HC Deb 31 October 1957 vol 575 cc520-30

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

9.58 p.m.

Mr. W. R. Williams (Manchester, Openshaw)

The subject of this Adjournment debate may not be one of national importance, but I and many others believe that it is of considerable moment to the people of the important City of Manchester, part of which I have the honour to represent, and, indeed, to the people of many other Lancashire and Cheshire townships adjoining Manchester. The subject is the need for major schemes of reconstruction and expansion at Manchester's railway stations, and particularly at the London Road and the Exchange Stations.

It will be well known to many hon. Members that the London Road Station is the main outlet for passenger traffic to Crewe, London and the South; to South Wales and to the West Midlands —the most populous and important industrial and commercial centres. Exchange is the main outlet.

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

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

Mr. Williams

The latter, that is to say, the Exchange Station, is one of the main outlets for the north-west of England, parts of Scotland, Yorkshire and the industrial areas of the North-East. There may be defects in the other two stations, Central Station and Victoria Station, but I have not had the opportunity to make personal investigations into those, and I will, therefore, confine myself to the two stations to which I have referred, London Road and Exchange.

Perhaps I ought to say that I sought to raise this subject on the Adjourment of the House a number of weeks before the Summer Recess. Unfortunately, from my point of view, Mr. Speaker did not find it possible to select it, and I have, therefore, had to wait until now. I mention that because I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, the Ministry, and, indeed, the British Transport Commission, will not be too much affected by the climate of the debate during the last few days and so be deterred from giving what I regard as full and sympathetic consideration to the submissions I hope to make in the next few minutes.

I assure the Parliamentary Secretary, first of all, that I fully recognise the stupendous tasks and problems with which British Railways have been confronted ever since nationalisation. In the second place, I realise that they still have problems of great magnitude ahead. Thirdly, I assure the Parliamentary Secretary that I am second to none in this House in admiration of the remarkable achievements of the British Transport Commission in the past six or eight years in engineering construction, relaying permanent way, mechanisation of signals and, what is perhaps particularly important from Manchester's point of view, the completion of the electrification scheme between Manchester and Sheffield which has proved a great asset to the travelling people of Manchester and that part of Yorkshire. Nevertheless, I make no apology at all for urging that a niche must be found in the immediate future programme of the Transport Commission to provide Manchester and this most important area with travelling facilities and amenities in main line stations which are in accordance with the importance of the area and the needs of the people living and working in it.

The hon. Member for Withington (Sir R. Cary) will, I am sure, know well, as I and others do, that within a radius of about thirty miles from the centre of Manchester there is an estimated population of between 2¼ and 2½ millions. The area is highly industrialised and there is within it a wide diversification of commercial establishments, trading centres and business activities. My first and basic contention is that the facilities now existing in London Road and Exchange are not up to the required standard and something must be done very soon in order to improve them.

Perhaps I had better deal separately with the two stations, taking first of all London Road, which is the principal station, as all hon. Members representing Manchester constituencies know very well because we frequently travel to and from it. With London Road must be associated its half-sister, Mayfield. Heaven knows what Mayfield Station really is; it seems to be one of those anachronisms one finds from time to time in a railway system. It seems to me to be a relic of the old days which has never been completely and properly amalgamated into the London Road Station.

I am not alone in the belief—it is shared by a large number of people in Manchester—that the sooner the existing structures at both London Road and Mayfield Road are pulled down and demolished, the better it will be for Manchester. A person trying to catch a train at the Mayfield Station finds that normally it is running out of London Road, but at the last minute it is changed to Mayfield. One has to run through jungles of staircases and corridors which seem to be miles long—I do not suppose they are, but they seem to be miles long when one is in a hurry. There does not seem to be any co-ordination whatever between these two sides of the station. The case I was putting tonight is that as soon as possible these two stations should be mobilised into one modern unit which will be worthy of Manchester and the area.

My second point is that, in the opinion of many of us who travel frequently, especially from Stockport to London Road, there is a shortage of tracks in the area. More tracks are certainly necessary to deal with the ever-growing traffic in the area, and especially—I am not an expert or a technician, but this much appeals to me—to deal with the clearance of empty coaches and light engines, which seem to be occupying the tracks that ought normally to be assigned to the main line passenger traffic coming in and out of Manchester.

