HC Deb 10 March 1964 vol 691 cc394-404

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

10.46 p.m.

Mr. Join Morris (Aberavon)

I am delighted to have this opportunity to raise the issue of the Pyle-Porthcawl railway. Time is running out in more senses than one. It is fortunate that I have this opportunity to raise the matter. I am particularly concerned with regard to the summer service. The winter service has already closed. The summer service ran last year. The Minister has now consented to the complete closure of rail facilities to Porthcawl, and this summer, for the first time, there will be no service.

Porthcawl is a very important holiday resort in South Wales. People from all over the country and, in particular, from the valleys go to the town to enjoy their summer holidays. The town is greatly dependent for its prosperity on the incoming holidaymakers. Its season, as in other parts is a short one. There is a very important holiday caravan site there and talk of further development. The rates are incredibly high. There is a very large proportion of old-age pensioners there. Having regard to all these circumstances, there is an enormous burden on the citizens of the town. Although they will have some relief from the Rating Act, this is no more than a temporary measure, and I would think that it would have been much preferable to make a proper inquiry into the whole of the rating system.

The town has had two severe blows in recent years. The first, two years ago, was the smallpox epidemic in the valleys. As a result, the town's trade suffered in that year. The town lost a very large proportion of its holiday custom in that year. One example of the loss was the cancellation of the annual conference of the Women of the Labour Party.

The T.U.C.C. had its inquiry on the B.T.C. proposals to close the line altogether in July, 1962. The case was argued very ably on behalf of the town and its trading interests. The result of the inquiry was announced as far back as August, 1962. The T.U.C.C" having considered all these circumstances, suggested that the line should be kept open in summer. In my opinion, that was a very suitable suggestion.

The second blow falls as a result of the T.U.C.C. inquiry in that there has been in 18 long months complete uncertainty as to the future of the line. Holidaymakers who wish to come to Porthcawl did not know, and had no means of knowing, whether the line would be in existence not only this summer but last summer. For month after month we have had this monstrous delay over an announcement from the Minister.

That obviously caused difficulty for holidaymakers, difficulty for those who intended to come to Porthcawl and difficulty for those who planned the holiday facilities of the town and the caravan site. The delay of 18 months by the Minister in announcing a decision about the future of the line was almost as long as the pregnancy of an elephant, which is two years. Since January last year I have been continually pressing the Minister to see me to discuss the future of the line. In Shakespeare's words, it was almost a case of Make me a willow cabin at your gate". Month after month, I persistently wrote and telephoned to the Minister's office, and always there was a reason for further delay. In the end, he wrote to me in October suggesting that he would reach a decision in a couple of weeks. Two weeks passed. I wrote again or telephoned, and the reason then given to me was that the Parliamentary Recess had been prolonged because the present Prime Minister had gone electioneering in Scotland. Surely, the fact that Parliament was not sitting should have enabled the Minister to got on with the task much sooner, rather than taking that as an excuse for prolonging the decision which the Minister hoped to reach as far back as October hut which he did not take until February this year. It is beyond any sense of understanding what the Minister is doing.

My view is that the Minister has too much on his plate and cannot give adequate time to reaching proper decisions about the future of the railways. Having regard to the delay in this case and the uncertainty about when he would come to a decision, I have great doubt, as do my constituents, about the correctness of his decision. That may be the case concerning not only this instance, but with railway lines generally.

The Prime Minister and the Minister of Transport have told us from time to time that adequate alternative transport would be provided when closures occur. I emphasise, as Lord Stonham has done in another place, the word "adequate". The Parliamentary Secretary has kindly sent me tonight a copy of the Minister's recommendations that there should be suitable supplementation of the bus services between Bridgend and Porthcawl during the summer months, including the Whitsun weekend.

I should like to know from the Parliamentary Secretary what that means. How many more bus services will there be? What will happen if, after a few years, those bus services are withdrawn? Obviously, the peak traffic is in the summer months. For ten or eleven weekends, there is immense traffic to and from Porthcawl. People come for the day or for the week or fortnight. Whole families come to stay in the caravans.

The important point is that if the Prime Minister's words are to mean anything, there must be adequate alternative facilities to include luggage. If the families who come from the valleys to stay in the caravans have a number of small children, as I have, they have to travel with almost anything except the kitchen sink if they stay for a week's or a fortnight's holiday. They have to bring their baby carriages, provisions and everything else. Even if the existing bus services are augmented, they will not afford suitable, adequate alternative transport, because there will be no facilities for luggage.

