HC Deb 13 March 1961 vol 636 cc1151-60

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

11.40 p.m.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

On 28th February, I received from the British Transport Commission details of a proposal which it had made to withdraw its passenger train services between Rugby (Midland) and Leicester (London Road) and completely close the line through Rugby Wharf to Wigston South.

Ever since I was elected Member of Parliament for Harborough at the last General Election, time and time again I have met the predominant fear of many of my constituents that sooner or later we would be deprived of rail communications between Leicester and the southern part of the county. That fear has been expressed to me many times, and I have heard it at interviews and in the villages.

We have five separate railway lines running through the southern part of the county. They are the London and North West from Market Harborough to Rugby; the line which runs through Wigston North Junction to Nuneaton; the Midland line running from Market Harborough to Leicester; the Great Central line running through Rugby to Leicester; and the Midland line also running through Rugby to Leicester, but traversing ground different from that covered by the Great Central line.

Harborough is in the heart of England and, as one would expect, through the constituency there run many of the main traffic routes, both road and rail, which cover the country. Tonight, I want to deal specifically with two of the lines I have mentioned—the Great Central line, which runs from London, St. Marylebone, through Rugby and Leicester to the North, and the Midland line running from Rugby to Leicester and going to the North and connecting at Rugby with the London, Euston, line.

I make it quite clear that I am not an advocate of any useless relics on the grounds of sentimentality or for any other reason. I want nothing better than to see the British Transport Commission pay its way, and in that I am sure that I agree with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport. I accept that one of the ways in which the Commission can be made to pay its way is by closing unremunerative branch lines which have no hope of being made to pay. But the proposals about Southern Leicestershire are a different kettle of fish. This is not the closure of some unremunerative branch lines, but Southern Leicestershire's wholesale deprivation of rail communications.

I understand that the proposals which I received from the Commission on 28th February have been already submitted to the Transport Users' Consultative Committee. It is proposed, amongst other things, to withdraw all passenger services between Rugby (Midland) and Leicester and close down completely the double track line between Rugby and Wigston South. This includes the complete closure of four such Midland stations as Ullesthorpe, Leire, Broughton Astley and Countesthorpe.

The proposals go on to mention alternative facilities for passengers between Rugby and Leicester: Passengers between Rugby and Leicester displaced by the withdrawal of the rail services in question can, however, avail themselves of the alternative rail services between the Great Central line stations at Rugby Central and Leicester Central. This is actually stated on the closure report drawn up by the British Transport Commission.

I think that it was Scott who said: O what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive! Only last Friday, eleven days after the production of its report of 27th February, the British Transport Commission held a meeting in Leicester for management and workers of British Railways and explained to them its proposals to close thirty-four Great Central line stations, including the stations which are mentioned as alternatives to those stations listed for closure in the proposals of 27th February. If the British Transport Commission plans to close these Great Central line stations, why has it given them as alternatives to the stations it has already proposed to close? If it does not propose to close them, why did it hold such a meeting? The effects of closing the Midland line and the Great Central line will be very widespread, particularly in Southern Leicestershire.

There are four or five points I should like to mention. My right hon. Friend may or may not be aware of the main roads entering Leicester from the South, namely the A.50, the A.426 and the A.46. He may have had the pleasure of travelling along them, but I advise him to avoid them during the morning, mid-day and evening rush hours.

What will be the position on those roads in a year or two when people living in the Southern part of Leicestershire have to travel about twenty miles by road before they can get to a station to get on a train to get to work, which is what it will mean if these two railway lines are closed? What will happen to the villagers of Leire who daily travel to Leicester and Rugby to work? What will happen about their daily newspapers which come by train? At the moment there is no alternative bus service to the village. What will happen to the villagers of Ullesthorpe who daily travel to Rugby or Leicester to attend hospital?

Can my right hon. Friend tell me how to reply to the Headmaster of Lutterworth Grammar School, who has written complaining that over 250 children travel home by train to Whetstone, Ashby Magna and Leicester after the school bus has left, there being no other suitable buses on which to travel? Again, at present the people of Ashby Magna go by train to work and to attend doctors' surgeries in Leicester, Lutterworth and Rugby.

Does not my right Friend consider that reasonable rail facilities are the entitlement of people living in a civilised country, on much the same lines as they are entitled to a reasonable telephone service, main roads, electricity, water and sewerage systems?

I wish to refer to the proposals which I mentioned earlier, which I received on 28th February, to close down the four stations I have mentioned on the Midland line between Leicester and Rugby. I have already challenged the suggestion that alternative Central line facilities would be available. I now challenge the accuracy of the figures contained in the proposals of the Commission for Ullesthorpe, Leire, Broughton, Astley and Countesthorpe stations. According to the Commission's statistics, 147 people were in regular daily travel between those four stations and either Leicester or Rugby. Doubling that figure to account for the return journey, we get a figure of 294, and multiplying it by six working days, we have a figure of 1,764, which is the figure on which the Commission based its case to the Transport Users Consultative Committee.

