HC Deb 27 April 1959 vol 604 cc1058-68

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

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke (Darwen)

In 1846 a railway was built between Preston and Blackburn, and along with the railway various stations were built, including one at a hamlet of the name of Pleasington, which then, I believe, consisted of three houses. The station having been built, a considerable village grew up dependent entirely upon the railway for its communications.

There were then, as now, very bad roads leading to and from the village, and until the advent of the motor car the villagers used the railway exclusively. Even today there is virtually no bus service. Although there is a bus service it is a very poor one. Though a glance at the map puts the village not far from the main road, the map is not enough to give the true picture. The road is, in fact, very steep and tortuous, ill-lit and incapable of accommodating any greater bus service.

Other stations in my constituency have been threatened with closure, and, indeed, have been closed, in the last few years. I have not raised a word against that because one recognises that the railways must have regard to finance in these matters. If a station is unremunerative then, unless there is a very good reason for keeping it open, there is probably a good case for closing it.

As I say, three stations have been closed, and I think rightly, even though some hardship has been caused. But the station of Pleasington is an entirely different matter. It is said that it does not pay now. If that were a sufficient reason for closing it I think that a great many of the stations that are kept open in remote areas, particularly in Scotland, would all be closed at once. The mere fact that it does not pay is not, in my submission, a sufficient ground for closing it unless it can be shown that there are reasonable alternative transport facilities, which, at present, there are not.

Furthermore, the figures given are not a true guide because for some time the service to this station has been cut down. In particular, a vital train which used to stop at the station at 10 a.m. to carry housewives into Blackburn to shop, and people of that sort who went daily to Blackburn, no longer stops there. There is now, I believe, no train between nine o'clock in the morning and two o'clock in the afternoon, a sad decline from the sort of service that was available until fairly recently.

It seems to me that the British Transport Commission is not entitled to cut services down and down and then to turn round and say that the station does not pay, because it is not very likely to pay if treated like that. But, even more than that, the facilities for buying tickets at the station are very limited. It is not possible to book through to quite normal stations in the north-west area. Therefore, the booking office has not shown a revenue which is properly attributable to Pleasington. People have to book to Blackburn and rebook from Blackburn if they wish to proceed further. This is revenue which would be attributable to the Pleasington booking office if it had the facilities which it used to have and should have.

Another reason why it may not pay is that it employs too many people. It employs two men full time, and, in addition, a station master half time. It is quite absurd that a station with no goods facilities and where the inhabitants are perfectly prepared to do without luggage facilities in the old-fashioned sense should employ that number of staff.

I plead with the Minister and, through him, with the Transport Commission to try to devise a scheme so that tickets can either be obtained at the station from a slot machine or taken on the train to Blackburn or Preston. I have no doubt that this is a familiar plea to the Minister, but it is a reasonable one because this is a passenger station. There is no reason why if tickets can be obtained either from a slot machine on the station or on the train the number of employees working there should not be reduced.

There is, I understand, an exceptional objection to the continued running of that station which is of vital importance to the people in the village and to people in Blackburn and Preston who come to the village, as many of them do. It is said that the platform is in a state of disrepair and that about £5,000 would have to be spent on it. Is that a good reason for closing a station if it is giving a service? This station was built well over 100 years ago and nothing has been done to the platform in living memory. It is not surprising that after 100 years capital equipment wears out.

In any reasonable service provided for the community in industry it would be expected that the capital equipment would have to be renewed after a century. Even if the station is closed, a great deal of money would have to be spent on the two platforms because they are on the mainline and, apparently, are bellying inwards to the lines. They would, therefore, have to be removed, if not repaired, and that would cost a lot of money, if not as much as £5,000 which we are told new platforms would cost.

This raises a very important question of principle as to whether the railways, which give a public service, should be able to neglect a station in this way and then say it would cost too much to repair. It looks as if it has been neglected and, even if it has not been neglected, it looks as if sufficient funds have not been set aside for what inevitably in the course of over a century must have been expected—that is to say, renewal and not merely repair of this capital equipment of great age.

Public agitation about the closing of this station is very great. There is a great bitterness, I think perhaps misplaced, that other stations on the line—which in the opinion of the inhabitants of Pleasing-ton show no greater passenger revenue, in fact less passenger revenue, and are a loss paying proposition—should be preserved. It is said they are being preserved because they have goods yards attached to them, whereas Pleasington is only a passenger station but the other stations are on main roads. They have good and sufficient bus services and their roads are capable of carrying increased bus services if those stations were closed. That is not the case in Pleasington, where the roads are very bad and there is no possibility of increased bus services.

It is very bitter for the people of Pleasington to see the preservation of neighbouring stations which contribute in passenger revenue less than they do, whereas their station, which to them is essential, is threatened with closure. They are up in arms, particularly the old people, because owing to steep and twisting roads, which are very ill-lit, they will, to all intents and purposes, be cut off from Blackburn and Preston where they now go to shop, to the cinema, and to visit friends. Not only will they not be able to do that, but the home helps, and similar workers, who come out from Blackburn to look after them will not be able to make the journey.

