HC Deb 23 June 1958 vol 590 cc202-12

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Colonel J. H. Harrison.]

12.45 a.m.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Dorset, South)

I apologise to the few hon. Members present, and to the officers and officials of the House for the lateness of the hour at which I call attention to future disused branch lines. I wish we could have had the debate at an earlier hour and so have saved the time of everyone concerned.

I do not want my hon. Friend to think that I am in any way in favour of the Transport Commission resiling from its declared policy of closing branch lines. The more of these lines that are closed, and the quicker the Commission produces its economies, the more satisfactory it will be for all concerned. Indeed, in my own constituency, one or two branch lines have been closed, and I am afraid that I have incurred some unpopularity amongst my constituents because I have refused to support their plea that these should remain open against the economic interests of the Commission.

At the same time, it is notable that when these branch lines are closed, the public very often has to suffer increased charges for bus transport. I have had cases in my own constituency where no sooner were the branch lines declared closed than the bus fares rose to heights which made it extremely difficult for my constituents to go about their business at reasonable prices. I have raised this question of buses on a previous occasion, and do not intend to pursue it tonight.

I have done my best to ascertain the figures relating to branch lines over the last seven years. As the hour is so late, I will not weary the House with all the details that I have in front of me, but would only ask my hon. Friend if he can confirm the cumulative totals that I propose to give. I have gone back to 1950 and, to date, it would seem that 155 branch lines have been closed down, covering a route mileage of 1,772, and achieving an estimated minimum annual saving to the Commission of £1,677,000-odd which, at first sight, would appear to be fairly satisfactory.

Then we come to some rather more interesting figures. There is the estimated book value of assets displaced, including stations, which would appear to be £8,723,000-odd, netting receipts to the Commission for land sold of about £2,184,000. There is a difference between these last two figures of about £6,540,000 which, I think, ought really to be analysed, and I should be grateful to my hon. Friend if he could do that, either now, if he has the figures available, or, perhaps, in answer to a Parliamentary Question on the subject, if he will indicate that he is willing to answer one.

As it stands, the figure does not really reveal the true facts. I want that final difference analysed, and I should like specifically to ask how much of that figure represents a book loss on the assets which have, in fact, been sold, and how much of it represents the value of disused property which has not yet been sold. If we can get that figure analysed we shall at least see how fast the Transport Commission is proceeding in this matter of disposing of branch lines.

I come now to ask the Minister if he will declare what is the Commission's policy for the disposal of land when these branch lines go out of use. I understand that the general idea is to make it available to the adjacent owners of property. What does that mean? Is the branch line to be chopped up into various areas and the contiguous parts of it handed over to people who, for example, own housing estates, or industrial trading estates, or agricultural or forestry interests, or mines or quarries? I do not think that it would really advantage anybody to know how much of the land has been parcelled out so far, but a broad picture would be interesting to people who are concerned about the future of these branch lines. It would be interesting to know how the land upon which they have been constructed has been disposed of to the various types of owner.

Further than that, what happens if the adjacent owner is not interested? Has the Commission any other ideas? Is any other policy being considered? My own feeling, after looking at this question and studying these figures, is to declare that the Commission does not seem to me to have pursued a very active sales promotion policy in the last seven years. Perhaps that is an example of the ultraconservative bureaucracy in which the Commission has been involved ever since the 1953 Act was passed. It is true that the Commission is getting on with faster train services, and electrification. There are rosy pictures held out about future management, and so on; but there is also something else.

From the point of view of the average traveller on the railways day after day, and year after year, one is still conscious of a solid conservative past. Whether it is the unions imposing this on the management, or whether it is the management failing to get its views over, one cannot make out; but in this matter of selling off the branch lines or finding a new use for them, I am afraid that the Commission is indulging in much too much of a dog-in-the-manger policy. We have now to consider rather more urgently than in the past what is to happen to these branch lines, because the Government have recently announced—and I support the underlying policy—that the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway is redundant.

That is a justifiably ruthless policy having regard to the need to make economies. This is evidence that the Commission is prepared to act to cut out the dead wood from its industrial network; but, also, this seems to carry with it a peremptory moral demand that the Transport Commission should indulge in policies calculated to let others benefit where it cannot itself do so. We cannot have a Transport Commission dog sitting in the manger stopping people from eating the food which it cannot itself digest.

What sort of user can be found for these branch lines? My own view, which I will declare in some detail in a moment, is that there is quite a good prospect for private enterprise to come in and reactivate on a new basis these branch lines which are to be closed down. People say, "Where is the capital to come from? How can people suddenly find a lot of money to purchase or lease these branch lines from the Commission and run them profitably?" The same thing was said when it was first mooted that the Independent Television Authority should get to work. Nearly everybody at that time thought that it was inconceivable that any alternative capital could be found for an independent service. But the Government screwed up their courage. They passed the Act. The I.T.A. came into existence and the capital flowed in overnight, and now we have got a first-class competitive service with the B.B.C.