I was interested in the Minister's reply to his hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Sir Richard Glyn) on 11th February concerning bus trailers, when he said: My proposed new requirements for bus trailers and their towing vehicles have already been circulated to interested parties and to the Press. The necessary changes in Regulations will be laid before the House."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th February, 1964; Vol. 689, c. 53.] Will they be laid before the House before the summer? Will there be adequate facilities for luggage for Porthcawl this summer? Will the Minister or somebody else have to go before the Traffic Commissioners to get their advice and consent before the new bus services are put into operation? If they are not brought into existence before the summer months, the holidaymakers of Porthcawl will not, in the Prime Minister's words, have adequate alternative transport this summer.

A few weeks ago, the Minister announced that there would be many other closures and that those applying to holiday resorts would not come into effect this year if announced after 12th February. This closure was announced on 5th February, and I wonder why the arbitrary date of 12th February was chosen. Why cannot the travelling public of Porthcawl have the additional reprieve for this year, in view of the uncertainty which they have had to endure for eighteen long months?

The roads on the way to Porthcawl are narrow, and I shall be interested to hear what provision has been made for their widening and what expenditure in this respect the Minister has in mind.

I have some experience of transport users' consultative committees in Wales. I have been to a fairly large number of them, and I pay tribute to the work which they are able to do within very narrow terms of reference about actual hardship. While there is no dissatisfaction with them, having regard to their narrow terms of reference, there is great anxiety, not only in Wales, but in the country generally, in that there does not appear to be any independent organ of sufficient stature with sufficient assessors and technical knowledge to canvass and consider the wider issues beyond mere personal hardship—attracting industry to the area, the expense to the State of providing other roads, and planning for the future—and able to give the Minister independent advice in which the public could have confidence.

There is deep anxiety on that score. Of course, at the end of the day it is for the Minister to decide, and I would be the first to agree that he should, but much anxiety would be removed if the whole T.U.C.C. procedure were considered and a smaller body were set up instead able to consider the wider issues and to remove some of the present anxieties.

10.58 p.m.

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

However long it has taken the Government to deal with the problem of the Pyle—Porthcawl line, the hon. Member for Aberavon (Mr. J. Morris) has been quick off the mark in arranging for this Adjournment debate. Although I am delighted to be answering tonight, I hope that not too many of his hon. Friends follow his example, because this week four out of the five Adjournment debates are to be answered by the Ministry of Transport.

As we all know, the hon. Gentleman has shown a great interest in railway closures generally, as well as in this case, but I hope that he recognises, with the Coryton line and Central Wales line having been kept open, how carefully my right hon. Friend has looked into railway structure in the Principality and how in no sense has he been a rubber stamp to Dr. Beeching, but has exercised his judgment independently, and, I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree fairly.

This closure is not, as I am sure the hon. Member appreciates, part of the Beeching Report proposals. The proposal was put forward not by the Railways Board but by the British Transport Commission and heard by the Transport Users' Consultative Committee before the Transport Act, 1962, came into force. This means that the railways could have closed the line without going to the T.U.C.C. and that the closure did not require the consent of my right hon. Friend and that he could not make any conditions about it. Nevertheless, in spite of that statutory position, the Railways Board put the proposal to the T.U.C.C. and made a recommendation to the Minister under the 1947 legislation shortly before the 1962 Act came into force. Under the transitional provisions of the Seventh Schedule, the Minister had the same power to give directions in respect of the matter in the recommendation as he had under the 1947 legislation. So what my right hon. Friend has done is to tell the Board he accepts the closure proposal, and that is what brings the hon. Gentleman here to the House tonight.

The first question he asked me was why it should take so long to reach this decision; the proposal, after all, has been with the Government for 17 months. The matter, however, is not entirely a simple one, because the Transport Users' Consultative Committee made two recommendations. The hon. Gentleman agrees with both. The first was that the proposal to close the services in winter should be accepted; and that the summer service should be retained.

The original difficulty, which the hon. Gentleman did not refer to, about the second half of the recommendation, was that the Transport Users' Consultative Committee had been given the impression by an off-the-cuff statement at the hearing that the summer service would just about pay its costs, excluding track maintenance. Eventually, when this was gone into, it was discovered that this off-the-cuff assessment was untrue.

