HC Deb 25 July 1967 vol 751 cc450-64

9.33 p.m.

Mr. Roland Moyle (Lewisham, North)

I welcome the opportunity of the Consolidated Fund Bill to raise the question of commuter travelling conditions in south-east London and the capacity which the line is able to take as a result of the bottleneck at Borough Market Junction.

Yesterday, we were considering child poverty. In making my plea this evening to my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, I shall have to be careful to avoid giving the impression that I am assembling a mere series of groans and minor irritations by a lot of people, the sort of thing that is not difficult to discover in any walk of life, and trying to make a case based upon them. I accept that in any specific instance the irritation is often minor and can be borne by the great majority of our fellow citizens as part of the normal run of life, but the sum total of all the irritations amounts to a fairly serious social problem.

I speak with experience of the railway system which I wish to discuss, because for eight years before becoming a Member of Parliament I commuted daily up to London in the morning and back from London in the evening. I can, therefore, say with great justification, although as a youngish man enjoying, generally speaking, the rudest of rude health, that I found the experience over the years wearing. I am sure that people of middle age find it extremely exhausting. It is the sort of problem that we should try to solve.

I can set my hon. Friend's mind at rest by saving that I do not intend to indulge in railway management technicalities. I want to give a consumer's eye view of the problem as I and my constituents see it and to consider the sort of solutions which can be found for the problem.

Obviously, on a commuter line anywhere near London the trains are packed. This is not an unusual experience in travelling to and from work in London. It is the normal experience. There are some grounds for saying that the South-East regional commuter services into London Bridge, Charing Cross and Cannon Street form the busiest stretch of railway line in the world. But the problem to this extent is only one of a difference of degree.

Of course, one of the things which distinguishes this line and commuting on it from commuting, say, north of the river, is that it is an overground line and, from that point of view, as well as being intensely overcrowded it is subject to the vagaries of the weather. First, it is subject to fog, and this causes train delays. Secondly, it is subject to delay by frost, snow and many other things.

I want to emphasise what a train delay means. If a train coming along the Bexleyheath line to Charing Cross is delayed, it picks up at Bexleyheath and the stations surrounding it not only its own load of passengers, but also the load of passengers that would have caught the following train. As a result, when it gets to the inner ring of stations contained in my constituency, such as Ladywell, Lewisham Junction, Blackheath, the train is so crowded that people in Blackheath must choose between thrusting themselves into a compartment which is so literally packed tight that they cannot move their arms or waiting, not only for the next train but until the entire rush hour is over so that they can catch a reasonably empty train with room to move.

Not only because of the vagaries of the weather, but even because of technical considerations, one often finds the service interrupted—for example, by points failures. To arrive at a station and to be told that the trains are being delayed by a points failure in the system is not uncommon. Track maintenance has to be carried out and this also imposes its own delays on the system. In fact, I go a little further and say that, even in the finest of summer weather, delays are not uncommon and can make people an hour or two late home in the evening or an hour or so late for work in the morning.

There was the famous week in high summer some years ago. On the Monday morning, the train system was thrown out of order by a train being derailed at Borough Market Junction. On the Tuesday, the whole system was thrown out of order because there was a violent thunderstorm and one or two stations were flooded heavily. On the Wednesday, as the result of the storm of the previous day, the embankment slipped and a landslide blocked the railway track. On the Thursday, believe it or not, there was an announcement that the whole system had been thrown out of gear because a lorry was across the line. I have always been grateful to the Evening Standard for publishing a picture of the lorry across the line, because I would not have believed it had I not seen it.

Frequently—about half a dozen times a winter—one arrives at Charing Cross to make one's journey home only to find that the train system has been thrown out of order and the forecourt is jammed tight with tired City humanity trying to get home and enjoy what remains of the day at their ease. I suppose that one should advise people not to pack the forecourt to that extent. Nevertheless, this seems to be a continuing trait in human nature and has existed for as many years as I can remember. Physical movement becomes very exhausting, particularly for the more elderly of the commuters. On these occasions many try to avoid travelling home by rail. This entails switching to the buses, but all the buses have vast queues wrapped round the blocks. It entails a long bus journey home by a roundabout and unfamiliar route or possibly an equally long journey through the East End by tube. All this adds to the wear and tear of commuting.

When there is severe frost and fog in the winter it has been known for the railway system on occasions to cease to function altogether. There have been several occasions in the past three or four years when, having got to the station, I have found that the trains are not running and that other arrangements have to be made either to get to or from work. Understandably, therefore, the service provided is one which is received without appreciation and which some seem to render without pride.