I have not the slightest doubt that if the Government or the Transport Commission were to declare their policy for the future of these branch lines and were to announce that they would be sold off by tender to suitable bidders, the capital would be found. When steel was denationalised in the 1953 Act, the Realisation Agency was set up and the great steel concerns bought back their assets from the Iron and Steel Board. In the same way in the 1953 Transport Act the Road Haulage Disposal Board was set up and private enterprise operators bought back their fleets of vehicles from the Road Haulage Executive. The same sort of thing could happen again in the case of branch lines if only the Government and the Commission would declare their policy.

What sort of service is it possible to envisage? I was a model railway enthusiast in my youth, but it certainly does not take me today to the point of envisaging vintage locomotives puffing up and down an old-fashioned branch line, a sort of "Emmet's Rural Rides" being created for my constituents. Far from it. I consider that the analogy is much more perfect with that of private airline operators as against B.E.A. or B.O.A.C.

There is no reason at all why private enterprise should not move swiftly in this modern age of transport and do something which is not quite on the same Rolls-Royce standards as British Railways but, at any rate, is very close to it. I am looking forward to the time when on these disused branch lines we shall get small petrol or diesel rail cars, holding perhaps between 15 and 30 people, with a single driver-conductor, proceeding at moderate speeds, between 30 and 40 m.p.h. over permanent way which, as I say, is not maintained in the state of perfection one finds on the main line railways but is of sufficiently high standard to withstand the rolling stock used. A certain number of weeds might be allowed to grow between the tracks. Who bothers about that? On the Continent of Europe there are quite fast modern tramways travelling along main roads well out into the country with such a type of track.

There would, in my view, be no need for station staff. The stations would become mere shelters for the public waiting for the railcar to arrive. There would be no signalling, except perhaps at level crossings, where the gates would be dispensed with and ordinary road traffic signals substituted, and at the red light the railcar would automatically stop until the road again was declared clear.

That, very briefly stated at this very late hour, is the kind of concept I have of the way in which these branch lines might operate in the future. All sorts of projects are on hand for various types of transport today. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Sir A. Bossom) has a splendid project for a monorail link between Central London and London Airport, and that is being looked at by the Transport Commission. A project of that kind would have seemed fantastic to consider 10 or 15 years ago, while today it is something which is worth while investigating.

All I am asking my hon. Friend to do is to agree that a Departmental committee should be appointed in his Ministry which, with the Transport Commission, should take evidence from the local authorities concerned with the closing of branch lines, and particularly perhaps with those local authorities concerned with the closing of this very large and important branch line, the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway, about which I have spoken, and perhaps with other concerns interested in private rail development, like the Railway Development Association which, I understand, has done some work already on the financing of this transfer of these lines from public to private enterprise.

We are a wonderful country in some ways, and I notice that there is a concern already in existence, which has been in existence for a long time, called Srubluk, the Society for the Reinvigoration of Unremunerative Branch Lines in the United Kingdom. It has note paper, and it is an intact organisation. If my right hon. Friend could only decide that there is a future in these lines, then I think that organisations such as that could infuse the Transport Commission with their enthusiasm and produce a policy which would redound to the credit of my right hon. and hon. Friends.

1.3 a.m.

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

I must congratulate my noble Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke) on his research into this matter. I can confirm that the first figure he quoted is correct. Indeed, he took it, I think, from the 1957 Report of the Central Transport Consultative Committee; similarly, the figure of £1.68 million of estimated savings and 155 branch lines closed down, involving 1,700-odd miles of line.

The other figures must be treated with more reserve. The actual figures are correct, but the net figure of £6.5 million is virtually a book loss and related to the book value of those lines at the time at which the British Transport Commission took them over from the previous public companies. I am afraid I cannot tell my noble Friend how much of that figure represents disused line which has not yet been sold. I suppose the figure could be discovered, but it would require a very great deal of research into the records of the different regions, and I hope my noble Friend will not press me to get it for him, because I feel that that effort could be better used on more productive work. I was very glad to hear my noble Friend say that he commended the general policy, which my right hon. Friend and I are now supporting the Commission in, of closing down further, and more rapidly, lines which are now completely uneconomic and unprofitable. In fact, it should be said to the credit of the Commission that it has always been very reluctant to close down lines even when they are making a loss. The valued traditions of being a common carrier are there, and the Commission will not close down these lines unless it is convinced that they are absolutely hopeless. But, as it is quite clearly also the responsibility of the Commission to make the business of the railways pay, to achieve solvency, and to relieve the taxpayer of the burden of the deficit, obviously it must make every effort to make its affairs solvent and cut out the uneconomic lines. My right hon. Friend and I are encouraging it to do that.