It was first of all necessary to obtain an accurate assessment of the cost of the summer service, and we discovered the Board would have had to make a surcharge of 12s. on each return ticket—which shows the burden which would have had to be borne either by those actually using the line or by the taxpayers if the line were to be viable economically. These inquiries, together with further studies of the road situation, obviously took some time, and when it became clear that a decision on the summer service was some way off my right hon. Friend decided to accept the recommendation that the winter services should be closed and to continue the study of the problem of the summer services. Then on top of all this the Beeching Report was published with its list of proposed closures, many of which affected holiday resorts.

So we thought we ought to examine in general the questions of the risk of damage to local interests, hardship to traders rather than to travellers, the possible effect on the tourist industry, and such allied matters, and we thought it right to look at these questions as a whole before considering them in relation to any particular case. This is why it has taken my right hon. Friend some time to come to his decision. He has not been inactive at all. He would have liked to have joined the hon. Gentleman in his wigwam or whatever it was he built outside the Ministry of Transport, but unfortunately he was too busy considering more serious matters, such as this proposed closure.

The proposed closure was, however, announced at the end of January, that is, well in advance of the summer season, so that it seems to me that intending travellers have ample time to make their arrangements.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the alternative services. I think he was suggesting that my right hon. Friend should make sure that the provision of alternative services would be a condition of his consent to closure. I suppose my right hon. Friend could have done this, but his formal powers under the 1947 Act—and we must remember that all this is done under the 1947 Act—are somewhat inflexible, and in the past the Railways Board and its predecessor the British Transport Commission have always carried out the understandings reached in respect of alternative services without the need for my right hon. Friend to invoke his powers of direction. In this case the operators informed the Transport Users' Consultative Committee that they would provide sufficient vehicles to carry passengers from the railhead at Bridgend, which is only six miles away.

The hon. Gentleman asked, too, about the Traffic Commissioners. They do not come into this because the operator's licence already allows him to duplicate this service if required.

The Minister's agreement to that rail closure was, of course, subject to the understanding that these services would be available and would be provided, and if by any chance they are not provided, the Minister has power, under paragraph 11 of the 7th Schedule to the Act, to give directions to the Railways Board. He has this power, but I do not think that he will ever have to use it if past experience is anything to go by. I think, however, that it should reassure the hon. Gentleman and his constituents to know that the power does exist in reserve.

When this sort of closure occurs, with heavy peak loads to which the hon. Gentleman referred, travellers, and indeed the public generally, are concerned as to the ability of the operators to cope with the extra traffic. I have looked into this carefully, and I have obtained figures for rail travel to Porthcawl on peak weekend holidays in the summer. I think that the figures are rather interesting. I took last summer, which was not a smallpox epidemic year, and the figures show that the total of arrivals on 12 peak Saturdays was 5,700, and on the Sundays 2,276, making an average for the Saturdays of 475, and 190 for the Sundays. The highest number arriving on any one day was just under 1,600. That was on one Saturday.

The bus operator told the T.U.C.C. that he could carry up to 1,000 rail excursionists at a time with his own vehicles, and that he could quite easily carry more by hiring vehicles from associated companies. But, as the hon. Gentleman realises, arrivals and departures would normally be spread over several hours. They probably would not all arrive together, and even as large a number as 1,000 visitors means only 40 bus loads—even less if they are all double-deckers—so I do not think that there is any doubt as to the ability of the bus operator to cope with extra traffic.

The hon. Gentleman then referred to luggage. It is extraordinary the number of old men who come to me and ask about perambulators. It is not the kind of quest on that one expects a man to ask. One rather expects a lady to ask about them. Although the hon. Gentleman referred to his family, I am not suggesting that he is an old man, but it shows how kindhearted the male is.

As regards the adequacy of the buses for carrying luggage, some operators already provide large luggage spaces, and others take out seats, or, alternatively, reserve seats for luggage at peak holiday times. My right hon. Friend, who has taken a great interest in this matter, has personally reminded bus operators of the importance which travellers attached to luggage space, and they have undertaken to do what they can to help travellers in this matter.

The particular operator who is concerned here—and I think that this is very important—has informed us that he is used to dealing with heavy traffic for holiday camps and to caravan sites on this route, and the buses apparently have luggage racks. He also takes out the last four seats at the buses at peak times to make room for the additional luggage.

