HC Deb 30 June 1960 vol 625 cc1681-92

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

10.3 p.m.

Mr. Peter Kirk (Gravesend)

I am very glad to have this opportunity to raise a question of great importance to my constituency—the proposal of the British Transport Commission to close the branch line between Gravesend and Allhallows-on-Sea. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for coming here to listen to this debate, for I realise that he is in a slightly difficult position on occasions such as this, because there is a very definite procedure which has to be gone through before such a line is closed, and at the moment we are at a fairly early stage.

The Transport Users' Consultative Committee met yesterday to consider the proposal of the Commission, and we have heard today that it does not propose to support the Commission in its application. But this, of course, does not close the matter. It is open to British Railways to take other steps if it thinks it has to go through other channels to achieve its object. It is, therefore, advisable to place on record now certain points about this railway line.

Nobody could regard this as a main artery of traffic; indeed, it is a cul-de-sac. But it has a curious history, and an interest in the area through which it runs, and it is of vital importance to a large part of my constituency. The line was originally built for the personal convenience of Queen Victoria, who used it to board the Royal Yacht at a small pier rather grandiloquently named Fort Vic toria where, in a hopeful spirit, the railway company also built a hotel. As there was nothing there but a large section of marsh, they were unable to entice large numbers of tourists to watch the Queen being carried to her yacht by four marines.

After the death of her late Majesty nothing much happened for about thirty years, until in 1932 it occurred to the Southern Railway Company that it might be possible to develop a neighbouring beach at Allhallows as a rival to South end. It therefore constructed a spur of the line for about one and a half miles to Allhallows for passenger traffic, in the hope that it would develop. But development did not take place, although in the last ten years there has been development of another kind in the area, with the construction on the Isle of Grain, on the site of the old pier, of a very large oil refinery.

The rolling stock of the line might be thought by those who did not know to date from the time of the great Queen, but I am informed that it is some ten years younger than that. It was built in 1913 and is still in operation. It consists of two coaches, pushed one way and pulled the other way by a small tank engine. Nobody could regard it as either modern or efficient, but it has served the needs of my constituency for about fifty years and now there is a sentimental attachment for it. It is known as the Gravesend Flyer, and on a good day, with a following wind, can attain a speed of 30 m.p.h. It might be thought that there was a case for the retention of the railway line as an ancient monument and an argument that if the Ministry of Works took it over it might make a profit. But it serves a vital purpose as a connecting link.

The area which it serves is a long narrow funnel of land between the mouths of the River Thames and the River Medway. Most of it is marshland, but there is a tongue of solid ground in between, and quite a lot of the surrounding marshland has been drained. Along the high ground there are a number of small and very ancient villages. At each end of the peninsula there are large industrial establishments. At the eastern end there is the oil refinery on the Isle of Grain, employing 2,000 people, and this is likely to increase its employment possibility, and there is a village of Grain with about 900 people, who have nothing to do other than work in the refinery, because there are no facilities for recreation.

At the western end there is a large cement works by the village of Cliffe and a factory manufacturing a substance known as Uralite and Cellactite, known as the British Cellactite and Uralite Company, engaged in plastic work. It depends largely on the railway, as this factory is situated on the marshes at the end of a road which is liable to subsidence, along which buses do not travel. It is one-and-a-quarter miles from the nearest village. But the railway runs straight past the factory and there is a station there for the convenience of the factory, for its staff both entering and leaving.

There will be two main arguments connected with the closure of a line such as this. The first is economic. Nobody doubts that at the moment this line is making a considerable loss. We all know that it is necessary in the interests of the country as a whole that losses on the railways should be eliminated or scaled down as far as possible, and this might appear to be the sort of line in connection with which action should be taken. But it is the argument of my constituents and myself that the present loss is largely unnecessary. It is caused by the fact that the trains that are run are run at inconvenient times, in many cases failing to connect with the main line trains from Gravesend to London.

The aged stock must take a great deal to maintain, but I am told that for some strange reason it has to go overnight to Tonbridge, which is 40 miles from the line, and has to be run up and back again every morning, no doubt at great expense. By maintaining a diesel shuttle service it would be possible to reduce, if not largely to eliminate, the loss.