A census was taken of the traffic at those four stations last week, and it makes interesting reading. I submit that the facts are so at variance with the figures in the Commission's proposals that it calls for a complete withdrawal of the scheme and a reappraisal. The total number of people alighting or joining the trains during last week was not 1,764, but 3,133. The Commission's figures are wrong by approximately 78 per cent. The figures I have given do not include through passenger traffic between Rugby and Leicester in both directions.

I submit that the proposals of 27th February are based on inaccurate information and that they should be withdrawn. Could not the services on the Midland and Central lines, now operated with steam locomotives, be operated by 2-car diesel units arranged to travel in conjunction with local bus services? Here we are not dealing with the closure of a small branch line but with the threatened closure of two main lines running through the heart of England. An increase in receipts of 416 per cent. was achieved by the new diesel service operating between Leeds and Barnsley in one year, and an increase of 269 per cent. by the service between Birmingham and Lichfield. I have already submitted plans to my right hon. Friend in this connection for the Central line.

I ask the Minister not to allow southern Leicestershire to be entirely denuded of its train service which would make it impossible for those living in the country to work in the cities.

11.55 p.m.

Sir Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)

I propose to speak for only a few minutes, but I think it right that an hon. Member from this side of the House should say something in support of what the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) has said in his plea to the Minister.

We have a very short time in which to discuss a matter of considerable importance, particularly to the residents of the respective areas to which the hon. Member referred and to Leicester itself. The proposals put forward are much too drastic and do not take into consideration the fact that facilities must be afforded to people to get to work and carry on their ordinary avocations such as coming into the city from time to time for shopping and so on. It is not purely a matter of deciding this on economic grounds. That is a mistake which has been made in the proposals.

The railway system has always been regarded as giving facilities for districts which perhaps do not always pay economically. That is part and parcel of the social service which has been always contemplated as a duty of the railways. Right from the beginning obligations have been placed on them to provide those facilities. Careful consideration of that is required before these proposals are put into effect.

There was a very stormy meeting of railwaymen in Leicester last Friday. I quote what one representative said: We are not discussing the reorganisation of the Great Central line. We are here to discuss the murder of a railway. That comes from a person actually in daily contact with work on the railways. There is very considerable concern about the question of redundancy. A figure of 300 was mentioned at the meeting. At times the meeting was in uproar. The men actually working on the railways say that this is much too drastic a cut in the services and facilities. It is important that it should be realised that this is not a party matter, but one in which hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned.

11.58 p.m.

Mr. A. R. Wise (Rugby)

I wish to say a word or two in support of what both hon. Members have said. This is not just an isolated case of closing a railway which is badly needed. It is a fairly late stage in a general symptom which is destroying the lateral communications across the whole of the Midlands and between the Midlands and the North.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) referred to the Central line which was a connection between Rugby and the North. He would find it very difficult to get from Rugby to the North now. One has to change at Nottingham, and the time-table leaves ten minutes between train times. The line which once carried "The Master Cutler" to Marylebone is dead, and if this Midland line goes communications between the Midlands and Derby, which is not an unimportant town—it contains Rolls-Royce works which are intimately connected with Rugby's factories—will die. The only way to get from Rugby to Derby is via Leicester.

I can see no justification for this closing. It is based on false figures. The check taken last week was not taken at a particular peak period in the history of railway travel. It was an ordinary and, I think, a very effective check. The railway could be made to pay with a properly run service.

The Transport Commission was rash enough to give the prices of its fares in the letter it sent announcing the intention to close down. Of course, it is not profitable to charge more than the bus service for doing the same job. It has the cheap-day return, and all it has to do is to make that universal on any train at any time. That would not cost the Commission any more in running the trains, but it would attract a large number more passengers. I am certain that a diesel service would increase traffic considerably.

These villages, even if the central line is left, which apparently it is not going to be, will be cut off from Leicester, their only shopping centre, because they are not on the Central line. There are villages on the Midlands line with no way of getting to Leicester except by the bus service, which is handicapped by the traffic situation at the entrances to Leicester, which make it impossible to put more buses on. I hope that the Minister will take a firm line with the Commission on this. These are two important branch lines.

12.1 a.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Ernest Marples)

I am sure that hon. Members and the County of Leicestershire, in particular, will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) for bringing this matter before the House. He has presented his case in a moderate, lucid and persuasive way, and his constituents can rest assured that their interests were presented vigorously and courteously. There were one or two points he brought out which impressed me. The first was when he said that the roads were inadequate. I agree, but as we have the biggest road programme the country has ever known that state of affairs will not last for long. It is the biggest cash amount in the history of this country which is being spent, and new roads are being built. Secondly, my hon. Friend wondered what reply to give to the Headmaster of Lutterworth School. The whole of my life I have wanted to give replies to headmasters. There are a number of things I might suggest, but I could not give details in Parliamentary debate.

