HC Deb 20 June 1966 vol 730 cc243-52

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lawson.]

1.19 a.m.

Mr. Elystan Morgan (Cardigan)

I am glad of this opportunity to draw the attention of the House, albeit at a late hour, to issues arising from the closure of the Aberystwyth to Carmarthen railway. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for attending to reply to the debate. The hon. Gentleman and I have argued about many diverse subjects since early boyhood and that without obvious damage to either of us I am also indebted to him for his warm and courteous understanding in connection with the issue with which we are concerned tonight.

The railway line in question is one which traverses parts of Cardiganshire and Carmarthenshire. It was closed to passenger services by the then Conservative Minister of Transport, the right hon. Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples) in September 1964, one month before the General Election of that year. The closure was subject to the provision of a through bus service between the two terminals. Freight services had already been withdrawn between Lampeter and Aberystwyth save for the transport of liquid milk and milk products from the two creameries at Felinfach and Pont Llanio, respectively.

This closure, like so many others, was sponsored by the Beeching Report. When that plan was published in 1963 the people of Cardigan realised the full significance to them of its provisions. With the exception of the line from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth and the spur running up along the Cambrian coast, the whole of central Wales was to be a railway vacuum.

This is a region which has suffered decline for nearly a century. It is, in the words of a recent Government report: … the most extensive area in England and Wales showing rural depopulation. In 1962, the Welsh Advisory Council, reporting on the matter of rural transport in Wales, compared the population trends of the five mid-Wales counties with five comparable counties in England —namely Cornwall, Hereford, Huntingdon, Rutland and Westmorland.

It was found that, during the past 100 years, the five Welsh counties had all suffered very substantial losses in population. The worst-hit was Montgomeryshire, which had suffered the loss of 34.6 per cent, of its people during that period. In the case of the English counties, three of them showed substantial increases. Whilst Westmorland had lost only a fraction of one per cent, of its population and Cornwall had lost 7½ per cent.

On the question of the possible withdrawal of railway services from mid-Wales, that report said: The council are deeply concerned about the ultimate and indirect effects of whittling away the rural railway system. There seems to be a danger that too narrow a view might be taken of the public interest in this matter and that while attention has been concentrated on the financial implications from the standpoint of the railway operators, the 'invisible earnings' of the railway system in such forms as industrial, agricultural and tourist development, and general rural welfare, may be overlooked, That statement anticipated words spoken a year later in the House in reference to the Beeching Report: … it is totally wrong to base a decision on a narrow obsession with railway accountancy. One has to take account of the wider effects for the country as a whole."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th April, 1963; Vol. 676, c. 911.] The words are those of the Prime Minister, then of course Leader of the Opposition.

Naturally, these words gave heart to the people of my constituency, for they endorsed their deepest aspirations. Even after the closure of passenger services on that line had been ordered, they still cherished some hope of reprieve, for the then Labour Minister of Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Tom Fraser) had, on 4th November, assured the House that all closure proposals and orders would be reviewed against the background of future economic and population trends. He said that he would seek power from the House to introduce legislation if this were necessary in any individual case. I assume that this also represents the policy of the right hon. Lady the present Minister of Transport.

The quarrel of the people of my constituency lies not with the declared policies of the Government—which they believe to be just—but with their application in this particular instance. My constituents maintain—and I join them in this—that no proper case has been made for the closure of this railway. They contend that if there is a real determination to undo the harm of the Beeching Plan, if there is a will to carry out the statements that have so clearly been made by the Labour Party, then here is a classic case where such plans and such motives can be brought into execution.

The arguments in favour of such a proposal fall under three heads. First, there is the financial aspect of the railway authority's case—the cold, calculating monetary considerations. It appears that at no stage was evidence adduced that there was an actual net loss in operating both freight and passenger services. The special milk services, already mentioned, which are now operated, are stated to afford an annual revenue of £185,000 to the railway authorities. This figure has never been denied. It is possible—indeed, it is probable— that if this revenue is offset against the passenger service deficit, it may well be that no net loss would be incurred. It may be argued that freight is not within the purview of the Minister of Transport, but that is not the fault of my constituents but rather of the part of the Transport Act, 1962 which so ordains. I doubt whether fair-minded laymen can accept such delicate, nice sophisticated distinctions, any more than they could understand the fate of a stretch of road being decided without consideration being given to the extent to which it was used by goods vehicles.