It is claimed that the present service is completely inadequate. For example, when the mainline schedule of trains from Gravesend to London was altered there was no alteration in the trains from Grain to Gravesend, and passengers were unable to take advantage of what had previously been a fairly convenient form of travelling from Allhallows and Grain to London. In the same way the Grain refinery has complained on many occasions to British Railways that no trains run into Grain at any time which is convenient to the refinery, either to bring staff to and from the refinery or to convey visitors to see the refinery; and there are a large number of visitors who wish to see it. So it may be claimed that a lot of the loss is the fault of the British Transport Commission.

We believe that a diesel service could be provided, but British Railways maintain that this would be a diesel pocket entirely surrounded by electrified lines. But that will happen in any case, because the Commission propose to close the line for passenger service but maintain a freight service running a diesel locomotive. That being so, I find it difficult to understand why it is impossible to do the same for a passenger service.

The number of passengers has been going up steadily over the last few years. During the Whitsun weekend over 3,000 people alighted and departed from Allhallows station. The number of passengers using the station has increased by 5,000 between 1958 and 1959 and all the other stations notify an increase in passenger traffic. A large number of houses are being built in the various villages along the line, and it would appear that future prospects would be good if British Railways would maintain a reasonable service of small diesel rail cars.

The Commission proposes that when the line has been closed it will subsidise a neighbouring bus company which runs buses into Gravesend. It is calculated that the subsidy will be about £5,000 a year. The local authorities estimate that the loss on a diesel rail car could not possibly be more than £1,000 and probably would be in the neighbourhood of £500, bearing in mind that in any case track maintenance would have to continue in view of the fact that a freight service is to be run. In that event it would appear to be a good deal cheaper for British Railways to keep the service going with diesel rail cars rather than to close it down and subsidise an alternative bus service.

I make this my final point in order to give my hon. Friend plenty of time to reply. Such an alternative service is in fact impossible to maintain on anything like an equivalent road. The nature of the land is such, and the condition of the roads is such, that in any case any bus service running from Gravesend to Allhallows would take nearly three times as long as the train service. The train service takes 45 minutes and a bus service will take over one hour and 40 minutes, and it would appear therefore that no equivalent service within the meaning of the word could be put on.

There is only one decent road on the whole peninsula, from the outskirts of Rochester to Grain, and this road carefully avoids all the villages through 'which the buses would have to go to pick up and set down passengers. It would appear that the buses would have to travel along by-roads designed for only one car at a time and where there are very few passing places, sharp bends and so on. The result would be inconvenience to my constituents who wish to get out of their villages to do their shopping—because in most of them there are few shopping facilities—and those who wish to travel to and fro to work and public communications would be very limited.

I have tried, briefly and moderately, to put forward the case as I see it against the closure of this line. I cannot expect my hon. Friend to answer, because the Minister is not yet seized of the matter. What I hope to achieve tonight is to persuade the Minister to bear in mind some of these factors if the case comes before him. Although we realise that some uneconomic lines will have to be closed, there may be cases—and this may be one—where there are circumstances which would make the situation worse were the line closed. I hope very much, therefore, especially in view of the decision made yesterday by the Transport Users' Consultative Committee not to support British Railways in this matter, that the Commission will think again and keep the line open and provide an efficient and decent service.

10.15 p.m.

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

Sometimes I am tempted to indulge in an orgy of self-pity when I find that work is getting a bit too much for me. On occasions like that I must admit I take consolation from the fact that some of the aspects of the work I have to do have their brighter side. One of those is that from time to time I have to stand at this Box to deal with Adjournment debates about the closure of branch lines.

What I find a pleasant feature of these debates is that each train which it is proposed shall be withdrawn from service has a delightful name. A few weeks ago I had to stand here and deal with an Adjournment debate raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Jennings) about a train called "The Tutbury Jinnie" and now my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Mr. Kirk) has raised the case of another train called "The Gravesend Flyer". I do not think you, Mr. Speaker, nor I, nor anyone who listened to my hon. Friend could fail but be entertained and impressed by his knowledge of the history of this line.

