HC Deb 09 February 1966 vol 724 cc530-53

9.48 p.m.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

I want to move from a consideration of the Channel Tunnel to a consideration of Class IV and, in particular, to the Increased provision of £16 million in respect of the 1965 deficit and of £4 million for grant payments in respect of the first eight weeks of 1966 to the British Railways Board. My main point is a constituency one, of which I have given the Minister notice. Before coming to that, however, I want to comment on the general policy of the Government in running the finances of British Railways.

This afternoon the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) put an interesting Question to the Minister, asking whether the Government would change their policy and give a direct Exchequer subsidy to British Railways to run lines for social rather than commercial purposes. The Parliamentary Secretary said that this was more or less the existing practice—but it is not.

Tonight, among other things, we are considering a Supplementary Estimate to British Railways in respect of their deficit, but this is not a specific subsidy agreed by the Government in connection with particular services. It is merely the annual accumulation of the loss which British Railways sustains. I believe that it would be very much better if the Ministry of Transport were to undertake a survey of those lines which it believes should be kept open, although they are uneconomic, and that a direct Exchequer subsidy of a stated amount should be given to British Railways for those purposes. British Railways should not be expected to be run as a completely commercial concern sustaining the loss on certain services which the Government have decided to retain and of increasing charges to other rail users.

Twice, I think, in recent months, there have been increases in freight charges which, if they go on, will tend to nullify the Government's attempts at regional planning and to move industry and people into the remoter parts of the country. These increased freight charges fall very heavily on the more remote parts of Britain—the rural parts of Scotland, the south-west corner of England, Wales and so on. At the beginning of this Government's period of office, the then Minister of Transport made a very important statement in the House on 4th November, 1964, about railway closures. There was an important change in policy from that of the previous Administration, a change which my colleagues warmly welcomed.

The Minister said: I shall accordingly consider all closure proposals against a background of future economic and population trends, taking fully into account the possible economic and social consequences. He went on to outline the new procedure for submitting consideration of proposed railway closures and the withdrawal of passenger services to the regional economic councils. He finished: In these ways, we shall ensure that no irrevocable action is taken which might prejudice the development of policies of economic and transport planning…".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th November, 1964; Vol. 701, c. 195, 196.] It was in the light of that statement that, on 1st December this year I raised the question of the Waverley-Carlisle railway line.

I should explain to hon. Members that, in the first Beeching Report in 1963, there were 51 proposals for the withdrawal of passenger services in Scotland. Of those, 50 have had their fate decided. Some have been retained and others have closed in the normal course of events, but one of the 51 is still awaiting a decision. That is the main line through the borders of Scotland, the Waverley-Carlisle line. When I asked on 1st December what the latest position regarding the future of the line was, in view of the Minister's earlier statement, I was told: My right hon. Friend is considering, in consultation with the Secretary of State for Scotland, whether to agree to the publication by the Railways Board of a proposal to withdraw passenger services from this line."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st December, 1965; Vol. 721, c. 1428.]

Mr. Speaker

I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. He was probably not here when I gave my Ruling at the beginning of the debate. He must link his present plea somehow with the Supplementary Estimates which we are discussing.

Mr. Steel

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I am sorry if I have travelled a little wide. I hope to link my remarks to the requirement of making a contribution to the deficit of British Railways. I submit that part of the deficit is obviously sustained by this line and the fact that no decision has been reached about the line is contributing to the deficit which we have to make good. I accepted that the Government's policy was one of considering the economic future of the area before a decision on the line could be taken.

Mr. David Webster (Weston-super-Mare)

The hon. Member is talking very much about Scottish affairs, which I am following with a great deal of sympathy, but will he notice that there is no Scottish Minister on the Front Bench?

Mr. Steel

This may well be so, but this matter is the responsibility of the Minister of Transport, and the Parliamentary Secretary for that Ministry is here.

As some hon. Members are aware, the Scottish Economic Plan was published the other week. This is why I decided to raise the matter tonight. Now that the future economic plan of Scotland has been settled, and a decision has been reached by the Government to increase the population of the Border region, through which this line runs, by 25,000 people by 1980, I expect a decision on this line to be reached fairly shortly. This afternoon I had a Question down to the Minister on the point of when a decision would be reached about the future of the line. The Question was not reached in the House and I received a reply in writing that the Minister is reviewing these proposals with the Secretary of State for Scotland and hopes to give her decision shortly. I hope that it will be the correct decision, because the line has been running down since the first Beeching Plan of 1963.

