HC Deb 12 March 1959 vol 601 cc1602-12

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

10.49 p.m.

Mr. F. P. Crowder (Ruislip-Northwood)

I am very glad to have the opportunity this evening to raise in this House the question of the disgraceful conditions which are persisting and, despite endless complaint, have persisted for a very long time, on the Metropolitan line. I am supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Sir S. Summers), my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire. South-West (Mr. G. Longden) and other hon. Members who represent the constituencies which have the misfortune to be served by this particular railway.

It is a sad and disgraceful story which I have to tell the House. Originaly this line, which is electrified and runs to Watford and Rickmansworth in the north-east and Aldgate in the east and serves Amersham Chesham, Missenden, Wendover and the town of Aylesbury, provided a clean, well-run service, with smart railway stations and well ordered flower beds, and the trains kept to time. Its main function was to take Londoners in safety and comfort away to the country every day on business and also at the week-end to those delightful parts of the countryside which are represented in this House by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury and myself. Instead, today we have a thoroughly badly run dirty, irregular service which is an abounding disgrace to the Transport Executive which is in control of it.

Let me say at once that I am indeed grateful for the presence of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation. Time and again I and my hon. Friends have written to him on behalf of our constiuents and we have received the greatest possible co-operation and courtesy from him. But I feel that tonight my hon. Friend must be in the position, or feel that he is in the position, which I have often found myself to be, as a practising member of the Bar, when someone—rather like the London Transport Executive in this case—has committed a disgraceful offence. The solicitor comes to one and says, "This man has to plead guilty. There is very little to be said; in fact, nothing at all. Will you go into court and say something for him, if you possibly can?" I feel that that is the unfortunate position which my hon. Friend finds himself in tonight, through no fault of his own, as representing Sir John Elliot and his team.

The main grounds of my complaint are as follows. There is on this line a decreasing safety margin; there is continual late running of trains; there is poor lighting and ventilation of coaches; there is an extraordinary lack of cleanliness and there is a thoroughly uncivil attitude on the part of almost every member of the staff.

The people who live in the area served by this line are people with small incomes. They get up early in the morning, travel to London, where they work all day, and return late in the evening. They have at times been described as the backbone of the country. A more long-suffering, loyal, uncomplaining section of the community it would be difficult to find. But, due to the conditions which, through sheer neglect, incompetence and ineptitude on the part of the London Transport Executive, have been allowed to persist on this line, even they have been driven to the point of desperation. Even they have been made to make such remarks as "This is no longer the London Transport Executive, it is the London Cattle Board", because of the way they have been treated.

There have been instances time and again of as many as 28 people being in carriages designed to hold only 12 to 16. There have been instances of carriages in which may be found dirty newspapers as much as a week old littering the floor. They are carriages which literally must be about 20 or 30 years old; at any rate, they are in appearance; carriages whose windows are never even cleaned, so that in the winter, when, as frequently happens, a train comes to a momentary stop outside a station, nobody knows whether the train is in the station or not, and doors have to be opened so that people may see exactly where they are.

I have had an absolute volume of correspondence on these matters. I have travelled on the line myself and, speaking from personal experience of travelling on it recently, the conditions which I experienced I should imagine must have been equivalent to those of the Paris Metro under German occupation during the worst period of the war.

It would ill behove a member of the Bar to speak too strongly or with too extragavant language in any matter which concerns the everyday needs of the ordinary people whom I have described, but having seen these conditions for myself, having had endless discussions with people who have endured them for so long, I really feel it my duty to speak in these terms tonight. I hope that in these few words—and they can be very few be-cause my time is limited—I have been able to give the House some indication of what has been going on for a very long time.

We have a further complaint, and that is the sort of casual, almost—not superior—uninterested attitude of the authorities concerned in this matter when they are approached. I have had the advantage of dealing with a Mr. Ellis. Mr. Ellis holds a very high position indeed in one of the big five banks. He is a person who speaks carefully and with restraint. He has taken up this matter on behalf of his fellow passengers with a painstaking thoroughness and conscientiousness which is to be admired. One cannot help feeling that if only he were on the Transport Executive what very different conditions would exist.

