HC Deb 17 May 1963 vol 677 cc1777-90

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

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Laurence Pavitt (Willesden, West)

I am extremely pleased that the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Transport is present, because the subject which I hope the House will consider is one of grave concern to the constituents of Willesden and a number of neighbouring constituencies. The Minister knows that I invited him to meet some of our leading citizens, but unfortunately the right hon. Gentleman was unable to be present. The Mayor and Corporation of Willesden have taken a great deal of initiative in this matter relating to the proposed closure of the railway line between Broad Street and Richmond. On 7th March a town meeting was convened in Willesden and was attended by about 300 residents. A constructive resolution was passed of which, I think, the Minister has had a copy. If not, I will make sure that he has one. However, the right hon. Gentleman will be familiar with the general terms of it.

On 10th April, about 400 of the constituents of Willesden and of neighbouring boroughs, together with the Mayor of Willesden and four other mayors came to this Palace and attended a meeting in two of the large committee rooms in the Committee Corridor in order to discuss this most important matter which affects so many people not only in Willesden but in the constituencies of 14 hon. Members of this House. They include the Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Brooke), who I am very pleased to see is present this afternoon. The right hon. Gentleman sent me a note pointing out his concern and suggesting that perhaps we could make our protest more effectively at a later date.

This is an all-party problem and one affecting all sections of the community. In the meeting held in the Palace of Westminster we had representatives from many industries with local interests, including two which are known nationally, Guinness, which is known throughout the world, and Messrs. Heinz, which has more than 57 reasons for supporting the protest. Eight schools with their parent-teacher organisations were represented and 14 trade unions, and, incidentally, five stationmasters from the stations which would be closed and a number of representatives from three transport users' groups. I have in my hand a foolscap page from which, if time permitted, I could read a list of 60 or 70 different organisations which have expressed an interest.

As he could not attend the meeting in this Palace, the Minister sent a letter on 10th April explaining the way in which a protest could effectively be made through the transport users' consultative committee. I should like, in passing, to thank the "back-room girl" at the Ministry who provided me with 300 copies of the letter roughly three-quarters of an hour after I requested them, which shows that the Minister is seized of this matter. We have to make representation to the transport users' consultative committee on an extremely narrow front. We have to establish that if the closure is to come about there will be hardship. This is one of the difficulties. How do we measure hardship, in terms of numbers, in terms of individuals, in terms of quantity or quality?

I should like the Minister to consider two cases sent to me. A large number of representations must have been received by most hon. Members now in the Chamber from their constituents. First there is the hardship case of Mr. Geoffrey Solomon. He came to this House to attend the meeting. He had to be helped from his chair for he has been a cripple from childhood. He is a stockbroker and he said that he had been using the line for thirty years and added: If the line is closed I can no longer go between my house and my business. Case No. 2 is of a mother who writes about hardship from a different angle. She is Mrs. Walsh of West Hampstead, N.W.6, who writes: To a busy housewife…with young children whose husband does not earn enough for us to be in the car-owner class, I find wonderful in summer to be able to go on the train with the kids and the push chair to the freedom of one of the Kew Gardens or Richmond areas where I can relax and know that the children can play and run about without fear of traffic and enjoy the open air and the sunshine. The sunshine is problematical, but the amenities are there. For this mother who takes her children out on a Bank Holiday to Richmond, to the river, this closure will be a hardship, but how can it be measured by the committee? Do we have to find 50 such mothers or 50 such cripples who are unable to reach their places of employment, in order to show that there is hardship?

Then we look at the situation of the ordinary commuters and the hundreds of school children who will be affected, particularly in my constituency. Representations have been made by the local education officer in this respect. It so happens that some of the stations on this line are most convenient for school children going to and from their homes and schools.

Mr. Kenneth Robinson (St. Pancras, North)

My hon. Friend may be interested to know that the station which serves my constituency, Gospel Oak, has near it three schools, a girls comprehensive school and two primary schools. They are not 300 yards away from the station. Twenty-five per cent. of the girls attending the comprehensive school use the station, in addition to ten of the teaching staff.