I stress that I do not blame the Railways Board or the local railways administration, because as far as they were concerned the line was to close. They felt that they would be criticised if they went on increasing their deficit by spending money in reviving this line and improving the service when, so far as they were concerned, the line was due for closure. The proposal to withdraw the passenger services has been in the hands of the Secretary of State, the Minister of Transport and the Scottish Economic Planning Council for some time and during that time, naturally, the services have deteriorated.

May I ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether consideration has been given to using the Waverley-Carlisle route as a route to Edinburgh for the main freight service? I could not quite understand why the Carstairs-Edinburgh route was chosen, since it is clear that if that line were developed—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member cannot argue the relative merits of various railway routes in this debate. If he had been here earlier this afternoon he would have heard the Chair's Ruling that speeches must be linked with the Supplementary Estimates which we are providing for by the Consolidated Fund Bill.

Mr. Steel

In that case I sum up briefly by saying that I am concerned, as I am sure are all hon. Members, that we should not have to vote annually such a large amount for the deficit of British Railways. We are all anxious to see the deficit removed as soon as possible. In this line, which is at present losing money, there could be a great opportunity to restore the service properly, to inject whatever capital expenditure is required, to streamline the service and to allow the economic development of the area—which was the Government's original intention when they came into office—to go ahead. The Government should announce the decision as quickly as possible.

9.58 p.m.

Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Colne Valley)

I have considerable sympathy with the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel), because I, too, have a local line which I am anxious to preserve. Indeed, few hon. Members have not been placed in that position or are not in that position today.

I have considerable sympathy with the sentiments which the hon. Gentleman expressed, in that we all want to get rid of the huge deficit which British Railways have to carry. But if we were honest we should ask ourselves how we could reconcile these two objectives or how we could reasonably pursue both of them. On the one hand, we want to get rid of the deficit and, on the other hand, we want to keep our local lines open. Given the present policy of the Railways Board, which they inherited—and I am not sure that I can see an easy alternative policy—I do not think that we can have both these objectives.

Mr. David Steel

The line to which I referred is not a local line but a main line. Like other hon. Members, I have had the problem of branch lines. The hon. Member said that we cannot have both these objectives but I explained at the beginning of my speech a method which I should like to see adopted whereby British Railways, instead of suffering a deficit, would be given a straight Exchequer subsidy for those services which the Government decide should be kept open although they are not economic.

Mr. Duffy

I was using the word "local" with a small "1". My local line is also a main line, the trans-Pennine line.

I feel keenly interested in the subject of subsidies, particularly when the topic is raised by hon. Gentlemen opposite, because I would like to get rid of them wherever possible. That is mainly why I am speaking now, and I am grateful for this opportunity to discuss the matter. In view of what has been said earlier, I will do my best to keep in order.

I am particularly concerned about this issue because we are discussing what amounts to a 16 per cent. increase, quite the biggest grant before us, and is itself only 75 per cent. of what is needed. This is disappointing because it reverses the trend of the last three or four years. It reverses the trend which was established in 1962 and maintained in 1963 and 1964. One suspects that the reason for the present move is that the present Government are doing precisely what the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles wants them to do. They are meeting the hon. Gentleman's local needs and the needs of the constituents of many hon. Members. However, I am wondering whether this is not going too far in meeting those needs. That is why I am so concerned about this grant.

I hope that I am in order in saying that this calls into question certain policies on which the long-term reduction of the deficit has been based. In the last two or three years British Railways have been getting their finances into shape. The operating deficit by last year was more than one-third below the 1962 peak. The Chairman of the British Railways Board was saying not long ago that he believed that this deficit could be entirely eliminated by 1970. I do not know if he still believes that. In view of the grant we are considering, I do not know if the timetable for eliminating the deficit still applies.

Mr. Webster

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the speech of the Chairman of the British Railways Board of 4th January last in which he felt, apparently due to the decisions of the present Government, that it was no longer possible to reduce the deficit because of the delay in the closure of lines, the delay in implementing liner trains and so on.

Mr. Duffy

It is my clear recollection of the last public statement of the Chairman of the British Railways Board that he still believed that the timetable could be kept and that the deficit could be eliminated, but only if the Beeching Report of 1963 was implemented. [Interruption.] That is quite different from what the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Webster) said the Chairman had said. The Chairman said that that could be done if the Beeching Report were implemented and the National Plan for 1965 was observed.

This brings me to my second point. If the Joint Parliamentary Secretary does not believe, in the light of what I have said, that the expectations of the Chairman of the British Railways Board are feasible, does this grant not represent a serious reversal of railway policy? Thirdly, does it not mean that the considerable improvement in railway finances which has been evident in the last three years in particular arises because the same difficulties do not apply? Is it not so that some of the factors which have made for these improvements recently do not apply as much in 1966 as they did in 1963–64?