Perhaps I might, in passing, say something to the credit of the Commission in what it has done to try to keep some of these lines going, because this does relate to some of the comments made by my noble Friend. The Commission has not been by any means unenterprising. First of all, it has tried the idea of the light diesel services which have been seen in some parts of the country. The experimental service on the Banbury-Buckingham line was found to be fairly successful in attracting new traffic, but, unfortunately, the capital cost is still very high, and, although the Commission has undoubtedly raised the receipts in that way, I doubt very much whether the gap will be covered.

The Commission has now gone on to have built 22 diesel rail buses which take about 40 or 50 passengers each. These buses cost about £12,500 each. They will be distributed over four regions, and they will give a further opportunity of seeing what the chances are of attracting sufficient passenger traffic to close the gap with the lightest possible vehicle which can be run on a railway line and stand up to the hard work encountered there. Travelling on a railway line is very hard for a vehicle: the steel wheel on the steel rail calls for a very heavy construction of vehicle and inevitably makes it a far more expensive proposition than a road vehicle with similar capacity. But the Commission has done quite a bit in trying new methods. It is willing to do more and has now engaged on this new experiment.

The alternative of going over to the light railway, to which my noble Friend referred, has very limited application. This is, I think, borne out by the infrequency with which it has been done. To take full advantage of the Light Railways Acts, the system has to be reduced to no more than a tramway, and it certainly would not be possible for a vehicle to travel at anything like 30 to 40 miles an hour. Indeed, it is very difficult to conceive of a service which would qualify under these Acts which would really meet the needs of modern transport. The scope is really very limited there.

As regards disposals, there is the alternative of either disposing of the railway as a going concern or breaking it up. Of course, the Commission does not have a sales department for these disused railways, but there is very full publicity when a railway is to be closed. There is a great deal of comment in the local Press, and in every case the local consultative committee has to meet. People give evidence, and, undoubtedly, the whole neighbourhood knows everything about it. We can, I think, be reasonably certain that all potential purchasers will have heard of it.

First, there is the prospect of selling as a going concern. No one has yet purchased one. In the Isle of Wight a private company was formed in 1955 to purchase branch lines in the Isle of Wight but in the event no proposition has yet appeared to acquire these lines which the British Transport Commission could seriously consider. The same comment applies to the Welshpool—Llanfair line. The light gauge railway there was closed in 1956, and although there was again talk about it, no firm and reasonable proposition has been made to the Commission. I think my hon. Friend must accept it as a fact that although there have been several opportunities—those two are notable examples—to acquire railway systems, the prospect of being able to operate these railways is so exceedingly dim that despite the enterprise—and I join with my hon. Friend in acknowledging the adventure and energy of private enterprise—no one has yet felt able to risk his capital and labour in taking on one of these propositions which have such very limited prospects.

The alternative method of disposal is that of breaking up. The rolling stock, the signalling gear, the rails and even the ballast can all be sold and are useful, but the site is of course very specialised. It is a long, narrow strip of land which has been very carefully constructed across the country to be as level as possible. It varies between cuttings through the high ground and embankments on the low ground. It has no value except for a railway or another track. It would be possible to make a narrow lane along it, but that is no use; we already have too many narrow lanes. It is much too narrow to make out of it a modern dual carriageway of the kind we want. In one case it has been possible to use part of a disused railway line—between Merthyr and Abergavenny in South Wales. It has been brought into the new Heads of the Valley road as part of the big new road we are making from the Midland towns to the South Wales ports. That is the only case of which I know where even a strip of old railway track has been of use.

In practice, the best the Commission can do is to offer it to local landowners and hope that for severance reasons they may wish to acquire the land. If they do not, it is almost impossible to find anybody else who is in any way interested in the land. One problem is to prevent it from being choked by brambles of all sorts, forming a harbour for vermin. What on earth to do with these disused sites is a very serious problem and I hope that what my hon. Friend said will draw further attention to it.

In a word, the Commission has full powers under the 1947 Transport Act to dispose of these railways. We have all the facts and there is nothing that a Departmental Committee could add. The Commission is doing its utmost to dispose of the land and is not in the least dog-in-the-manger about it. It would sell it tomorrow if it could and is keen enough to do so. I should welcome any constructive suggestions as to better use which could be made of this land or if there were any hero prepared to take over a complete railway line, the Commission would be only too delighted to sell the whole bag of tricks if it were given a firm offer. We have to accept, however, that when a line is closed down its commercial prospects are so dim as to be practically non-existent. The only alternative is to break up the line and to make the best use one can of the assets.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for his admirable reply, but may I put a question to him? Is it conceivable that the Commission's standards are too high? If a lower standard were permitted, that would leave quite a different economic picture and private enterprise might be able to use the line to advantage and show some profits.

Mr. Nugent

I do not think my right hon. Friend could accept lower standards if we are to achieve the standards of safety which are essential on our railways.

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

Adjourned at a quarter past One o'clock.