HC Deb 03 April 1962 vol 657 cc335-45

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

9.32 p.m.

Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)

My constituency is affected in more ways than one by this Bill. That part of the Bill which seeks to close the Dudley Tunnel, which is the longest canal tunnel still navigable in this country, is the subject of an Instruction to be moved by the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. J. Wells), and I shall find no difficulty in supporting him.

I hope very much that the House will, if the Bill is given a Second Reading, so instruct the Committee. But I want to deal with another aspect of the Bill, which the Second Reading debate allows me to bring to the notice of the House. This is in connection with the policy of the Minister of Transport and the British Transport Commission.

Last October, there were rumours in Dudley that Dudley Station was to be closed. On 25th October, I wrote to the Chairman of the Commission, Dr. Beeching, stating that I had been approached by a number of people, including railway employees, who had said that there were strong rumours that the station would close. About a fortnight later, I received a letter saying that a proposal was to be submitted to the independent transport users' consultative committee in the West Midlands area to withdraw the passenger train service between Stourbridge and Wolverhampton.

I did not get an answer from Dr. Beeching as to whether Dudley Station was to close, but the letter I got from one of his assistants was to the effect that one line would be closed, and it concluded by saying: If, as a result of similar investigations, it is considered that any other train services now operating to and from Dudley Station should be withdrawn, the same course should be followed. My first complaint is that it must have been known at that time that the proposal to withdraw the Stourbridge-Wolverhampton service was to be accompanied by a review and that similar proposals were to be formulated in connection with the Snow Hill-Dudley-Old Hill line.

Last weekend I received a communication from the Transport Commission, which, in all the circumstances, I think, bordered on the verge of being an impertinence, because I was invited to attend with civic dignitaries—that is the term which was used—and Press representatives, a cocktail party and public forums to deal with Western Rail Week. I wrote forthwith to the Commission and I said I was very grateful for information about Western Rail Week, but I wondered whether it could be made a little clearer what the policy of the Commission was because, I said: If the policy of the Commission is followed through it seems to me there are going to be very few trains serving my constituency and certainly very limited local services. I also said: I should like to know on what date it is proposed that Dudley Station is to be finally closed and, in the meantime, to what extent services between Dudley and Birmingham are to be cut.

Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

Would my hon. Friend be kind enough to say who sent that letter out?

Mr. Wigg

Yes, that was sent out by Mr. R. V. Hilton, on behalf of the District Traffic Manager of the Western Region.

I got a reply by return, for which I am grateful, stating, in the last paragraph: I would also inform you that another passenger service affecting your constituency, that between Walsall and Dudley, is also under review at the moment. So the rumours which 1 heard last October are true, but the full particulars of those passenger withdrawals were not tabled at the time, although they were known.

I want to break my narrative at this point to ask the House to consider the Annual Report of the Central Transport Users' Consultative Committee which was available in the Vote Office last week. I would remind the House that under the procedures which are outlined in the "Handbook on the Transport Users' Consultative Committee" it is clear that the competition we are engaged in and which is organised by Dr. Beeching is such that, to use a racing analogy, the horse has been doped, the jockey has been nobbled, Dr. Beeching has "squared" the starter and the judge, but that, apart from these considerations, it is a perfectly fair race. [Laughter.] Oh, yes, and he alters the distance of the race while the race is in progress.

Mr. Charles Mapp (Oldham, East)

And what about the bookies?

Mr. Wigg

About the bookmakers, I do not know. My hon. Friend probably knows more about them than I do.

The procedure laid down here is that when the proposals are tabled for services to be curtailed or withdrawn they are to be submitted to the area committees and then those recommendations are sent to the central committee. It is also clear that the considerations under which the committee can act are extremely limited indeed. It cannot take into account the social implications; it cannot take into the account the wider economic implications; it cannot take into account that this country may end up with no railway services at all—or any bus services. The only considerations which it has to take into account are whether a loss is proved on the service which is under consideration and whether there is any question of hardship.