On top of the technical difficulties which are sometimes caused on the line and the vagaries of the weather which assault it, it has its fair measure of industrial disputes and unrest. I speak not so much of the occasional one-day strikes which have upset the line, but at one stage at least two or three times a year there were go-slows and periods of work to rule by the staff—in some cases for very good reasons. Many of the experts in labour relations in British Railways felt that the motor men, who were the prime movers in these things, had a reasonable case to argue. Nevertheless, it had its effect on the regularity and smoothness of working of the line.

It can best be summed up in this way. When I announced my intention, shortly before the 1966 General Election, of becoming a candidate for Parliament, a number of my friends were led to question my sanity. I used to pull their legs by explaining that it was the only way I could avoid commuting up to London and back again for the rest of my working days. What surprised me was the number of people who seemed to take this point seriously. I am given to understand that there are some who believe that the Leader of the House, plus the rights of the Opposition to oppose, combine to impose upon us very unfortunate working hours and conditions. I accept these conditions with a great deal of fortitude, because so long as we continue to work these hours I shall be able to enjoy a gracious and calm journey home in off-peak periods.

Are these all really hardships? Do they amount to a social problem? I think that they do, and I should like to give one example to illustrate this point of view. In 1965 we had a go-slow on this stretch of line covering North Kent and south-east London to Charing Cross and Cannon Street. As a result of this go-slow there was a homeward train in the evening standing at a platform at Charing Cross for about half an hour. Someone announced over the loudspeaker that the driver for that train was on another train which had not yet come in. What was not explained—

Mr. Speaker

With respect, all this seems to be mostly day-to-day administra- tion for which the Minister is not directly responsible.

Mr. Moyle

I accept that many of the points I am making relate to day-to-day administration. On the other hand, they all rest upon the provision of capital, for which the Minister is responsible. The particular point that I am trying to make will illustrate the seriousness of the problem for which capital has to be provided to bring about a solution. I intend to state the case for the provision of capital for certain portions of this line.

Mr. Speaker

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will soon come to it.

Mr. Moyle

I just wanted to conclude this illustration by saying that when the unfortunate driver arrived, he had to be escorted up the platform by a policeman and was subject to the abuse of people in the railway carriages. As he passed my compartment, one of the passengers made an attempt to assault him physically. This is a serious situation and it begins to show that an important problem has to be solved.

Why do I raise this issue at this time? Here, I turn to the point which you are anxious that I should make, Mr. Speaker. Although I would not agree that these conditions have existed since 1189, they have certainly existed since time from which the memory of man runneth not to the contrary, in the good old legal phrase, but the situation has been highlighted by recent attempts by the Southern Region to solve this problem on its own. I have every sympathy with the management in this respect. It has made a major attempt to solve the problem, but the context within which it is working is too narrow for it to provide a proper solution.

I can describe the railway system in this part of London simply. There is a widespread, fan-shaped system spreading all over south-east London and a large part of the south-east Home Counties and as the lines approach London Bridge and New Cross they narrow into about 15 or 20 tracks running on a high carriageway until they get to London Bridge Station, where the whole system is narrowed down to eight tracks. Beyond London Bridge Station at the Borough Market Junction, where the trains for Cannon Street and Charing Cross separate, the whole system is reduced to four parallel tracks.

This means that the whole of the commuting traffic system for south-east London and the south-east Home Counties can carry only the amount of train and passenger traffic which can be forced through those four lines at the Borough Market Junction. The result has been that British Railways have endeavoured so to organise their time tables that they can take as many trains as possible on this stretch of lines.

The point is well put in a letter from the divisional manager to a constituent of mine, saying: As I have said already we have had to make use of the available capacity in order to incorporate additional trains in the new timetable and it has therefore been necessary to run more trains fast through New Cross and London Bridge to obtain maximum utilisation of the tracks in the London area. That is the nub of the problem and the techniques which have been used for solving it are running trains from the outer London suburbs straight through London Bridge to Charing Cross and Cannon Street omitting stops at the inner London stations. It also means that there is a minority of people who have been adversely affected, particularly in the inner London suburbs, such as the North Lewisham area. As a result of my mail, I am almost driven to conclude that the entire minority which British Railways say may suffer as a result of the new timetables is concentrated in North Lewisham.

Another thing which has led to a certain amount of bunching of trains is that technically, although one gets three or four or even five trains per hour between two points, a close examination of the timetable will show that they are all bunched into one half or one quarter of the hour, leaving gaps of about 40 minutes for the remainder of the time, during which people cannot travel.

