HC Deb 10 February 1965 vol 706 cc508-18

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

10.7 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

I welcome this opportunity to raise the question of transport in the Stroud area. The Stroud, Tetbury and Berkeley area is characterised by a plateau which crumbles down into the Severn by a number of steeply wooded valleys scored by streams which run into the big river. In the valleys there is considerable industry, much of it of great antiquity. The traffic, therefore, is heavy. The terrain is steep and the roads are winding. Therefore, transport presents a particular problem, and the gradual but increasing reduction of the public facilities available to my constituents is causing them vexation and anxiety. I am afraid that I must raise a number of detailed points with the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. Each of them is perhaps a minor point, but cumulatively they amount to something very important to those living in the Stroud area.

I start with Tetbury. It is now some time since the Tetbury-Kemble railway line was closed. When it was first proposed that it should be closed, I was able to raise the matter on the Adjournment and, whether for that reason or another, it was a source of great satisfaction to me and to others that the railway was not closed but a diesel car was put on instead. Unfortunately, this has now been removed. The result, I admit, does not affect a great many people, but those whom it affects have been dealt a heavy blow.

For example, I have here a letter from an old lady who has recently come to live in Tetbury. The closure of the railway line has virtually deprived her of the possibility of leaving Tetbury at all, except by private transport, which she is not wealthy enough to afford. The bus services which connect Tetbury to the junction at Kemble are not good, and in particular they deprive people who have to make use of them of the opportunity which many had before of going to London and back in one day. It is technically possible, but one can spend only an hour or so in London and this is no use to shoppers.

The railway line between Tetbury and Kemble is in process of being demolished. I should like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to what use the line of the track is to be put. It would make an ideal footpath or bridle path, but unfortunately the bridges are being demolished. I should also like to ask what is to happen to Tetbury Railway Station, which occupies a substantial and important area in Tetbury itself.

I turn next to the area of Dursley and Berkeley. The passenger train services in this part of the world have been entirely discontinued. A fairly large number of my constituents work in Bristol or in Gloucester. There are now no trains at all for them and they must go by bus or private transport. Can consideration again be given to the possibility of reopening Berkeley Road Station to passengers? It lies more or less half-way between Gloucester and Bristol. I am sure that it would be fairly extensively used. It is still intact and could be utilised again.

The buses which are supposed to be a substitute for the trains are really no substitute at all. They are much slower and more expensive and the times are not so suitable. I do not blame the Bristol Bus Company for this. The company always does its best, and I have found that correspondence with it is intelligent and illuminating, but the fact is that, for a longish journey of 20 miles or so, a bus, particularly over winding roads, is not so suitable and cannot take the place of a train.

In general, we wait to hear what may be the outcome of the conversations which, we understand, are taking place about a possible reduction of the fuel duty for the benefit of rural bus services in particular, and perhaps we may be told something about that fairly soon. Nevertheless, even if the price of the fuel were to come down by a marginal amount, none of the long bus services in my constituency except one, the service between Dursley and Stroud, at present pays.

Has consideration been given to the possibility of combining the post and the bus services, as is done in Continental countries? It seems to me that there could be a saving in public administration in this way which might, in addition, be for the convenience of the public.

In the circumstances, it is not surprising that those who live in the area of Dursley and Berkeley and work in Bristol or Gloucester have in many cases decided that either they must provide their own transport or they must give up their homes. If they provide their own transport and go by car, they must necessarily use the A38. I shall not weary the Minister or the House yet again by my oft-repeated criticism of this notorious highway save only to say that, over almost its entire length between Gloucester and Bristol, is a three-lane highway. The Ministry of Transport maintains, though I and others, I believe, have great difficulty in believing it, that three lanes are safer than two. However that may be, what is perfectly certain is that three lanes marked out with alternate passing lines is safer than either, and why the Ministry steadily refuses to take this action over the whole stretch of the A38 between Gloucester and Bristol I cannot understand. The expense would be minimal. The local authorities are in favour of it. The Minister has currently before him a letter from the Quedgeley Parish Council asking him to take this action, and I urge him to give a favourable reply.

