HC Deb 17 December 1964 vol 704 cc717-26

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

10.36 p.m.

Mr. F. P. Crowder (Ruislip-Northwood)

I am glad to have the opportunity to discuss the question of the London Transport No. 232 bus service and the train service on the Metropolitan Line. I wish to start with the bus service. It is the only form of public transport now available to my constituents travelling from north to south of the constituency.

The service, in fact, begins at Southall Garage, which is, I believe, a garage that has experienced more labour trouble than almost any other garage in the area. The buses go from there to Greenford, then to Eastcote, and then to Northwood. Before April, 1963, there was a single service which operated between the Eastcote Arms and Northwood. That was the No. 225 service. It ran during the peak periods at, roughly, seven-minute intervals.

That service was fairly satisfactory. Compared with the present No. 232 service it was eminently satisfactory. Unfortunately, the London Transport Board intervened. It altered that service. It did so to suit its own arrangements, its own organisation, and, as it has done before, it did so without any form of consideration for the people who travel on it, and it did so—which is almost incredible—without any consultation at all with the local authorities which, after all, know about these matters.

As I said earlier, it is the only bus route from north to south by public transport. It serves three large secondary schools en route and also three luncheon clubs which provide cheap lunches for old people at reasonable prices.

We have had two deputations from the council to the Board. One was on 23rd October, 1963, and the other was led by me personally on 30th July this year. On 30th July we pointed out—and I summarise a schedule—that on the 28th and the 29th, taking a morning and an afternoon, only 59 buses ran, against the schedule of 74. Seven of those buses, curiously enough, ran early. There was a six-and-a-half minute service schedule. One of them was 13 minutes late, another was 20 minutes late, another was 22 minutes late, another was 30 minutes late, another was 48 minutes late and another was 49 minutes late. There was no question of argument about that at all.

To give the House an example of how old people are affected, there is a luncheon club at the Cavendish Pavilion and people have had to wait for one hour and over in order to get a bus from the Cavendish or to it. I was down there this morning and I spoke to a charming old lady, Mrs. Jones, at the bus stop at Eastcote. She told me that she had had to wait for as long as one-and-a-half hours in order to get away from that club.

I know that figures and statistics do not always mean a great deal but in two months, September and October, 1,009 lunches were served to old people compared with 1,383 in the year before. I have not the figures for the last two months, but those which I have given are an indication of how old people are unable to take advantage of the facilities open to them at the Cavendish dining club because at this time of year—and winter is to come—they cannot be expected to wait in cold and hard weather conditions, possibly at a bus stop in pouring rain, sleet or snow, for 45 minutes to one-and-a-half hours in order to get a cheap luncheon and to enjoy it as they wish.

There is also the question of Mount Vernon Hospital, which is somewhat isolated. The service is supposed to connect with the No. 347 bus. The fact is that owing to these shortages of drivers from the Southall garage, the connections are never valid. The result is that people sometimes have to hire taxis. My council has before it a case, among many, in which an old lady whose husband was seriously ill in Mount Vernon was forced to take taxis, costing her no less than £10, which she could ill afford, in order to visit her husband while he was in hospital. We are not dealing here with the Highlands but with a constituency situated in the suburbs only 16, 17 or 18 miles from London.

I will tell hon. Members what has happened in the Mount Vernon service. Some people walk one-and-a-half miles from Northwood. Some people are fortunate enough to have a car which they use, or to have a friend with a car who gives them a lift. On occasions some people can afford a taxi.

It was rather putting out to those who are concerned in these matters to read a letter signed by a person called Robbins from the London Transport Board, dated 16th October, in which he said that a survey had been made and the Board was satisfied, having seen the number of passengers concerned, that there was no reason for doing what we have been asking it to do—to put on a service to meet the requirements of the hospital staff and those who wished to visit relatives during visiting hours in the evening.