This will give the House an indication of how passengers are treated by the Executive. He wrote the Excutive a very careful letter on 29th January, 1958. He received no answer. He then wrote a letter every week for a month, and in the end he received one printed postcard. The first reply he received to those four or five letters, which were long and in detail—I have read them—and which started on 29th January, was as late as 6th March. That gives an indication of the somewhat casual, dispassionate, superior attitude which is adopted by London Transport Executive towards its passengers on that line.

When I asked him about it he said he had got other people to do the same. He said, "The scheme is this. What they hope is that if you write once or twice and don't have an answer you will do no more about it." Mr. Ellis is not of that calibre. Nor are his fellow passengers, and they and he have carried on correspondence ever since.

To give an idea of the sort of conditions which exist and exist daily, here are just a few examples. Take the 8.32 which goes from Rickmansworth to Liverpool Street, and is due to arrive as late as 9.21. That train was on time twice during the whole of 1958. This is meant to be a fast train, and it has only 24 miles to cover. If the Executive cannot run the trains on time, if they must be always ten minutes late, why not have the grace and courtesy to reprint the timetable so that the travellers at least know where they are?

I saw to my horror the other day that on some railway—I do not think it was this line—there had been produced a pamphlet which was placed on every seat in every carriage explaining to passengers why the trains were late. Passengers in my constituency, and I believe in other constituencies, are not in the least interested in knowing why London Transport Executive is incapable of keeping its trains to the timetable. After all, the country pays for the services and one does not want to pay public relations officers for explaining, for large salaries, why they are making such a mess of the job. What we want to see are the trains on time in accordance with a timetable. 'Then, if the Executive wishes to spend money on putting leaflets on seats explaining how it has been able to get the trains on time, it may be forgiven that extravagance. But to have the impudence to tell passengers why it has made a mess of the job which it has been given to do is, from a psychological point of view, something which even the most patient people will not endure.

Let me mention one or two other matters. Things have got to such a pass on this line that there is no esprit de corps, or so it would appear, among the lower grade of employee. They are net to be blamed in that respect because clearly they have lost all faith in their superiors. In the short time available to me let me give an instance. Drivers have been approached and, as Mr. Ellis told me, this is typical of the reply he gets: "What is the use, sir, of putting in a defect report when one knows perfectly well that nothing whatsoever will be done about it?".

One of the complaints that we have on this line is that when couplings break, and when passengers are turned out of a train for no particular reason, nobody is given to understand the reason why. The passengers got together and saw the station master at Liverpool Street, who was most reasonable and co-operative. They said "Cannot we have a loud-hailer to tell us what the position is?" He said "I got a loud-hailer for them; it was only going to cost a mere £30. But no, the top people say we must have a public address system at a cost of £1,000 and they are not prepared to do that yet." The battle went on and Mr. Ellis and his friends won; but it took them a year to get that portable loud-hailer system at a cost of £30 from a local shop to enable the station master to carry out his job.

I will give another instance of the train that took the wrong turning. In July, 1958, there were 700 unfortunate passengers in one of these trains. The Aylesbury train from Liverpool Street, instead of going up the track, after Harrow, through incompetence of signal arrangements, ended up at Rayners Lane on the Uxbridge line. Everybody was turned out. Nobody was told why that had occurred or what they were to do, and they all had to make their own way to Harrow.

Then there is the discomfiture on the line, the shrieking of axle-boxes and so on. Let me give another illustration. One day there was smoke pouring from one of these axle-boxes and the train was stopped at Aylesbury. Out got the guard and the driver. They dashed down the line with two large fire extinguishers. They banged them on the ground, as I believe one has to in order to make them work, but, needless to say, they had been neglected for so long, like the rest of the rolling stock on that line, that neither was able to work and I believe the train caught fire.

