HC Deb 03 June 1960 vol 624 cc1786-815

11.5 a.m.

Sir David Robertson (Caithness and Sutherland)

My colleague the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. John MacLeod) and I, and other Highland Members who, unfortunately, are not with us this morning, are seeking the postponement of the closing down of railway stations on 13th June on the line operating from Inverness to Wick. We have been trying to bring this matter to the urgent attention of the House for several weeks, but as all Members know, it is extraordinarily difficult to get Questions down to Ministers because of the protection which the British Transport Commission enjoys under the Act which created it. We only managed to get an oral Answer to one Question, and an important Question to the Prime Minister, a key question on this issue, was transferred, I imagine, by his highly intelligent secretariat, to another Minister at a time of day when it was quite impossible to get an oral Answer. Therefore, we regret that the House is not well informed on this subject and that neither the Press nor the public are well informed. We are hopeful that today we shall be able to change that situation.

The most outstanding feature of our efforts has been the lack of Ministerial responsibility. The Minister of Transport, who is the Minister responsible to Parliament for railways, is unable to make a request to the Transport Commission or to urge the Commission to do something. All he can do under the Act is to intervene, and it must be an intervention on a matter which affects all the railways. He could intervene, no doubt, to say that all engines should be painted a certain colour and coaches another colour, but he cannot intervene in regard to the closure of railways in one half of Scotland. This is because of the restrictions imposed upon him by the Act. I suggest that that is a matter to which this House must give attention in the near future, because it means that there is literally no Parliamentary control whatsoever over the railways.

Another feature which has come out with the utmost clarity in recent negotiations, and from what we have heard from the Highland deputation of local authorities, is the omnipotence and power of the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for Scotland. It does not seem to be acting in any way like a consumers' council, but has almost absolute power.

On 9th May last year, the Transport Commission, through the Chief Commercial Manager of British Railways, Scottish Region, addressed a communication comprising fourteen foolscap pages, including appendices, to Mr. Reid, Secretary of the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for Scotland. The heading is: Closing of Branch Lines and Stations— Inverness/Wick and Thurso Line. The Mound/Dornoch Branch. Muir of Ord/Fortrose Branch. This letter was publicised, I imagine, in the Press and was sent to all of the local authorities in my constituency and, I think, throughout the Highlands, with the exception, I imagine, of Argyll, which is much nearer to Glasgow and which, as far as I know, is not affected as the northern counties from Inverness upwards are.

The local authorities objected and, at a meeting held on 17th July last year, their objections were dealt with. On 29th July, a letter was addressed to all of them from which I propose to read the material excerpts. This letter was written on 29th July. The House rose either that day or the following day, This meant, therefore, that no action could be taken by any Member of Parliament in the House on this important letter for three months.

The letter was sent to all the objectors. I propose to quote from the copy which was sent to Sutherland Council. It states: After hearing the representatives of the interested authorities and the British Railways' representative at a meeting on 17th instant, the Committee discussed very fully the oral and written objections to the British Transport Commission's proposals in this case, during which discussion the Committee were assured that a daily bus service would be provided between Embo and Dornoch, that a bus would be put on from Inverness to Dornoch and Tain each night, and that, if necessary, this bus would be run later on Saturday nights. The Committee finally approved of the British Transport Commission's proposals … the Committee have requested the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation to issue a statement for the information of the various authorities, whose representatives have been heard, reconciling the apparent contradiction between declared Government policy for the Highlands and the pressure put upon the British Transport Commission to effect economies in all parts of the country, including the Highlands. That pressure, presumably, was applied by the Government. That meant that everything to which the objectors objected had been overruled. This so-called consumers' council was responsible for that.

I have a little experience of this consumers' council. Some years ago, I made strenuous efforts to induce the railway north of Inverness to reduce its rates for coal transportation and for briquettes and for bricks, but I found that I simply could not get a rate from the railway that would enable the traffic to flow. The development in Brora is probably the largest producer of heavy materials in the far north of Scotland. It produces between 500 and 1,000 tons per week, which, I thought, would have been attractive to British Railways when empty trains were being run day after day from Wick down through Inverness to the Lowlands.

In spite of the very great support which I got from the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, with the Rt. Hon. Tom Johnston backing me throughout, we were unable to move British Railways at all. I appealed to the Minister, who did his best, but, once again, I suppose, he was up against the intervention issue, the Act of Parliament restricting him from doing anything. I got great sympathy from everyone, but no concessions, with the result that all that traffic has been lost to British Railways. None of it goes by rail. It all goes by road.

Almost in despair, I decided that I would go to see the Secretary of the Committee, and I did so. I found him to be a charming man, but I was surprised to find that he was sitting in a room almost across the corridor from the General Manager of British Railways in Scotland, with whom I had been negotiating so unsuccessfully. The Secretary is a railwayman. He has spent most of his life on the railways and he was appointed to this job, which strikes me as wrong. The Committee is supposed to represent the passengers, the people who do all the millions of miles of passenger journeys, and the freight users.

I should have thought that a man who had served most of his active life on the railways was most unsuitable to be put into a job of that kind. He is bound to look at things through railway eyes. I have no doubt of his integrity, but he almost starts in a prejudiced fashion. He was not prejudiced as far as I was concerned, but he surprised me by saying that he knew all the difficulties at Brora, and so did the Committee, so that there was no point in bringing the matter before the Committee. We had not brought it to the Committee and I wondered how it had got there. Anyway, it had got there and the Secretary knew all about it. He said that nothing could be done. That was rather a blow. That did not seem to me the kind of action that a consumers' council should take. Certainly, it was most unhelpful to us.

I have the latest report which has been issued by the Committee and I find that it has twenty-five members, including the Secretary, but that there are hardly any members for the Highlands.

Mr. John MacLeod (Ross and Cromarty)

Nobody north of Inverness.

