HC Deb 22 December 1965 vol 722 cc2161-73

2.22 p.m.

Mr. Gordon Campbell (Moray and Nairn)

This is a timely moment to consider the question of transport in the north of Scotland. In the past few weeks there has been considerable discontent in parts of the North about the dislocation of services by both road and rail. First, I should like to sketch briefly the general picture.

On the subject of roads in the North, one could generalise by saying that where the countryside is flat and easy the roads are good but where it is mountainous and difficult the roads are usually narrow, twisted, often steep and hazardous in winter. The north of Scotland, broadly, has been affected more than anywhere else in Britain by the increased cost of transport by road, in particular the higher fuel duty and the increased tax on commercial vehicles imposed this year. Nowhere else in the country are such distances involved in ordinary life in the supply of goods and services. Those who live north of the Grampians have a mountain barrier between them and the South. Routes to and from the South must be either round the east coast or through the central cleft of the Grampians.

As for railways, starting from the North, there are lines north and west to Inverness, to Wick and to the Kyle of Lochalsh respectively. These were on Dr. Beeching's list but nearly two years ago it was decided by the Conservative Government that they should be retained. This winter they are already proving their value. I mention them because I find that outside the north of Scotland, because of the anxiety at the time, there is a misapprehension that these lines have disappeared. They are still there.

Then there are the lines from Inverness to Aberdeen and from Inverness south to Perth. These were not on Dr. Beeching's list. On the Inverness-Aberdeen line of 108 miles there was instituted about five years ago a fast diesel passenger service. I remember taking part in the inaugural run with various dignitaries and railways enthusiasts. That service has been highly successful during the past five years. Because there are stretches of single line it has required a system of transferring tokens—the system which avoids head-on collisions—at speed instead of having to stop the train. These trains have built up a high reputation for speed and punctuality but in the last two months they have been thoroughly disrupted, causing great dissatisfaction.

The reason for this dislocation has been the closure of two other lines. These were on Dr. Beeching's list and are those from Aviemore to Forres, about 35 miles, and from Aviemore to Craigellachie, about 30 miles. When the present Government came into office a decision had been taken already to close the Craigellachie (Speyside) line. The present Minister of Transport later decided the fate of the other and more important line and announced the closure last March.

The right hon. Gentleman took the decision knowing that the Transport Users' Consultative Committee had reported, as stated in the Minister's letter announcing the closure, that extreme hardship would be caused if the service were withdrawn between Aviemore and Grantown-on-Spey". This is the section of the line, over one-third, which is in Inverness-shire. About half, 15 miles, of the other line is also in Inverness-shire, and this is where I come to my difference with the Minister over geography. These two substantial stretches of line, one of which was the subject of the "extreme hardship" report, lie within the crofting counties and are, as far as I know, the first in the Highlands to have been closed since the Beeching Report.

Both passenger and freight services were terminated in October, two months ago. In his speech in the debate on the Address on 9th November, in which I touched on several subjects in both foreign and domestic affairs, I compared extracts from the Labour Party manifesto with what had happened during the subsequent year. I made what, in such a speech, had to be a brief reference to the closing of these two railway lines. I am glad now to be able to describe this in some detail.

About three weeks after my speech the Minister suddenly announced that I had made an untrue statement because these were not the first closures in the Highlands. He cited stations which had been closed, but I was not talking about stations. There is a great difference between closing stations and closing lines, as everyone in the North is well aware. Everything which the Minister has subsequently adduced has confirmed my original statement. Other closures to which the Minister has referred are well outside the area officially recognised and defined as the Highlands.

When the Minister was citing a line at Peterhead I realised that we were talking about different things. By the Highlands I mean the crofting counties. The Minister—and I am sorry that he is not here today—must have been away from the Scottish Grand Committee too long if he has forgotten this. Others of us have had the benefit of a strong reminder only this year, with the Highland Development Bill. I trust that the Minister will now see that my statement was correct, although it may have been unexpected and unpalatable to some people who have not been following events in the area.