I believe that the operational, the signalling and the inspectorate staff in London Road are most severely handicapped in their efforts to despatch trains on schedule and to receive incoming trains on time by the absence of suitable and sufficient tracks from that section, possibly from Longsight into London Road and Mayfield. This is certainly the case in the heavy seasonal periods, when a large number of relief and extra trains are put on to carry the additional traffic.

I shall not attempt to deal with the technical improvements which will be necessary to ensure that that is done. It is a matter for the technicians, the engineers and the constructional engineers. I simply pose the question as one which is exercising my own mind and the minds of many people who are forced to travel to and from Manchester.

In my opinion, there is a serious lack of accommodation for luggage, parcels and packets in Manchester, London Road. The extent of this problem is in the large stacks of parcels, packages and Post Office mailbags which are strewn all over the platforms and, indeed, over some of the exits of London Road station. Apart from speedy storage and disposal of these parcels and packages, the question of security is very important. I consider it most unfair to the employees of British Railways in London Road to impose upon them responsibility for custody without at the same time providing reasonably adequate accommodation, adequate staffing and, above all, direct and constant supervision of these articles. I do not think that under the existing circumstances it is possible for the staff to do it.

My third point concerns the working and retiring accommodation for the railway workers themselves. As an old trade union leader, I hesitate to interfere in matters which are normally outside by province. I consider that these matters are proper for the trade unions concerned to enter into negotiations with the official side and to try to make the best they can of the conditions there. I know that there are frequent and regular discussions between the unions concerned and the official side at London Road to try to overcome some of the problems there.

Looking at the buildings from the outside, at the retiring rooms, the offices, cloakrooms and so on, I think that they are hardly up to modern standards either in capacity, working conditions, hygiene, ventilation, lighting or anything else. I have not seen them inside. I did not think that it was my job to try to go inside to see them.

I have been actively concerned, however, about the retiring accommodation which was allocated to the male porters belonging to the Post Office who work at London Road Station, and I made it my business to ask the Assistant Postmaster-General to intercede on their behalf with the authorities in Manchester. I am very glad to say that improved accommodation has accrued as a result of that intercession. Whether the other accommodation is as bad as that which I saw in connection with the male porters' accommodation, I am unable to say. I am quite certain that every trade unionist there would be very pleased indeed to find modern offices and retiring rooms in London Road.

The main point of my submission concerns the facilities and amenities which are provided for the travelling public. I have made it my business to ascertain to the best of my ability what waiting room accommodation is available at London Road. So far as I can see, there is one ladies' waiting room in the main booking hall—and what a main booking hall it is! I can hardly believe that the people who planned the booking hall at Euston were the same people who planned the booking hall at London Road, Manchester.

There is one ladies' room there. I have not been in it, so I do not know what it is like. There is a general waiting room in the booking hall, and I think that with a little bit of elasticity it might be possible for that room to hold 12 to 15 people. There is another one, I understand, at the back of what is called the Tavern—and it is a tavern. I should imagine that if one pushed very hard one might be able to get 20 people into it. I do not know if there are others, and I am subject to correction if there are. So far as I can see, the travelling accommodation there for the public would possibly provide for 35 to 45. When we realise that thousands of people are travelling many times a day from Manchester to London and other places, I think that it will be agreed that the accommodation is completely inadequate.

There is another point of which I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to take note. The passengers who generally travel from London Road, Manchester, come from various parts of Lancashire. They have had a journey of an hour or 1½hours in some cases and owing to the connections they possibly have to come to London Road late in the evening, perhaps at 9.30 or 10 o'clock, to catch the midnight trains to London, Cardiff, Cornwall and other places. It is quite pathetic to see hundreds of passengers, especially women and children, old people and disabled people, who have not even a room in which to sit at London Road Station. They have to be there sometimes for 1½ hours or 2 hours in the cold weather in winter. Anyone who has been in the main booking hall at Manchester will know what a cold wintry evening is like in that tunnel of a booking hall. There is certainly no room at the London Road Station for a lot of these people. Many people will agree with me that we cannot allow this to go on indefinitely. Something must be done.