What is the answer to this? Eventually, after letter after letter, deputation after deputation, and signature after signature, we finally drove the Executive into a corner and we got this answer from Sir John Elliot: In my experience an increasing failure rate is inevitable when rollingstock or machinery reaches the end of its time despite a high and expensive maintenance schedule. That is Sir John Elliot's letter to my friend on 22nd January, only a month or two ago. That is a complete admission, is it not?

It is hoped to improve matters by 1962. That is a very long time ahead for my constituents and others who are interested in this broken-down railway. In my respectful submission, that simply will not do.

One of the results of this is that people are giving up going by train. They are taking their cars to London. I always thought that was one of the main reasons for traffic congestion in this great city, but who would want to stand on a filthy, dirty platform or in a waiting room with no fire and broken windows, get into a train and stand the whole way to London, with the risk of being turned out half way there or the train arriving late? That is the daily experience these people have to undergo. The answer is that, as most of the stations are near to London, people are bringing their cars into London and adding to the traffic congestion which is very nearly bringing everything to a standstill. This, I know, is one of the biggest headaches of my right hon. Friend.

I know that certain proposals have been made. I cannot go into them in detail because time forbids. The plans are for four tracks instead of two, to replace old rollingstock with tramcar type giving 58 seats per car instead of 80 as at present, and to introduce electrification between Rickmansworth, Amersham and Chesham. The rest of the line is being taken over by British Railways.

I have no doubt that my hon. Friend would like to imply that that is the answer to the problem, but it is not. The present seating in a coach is an average of 80. The proposed seating in a tramcar type of coach—in other words, by converting to a tube type—is 58, representing a 5 per cent. reduction per car. This new type of train will not compensate for the loss of seating. Automatic sliding doors are to be a new feature. They are known to be draughty and in a country area in the cold days of winter how unpleasant that would be when the doors open at every station. Everyone will be frozen to death. One also knows that the failure of one door causes the withdrawal of the whole train. Everyone will be turned out and, if present conditions exist, they will not be given a reason why. That will be unpopular. Equally, there would be no proper provision for bulky luggage. I mention that because naturally a lot of people travel to these country districts at weekends.

I live at Knebworth, where we have that type of train. They are all too few. Between ten minutes to 9 in the morning and 9.46 there is not one train, although Knebworth is only 28 miles from London. I wrote about it and was told there was no demand and that is an end of the matter.

Time forbids me to say more, but now Sir John Elliot has left this job, cannot we have someone put in his place with a little energy and drive and an interest m the matter, with some knowledge and experience, who really means to get at these problems and not to fob them off? I do not say a word about Sir John Elliot in these matters, because one knows the difficulties he obviously has had to face. He has been there a very long time. Someone has now to take his place. Let it be the right man. Let it be a man who has the drive and the energy to get at this problem and to deal with it in a practical way. I speak in the House tonight not only on behalf of my constituents but on behalf of many thousands of people in neighbouring constituencies who travel on the same line.

11.11 p.m.

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

I must congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. F. P. Crowder) on securing the Adjournment tonight to ventilate the complaints of his constituents. Naturally I am sympathetic with them in the discomforts which they have experienced on this line and I am also very concerned that it is difficult at present to give them the standard of service there which, naturally, I wish to see. I feel that, although there are obviously grounds for complaint, some of the strictures which my hon. Friend passed were exceedingly severe, and I am not sure that they were altogether fair in the context of the total service which London Transport Executive has to give.

My hon. Friend observed that Sir John Elliot has ceased to be the Chairman of London Transport Executive and he hoped for someone better, but as this is a suitable opportunity I should like to put it on record that in my opinion Sir John has done an extremely good job and that we shall find it difficult to replace him with a man of equal calibre. I should like to put on record my warm thanks for the service which he has given.

I am in a difficulty in answering my hon. Friend's comments because I cannot go into detail. These matters, as he rightly observed, are primarily matters of management for the London Transport Executive under the Transport Commission and my right hon. Friend's responsibility is for policy, but the Government's policy is relevant in this matter because is the modernisation of our railways. We are now three years embarked on that policy. It is a very large undertaking; we are providing £1,500 million for new capital and £400 million to finance the deficit in the meantime.