Sir D. Robertson

This is the body which decides our fate. Transport, which is the key to all Highland development, is in the hands of people most of whom, apparently, come from south of Inverness. There are two farmers, representing agriculture. They are not from the Highlands. There are six gentlemen representing commerce and industry. There is only one man in that list, the Managing Director of McGruther and Marshall, Limited, from Inverness, and his offices are in the same building as the British Transport Commission in Inverness. I imagine that his company must be tenants.

There is a representative of shipping. I do not know what shipping has to do with a consumers' council which is supposed to look after passengers and freight, but I see that there is a representative of the coastal shipping firm J. Hays & Sons, Limited, Glasgow. There are two gentlemen representing labour. One is the General Secretary of the Scottish Union of Bakers and Allied Workers. The other is a member of the General Council of the Scottish T.U.C. and of the Divisional Council of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. There are about six representatives of local authorities and one of these is the Convener of Inverness-shire. So we have him in addition to Mr. Mackenzie, of McGruther and Marshall, Limited.

At that time, Sir Ian Bolton was the Chairman of the Scottish Board of the Transport Commission and he had a strong team of officials including, besides himself, Mr. Young, the Divisional Manager, Scottish Division, British Road Services; Mr. James Ness, General Manager, Scottish Region, British Railways and Mr. Amos, Chairman of nationalised Scottish Omnibuses, Limited—four full-time officers, the highest in Scotland, of the Transport Commission, representing railways and bus services. With Mr Reid, they would be an effective bloc on any Committee. These are the full-timers. All the others are part-timers, men who come to a meeting two, three or, perhaps, four times a year. There are two ladies on the Committee, one from Aberdeenshire, who is Chairman of the Scottish Committee of the National Union of Townswomen's Guilds, and another lady, Miss McKenzie from Aberdeenshire County Federation.

I make no imputations against any of these ladies or gentlemen, but I believe that they are at a distinct disadvantage in having to face a bloc of full-time operating managers of the railway and the bus services. These latter cannot be regarded as wanting what the passengers and freight users may want. They are obviously there because of their association with the B.T.C.

I have been looking at the first page of the Report for the twelve months ended 31st December, 1958. The Committee held four quarterly meetings, one special meeting and one sub-committee meeting, and one extraordinary feature arises. It says that during the year Mr. Donochy, who was a member of this Committee, had retired on being appointed a member of the Scottish Area Board of the B.T.C. That surely is an astounding situation. An independent representative on this part-time Committee is promoted to go on to the operating board, the commercial managers, of the railways in Scotland. I would not have thought that this Committee was a natural ground for promotion of that kind.

The House should pay some attention to this Committee, because it is apparent from what Members will hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty and from me that all local authorities in the North are extremely dissatisfied with the situation. They cannot get any redress from this House or from Ministers, and they certainly do not get it from this Committee. All the local authorities in the North, from Inverness to Caithness, combined under the leadership of Provost Wotherspoon and vigorously protested against the closures, making representations to Ministers in writing and endeavouring to make them to the Minister of Transport here—but all without success. They have not achieved anything during this long period.

What is the motive of the Commission under this Government pressure? We are told that it is to reduce an annual loss on the railway north of Inverness, which now amounts to £400,000, by £41,000 per annum. No one can complain of economies of that kind being effected, but why are they imposed upon us, the weakest in representation in the whole House? Out of the 630 Members there are only three Members for this area directly affected, plus the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond), who is indirectly affected, and the hon. Member for the Western Isles (Mr. Malcolm MacMillan).

In his statement on 10th March, announcing the Government's intentions on the railways, the Prime Minister indicated that the loss had amounted to over £400 million throughout the country. That is a heavy loss, but why are we picked out? Why are twenty-nine stations in our area to be closed? Why are 79 men—maybe more—who have spent their lives in the railway service being declared redundant? Why are the public being denied a full transport service by the railways at this time, when there is such grave danger on the roads and when it is the bounden duty of any Government to try and influence people to use the railways?

The great bulk of people going on holiday still go by rail. Anyone who uses London stations and others elsewhere, as most hon. Members do, during summertime sees the long queues of people waiting to get on trains. The Government's policy for the Highlands, the economic priority number 1, is the tourist scheme to rehabilitate the Highlands, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty and I warmly support it, although we do not believe that it will go as far as its promoters think. It will do a great deal for the North and will turn the Highlands into a holiday resort for workers from all over Britain. Are we helping these people by reducing railway services at this time, closing stations and branch lines? We are, on the contrary, hindering them. As was indicated in the letter from the Consultative Committee, which I read out, there is a contradiction, a conflict, between Government policy for tourism, which calls for hoteliers to build additional rooms and to create amenities of all kinds, and for the improvement of roads, and the retardation of tourists' efforts to get there by rail and to move about in the area when they do get there.

I have known of the losses that have occurred, and have made speeches in the House not only about the Highlands area but about the whole system, and have asked the Commission to cast its bread on the waters, to cut freight rates and passengers fares, and so fill the trains instead of running them half-empty or even less. But it is no good. The dreadful policy persists: expenses go up, there is only one thing to do to recover the loss, and that is to increase fares. The result is that trains become emptier. That is the main reason for the loss.

It costs me £23 return each time I take my wife to my constituency. That is a lot of money out of heavily taxed income. Other people have to pay the same rate, but many cannot afford it, so they do not go. Yet it is Government policy that they should go. It may interest the House to know that yesterday I received a letter from a Caithness man who knew that this debate was coming up and wrote to me saying that he was for some years general manager of the railways in Ghana. It is important at this stage, so I quote part of what he said: … cheap fares were introduced in 1935 by Mr. M. Smart, my predecessor, and I find third class bookings exceeded those of 1934 by 1,269,535 journeys or 70 per cent., whilst receipts rose by £235,223 or 29 per cent. These increases were greatly helped by the cheap fares between Accra and Nsawam and Accra-Koporidua. There was a further increase in 1936 of 432,000 journeys. I will send that letter to the Minister today, because he should read it. This was done by a Caithness man and his predecessor in Ghana. It was a great success. All my life I have been convinced that the only way in which railways can pay is by going for cheap travel. The railways have to be run seven days a week to provide universal services. If we fill the trains and run more and more there will be no difficulty in making the railways pay their way. That was the experience in Ghana, and it was the experience in my youth when the railways were privately owned and when one could travel long distances in fast trains, in cleanliness and comfort, at low rates. It could be done again.