I want now to say a word about refreshment rooms. As far as I can ascertain, there are two ordinary refreshment rooms and the old tavern. One refreshment room closes fairly early, and the other at 11 p.m. Anyone who tries to get into the refreshment room at London Road Station between 10 and 11 p.m., especially in the summer, ought to be playing in the scrums for Wales, because it requires tenacity, courage, strength and stamina. Refreshments cannot be taken in comfort, if at all, and passengers facing long night journeys find that they cannot be served.

I want now to say a word about Exchange Station. I am not as familiar with Exchange as I am with London Road, but I have made it my business to visit it early in the mornings and at other times, and I believe the position there is, if anything, worse than at London Road in respect of amenities and general welfare facilities. I saw only one waiting room, one for both ladies and gentlemen, and I imagine that, with a struggle, one could get 14 or 16 people in it. I have seen no other accommodation for people there. There is no refreshment room. All there is is a wagon stall on one platform where one can get teas, buns and sandwiches. One certainly eats and drinks rough at Exchange. I have been there in the morning. Believe me, one sits out on benches on the platform with no cover and no protection from the wind and the cold.

I had wished to refer to the station approaches, the struggle at the taxi ranks and so on, but I think that the hon. Member for Withington feels almost as strongly as I do about some of the conditions at the Manchester stations, and, hoping that he will be fortunate enough to catch Mr. Speaker's eye, I have pleasure in making room for him.

10.18 p.m.

Sir Robert Cary (Manchester, Withington)

I intervene briefly in support of the hon. Member for Openshaw (Mr. W. R. Williams), who renders a service to all the citizens of Manchester by raising this matter.

As the hon. Member has truly said, the centrepiece is the reorganisation of the London Road Station. I believe the Prime Minister is travelling by train to Manchester tonight to fulfil a public engagement tomorrow. As he steps from the sleeper in the early hours of the morning into the grime of London Road Station, I hope he will not be reminded of the observation of John Stuart Mill 100 years ago about Manchester, that it was the vestibule of hell.

In referring to the London Road Station, I am not saying anything against the splendid services maintained by British Railways. This is not a complaint against the services to and from the station. It is a matter of how best the amenities of the station can be improved.

I am reminded that many years ago as a boy at school in Sussex, owing to a little success, which I had in the school debating society, I wrote excitedly to a well-known editor in Printing House Square asking him how I could manage to get to Parliament, and he most sensibly replied, "Train to Victoria, then 29 bus." As the years passed my ambition was fulfilled but it was via London Road Station and a majority of anything from one to ten thousand.

As I travelled on Thursday last to Manchester, I thought that I would make a little reconnaissance of the station staff of London Road Station, and as an ounce of fact is worth a ton of generalities, I took this question to the following staff of that station: "What does London Road Station need most?" The ticket collector said longer platforms; the bookstall keeper said, a better bookstall in a better place; the station-master's clerk required a bigger office; the parcels office clerk said, a new parcels depot; and the taxi-driver who took me away from the station said that London Road Station required blowing up. I do not ask my hon. Friend to be quite as drastic as that, but I ask him to give the matter some of the priority urged upon him by the hon. Member.

10.21 p.m.

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

I have listened to the eloquent pleas from the hon. Member for Openshaw (Mr. W. R. Williams) and my hon. Friend the Member for Withington (Sir R. Cary) about station facilities in Manchester. I am bound to say that I find it difficult to understand how the citizens of Manchester, who have made such splendid provision for this country in many ways and, indeed, have not failed to care for themselves in others, have failed in the past to provide themselves with better stations.

The fact is that almost any hon. Member can make a plea for a better station. It is common knowledge that nearly all our stations were built in the last century. Very few of them were modernised between the wars and we have not had time to do much since. Therefore, moved as I am by the eloquence of the hon. Members, I hope that others will not follow their example with similar pleas, because I shall occupy this bench every night for many months if they do.