But even if there be a net loss for freight and passenger services—and that is certainly not conceded—I would point out that the latest figures—those published in 1964—show British Railways in the Western Region making an operating profit of £240,000 a week. In such circumstances is it not reasonable to suggest that a cross-subsidy could be paid in order to enable this railway and other railways in a similar plight to be kept open?

In this context I believe that it is proper for me to point out that the two bus operators on the route between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen are companies in which the majority holding is State owned, and I do not think it is denied that a substantial subsidy is paid indirectly out of public funds for the maintenance of that service.

If this line be re-opened it could be operated only as a streamlined service and this would make any estimate of the deficit which had been suffered by the hitherto antiquated system completely irrelevant. I draw the attention of the House to the case of the Llanelly— Craven Arms line for, before streamlining, that railway lost £175,000 per annum, and after streamlining that deficit was reduced to £30,000 per annum. It may well be that if the same were applied to this railway, the deficit would be very substantially diminished, if not wholly eradicated.

There is the question of the effect of the closure on the county and community of Cardiganshire. Time does not permit me to give more than a brief outline of some of these factors. The through bus service from Aberystwyth to Carmarthen Town, which was a condition precedent to closure, is a wholly inadequate form of transport on account of the narrowness of the roads. The Beeching Report stated on page 20: Road improvement or road construction may be necessary before adequate road services can be provided as full alternatives to the rail service. Such improvements have not been carried out to the narrow and tortuous roads which serve as alternatives to this railway line. In this respect, those who were responsible in the first place for the closure have sought "to out-Beeching Beeching". As a result of the discontinuance of the general freight service between Lampeter and Aberystwyth, I have figures in my possession from which I calculate that no less than 80,000 additional tons of freight is annually being brought on to these roads as a result of closure. It is probable that this represents upwards of 10,000 additional lorry loads a year going on to these roads, a heavy additional burden to be carried on our already inadequate network. If the line is not to be reopened—and I sincerely hope that reopening is still possible—here is a pressing case for substantial improvements of the roads concerned.

I doubt very much, with the greatest respect, whether the authorities concerned have attached adequate weight to the question of the holiday population of the county, which depends heavily on tourism for a flourishing economy. The permanent population is about 53,500. Studies made by the Cardiganshire County Council show how the normal population during the summer holiday season becomes considerably swollen—how Aberystwyth's population increases by 200 per cent., Aberaeron's by 75 per cent. and Borth's by 500 per cent. There is no question but that the railway has played a vital rôle in the augmentation of the population of these areas.

There is also the important factor of the rapid growth of the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth, the growth of St. David's College at Lampeter and the building of a large new hospital at Aberystwyth, which is shortly to be completed. All these are real and adequate sources of custom for the railway if there was initiative and determination to gain such custom.

There are many aspects of hardship which I could mention. I will confine myself merely to drawing attention to coal supplies. There is no doubt but that there is a great deal of hardship on account of the price of coal it now having to be re-routed through Shrewsbury —being increased by 20s. to 25s. a ton. That is in addition to the consideration, of frequent delays of up to two to three weeks occurring from the time of ordering, compared with a wait of from one to three days prior to the closure.

Another matter should be considered under this heading. A month ago there was set up the Clayton Survey to study traffic conditions in west Cardiganshire. A week ago the Secretary of State for Wales designated two towns in Cardiganshire, Aberystwyth and Lampeter, as growth points.

I sincerely trust that the future of this railway line will be kept an open matter until the report of that survey is available and until the plans for the development of Aberystwyth and Lampeter have been launched. To do otherwise, to give final and irrevocable judgment on this matter, would surely be to submit to the judicial procedures in "Alice in Wonderland "—sentence first, verdict afterwards.