I have in mind in particular the industry's productivity record. It is well known that the productivity record of the railway industry in recent years has been astonishing. In the period I am thinking of—1962–64—it was of the order of 26 per cent. This was principally because of the reduction in manpower, which last year amounted to 8 per cent.—well above the 5½ per cent. called for by the National Plan. Does this grant now mean that this potential is being squeezed, that manpower cannot any longer be run down as rapidly as formerly, and that productivity is therefore considerably reduced?

Whilst I am on this tack, and whilst expressing my appreciation of the difficulties that the Board may now be running into, may I ask whether these difficulties are arising because of the question of closures? In the light of what was said by the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles, and in the light of what I myself acknowledge due to conditions in my own area, I ask whether the Board is finding it difficult now to make as many closures as it formerly made. Were not many of the early closures the easy decisions to make? Because the Board cannot make such decisions as easily now, it must ask for this money. Do not these two references to closures that formerly made for savings and manpower rundown, which also made for savings and led to increased productivity, point to the dilemma in which the Board finds itself, that its best opportunity for savings lies in the reduction of costs? But how far can the potential for cost savings at this rate or at the rate obtainable in recent years be sustained?

I do not doubt that this will bring a response from the Opposition Front Bench, but I believe that the fact must be faced that this cannot be achieved unless Lord Beeching's second Report proposals are implemented. I was very concerned at the appearance of this grant, working as I do on the Estimates Sub-Committee, where we consider the details of Supplementary Estimates. I was very sorry to see the appearance of this grant, because I thought we had got beyond this stage now. What I want to see in the shortest possible time is the reduction of the operating deficit of the B.R.B.—not through a reduction in costs, but through higher receipts.

I recognise again that this is not easy. How can it be easy, in view of the reduced production of coal in this country, which means a reduced demand for the transportation of coal? I was heartened, as I was sure all hon. Members were, to notice during the last year the successes of the B.R.B. in securing a considerable oil contract. One hopes that the Board will have similar successes in the field of bulk transportation.

I also recognise—this no doubt is a further reason for the grant—that it is not easy for the Board to win more traffic and so increase the demand for its services and increase its receipts, unless it goes in for more modernisation. More modernisation calls for higher investment. It is easy to argue that the Board should have that. Nevertheless, in the early days that increased investment would mean a request to the House for a grant, which would in fact enlarge the deficit. The high interest charges would hang, as indeed is in some respects the case now, like a millstone round the Board's neck.

This is why I think that hon. Members ought not to attach too much importance to some of the possibilities that have been mentioned in the last two years for bringing about the railways' solvency, notably liner trains. The theory of liner trains is an attractive one, but it is questionable whether they can earn a reasonable return on the capital involved. Liner trains are not necessarily the panacea of all the railways' troubles. Even if they were, that involves more investment than has taken place. It involves what I am proposing in spirit this evening, namely a grant.

British Railways have not been frustrated only in respect of liner trains. They have been frustrated in their attempts to introduce the merry-go-round trains, and not just by the unions. I am opposed to the grant but I have tried to show some awareness of the need for it. I suppose that if there is anything to be said for the grant at all it can be said that it represents a spare capacity on the railways. I would accept spare capacity a good deal more readily if I thought that it would eventually make for a rational transport policy.

To end, as other speakers have done, on a constituency note, when I pass through my constituency high up in the Pennine valleys I notice how the roads wind and climb, with high land on both sides of them. The roads are choked with traffic which creates great danger for people who because of the high land and the resultant scarcity of building space have to live on the sides of the road. I am thinking especially of the road from Huddersfield to Oldham, and other roads going sharply down to Lancashire. Heavy lorries carrying minerals have run away down these steep hills. In Saddleworth in recent years drivers have been killed and the lives of local residents endangered.

I ask myself whether some of this traffic could not have been carried on the railway line which runs parallel with the road but does not climb the hills. It runs through tunnels down in the valley and is considerably under-utilised. It could take much of this traffic. If I thought that some attempt was being made by the Government to work out this kind of policy, to transfer some of this traffic from the road to the rail, not on a welfare basis but on a realistic pricing basis—and it is not easy—I should feel happier about this grant.

I want a pricing policy which will take into account road as well as rail usage and which will make for a marginal social costing so that local people as well as the House will know the true cost of going over the hills by road and travelling along the valley by rail. If I were assured by my right hon. Friend that the Minister was engaged on this kind of policy, despite all the difficulties that face her, I would settle more easily in my mind for this grant.