The Commission is operating at a very heavy annual loss. It is over £100 million a year, the equivalent of 4d. in the £ on Income Tax, quite apart from the money spent on modernisation, and it is a very serious state of affairs. The country wants the Commission to reduce losses and make progress towards breaking even financially. It must continue to make proposals for stopping services which operate at a loss and which show no prospect of becoming paying propositions even with the use of modern equipment and methods. This is part of the process of adapting the shape and size of the railway system to the needs of the fourth quarter of the 20th century.

We have to remodel the system, and the public must accept the need for change on the railways, in some cases going over to roads. It must be remembered, as is pointed out in the White Paper, that the taxpayer will have to face the enormous capital reorganisation involved as well as continue to carry a large part of the burden until the railways pay their way again.

As Minister of Transport it is not my job to go into individual proposals. Parliament did not lay that upon me. It is laid fairly and squarely on the Commission. When the Commission make proposals for the closure of local lines and stations, or the withdrawal of passenger or goods facilities from lines or stations, by agreement with the Central Transport Consultative Committee such proposals are then submitted to the appropriate Transport Users' Con- sultative Committee. These committees were set up by the House. They were set up as the watchdogs, as it were, of the user interests. It is not my job to be the watchdog; it is the job of these committees, which were set up by the House. The House did not lay this responsibility on me.

Mr. Wise

They are not very good.

Mr. Marples

But that is no reason for me to do it. If the House wishes me to do it, it must pass legislation saying that it is my job. Everyone in a district where a closure takes place says, "They are not very good". I can understand that, but these committees are appointed after consultation with bodies representing user interests, including local authorities, agriculture, commerce, industry, shipping and labour. The Central Committee, to which the nine area committees for England report, and the Committee for Scotland and the Committee for Wales and Monmouthshire, can make recommendations. The Commission has always given effect to recommendations which these committees have made about withdrawals of services, even if it has meant changing its proposals.

It is not for the Minister to say that this should happen or that should not happen in individual cases; it is for this procedure to operate. Parliament decided that this procedure should be followed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough, in his most reasonable speech, mentioned the old Great Central line and said that the Commission has withdrawn all day express services between Marylebone, Sheffield, Bradford and Manchester and has introduced in their place three semi-express services each way daily between Marylebone and Nottingham. These changes came into effect on 4th January, 1960, after full consideration by and with the approval of the Transport Users' Consultative Committees concerned and the Central Committee.

In May, 1959, the Commission announced certain other proposals for the line. These were to withdraw local services north of Aylesbury and to close to passenger traffic between that town and Nottingham all stations except Brackley, Woodford, Rugby, Lutterworth, Leicester and Loughborough. As and when the Commission makes any firm proposal to carry out such further changes, it will put it to the Transport Users' Consultative Committees for full consideration—as it should and as this House asks—and at this stage I obviously cannot say what will be the outcome.

The hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Sir B. Janner), who is the sole representative of the Labour Party benches——

Sir B. Janner

How many hon. Members are on the Conservative benches?

Mr. Marples

My hon. Friends who represent Leicester constituencies are present. The hon. Member said that the railways should not be regarded on economic grounds alone. With losses amounting to over £100 million a year, clearly they are not being regarded solely on economic grounds. But we cannot regard finance as a matter of meaningless symbols, as one of the most famous Members of his party once said we should regard the country's monetary system. The hon. Member talked about "murder of the railways" because we are stopping some services. With losses of £100 million a year, equal to 4d. on the Income Tax, and with almost twice that figure going to modernisation, he cannot honestly talk about the murder of the railways.

Sir B. Janner rose

Mr. Marples

I cannot give way to the hon. Member. I have only two minutes left, and it is not the hon. Member's Adjournment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough made one or two interesting suggestions about diesels, which I will send to the British Transport Com mission. I will ask whether the Commission has any points it wishes to make in reply.

Mr. Farr

Will my right hon. Friend tell me the result of any inquiries made into the case put by the Commission about passengers, which I think I have shown to be inaccurate?

Mr. Marples

I will send the Commission the report of this debate and ask it to comment carefully on that part of my hon. Friend's speech, in particular.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. Wise) made a reasonable speech, very similar to some of the speeches of Mr. W. J. Brown, one of his predecessors, who, although not of my hon. Friend's persuasion, spoke from the same part of the House. He mentioned certain local towns; some I recognised and some I did not. I will see that he receives an answer in due course from the Chairman of the British Transport Commission about the points which he made.

I am grateful to my two hon. Friends for raising this matter and to the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West for his brief intervention, and I hope that the hon. Members are satisfied.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Twelve o'clock.