Mr. T. H. H. Skeet (Willesden, East)

Many of those come from Willesden.

Mr. Pavitt

Most hon. Members can support me on this question. The House will know of my interest in medical matters and in the hospital service. I have served on the Central Middlesex Hospital Committee, and I know that the closing of the line will be a great loss in service to patients and staff.

The Minister has talked of providing alternative services. How does one arrange an alternative service in an urban area? In a rural area more buses can be put on, but in north-west London when a railway line such as this closes, how does one cater for the passengers using it? According to the Guardian of 28th March, the Minister's estimate of public reaction was best summarised by the passing reference: I think when they get on the buses it vial be all right". I wonder whether he has tried getting from Brondesbury to Kensal Rise, first by a No. 8 bus or a 76 and then a 46 or a 52, with intervals between the times of the buses. Alternatively, has he tried getting from Brondesbury to Kilburn when one has to catch a No. 8 bus or a 176 and then change on to a 226 or a 260?

Let us compare the times. At present, the railway journey takes four minutes, compared with fifteen minutes by bus, on the journey from Brondesbury to Kensal Rise, and in the other case it gives a seven-minute journey between those two points compared with one of eighteen-minute. Although this cannot be called hardship it is a great deal of inconvenience.

The Minister has a difficult problem in dealing with the London rush hour travel. We understand the difficulties in this connection for people concerned with London Transport. We have the Baker-100 Line which serves this area, too. During the rush hours people are packed into carriages in a way which is harmful to health and to the whole cause of trying to work satisfactorily in the community. At least sardines are killed before they are packed into the tins. It is more humane. In the London commuter service, on the tubes, however, we get a proximity which amounts to indecency. It is fantastic that on the same day as that on which we celebrate putting a man into orbit twenty-two times round the earth, we still have this gross indignity in the way in which, between certain hours, we crush people into the London Transport system. If this line were kept open it could contribute to the solution of this great problem.

We know that the Minister is aware of the problem, because, after a good deal of prodding in the House he has agreed to the building of the new Victoria Line in London. It is fantastic that we should spend £56 million on opening a new line while proposing to close another line in the same area which is already in existence. A line, not the one of this debate, is being closed down which serves four of the stations within a quarter-of-a-mile and another two stations within half-a-mile on the proposed new line.

We have to bear in mind that if the line is closed there will be a heavy social cost. I have had some figures worked out giving the number of hours which will be lost. If we work them out at 5s. an hour, and on the basis that the line carries 80,000 people during the week, it works out at a total cost of £1,148,000. I cannot guarantee the accuracy of this figure, and I should not like to be held to it, but there is no doubt that if the line is closed there will be a great social loss and a great toss to the community. We have being scrapped an urban electric line which carries 80,000 passengers a week, at a time when millions are being spent to try to solve London's transport problem.

I am not asking the Minister for a "justification approach" to this issue. We want to keep the line open and to make it a practical proposition. We think that that can be done. I hope that he will look at the Motion on the Order Paper signed by a number of his hon. Friends which refers to the possibility of putting this line in with the London Transport Board and possibly making it viable. That is a line of thought which should be pursued. When I examined examples of work journeys—these are random figures—I found that 38 per cent. of the people asked were using the line, 18 per cent. knew that it existed but did not use it and 44 per cent. did not even know that it existed. On another check which we made of pleasure journeys, 17 per cent. used the line, 22 per cent. knew about it vaguely but did not use it and 61 per cent, of the people who were approached did not even know that the line existed. Surely it is far more constructive to think in terms of publicising the line and making it profitable—of bringing it to the notice of people—than to deprive 80,000 people a week of a service which is of great benefit to them.

A number of suggestions can be made to the Minister. They concern the whole question of publicity, the question of increased interchange with the existing services, both radial and London tube services․

Mr. Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)

Is the hon. Member aware that if the off-peak traffic were cut still further, the cost of running this railway line would be considerably reduced.