Of course, what Mr. Robbins says is exactly right. Of course, there is no demand. It is rather like British Railways saying, "There is going to be a fast train to London at 9.0 o'clock" and putting it on the timetable, and leaving it there for a year and a half—but the train never runs. Then some official is sent down from the Ministry to see if there is a demand for it. Surely it is no surprise, people having learned that the train never runs, that there is not a great number of people waiting for it. It is that sort of ostrich type of attitude of the London Transport Board which my constituents really do find more than irksome.

I suppose the kindest thing I can say about the Board is that it means well, but I think that psychologically it is the whole time looking for reasons why it should not have to overcome difficulties which, after all, are there to be overcome. The whole time it is looking how it can avoid particular difficulties, rather than facing them, and attempting to meet the universal—I think I can almost use the word—outrage and demand which, having regard to the number of letters, and the attitude of my council, there is in Ruislip and Northwood at the moment.

The fact is that people know that this service does not operate, and they have simply given up using it. They have tried to find other ways and means, be they their own cars, be they taxis, be they their friends, of circumventing it. The Board, I am sure through no fault of its own, but because of staff shortage, in a sense having created that situation, cannot now simply hide behind it and say there is no demand; because in effect the Board, because of its own difficulties, has made a situation which it is not able to meet and accordingly has dodged round it.

The other problem is the one of the school children. I have here a letter typical of hundreds I have received, and it says: My younger daughter who is 10 years old and therefore not permitted to take a bicycle to school depends on the local bus service to take her to school at the other end of Eastcote. Recently she has waited anything from 35 to 40 minutes at Meadway bus stop in the mornings on many occasions, and several times has had to walk the considerable distance to Field End School, arriving anxious or late"— one knows only too well what being late to school means to a child— either because no bus came at all, or because, when it did eventually arrive, it was of course full up. That is one of many letters which one could quote, and which one has received time and again on this subject.

Of course the council is a highly competent body in Ruislip-Northwood, and proud of running the district extremely efficiently, and naturally, when things got so bad, it could afford the suggestion, "For goodness sake, while we fully understand that the London Transport Board is not capable of dealing with this problem, why on earth cannot we run our own bus service? What would be the attitude if we were to go to the Traffic Commissioners and apply for a private licence? Then everybody could be happy." It was intimated to the council that if any such application were to be made it would be blocked and opposed by the Transport Board, which holds the monopoly.

I can see its difficulties there, because quite obviously, if the council were to run its own bus service, which I know, having regard to its efforts in different directions, would be extremely efficient, that would promote even further the labour trouble. But at the same time we were almost pressed to this point, and, although on the friendliest possible terms with the Board, things got so bad in the district that the council felt bound to mention it, and I think it should be of interest to the House that that is the reply that was received.

I am not going to say any more about this bus route. I know that staff shortages are the problem, and I shall have a word to say on that in a moment or two.

I now want to say something about the Metropolitan Line. I do not expect you will remember, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, but I initiated a debate on this line many years ago. I am glad to say that since then about £9 million has been spent on modernisation. It is only fair to say that after that money had been spent there was some slight improvement to begin with, but now the situation is not as good as it was before the money was spent.

The situation, in short, is that in the peak period—I am speaking of trains which go to the City of London—700 people have to stand every morning in what is called the Pinner Group, and in effect that is the area between Northwood and the Harrow area. That number has been agreed between Mr. Sturch, the Chairman of the Joint Transport Committee, and the Transport Users' Consultative Committee, which negotiates with the London Transport Board organisation. When complaint is made, it is said that it is due to staff shortage.

I have here a short schedule which will show in a nutshell what is happening, and I am dealing with trains from Northwood, and first trains. For instance, the 5.43 from Rickmansworth now runs at 5.52, in the early hours. The 5.59 from Watford now runs at 6.8. The 6.50 has been cancelled. The 7.5 to Liverpool Street has been cancelled. The 7.19 to Baker Street has been cancelled. The 7.26 to Aldgate has been cut back to Baker Street, and ends there. The 7.45 semi-fast to Aldgate has been cancelled. The 8.10 semi-fast has been reverted to slow because the 8.24 from Harrow has been cancelled. The 8.45 semi-fast, now the 8.44, stops additionally at Harrow because the 8.48 has been cancelled. The 9.4 has been cancelled. The 9.19 to Moorgate has been cancelled. That leaves a 20-minute gap, and the normal off-peak service should be 15 minutes. I merely point out that all those trains are on the fringe of the peak.