The answer of British Railways is that one must make provision during these long gaps to catch a train and change at London Bridge. But this is just twisting another knife in the wound. A typical journey to work for one of my constituents involves catching a packed bus from near his home to the station, changing from the bus into a packed train, travelling to one of the London termini, getting out of the train and catching a bus or tube at the other end near his destina- tion, with waits in possibly inclement weather in exposed positions. The whole thing is carried out in rush and confusion and repeated in the evening. This can be very wearing, particularly for people over 50, and even those under 50 can begin to notice it after a long period.

Changing at London Bridge is no simple matter. One gets in at one's particular platform, but one has to change. However, one does not know from which platform the next train is coming, so one usually takes up a position on the bridge, so that one can jump from one side to another as the case may be. Sometimes one gets there and the train is already in at another platform, and so one rushes madly over the bridge to catch the train, only to find that the people on the other side are rushing madly to catch your train.

This leads to a situation where an irresistible force meets an immovable object, somewhere about the middle of the bridge, and it is all very wearing and tiring. How are we to solve the problem? The whole essence of the problem is that the Railway Board is trying to put a quart into a pint pot, because of the inadequate capacity of the Borough Market Junction, to serve the entire system. This is the key to the problem.

With all respect to the Railways Board, and the Minister, the position will get far worse as the years go by. There is a continuous movement of people out from the centre of London, from the inner suburbs to the outer suburbs and from outer suburbs to areas in Kent and Sussex. It has been calculated that there might be a movement of about 300,000 people to the other suburbs, and a movement of about 400,000 people to the areas in Kent and Sussex.

This will lead to an increase in the commuter problem. More commuters will be trying to get to the packed trains going through London Bridge, and will be trying to pass through London Bridge to Charing Cross and Cannon Street. The system will probably be totally unable to carry it. Even if one does not want to project one's thoughts as far forward as I am doing, one has to have regard to the nearer practical problems.

The Greater London Council is building a new town of 60,000 people on the Erith Marshes, to be known as Thames-mead. I am happy to say that, with considerable foresight, it is making plans for a large majority of the working population to work in Thamesmead. On the other hand, when I was councillor on the London Borough of Greenwich, the scheme was still for about 8,000 people living in Thamesmead to work in Central London.

It was assumed that of those 8,000, about 2,000 would travel up by bus, and 6,000 would want to travel by train. According to my calculations, this means introducing an extra four trains through London Bridge during every rush hour, morning and evening. This is not the full extent of the problem, because a similar new town of a smaller nature, is to be built on the old aerodrome at Kidbrooke. This, I believe, will mean another two trains in the rush hours.

How the system will handle this, I do not know. The residents in southeast England have now reached the point where they are beginning to draw up their own schemes for improving the capacity of Borough Market Junction to handle the traffic and are passing them on to me. I have passed them to the British Railways Board. For private people to give up their time to draw up, not a simple scheme, but a fairly complex and technical document, they must be very seriously worried about the conditions which they have to face.

No doubt the argument which will be put forward is that any proposal to increase the capacity of Borough Market junction will require substantial capital sums which cannot be provided. But if we could get people to work much more quickly, much more comfortably and much fresher, the nation would reap the benefit of the capital investment over a period of years in terms of increased effort when they got to their offices, shops or whatever may be their place of work. The trouble is that we cannot calculate these benefits and set them against the capital expenditure required. It would be a good idea if the British Railways Board attempted to assess some of the social improvements which would result from this scheme to offset against the capital expended.

It must be 20 years ago when my father was a Member of the House and I joined him here one evening. We got the last train to Bexleyheath. There was a group of us and we fell to discussing that common subject in south-east London, the commuting services. We all earnestly concluded that the trouble with the south-east London commuting services was the bottleneck at Borough Market Junction. I hasten to add, to protect his memory, that my father did not represent a south-east London constituency. As I say, 20 years have elapsed and we have had a couple of timetable changes. My worry is that in 20 years' time, when my son has grown to full manhood, he might be concluding a discussion on the commuting services of south-east London and earnestly agreeing with everybody around him that the trouble with the system is the bottleneck at Borough Market Junction.

I should like to know what plans the Government have and what they intend to do about this problem. Last August, I put a Written Question to the Minister of Transport asking what she intended to do about it. The Answer which I received from the Parliamentary Secretary was that there had been approval of a £500,000 capital sum to improve the situation. It may be that my constituents are being unfair. All that I can say is that if a Gallup Poll were held among them this week they would all conclude by saying that they had not noticed the difference. The problem is large, but I think that it is about time that a scheme was evolved to solve it.

9.58 p.m.