I have inquired into this problem and the British Transport Commission has plans for London Road which are scheduled to start within the next eighteen months—it was two years from last March when they proposed these plans. These plans will go a long way to meeting what the hon. Members asked. That is to say, they provide for the lengthening of the platforms and increasing the number of the platforms. That is to meet the extra traffic which is expected when electrification is completed. When electrification is completed, those odd engines free-wheeling on their own and blocking tracks will disappear, because with electric traction they will not be needed. It is also intended to provide for a general modernisation of the whole station, including better lighting, repositioning of buildings—and I will take up the point about the parcels accommodation, but I think it has been catered for —and certainly to provide new refreshment rooms.

On behalf of the Commission, I should say that I have made it my business and, indeed, my interest since I have been in my present Department to tour the country whenever I could to see what the Commission was doing with its modernisation schemes in different regions all over the place. Although the Commission has not been able to do much in the stations yet, where it has been able to do something it has done it very well. I am thinking particularly of the new refreshment room, the Caledonia refreshment room, at Glasgow Central Station which is admirable and everybody enjoys going there. It is just what a refreshment room ought to be.

I hope that in the course of the next few years there will be many more of those and that London Road Station, Manchester, will be among the first to have one. A great deal is being done in the design of refreshment rooms, waiting rooms and so on. Some stations have new ones now. They are much more attractive and commodious than the old ones, and in every way give better facilities to the long-suffering travelling public.

I sympathise with the travelling public. I quite agree that the traditional waiting room and refreshment room leaves a great deal to be desired. The hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow) probably said the last word on the subject in a debate during the summer. While I cannot agree with all he said. I do agree—and the Commission well knows this—that there is much to be done, and it is most anxious to go ahead and do it. At the same time, extensive remodelling of the track will be required in order to tie in with the increased number of platforms, electrification and so on, and the total estimated cost of that station is£1¼million, so it is a big step.

There are also other schemes. At Manchester, Oxford Road, there is a £250,000 scheme for special reconstruction brought about by electrification. At Manchester, Victoria Road, there is a new cafeteria, which was put in in 1952, and a new track lay-out and coloured light signalling system are to be installed. There is a further and bigger scheme for Victoria Road, under which £1 million will be spent in order to improve passenger accommodation. At Manchester, Central, a modern cafeteria was constructed in 1953, and there is a scheme for a further £116,000 for modernising the booking office, lengthening platforms, etc. I find that there is no proposal for improvements at Manchester, Exchange, at present, but I shall certainly take up with the Commission the points which the hon. Member has made and see how it proposes to meet them.

As to the general picture, we have had about two years of this huge modernisation programme for the railways for which we are providing £1,200 million plus in order to bring our railways up to the top class, in the expectation that there will be no better railway system in the world than ours in the next ten or fifteen years. Despite the capital cuts we are still allowing this modernisation programme to go ahead at a pretty high speed. The Chancellor told the House that we were allowing the expenditure of £170 million for next year and the year after. That, it is true, means some slowing down of the programme which the Commission was intending for those two years, but the fact is that the Commission has greatly speeded up its modernisation programme—and we are very delighted that it has—over the original figures for those two years, which were £135 million and £140 million. So even at the slower rate that we can allow the Commission is still substantially in advance of schedule, and I do not doubt that the whole country, including the constituencies of the hon. Members who have been speaking, will see very big improvements throughout.

Inevitably, most of these improvements, to start with, have been concentrated on the operational side—upon such matters as motive power; changing steam to diesel and electrification; coloured light signalling, which gives better line occupation, and reduces personnel; the continuous brake for freight wagons in order to improve the service; permament way improvements, and new marshalling yards which are an essential part of the improved freight service.

This is all foundation work for a better service both for passengers and freight. It is not work which will show itself very much to the travelling public, but all of it will be giving us progressive returns in improved quality of service both for passengers and freight, and therefore improved earning capacity for the Commission.

As, at present, there is a deficit of a good many tens of millions of pounds, which has to be carried by the taxpayer and financed by the 1957 Act, it is obviously of first-class importance that the Commission should relieve the taxpayers of that burden as soon as it can, so it has been rightly concentrating upon giving a better service and making itelf economically sound as soon as it can, and it hopes to do so by 1961–62. It certainly intends to go ahead progressively with improvements in stations, in the facilities for the travelling public in refreshment rooms, retiring rooms and so on, and with more comfortable rolling stock, and in a large variety of ways. I think that the hon. Members can be assured that Manchester will get its, share—

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.