Member commended cleanliness in trains, and I will ask the Commission to take note of his suggestion about arrangements for telephoning direct from trains.
§ Mr. Snow
I hope the hon. Gentleman will not adopt a complacent attitude about cleanliness in refreshment rooms. I am sure he and the Commission are not satisfied. If there is a problem, such as my hon. Friend pointed out, about getting staff, surely the Commission will do something about it? We cannot go, on like this; it is uncivilised.
§ Mr. Nugent
No doubt the Commission will take note of what the hon. Member says.
Turning to a point made by the hon. Member on consultative committees, I think he was speaking about the Transport Tribunal. The position about them 502 is that, under the 1947 Act, those who could appear before the Tribunal were limited to the councils of counties, the Common Council of the City of London and the councils of county boroughs. In the 1953 Act it was widened in the way which the hon. Member acknowledged, but I would think that, as it has been so recently decided by Parliament, after weighing the pros and cons what the representation should be, I cannot do more than take note of his point of view that even more people should be allowed to appear before such a commission.
Turning to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Merton and Morden (Mr. Atkins), I am afraid I have to tell him that, much as he might like his line to have priority, the Victoria line will be the first of this kind to be built. When that will be done, I cannot say, but I am afraid that for the present, at any rate, he and his constituents will have to manage with their existing facilities.
A point was made about the carrying of coal by the B.T.C. and the amount at present going by road. The Commission has been in close consultation with both the National Coal Board and the Central Electricity Board. The result has been quite a significant increase in the amount of coal being carried by rail rather than by road.
In the few minutes remaining to me I should like to say a few words about the impressions I have gathered in the six months since I have been in this Ministry of how this great modernisation project is proceeding.
§ Mr. Fenner Brockway
Is the Minister not going to make any reply to the criticism regarding the absence of facilities for taxi drivers at the railway stations? I gave the Minister notice of this and he promised earlier that he would answer this question. Is he not going to make any reference to it?
§ Mr. Nugent
I apologise. I had a note to do so, but the hon. Gentleman will understand that I have many notes to answer a great many points. This important point has been before my right hon. Friend and our Ministry for some little time, and we are in consultation with the British Transport Commission on this point. We are carefully considering the problem, and I hope it will be possible 503 before long for my right hon. Friend to say what would be the best solution. I thank the hon. Gentleman for expounding the matter in such detail. I have heard him on many occasions, and, indeed, he is renowned for challenging the ranks of privilege. This is the first time I have heard him in extenso challenging the privileged ranks of those in taxis.
Turning to the prospect of modernisation, like many people outside I confess that my initial impact was, "This task seems so enormous, does the Commission really have a chance of servicing the loan and of turning the present deficit, in the course of the next ten or fifteen years into a profit?" I have taken what opportunities I could in the past six months to visit a number of installations throughout the country, which the Commission has readily arranged for me to do, in order to see how the task was getting on and how those who were doing it were faring. There are three heads on which I will briefly say a few words.
First, on engineering and operating, the Report records excellent progress during the past year, and, if anything, the progress is ahead of schedule. My impression from meeting engineers in different parts of the country is that the Commission is here building on firm foundations. The men doing it really know a tremendous lot about building and operating railways. The fact is that they are building on more than a century of experience, going back to the time when we were the pioneers of railway building, and they know just about all there is to know about operating railways.
Now they have the opportunity to go ahead and put into practice all these methods of modernisation they have known about for some time and much wanted to carry out. Of course, they have kept in touch with what has been going on in other countries. Therefore we are reaping the fruits of their experience and building on the great repository of wisdom which has been amassed here over past generations. My impression is that on this side the progress is confident and enthusiastic throughout. Those whom I have met at all levels welcome the opportunity that they have to go ahead and make a really modern railway system, and they have the confidence of knowing what they are doing, 504 where they are going, and what they are trying to achieve.
I cannot go in any detail into many of the interesting aspects that I would like to speak about, but I would say this. There is no subject more fascinating than a railway system, and a railway system that is in course of modernisation like ours is now is one of the most fascinating subjects that one can study. The response that is coming from those engaged in it will, I am sure, impress us very much as the years go by.
Turning to the personnel and manpower aspect, in Chapter 2, the prospect there is encouraging, too. There is good prospect that both management and men will measure up to the great mechanical developments which are going on.
My right hon. Friend referred with commendation to the new area boards. I have had an opportunity of meeting a good many of the members of these boards, and I think the Commission is to be congratulated on the calibre of man they have appointed. There was a question earlier as to who appoints them. They are appointed by the Commission, which is very successful in getting men of distinction and experience from all walks of life to form these boards. They and the general managers of the areas are undoubtedly doing very valuable work in administration.
In addition, the old loyalties to the old main lines are still there. I have met them as I have gone about the country. The formation of these area boards with a certain amount of separate identity has undoubtedly revived some of the old loyalties which will make a great contribution to the higher standard of service that we are looking for in the future.
§ Mr. Nugent
I regret that I cannot give way now. I have only a minute or two left.
With the system of decentralisation to which my right hon. Friend referred, which is going on in the areas, I believe that we shall get increasingly close contact between the officials of the railways and the railways users.
Turning to the staff side, which is equally if not even more important, the 505 progress with work study, which has been referred to by my right hon. Friend, is very encouraging indeed. The unions have given it their wholehearted support. The National Productivity Council, referred to by the right hon. Member for Vauxhall, has successfully got into its stride. The Commission has set up its own training school at Watford, which is already giving courses, where men can learn the process of work study which they can then apply when they go back to their work. The Western Region, indeed, set up its own work study training centre at Paddington some eighteen months ago. It is easy to visit and some very good work has been going on there.
It is evident when one looks into the working of the railway that there is very much scope for the application of this work study system to railway work which will, along with the modernisation of the engineering and mechanical side, yield very big results indeed in greater productivity. I think there are encouraging signs under both those two main heads.
In my concluding minute I cannot refer to the commercial side about which I would have liked to have said a word, where the railways have a formidable task to make an organisation to match up with the rest.
I think I have said enough to ask the House to accept this Report and to give its best wishes to the Commission so that it may get on with the job of modernising our railway system.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That this House takes note of the Ninth Annual Report, Statement of Accounts and Statistics of the British Transport Commission for 1956.