It is ridiculous, however, if the Government can only pick on the weakest victims—the Highland counties—and say that they must bear cuts. The Government want more tourists to go to the area. How are they to get there? Look at the success of the car ferries from London to Perth, Newcastle to Inverness from London to Edinburgh and Glasgow to Eastbourne, and from King's Cross to Edinburgh in the new daylight ferry.

Mr. John MacLeod

The Starlight Express as well.

Sir D. Robertson

Hundreds of men prefer to put their cars and families on the train to Scotland rather than drive up the A.1 with its dreadful record of accidents and deaths. The Government should be ashamed at what is happening on these railways. When these proposals first came along last summer, I supported the British Transport Commission, but there were lots of things I did not know. I knew that this was Government policy, and I wanted to support the Government. I knew that the policy was against things which ought to be done, things such as reducing fares and freights, but I did not know that some of the stations would be kept open only for goods while being denied to passengers, and I did not know that the alternative bus and train services would be inadequate and so would conflict with the Government's tourist policy for the Highlands.

I did not know that only about 40 minutes would be saved on the journey from Inverness to Wick. It takes a whole working day to make that journey. I did not know that diesel trains would not be used, that the estimated saving of £255,000 per annum would not be made, and that a subsidy might be made to enable an essential public transport service to be maintained in the Highlands.

Most of these important matters came to my knowledge when for the second time Provost Wotherspoon brought the Highlands deputation here on 12th May. Only then and from them did I learn most of the things I have been relating. I propose to deal with all of them.

First, the closing of stations to passengers. Away back in the Parliamentary Session of 1884, when Mr. Gladstone was Prime Minister, he appointed a Royal Commission and it passed a unanimous resolution creating what has been known ever since as the Third Class Passengers' Charter, insisting that they should travel in future in covered coaches with scats—previously they travelled in open trucks—making the maximum fare a penny a mile, insisting that the speed should not be less than 12 m.p.h., and fixing rates for children aged between 3 and 12 at half fare, and prescribing that children under 3 should pay no fare at all.

Passengers, of course, have had historic rights of priority over goods. Cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry, parcels and other goods are not entitled to enjoy the priority which was given under 300 Acts of Parliament to railway passengers when the companies were being created.

At Rogart, in my constituency, the service is to be left to two full-time men. When I asked the Minister of Transport to intervene with the Commission—I asked the Commission first of all, but it refused—to urge that all trains should stop for one minute at Rogart and at other stations similarly situated, he refused to do so. Trains pass under this House at the rate of about 60 an hour every day. A stop of more than one minute is seldom required. I use main line trains between Victoria and Cooden Beach. Frequently on a Monday morning or Friday night a hundred people get on or off in a minute. The Commission will not let the Highland trains stop for one minute. There is no problem about tickets. They could be sold from a slot machine or by the guard or the conductor; there is invariably a conductor.

But the preference is for goods. There is not to be preference for passengers. They are shut out. What are people like crofters, agricultural workers, to do? They cannot afford a special to take them from Lairg back to Rogart. The alternative is to walk, or try to find a bed for the night. That will not be much encouragement to tourists either, I should imagine.

Now for the alternative train and bus services. My hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty will deal with the changes in his own area, because there has been a great row going on about the inadequate services between Tain in north Ross-shire and Inverness. My own area is not affected in quite the same way, for in my area there is a total loss of local service between the Mound and Dornoch. In my hon. Friend's constituency there is a branch line between Muir of Ord and Fortrose. That is to be closed, too.

I am told that children who go to school from Rogart are in difficulties. They have to get to Golspie on the east coast, but people who live at Rogart and work out of that area are faced with very great difficulties.

Of course, the bus services will lose money. The service is unsatisfactory to my constituents and it will lose money. There is no doubt about that. No one knows that better than Mr. Amos, the General Manager. So all we are doing is, we are saving something on the nationalised railways and part of the saving we are losing on the bus services.

The next point is the saving of time on the journey. I leave this House at 6.30 when I go by rail to my constituency. I travel in the evening, and I dine and sleep and breakfast on the train. At 9 o'clock the following day I am in Inverness ready to face another day. But if I go on by train to Thurso or Wick in my constituency, I get to my hotel about 5 o'clock in the afternoon, so that that working day is lost. Of course, as a Member of the House I can have free travel there, but the one free thing in my life I am unable to accept is that. I prefer to hire a drive-oneself car, and drive up the coast to Wick or Thurso for lunch. I only lose half a day. What applies to me must apply to thousands of other people. That is one reason why the trains are so empty. That saving of time is 40 minutes in a journey of 160 miles between Inverness and Wick. It is a pitiful saving and can hardly justify the closing of so many stations.

Now for the subsidy question. I am no lover of subsidies. I would much prefer the railways to manage as they were managed in other days—in competition. Both sides of the House believe in competition, I think. The whole idea of the strenuous efforts we are making to get into the Outer Seven and into the Inner Six is, as the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport so well knows, to bring the cold blast of competition into our home industry.

