HC Deb 02 June 1964 vol 695 cc1053-64

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

10.11 p.m.

Mr. Goronwy Roberts (Caernarvon)

I am grateful for this opportunity of raising a matter which is causing my constituents a good real of anxiety, namely, the proposal of the Railways Board to close the Bangor-Afon Wen railway line.

I raise the matter for the following reasons. The public hearing of objections to the Railways Board's proposal was held in Caernarvon on 8th April. The Transport Users' Consultative Committe for Wales heard some very strong arguments for the retention of this line, and on 5th May it issued a statement containing the following passages: It Was found that closure of this through line during the holiday season would cause substantial hardship to those engaged in the tourist and holiday industry in Caernarvon and South Caernarvonshire. Certain local and off-season hardship would also arise. The comprehensive report which has been submitted to the Minister of Transport includes references to the possibility of alleviating some of the hardship". Here is in admission of hardship, of substantial hardship, followed by a suggestion not for its avoidance but only for its alleviation. As the decision regarding the future of this line rests squarely with the Minister of Transport and the Government, it is vital that they should understand that this is a case in which the substantial hardship, which the Minister's advisers admit, cannot be alleviated to any marked extent once the line is closed and that the real answer is to retain the line.

As the Parliamentary Secretary knows, the line runs for about 28 miles southward and westward from a point near Bangor where it leaves the London-Holyhead line. It is important to realise that this is not a branch line but a link line. It is part of the railway connecting Caernarvonshire with Liverpool, Merseyside, Chester and Manchester, a region with which we have very close commercial, industrial and, indeed, medical relations. A great many of our people have to go to Liverpool and Manchester for hospital and out-patient treatment.

The line is also part of the rail link between North Wales and South Wales along the western seaboard. It is the only connecting line in Wales; otherwise, one has to make a long detour deep into the Midlands to proceed from North Wales to South Wales or vice versa. Finally, it is part of a unique circular rail system which runs right around North Wales. Its closure, therefore, would be a matter not of lopping off an end branch but of fracturing a continuous system which, once broken, might be impossible to restore.

I shall only very briefly mention the general case against the closure. It is a case which is common against all such proposals for closure—the hardship to the elderly and infirm who depend on rail transport, the hardship to people who have no cars and live far from bus routes as is often the case in the area which the dine serves, and the hardship to families coping with luggage, perambulators and children. I might mention in this connection that for various reasons the proportion of elderly folk in the county of Caernarvon is higher than the national average.

Turning to the specific case for the retention of the line, my first point is that its closure would mean an injection of additional traffic into roads which are already seriously congested, especially during the tourist and holiday season, which is from about Easter until the end of September. According to the county council, the average weekly number of passenger journeys on this line in winter approaches 5,000. To be exact, it is 4,728. The average number each week in summer is 12,128. These are average figures. At the height of the season the figures are very much higher.

The roads, or, rather, the road which would have to take this added traffic—there is really only one road—is a narrow and twisting one beset by natural and built-up obstacles, S-turns, over-bridges and under-bridges, and as a result we sometimes have in summer queues two miles long at each end of the town of Caernarvon, and long, costly and frustrating delays at many points along the road.

Nor is it easy to see how this road could be greatly improved without the expenditure of vast sums of money. There are geographical even geological, and built-up reasons. The village of Port Dinorwic will come to the mind of the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, the hon. Member for Conway (Mr. P. Thomas), as being a major problem confronting our road engineers. What to do at that point on this road no one really knows. If these geographical, geological and built-up difficulties were tackled, it would certainly send the cost of really improving the road to astronomical heights.

We consider that it would be the height of folly to scrap the railway line in these circumstances, and that, indeed, the height of wisdom would be to retain it, to improve it, and to extend its use as much as possible. The traffic, particularly during the tourist season, is growing every year and will inevitably grow in the future. This is part of the Snowdonia National Park, and during the past five years the tourist influx to central and south Caernarvonshire has more than doubled and almost trebled, and the signs are that in the next few years it will again double and even treble.