10.13 p.m.

Sir Richard Thompson (Croydon, South)

I had not intended to intervene in the debate, but when I looked at the figures in the Supplementary Estimate and saw that the original Estimate was £105 million and that we were now being asked for a further Supplementary Estimate of £20 million, which is nearly one-fifth, it seemed to me that something ought to be said before the House agreed to grant this additional money.

Many of our transport debates revolve around the question of local branch lines, and there has been some reference to them by both the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) and the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Duffy). I do not propose to refer to them, because our local branch line in Croydon, I am glad to say, has been saved. British Railways must be rather glad about that, because one of their main problems is getting commuters in and out of London. Here is a case where a branch line has been saved not for sentimental or social reasons but because it serves a vital transport need.

There are many instances where, simply by using existing facilities a little better, British Railways could enormously improve the image of the whole operation. It is very easy to say that if one relaid all the track or made all the goods wagons of a kind which could go at 70 m.p.h., everything would work much better, but this involves vast capital expenditure, and that is not easy to come by. But many small and marginal improvements could be made almost within the existing Estimates, and if they were applied they would do a great deal to improve the image of British Railways and induce more people to go by rail. I am very much attracted by the remark by the hon. Member for Colne Valley that what is wanted is a better pricing policy. We do not want to pretend that British Railways should be made attractive simply for social reasons. If the service is made satisfactory enough people will support it, particularly in commuter areas, because it is costly, expensive and troublesome to travel to work in any other way. I believe that with a little more effort we could make the service more attractive, and I do not think it would cost very much money.

I have a commuter constituency, and all the time I get one complaint which I am sure could be rectified with a little effort and with hardly any money being spent on it. This is the question of communication and information. Every railway station of any importance that I know, especially in the suburban area, is fitted with a public address system. The sort of information put out over it, when one can hear it—they always seem to get very strange chaps to broadcast—is usually what one can read in any timetable, which nobody really wants to know. The information that commuters require is when trains are late, when connections are not going to be met and why trains are late. But we never get that. We get connections missed, trains arriving late, and fuming commuters milling about on the platform, and they do not know why the service is not operating.

I am certain that those who run the service know why something has gone wrong. If only there were some means of broadcasting this to people, it would enormously mollify passengers, who recognise that no system is perfect, that sometimes the service breaks down and that it may not always be able to run smoothly. But this never happens. We do not have a proper use of the public address system on stations taking the public into the confidence of British Railways and saying, "We are very sorry but something has happened and the 4.15 will be 20 minutes late. Those who want to go to certain destinations had better do this or that." But that never happens.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am very interested in this, but the hon. Member must link what he is saying with the Estimates on, which he is basing his speech.

Sir R. Thompson

I humbly ask your pardon, Mr. Speaker. I had not realised that I had transgressed the rules of order. I was relating my argument to various means by which, without very much expenditure of money, British Railways could improve their image and service to the public in such a way that it would not be necessary, one hopes, to ask for a Supplementary estimate of £20 million.

Another way in which I would have thought this could be done was by reference to the cleanliness of the rolling stock. We always heard that when steam was abandoned—it has practically gone now—the trains would be much cleaner. We always heard that cleaners were very difficult to obtain because they were at the bottom of the wages scale. But the fact remains that the dirtiness and un-cleanliness of much of the rolling stock must have led to a falling off in receipts which has resulted in part in the request for a Supplementary Estimate.

I also wonder whether it would not be wise to look at the fare structure in the following way. In Croydon, believe it or not, we have 24 railway stations, and the fares from practically every one of them in and out of the Metropolis vary. The ticket that one buys at one station is not valid if presented on return at another station. We should get away from this national structure, with its precise relevance to miles travelled, and introduce flexibility so that in Croydon, for example, a man could buy a ticket at one of the stations in the knowledge that he could return to another. This might be a little complicated and when the Railways Board is asking for another £20 million—one-fifth of the original estimate—it is these marginal considerations which perhaps cause great headaches. But surely, with the aid of computers, such a system could be organised.

Do not let the Joint Parliamentary Secretary lose heart in these matters. I know what a beating his colleague gets in some of these debates. But it is not the case that it is impossible to run a public railway service on an economically viable basis. It is done in Holland and in Switzerland. It is even done in some suburban areas.