May I come right down to today's date by telling the House what is the present position about this application by the British Transport Commission to withdraw certain passenger and freight services from this line from Gravesend to the East? The Commission believes that this proposal should be brought into force because it will save a great deal of money, a point to which I shall return later in my remarks, and, as is the normal practice in these cases, it submitted the issue of withdrawal to the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for the South-Eastern area.

As my hon. Friend said, the committee met yesterday to consider the case. There were, I am told, 24 objectors who claimed the right to be heard, including a number of local authorities. After the hearing, I am advised, the committee decided against the Commission. According to the information I have, the committee stated that it was not satisfied that the economic justification for the proposals made outweighed the hardship that would be caused to those at present using the line. It therefore recommended that the proposal of the Transport Commission should not be approved.

May I say a word about the legal position? As my hon. Friend appreciated in what he told the House, my right hon. Friend and I are in a difficult position at this stage of the game. Section 6 of the Transport Act, 1947, requires that when an area transport users' consultative committee considers a proposal and comes to a conclusion, it should send its minutes of the meeting to the Central Transport Users' Consultative Committee. That central committee, as I think the House knows, has the power either to endorse the decision come to by the area committee, or to reverse it. There have been cases in the past in which the central committee has in fact reversed, or substantially modified, the recommendation made by an area committee.

As recently as 1958, in the case of a proposal by the Commission to close a branch line between Newton Abbot and Moretonhampstead, in the West Country, the area committee found that the proposal was one which should not be proceeded with in the way it came before the committee. The central committee, on the other hand, when it reviewed the case by considering the minutes of the area committee, decided that with different modifications the original proposal of the Commission should be put into effect.

I mention this to explain the situation of my right hon. Friend. If the area committee's minutes are reviewed by the central committee and the central committee comes to a different decision from that reached by the area committee, under the Act it is entitled to make a recommendation to the Minister of Transport and, under Section 6 (8) of the Act, my right hon. Friend is empowered to issue a direction to the Commission. Therefore, the proposal which is the subject of this short debate tonight must be considered, at least by me, to be still in the consultative machinery which Parliament has laid down. For that reason, I hope that the House will appreciate that it is not proper that I should comment in any detail one way or another on this proposal.

There are, however, one or two observations which I should like to make. These observations are not intended to be prejudicial in any way for or against, but to be purely factual. As the House knows, it is the Government's policy to give general support to the Commission in divesting itself of those of its activities which have become hopelessly uneconomic. When we use the expression "hopelessly uneconomic", we mean activities which are not only unprofitable at the moment, but which appear to have no foreseeable chance of ever becoming economic or profitable in the future. That means that in a number of cases branch lines which are quite unremunerative now, and will be in the future, will have to go.

I should like to refer here to the most recent statement of policy on the part of the Government on this matter, namely, the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on 10th March last. He said: … the industry"— that is, the railway industry— must be of a size and pattern suited to modern conditions and prospects. In particular, the railway system must be remodelled to meet current needs, and the modernisation plan must be adapted to this new shape. … the public must accept the need for changes in the size and pattern of the industry. This will involve certain sacrifices of convenience, for example in the reduction of uneconomic services."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 10th March, 1960; Vol. 618, c. 643.] That is our standpoint on this matter. It is only necessary to add that, although in each case of a branch line closure the economy is usually comparatively small, the savings which might be made by the Commission could well be substantial over a period of time. All the small savings it makes add up. The cumulative effect is very considerable.

In this case, the Commission estimated in its proposal to the area committee that, if the committee agreed to the withdrawal of the service, the Commission would save £25,000 a year. This may not seem much. It no doubt seems a very small sum to my hon. Friend's constituents, but multiplied many times over sums of this order amount to a very considerable total.

We have always to bear in mind the background to these cases, namely, the substantial deficit which the Commission has accumulated over the years. The House knows that the Transport Commission's Report for 1959 was published only this morning. It shows a net deficit of £73.8 million over all its activities, and a total deficit on the British Railways side of its activities alone of £83.9 million.