Already over the whole field some fruits are beginning to show from this huge modernisation scheme in improved passenger services in some parts of the country. When I say that this year alone the allocation for capital expenditure for the Commission is £212 million, it shows what large sums the Government are providing to bring about this much-desired modernisation. London Trans-part's share of it is £9 million for this year, and London Transport, too, is well under way with its modernisation programme.

My hon. Friend referred to features of the Metropolitan Line, and I should be the last person to suggest that it does not need modernisation. I agree that it does. I do not travel on it often but this is a case in which one remembers when one does.

As my hon. Friend rightly says, the intention is to extend the electrification to Amersham and Chesham, to double the lines from Harrow to beyond Moor Park, to relieve the bottleneck on the existing two tracks and to provide new rolling stock and station improvement works with it. The completion of this work is scheduled to be in 1962. It is a long time to wait, I agree, while they have such conditions, but I am assured that the Executive hopes at any rate by next year to be able to make some interim arrangement with the start of the modernisation, which will then be well under way, particularly with regard to vehicles. I have not time now to give details of that, but I shall be very glad to get them from the London Transport Executive for my hon. Friend, and I hope that they will be some help in the interim in a situation which gives anxiety to us all.

I have made a note of his comments about the dirtiness of the coaches. London Transport has its special cleaning plant, but perhaps it is not always successful, and I will see that what he has said is passed on to the Executive. The Executive will, I am sure, do its best to improve the position.

I should like to say just this. I have always thought that, taking the overall picture, London Transport does provide the finest city system of public transport to be found anywhere in the world and I am concerned when I hear aspects of it which seem open to the strictures which my hon. Friend has made tonight. What is needed is modernisation and we have undertaken this huge task, as hon. Members know; and it includes London Transport. It cannot be done in five minutes, but we shall have broken the back of it in five to ten years. We have already achieved an immense amount in getting the groundwork done, and we shall progressively see the fruits of it.

I hope that my hon. Friend will not lay at our door the whole responsibility for this situation. It is taking time, and it has taken the success of this Government to provide the means for this great modernisation scheme. Right hon. and hon. Members opposite, in the days when they were enjoying their political triumphs, in the days when their concern was nationalisation, might have been thinking about modernisation. It was obviously necessary then; there were so many things which needed to be done, and there are still so many things which need to be done at once. Yet, if this modernisation had been started, say, ten years ago, how different would have been the situation today.

Mr. G. Lindgren (Wellingborough)

The hon. Gentleman is being rather provocative. May I remind him that there has been nationalisation of London Transport since 1933 and that was provided by a Conservative Government?

Mr. Nugent

Yes, but the hon. Gentleman's right hon. and hon. Friends did not give that attention that was so necessary to modernising our railway systems. They went ahead with their political schemes and had they done something about modernisation, we could hope that we should not be in the position in which we are today.

I will pass on to the Executive what my hon. Friend has said because I know that the Executive is anxious to give a first-class service. It is of concern to us as a Government, as I know it is to the Executive, that there is any ground for criticism such as that which has been made tonight. London Transport is, however, giving a very good service and it will continue to do so. But we must remember that it struggles under some extraordinary conditions; for instance, coaches which are out-of-date and tracks which are sometimes unsuited for the tremendous weight of traffic which passes over them. I hope that my hon. Friend will take back to his hard-pressed constituents the sympathy and an expression of the concern of the Government and also the assurance that London Transport is doing its best and that we, as the Government, are making every effort in the form of modernisation, which we shall press ahead just as fast as we can.

At the same time there are aspects of modernisation which cannot be achieved as quickly as we, or he, would like and that is especially so when we remember that the services have to go flat out during the day and for most of the night in order to carry the tremendous number of commuters who daily travel to and from the centre of London. I hope that the day is coming when that service, good though it is, will be more comfortable, more speedy, and that the causes for complaint which my hon. Friend has referred to will be a thing of the past. Having ventilated his troubles on behalf of his constituents I hope that they will find that—

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

Adjourned at nineteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.