Only the other day I was reading that the Chicago and North-Western line-built by the British many years ago—has now returned to a dividend-paying basis. It serves a tremendously built-up area with a very sophisticated car-owning population. Nevertheless, by applying itself to the principles of transport operation in the twentieth century, by reorganising its stock and fare structure, it has been able to pay its way.

I feel that British Railways is not very far removed from a considerable breakthrough but unfortunately, every year, any progress that is made is promptly swamped by wage increases which put it in the red again. Everyone feels that railway employees are as entitled as anyone to a decent living and over the past few years there has been a tremendous rationalisation and reduction in staff.

But I believe that if the Railways Board were to look at the small things that could be done—cleanliness of carriages and better public address systems on stations, for instance—it could start a movement in favour of going back to the railways which does not now exist.

It is on that kind of consideration that I hope the hon. Gentleman will be able to say some encouraging things. Those who are, like myself, railway enthusiasts, believe that there is a great future for the railways if only they can make a breakthrough at this time by becoming a bit more human, a bit more sensible to the needs of the commuter, which have to be filled and which at present are not quite being filled.

10.23 p.m.

Miss Harvie Anderson (Renfrew, East)

We are discussing a considerable deficit. I am in the unfortunate position of having received a letter today from the Chairman of the Railways Board pointing out that a station in my constituency has contributed considerably towards that deficit. But I put it to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary that if he were to see fit to keep open the very important station of Elderslie on a different basis from that at present, it would become a paying proposition and cease to contribute to the deficit.

Fortunately for me, I suspect, unless I get away from this building within three minutes, I shall fail to be able to catch a long distance train to my constituency in order to discuss further this very important problem from a different angle, but since I have had considerable correspondence with the hon. Gentleman I am sure that he will forgive my almost immediate absence.

I should like to stress to him that a very considerable factor in the deficit is that it is impossible for the average hon. Member to get through the point that was put by the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Duffy)—that some drastic reorganisation of the structure of some of the railway stations would result in their becoming viable propositions and no longer a burden upon the nation.

10.25 p.m.

Sir Douglas Glover (Ormskirk)

The House must view with alarm this Supplementary Estimate to cover this increased deficit on the railways. But having said that, I must say that I rise tonight not in a very critical mood, because I understand and sympathise about many of the problems which the Railways Board has had to face in recent years. I might make one or two suggestions for reducing this deficit so that next year the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to say that he is reducing the £20 million which was borrowed in excess this year.

To digress for a moment; in 1954, when discussing the same subject, I put forward the idea of the merry-go-round trains. It seems to take a long time for the idea to come into operation. In the same speech I said that I saw a great future in the commuter services. Even under the Beeching Plan, I have always opposed the closing down of commuter services. One has only to consider the way in which traffic is moving in the big cities to see that there is a very good chance of a break-through of commuter services in the immediate future as we begin in the cities more economically to price the land on which people park their cars. That will drive people back to the railways.

But to encourage that the railways themselves must provide much better services. Two lines in my constituency, from Ormskirk to Liverpool and Southport to Liverpool, were under threat. Both were lines which I would have thought essential in the future of commuter services. Those threats have been withdrawn—I will not say permanently—and with the new thinking about the big cities they are probably fairly safe for the future. But what is being done on those lines to encourage travel by rail?

There are little stations at Aughton and Maghull. Neither station has a long enclosed platform, but there is a little waiting room and a ticket room. The remainder of the platform is open to the winds which blow from the North, the West, the East and the South. In recent weeks—and this is not the first time I have had to complain as a result of the constituents taking up the matter with me—there has been a roaring fire in the ticket office while the waiting room has been stone cold. I do not complain about the chap in the ticket office having his roaring fire, but I am complaining about the people in the waiting room not having any fire at all. The chap who goes by rail in circumstances like that and who finishes up in the cold decides that it is more economic to continue to use his car to go to and from Liverpool.

In Formby there is a recurring problem with a level crossing which is un-policed and where there are constantly fatal accidents. That sort of thing presents an adverse picture of the railways and does not encourage people to use them.

Between Southport and Manchester there is one of the most important commuter lines in the North-West of England. I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary has had voluminous correspondence about it not only from me but from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Percival) and many others. For some reason, British Railways—and I am told that this is a technical matter—somewhere along the line have closed the four-track route and are trying to run the service on a two-track route, with the result that the commuter trains from Southport to Manchester in the morning and from Manchester to Southport in the evening are so unreliable that it is no exaggeration to say that many people are leaving Southport in order to live nearer Manchester.