I come now to the village of Painswick. Painswick is an ancient and beautiful village which has the misfortune to lie along a trunk road. The crossroads in the middle of the village is confined between buildings only 12 feet apart. As the main road approaches downhill and fairly steeply, drivers who are not familiar with the area tend to approach the crossroads much too fast, and there have been a number of accidents there. The walls of the buildings are scored by passing trucks which have struck them. The danger here is particularly to pedestrians and shop fronts, and I dare say that not a week passes without some damage or danger. For instance, only the other day, the vicar's wife was knocked down in a shop doorway and badly hurt.

There is now a proposal, shortly to be carried out, to put traffic lights at the crossroads. This will help, but nothing will really save this village both from the danger and from being smothered by motor traffic, especially in the summer, except a by-pass. My question to the Minister, therefore, is: when will the Painswick by-pass be built?

Next, the problem of public transport in the Stroud valley. Everything I have said about the difficult terrain and narrow roads applies to the Stroud Valley, if I may say so, "with knobs on". The town itself is a serious bottleneck. A by-pass is planned, and I have nothing to say in criticism of that. The plan is proceeding as well as finance and other considerations permit. At the moment, however, nobody denies that Stroud itself is a serious bottleneck and that the road system is inadequate.

It was, therefore, with great dismay that we learned that the Chalford-Gloucester rail-car service was to be closed. This was in the time of the previous Government. At that time I made most vigorous protests to the Minister, while recognising the overall validity of the Beeching reforms. I received many petitions, including a very large and well done one from the Wycliffe College whose students used the railcar. Many other people have testified to the value of the railcar to them.

The closure played an important part in the General Election in the Stroud constituency. The Labour Party there neglected no opportunity to blame the Tory Government and me in particular for the railcar closure. It issued a pamphlet which leading members of the party distributed by riding on the railcar in the evening. The pamphlet said: The Labour Party believe that the railcar inquiry was a farce; the case for retention was proved; Marples and the Conservative Government were determined to close it all along. If Beeching's ideas are applied to buses, as they will be if the Tories are returned, the rural bus services will also disappear. Toryism in transport means chaos, closure and paralysis. Labour will carry out a survey of all local transport needs during which all 'major' rail closure will be stopped. Stroud Labour candidate … is convinced that this survey will reveal the need for the railcar and is confident of its re-opening. That is one more Labour pledge gone down the wind.

Mr. Charles Loughlin (Gloucestershire, West)


Mr. Kershaw

After the General Election I telephoned and wrote to the Minister to inquire whether he would honour this Labour Party pledge. For a fortnight or so there was no reply, and then there was a prevaricating reply, and finally we gathered that nothing would be done. The Labour Government have, indeed, in this as in so many other matters, got the worst of both worlds. They have kept Dr. Beeching's closures and have got rid of Dr. Beeching.

Nevertheless, we hoped that in fulfilment of their election pledges the Labour Government might decide to restore the railcar service. However, that has now become impossible even if they wished to because British Railways, with energy and promptness worthy of a better cause, started on a Sunday in December to demolish the stations and halts. I asked the Minister to halt this destruction, but he refused, and now the work is almost done. Even useful foot and bridge crossings such as those at Stonehouse and Downfield are being blocked or demolished. However, there are two halts which are still open—Cashes Green and Ebley—and the Stroud Urban District Council has suggested that the diesel unit operating between Swindon and Gloucester should stop at those halts. I should like to know whether that is possible.

The Minister has received from me and others, especially the Stroud Urban District Council, representations about alternative bus services. He has not so far found it possible to vary the present arrangement. I ask him to look at this again.

Leaving aside that it is difficult for a bus to substitute for a quicker and cheaper train, the services are not adequate at present. For example, there are no through buses from Chalford to Gloucester in the morning. The Minister says—he is right—that there is a connection in Stonehouse with the train, which allows one at some unearthly hour in the morning 12 minutes to catch the train. That sounds good enough in theory, but in practice the congestion in the Stroud area often results in the bus being late.

The bus station is much too far from the railway station for one to be sure of getting there in 12 minutes, unless one is young and fit. This is, I think, a typical example of the way in which a planner in Whitehall imagines that connections can be made where, in practice, they never can be. I suggest that this train is not an adequate substitute. It is, in any case, very erratic in its timing.