I shall come back in a moment to my tale about Dudley, but before I do I want to look further at the Report which came out last week, for in it it is made quite clear that the Central Transport Users' Consultative Committee was really worried about the way some of the proposals had been tabled. Paragraph 15 says: For example, in June last the London Midland Region proposed to withdraw passenger train facilities on one of the two routes between Rugby and Leicester. Only during the course of the discussions did it come to light that the regional management also had it in mind substantially to reduce the services on the other route as well. We feel that it would have been more appropriate to deal with both routes together.

Mr. A. R. Wise (Rugby)

I am deeply interested in this subject. They went further. The Transport Commission give an undertaking, when it applied for the closing of the Midlands route between Rugby and Leicester, that it would provide adequate services on the old Central line and it already has a plan for shutting the services down. The first train for those who want to go to work in Leicester leaves at 10.45 a.m.

Mr. Wigg

I should have thought that this was the first question which the Minister had to answer.

The Report of the Central Transport Users' Committee states: Burnley (Manchester Road) provided a further example. Burnley, a town of some 80,000 population, was served by four railway stations. Manchester Road Station, one of the four, was proposed for closure without any reference to the future of the other three. Both the Central Committee and the Area Committee felt that in the case of a large town like Burnley, the Railway Region should have submitted a comprehensive plan for the future of the railway system running through it … Later, in paragraph 18, the Report says: Piecemeal closures are also liable to prove embarrassing to the planning arrangements of local authorities, which should be agreed and co-ordinated with those of the railways. The chairman made it clear at a Press conference that in his view the closing of stations and the shutting down of services were no solution to the problem. In paragraphs 9 and 10 of the Report particulars are given of the curtailments which have taken place and paragraph 11 of the Report says: Major closures may be justifiable, but among the minor closures are border-line cases which involve the loss of much goodwill to British Railways, and where there is room to doubt whether the financial benefit is commensurate.… The closure policy is sometimes spoken of as if it is one of the main solutions for the troubles of the Commission. It should be viewed in the proper perspective, and in relation to the whole picture. Paragraph 12 of the Report says: We are very conscious of the effect which the extensive modernisation now being carried out on British Railways will have upon their efficiency. The policy of closure has its place. but it is a negative one… Paragraph 13, speaking of the Transport Commission, ends: ,… we hope that they will always make every reasonable effort to attract more passengers to a branch before they have resort to its closure. The policy put forward by the Chairman, Sir Ronald Garrett, seems to me wise and one which I should have thought would have commanded the attention of all hon. Members, because sooner or later we shall all feel the chopper in our constituencies.

One aspect which worries me considerably is that part of the Report which deals with representations from trade unions. I should have thought that trade unionists were vitally concerned in this. Members of trade unions employed on the railways should be directly concerned because their livelihood is affected. A man suddenly finds his livelihood gone and he is faced with changing his job or moving elsewhere. But in the West Midlands we are also concerned because trade unionists are the people who use the railways. If this policy is to be carried out, goodness knows how they are to get to work. But that is not the concern of Dr. Beeching. He has said publicly, and it is implicit in his policy, that all he is concerned about is removing those parts of the railways which are not currently making a profit. The overall effect of this policy is not a matter for him, and obviously it is not a matter for the Minister, because whatever subject the Minister is interested in he is certainly not interested in transport. That was one of my earliest conclusions when I began research on this subject.

Paragraphs 22 and 23 of this Report states that the Committee is placed in difficulties because it is asked to receive representations from employees of British Railways through the trade unions. I should have thought that hon. Gentlemen on this side of the House would have supported that policy with enthusiasm. I should have thought that it was one of the functions of the trades councils, and, indeed chambers of commerce, to make their views known on this vital subject. But we are told here that having consulted those of their members who represent the Trades Union Congress, they came to the conclusion that employees of the Commission should not be regarded as users but as agents of the provider of the services and facilities of the British Transport Commission. They go on to argue that for them to consider representations from trade unionists would be to interfere between employer and employee and they are therefore against doing so,

Mr. Walter Monslow (Barrow-in-Furness)

It is right that they cannot make direct representations to the consultative committee, but it is also true that the respective trade unions within the railway industry are at the moment making representations to Dr. Beeching on the subject we are discussing. They are making representations about the economic and sociological implications of this policy.

