HC Deb 09 March 1966 vol 725 cc2344-53

3.27 a.m.

Mr. Mark Woodnutt (Isle of Wight)

I thank the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for coming along at almost half-past three in the morning to hear what I have to say. I am grateful to him, and I hope that when I have finished speaking I shall be as grateful for the decisions which his right hon. Friend might make after he has told her what I have said.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the history of the Isle of Wight railways. Dr. Beeching, in his now famous Report, recommended the complete closure of the whole network, a network which carries 3 million passengers a year, 2½ million on our south-east seaboard from Ryde to Ventnor, and ½ million from Ryde through Newport to Cowes.

Realising that implementation of that suggestion would have crippled the island's economy, all the island's authorities and myself combined to fight this suggestion tooth and nail. Of all the battles which have been fought to retain railway lines in the United Kingdom, I think that probably the fight in the Isle of Wight was the longest and most vigorous. The result has been a major victory for the island, because the right hon. Lady's predecessor recognised that the most important section of our line, from Ryde to Shanklin, which carries the majority of our tourist traffic, should be retained.

It is interesting to note, though, that it is to be modernised, and in passing it is interesting to see what the Government mean when they refer to modernisation, because our 1876 locomotives are to be replaced by ex-London passenger tube trains which are 40 years old. If that is the Government's idea of modernisation, it is small wonder that production in this country is stagnating.

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

It is also interesting to note that under the Conservative 1962 Transport Act and the terms of reference given to Dr. Beeching all the Isle of Wight railways were to be closed down, and not modernised at all.

Mr. Woodnutt

I do not see the point of that intervention. Dr. Beeching made recommendations which were within his terms of reference.

Mr. Swingler

Given by the Conservative Government.

Mr. Woodnutt

He was given terms of reference by the Conservative Government, and he carried them out. I have great respect for Dr. Beeching. I am sorry that he has left British Railways. He carried out his terms of reference and made certain recommendations, and it was then up to the Government of the day to say whether these should be implemented.

My point is that the Conservative Government never said that these suggestions should be implemented in the Isle of Wight. It was the Labour Government who made that decision. [Laughter.] I do not know why the Minister is laughing. This is a question of fact. At the time of the last General Election no decision had been made by the Government about the Isle of Wight railways. The decision has been made by this Government and I have said that the Government have decided that the Ryde-Shanklin line should remain—for which I thank them, because this was our major problem.

The Government have said that the line from Shanklin to Ventnor is to be closed, and that the whole of the Ryde-Newport-Cowes section is to be closed. I was going on to talk about modernisation when the hon. Member butted in. I was pointing out that modernisation, in the eyes of hon. Members opposite, seemed to be to replace 1876 stock with stock built in 1927.

I have three comments to make on these decisions. First, we are thankful that the island is to retain the Ryde-Shanklin line, because this is the most important one. Secondly, although we do not agree that the Ryde-Newport-Cowes line could not be made economically viable we accept that it is possible to provide a road alternative—difficult as it may be—and we are, therefore, accepting this decision and shall make the most of it.

Thirdly, we deplore the closure of the section from Shanklin to Ventnor, on three grounds. The first of these is a national ground, because it will prove to be a waste of public money; the second is a local ground, because it will cause hardship in Ventnor and, as a result, throughout the whole of the island; and the third is that Her Majesty's Government will not be fulfilling the provisions of the Transport Act, in permitting this section of line to close on 18th April next.

I want to deal with the national grounds first. The Isle of Wight County Council, the Chamber of Commerce, the Southern Region of British Railways and myself have had a series of meetings over the last few months. Southern Region has been extremely co-operative in producing the figures that we required and in helping us to reach a correct assessment of the situation. We have arrived at figures on which we are all agreed. To modernise the length of line from Ryde to Shanklin will cost £456,000. To modernise the extra stretch from Shanklin to Ventnor will cost £80,000. That will be the cost of electrification to run from Shanklin to Ventnor.

The Ministry of Transport's divisional road engineer has agreed with the county council's highways surveyor in the Isle of Wight that road improvements and alterations to the terminal points which are necessary at Shanklin Station and Ventnor in order to run the extra bus service will cost £100,000. This is simply as a result of the railway closure. It will be no good the Parliamentary Secretary saying to me, as his colleague has said, that the extra benefit accrues to road users. This is not so in this case, because this £100,000 is specifically agreed by his divisional road engineer to be attributable to the railway closure only, and 70 per cent. of it is to form a new access to Shanklin Station, which has nothing to do with road use.

Therefore, it will cost an extra £20,000 of public money, which is 25 per cent. more than the cost of modernisation, to provide the alternative bus service. It strikes me as being absolutely ridiculous—considering the national interest—that one should abandon a small section of railway line and put on another form of service so that it costs the public purse £20,000 more than leaving things just as they are. When I think of this, I wonder to what extent it is being done throughout the rest of the country.