Indeed, the tourist and holiday industry is already the largest single industry in the county and in the area that this line serves—broadly speaking, my constituency—it employs as many as 35 per cent. of the insured population. The area includes some of the top sight seeing attractions in the United Kingdom. Caernarvon Castle, for instance, was top of the list last year, being visited by 231,000 people who got there by road and rail and were most welcome but whose presence contributed to major traffic difficulties and hazards.

The area also includes one of the biggest holiday camps in Europe, if not in the world, and one which is continually expanding. This is Butlin's holiday camp, at Penychain. Last year the camp attracted 111,000 campers, 22 per cent. of whom came by rail. These campers come and go on Saturdays and at present they are able, if they wish to do so, to make the whole journey by rail between Lancashire or the Midlands and the camp, which is a boon to families coping with luggage, prams and children.

The closure of this line w ill inflict particular hardship on those people who come into the area in their increasing thousands every year. If the line is closed at Bangor they will have to complete the last 30 miles of journey by the road which I have tried to describe and under the conditions I have indicated.

The Railways Board has put forward an extraordinary proposal. It proposes that people should detrain at Bangor station, climb a stairway, cross a bridge, go down another stairway—luggage, prams, children and all—and then board a fleet of buses in the forecourt of the station. The county planning officer tells me that as many as 30 double decker buses would have to be deployed somewhere in the vicinity of the forecourt at the same time in order to cope with that traffic.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. I. Davies) is familiar with the forecourt of Bangor station. It is a small place used by private cars, taxis and pedestrians for which there is hardly enough room already. Yet it is in this restricted area that a fleet of double decker buses is supposed to be deployed. The forecourt is reached through a narrow entrance provided with traffic lights because it gives access to the busiest road in North Wales, the A.5. This suggestion by the Railways Board is a fantastic one which should kill stone dead the proposal to close the line.

Another suggestion being mooted and which I want to dispose of is that the closure should be effected not at Bangor, but at Caernarvon station, nine miles, down the line—in other words, that the amputation should be made about one third of the way down. The argument is that Caernarvon town is the county administrative centre and is, indeed, a regional centre for certain purposes, such as the provincial police force and the river board, while it is also a royal borough where, in due course, the traditional ceremony of the investiture of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales will take place.

It is farther suggested that the forecourt at Caernarvon station is somewhat larger than that at Bangor. It is a little larger—not much. In any case, this forecourt also opens into a road where the longest traffic queues in Caernarvon-shire build up. It is quite possible that these hapless campers will have to start camping out earlier than they intended without being able to break out into the stream of traffic before next morning. Proposals such as these will not alleviate the hardship, but only intensify it.

I now briefly turn to the question of economics and social hardship. This is an area which has long suffered high and persistent unemployment. This had led to serious depopulation which we are only now beginning to arrest by attracting new industries. There is no doubt that loss of the railway line would seriously discourage new industries from entering the area and give pause to existing industries planning to expand. It is true that most of the raw materials which are imported into the county and most of the finished goods which we export are carried by road at the present time, but some of our industries use the railways and use the passenger goods facilities for this purpose. As the congestion on our roads reaches the point of recoil, increased use of this railway line is bound to come about.

We are also concerned about the hardship to the men who will be displaced. One hundred men and their families now depend upon this railway for their livelihood. There is practically no alternative work for them in an area of high unemployment such as this. They will either go on the dole or migrate, as so many of their fellows have had to do in the past, to Birmingham or London. There it is again, the same sickening technique, 100 families recruited from the land and community they love and thrown into the seething conurbations of South-East England. What sort of planning is this? All this hardship for the elderly and infirm, the people without cars living far away from these roads, the tourists coping with luggage, all this new stimulus to depopulation and unemployment are designed, we are told, and justified by the need for economy.