Mr. Wigg

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for that interruption, but again he is not aware of the facts, because the trade unions were never told about them. They were never told that these proposals were to be tabled. I was in my constituency last weekend and I talked to my friends about this. A member of the N.U.R. said that the trade unions in South Wales and Scotland were objecting to this. Of course they are, but they are objecting when it is too late. The time when the trade unions should be brought in, and when the public should be brought in, is when the proposals are being formulated. The community should be given the opportunity to know what is going on. Because of the breakdown in the procedure and negotiating machinery at the top level, and because of the policy that is adumbrated here, there is no opportunity for consultation in any sense that I would understand.

I come back to Dr. Beeching and the proposals that were put forward. It was originally squeezed out of him. It was dragged out of him. It was wheedled out of him piecemeal, and only now do we learn—I am not sure that my constituents know it even now—in a third-hand sort of way that proposals going forward are to close Dudley station. The procedure is that the British Transport Commission, having made up its mind, tables its proposals with the consultative committee. The secretary, a very courteous man named Mr. Pearson, sent me a copy of the document prepared by the Commission. Dr. Beeching is highly paid, and I have no doubt that he is worth every penny of it.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)


Mr. Wigg

I have no doubt that he is, because the Minister would never have given him that money had he not been worth it. But for an incompetent document, this proposal that was submitted to the consultative committee just about takes the biscuit. The case is not argued. The reasons put forward are insubstantial. They would be laughed out of court.

Mr. Hale

What is he worth?

Mr. Wigg

I am saying that he gets a high salary, and one would have hoped that the affairs of the British Transport Commission would have been handled more competently at the administrative level than this document shows. When one considers the issues involved, one is not being unreasonable in making that point.

My attitude to these problems is to try to ascertain the facts. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) accepts that these closures are necessary, and on the radio last week I heard him say that he thought that fares should not be increased. I am not capable of coming to conclusions of this sort until I have ascertained the facts. I therefore tried to inform myself of the principles on which Dr. Beeching, the Minister, and my right hon. Friend were operating.

I made a most amazing discovery. I thought that there would have been traffic surveys of the whole country so that the economic general staff on the Front Bench opposite would know what was going on, and what the cumulative effect of this policy would be. But what did I discover? I discovered that the only road-rail survey that has taken place in Great Britain is one that was carried out by the Dartington Hall Trustees, partially financed by the local authority and by the chairman of the North-Western Transport Users' Consultative Committee, who was so public-spirited that, out of his own pocket, he paid for this road-rail survey. Apart from that survey, there has been no road-rail survey anywhere in these islands at all. Indeed, the only other survey was one on the future highway needs of South Wales, which has been carried out by the Industrial Association of Wales and Monmouthshire at a cost of £11,000.

So I went to my friends in Dudley, and my friends in Dudley, as here, come from both the political parties, and I got both sides to agree to put forward a proposal that was sponsored by the Dudley Council. This noted the steps to be taken in regard to the proposed closure, and further stated that it was agreed to try to promote a survey of the immediate and future needs of the area. Dudley is a small county borough of 60,000 people, and, although I am very glad and very proud to see that it has taken the lead in this matter, it was obviously too big for Dudley to carry out. If it was to succeed, we had to bring Birmingham and Wolverhampton into it, and this would seem to me to be the commonsense way of doing it. It was one which I thought would command the attention of the Minister, if not his support. I should have thought that we should have been getting down to basic needs if we got the local authority to take the lead in a closely-knit conurbation like the West Midlands, and particularly if we could bring Birmingham into association with it.

I am very glad indeed that the Town Clerk of Dudley this morning received a letter from the Town Clerk of Birmingham in which it was stated that the General Purposes Committee had looked at the matter, and had decided that that authority was prepared to consider participating in a survey of the immediate and future transport needs of the area. I should have thought that this was the foundation of a common-sense policy, which I hope would commend itself to my hon. Friends and hon. Members on both sides of the House, for reasons which I shall give in a minute. One of the tragic things about this situation is that I can now see the slippery slope down which this country is going. Let me tell the House where my researches have taken me.