The Parliamentary Secretary will no doubt tell me, "You are just comparing the two sets of capital figures and not comparing the recurring loss which will occur if we run the railway on." I have looked into this as well. On figures which we in the Isle of Wight have agreed with the railways, running a modernised line from Ryde to Shanklin will show a profit. The figures also show that modernising the line that little extra distance to Ventnor will incur a small loss but will still leave a net profit on a modernised line right the way to Ventnor.

In any event, the calculations which the railways' representatives have produced to us assume that, if the line is cut off at Ventnor, they will retain 90 per cent. of the traffic which formerly went all the way. We believe that, if people have to get into a bus and go through the circuitous roads to Ventnor, they will not retain but will lose that 90 per cent. In our opinion, therefore, it is necessary to run the line all the way to Ventnor in order to make it show a profit.

It is worth bearing in mind that 25 per cent. of the income of that line from Ryde to Ventnor is derived from passengers who are either travelling to or coming from the town of Ventnor itself. Another thing to remember if the Minister makes this point to me—as I have no doubt he will—is that, if that section of line is closed, it will be necessary to make a subvention to the bus company.

Everyone I have asked remains remarkably mute about this and it is impossible to get any sort of figure, but the figure which I have unofficially obtained is about £10,000 per annum. If this is correct, the Government will be crazy to permit British Railways to close that section of the line and pay a subvention to the bus company of £10,000, which is far greater than the wildest estimate of the loss which British Railways reckon they will incur on the Shanklin to Ventnor stretch.

My second reason is local grounds. In the height of the season in the Isle of Wight on peak Saturdays no fewer than 11,000 people in the one day go into and out of the town of Shanklin and through the little railway station. I have been there Saturday after Saturday to see, and 10 years ago I lived in the town, and I assure the hon. Member that traffic conditions are chaotic. If the line is stopped at Shanklin and a mass of buses are brought in to take people to Ventnor, then 6,000 extra people will be pushed through that station at Shanklin. This will result in utter chaos. To transport 6,000 people by bus to and from Shanklin and Ventnor will require 150 bus journeys each day. Over a 10-hour period, that is 15 buses an hour, for one every four minutes.

This would be a great problem in the town of Shanklin. The streets are narrow and winding, and suddenly to have an extra bus every four minutes, in addition to the traffic already going through the town, would cause deplorable traffic conditions. People would not travel by that route again. This is the very real worry of the people of Ventnor, which lives on tourist traffic—that people will not go there again. For this reason alone the decision to close this length of line is callous and inconsiderate.

Thirdly, the Government will not be fulfilling the provisions of the Transport Act. It is my understanding that railway lines may not be closed unless an adequate alternative has been provided. It is planned that this line shall close on 18th April, and the Minister's divisional road engineer for the Isle of Wight has agreed that £100,000 must be spent on an alternative access to Shanklin station, on widening the roads and carrying out improvements in the town of Ventnor and on providing bus shelters—which do not exist at present—for the extra 6,000 people who will travel daily. This cannot be done by 18th April, and if it cannot be done, then it is untrue to say that an adequate alternative service will be provided. When I saw the right hon. Lady about four weeks ago I asked her to impose one condition—that all the work which it has been agreed between the county highways surveyor and her divisional road engineer should be done, in fact must be done before the railway closes.

I have a few further short points to make. First, when the right hon. Lady's predecessor made the decision to close these lines he based his decision on inaccurate figures supplied by Southern Region. I wrote to the Minister fully about this on 29th November and I submitted to her figures which we in the Isle of Wight had subsequently agreed with the Southern Region. They had overestimated the cost of modernisation and they had over-estimated the expected receipts on the Ryde to Shanklin line, assuming that they closed Shanklin-Ventnor. There is a big difference between the figures. I believe that the decision based on the inaccurate figures was wrong and that the Minister should look at it again in the light of the new figures.

Secondly, when I saw the Minister she promised me that when she received the inspector's report after the appeal by Ventnor U.D.C. had been heard, she would take account of the representations which I had made. Obviously, she cannot do this unless the line is kept open, and all I ask is that until the inspector's report has been received and she has considered it with the representations that I have made, the line should remain open, whatever British Railways say about closing it on 18th April.

It is ridiculous, anyway, to close a railway line in a summer resort on 18th April, when the place is approaching the profitability period, just when it is working up to its peak. It is far better that the line should remain open during the summer months when the maximum throughput of traffic is available, and that if it is closed it should be closed in October.

I quite understand that the hon. Gentleman will tell me that under the law the Minister cannot change her decision. I know this, but what the Minister can do is to impose the condition that I have suggested which will have the effect of at least postponing the closure of this railway until after the summer season, during which time we shall all have time to think again.

The Labour candidate at the last election, on the Saturday before polling day, put advertisements in all the newspapers stating, "Vote Labour and save the island railway from Tory massacre." In his election address he also implied that if we had a Labour Government the island railway would not close. He said, "The lifeline should not be cut." The Government now propose to cut Ventnor's lifeline. This is another broken election pledge, and I suggest that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary should do something about it.

