HC Deb 23 July 1958 vol 592 cc420-2
39. Mr. G. Wilson

asked the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation whether he has now discussed with the Chairmen of the Transport Users' Consultative Committees the British Transport Commission's proposal to withdraw unremunerative rail services from more than thirty lines; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Watkinson

I met the Chairmen on 24th June and informed them that the Government intended to support strongly the British Transport Commission's plans for eliminating from the railway system those services which are hopelessly uneconomic in modern transport conditions. The railways are no longer a monopolistic organisation with an obligation to provide all sections of the community with a railway service.

The Consultative Committees, when considering proposed withdrawals, will continue to give full opportunity to local interests to express their views, and in making their recommendations will continue to take into account the existence of alternative services or the need for them. The Commission is under no obligation to provide an alternative service. Sir Brian Robertson has, nevertheless, assured me that it is willing to co-operate fully with the Committees in exploring how the needs of the public affected by withdrawals can best be met.

Mr. Wilson

While thanking my right hon. Friend for that reply and not wishing to do anything to obstruct the railways in removing uneconomic services, may I ask the Minister if he will bear in mind that certain problems may arise in rural areas in connection with rural bus services?

Mr. Watkinson

I am only too conscious of the problems of the rural areas, and I had a very useful discussion with all the Chairmen of the Consultative Committees recently. I am sure that they too are fully aware of the problem. On the other hand, the British Transport Commission has to try to get its finances in order, and therefore we must not stand unduly in its way in cutting its costs.

Mr. Ernest Davies

While accepting that, may I ask whether the Minister fully appreciates that there are other standards besides that of making the railways pay, and that it is necessary to maintain a public service? As certain railway services are operated very profitably, must not these be used in order to keep running services in areas where there are no other adequate transport facilities? Is not it necessary to maintain a public service?

Mr. Watkinson

I do not quite agree with the hon. Gentleman. Certainly, the British Transport Commission does not advocate removing services in cases where there is some eventual hope of their paying, or providing necessary feeder services to other parts of the railways. What I am not prepared to ask the Commission to do, and I should make this quite plain to the House, is to keep on wholly uneconomic services without any regard to its financial position.

Mr. Strauss

On that point, may I ask the Minister whether there are not other public services, such as London Transport and the Post Office, which, in the national interests, run services which are not remunerative? Should not the British Transport Commission do exactly the same thing, and keep railways going where there is no alternative transport? Does not the same principle of public service apply?

Mr. Watkinson

The right hon. Gentleman will know that the Consultative Committees are produced by Act of Parliament and rest upon an Act of Parliament, which lays upon them the duty of seeing that, as far as possible, where, for example, branch lines are closed, alternative services are provided. I am quite sure that they will continue to carry out that task, and there may well be ways of doing it; but I must make it plain that the Commission has to get its finances in order. The Commission is being very heavily subsidised by the taxpayer at the present moment, and I think the House should help and not hinder it.

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