This is a permanent policy. People are not just complaining, they are selling their homes and going back to the Manchester area because the railway service is now so appallingly undermanned. It is dirty, unheated and, much more important from the commuters' point of view, it cannot be relied upon. If British Railways is to recover this commuter traffic it will only do so, and bring in a large revenue, if it will provide a service which the public have a right to expect.

Mr. Charles Mapp (Oldham, East)

Is the hon. Member aware that in practically every country, in every major town and city, the commuter traffic, where it is noticeable, is inevitably uneconomic, however the furniture is arranged?

Sir D. Glover

I am glad that the hon. Member has intervened. Perhaps he was not in the Chamber when my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Sir R. Thompson) cited the example of the city of Chicago, which is paying a dividend upon its commuter traffic? These are services which are going to be run into the future and that is why we have to spend a little more time in making them efficient, in trying to increase revenue.

It would not be a bad idea if some of the people on the Railways looked at the air services. They are competing services and if one is competing with a service it might be a good idea to give some thought to the way that service is run. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South was talking of the public address system. I think that the airways over-do it, but they look after the passengers as if they were half-wits. Every five minutes there is an announcement asking passengers for Manchester to proceed to Gate One and someone almost gets hold of one by the hand and takes one there and makes certain one gets on the right plane, and not the wrong one, whereas British Railways do not mind if one travels to Edinburgh when one wants to go to Glasgow. I am not asking that the railways should adopt exactly the same procedure. But I never get on a plane and find the previous passenger's lunch on the floor. I frequently do when I travel by rail. These are competing services, and if British Railways is going to get the people to use its services, then it should provide the same quality and standard as its competitors, and I do not think that it is.

We have to face the fact that if the railways are to get rid of its deficit it will only do so by 1). carrying out a great deal of the Beeching programme, however unpopular it may be in this House. I know that everyone collectively in this House is willing to support the Beeching programme, but we are all prepared to oppose it when it affects our constituencies. This is one of the programme's great problems. As I said in my speech in 1954, there are certain services which the British Railways can provide which are going to be profitable, particularly on the long, narrow spine from Scotland to the South of England. There are services which it will never be able to run at a profit. This House has to make up its mind.

If these services are so socially desirable, then British Railways should be paid something by the State for running them. British Railways should not be running at a deficit because we insist on its providing services which, commercially, it does not want to run. The House has to face the issue.

I am probably just as guilty as anyone else. We say, "Efficiency", but when it comes to efficiency which affects our constituencies we are against it. I am not in any way hostile to the views of the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel). He has a sparsely populated constituency and probably wants to keep various lines running there.

Mr. David Steel

Only one.

Sir D. Glover

I am not criticising the hon. Member for wanting to keep that going. But if it is not commercially viable, the House ought to decide whether it should stay open for social reasons, and, if by keeping it open British Railways will lose £100,000 a year, we should reimburse British Railways. But do not keep hitting British Railways on the head when we will not allow it to do what it wants.

There is not very much party division on the subject. Hon. Members on both sides repeatedly say that they want British Railways to be efficient and support all the ideas for increasing its efficiency. But, when it comes to the crunch, individually we change our minds.

I would not be opposing the Government if they began to think along the lines of what I am saying, but it is a farce to bring in a Supplementary Estimate for a deficit of £20 million when part of that is probably due to deliberate decisions made in the House rather than, as they ought to be, in the British Railways boardroom, based on commercial criteria. If the Parliamentary Secretary will bear that thought in mind, the House of Commons itself might get a very much more cogent attitude towards the problems of the railways.

It is no good the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Duffy) talking about everyone going back on to rail in the valleys between Lancashire and Yorkshire. One of the great troubles that British Railways faces is that the country is not large enough and, as a result, the bulk of the goods that we would all like to see carried by rail go by road. If they go by rail, there is inevitably a double handling of those goods compared with when they go by road. If a consignment is being carried over a thousand miles, that double handling is probably worthwhile, but if the average load is carried only 70 miles, that double handling adds enormously to the cost of transportation.

The hon. Gentleman talked about putting traffic back on to the railways in the valleys, but at any moment now we are going to produce a Lancashire/Yorkshire motorway—or we were, although it seems to have disappeared further into the future than seemed likely two years ago. If we are to have the motorway, that again will add to the problems of British Rail.

Mr. Duffy

I did not say that I wanted everything to go back on to the railways by any means. What I called for was a planned distribution between road and rail, or a national transport policy, so that the real cost could be established of what went by road compared with what went by rail.

Sir D. Glover

I think that the hon. Gentleman was out of the Chamber when I said certain things before. I was saying that I would like to see more traffic going back to the railways, but it involves double handling. When, as so much of it is, it is to be transported over an average distance of only 70 miles, that double handling means an enormously increased on-cost. If it was to be carried for a thousand miles, that double handling would not matter.