Mr. Pavitt

Yes. I have a list of figures. The position has now arisen that the last train leaves at about 9 o'clock at night, so we can get out in the morn- ing but we cannot get back at night. I have a break-down of the figures. Had there been more time I should have liked to have given some of the operating costs which apply at the moment and to have suggested possible ways in which these could be saved.

The stations need modernising. They are drab and uninteresting. There is a possibility that two-car units from the District Line stock could be operated in off-peak hours. There is the possibility of using five trains instead of four, thus giving a fixed interval and faster timing. There is the possibility of having conductors on the trains instead of have people manning the stations at off-peak hours. This would also save much expense.

I submit to the House that all that is lacking to make this line a viable proposition, to make it not only a social service but also an economic service, is the wilt to do so. I hope that the Minister will not say that we must wait for the machinery. I hope that he will see this as a special case. I am making a special plea this afternoon. This is not the ordinary argument against the whole Report. I am not arguing Beeching. I am not arguing transport. I am making a special plea for the fourteen Members of the House whose contituents use this service. I ask that we should, if possible, not wait until the whole of the machinery slowly grinds down. The Minister should take a thorough look at this, come to a quick decision, and harness the terrific amount of energy that there is in the civil authorities, in the people using the railways, in workers and management, in the nurses and doctors working in the hospitals I referred to, and in the teachers and parents in the parent-teacher associations. I assure the Minister that, if he moves quickly, he will receive a great deal of support from hon. Members of all political parties.

4.16 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Ernest Marples)

The hon. Member for Willesden. West (Mr. Pavitt) has raised the question of a particular railway closure proposal. Before I refer to this proposal, I should like to explain the general position as it affects all proposals for passenger closures.

First, what does the Beeching Plan have to say about passenger closure proposals? An essential feature of the plan is a substantial reduction in the network of passenger services. The services proposed for withdrawal and the stations proposed for closure to passengers are set out in Appendix 2 to the Railways Board's Report.

The House has debated that Report as a whole. It welcomed it in general terms, but all that the Report contains is a series of proposals by the Railways Board. It merely gives advance notice of the closures which the Board would like to effect.

Does this mean that the Railways Board can proceed to close all the passenger services and stations listed in the plan? The answer is, "No". The Government have seen to that. In the Transport Act, 1962, users have been given for the first time a statutory right to object to passenger closures. If users object, the railways cannot now close any passenger service. They have to follow the procedure in the Act. Therefore, users can take it that no passenger service will be closed by the railways without taking the objections into account.

What, then, is the procedure for closing passenger services? This is laid down in Section 56 of the Act, so it is on record. It is in subsections (7) to (11) of that Section. The procedure is this. First, the railways must issue a formal notice, and I stress the word "formal". It will be in local newspapers in two successive weeks and on stations. Local authorities will get copies. In the notice users will be told that they can send objections to the area transport users consultative committee. They have six weeks to put objections in.

As soon as a user objects, the transport users consultative committee must tell me. Then the closure cannot take place without my consent. The consultative committee considers the objections. Then it reports to me on the hardship likely to arise. Finally, the case comes to me. I must then decide whether to give consent.

That is the procedure for all passenger closure proposals: first, a formal notice; secondly, if closure proposals are opposed, the T.U.C.C. hears objections; thirdly, it reports on hardship; finally, I consider the case and no closure takes place unless and until I give my consent.

What are the consultative committees? They are independent bodies appointed by me under the Transport Act. Before I appoint them, I consult, as Section 56(2) of the 1962 Act requires, such bodies as appear to him"— that is, to me— to be representative of the interests of persons likely to be concerned with matters within the competence of the committee. In practice, I consult associations representing local authorities, industry, commerce, agriculture, labour and others. The consultative committees represent the interests of users as a whole in their respective areas, and for this reason they are particularly well qualified to say what is likely to be hardship and what is not if a closure were to take place. There is a handbook issued by the Central Transport Consultative Committee which gives a very full account of the committees and their work. More people should read it. So much then for the consultative committees, these independent bodies widely representative of user interests.