From the point of view of the comfort of passengers, there is this question of the sliding doors. Of necessity, and there is no avoiding it, these trains have to stop, and when they stop the doors have to open, and they remain open for a considerable time. Mr. Deputy-Speaker, if the countryside where you woke up was as white as it was where I did, you can imagine what it is like for a business man travelling to London having to sit near one of those open doors for quite long periods time after time.

I think that it was I who in this House ventured to suggest that the new stock should remain the compartment-type stock of the type used by Southern Railways, and my suggestion to the Minister tonight is that the present stock, which has been provided under the £9 million expenditure to which I referred earlier. should, when convenient, and when economically possible, be handed over to the District Line, and that the Metropolitan Line should return to the traditional compartment-type stock.

I deal, finally, with public relations. Public relations have been, in one sense, extremely happy. The committees have worked together. But the fact is that the Transport Users' Consultative Committee, which is the London Transport Committee, is in practice nothing more or less than a thick wrapping of cotton wool between the operative staff of London Transport and their public relations. If we are to get things really done and moving, as I know London Transport would wish, surely the Joint Transport Committee does not need to go through all that business before it can approach the operational staff.

There is nobody more efficient than Mr. Sturch or Mr. Thompson, who is the Secretary of the Joint Transport Committee, which represents a large number of bodies, and I hope that in future something more direct can be arranged in that respect.

Finally, we were told at the meeting on 30th January that central buses are several thousand busmen short. I know that shortage of staff is a difficulty with which London Transport Board is faced, but the feeling is growing that it is not a particularly attractive employer. I am wondering whether the Minister cannot see fit at some stage to intervene and see what is wrong with it, and why it is so many thousand staff short. What is wrong with its arrangements? That is the whole basis of the matter which is affecting my constituents so acutely at present.

10.56 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Stephen Swingler)

If hon. Members want a reply to an Adjournment debate they must learn to discipline themselves a little better. The hon. and learned Member has taken well over 20 minutes out of the 30 minutes available. I would have been willing for other hon. Members to join in the debate, but I have not been allowed much time to comment on a great deal of detailed stuff which the hon. Member has produced. Perhaps he thought that I was going to follow the example of one of his hon. Friends, when Parliamentary Secretary in the last Administration, who, having listened to the Adjournment debate—I believe it was raised by the hon. and learned Member himself—got up and said, "This subject is the managerial responsibility of London Transport, and it has nothing to do with me. I will see that it is all reported to the Board", and shut up after two minutes. I know that these sort of matters cannot be raised under the rules of the House at Question Time, but so long as the rules of the House permit such detailed matters to be raised in an Adjournment debate, hon. Members are entitled to a proper reply.

I start by making it clear that it would be folly on the part of my right hon. Friend or myself to attempt to intervene in such detailed matters as the hon. and learned Member has raised tonight—matters of train times and bus schedules—which are clearly the managerial responsibility of London Transport. In the first part of what I have to say, I will be briefly reporting information supplied by the London Transport Board on the situation. Afterwards, if there is time, I shall make one or two comments on the general situation.

I am in full sympathy with the hon. and learned Member's constituents. I agree with him entirely that this is a most unsatisfactory state of affairs. I know that the London Transport Board is very conscious of the defects that have been revealed here. I will comment first on the Metropolitan Line. I understand that following meetings early in 1964 the Board made several improvements in the scheduled services which had been suggested by the Joint Transport Committee formed by the residents' associations in the area between Harrow and Northwood. Unfortunately, staff shortages have since forced the Board to take off trains.