Thirdly, there is the significance of this railway to Mid-Wales. The attitude of the Ministry seems to be that here is a railway which traverses an area of rather thin population and which runs between two towns of 10,000 and 12,000 population. I suggest that that is a narrow view. Here is a vital link between North-West and South-West Wales. There is here a service which has a potential of serving many scores of thousands of people. To the land and nation of Wales there are many divisive forces and factors. Mountain ranges divide us and communications divide us. Some people would even argue that language divides us. Here is a factor which can unite a large part of North, Central and South Wales.

There is a deep and growing feeling in the hearts of many people in Mid-Wales that the closure of this line is the symbol of an inevitable fate. Economic and social decline is the way of life for many hundreds of villages in the Mid-Wales area. There is an instinctive feeling of helplessness which creates a psychology and a malaise. I do not accept this view, but I know this psychology to be a most potent and sometimes damning factor in relation to possible development in that area. Cardiganshire as a community has reached the point of a crucial decision. Either we surrender to this malaise or we challenge it in a bold and determined manner. The reopening of this line could be the forerunner of such a challenge.

I trust that the Parliamentary Secretary will agree to defer final judgment on this railway line in order to examine the deep and underlying factors I have sought to describe. If he does not do so it is probable that few would lay heavy blame on him for failing at this late stage to reverse a savage and destructive act of a Tory Government. But here is an opportunity to indulge in a bold social, and Socialist experiment. If he submits the whole matter to inspired reappraisal he will have earned, and properly earned, the gratitude and the admiration of his native country.

1.38 a.m.

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

In the short time that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardigan (Mr. Elystan Morgan) has been in this House he has fought like a tiger for Ministerial attention to this railway and, as we heard in his speech tonight, towards the whole of the transport problems of his constituency.

I know full well that the closure of a particular railway line poses many problems. I have lived almost all my life in my hon. Friend's constituency and I also have very close associations with the County of Carmarthen. I think I can claim close knowledge of the rôle of a railway line of this type running through this important area. It is not only the question of a railway line but of the whole transport services of my hon. Friend's constituency which is important. In the first 25 years of my life, which I spent in his county, there was, in my village, only one morning bus and one evening bus and an extra one on the two shopping days of Monday and Friday.

The facts are that this line is 56 miles long and the average number of passengers each way on weekdays in July, 1963, was 110. The savings to be effected by closure would be £114,200, less the bus subsidy. My hon. Friend has raised the issue of freight in a number of aspects, and in particular as regards milk. Freight is entirely a matter for the Railways Board and it would not do for me to comment on that aspect, but I would say that even if my hon. Friend's figure of £185,000 as coming from milk revenue is right, that is revenue and not profit. The greater proportion of this would be offset against the cost of transporting the milk, and whatever net profit remained at the end of the day would have to be apportioned not only as to the stub-end of the line running between the counties of Cardigan and Carmarthen but to the whole of the distance that the milk is transported through many parts of the country.

Therefore, my hon. Friend will have to bear in mind that these are not realistic issues to put one against the other. Indeed, this revenue would never come anywhere near meeting the total additional costs of running a passenger railway service on this line. I was glad that he pointed out, so that there is no ambiguity, that this line was closed by a decision of the last Conservative Minister of Transport—a decision taken on 10th September, 1964. The line was actually closed in the following February, although some part of it had been closed earlier because of flood damage.

Under existing legislation neither my right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Tom Fraser) nor the present Minister has the power to reverse that decision. The decision once made, is conveyed to the Railways Board which proceeds to carry it out and, having once been given ministerial authority, the Board proceeds to carry out any necessary contractual arrangements with third parties.

Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon, North) rose——

Mr. Morris

I am sorry, but I have only a short time in which to speak.