Do these committees recommend whether a passenger closure should take place or not? The answer is, "No, they do not." They are concerned with hardship to users in the area. They go into the question of alternative services. They report to me on the hardship which they think the closure would cause. They can give me proposals for alleviating the hardship, such as new and better bus services, and so on, but they do not tell me whether or not I should agree to the closure. This is my decision.

The House may well ask whether this puts the Minister in a difficult position. The answer is, "Yes". These decisions are not easy. My position might be called a quasi-judicial position. That means that I have to be careful what I do, and what I do not do.

What are the things I must do? First, I must study the consultative committee's report on hardship. I examine, in particular, the adequacy of alternative services which may be needed to alleviate hardship. I examine reports from my divisional road engineers about roads, and reports from other Government Departments about their interests—planning, industrial development, population movements, local employment, defence, and so on; and that is not an exhaustive list. We have already set up machinery for obtaining these reports. Where an alternative bus service is necessary I consider the possible need for extra luggage space or for bus shelters and other things of that kind.

I look at any relevant representations made by local authorities and other bodies either direct to me or to my colleagues on any matter other than hardship, and that would include the schools. If I am in doubt seek the advice of the appropriate Minister. It is always open to me to seek more facts when I think that I need them, and I shall do this where necessary. For instance, I can—and again in the words of the Act— …require an Area Committee to make a farther report. But an hon. Member may ask, are not proposed closures in London a special case? The hon. Member did so ask. In a sense every closure is a special case, especially to the people concerned, but know that proposed closures in the large conurbations may present particular difficulties and I shall study them with great care. In a Written Answer, on 20th March, I gave details of the machinery for cooperation and the co-ordination of railway services which has been set up by the Railways Board and the London Transport Board in accordance with Sections 3(2) and 7(2) of the Transport Act. This machinery is available if either of the Boards thinks it desirable to discuss any aspect of a proposed closure in the London Passenger Transport Area, or if I ask them to do so.

This shows what the Minister will do. Is there anything that the Minister will not do? I feel that in matters which can be covered by a report from the T.U.C.C. I should act in a quasi-judicial way. This means that there are two things which I ought to avoid doing. First, I should not enter into discussions with individual interested parties about the T.U.C.C. aspects of a closure before reaching my decision. To listen to one objector would be wrong. Others would then say, "You listened to him and it is only fair you should now listen to me."

This means that I personally would have to listen to all objectors. Clearly, that is impossible on physical grounds alone. The Act has given the job of considering objections about hardship to the T.U.C.C.s. I must not try to do their job for them, though I can always ask them for another report if I think this is necessary.

Secondly, I do not think that I should make any statement or proffer any opinion on the merits of a closure until I give or refuse my consent in accordance with the Act.

It is often asked, while the transport users consultative committee's report will deal with hardship, what can the Minister do to prevent hardship? I can refuse consent to a closure. When I do this, the railway service has to be continued. Alternatively, I can give my consent but insist that extra alternative services are available when the closure takes place. If necessary, the Railways Board must contribute to the cost of the services or run them itself. In most cases, it will be cheaper to provide a bus service than meet the loss on the rail service.

I can ensure that the services are maintained. They cannot be taken off without my consent. That is the way I can deal with hardship, by extra alternative services or, if this is not possible, by refusing consent to the closure. I can defer my consent if necessary. As Section 56(11) of the Act states: the Minister may give his consent subject to such conditions as he thinks fit and may from time to time vary those conditions; and the Minister may in connection with the closure from time to time give such directions to the Board concerned as he thinks fit. That means that the permutations and combinations which are possible are endless in variety. That is the position on all passenger closure proposals. It applies to all the Railways Board's individual proposals to discontinue passenger services from any line or station. That is the procedure set up by Parliament for dealing with them.