However, I do not like subsidies, but when I heard of this loss of £400,000 per annum and of the saving of £255,000 which we were to get from diesel trains I was impressed. But we are not getting that saving. That is according to the information which I got from the Highland deputation, from Mr. Mackenzie, a Highland railway man of great experience, who made that statement in one of the rooms downstairs. The subsidy amounts to about £165,000, not an awful lot as subsidies go. This is something which will enable the maintenance of an essential public transport service in the northern counties, and maybe, if the things which my colleagues and I are hoping for come about, there will be more people in the north and more traffic.

For the first time for over a century the three principal towns in the north of Scotland are showing increases in population. There is an increase of population in Inverness due to the introduction of some small factories. There is an increase of population in Thurso and Wick because of the siting of the Dounreay project in Caithness. The population of Thurso has more than doubled in the last few years and is still rising, and the population of Wick is increasing, too. I think that that is true of the county generally.

There are the three largest towns increasing simply because we are having an opportunity of earning their own livelihood in industry and we take to it like ducks to water, the sons of farmers, and crofters and the women too. If our hopes are realised in the lifetime of this Parliament and we get industries into towns like Invergordon and Wick, Dingwall and Tain, towns which have been going back and back over the years of neglect, we shall not need to incur subsidies at all, particularly if the Government adopt measures similar to those adopted so successfully in Northern Ireland. That policy paid off and I am certain that a similar policy would bring to an end the maldistribution of population in Scotland where we have piled too many people into a narrow industrial corridor running from Greenock to Glasgow, the Lanarkshire towns to Edinburgh with a fringe in Dundee, a small fringe in the Borders and a smaller one still in Aberdeen.

I am seeking three months' respite and I beg the House, though so small in number today, to support our efforts. Let us have three months' respite while the Government re-examine their proposals and the opposition to them, and the facts that will be given in today's debate. Let them view the situation in the light of all these matters which I have mentioned today, which I did not know previously and I do not think the Government knew. I am certain that the letter written on 9th May had been on the stocks for months and perhaps a year or two. This project was thought about when we were going downhill. We are now going uphill. The Government are trying to help us in other directions but they are withdrawing these services.

By means of D.A.T.A.C. and the Local Employment Act, the Government are trying to improve the situation in the Highlands. I said in the House the other day that unemployment in Caithness and Sutherland is the highest on the mainland of Great Britain and the Minister did not challenge that statement. It is true. Unemployment has often run at 20 per cent. We used to solve it by emigration, but this is not so popular as it was. People are staying. They are willing and anxious to get work and it is within the power of the House to see that they get work. I hope that what I am seeking today, which I know will be strongly supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty, will also be supported by the House.

11.43 a.m.

Mr. John MacLeod (Ross and Cromarty)

I also welcome this final opportunity to ask the Government to reconsider their intention not to intervene in the decision of the British Transport Commission which will be implemented on 13th June. This is our last chance to make representations. The meagre attendance in the House today shows how difficult it is for the small number of Highland Members, representing such a large area of Scotland, to secure full support when we are fighting a just cause.

I feel, however, that today perhaps we are at last able to get on to somebody. My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir D. Robertson) pointed out how difficult it was to table Questions on these nationalised services. That difficulty is being experienced by all hon. Members, and I know that the Government are themselves worried about it. The case we are fighting today emphasises that very point. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport has constantly said that he has no power to intervene.

When the Secretary of State for Scotland was approached he advised, "Approach the Minister of Transport." The Minister of Transport advised, "Approach Sir Brian Robertson". Sir Brian Robertson said, "Go to the Scottish Area Board". The Area Board said, "Go to the Transport Users' Consultative Council for Scotland". The Consultative Council advised, "Go back to the Minister of Transport." We were back where we started. It is like a comic opera, and the whole thing is intolerable. There must be some method by which the Government can intervene when these matters affect the social welfare of the whole of the northern area of Scotland.

I fully appreciate that the railway system in the North of Scotland must be reorganised, as in other areas. But so do the local authorities and the other bodies which have made all these representations to the Minister against these proposals. I maintain, as others do who have studied this question, that the steps which are now being taken are too drastic and that these proposals will have a most serious effect on the social and economic welfare of the Highland area.

These people ask why this action is being taken at the beginning of the tourist season. My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland has appealed, as I now appeal, that the action should be at least delayed for three months until the tourist season is over. Surely it is possible to do that even if the Government accept the British Transport Commission's decisions. The Government are forcing more and more traffic on the roads when we are continually hearing appeals from the Minister of Transport in which he talks about road safety and about how overcrowded our roads are. Local authorities are being urged to spend more and more money on the roads, yet this policy is applied at the beginning of the tourist season, forcing more and more people on to the roads at a time when tourist traffic is growing. People are also asking why this is being done at present when the Government are reviewing the railways of the country as a whole. Why do it now?

I also believe, like my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland and all the local authorities in the Highland area, that this is quite contrary to the Government's declared policy for the development of the Highlands. I do not want to weary the House with a long history of events which have taken place since I first raised this question on the Adjournment on 17th June, 1959. I then declared and maintained that the people who live in the Highlands must be provided with adequate public transport services of some kind or another. In reply to that debate the then Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport pointed out that opportunities of making objections or representations to the Transport Users' Consultative Council for Scotland would be given to the local authorities and others concerned.

What do we now find? One of the main accusations made by a representative from my own local authority in the North was that a fair and just hearing was not given in Edinburgh when objections were made. The objectors were subjected to a time limit in putting their case, and they also felt that the Transport Users' Consultative Council was certainly not an unbiased body. My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland has dealt with that and I have great sympathy with the views which he expressed. There is no repre- sentative on that body who lives north of Inverness, the very area with which we are dealing today. This is a most odd situation, as the Minister must agree. I ask him to look into that point further if the Transport Users' Consultative Council is to be consulted in future, especially on matters affecting the Highland area. Observations and objections have certainly been made in no uncertain manner, but little or no attention has been paid to these representations. It was felt, and I felt it too, that the British Transport Commission had already made up its mind and that was that. I sincerely hope that attention will be paid to this final appeal today.