This is the situation that the Labour Minister found on taking office. The Railways Board then applied to dispose of the track between Pont Llanio and Aberystwyth. Since insufficient time had elapsed to enable the effect of the closure to be judged, the Minister deferred a decision for six months. He did so in a letter written to the Board on 13th May, stating that his reason was to see that the alternative services provided following closures were working satisfactorily. On 10th June that year the British Railways Board, Western Region, informed the county council, and subsequently on 18th June the county council wrote to the Ministry for confirmation of this. This confirmation was given on 9th July.

In the meantime, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton sought the advice of the Welsh Office, and their advice, given in the autumn of that year, was that in the light of the summer's experience they did not wish to object to the sale of the track and the formation. British Railways were informed on 18th November, 1965, that the disposal of the track and the formation was authorised.

This was the situation when I came to the Ministry of Transport earlier this year. I knew that there was a certain amount of feeling in the two counties, and I did two things. First, I got the Board to agree that the formation and essential features should be retained for the time being—this despite the fact that the Board had been given Ministerial authority to proceed with the disposal. Secondly, on 23rd February I caused a letter to be written to the local authorities suggesting that in view of my Minister's anxiety to ensure that alternative services were adequate to meet essential needs, I was prepared to make an on-the-spot personal investigation and was prepared to meet the local authorities to discuss the adequacy of the transport services in the area.

That same letter spelt out that there was no prospect of this line becoming economic and, secondly, so clear was it that the line had no part to play in the future transport system of the area that the previous Minister had, in consultation with the Welsh Office, agreed to the sale of the track and formation. This was the situation and this was the meeting that was called. I went down to investigate the matter. It was obvious to anyone reading that letter what the meeting was about.

I was surprised to be asked whether I saw any possibility of the line being reopened. I said that I was afraid that I could see no such possibility. I suppose I could have avoided giving a straight answer to a straight question, and then for the rest of the meeting we would have been engaged in a game of pretence, and arguing not about the reality of the transport problems but about the reopening of the line. I felt that there could be only one answer, and if I disappointed some of my hon. Friends I hope that they preferred my honesty and frankness to any transquillisers that I could have administered.

I agreed at the meeting, first, to inform the Welsh Office just what had been said about the adequacy of the roads in the area. This is being done. Secondly, I asked the Welsh Economic Council to look again into the future needs of the area and to reconsider whether the formation should be disposed of. This is being done. I also informed the meeting that the Welsh Economic Council had asked a team from the University College of Wales, under Professor Clayton, to make a study of the transport problems roughly west of a line between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen. I am sure that the Welsh Economic Council will take account of the fact that Professor Clayton is undertaking the survey at its request in the kind of advice it will give my Ministry about the disposal of the formation. I also invited local authorities to cooperate with Professor Clayton's team, I said I was sure they would and I understand that they are doing so.

There is the real problem of the provision of public transport in rural areas. The growth of the motor car has caused immense problems. In 1952 there were 85 cars per 1,000 people in Cardiganshire; in 1965 there are at least 240 vehicles. I am sorry that I have not the breakdown between cars and other vehicles. This is some indication of the growth of the motor car which has created this great problem for both the railways and the buses.

The remedy of the Tory Party—and I see no representative of that party here tonight, which shows its interest in the problems of Cardigan and Carmarthen— was the philosophy contained in the Act of 1962, for which the Liberal Party voted, namely, commercialism, which would have meant the butchering of the railway system in this country until, in the end, we would have had a railway system of a mere 8,000 miles.

I hope that in a short time we shall be publishing our White Paper, which will set out clearly our thinking on the future transport needs of this country. I do not hope to have complete answers to all the problems, but what my Minister and I are concerned about is that we shall have an adequate system of public transport in the kind of area to which my hon. Friend has referred. One of the conditions of this closure was that there should be the provision of limited-stop buses. I understand that they take two hours and 35 minutes to complete the journey, as opposed to the average train time of two hours and thirty minutes.

I shall bear in mind all that my hon. Friend has said, and I hope that in the end he will be content with what I have said, namely, that we have looked closely at some of the real problems that he posed.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes to Two o'clock.