I am informed that London Transport intends to reintroduce some of these trains early in 1965. The Board is trying to produce a regular pattern of train services based on a realistic view of available staff, in preference to what one might regard as an "ideal" timetable, from which trains have to be cut out at very short notice when members of staff are absent. The Board is endeavouring to see that the train times which are advertised are realistic, and to ensure that if cancellations have to be made, proper notice is given.

We know, of course, that the No. 232 bus service has been the subject of complaint for quite a long time, and, on the information which I have, the Board agrees that as much as one-sixth of the scheduled mileage on this route has at times not bean operated, owing entirely to a shortage of drivers. When the scheduled service is operating fully, the London Transport Board takes the view that it is capable of meeting the passenger demand. Clearly, from some of the things said by the hon. and learned Gentleman. there is a good deal of conflict of evidence, between traffic censuses which the Board has undertaken as recently as 6th October and some of the figures which he produced about times during which passengers have to wait for buses and so on.

Basically, the difficulty is in the recruitment of drivers. This is particularly difficult in west and north-west London, because of the alternative opportunities for industrial employment which exist throughout this area. All that I have said emphasises that these are managerial responsibilities of the London Transport Board. It would be foolish and improper of my right hon. Friend or myself to intervene in these matters, which are duties imposed on the Board itself.

In spite of what the hon. and learned Member has said, I must emphasise that, under Section 56 of the Transport Act, it is the duty of the Transport Users' Consultative Committee to consider the sort of complaints which he has put forward tonight, or which are put forward by any large body of citizens, and which affect the services and facilities which are provided by any of the Transport Boards. That is the place where the consumers' voice can be heard, and we advise that that facility of the Consultative Committee should be fully used.

We are very concerned about the transport conditions in London, and conditions for travellers in general. We recognise that the problems confronting the London Transport Board are immense, and are part of the colossal problems in transport which we, as a Government, have inherited. The hon. and learned Gentleman himself referred to the Phelps Brown Committee's Report. I should have liked to have read several extracts from that, if I had had the time. This Report showed what an immense problem the recruitment of busmen in the London area is. The Report explained that the busmen's job had become unattractive in comparison with many other jobs, especially because of the amount of evening and weekend work.

Since the report was made and because of negotiations that followed it, steps have been taken to improve the conditions of busmen by increases in take-home pay, better sick pay and the promise of the introduction next year of a 40-hour week and extra holidays for long-service staff. This seems, at the moment at any rate, to have halted the decline in staff in London Transport, but, nevertheless, as the local situation which the hon. and learned Gentleman spoke of reveals, there are still many places where short staffing is causing very great difficulty.

The London Transport Board has a statutory duty to pay its way. It has a statutory duty to provide adequate services and it is confronted with the increasing congestion on London's roads brought about by the general increase in traffic, resulting from the increase in employment in Central London and the increasing number of people driving to work in motor cars at peak hours. This is illustrated in the most recent Annual Report of the London Transport Board. If I have time I will quote parts of that document. It stated: During the period 1952–63, when street capacity has been substantially increased by road improvements and traffic engineering schemes, the number of vehicles coming into the area has gone up by 34,600 (58 per cent.) yet the number of passengers carried has gone down by 20,500 (6 per cent.) and traffic congestion is worse. The Report showed that in central London we reached the position where there were 2,000 fewer buses and 9,000 fewer pedal cycles coming into the area, but their place had been more than filled by an extra 36,000 cars and 9,000 extra motor cycles coming into the area during peak hours.

We have inherited this position partly because of the policies, or lack of them, of the previous Administration in permitting more and more office building in central London by failing to put a brake on office building in the area; and this congestion and disruption of public transport has become—

Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)


Mr. Swingler

Only seconds remain. I cannot give way. As I was saying—

Mr. Crowder

On a point of order. This business of office building is purely political and—

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

Adjourned at six minutes past Eleven o'clock.