I obviously cannot go into all the objections and observations that were made, but I should like to deal with a few of them. My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland has dealt with some. The first of the objections pointed out that the figures published in the memorandum by the British Transport Commission on traffic north of Inverness were most questionable and misleading. I should like the Minister to re-examine the figures given to him. They were estimated on a census taken in March, which is the quietest period of the year in that area. Another point made is that a large number of additional travellers in the north in the summer months are not, of course, reflected in the figures for the area as their tickets are purchased mainly in the south. The same factor of course applies to much of the freight traffic going north where payments are made in the south.

The local authorities concerned all agree—and this was touched upon by my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland—that the bus companies are quite unable to give adequate service, particularly during the summer months. The public, they feel, are being forced to use the buses under the control of the British Transport Commission more to suit the Commission's present policy than to provide a suitable service for the public. That is certainly true.

Again, in general the type and condition of bus in use is most unsuitable for the area. We find double-decker buses without doors or heaters being used. That is not the kind of transport vehicle that people in the north should be compelled to use, especially in the winter months. It is intolerable that they should be forced on to that type of service by the closure of these passenger stations.

Another important point is withdrawal of the late train from Inverness to Tain in my constituency—incidentally, the most remunerative section of the railway line. People are being compelled to go by bus. They have a long journey, it may be from London, or even further afield,—from Glasgow and Edinburgh, certainly—up to Inverness, where they are forced to transfer into this type of bus, unheated and doorless, if they are lucky enough to get a seat. The journey will take one hour and ten minutes to Dingwall as against 38 minutes at present by the train. It will take one and three quarter hours longer to Tain over the most unsuitable roads.

I should like to read extracts from a constituent's letter giving one specific case. This lady says: Having travelled by the morning train leaving Edderton at 8.10 a.m. to Evaton arriving 9.10 a.m. and returning by the 5.9 p.m. train from Evaton to Edderton for the past five years, I am now concerned with the future bus time table. She goes to work and arrives at her office at 9.10 a.m. The bus service does not arrive until 11.51 a.m. What would the boss say to an employee who arrived at that time in the morning to do her work? That lady may very well be unemployed now. It is certainly difficult enough, as people know, to find jobs in the Highlands. This time-table is going to make it more difficult for people employed in the Highlands to arrive at their businesses at suitable times.

I appreciate that the British Transport Commission finds itself financially in the most awkward position, but I believe it is itself to blame to a great extent by not making the services sufficiently attractive. I will not go into all that. It has been raised in this House many times concerning conditions all over the country, and they are certainly as bad or worse in the Highland area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland has touched on the point of empty trains. The major expense is met before they leave the platform and they are running almost empty when they could very well be filled. I believe that they could be filled if prices were reduced and they were made attractive enough for the public to travel on them. I would ask the Minister to look into the question of savings.

My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland showed that the bus services will lose a certain amount of this money which the railways are saving. I was sent a letter by one of my constituents, writing about the Strathpeffer branch line, which was closed by British Railways. He says: They were to make a saving when they closed the Strathpeffer branch, but the facts are that they are losing more than ever— He is talking about the B.T.C.— because they have had to employ more men for the alternative service than they had before plus vehicles and pay the coal merchants 7s. 6d. per ton to cart his own coal from Dingwall. How can the British Transport Commission reconcile one extra road vehicle which they propose to put on, catering for 16,118 parcels and 12,798 tons of freight, not forgetting the extra mileage involved on the Black Isle and Dornoch branches? I should like the Minister to re-examine this £41,000 which the B.T.C. proposed to save. It will not save even that. I will read a letter, dated 11th June, sent by the Town Clerk of Inverness to the Secretary of the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for Scotland, which says: The proposals contained in 2 (d) that is a reference to the memorandum which was sent to the local authorities— gave rise to some discussion and it seems to be the position that the closure of the Fortrose freight branch line would still leave the traffic with B.T.C. It was considered that some detailed investigation should be made as to what this is going to cost the Commission. I should like to know what the closure of this line is going to cost the Commission. It may in the long run prove cheaper to maintain this branch for freight. Some members urge that there should be a close study of the movement of freight in the whole of the north and that the question of local flexibility of rates should be considered. The action proposed on 13th June is an instance of the negative approach the Commission is making. I want to illustrate that by referring to a statement referred to in the memorandum sent to the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for Scotland on 9th May, 1959. It says that there is no future traffic potential in the affected areas. My goodness—what utter rubbish! If the Government agree with that they may as well pack up in the Highlands. The logical conclusion to this negative approach is to do away with the railway system altogether. That is just what the people in the Highlands are afraid of. If these stations are closed to passenger services I understand that alterations will have to be made in the signalling equipment and so on which make it unlikely that they will ever be opened for passenger services again.

I hope that I have said enough to convince the Government that they are not fully seized with the seriousness of the position. If we are to get the development that we are all anxious to see in the Highlands, and the Government themselves admit they are anxious to advance—and I am the first to acknowledge that they are spending large sums of money in the Highlands—they must intervene now to put a stop to these closures, at least for the summer months, and at least until they have adequate information—information for which they have already asked.

Only last week I asked the Minister of Transport whether the Scottish Transport Council had yet reported in accordance with the request made in paragraph 15 of Cmnd. 785—" A Review of Highland Policy"—and his answer was, "No, Sir." The Government have not even got all the information they asked for in their own Command Paper. Yet they are condoning this action which is being taken to the detriment of Highland development. We should not make any more cuts in the Highland system until we have had a proper review of the Highland transport system.