I have in my hand an enormous number of letters, digests of letters and copies of letters about this which are pitiful and pitiable. One old person writes: Everything will be taken away. We might as well be in an old-age house. We depend upon the station for Blackburn. There is then a cry that the figures do not represent the true position: Tickets for longer distances cannot always be obtained here. For instance last summer four of us wanted to go to York for the day. We could book at Pleasington only as far as Blackburn where we had to re-book to York. The same summer the four of us wanted to book from here to Chester, but we were able to book only to Preston, where we had to book the rest of the journey These trips of ours showed a revenue to Pleasington of only shillings instead of pounds These are just two instances of loss of revenue to Pleasington because tickets could not be got here Another reads: What are we going to do? The bus service is hopeless. The morning 10.5 train to Blackburn, always well patronised by housewives, was withdrawn, leaving nothing till 2 p.m. from 9 a.m. Another reads: "As a nurse I use this station six days a week. I dislike the lonely walk to or from Feniscowles when I have to do it. To lose the station will be a great hardship. On and on these letters go, some in much stronger terms. Many of them complain about the service being cut down, but they all would put up with that if the station in some way could be preserved. I will read another letter. This is from a lady in Blackburn who goes out as a domestic help. She writes: I come two or three times a week as a domestic help. How can I come if there are no trains? I have a daughter who is a spastic and cannot be left very long. Without the train I could no longer come to Pleasington for employment. I should be away from home too long without the train to get me back … Another letter reads: In bad weather the road is a 'divil'. There is no justification for singling out Pleasington for closure. There is more reason for closing any other station on this line. We are not on a main bus route. We are concerned for the children. My daughter is at school in Blackburn, travelling daily by train. The road is in a shocking and dangerous condition with few or no footpaths. Most of the way from Feniscowle one has to walk in the road. We travel by rail for longer trips, too. To close it is ridiculous. We need better service … Another letter reads: If the station is closed we'll be marooned because the bus service is practically nonexistent and the roads do not permit a really good bus service. I use the train for shopping in Blackburn, and also go longer distances, to Preston and on outings … I will not quote much more, because there are so many of these letters, but I will read this letter: There are only my mother and I here. She is an old lady. I have to use my car for work. On Mondays, three home helps come from Blackburn, three on Wednesdays, two on Tuesdays and Thursdays and one on Fridays. How they are going to get here if the station closed we or they do not know My mother cannot be left. She is very old and quite unable to do housework in a large house To close the station would be appalling. I know that the railways have to be competitive and have to break even, but they also have to give a public service, and they have to strike a balance in that rather difficult decision whether to keep open stations which are apparently not profitable. I should have thought, however, that if ever the claim of a public service should exercise a strong pull in favour of preserving a station, this station is eminently such a case.

I know that the matter is to be thrashed out on 3rd June before the North-West Area Transport Users' Consultative Committee, and I hope that that Committee, which is said to be a powerful one, will not merely sit in some room and look at maps, but will actually go to the village, inspect it on the ground, look at the condition of the roads, and their hilly and winding nature, and consider the possibility of improving road transport. If it did that, I am persuaded that any such committee worth its salt could not possibly do anything but uphold these unanimous and very pathetic protests, not only from the inhabitants of Pleasington but from the people of Preston and Blackburn and many others, who complain, not because they are old people but because of their daily work and the education of their children.

That being so, I beg the Minister—although he may not be able to give us any satisfaction tonight—himself to examine this problem. both before and after the meeting of the Consultative Committee, and to use whatever influence the constitution and the Statute allows to see that these people have a square deal.

11.46 p.m.

Mrs. Barbara Castle (Blackburn)

I am glad to have this brief opportunity to support the plea so forcefully made by the hon. and learned Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke). As he has made quite clear, there are close links between the village of Pleasington and my constituency. I have been approached, as he has been, by the protest committee, which has asked for the case to be vigorously ventilated here tonight.

I have a good deal of sympathy with British Railways, who are under constant pressure in the House to pay their way, and to make that the over-riding criterion by which they should judge themselves. That inevitably means that they are under constant pressure from us and others to find all possible means of economy, and to fine down the services they give. They can, therefore, say to us, "You are always lecturing us about the need to be financially sound, yet whenever we try to make economies we meet with this kind of outburst." Nevertheless, I believe that the hon. Member has made out the case very effectively for the special position in which this village, and the station, now stands.

I should have thought that British Railways would have been very glad to find that there was a section of the community that was anxious to travel by rail, and was objecting to being transferred to road transport even if road services were available—and it is clear that the bus services are at present totally inadequate, and there is no prospect whatsoever that if the station were closed an adequate bus service would be provided, even if that met the special needs of the village.

