HC Deb 25 July 1957 vol 574 cc777-84

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

12.4 a.m.

Mr. S. O. Davies (Merthyr Tydvil)

I do not feel that an apology is needed from me for detaining the House for a little longer tonight. If there are any angry glances, I hope they will be directed towards the British Transport Commission, because the matter which I am forced to raise is the threat to close down completely the railway known as the Merthyr Tydvil—Abergavenny railway.

This threat by the Transport Commission has caused consternation and even disgust among the people of North-East Glamorgan and North Monmouthshire, and in particular, the closing of the railway is strongly opposed by the local authorities in this area.

Briefly, the geographical position of this railway, which is 24 miles long, is that it passes through three counties, and some extremely beautiful places known to many people—such places, for example, as Govilon, Gilwern, Pontsarn and Abergavenny. It serves a potential public of some 200,000. I think that the Parliamentary Secretary will suffer from some disadvantage in replying to any case which I may be able to make on this matter because he will be aware that the subject has been referred to the Traffic Users' Consultative Committee. If he is inhibited in any way by that fact, I am sorry to tell him that I am not in the least; for the very sound reason that this Committee was a party, not long ago, to the closing down against all public interest, of a most important railway entirely within my constituency.

The reason given by the Transport Commission for this latest attempt is that the losses on this railway amounted to about £59,000. The Commission at the same time has tried to salve its conscience by saying that there are adequate alternative road travelling facilities available. I, and everybody who knows this railway from Merthyr Tydvil to Abergavenny, will say that that statement is far from being correct. I have taken advantage of the opportunity to raise this matter on the Adjournment also be cause of the extraordinary means which have been adopted by the Commission in its efforts to try to prove that this railway is running at a substantial loss. A figure given by the Commission last April was £58,939; when the principal railway trade unions met to discuss the final closing down, the figure given was £30,000. But, whether the figure is £59,000 or £30,000, we can accept neither, thanks to the Transport Commission.

For reasons which I hope to make clear in a moment, we cannot accept them. The Commission tells us—and I want the Parliamentary Secretary to pay attention to this statement by the Commission—that the average number of passengers carried daily on this railway was 442. This figure was arrived at by taking "spot" tests in autumn and winter, although along this line, as I have said, there are some extremely beautiful country areas and, during the summer holidays, very many people make use of the railway. Last Easter, for example, an additional coach was put on to accommodate passengers, and on one Bank holiday last year 4,000 passengers boarded or alighted from the trains on this railway at the Abergavenny-Brecon Road Station.

I should say that the threat to close this line has been hanging over our heads during the last two years. The Commission has warned us of this, but it is pertinent to ask, if it has been the intention of the Commission to close this railway because of its losses, why a very substantial sum of money has recently been spent in the relaying of about eight miles of the permanent way—that is, about one-third of its length? All this has been done within the last two to three years; and what did this work cost? I am not able to say, but I have been told by competent railway men that it can cost anything between £20,000 and £25,000 per mile to re-lay the permanent way.

If the railway was to be closed, why did the Commission go to the trouble and the cost of painting within the last two years a number of stations on it, one of them in my own constituency? Again, why was a very substantial sum of money also spent quite recently on repairing the tunnel near Brynmawr? I am informed that a crack appeared in the tunnel thirteen years ago, but it had shown no sign whatsoever of any deterioration. What moved the Commission to spend money on that tunnel when it was going to close both the railway and the tunnel?

We have got our suspicions. I must ask also—we are forced to ask, and I am not the only person living in that area who is now asking such questions—was this expenditure deliberately, wantonly incurred so that the Commission could point to the losses on this line and so justify the closing of it down? The thing has been so blatant that we cannot help questioning the logic and the motive of what the Commission has done. There are many who are asking such questions.