The Minister of Transport has asked for a report on the railways as a whole. The Highland Advisory Panel, set up by the Government, has advised the Secretary of State that these cuts should not be made until dieselisation takes place. Finally, I want to read a letter from the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for Scotland. It says: The Committee finally approved the British Transport Commission's proposals, but, having regard to (a) the serious concern expressed by the members of the Deputation.… and then concern at conflicting Government policy is expressed in relation to Cmnd. 7976, "A Programme of Highland Development". Finally, it says: The Committee have requested the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation to issue a statement for the information of the various authorities whose representations have been heard, reconciling the apparent contradiction between declared Government policy for the Highlands and the pressure put upon the British Transport Commission to effect economies in all parts of the country, including the Highlands. Why has the Council asked the Minister of Transport to do this? Why did it not do it itself? It shows that it has some doubt about all this and realises how serious the position is to the Highland area. I hope that the Minister of Transport has some doubt about the position and that he will take some action to postpone the implementation of this proposal.

12.4 p.m.

Mr. G. M. Thomson (Dundee, East)

I do not want to stand between the hon. Members who have raised this subject and the reply of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, but I want to confirm, from this side of the House, how accurate they are in the picture they give of the dismay which is felt in the Highlands at this further attack on what are regarded there as essential services. We feel that this is a Governmental responsibility. Transport services in remote areas like the Highlands are, by their very nature, uncommercial. They have to be run as a social service, and it is unreasonable on the one hand to attack the Commission for making losses and then, almost simultaneously, attack it for not running public services at a loss to meet local needs.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Hay) indicated assent.

Mr. Thomson

The Minister nods his head, but the answer is Governmental responsibility.

I agree with what has been said about the timing of this proposal. This seems a most unfortunate time for the Commission to take this big decision. It is unfortunate in that it comes at the start of the tourist season and is bound to cause some dislocation in people's arrangements for their holidays, but it is also unfortunate because it comes at a time when a general review is going on of the operations of our whole railway system. This review will involve taking decisions on the serious problem of running commercial services on the one hand and what are inevitably going to be social services on the other.

Speaking without a great deal of knowledge on this point, I wonder whether the Commission and the railways have done everything they can. In my area the railways have shown remarkable ingenuity and enterprise in going over to diesel cars. As a result, in our suburban services around Dundee they have captured a great deal of the traffic that formerly went by bus. People are now travelling by train in large numbers. I wonder whether this possibility has been adequately explored in regard to the Highlands. I used to be particularly enthusiastic about the proposition put forward by Mr. Tom Johnston, from the point of view of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, namely, that the railways might go in for battery cars, which would run as rail-bus services, and would also use the local resources of the Highlands, and thus help in a modest way to provide employment.

I realise that tremendously complicated questions of accounting are involved, which I suppose have been gone into thoroughly by the experts during the review, but only this week I was told by a railway expert that the services in the Highlands are not the only ones that lose money heavily. He told me that the commuter services around London, which I use day by day, are very heavy losers of money, as are the buses. He gave me figures showing that, in effect, the suburban services around London have to be heavily subsidised.

There is never any question of cutting down those services. Why is this? Presumably it is because the population is so much greater. Perhaps it is also due, to some extent, to the fact that many Members of Parliament live in the London area, and when somebody attempts to adopt more commercial principles for London it appears that Ministers of Transport are summoned by the Prime Minister and sometimes have to resign. Unfortunately, we cannot bring this sort of pressure from Scotland on behalf of the Highland area, but it seems to me that a principle is involved here.

The Government believe that the Highland area should be made as prosperous as possible and that depopulation should be arrested. But if this is to be done positive efforts must be made by the Government. The problem is a wider one than merely a transport problem. This merely highlights the general problem of creating prosperity in the Highlands. As the Minister will know, this week there was an all-Party deputation to the Prime Minister concerning Scottish economic problems generally. One of the things mentioned there was the need for a Highland development authority. That idea is strongly supported by hon. Members on this side of the House, and it has had a strong champion in the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir D. Robertson), who raised it in debate. It was a great pity that the Minister turned down the proposal.

A Highland development authority is essential as a Government instrument if the Government are to tackle not only transport problems but the many related problems of creating prosperity in the Highlands. Therefore, it is the Government primarily, and the B.T.C. only secondarily, who have the responsibility. We feel that the Government are not doing enough for the Highlands.

12.10 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Hay)

The passion with which the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir D. Robertson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. John MacLeod) have spoken this morning is a measure of the frustration which they have felt over this problem and, I have no doubt, of the angry feelings of the great majority of their constituents. I accept that at once.

I must make it clear at the very outset that I cannot answer a number of questions which have been put to me, because they relate very much to the commercial propriety of what the British Transport Commission is seeking to do. As the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland rightly said at the beginning of his speech, the difficulty he and many other hon. Members are always up against is that they have no one in the House whom they can question upon the commercial operations of the British Transport Commission.

My right hon. Friend is expressly excluded by the Statute from having any responsibility for the commercial activities of the Commission. For that reason, questions about the commercial operation of the Commission's services cannot be put in the House. However, on the Adjournment we are able to take a slightly wider view. I hope that before I sit down I can give a little more information, supplied to me by the Commission, on what its proposal is all about and what it will mean, and I shall also deal with those matters which are strictly the responsibility of my right hon. Friend.

I begin by briefly sketching in the general background. As the House knows, this country has a railway system which was laid down in the early part and the middle part of the last century. As time has passed and other methods of transport than the railway have become more and more efficient and popular, we are finding ourselves with a railway system designed and constructed to meet needs and population areas entirely different from those prevailing when the system was first laid down.

It is an essential part of the Government's policy towards transport, just as it is an essential part of the Commission's policy towards its own undertaking, that the general railway system should take account of the great changes which have taken place in the last 100 years and should be streamlined and made more compact so as to reduce the burden of those services which have become completely unremunerative.

I want to make it clear from the start, as any one dispassionately examining the subject must accept at once, that it is in the Commission's interest to make a profit on its activities. It is not only under a statutory obligation to make a profit, but obviously, as manager of a commercial undertaking, it wants to make a profit and show its success.