At the very time when the Transport Commission is coming forward with a proposal which is going to destroy or obliterate the commuter services throughout our part of the West Midlands, what else has happened? The Minister of Housing and Local Government is writing to the local authorities in Worcestershire, Shropshire and Warwickshire, and is asking them, in a matter of weeks, that proposals should be put forward for the private building of 100,000 houses, because 350,000 people are to be decanted over the green belt, but within easy reach of Birmingham, the policy being—and this is implicit in the correspondence I have here—to hold industry in Birmingham and turn 350,000 people out and let them commute backwards and forwards at the very moment when we are tearing up one of the means by which they can do so.

I should have thought that this was "nuts", but who am I to criticise? Dr. Beeching gets £24,000 a year, and the Minister is quite satisfied. Again, that is not the end of the story. Today, the Transport Users' Consultative Committee met in Birmingham to consider the first proposal concerning the Stourbridge-Wolverhampton line, and recommended that this proposal should go through. Again, I am not surprised, because in its terms of reference, the Transport Commission, in this sloppy document which it has produced, has stated that there was a loss.

Nobody knows whether or not there is a loss in real terms. No one has made any attempt to make the railways pay, but it is asserted that there is a loss. All that had to be done was to demonstrate that there was no hardship, so the Midland Red turned up to give evidence. If ever there was a case of Satan giving evidence in defence of sin this was it. The Midland Red turned up to give evidence that when the railways go it will be quite within the Midland Red's capacity to handle the extra traffic. In January of this year, however, the Midland Red went to the Traffic Commissioners—and I have copies of the relevant correspondence here—and asked for permission to curtail the bus services on this very route.

Here is a pretty picture. The railway passenger services are to go, there are plans for the Government to decant 350,000 people over into the green belt, and the Midland Red says, "We must curtail the services because we cannot get the operating staff." That is an odd sort of argument, because it managed to get the operating staff to run buses at cut rates down the M.1. But who am I to make much of a small point like that.

My researches went further. It is clear that if we look at events in other countries we see as in a mirror what will happen here in the future. At the moment when, apparently, it is the policy of both parties to curtail services and accept the necessity to raise fares, it is fascinating to discover what is happening in the United States. My right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall may have noted that the London County Council is carrying out a traffic survey. I am sure that he will be interested to know that it is headed by an American. I have managed to get hold of three recent American reports.

Mr. Monslow

My hon. Friend has referred to what the Labour Party does in not opposing this policy. I was a member of the Committee which dealt with the Transport Bill, and I definitely opposed it.

Mr. Wigg

I am glad to hear that. I put down a Motion on the Order Paper and received support from some of my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale). If my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Monslow) supports the Motion, I hope that before the debate is out he will make his position clear. What I have tried to discover is the official attitude of my party to the closures of railway lines. If I am wrong in what I say I shall be glad to know it. No doubt my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall will put the matter right.

My knowledge is entirely superficial, but I have experience of what is happening in my constituency, and I have studied the reports to which I have referred. I agree with what the Americans say, namely, that in modern society a transport system is roughly equivalent to blood in man. It is a circulatory system, and if it is interfered with the patient is likely to the of thrombosis. That is true. The old arguments that went on about the merits of road and rail transport are out of date. We have to look at all these services as complementary.

I want to tell the House what happened in Philadelphia, which has the finest and most advanced basis network of transport facilities in the United States. The passenger operations over that network began to go through exactly the process that ours is now going through, and the effects of the policies adopted in the United States were the same as the effects of those being adopted by the Commission, namely, passenger operations became inadequate for present needs, and the position became worse, with the result that the railways began to decline. The response of the railways was two-fold. First, services were curtailed, as has been the case here, and then fares were raised. The result was that more and more people were driven off the railways.

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.