Mr. R. W. Brown (Shoreditch and Finsbury)

I should like to endorse the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. Moyle) about the problems of travelling in south-east London. I ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to consider the problem south of London Bridge. The part that London Bridge as a crossing of the river should play in the future road arrangements in the area is very uncertain. As far as one can ascertain, it is likely to be not a trunk route but merely a feeder to the City area and the area south of London Bridge.

It seems to me that the proposed size for the new London Bridge—that is, six vehicle lanes instead of the present four—might prove to be too large and, furthermore, to form an attraction to through traffic. The main route for through traffic is likely to be by means of a tunnel parallel to Tower Bridge. Therefore, before the positioning of the southern end of the bridge is decided, the study being undertaken by the London Borough of Southwark, together with the G.L.C., should be allowed to come to fruition.

The study is being undertaken with a view to defining a comprehensive development area under the Town Planning Acts. The area contains much of great historic value as well as constituting a commercial centre of great importance to London. It includes the Borough Market, one of London's great fruit and vegetable markets, an enormous amount of wharfage and related storage accommodation through which large imports of food flow into the southern part of England. It also contains Southwark Cathedral, Guy's Hospital and London Bridge railway station.

The study will reappraise the use of the land and make projections for the use of the land as well as the evolution of a traffic and pedestrian network. The area at present is a great jumble of buildings and highways. Therefore, any decision which is taken on the form of the new bridge without knowing the results of the study would, it seems to me, prejudge the conclusions of the comprehensive investigation and the design of the bridge and might not be compatible with requirements disclosed by the study.

Existing traffic can get on and off the bridge reasonably easily. The congestion is caused not by the bridge, but by the approaches at either end of the bridge. Priority, in improving traffic flow, seems to lie not so much with the bridge but with the roads leading to it and the road junctions at either end.

The study is designed to survey an area which, I believe, should be considered before any decision is made on the bridge. It takes in an area bounded by Southwark Bridge Road, Lant Street, Long Lane, Tower Bridge Road and the river. This area includes the London Bridge station complex, Guy's Hospital, Borough Market and Southwark Cathedral precinct. The study will cover the general planning problems in this congested area lying between the South Bank comprehensive development area to the west and the Bermondsey comprehensive development area to the east. The study will deal with the traffic and transport problems, bus routes, circulation of pedestrians and redevelopment with all its economic implications.

When the study is completed, it is hoped to prepare planning proposals with a view to defining action areas within the study area and to decide which authority should be responsible for implementing them. I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will realise that if the new bridge is to go ahead at a cost of from £2½ million to £3½ million before one knows what should happen at the southern end of the bridge, it would seem to me to be a gross waste of money, because, at best, it will have to be modified when the improvements which are required are known. If, therefore, it were possible to wait until the study had been made, one could design this sort of bridge with the pedestrian precincts which it requires and get the sort of outlet and inlet to the bridge which one desires.

I therefore urge my hon. Friend to address himself to the problem. I cannot expect him tonight to answer the detailed issues, but I draw the problem to his attention because I believe it to be urgent. I hope that his Department will investigate the situation urgently to ensure that before London Bridge is rebuilt, we know what will happen at the southern end.

10.4 p.m.

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

I welcome the opportunity to reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. Moyle) and also to my hon. Friend the Member for Shore-ditch and Finsbury (Mr. R. W. Brown) on the question of travel facilities for commuters in certain areas of this great city.

There is just one personal explanation I should like to make before I come to the main part of my reply. In the ordinary way I have no occasion to use the facilities, such as they are, at London Bridge Station or Borough Market Junction, but since I have occupied this position I have made it my business to become acquainted with the position in which commuters are placed in these areas; that is to say, I have made it my business to travel as an ordinary traveller through London Bridge Station at the peak hours and to study by personal observation are interchange facilities at these places.

I make no great point of that, because I do not have the daily experience, thank goodness, of that, but nevertheless, I would not like anybody to say that I am just speaking from a cold brief; I am well aware of the problems and difficulties and hardships which are experienced, and, therefore, I readily agree with many of the criticisms which have been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, North, in the main burden of his speech.

I must say, first, that the planning and operation of the rail services in general in the Metropolis is a matter for British Railways themselves. It is true that plans for improvements requiring substantial investment must come to my right hon. Friend for approval, but my right hon. Friend has no direct power to initiate plans for improvements. That is a responsibility which correctly, is placed upon the managers of the nationalised railways. Therefore, what I have to say on this subject is necessarily limited.

It is in some ways a curious time to raise this old, long-standing problem, the capacity of Southern Region commuter services. Indeed, my hon. Friend recognised this in a fashion in his speech. As he knows, as recently as 10th July, Southern Region of British Railways introduced a completely new timetable for the commuter services. It is not necessary for me to say that there have been teething troubles. Indeed, my right hon. Friend was on the very first day involved in some little local difficulty in this respect.