The closure of the Aviemore-Forres line makes an interesting case study. Ever since the Beeching Report, my own view, publicly expressed, has been not simply and obstinately that the line should be retained but that if it is to be closed adequate alternative services must be provided, and this would be a major operation. Therefore, if the Parliamentary Secretary has prepared a case on the basis that I have been opposing the closure itself he can tear up that part of his speech. My case has always been that these lines could be closed only if there were adequate alternative services, and this is what I and others have said of Scotland as a whole. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will answer that case. Indeed, it was the local voices of the Labour Party who were saying over a year ago that if a Labour Government were returned, as they were, lines which were still running, like these, would be kept. Apparently, this was a misinterpretation of the relevant part of the Labour Party manifesto.

The Minister's decision of last March involved certain conditions regarding alternative services, but it was doubtful, on reading them, how they would be put into operation. For example, one condition was the establishment of a new bus service over Dava Moor on a road over which there had never before been a bus service. British Railways tried to close the line at short notice on 5th July, but they were prevented by the Minister, quite rightly, because I and others were able to point out that there was no possibility of the conditions being fulfilled by that date. The Parliamentary Secretary courteously informed me at the time that, when the closure was announced again, there would be adequate notice—normally, at least a month—but, despite that, on the next occasion British Railways gave only 10 days' notice. Upon representations being made, the Minister again postponed the matter but by only a week.

Since then there have been many complaints from a wide area in the north of Scotland about the resulting dislocation and the bad services. The main burden of the case is that there is no adequate alternative service and that no proper arrangements were made beforehand to provide one. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. Baker), who is in his place now, has received many complaints, and I understand that the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston) has received many complaints. No doubt other hon. Members here representing the north of Scotland have received similar complaints from their constituents.

We have had many examples given to us of buses on the new service being stuck in snow and ice, being late or not running at all. There have been complaints of no facilities for luggage, and of lack of heating and lighting in the buses. I always pass on these complaints to the Ministry, and I know that the Ministry has been doing its best and is managing to get some improvement on the last three points of complaint.

The Aberdeen-Inverness service has been dislocated by the late running of trains. I sat for 40 minutes in a train in Inverness on 4th December and found myself among a number of angry passengers. The explanation I received from British Railways in Scotland said that it was because of the new timings made necessary by the closure of the AviemoreForres line, in order to keep the connections and collect the mail. Clearly, this is a result of the closure on which the Minister took the decision. Although it involves the General Post Office and British Railways as well, it is the Minister's responsibility to go into it with the Post Office and British Railways to make sure that the dislocation is put right.

I can understand that British Railways have to make sure that the mail catches the train, but these new arrangements simply are not working, and on a line which has stretches of single track, if one train is late then, because trains can pass each other only at certain points, the whole programme in the opposite direction, and later in the day, is upset.

As regards the buses, I had intended to give a short chronicle of events over a few days, but, in view of the shortness of time now available, I shall not do so. Since the middle of November, buses have either not been running because they got so far and the drivers then decided that it was too dangerous to continue in the conditions on Dava Moor, a high area of bad road, or they have been running three or four hours late. The bus operator himself, the man whose buses are providing this new service, was stranded for a whole night in the snow and ice of Dava Moor, and it was reported in one of the local newspapers that he and his companions sat freezing in the vehicle, a four-wheel drive vehicle which he had been using to guide and help one of his own buses. They sat there burning empty cigarette packets in an attempt to thaw the windscreen and give even just a little warmth and then, at about 9 a.m., they set out to walk to Grantown-on-Spey. He said: We were soaking and frozen stiff. I was never so cold in all my life, and I have been really cold at times. This was the bus operator himself, who, I say at once, is doing his best in the circumstances. But he cannot, on these roads and in such conditions, provide with his own resources a service which is good enough.

The provost of Grantown-on-Spey sent a telegram to the Minister on 3rd December about conditions and the fact that the alternative services were not functioning. In reply, the Ministry stated: On the question of the adequacy of the alternative service stipulated as a condition of the Minister's consent to the closure, you will understand that these were designed to meet the needs of former rail travellers in normal conditions and that it would be impossible for the Minister to make special provision for exceptional circumstances. What are exceptional circumstances? These conditions started in mid-November, and in this area they can be expected to continue until mid-March. For about four months of the year, this kind of thing is to be expected.