In the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in introducing the Budget, he told the House that this year we estimate that the Commission's deficit will be £90 million. Provisions were made to bring above the line for the first time the finance which we will have to provide for the Commission to meet this bill. This is the amount the taxpayer will have to find. That estimate was produced before we knew what would be the total cost of implementing the wage increases which the Guillebaud Committee forecast in its Report. No one, however prejudiced he may be, can find room for easy optimism in figures of this magnitude. That is the background to all these small branch line cases.

I come now to the two principal points raised by my hon. Friend about the Allhallows line. The first was whether it would be possible by the use of diesel traction, and perhaps better timing of the services, to obviate much of the present loss. I must at once tell the House that this is a matter of management for which, again, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport is not responsible. It was certainly a point in the case put by the Commission to the transport users' consultative committee, and a matter with which that committee dealt. In its statement of case the Commission said something like this, "Even if the train movement costs and the wages of the train staff were eliminated, we calculate that the passenger revenue, which is about £12,900 a year, would still be insufficient to meet the remaining expenditure of running the line".

The Commission said that if it got rid of the present steam train and put on a diesel car instead, and provided a service at hourly intervals, it would cost about £25,700 a year. If it merely substituted a diesel train for the present steam train, running to the same timetable, it would cost about £20,100 a year, and if it reduced the frequency of the service to intervals of 90 minutes, the cost would be £16,500 a year. As the House will see, each of these figures is above the present passenger revenue of £12,900, and I doubt whether the number of passenger journeys one could expect by an improved service like this would really total the amount of the expenditure. That, however, is perhaps a comment on the merits of the case, which I promised not to make.

My hon. Friend's other point was of somewhat greater importance. I understood his argument to be that there may well be cases—and this, he suggested. was one—where it is virtually impossible to provide equivalent alternative transport facilities if the rail service is withdrawn. He said that the bus services which, in the majority of cases, constitute the equivalent transport facility might be incapable, because of all manner of physical circumstances, of adequately meeting the need that exists.

I would go so far as to agree with him that in this particular area it may well be difficult to augment the services and provide a full equivalent transport facility by some method other than the train. As my hon. Friend said, the geography of this district is difficult. The road pattern—I admit that this comes on the other side of my Ministry's activities—is not an easy one.

I understand that the soil is marshy, liable in some places to flooding, and that roads have had to be built on the really firm tracts of land. The consequence is that some corners and sections of the roads are not particularly easy for buses to negotiate. Presumably, however, the conditions are not so bad that it is impossible for bus services to be run, because the Maidstone and District Motor Services Ltd.—the firm mentioned by my hon. Friend—was apparently prepared to provide additional bus services if it was given a subsidy by the Commission, which the Commission said it was willing to give.

Whether or not there were sufficient and adequate alternative transport facilities available to passengers who at present go by train was presumably a matter that was weighed by the transport users' consultative committee when it discussed the case yesterday and that point will no doubt be considered again by the central committee as and when the matter gets to it.

I want to stress one point, because I believe it to be important, not only in the context of this case but in that of so many of these cases. It is the fact that throughout the country, and particularly in the countryside, the use of private transport, as opposed to public transport, is growing. It is, indeed, one of the main reasons for the railways losing traffic, and one of the main causes leading to these closures of branch lines. That is what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister meant when he said that the industry must be remodelled, in effect, to this new pattern of transport and its use by the nation as a whole.

I believe that we still have a great deal of work to do before we correctly gauge the extent of the changes that have been going on, but for our part we will do what we can to come up with the right answers when the moment is appropriate. But I do not believe that we can decide these matters simply by guess. We have to recognise that people are making use of transport facilities that they themselves want. In some cases it will be rail; in some cases it will be bus services; in others, people will use the Moped, or the scooter, or even the motor car. This is a factor that we have to live with in transport in this country today.

We at the Ministry will not seek to direct people as to the form of transport they should use. We believe that we will best succeed in doing the job that the nation has set us to do by ensuring that the people themselves choose the form of transport that they want, and that we must remodel the public transport system of this country to conform with their desires.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.