I am told by the Commission that it derives the greater part of its income from goods traffic. A very short time ago that railway was closed to goods or freight traffic. Just imagine what has happened since that was done. I have not sufficient time to give many instances that could be given, but I give three very briefly. In my own constituency there is a very important works which is connected with a great works on the North-East Coast. A spur railway runs from this one we are discussing into the heart of that works. It is only a few hundred yards long. When the Commission made it known that it intended to close the railway to freight traffic that great company, whose name is known to almost everybody in this land, approached the Commission and asked, "How are you going to deal with our traffic that comes from the North of England into our works and which goes out of our works to the North of England?"

The British Transport Commission said that it would deal with it, but instead of taking it directly across to Abergavenny it took it over a steep gradient through the Brecknock Beacons out to a remote country junction called Talyllyn and then moved it down to Abergavenny to join the north-south railway. Transport over this route, so much more difficult and more costly, is being undertaken by the Transport Commission at precisely the same charge as it made for the short cut across to Abergavenny.

Then there is the case of the great steel works at Ebbw Vale. This railway runs right alongside the works. The great quantity of coal used at the works is obtained from nearby Blaenavon. The coal used to be brought right from Blaenavon to the Beaufort junction and into the works, a distance of less than eight miles. But this railway was closed to freight traffic. Now the freight is taken to the heart of the County of Monmouth. It has to negotiate extremely difficult junctions in narrow valleys and is brought to the works at Ebbw Vale after 30 miles of pulling, tugging and shunting.

Recently it was decided to work a considerable quantity of coal in this area by the open-cast method. The Commission was asked by the National Coal Board whether it would handle it on this railway. "We will not," was the blunt answer. Thousands of pounds are lost to this railway by the foolish refusal of the British Transport Commission to handle the coal from the open-cast works. It has to be handled on a frightfully difficult, circuitous and very slow route. We are told that there are alternative and adequate transport facilities by road. I have said that this is far from being correct. The road between Merthyr Tydvil and Abergavenny is notorious for its formidable toll of accidents which in the last two years have increased by more than 50 per cent.

Earlier this week I put on the Order Paper a Question to the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation, which I naturally withdrew when I had the fortune or misfortune of being allotted the Adjournment tonight. It was: To ask the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation if, having regard to the threat of the British Transport Commission to dose down the Merthyr Tydvil-Abergavenny railway, he will cause an inquiry to be made into the bad state of the road connecting these two towns, particularly with respect to its long narrow stretches, and many bends in many parts. its steep gradients, and its icy and dangerous condition in winter because of its elevation and exposed nature; if he will also state the number of accidents on this road for the years 1954 to 1956, respectively; and whether he is satisfied that this road can provide reasonable alternative travelling facilities to the public in that part of South Wales should the railway be closed down. That Question answers itself.

In the many years that this railway has been open, nothing has been done to attract passengers. Even today trains take one and a half hours to make the 24-mile journey from Merthyr Tydvil to Abergavenny. I have been looking at the lovely picture of the armorial bearings of British Railways. We have the word "Forward" above the arms and the words "Velociter Securiter" below. We wish we could get a little of that on this most interesting railway.

No attempt has been made to establish reasonable train connections at Abergavenny for main line trains running between North and South Wales and the South of England and the North of England. Main line connections at Abergavenny are almost as bad as they are at Cardiff for the 150,000 people who wish to travel on the main lines from Merthyr Tydvil and the Aberdare Valleys. I am told that this railway is less efficient today than it was forty years ago.

I and my constituents and all those who are interested in this railway are asking whether it is possible to use the diesel services which have been so eloquently praised by the Chairman of the British Transport Commission himself. He has said that where they have been tried, they have brought in substantially more revenue, largely because they have attracted more passengers, given a better and more frequent service than steam trains, have been able to overcome gradients more easily and have given much more work. I am advised by those whose opinions I must respect that this railway lends itself admirably to the modern diesel service.