Mr. Ian MacArthur (Perth and East Perthshire)

Every year.

Mr. Campbell

This is what I have been trying to bring home to the Minister. He was warned about it earlier. The position about which we are talking occurs rarely anywhere else in Britain, and what the Minister may think exceptional is, in fact, normal.

The Minister is still responsible for the conditions which he stipulated, as the Parliamentary Secretary made clear in the debate on 13th May. He ought to satisfy himself in the first months that his conditions are being properly fulfilled. This is not a secluded part of the country. More and more people frequent it for winter sports. I repeat the words I used on 13th May: The snow, which has been an asset, and has brought so much in the way of employment and prosperity through the development of winter sports, can also, in such a high area, be a hazard to winter travel."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th May, 1965; Vol. 712, c. 868.] With this welcome development of winter sports, my plea to the Minister is that he should not make transport more difficult and, at times, impossible. I do not mind whether the transport arrangements are by road or by rail, but they must operate as adequately as before. If they are to be by road, which seems more difficult than by rail, a great deal must be done.

The Minister has been told about this before. It is not new. For example, road improvements and major snow ploughing operations are necessary. I have just received a letter from the Grantown-on-Spey Improvement and Tourist Association, whose view is expressed in this way: They feel that it is futile to spend money towards Highland Development Boards and a Scottish Tourist Board when such an action is being taken by the Ministry of Transport. Finally, there has been an ugly rumour that the Aviemore-Inverness section of line is to be closed in the next three or four years for extensive repairs to one of the viaducts. This is part of the vital link between Perth and Inverness, and I know that it will affect the constituencies of hon. Members such as my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. MacArthur). Last Friday, there was a letter in the Glasgow Herald, which, no doubt, the Minister has seen, saying that it was understood that the whole line was to be closed. I am glad that the letter from British Railways which appeared last Monday was reassuring on that and said that the line would not be closed—and it certainly was not on Dr. Beeching's list—but it said nothing about the possibility of repairs to the viaduct. I hope that that is not a significant omission and that the Minister will reassure us about it now, or, if it is too short notice—I shall quite understand—he will tell us that, if it is true that such extensive repairs are necessary, he will look into the matter immediately after the debate. If it were true it would mean that, following the closure. I have already mentioned, the only route north to Inverness and points north and west of Inverness would be round by the east coast via Aberdeen. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will soon be able to announce that nothing so ridiculous as that will come about.

2.40 p.m.

Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness)

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. G. Campbell) upon raising this subject, which is extremely important to all of us in the North of Scotland. I wish to ask one or two questions about the railways.

First, I support everything said by the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn with reference to the Aviemore-Forres line and the difficulties which have been experienced, particularly recently when the weather has been so bad. This is a very real factor which one just cannot get round. I do not want to repeat what the hon. Member said, but communications have been almost completely disrupted during the recent bad weather. As the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. MacArthur) said in an interjection, this is not something which happens rarely; it happens over three or four months of the year. So some consideration should be given to it.

To take up the last point made by the hon. Member, if we had repairs to the viaduct at Carrbridge and there is no alternative way of getting to Inverness other than by going to Aberdeen, we shall have a completely ridiculous situation. Since Beeching, people in the north of Scotland have been worried that what they succeeded in preventing by making a tremendous fuss might in the end go through by a stealthy process. For instance, people in the west of my constituency are worried by the fact that it appears that all the traffic to the Western Isles, which formerly split as between Mallaig and Kyle, is all being directed to Kyle.

I will not argue the pros and cons of this now, but I would point out that at the S.T.U.C.C. hearing these lines to the Isles were examined in isolation. I suppose that it is rational to look at them in some ways as part of a service to the West. But we ought to know more about it. The decision has been taken, but perhaps the Minister will feel in some way able to make a comment on whether British Railways is building up to a point at which it will say "You cannot have both. You can have one or the other, and, in our opinion the Kyle line is the only one which you can have."