Surely this Blackburn—Preston line will be deiselised. At present, it is a slow and cranking service and, I should think, highly out of date, and uneconomical overall. I have travelled on sections of the line in different parts of the country—connecting side railways, as it were—that have been put on to diesel services and have, consequently, been transformed. As I listened to the hon. Member, I thought particularly of a section of a very rural line on which I travelled quite recently, between Norwich and Yarmouth. That was on a regular half-hour diesel service. It is really like a bus on rails. The service stopped at the most remote and minute little halts in the countryside, serving groups of population, I should have thought, much smaller than the group of people involved at Pleasington.

I was given the impression by British Railways, when I discussed this matter with them, that this stretch of railway from Preston to Blackburn is on their programme for dieselisation in the near future. That being so, it would surely solve the problem of this village. I believe it would also lead to a great increase in traffic. If there were a half-hourly or hourly service on a dieselised stretch of railway there would be a move by the local residents to take advantage of this service. There might also be a move in a reverse direction, and relatives and friends of the local residents might be encouraged to visit the locality.

This is what ought to happen on this part of the line, for the benefit of all the stations and not least for those of us who have to use this miserable connection between Preston and Blackburn. If that improvement can be introduced in the reasonably near future, it is outrageous for this station to be closed instead of waiting for this fundemental reform of this branch railway.

On those grounds, I strongly support the protest by the hon. and learned Member for Darwen and his request that the Minister should use his influence with British Railways and say, "Let us have a modern stretch of railway here and let the people of Pleasington remain on that line and share this brighter transport future."

11.52 p.m.

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

I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke) on his good fortune in securing the Adjournment debate tonight to raise this troublesome matter of his constituents' convenience and transport at Pleasington. I congratulate him also on the ability with which he put the case and the detailed argument which he put forward.

I listened carefully to the letters that he read out, and I would only observe that I hope he will see that they are put to the North-West Area Transport Users' Consultative Committee and that, if possible, the people who wrote them—at any rate, some of them—will attend and give oral evidence as well because it is that kind of evidence that the Consultative Committee is there to hear.

I listened to the eloquent plea that was made by the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) that the line should be served with a diesel service instead of the existing steam service. I can well imagine, from her description, that the steam service is not entirely up to date. I certainly recognise that a diesel service would greatly improve the service and would attract new traffic. The difficulty for the Commission is that in some places where this has been tried it has been found that even then the costs are not met by the increased traffic. and so it has to be a matter of judgment for the Commission as to where it thinks this would succeed and where it would not. I agree that where there is a prospect of success it should be adopted.

I hope that the House will not misunderstand me if I do not go into detail in this case, because I am informed that the North-Western Area Transport Users' Consultative Committee is to consider this issue of the closing of Pleasington station at its next meeting, on 3rd June. As Parliament has put on transport users' consultative committees, by the 1947 Transport Act, the responsibility of hearing the British Transport Commission's proposals for closures, and the objections of interested people or bodies, it would be improper for me to go into the details of the case tonight. I would only say that, in a general way, the Commission must have the support of my right hon. Friend and myself in pressing the Commission to make up the very heavy deficit which it is now carrying, estimated to be about £90 million for last year. Unless the Commission is able to bring that huge deficit into balance and, indeed, to service the loan which must now cover it, it will inevitably fall upon the long-suffering shoulders of the taxpayer.

We are not in the least hard-hearted about it. We are very anxious that the Commission should give the best possible service, and that is why we provide the huge sums of money, which the Commission is now receiving from the Government, to modernise its services throughout to give the country the best possible rail service. It must remain the responsibility of the Commission to endeavour to bring its accounts into balance.

That definition of broad policy which I have given is without prejudice in any way to the merits of this particular case. I know that the Consultative Committee will give a fair and independent hearing to the objections to the closure of Pleasington station. I was glad to hear my hon. and learned Friend pay a tribute to the quality of the membership of the Committee. It will, I know, look into the matter fully, will listen to the objections fully, and, if necessary, will make inspections.

After it has made its recommendation, that will go to the Central Transport Consultative Committee, which may confirm, vary or reject it, or send it back for further consideration. The Central Committee will then inform my right hon. Friend and the B.T.C. of its recommendation, and my right hon. Friend may then give such directions to the Commission as he thinks fit. In practice, this has never been necessary, because the Commission has always accepted the recommendation.

The men and women who sit on these consultative committees are doing a valuable job for us in giving up their time to do this public service, and we are very grateful to them for the way in which they do it, in trying to hold a fair balance between the very proper and urgent interests of the local community, the travelling public who want these services continued, and the broad responsibility of the Commission to bring its affairs into balance and get rid of its deficit. I roundly assure my hon. and learned Friend and the hon. Lady that the Consultative Committee will give this difficult case, which has been so well put to the House tonight, the fairest possible consideration. The House may be assured that the matter will be fairly and properly treated.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Twelve o'clock.