In Merthyr Tydvil we are extremely anxious about the future of other railways that serve our valley. The Transport Commission has made it abundantly clear how easily a railway can be made to show a loss. Our link from Cardiff to Merthyr Tydvil and mid-Wales can easily be made to show a loss, and it can as a consequence serve to justify the not very clean way the British Transport Commission stupidly disposes of this means of travel in the valleys of South Wales and Monmouthshire.

12.25 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. G. R. H. Nugent)

The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. S. O. Davies)knows that I can make only a limited reply to him tonight. This matter is before the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for Wales and Monmouth which is acting as the investigator appointed by Parliament under the 1947 Act. Therefore it would not be proper for me to discuss in any detail the facts and the merits of the issues advanced by the hon. Member.

This Committee—as indeed are the other Consultative Committees—is composed of people with a wide range of interests and has the duty of investigating matters of this kind. It has already met twice and in September it is to have a further meeting and to make an inspection of the railway. It will then be able to investigate fully the points which the hon. Member has raised, and I am quite certain that the Commission would not put forward an unfair case. The hon. Member referred to the "not very clean way" the Commission acted. In saying that I feel that he was not making a fair remark. I am sure that he is not justified in saying such a thing and I feel certain that the Committee will investigate any proposal put before it. The hon. Member need not doubt that it will be done fairly and impartially.

It is the policy of the Commission to maintain branch lines in the rural areas as far as possible; but one must remember that these lines were laid down 100 years ago before the advent of the motor car and in very different circumstances from those which exist today. Inevitably the motor car has taken a great deal of traffic from the railways. In endeavouring to keep these branch lines in operation the Commission considers how to reduce operational costs and increase traffic.

The hon. Member asked whether it was possible to put diesel cars on this line. I do not doubt that the Commission has considered that point. It has developed different types of light diesel cars, and recently I saw one experimental type of light diesel being used on the Banbury—Bletchley line. That type of car is cheaper to run because only one driver is needed instead of two, and there is less maintenance work. It is also more attractive to passengers. Even so, there is a limit to what can be done with these cars. It is not always possible by their use to turn a large loss even into a bearable loss which the Commission is content to accept.

It is the business of the Commission to carry all the traffic it can and it does not intend to close down branch lines unless it has to; hut, taking one year with another, there is a duty imposed by Parliament to make the Commission pay. We have assisted it to engage in a great modernisation scheme in order to give the country a first-class modern railway system, and in that context the Commission will certainly keep in use every branch line that it possibly can. I know the spirit of the men, particularly in this section. I was with them in South Wales not very long ago and I am certain that they are concerned to give the best service that they can to the local people.

I accept the hon. Member's comments about the road. I would not be capable of putting them in such poetic terms as he used but it is undoubtedly a narrow, steep and dangerous road. As the hon. Member knows, we have a very large-scale scheme indeed to connect the Midland cities with the South Wales ports by a first-class road. The Heads of the Valleys road will deal specifically with this section. It runs in two sections, the first from Bryn Mawr to Abergavenny. If my pronunciation is not quite right I have no doubt that the matter will be faithfully recorded in HANSARD tomorrow so that it may be understood. The second section is from Hirwaun to Bryn Mawr, so that the total length will run 25 miles from Hirwaun to Abergavenny. It will lead down to the coast on the west and from Abergavenny it will join the Ross Spur and so up to the Midland cities.

That first section, seven and a half miles, is authorised to start this year and the second section next year. It is a very big scheme which will involve substantially rebuilding the present dangerous and difficult road. There the hon. Member has the certainty that we shall provide, and at very heavy expense, a first-class piece of road so that there will be adequate facilities to carry the very important road traffic that comes up from the South Wales ports.

Both these aspects will be taken fully into account by the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for Wales. I roundly assure the hon. Member that this Committee, composed of men and women of all walks of life and giving their time and voluntary service completely impartially, will give this matter its fair consideration and will reach a proper conclusion. I hope the hon. Member will accept my assurance.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to One o'clock.