I remember the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn and myself pressing the Minister of State on the question of the relationship between the Highlands and Islands Development Board and transport. The hon. Member raised the subject of his line more than once in Committee. We were assured that if any decisions of that kind were taken the Highlands and Islands Development Board would be consulted and brought into the negotiations and, therefore, regional considerations would hold weight. It does not seem to me that this has happened in this case, and I should like the Minister's comment about it.

2.43 p.m.

Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith (North Angus and Mearns)

I want to widen the subject slightly from the problem of a particular locality to the problem of specific industries in the north of Scotland. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary will know of these points because I have raised them before.

I wish to raise the problems of industries such as the shell fish industry and the salmon industry. Since last summer they have found great difficulty in getting their produce to markets in England where the great proportion of what they produce has to go. It is not just a question of rail services being withdrawn, although this does affect certain areas. It is much more a question of the kind of service provided and whether the goods will be accepted by the railways, and if they are, whether the timing of the trains is suitable or the trains are fast enough to get the highly perishable produce to the London market in the right condition at the right time. In relation to the whole economy of Scotland, these industries may be small in their economic importance. Yet they may represent everything in the life of a certain community or area. I urge the Minister of Transport not to lose sight of the importance of this in local terms in relation to the whole.

I turn now to air services in the Highlands. I welcome the introduction of the Viscount aircraft, but I would ask most sincerely that it should be backed up by good service schedules. What is needed is not just the provision of better aircraft but the provision of improved schedules giving more opportunity.

Finally, I emphasise what the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. G. Campbell) said about what is needed more than anything else—co-ordination of transport facilities. It is not a matter just of rail, just of air or just of roads. These services must be viewed together and geared in together. Only by that means will the needs of the North of Scotland be properly met.

2.46 p.m.

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

I am very well aware of the pressure of time. The more time we take on this subject, the less there will be for others. So I shall try to be brief. I realise that other hon. Members from Scotland on both sides of the House would have liked to participate in the debate, and I am sorry that they have not had the opportunity.

Some of the points which have been raised are for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, who is here and has, no doubt, taken note of them. There is close consultation between the Ministry of Transport and the Scottish Office on the general question, although our responsibility at the Ministry of Transport is merely for the railway aspect.

I do not want anyone to think that I am unacquainted with the hazards of the geography of the district under discussion. I spent an important part of the summer, such as it was, travelling through the district by car and on foot. Therefore, I am acquainted with the general problems mentioned by the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. G. Campbell).

I do not wish to repeat the Adjournment debate that we had on 13th May, although the hon. Member was tempting me to go through the whole of the story, a tangled one, of the treatment of the Aviemore-Forres line. I then dealt with this subject and set out the financial and other reasons why my right hon. Friend came to his decision on closure and the conditions that he laid down under which the Railways Board would be permitted to close the line. I would remind the House, however, of the principal point—it has been very much in the news recently—which is the railway deficit. The line has been losing £114,000 a year owing to the comparatively small usage. The pressure of financial circumstances—let us be frank—forced us to make a decision which our predecessors had not made.

I do not want to split hairs with the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn about the definition of the Highlands. He has had his exchanges with my right hon. Friend about the remarks that he made in the debate on the Address in reply to the Gracious Speech. However, for the record let me remind the hon. Gentleman of these facts about railway passenger closures. Taking the north of Scotland as a whole, the former Conservative Government, of which the hon. Gentleman was a member, consented to the closure of nine services and refused consent in two cases. My right hon. Friend has consented to closure in three cases and has refused one. The inference of the hon. Gentleman's remarks during the debate on the Address was that somehow my right hon. Friend had initiated the process of rail closures in the north of Scotland. Let us note that the Tory Government, of which the hon. Gentleman was a member, consented to nine cases of closure in the North of Scotland, nine railway passenger services.

