HC Deb 07 March 1961 vol 636 cc431-6

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

11.58 p.m.

Mr. J. B. Simons (Whitehaven)

I wish to draw to the attention of the Minister the lateness on many occasions of the early workmen's train to Sellafield. This has gone on now for mare than eighteen months, and the result has been that out of 272 journeys that the train has made—the distance is 20 to 25 miles—it has been late on 176 occasions. On one occasion the train was 25 minutes late, arriving at 7.42. On 98 occasions it has been up to 5 minutes late, and on 54 occasions it has been between 5 and 9 minutes late. The train is due to leave Barrow at 6.0 a.m. and to arrive at Sellafield at 7.11.

The fact that the train is late in arriving on so many occasions of a morning makes the workmen very dissatisfied. The shop committee and the management have tried to get some arrangement made. When one station was closed the train was put back to 6.0 o'clock. On another occasion it was put back to 5.55, The train continued to be late, and the result was it was put back to 6.0.

I was promised, when I investigated the matter with the area manager, whom I met with the workmen and the management, that the matter would be looked into and rectified. It was all right for a week. It was on time. But after a week had elapsed the train was back to its normal habit. I have been informed that it is the result of the mail train from Crewe being late, but that seems rather farcical to me, because they both travel on the one line and wait for each other. As, when it started at 5.55, it was running on time, I suggest it should start at that time irrespective of what time the mail train runs.

The men often get to work a quarter of an hour late. That means loss of production, and also loss of wages and production bonuses. A quarter of an hour multiplied by 220 men and 176 occasions amounts to a large total of lost production and of lost wages at the Sellafield factory. The men do not think it is fair to them, and they are looking to the Minister on this occasion to see they do not go on losing those wages which form an important part of their total pay packets.

The train at 6.40 from Whitehaven to Sellafield has had a coach taken off so that it is more difficult for the men to get from Whitehaven to Sellafield and on three occasions that train has been half an hour late. Men using that train have lost wages, too. On the last occasion, 10 days or a fortnight ago, it was 8.45 before some men got to work.

This state of affairs cannot go on at such an important place as Sellafield, and as the representative here of Whitehaven it is my duty to bring this matter before the Minister on the Floor of this House.

I do hope that the Minister will take note of the one or two suggestions I have made, in the interests of the men and the management, who are also dissatisfied, so that the men can be happy and contented in their employment.

12.6 a.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Marples)

The hon. Gentleman has brought before the House the difficulties encountered by his constituents and other local people because the early morning train from Barrow is frequently late arriving at Sellafield. He has explained fairly, in moderate terms and courteously, how inconvenient this is for them. They have my sympathy, but in fairness to the House and to the hon. Gentleman I should begin by pointing out the limited extent to which I, as Minister of Transport, could possibly help. Whatever the merits of the case may be, I do not have the sole responsibility in this case. I pointed this out a week ago in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. R. Harris), who spoke about Hounslow, East, Station and complained that the width of the platforms was not suitable for the rush hours. I had to say that under the Transport Act of 1947, as amended by the Transport Act of 1953, it is the general duty of the British Transport Commission to provide railway services for Great Britain…due regard being had… to efficiency, economy and safety of operation and to the needs of the public, agriculture, commerce and industry. It is quite clear under the Acts which Parliament has laid down that it is not the business of the Minister to interfere in the operation of railway services. I am bound to say I am rather glad it is not. Parliament has not laid upon me the duty of seeing that the multifarious activities of the railways are properly run. It is not my job to see that the railway stations are cleaned, that the trains are punctual, or that the railway carriages are clean. I even had the other day a letter from someone who sent me in some newspaper an old chicken served to him, he said, in the dining car. He asked what I thought of it. It arrived four days later than he sent it, and I will not, in deference to the House, say what I thought of it. It was not my duty to pass judgment on the chicken, although it passed judgment on itself.

Parliament decided that, except in regard to certain broad matters of policy, the nationalised industries should be free to manage their own affairs. I work within the rules, and day to day running is left to the Commission. I think it was Lord Chatham who said, "I am responsible for nothing but what I control." I would like to repeat that. Whatever sympathy I may have—and I am sympathetic—I am not the person to put it right. Parliament deliberately removed day to day management from the Minister.