I come now to the case which the hon. Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Pavitt) has raised concerning the passenger services between Richmond and Broad Street. I must ask this question: what ought I to say about this case? Quite frankly, the answer is "Nothing". All opposed passenger closures will come to me for decision. I have already said how I shall deal with them, not only this proposed closure, but all other proposed closures. Each case will go through the same statutory procedure and will be handled in the same way. Each will be looked at on its merits with the greatest Care.

That is all I can say now about the Richmond-Broad Street line. That is all I shall be able to say on any other individual passenger closure proposal which is likely to come to me for decision, whether from London, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Scotland or Wales. We have passed an Act of Parliament which lays down adequate safeguards and I personally, as Minister of Transport, must see that every passenger closure proposal goes through that procedure and I shall do my best to take as much evidence as I can and reach as fair a decision as I can.

Mr. Pavitt

Will the right hon. Gentleman answer my point? He has explained his entirely negative approach and the legal situation, but I asked whether, in his capacity as Minister, he could take positive action apart from his actual safeguards before a line is closed in order that, as a transport service, it shall be improved. The Minister can do something positive. Is that possible outside the terms of this reference?

Mr. Marples

I will see that the Railways Board gets a copy of HANSARD, so that it will read for itself what the hon. Member has said.

4.28 p.m.

Mr. T. H. H. Skeet (Willesden, East)

I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Minister has explained the difference between the 1947 and 1962 Acts. As I understand it, under the 1947 Act there was no chance of an inquiry until after a line was closed. Under the 1962 Act, the inquiry is held first and the line is closed afterwards in pursuance of the decision. That is the sum total of what my right hon. Friend has indicated in this matter.

My right hon. Friend answered a Written Question of mine on 16th May in connection with Sections 3(2) and 7(2) of the 1962 Act, and stated that there was to be co-ordination between London Transport and the Railways Board. He also indicated that it was not yet necessary to go further to the Nationalised Transport Advisory Council. How would such a reference arise? If there was coordination by a lower body, in what circumstances would the matter be referred to a body of higher standing?

Mr. Marp1es

The best thing I can do is to send a copy of HANSARD to the Railways Board to enable it to see the point made by my hon. Friend about co-ordination between London Transport and the Railways Board. Then, the Board will see whether it can give effect to what he has in mind. The Nationalised Transport Advisory Council will concern itself not so much with individual cases as with the general question of co-ordination of transport in the nationalised sector of transport as a whole.

Mr. Skeet

While the line operated at a loss of £200,000 in 1960, recent figures which I have obtained show that the net financial effect of closure would be only £69,000. I suggest that my right hon. Friend might consider maintaining the line at peak periods, because whereas the average train loading over a whole week is 51 passengers and a load factor of 18 per cent., in mornings and evenings the average train loadings are 100 to 110, with approximately eight trains having a maximum loading at some points along the journey.

This would appear to be the area between Dalston Junction and Willesden Junction. It would be impractical to organise an alternative service running parallel to that line because Hampstead Heath is in the centre, and there would be blockages on the line. The way to obviate that, of course, is to arrange concerted operation at peak periods and then many of these problems would be overcome.

Finally, I would draw the Minister's attention to a Motion on the Paper in the names of the Members for Richmond (Mr. A. Royle), Acton (Mr. Holland), Brantford and Chiswick (Mr. Dudley Smith), Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. G. Johnson Smith), Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason), Wembley, South (Mr. Russell) and myself. It indicates that we support the Beeching proposals and that it might be possible to consider incorporating this line into the London transport system. If it is possible to run a freight organisation, would my right hon. Friend consider running it in conjunction with the rail system itself?

Mr. G. W. Reynolds (Islington, North)

The Minister has told us about a whole lot of things that he has to consider at various times, but would he tell the House at what stage he considers that it might be advisable to subsidise railway services in built-up areas?

Mr. Marples

I am sorry to say to the House that I can only listen and absorb the words of wisdom hon. Mem- bers have given to me from both sides—

The Question having been proposed after Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-nine minutes to Five o'clock.