We appreciate the serious and difficult position that exists in the north of Scotland. That is why the Government have established for the first time special machinery in order to go into the question of the future pattern of transport services in Scotland as a whole and in the Highlands in particular. In the case of the Aviemore-Forres line, or any other line, it is my right hon. Friend's responsibility to see that the conditions he attaches to a consent to close a railway service are fulfilled and to direct the Railways Board not to close a service until those conditions have been fulfilled.

I repeat that we regard very seriously any complaints made by the local authorities, by individual citizens or by hon. Members about the inadequacy of services that have been laid down by my right hon. Friend as a replacement for railway services and that we will investigate—as we are investigating all the time—any such complaints. But, of course, it is true that transport both by road and by rail is sometimes seriously affected by weather conditions which are beyond our control. We recognise that there have been blockages this year.

I have been advised that the road over Dava Moor to Forres was blocked on two mornings, with only single lane operations on 29th November to 1st December, but that the road has been clear since 10th December. The A.9 was blocked for a period of one day in November, together with some other roads.

But this very serious problem is faced not only on the roads but on the railways, where services also are sometimes blocked. It is not to be thought that it is just because there is not a railway service operating that transport comes to a standstill. But very urgent measures are being taken to step up the supply of equipment available for keeping the roads open and for coping with this general difficulty. As I have said, we will investigate any complaints that are brought to our attention about alternative services which replace railway services.

Mr. MacArthur

Will the hon. Gentleman recognise that roads technically open on the high ground in Scotland are not necessarily roads which can be used in safety? Railway lines in high districts are able to get through conditions which a car simply cannot. This has been proved year after year.

Mr. Swingler

This matter is gone into carefully whenever proposals to close railway services are made. Such an investigation was made and the Highland Transport Board was consulted on the proposed closure of the Aviemore-Forres line. That would be true of any other proposals. Hon. Members will recognise that the development of roads in Scotland is not a matter for my Department but for the Secretary of State for Scotland. He has informed me that a very substantial programme of road development is being organised—and indeed has been organised—for the five north-eastern counties.

In the autumn, some 20 schemes on trunk roads in these counties were going ahead at a cost of about £600,000. Under the general programme for classified roads in the five year period we are now in grants amounting to over £1 million have been authorised or allocated for improvements while, in the four-year period for which grants are allocated for maintenance and improvement of classified roads, £3,626,000 has been allocated.

Mr. G. Campbell

As the Dava Moor area is not a development district, I understand that this work will be held up as a result of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's measures.

Mr. Swingler

The amount held up by the Chancellor's measures has been very small indeed. One trunk road and 14 classified schemes at a cost of £244,000 have been deferred and work on these will now start during the six month period from February to July, 1966. As I have said, 20 schemes at a cost of over £600,000 were being developed in the autumn, and in addition there is the maintenance and improvement of classified roads. This is a considerable investment in road development and we are also making considerable investment in additional and modern equipment for keeping roads open—for instance, snow ploughs—by dealing with blockages and other problems.

The Government have established not only an Economic Planning Council and a Planning Board for Scotland but also the Highlands and Islands Development Board, which will take over from the Highlands Transport Board, whose final report is expected towards the end of next year. This establishes new machinery for looking at all forms of transport in Scotland in a co-ordinated and comprehensive way and seeing what will be required for the Highlands in future. The Report which the Highland Transport Board makes will be considered by the Government against the background of the White Paper on Scottish economy which will be published early next year.

This will enable us to come to some conclusions on the future relationship of railway services and the development of road transport in Scotland in a coordinated fashion. But there is no question of organising and operating railway services in Scotland in order to justify cases for closure.

My right hon. Friend is not responsible for the management of railway services, but in Scotland there is a special position under the Railways Board whereby the manager of the Highlands Division has a fully integrated responsibility in the Scottish region for the conduct of all railway working. Last month, my right hon. Friend approved an investment of more than £400,000 in the development of railway services in the north of Scotland. This is indicative of the fact that, far from considering more and more cases for closure we want to get on with modernisation of the railway services in Scotland, to make them more financially viable and to have them co-ordinated in the best possible way with the road transport which is available.