We are told that the line costs too much. How much does it cost in fact? All over the country people are affronted by the tendentious and selective way in which the Railways Board seeks to prove its losses on these lines. We are told that this line loses £70,000 a year. No one outside the Board believes that. What is quite certain is that the cost of unemployment benefit and National Assistance to the displaced railwaymen would cost half as much as this alleged loss in a year, and the cost of the vast fleets of double-decker buses to take the place of the trains will account for the rest. Where is the saving?

How does the Railways Board count its receipts on lines which it wants to close? Does it include in this case, for instance, a proportion of the fares to the Butlin camp travellers, or a proportion of national and local rover type tickets, or a proportion of receipts for through tickets, or receipts from mail and newspaper traffic and passenger trains, or a proportion of paid travel warrants, or receipts from agencies?

A hearing in the north of England revealed that the Board had conveniently ignored the yield of paid travel warrants in one case and that that was a very substantial omission. Are all these items totally credited to the lines which the Board wants to retain and no part of them credited to the lines it wants to close? Before a line of this importance is closed on the grounds of economy, full and frank figures of income and cost should be made available.

Finally, there is no doubt that, given a real effort to publicise and popularise the present services on this line and to meet the needs of the public by sensible adjustment of timetables, this line could be made to pay very substantially. I urge the Minister to keep this line open. Its retention is vital to the future development of Caernarvon as a major tourist and holiday centre and to the rest of the area to which new industry is increasingly being attracted. The decision is in the hands of the Minister.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith)

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Caernarvon (Mr. G. Roberts) has presented his case very clearly tonight. I am grateful to him not only for doing that, but also for his kindness in telling me in advance about some of the points which he wished to raise. Normally, when an hon. Gentleman does this, it is an advantage, because it gives the Minister opportunity to get at the facts and for providing a useful answer, but I am afraid that tonight, if the hon. Gentleman is looking for a detailed reply to much of what he has said, he has, as it were, jumped the gun, because while the future of this line is under consideration by my right hon. Friend I really cannot comment on many of the points the hon. Gentleman has raised, though, of course, I recognised the relevance and importance of them to the case for preserving this railway line which he has championed.

I think the hon. Member knows the procedure with regard to railway closure. First of all, the railways, on their own initiative—I cannot stress that too often: it has nothing to do with the Minister or the Government—decide in the light of their commercial judgment which railway lines they wish to close and that is what they have done here, and the proposal we are now discussing affects, as the hon. Gentleman said, the closure of railway passenger services running from Bangor, on the Chester-Llandudno-Holyhead line, via the historic town of Caernarvon, which the hon. Gentleman represents, to the junction at Afon Wen with the Cambrian coast line not far from Pwllheli. Here I ask the hon. Gentleman's indulgence—indeed, I think I should ask the indulgence of the whole House—if should mispronounce any of these names. Like the hon. Gentleman and others here, I also come from the Celtic fringe, but it happens to be a different part of Celtland, and I hope that they will bear with me in any mistakes I may make.

The service we are discussing therefore carries three kinds of traffic, local traffic mainly to Caernarvon and Bangor; traffic via Llandudno to London and Merseyside; and traffic from Pwllheli and Portmadoc to North-West England. The longer distance users, as the hon. Gentleman indicated, include a substantial number of tourists in the summer—I do not think there is any doubt about that—including 17,000 to and from Butlin's camp at Penychain, and though this is a very substantial number—17,000—it still amounts to 13 per cent. Of the total number of visitors who go to the camp. Therefore, the rest of the proportion must find some other way of getting there. I think that is a relevant point to remember.

The railways having made a proposal to close this line, what happened next was that objection was lodged; in fact, several objections were lodged; and because they were lodged, they set in motion the special machinery devised by the 1962 Act to protect the interests of passengers, and the case came before the Transport Users' Consultative Committee on 8th April at Caernarvon, where the objectors amplified their written evidence on hardship. At that hearing the hon. Gentleman represented his constituents' difficulties, and did so very ably. I know this because, though I was not there, I had the benefit of seeing a transcript of what he said in making those representations before the Committee. The hon. Gentleman did the right thing, because the Transport Users' Consultative Committee has been set up to consider whether or not a proposed closure would impose hardship and whether or not the alternatives were satisfactory. This, after all, is the only thing that a passenger is concerned with: how to get from one place to another if the railway line is closed, and what sort of additional burden faces him if the closure takes place. Financial matters and other considerations are utterly irrelevant to the passenger. He is only concerned with movement, not with cost, and that is why there is no wide-ranging discussion at the committee, and why there is no cross-examination on the financial figures, because whether railway lines cost £5 or £500,000 does not affect the hardship issue. There has been a great deal of misunderstanding about this, and I hope that from what I have said tonight I have made clear what is the function of the T.U.C.C. It is to report on hardship, and on nothing more.