If I may be slightly critical of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South, I think that this is why the railway problem in the United States is so different from the problem in this country. In the Middle West, where there are long-haul trains, covering distances of 500 or 1,000 miles, the on-costs of double handling disappear, but that situation does not exist here. We are dealing tonight with the problems of British Railways, and we are dealing with a Supplementary Estimate to cover a deficit of £20 million.

We have to accept that the railway system with which we are dealing is one which Dr. Beeching, now Lord Beeching, tried to make a coherent entity for a railway system in the second half of the twentieth century. We are dealing with a railway system which covers the country more widely and more densely than any other railway system in the world. When people complain that if this line, or that station, is closed they will be denied transport, they should realise that nowhere else in the world are people so near to a railway station, and so near to a communication centre by rail.

The country was a rash of railways in the last century, and the wealth of this country was built on that machine, but it is not possible to have 10 million or 12 million motor cars, plus all the commercial lorries, which inevitably are a new form of transport, and in addition have 3 million to 4 million people travelling by air, and still say that we need the same pattern of railway lines, and the railway system which we had 100 years ago when that was the only means of transportation.

I still think that the railways have a great deal of rationalisation to do to find out which lines and which services are viable in a country shaped as ours is, and of this size. The only time when double handling ceases to matter so much is on the long haul down the spine of the country from Scotland to London. That, plus the commuter services, is the kind of service that we ought to build in the second half of this century. It is only by doing that that we will get the railways viable, and thus save the hon. Gentleman having to come back to the House time and again to ask for more money because the railways have run into difficulties.

Mr. Will Griffiths (Manchester, Exchange) rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Samuel Storey)

Order. The hon. Member has exhausted his right to speak in this debate.

Mr. Griffiths

With respect, this is a different Supplementary Estimate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It is the same Motion, the Motion for Third Reading of the Bill, and the hon. Member cannot speak again.

10.43 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Morris)

We have had an interesting debate. It has gone on for some hours, and I shall try, to the best of my ability, to deal with the points which have been raised.

I think that we all agree on the importance of having a good public transport system, and I think that the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Sir D. Glover) put his finger on the nub of the difficulty when he said that we all want to rationalise, we all want to modernise, we all want a first-class railway system, but when it comes to one's own constituency, then the difficulty arises. This has been my experience in the short time that I have held office.

I have received a number of letters from hon. Members on both sides of the House, and I have seen a number of hon. Members. In each case the hon. Member concerned has pleaded forcefully, energetically, and strongly, the case for the railway system in his constituency. Perhaps I might say that in a different capacity I have done that myself, so none of us can stand in a white sheet on this issue, but hon. Gentlemen opposite under the leadership of the right hon. Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples) have trooped into the Division Lobbies in support of the Beeching proposals. They have a special responsibility in this matter. I have looked curiously at some of the protestations made by hon. Members opposite from time to time. I think it was the hon. Member for Renfrew, East (Miss Harvie Anderson) who supported the right hon. Member for Wallasey when these proposals came before the House.

A number of useful suggestions were made by the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Sir R. Thompson) and the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Sir D. Glover), none of which I can deal with in this debate since they are matters of management. But they will have been heard and noted by the Railways Board. No discourtesy is intended on my part if I do not answer them tonight.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Duffy) made some very pertinent observations. I understand that he is a Member of the Estimates Committee and that the Ministry of Transport was examined in detail by the Committee, in connection with its Supplementary Estimate, last December. I understand that the Ministry has not yet replied to its substantial observations, but that a detailed reply is being prepared. It would therefore be wrong for me to go into any detail now, before that reply is put to the Chairman of the Estimates Committee.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel), who raised this issue, dealt with two main points. The first concerned the railway line in his own constituency. I have little to add to the Answer given to him this afternoon. No decision has yet been reached on this matter, but we have indicated that it will be decided as soon as possible.

The predecessor of the present Minister made the position quite clear, and we adhere to the statement made by him in November, 1964. The present procedure is that there should first be an early sift of proposals by the Railways Board, and then the Minister must decide this preliminary question: should the Board defer still further the putting in hand of the statutory procedure for considering the proposals? This is the first part of the present procedure. This is the decision which the hon. Member now awaits.