The course followed by the hon. Gentleman in making representations to the District Traffic Manager is the correct one. He had an interview, I think. He could have gone a bit further, and possibly approached the General Manager of the London-Midland Region of British Railways, and I am certain he could have approached the Chairman of the Commission, Sir Brian Robertson, who is extremely courteous and meticulous in answering letters and complaints from hon. Members and from members of the public. If the hon. Gentleman had written to him I am sure he would have done his best to see what he could do to help.

Another way the hon. Gentleman could further his own cause, if he is dissatisfied with the results of his present approaches to British Railways, is to go to the Transport Users Consultative Committee for the north-west area. They would consider the matter. It is their duty under the Transport Acts to consider any matter affecting the services and facilities provided by the Commission. I may be wrong, and I stand to be corrected, but according to the advice which I have received, no representations have been made to the Committee about the late arrival at Sellafield of the early morning train from Barrow.

Having explained my limited responsibility in the matter and having told the hon. Member for Whitehaven that there is very little that I personally can do in the matter, I should like to say that I have made some inquiries and I should like to give him the results of those inquiries. This train is scheduled to leave Barrow at 6 o'clock for Sellafield. It is a curious thing, but it is called "not an advertised train." It is not on the schedule. There is nothing to say what time it starts. I saw a play in the olden days called "The Ghost Train," and this train which we are discussing tonight seems to be similar to that ghost train. It is not mentioned in the public time tables. It seems to be a special train laid on for the hon. Gentleman's constituents, and I should have thought that he would be grateful. However, it appears that he is not as grateful as I thought he would be.

Most of the passengers are employed by the Atomic Energy Establishment at Sellafield. This train, I am told, stops at all stations. Its time for completing the journey is 71 minutes. The distance is 35 miles, and there are 12 stations, including Barrow and Sellafield, the terminal points.

I asked the British Transport Commission, because I knew the hon. Gentleman had this Adjournment debate, to look into the record of punctuality, and I am told that over the first two months of this year the weekly average has varied between 1½ and 8 minutes late. I have got all the figures here. During this period the train was late by more than 15 minutes on only two occasions; 16 minutes on 13th January and 20 minutes on 17th February.

The main causes of the delays are operating difficulties. The Commission says that the operating staff at Barrow have to co-ordinate the running of the special workmen's train with the running of a parcels express which is scheduled to leave Crewe at 3 a.m. for Whitehaven. If the parcels express that leaves Crewe is delayed, difficulties arise, as both trains use the same route beyond Barrow. I suppose the staff are never quite certain whether to let the Crewe train or the other train through first.

Recently there has been a further problem because in that part of the country not only do they produce tenacious Members of Parliament—and I well remember the hon. Gentleman's predecessor who was in this House for many years—but it rains a great deal. I used to go there, walking in the hills and climbing rocks, and I found that ultimately the rain wore me down. It has done exactly the same thing with this railway line, because a culvert has collapsed at a place called Askam. It is fair to say that this is being attended to as quickly as possible, but there has been a temporary speed restriction at that point and heavy rains last month have made the matter worse.

In an endeavour to overcome the problems the District Traffic Manager at Barrow has proposed the same thing that the hon. Gentleman has suggested, namely that the workmen's train should start at 5.55 a.m., five minutes earlier than it does, and he wrote to the Atomic Energy Authority at Sellafield on 21st February seeking their views on the proposal. He is awaiting their reactions. The Atomic Energy Authority management will have to consult their workshop staff about the proposal, but if the workshop staff agree they will have to get to the station from which they start five minutes earlier.

I have great sympathy with the hon. Gentleman. I am sorry that I cannot do more. Parliament did not lay this duty on me, nor did it give me the commensurate salary to carry out this sort of detailed work which the hon. Member wishes me to do. I must therefore end where I began. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised the matter, and I hope it will do good. I promise that I will send the OFFICIAL REPORT of this debate to Sir Brian Robertson and ask him to go into the matter, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman; so that his complaint will receive attention at the highest level in the British Transport Commission. I will ask the Chairman himself to look at it and I will write to the hon. Gentleman when I have his reply.

To sum up it is not my business to interfere and to say how this train should be run. It is a matter for British Railways and I think that it is clear that they are aware of the problem and are seeking a solution to it. I am glad that the hon. Member raised the matter. I am sorry that I cannot do any more, but Parliament did not give me the power to do more. I hope therefore that I shall be acquitted of any discourtesy if I repeat that this is all I can say in this debate, but I will certainly direct the attention of the chairman of the British Transport Commission to the points which the hon. Member raised in his reasonable and very lucid address to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.