For that reason, the Commission is not anxious to cut out services. It is particularly not anxious to cut out services where there is a reasonable prospect of making a profit. So it starts with a bias in favour of the maintenance of its existing services wherever possible. It is only when the Commission is convinced that not only is there no present but also no future possibility of a profit being made that it is obliged to propose the removal of services or the closure of stations.

In the sparsely populated areas of the country—not only in Scotland, but in other parts of the United Kingdom—where road transport is often cheaper and more convenient, the public has already substantially forsaken the railways. We know that increasing use is being made of all kinds of private transport—not only the motor car, but the bicycle, the moped or motorised bicycle, and the motor cycle. These are coming on to the roads in increasing numbers because of their cheapness and convenience. We know also that the public is making far more use today than it ever has in the past of public bus services. This is particularly the case in rural areas.

The result of all this is that many railway branch lines have become hopelessly uneconomic. Nevertheless, the railways are fighting back wherever they can. They have already developed several different types of light-weight diesel stock for better services and cheaper operation. They have had some striking successes where there is an adequate traffic potential. Although operating costs can sometimes be reduced by new equipment, it is often the case that lack of traffic alone makes it impossible to secure a significant overall improvement.

Over the last eleven years from 1948 to 1959, inclusive, the Commission has been obliged to withdraw passenger or freight services, in some cases both, from 401 branch lines affecting 3,500 miles of line. To put the matter in perspective, it is only right to point out that as a consequence the Commission has been able to make cumulative savings of nearly £4 million a year.

During 1959 Transport Users' Consultative Committees dealt with forty-nine cases of branch line closures. The estimated saving from those closures was about £700,000. Again to put the matter into perspective, it is only right to remember that this year the Commission estimates a loss on its revenue operating account of about £90 million. As the House knows, for the first time this has been taken by the Chancellor of the Exchequer above the line and is to be supplied by the Government as a direct subsidy to the railways. Therefore, wherever an economy can be made it is only right in the interests of the taxpayer that we should see that it is made.

The policy of closures will have to continue for some time yet. The White Paper re-appraising the Modernisation Plan of British Railways estimated that by 1963, 1,850 miles of route would be scheduled for complete closure. The number of stations to be closed will be greater, relatively speaking, than the planned reduction in route mileage. This is due to the large number of intermediate stations expected to be closed on lines remaining open for through traffic. The Scottish Highlands case, which we are now discussing, is a case of this kind.

The House knows that the Commission's practice in these cases is to submit its proposals for closures first to Transport Users' Consultative Committees. Although withdrawals of services are basically a reaction to the decline in public demand, it is appreciated that inevitably some inconvenience will be caused to travellers. I need only remind the House that in his statement on 10th March on the Government policy towards the British Transport Commission generally, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister pointed out that if we are to have a more modernised railway system inevitably there must be some changes of this kind and some sacrifice of the convenience of the public.

The Consultative Committees, which are representative of user interests and are selected on that basis, have a very heavy task in weighing this inconvenience or hardship, on the one hand, against the cost to the Commission of retaining rail services, on the other.

I must say now, as I have said on a number of occasions at this Box, that we owe a very great debt of gratitude to these Committees for the work they do. I will deal shortly with some of the criticisms which have been made this morning of the Scottish Committee. These people give their time and services voluntarily and, as I know from examination of the minutes, and often the verbatim records, of the meetings of these committees, it is quite untrue to say that they go into committee with a bias in favour of the British Transport Commission. It is very often the other way round, as one would expect, because they are committees of users of the services.

Mr. G. M. Thomson

Will the Joint Parliamentary Secretary say whether these Committees are being reviewed as part of the general review now taking place? There is very widespread dissatisfaction amongst members of the public at the way these committees operate.

Mr. Hay

I well appreciate that there is some dissatisfaction, although I think it is often based on a misunderstanding of what their function is. May I continue with what I was saying?

It is not true to say that these Committees are stooges of the British Transport Commission. In the case of the Scottish Committee, may I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty and to the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland that there is at the moment Highland representation on the Scottish Committee. There are three members who represent the Highland area, but I appreciate that possibly this is considered to be insufficient. It may perhaps be of interest to the House to know that we now have in mind the possibility of appointing an additional member to represent Highland interests on this Committee.

With regard to this case, the Transport Commission's proposal to close, from 13th June next, two small branch lines and withdraw passenger and some freight services from a number of small wayside stations in the Highlands was put to the Scottish Transport Users' Consultative Committee in May, 1959. These lines are hopelessly uneconomic. They have experienced more than any others in the rest of the country the drift of traffic, especially short-distance traffic, from the railways to the roads. Apart from the branch lines, the main line stations are on 161 miles of main lines between Inverness and Wick, and there are no fewer than 40 stations on those 161 miles, which gives an average of a station for every four miles. These are to be reduced by about 20, and even then there will be a station on the average every eight miles.

The annual revenue which the Commission has been receiving from these stations on branch lines which are to be closed is £6,000 a year from passengers and £3,000 a year from freight, a total of £9,000. This is the revenue coming in, and the Commission estimates that the scheme which it proposes would reduce its current heavy losses on these lines by £41,000 a year, and would also—and this is important—give better services between the remaining stations.

Mr. John MacLeod

It does not include, which was one of the points I made, tickets bought in the south; that is, people travelling on the line who bought their tickets outside the area.

Mr. Hay

I noted what my hon. Friend said, and I am advised that the figures I have supplied to the Committee took account of through tickets which came from people south of the Border, or south of Inverness, who were travelling to Wick or Thurso.

To compensate for this reduction, a number of additions and adjustments to bus services will be made. Some fifty extra bus journeys per week will be provided, a number of bus services will have changes in timing to make them more convenient, and better connections will be made with the other bus services and with the rail services at Inverness. This is not a particularly difficult operation, because the bus services are provided by Highland Omnibuses, Limited, a company controlled by the British Transport Commission.