The Government are well aware of the need to consider the future of this line in relation to the proposals for the development of the Scottish borders, as outlined in Cmnd. 2864, The Scottish Economy, 1965–70. It is precisely the timing of the full examination of rail closure proposals in relation to the study by the planning consultants referred to in paragraph 232 of the White Paper that is now being considered. The real question is: how and when can we best consider the future of this line and decide what services, if any, have a real part to play in the future transport system of this developing area. This is why we are taking some time to consult fully the Secretary of State for Scotland, to ensure that the Government are not doing with one hand what their other hand does not know about. It is therefore important to marry this decision with the recently published Report.

Mr. David Steel

I am grateful to the Minister for the reply which he is making, and I understand his position, but will he bear in mind that in January, 1964, the previous Government set up a study, as they did in other regions of Scotland, of the economic future of this region? This study ought to have included a consideration of the Borders. The rôle of this railway line in the economy of the region is repeatedly discussed, and it is unfortunate that another two years should have gone by before the adoption of this correct procedure.

Mr. Morris

Fortunately, I have no responsibility for any studies or views of the previous Government. The Secretary of State for Scotland has made it clear that this type of study is important, and that there should be the planning consultations referred to in paragraph 232 of the White Paper to ensure that all the consequences to and transport needs of the area are fully examined in the shortest possible period.

This is what we intend, and this is what my right hon. Friend is now considering. That is the first stage, the decision as to whether this proposal should or should not go through statutory procedures. When that decision is taken, the matter will then go before the T.U.C.C, and they will consider the questions which lie within their responsibility—initial hardship. The procedure after that is that they make their report to the Minister. We shall also seek the views of the planning council, because my Minister attaches great importance to their rôle.

In the last few weeks, the chairmen of the planning councils met my right hon. Friend to discuss the transport needs of their areas. They were encouraged by her remarks about the importance she attached to their views and to their getting down to the job of working out, in as detailed a fashion as possible and as early as possible, the transport needs of each of their areas. These are the changes which have taken place under this Government: there is, first, the early sift and then the views of the planning councils, to which we attach importance, are obtained.

Mr. Webster

The hon. Gentleman has explained that there have been differences between the treatment of this problem by the last Government and that given by the present Government. Bearing in mind the views of Mr. Raymond of the disadvantages which this new sifting technique presents for the Railways Board, and the fact that we are today discussing an extra £20 million in addition to the £45 million suspended debt and an increased deficit, how much will be paid off by the people in the area if this change is to result in social benefit?

Mr. Morris

I was not aware of any difficulties over the early sift proposals: I thought that they were generally welcomed. I thought that it was important that, if the Minister thought that any proposal was a non-starter from the word "go", it would be a waste of everybody's time to have a detailed and thorough investigation into initial hardship caused by a closure which would never take place. This is the importance of the early sift proposals and I have never understood that there was ony criticism of it.

If the hon. Gentleman tells us that he does not want this kind of investigation and wants proposals put forward which are non-starters in any event, he is welcome to do so. We consider that it is important that every kind of non-starter scheme which is regarded as detrimental to a region should be dealt with at the earliest possible opportunity. There is nothing worse than uncertainty for any region faced with the problem of an eroding population. It is important that one should eliminate every element of uncertainty.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare, above all, as he represents a constituency in the West of England, should be aware of the importance of this point.

The British Railways deficit for 1965 has risen to an estimated £132 million. In 1964 it was £121 million. The reason for the rise in the deficit is a decline in traffic, mainly coal, and a rise in labour costs which could not immediately be offset by increased fares and charges. But in 1966 we expect to see a resumption of the downward trend. Increases in fares and charges were announced on 29th December and they took effect in the earlier part of this year. These were estimated to yield about £10 million.

The Board have absorbed the greater part of the increased costs, and we should give the Board credit for that. They absorbed costs to the extent of £20 million by way of increased productivity and they are to be commended for that. The remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley were on those lines.

He queried the figure of 75 per cent. in the Estimates. The present Estimate covers 75 per cent. of the expected need because the Supplementary Estimate was put in during November before an entirely accurate forecast could be made. I am given to understand, by those who know more about this than I do, that this is general practice.

One should look at the Supplementary Estimate against the whole picture of the turnover of British Railways. It is a Supplementary Estimate of £20 million which must be looked at against a turnover of £500 million.

Sir D. Glover

It is £20 million on top of £120 million—about £139 million deficit on a £500 million turnover. It is almost 25 per cent. of the total turnover, which is fantastic.

Mr. Morris

I cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's percentages. The turnover is £500 million a year and this Supplementary Estimate of £20 million should be set against that total turnover.

We have had an interesting debate. I am sure that the matters relating to management which have been mentioned will be heard in the right places.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.