I should say that, of course, nobody is satisfied with the way in which thins have gone on the Southern Region in the last fortnight, least of all Southern Region management of British Railways themselves, but, of course, they warned the public that there would inevitably be difficulties in putting this vast reorganisation into effect, and it is a fact that they were very unlucky with certain technical failures, some of them mentioned by my hon. Friend, which made things additionally difficult in the first few days. I know that Southern Region management have been making the most strenuous efforts to put these things right, and as things settle down on the Southern Region I am sure that the benefits of the new timetable will become generally apparent. We should not allow these temporary difficulties to obscure the importance of this plan.

This plan, this retimetabling, provides for almost 20 per cent. more seats on trains arriving at Southern Region termini in the heaviest hour of the morning peak. That is a total of 36 more trains in the peak hours. There is a similar improvement in the evening peak as well. This reorganisation by timetabling has been based on the most painstaking studies over many years of the journeys which commuters make, and of their needs, including market surveys, and very wide consultation with the planning authorities. Thus, the increases have been concentrated where they are most needed on the South Eastern Division of the Region and particularly on Charing Cross, Cannon Street and Holborn Viaduct.

There have been suggestions that this is an attempt to obtain an improvement on the cheap, but I must point out that that is far from the case. It is true that it costs less than very many railway schemes, but, even so, as my hon. Friend mentioned, £500,000 has been spent on the associated works necessary to introduce this scheme. More important, it has produced an increase in capacity far greater and far sooner than would have been possible by any works at Borough Market Junction, for example.

I agree with my hon. Friend that Borough Market is a notorious bottleneck. For that reason, it attracted early attention some time ago, when schemes for expanding capacity were under consideration. But the difficulties and expense of further expansion here are formidable and, from the studies which have been carried out, I am afraid that the respective benefits are comparatively small. The possible increase in capacity is about 10 per cent. of train paths through London Bridge, and that compares very poorly with the 20 per cent. over the whole region which, as I have mentioned, the retimetabling carried out recently is designed to achieve.

It is obvious that engineering works at such a focal point in the system would cause widespread disruption of services while they were carried out, and it is absolutely sure that the works would take some years to carry out, so that the disruption would be for quite a long time and certainly longer than the temporary disorganisation of services stemming from the new timetable.

Thus, it is reasonable that British Railways should look carefully into all possible alternatives before committing themselves to this project, and that is what they have been doing. They are now beginning to be able to make their plans against the background of the London Transportation Study and with the benefit of the cross-fertilisation of ideas which the establishment of the Transport Coordinating Council for London set up by my right hon. Friend has made possible.

There are one or two facts about commuting problems which I should bring out. It is widely assumed, and it was implied in part of my hon. Friend's speech, that commuter travel into London is still growing. In fact, the London Transportation Study and other work now being done have shown that this is not the case, and that over the past few years there has been a decline in commuting to Central London. However, within the declining total, there can be quite big increases in commuting by particular forms of transport and on particular lines, and that is true of parts of the Southern Region.

My hon. Friend mentioned the coming into existence of the new town of Thames-mead. It is estimated that, when complete, there will be 8,000 more commuters to Central London on a line which, as he said, is very busy already. I can assure him that British Railways are already planning very actively to meet that growth in demand. However, their planning in this respect is not yet complete.

I do not wish in any way to rule out a possible improvement at Borough Market and London Bridge. But a better alternative may well be to develop latent capacity which we know exists at other terminals. Such a scheme would, like the Borough Market scheme, cost many millions of pounds. There is no doubt that these schemes are bound to be very expensive, but the Region believes that it would deal with commuter problems in a much better way than previously considered alternatives, and I think that we must await the outcome of its planning.

Nor, of course, do developments of the Southern Region exhaust the possibilities of improving commuter services south of the Thames. There are projects for extending the Victoria Line south of the river to Brixton, and, in the longer term, and with more direct relevance to travel in the South East, for building the Fleet line southwards to Lewisham.

These are all part of the extensive plans which are at present under consideration for the improvement of public transport in the capital, and I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury—I said that I could not reply to him off the cuff—that we will consider the points that he has made about the bridge.

I am conscious of the importance of the subject which my hon. Friend has raised, and the need to improve, in places where it is most necessary, the capital equipment and facilities for commuter travel in the capital. I assure my hon. Friend that whether or not the Borough Market project comes to fruition, this objective of investing in the basic improvement of public transport in the capital is uppermost in our minds.