So far as freight is concerned, British Road Services are extending their network in this area and will cover all the places which have heretofore been serviced by the stations about to the closed, provided that they are more than 4½ miles from the nearest alternative station.

The Consultative Committee considered the proposal and the objections in July, 1959, and there was a public hearing of the whole of the case. I have read the verbatim report of what took place, and it is a pretty big document, I assure my hon. Friend I am personally satisfied, as I think anyone who read the transcript would be satisfied, that the objectors received a very full and very fair hearing. I honestly do not think that my hon. Friend is right in saying that they were given insufficient time to put their case. Anyone who reads the transcript will immediately realise that the objectors were given every facility and all the time they needed. I ask my hon. Friend to accept that point.

As a result of its deliberations, the Committee approved the Commission's proposals, but requested my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport to issue a statement for the information of the objectors, to reconcile what appeared to be a contradiction between declared Government policy for the Highlands and the action being taken to effect these closures. Having done that, as the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland said, there was a good deal of further complaint and objection, and the result was that in September, 1959, following the production of these further objections, a further review by the Consultative Committee took place. In the light of what had been said in the interim, the Committee looked at the whole matter again and adhered to its view that this proposal should be approved.

The next move was that a deputation from the local authorities and other interested bodies, headed by the Provost of Inverness, was received by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport on 3rd December. My right hon. Friend explained that he was unable to enter into a discussion on the merits of the case because the ground had already been covered by the Consultative Committee. He said that he was advised, as is the case, that he had no powers to intervene by giving directions to the British Transport Commission for the reason that the Transport Users' Consultative Committee had made no recommendation to him in that sense, a point to which I shall come back in a few moments.

My right hon. Friend promised that he would very carefully consider any further views which North of Scotland authorities might wish to put forward before he issued any statement on the lines recommended by the Consultative Committee. I am afraid that the deputation was not very satisfied and expressed some doubts about the advice which my right hon. Friend had received as to his powers. We therefore obtained subsequently the best legal advice open to us, and as a result our view that the Minister had no power was confirmed. The local authorities, as advised by my right hon. Friend, approached the Chairman of the British Transport Commission, and a further deputation was received in January of this year by Colonel Cameron of Lochiel, the Chairman, and other members of the Scottish Area Board of British Railways.

The Board has since informed the authorities of improvements which it proposes to make in omnibus services, including a number of further concessions, but it adhered to the plan for streamlining the railway services because it is satisfied that this is the only practicable means of preserving the railway service North of Inverness.

May I come now to the legal position. Under Section 6 (8) of the Transport Act, 1947, the position is that if the Transport Users' Consultative Committee, being either the central committee for England, the Welsh Committee or the Scottish Committee, makes a formal recommendation to my right hon. Friend, then, and only then, has my right hon. Friend the power under the Act to give the British Transport Commission a direction. In this case, the Scottish Committee gave no formal recommendation. It did not say to my right hon. Friend, "These proposals are wrong and we recommend against them." On the contrary, it said that they were right. In the absence of a recommendation from a committee, my right hon. Friend has no power. He had no power then and he has no power today to intervene, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty urged he should. We have to operate in accordance with the law laid down by Parliament, and my right hon. Friend has no power at all to step in and ask for these closures to be postponed or forgotten altogether. With the best will in the world, I must tell the House quite frankly that we are powerless in that situation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty suggested that possibly the British Transport Commission might be willing to postpone these closures until the Special Advisory Group which is advising us on rail transport has reported. Of course, that is a matter for the Commission, but I must point out that the studies of the Special Advisory Group will obviously take some time, and I question whether it is reasonable to expect the Commission to stop everything until such time as the advice has been received by the Government. Certainly, when the Special Advisory Group advises us, we expect that the Report will deal with the broad general issues and not with individual local services of this kind.

Finally, may I say a word about the savings that will be made? The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland indicated that in his view the savings were quite trivial, compared with the amount of the losses that are being made on these North of Scotland services, which he put at £400,000. The Commission states that only £41,000 would be saved, about 10 per cent. of my hon. Friend's estimate. This is something like the housemaid's baby argument—the excuse that it is only a little one. As I said earlier, we cannot avoid any opportunity of making worthwhile saving. Here we have lines where, as I have said, £9,000 is the maximum revenue, and it is estimated that that is the maximum revenue likely in the best circumstances in the years ahead. There is no evidence before us that any different form of traction, such as the diesel services suggested by the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. G. M. Thomson), would eliminate losses, nor is there any large additional traffic potential.

Mr. John MacLeod

Is that correct? I understand that £235,000 would be saved by dieselisation.

Mr. Hay

I am sorry, but as I have said, and I must repeat, we have no evidence before us, nor has the Commission, that this is the case. In any event, this is not a matter for my right hon. Friend or for myself. The question of savings that can be made is purely a commercial and operational matter for the British Transport Commission itself. Even if my hon. Friend were right, and even if I were convinced that he was right, neither I nor my right hon. Friend has power to direct the attention of the Commission to the matter. The Commission has made no secret of its belief that these closures are essential in the interests of maintaining the main line north of Inverness. If these lines continue to lose money in this way—and the Commission has made no bones about this— it would be obliged to consider closure of the main line north of Inverness altogether.

It is perhaps cold comfort to my two hon. Friends who have represented the interests of their constituents in the debate, but I am afraid that neither I nor my right hon. Friend has any power to intervene in this matter. I can certainly express my sympathy, for what that is worth, with the constituents of my hon. Friends, who may perhaps feel that they will suffer from the closures of these stations and lines, but I think that one has to pay attention to the alternative road services being provided. We are enormously improving and extending the road network in the Highlands, and I hope that by that method communications will in future be as good as they have been in the past, albeit on road rather than on rail.