3.47 a.m.

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

I hope that the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Woodnutt) will forgive me if, at this late hour, I do not take up a great deal of time. I express that hope with the more confidence as he had a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport as recently as 3rd February, when many of these issues were canvassed. I think that he had a very full hearing—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I understand that the hon. Gentleman has spoken before in this debate. If so, he can speak again only with the leave of the House.

Mr. Morris

If I may have the leave of the House, Mr. Speaker, I should be grateful if I could have the opportunity of replying to the hon. Gentleman. If I may say so, this is the third time that I have spoken in the debate on the Bill.

Since the hon. Gentleman had a very full hearing with the Minister, I think there are only one or two points that were outstanding following that meeting. The hon. Gentleman referred to the Beeching Report and to the proposals therein, and to the 1962 Act. He will recall that his colleagues, then sitting on this side of the House, trooped into the Lobby in support of the 1962 Act and of the Beeching proposals. I may be able to exonerate the hon. Gentleman on that score, but certainly all his colleagues went into the Lobby in support of the Act and of the Beeching proposals.

I think that my right hon. Friend who preceded the present Minister made a very wise decision in keeping the lifeline of the Isle of Wight open. Certainly, it was far more than was contemplated by the right hon. Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples), when he came to the House in support of the Beeching proposals in the debates that we had in the 1960s. I do not propose to enter into a lengthy discussion of these matters. The hon. Gentleman knows full well that a decision has been taken and that once a decision has been taken the Minister has no further power in regard to that decision.

Mr. Woodnutt

I accept that the Minister has no power to alter a decision already taken under the 1962 Act, but his right hon. Friend could impose conditions.

Mr. Morris

I entirely agree. When he made his decision my right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser) imposed conditions. Those conditions were set out in the letter containing her decision. That was the limit of his powers under the 1962 Act. In the next Parliament, when we annul the evil effects of the 1962 Act, I trust that we shall have the hon. Gentleman's support.

All the Minister can do is to vary the conditions of consent to secure, for example, improvements in the extra alternative services. Since the traffic commissioners have licensed the bus services, they must be presumed to have been satisfied with the condition of the roads. Because of the possibility of appeal to my right hon. Friend, I cannot go further on this aspect. If the hon. Gentleman produces concrete evidence to show that essential needs will not be met by the services provided for in the conditions, the Minister will be most anxious to vary the terms of the consent and provide extra bus or any other services that might be required.

Mr. Woodnutt

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that remark. I was present at the hearing when the traffic commissioners were there. We asked for certain conditions to be imposed. The bus company and the railways said that they would meet those conditions, but the traffic commissioners decided not to make that a condition of the licence, despite the bus company and railways saying that they would meet our request. Would the hon. Gentlemen not agree that, in these circumstances, this should now be made a condition? He said that if I could supply concrete evidence his right hon. Friend would be prepared to make con- ditions. Would he consider these points, if I put them to his right hon. Friend tomorrow or the day after, and impose further conditions?

Mr. Morris

I do not wish to raise false hopes. There are two different matters here. First, regarding the provision of alternative services, conditions are imposed by the Minister in granting consent to the closure of the railway. Secondly, if concrete evidence is available, as I have explained, the Minister can vary the terms of her conditions. The traffic commissioners represent a different body, independent in status. They can impose whatever conditions they think fit, or no conditions at all, on a licence to operate a bus. The Minister has a different role. If there is an appeal my right hon. Friend sits in an appellate capacity, and it would be wrong for me to comment on her jurisdiction in that matter.

To deal briefly with the main point raised by the hon. Gentleman, first, the road improvements on the Shanklin-Ventnor route were not part of the conditions of consent to the closure. Secondly, improvements were included anyway in the county council's long-term plans for roadworks on the island. Thirdly, the decision to invite the council to put in proposals now was equivalent to an acceleration in time of works, which would have been carried out sometime anyway. Accordingly, there is no question of comparing alternative forms of investment. Fourthly, the cost of the roadworks is not likely to exceed the notional cost of modernising the railway.

Both would be about £100,000. The details of the roadworks are being discussed between the county council and the D.R.E. I have just received information showing that the roadworks could be as low as £70,000 or over £100,000, depending on what was included, but £100,000 can be taken as a working figure. The hon. Member appears to be under the misapprehension that most of the money would be needed for improving the station approach at Shanklin as a necessary consequence of efficient working of the rail-bus interchange there. This is not so. All the work is part of the improvement of the through route. The amount of money estimated for the part of the route nearest to the station is very small—I am given to understand that it is about £10,000.

The hon. Gentleman may attribute £60,000 to the work near the station, but all this is for a realigning of the route out of Shanklin. This is perhaps the misapprehension from which, during the course of his remarks, the hon. Gentleman appeared to be suffering.