As the hon. Gentleman told the House, the T.U.C.C. has already reported to my right hon. Friend. While the details of the report are confidential, the main finding was published, and this indicated that in the view of the T.U.C.C. closure of this through line—whether it is called branch or through does not matter; it is the same procedure for them all—would cause substantial hardship to those engaged in the tourist and holiday industry in Caernarvon and South Caernarvonsh ire, and that certain local and off season hardship would arise as well.

In addition to that general view, the T.U.C.C also indicated how far certain possible courses of action which had also been suggested would relieve the hardship. One of these possibilities—of which the hon. Gentleman did not think mach—was the idea referred to at the hearing of retaining the service as far as Caernarvon and not stopping at Bangor, and another possibility was the provision of certain additional bus services which the Railways Board and the local operator had suggested would be necessary to cater for the traffic from Chwilog and from Butlin's camp.

The position, therefore, at the moment is that the railways have made their proposals for closure, in accordance with their statutory duty to operate with due regard to efficiency and economy. That is their job, and that is what they have done.

The T.U.C.C. has examined this proposal and the possible alternatives which have been suggested from the point of view of hardship to the passenger. It has made a report on that, and that is its duty. Now it is up to the Minister to come to a decision, but in doing this he has to take a very much wider view than that taken by the Railways Board or even by the T.U.C.C. because it might well be that though a line was losing money, and though no hardship was caused to passengers, it would still be wrong to dose the line or at least to dispose of it, perhaps because of possible future industrial development, or because of defence considerations, or because of the prospect of the growth of the housing population, or because of the condition of the roads—to which the hon. Gentleman referred—or because of the pattern of the traffic on them—to which the hon. Gentleman also referred. All these different considerations which I have mentioned have in fact weighed with my right hon. Friend in some of the decisions which he has taken on closure proposals in different parts of the country, and they will certainly weigh with him in this case.

In reachnig his decision on these important matters, wide-ranging as they are, the Minister of Transport does not work on his own in a glass case insulated from every consideration except the economics of transport. He does not do that at all. He has the help and advice of his colleagues who have to deal with other matters of State than transport, such as, in this case, the Secretary of State for Industry and Trade and the Minister for Welsh Affairs. The hon. Gentleman will see, therefore, that the points which he raised with regard to the tourist industry and employment, and in fact all the non-hardship points which he raised are considered in conjunction with the Departments which are responsible for their welfare, and not by my right hon. Friend alone.

I mention that because it is too often assumed that the Ministry of Transport is a mere rubber stamp to Dr. Beeching's proposals. I am sure that Dr. Beeching does not find that, because once details about hardship have been clarified by the T.U.C.C., the whole Government machine becomes involved in the process of working out the right decision, taking into account the various conflicting interests, the financial implications for the Railways Board, possible hardship to passengers, and tee social and economic consequences in the districts affected, and the possible economic consequences may well, in some circumstances, be enough to tilt the balance in favour of not closing.

This process of weighing up the pros and cons is not done haphazardly, and is not done as an impersonal financial exercise. It is carried out with the greatest care and with a deep sense of responsibility in respect of all the issues involved.

There is not time for me to answer the other questions which the hon. Gentle- man raised. The difficulty is that this matter is sub judice—that we are having a shadow boxing match—and all I can say is that the points that the hon. Member has raised will be considered carefully by my right hon. Friend when he makes his decision.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.