Despite my undertaking, I have burdened the Joint Parliamentary Secretary with a great deal of detail, but I must mention one other thing. Stonehouse is half-way to Gloucester from Stroud and normally anyone who lives there and wants to go to Gloucester has to return to Stroud in order to get the bus. This does not seem convenient.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to review, after a reasonable time, the whole problem of bus timings in this area in substitution for trains and I shall certainly jog his memory in this regard. The closure of the Stonehouse (Bristol Road) Station to passenger services has made it equally difficult to go from Stonehouse to Bristol. The track remains in use, however. It is hard now for those who must go to Bristol to have to go to Gloucester and then on to work from there. If they go the same day this adds over 54 miles to their journey from Stonehouse to Bristol, quite apart from the additional expense.

Finally, there are rumours that the main-line services on the London-Gloucester line may be curtailed and even abandoned. I ask the hon. Gentleman for a categorical assurance that there is no intention of closing Stroud, Stonehouse and Kemble stations, both for passengers and freight. Nothing less than such an assurance, which I hope that he is in a position to give, will give the necessary confidence for the expansion and prosperity of the Stroud area.

10.22 p.m.

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

I will answer the points of which the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw) gave me notice for the purpose of the debate. He has covered a wide range of very detailed points about the locality he represents. First, I want to make it plain that the hon. Gentleman talks a great deal in this House, but that it is apparent that he does not listen too much.

The present Government have announced, and are in process of setting up, regional councils and planning boards for the purpose, amongst other things, of surveying the country's transport needs, and we have made it plain that if the results of these surveys show that rail services ought to be restored, or other changes made in the priorities for transport, we will exercise powers or, if necessary, take powers to bring those changes about.

In the meantime, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport has made it clear, and is carrying out the pledge, that he will halt major rail closures. That he is carrying out that pledge is shown by the fact that out of 13 closure proposals from the Railways Board considered since we took office five have been rejected by my right hon. Friend on the ground that they are major closures that might prejudice the fulfilment of future needs of regional planning.

Now I come to the closures mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. I will deal, first, with Tetbury and Kemble. In this case, the consent was given by the right hon. Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples) on 13th January, 1964, and all the services on that line were withdrawn more than 10 months ago. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Chalford-Gloucester rail-car service. In this case, the right hon. Member for Wallasey gave his consent on 30th July, 1964, and the trains were taken off on 2nd November. The hon. Member also mentioned the stations at Kemble, Stroud and Stonehouse, but I must point out that the Railways Board has made no proposals to close these stations and that, according to my information, they are in operation.

Those are the facts about these closures. My right hon. Friend has no power under the present law to revoke closures agreed by the Tory Minister of Transport, but from the time we have taken office we have looked at all proposals according to the criteria set out by my right hon. Friend on 4th November, and we have rejected those which we consider to be major proposals.

My right hon. Friend made it plain on 4th November that he had agreed with the Railways Board that in all cases where before we took office arrangements had not been made for the disposal of the track, the track would be retained, because the regional councils and boards might report that these services should be restored. Of course, we know that there are difficulties involved for the Railways Board in the maintenance of the track and of the stations, and it may well be that because of these difficulties the Board will feel that it is compelled to demolish some of the installations, some of the buildings at the stations and so on. We insist that the track should be retained in these cases, because we regard them as absolutely essential for future planning. In the cases mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, the track is being retained.

I now come to something over which my right hon. Friend has power—the variation of the conditions attached to the consent to the closure proposals by his predecessor the right hon. Member for Wallasey. My right hon. Friend has made it plain that he is wide open to representations from any quarter to vary the conditions of consent where concrete evidence can be produced that the alternative services are not at present meeting essential needs, but I must emphasise that we have to consider the essential needs of the people who are affected by rail closures in these places and that under that heading we cannot consider demands for the improvement of services which have been put forward in the past and which relate to conditions prior to the closure.

We have received no representations about alternative bus services for the Tetbury-Kemble line. So far as we know, the services are satisfactory and if that is not so, we are open to any representations which may be made. We have received representations about the Chalford-Gloucester line, for example, from the Stroud Urban District Council, the Chalford Parish Council and the Stonehouse Parish Council about the adequacy of the alternative services. As a result, checks on the bus services have recently been made and so far as we have been able to find out, in relation to Stroud, for example, ample capacity on the buses appears to be available.