In addition—and this leads me to the question of trailers which the hon. Gentleman raised—my right hon. Friend has already explained that he is considering the present regulations so as to allow buses to tow luggage trailers in appropriate circumstances. We have now had comments on the proposals from the various interested organisations, and I hope that we shall soon be able to lay the appropriate regulations before Parliament. though how soon, which is what the hon. Gentleman asked, I am sorry I cannot say. But I should like to stress to the hon. Gentleman and to his constituents that it is not necessary to wait for these new regulations, since there are other ways of dealing with the traffic problem, some of which I have already mentioned, and some of which are already being used on the Porthcawl route.

The hon. Gentleman then asked about roads. Before my right hon. Friend came to a decision, he naturally had special reports Iron his advisers on road congestion in this area. These advisers report that roads to Porthcawl are generally adequate for normal purposes. They admit, however, that congestion does occur in the centre of the town on the access roads, particularly in the evening and at a few peak weekends in the summer holyday season. This is a fairly general problem, which affects many holiday resorts and the roads leading to thorn.

The figures that I have given for travellers show that even at its peak the volume of traffic diverted from rail will be comparatively small. We calculate that it will add only about 2 per cent. or 3 per cent. to the existing traffic at the most congested point—the roundabout giving access to A.48. There are two peculiar features about this case which I should point out. In the first place, the problems for traffic to and from Porthcawl are not due to the access roads themselves but to the difficulty which returning traffic has in getting on to the A.48 at the Red-hill roundabout and the existing congestion on the main road from that point onwards. In fact, the congestion is there already, but it exists only on a few occasions throughout the year, and the extra traffic from the rail closures will have only a very marginal effect. We have been considering schemes for the comprehensive improvement of A.48, and this might well include a grade separated junction with the Porthcawl road.

The hon. Member asked about the cost. We estimate that it might cost about £250,000, but the whole project could be much more expensive. Here, I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Member because, as it is only in peak weekends that the traffic is high, I cannot yet say when we are likely to be able to do anything about this, because the Government's policy is to concentrate funds where traffic is heavy all the year round, and I think that this policy has the general approval of the House.

The second peculiar feature is that congestion in the town is to a considerable extent due to the railway itself. This occupies a very choice site in the centre of the town, immediately behind the Eastern Promenade, and the main road linking the eastern and western parts of the town is actually cut by a level crossing at Station Hill. The Railways Board indicated at the transport users' consultative committee that it would be closing the line to freight, which would get rid of the level crossing, and that it would be willing to release land for development. While the closure may therefore add marginally to the peak traffic, the loss of the service ought to reduce the congestion in the town. It should release valuable land for redevelopment, and it might eventually provide the route for an improved northern approach road.

The hon. Member asked why the Porthcawl line should be closed towards the end of January while other holiday resorts were apparently reprieved until mid-February. He might have thought that my right hon. Friend had some grievance against Wales. This is not so, as the hon. Member can now see. In fact, in his recent announcement what my right hon. Friend said was that where a closure was proposed, that is, where a statutory notice was given after 12th February—the day upon which he made his statements; which is why that date was particularly chosen—then, if the decision was that the line should close, the closure must not take place until October, after the end of the holiday season.

But he also said that in making his decision on proposals already published or under consideration—that is, his consideration on pipeline cases, like that which we are now discussing—he would bear in mind the possible effect on holiday travel arrangements this summer. I can say that this was very much in my right hon. Friend's mind when he gave his decision in this case, but he felt that an announcement at the end of January, when the possibility of closure had been known for a year and when the line had in fact been shut in winter, gave those concerned adequate notice and enabled them to make alternative arrangements.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the T.U.C.C. I doubt whether I could satisfactorily answer that question in the time remaining. Since the hon. Gentleman was speaking from a constituency point of view I thought that I would concentrate my remarks on points of detail. However, if he will read the speech I made on 19th December last when replying to another Adjournment debate and the speech made the following day by my right hon. Friend on the same subject I think that he will find satisfactory answers to the remaining questions I have been unable tonight to answer.

I realise that some local people are afraid that their trade will be hurt. Nevertheless. I believe with the urban district council, if the Press reports since the decision represent the council accurately, that the town will on balance lose little, if anything, from the decision to close and that, with the alternatives available, there should be no hardship to travellers.

I particularly want to make it clear that great care and thought has gone into all the implications of this decision. It may not have been reached quickly, but it could not have been considered with greater thoroughness or sympathy, bearing in mind all the issues which are at stake.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.