The Chalford Parish Council requested a direct service to Gloucester, but no supporting evidence of need was submitted by the council. At the moment, we are considering new proposals received yesterday from the Chalford Parish Council. We have received representations from the Stonehouse Parish Council for improved facilities for buses, but these representations concern a very small number of people. I am informed, for example, that there would be two people to travel to Gloucester and three travelling in the direction of Bristol. The proposal is that what would be a very heavily subsidised service should be laid on for these people. We have every sympathy with their position as a result of the rail closures, but it is impossible to consider the provision of special bus services for such very small groups of people.

In the brief time that remains to me, I turn to the question of the road problems raised by the hon. Member. He raised, for example, the points put forward to us by the Quedgeley Parish Council. We have recently received a letter from the Quedgeley Parish Council concerning safety on the A.38 road between Elmore Lane and Quedgeley Roundabout. We have instructed our divisional road engineer to investigate this matter as speedily a possible. I am, however, informed that he needs to get more detailed information about visibility on this section of the road and he is in touch with the county surveyor to get this information. I do not propose to say more on that subject now, because I do not wish to prejudge these investigations, except to say that we are most concerned with the question of safety on the A.38 and that after there have been consultations between the divisional road engineer and the county surveyor we shall consider these proposals sympathetically and speedily.

Finally, I come to the position at Painswick. We recognise that there is a traffic problem in the village of Painswick, where the A.46 trunk road is narrow. There is congestion, especially at peak periods. We accept that the widening of the road would be difficult, if not impossible, because we know that buildings of architectural and historic interest stand in the way. Therefore, in principle, we accept that there is a need for a by-pass of the village as a longterm solution. Frankly, however, on present criteria we cannot give this project the priority that, obviously, the local people would desire, simply on account of the fact that there are much more difficult and dangerous areas to be dealt with and our funds for several years ahead are already allocated to schemes which are far more urgent.

We have, of course, to bear in mind that after a few years, by the end of this decade at least, the M.5 motorway between Gloucester and Bristol will remove a lot of the long-distance traffic from this road and will, we trust, relieve the situation and improve traffic conditions through the village.

At the same time, we are considering what traffic management measures might give some immediate relief. On this, we are in consultation with the parish council and the Gloucestershire County Council and the police. As the hon. Member mentioned, it has now been decided to install a system of traffic lights in New Street. Plans have been prepared by the county council and tenders are shortly to be invited. As the hon. Member will know, there is already a 30 m.p.h. speed limit through the village.

These are the measures which, we hope, will improve the situation and give some relief in the village whilst we are pushing ahead with the M.5 motorway, which will give greater relief by 1970. At the same time, we look forward to the time when we shall be able to get a proper by-pass for the village of Pains-wick.

I have endeavoured to deal with the points of which the hon. Member gave me notice. I come back to the point that the kind of problems that the hon. Member has raised tonight spotlight the urgent need, which has existed for many years, for regional surveys and for proper co-ordination of the provision of transport facilities throughout the country.

It is on this that my right hon. Friend is now placing maximum emphasis. We intend to go forward as rapidly as possible to carry out these regional surveys. Where it is shown that new facilities are required, or the restoration of facilities which have been closed under the previous régime, we shall not hesitate to take the necessary powers to carry out those measures.

10.35 p.m.

Mr. W. A. Wilkins (Bristol, South)

The Parliamentary Secretary has dealt more than kindly with the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw) after the rather aggressive manner in which he put forward his pleas tonight. It would have been interesting to have known what sort of answers he received from his right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples) if and when he put forward those same proposals to that right hon. Gentleman when he occupied the office of Minister of Transport.

I rise only to tell the Parliamentary Secretary that I have today tabled a Question, to which I hope he will give particular attention, asking how many hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite have bombarded his Department with requests for the reopening or the keeping open of lines where there were closures or proposed closures during the régime of hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite. The Parliamentary Secretary has taken some note in the past of the number of Questions from those benches—

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

Adjourned at twenty-three minutes to Eleven o'clock.