HC Deb 12 June 1967 vol 748 cc50-61

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

12.30 p.m.

Mr. Victor Yates (Birmingham, LadyWood)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a question that has caused more widespread anxiety and dissatisfaction in the city of Birmingham than I can remember during the time that I have represented part of the city in this House—over 21 years. It is the matter of the unsatisfactory arrangements for railway passengers in Birmingham, pending the Minister's decision regarding the future of Snow Hill Station. I can understand that the Minister will tell me that the Ministry of Transport has no responsibility for certain day-to-day measures and that this is a matter for the British Railways Board.

I am raising matters of such serious concern that I hope that the Minister will not dismiss this merely by referring to the powers of the Ministry. Some months ago the Minister of Transport received a deputation from a number of Members of Parliament in the Birmingham and Midlands area and representatives of local authorities. At that time the Minister was warned that there were grave fears about the closing of Snow Hill Station. Then I had not quite made up my mind about the matter. I thought that there may be a good deal to be said for the closing of the station.

Now, after the experience of the last few months, I am fully convinced that Snow Hill Station should not be closed. The more I go into the matter, the more I am convinced of it. If the Minister is considering closing a station that station ought to be able to run normally, apart from changes in the trains, without measures which create considerable inconvenience. What the British Railways Board did, while the Minister was considering this matter, was to close every entrance to the station except the most unpopular one. I have appealed for the front entrance to be kept open. The present entrance, which is most inconvenient, could be closed. To alter a station in this way is to some extent to prejudice the whole consideration of the matter. If the Railways Board had it in mind to deliberately sabotage the Minister's consideration of the matter, it could not have done better than it is doing now.

Anyone who knows Birmingham will know that the decision to keep Moor Street Station open was not a good one. It is most inaccessible and is not the solution to the problem. If I were to quote from the large number of letters that I have received, more than I have received on any subject since I became a Member, apart from one or two major national issues, I should need much more time.

I wish to give three quotations from letters. The first is from the managing director of a firm in my constituency, who says: For years I have travelled to Birmingham Snow Hill, and in fact I am a season ticket holder of some 35 years, although I have lived in Dorridge for eight years … and as you know Birmingham well, and you will see that from Moor Street the distance I have to walk is almost treble. I am sure that the majority of travellers have been inconvenienced likewise. This diversion to Moor Street was done without any reference to users, in a most arbitrary manner. A resident of Stourbridge has sent me a letter, in which he says: Due to a derailment on the curve at Smethwick West on Wednesday, May 31st, all Hereford, Worcester, Kidderminster, Stourbridge and intermediate station trains were diverted to Snow Hill. What a good job it was available. What an inconvenience it was, because there is no bus service from one station to another, and it means crossing Birmingham at its most crowded area. The letter continues: To close the front entrance of Snow Hill is a vicious and dictatorial action, to cause inconvenience to the public. I have put representations to the Ministry. The trade unions, public servants and people in Birmingham are utterly disgusted at the arrangements which have been made. Another constituent writes, and this is a copy of a letter sent to the divisional manager: Prior to the partial closure of Snow Hill station my total travelling time in the morning from my home in Prospect Lane, Solihull, to my factory in Warstone Lane, Birmingham, was not more than 35 minutes and the return journey in the evening also took 35 minutes. My minimum time for travelling in the mornings is now 50 minutes", and owing to delays in trains, it is often 75 minutes each way.

One can add much more to all of this inconvenience. As a result of closing Snow Hill there will be no direct service to the Welsh coast, or to the south coast. There were services from Snow Hill to Bournemouth and Brighton.

I wish to refer now to New Street. It is beyond my comprehension how planners can plan a station in this way. I have had the pleasure of travelling from London to Birmingham, and at New Street there were two sections, where one could walk from the train to a taxi or to a bus. Now this has changed. The front entrance is closed, and a temporary staircase has been erected. In order to get to the station, one as to walk up 30 temporary wooden stairs, a long way over the roof, walk down 36 steps to the next level and to reach the station, down another 36 steps. So one has to go up 30 and down 72 steps.

This is temporary, and there has been such an outcry that the railway authorities have put a temporary entrance at the front. This is limited to between 8 a.m. and 9.30 a.m. and 4.30 p.m. to 6 p.m., so that other people travelling have to suffer this inconvenience. I cannot describe how inconvenient it is to old people and, people with families, particularly bearing in mind that there are escalators from the main station to the bridge. Those escalators do not work after half-past ten in the evening. I have been inconvenienced when travelling from London on a late train and having to carry heavy luggage up all these steps. It is unfair.

I ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to consider whether the temporary entrance to the station can remain open at all hours. Would he make representations to the Railways Board to ensure that in the ultimate planning of the station people will not have to tolerate this inconvenience? This entrance from New Street—he main centre of Birming-ham—is called" the hole in the wall". I should like to see the reconstruction of the station to provide for an entrance from New Street without the necessity of having to go up and down these steps. There are no down escalators, which is extraordinary for a modern station.

It is difficult to describe the inconvenience which is caused to the travelling public at this station. There is a tiny refreshment room which is not as big as one on Snow Hill Station. Last night I saw people standing up. I have even seen a policewoman giving first aid in this crowded tiny room. This is most unsatisfactory. There is no proper provision for the workers. There is no accommodation for the 253 drivers except in the old huts left by Bryants the builders.

The electric trains are good when they are in order, but there are evidently many technical difficulties. My experience has been unfortunate. I have travelled on them many times when they have not reached their destination on time. Last night my train was 20 minutes late and I had to wait 25 minutes for a taxi. The Railways Board seems to be obstructive and hostile to the approaches made by the travelling public.

The Minister will no doubt say that there is a body called the Transport Users' Consultative Committee. How is this committee constituted? My information is that there are 25 members of it and that not one-third of them use the railways. I do not see how people who do not use the railways can understand the indignity and inconvenience which is caused. Furthermore, the secretarial staff of the committee cannot be independent. It is housed in the same buildings as the Railways Board in Birmingham. I should have thought that, as so much inconvenience was caused, the first thing which this committee would do would be to consider the hardship to the public. The Minister, in reply to me, said that he did not know why the public did not consult the Transport Users' Consultative Committee. I should have thought that he would have inquired and would have insisted that it was most important that the committee should consider this matter.

It is in sorrow that I criticise what seems to me a very bad example of a nationalised industry. I have worked in private industry. I am sure that if private industries were guilty of causing such inconvenience to the public something would be done, and done speedily. Perhaps the station was opened before it was ready, but I am sure that a good deal of the inconvenience would be removed if people could use the alternative service at Snow Hill and be allowed to go through the front entrance instead of having to walk a long way. There is a strong case to be made for the opening of more entrances at the station, pending the Minister's consideration of the matter.

I hope that the Minister will not make a decision until very much more has been heard about the effect on the public of Birmingham. A city with a population of over one million is entitled to have reasonable transport facilities. If they are unsatisfactory, as is the case at present, more and more people will turn to the motor car. I do not think that the bus service is entirely satisfactory. Old people and people with children find it increasingly difficult to travel on the railways.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will take my remarks seriously and will deal with them today or will put them to the Minister. I beg the Minister not to make a final decision until much more has been heard about this matter. I should like to take a high-powered deputation from the whole of the Midlands to the Minister to show the dissatisfaction that there is on this matter. Trade unionists and the public are frustrated. There are large blocks of offices and banks in the centre of Birmingham to which the nearest approach is Snow Hill station. Having to get to these offices and banks by using the other station is causing grave inconvenience.

A lot more could be said on this subject, but I ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to give careful consideration to the matters which I have raised.

12.48 p.m.

Mr. Christopher Price (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I wish to back up some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. Victor Yates). It is probably right that, on financial grounds, British Railways should centralise station facilities in Birmingham. From that point of view, it is right to close Snow Hill; and I realise that many of the facilities at New Street are temporary and will get better.

I reinforce what my hon. Friend said about the entrances to New Street station, which are absolutely appalling. Many of the faults in the design of the station are emerging. Incidentally, it is one of the worst station designs I have seen in Europe. It is in what I would call the British public lavatory architecture tradition—and it is a very bad example of that. But the worst feature is the ascent of 30 steps and the crossing of what some people have described as the Siberian waste of the vast plateau on top of the station. So far we have seen what happens in the spring and summer. What this waste on the top of the station will be like during the coming mid-winter is impossible to imagine. I hope that other entrances will be opened by then.

Snow Hill Station is virtually closed already, and it is hypocritical to think that we have any proper closure procedure if the Railways Boards is able, by closing all reasonable entrances, to circumvent that procedure. I hope that we will get rid of this hypocrisy and force the Board to keep the station open until a decision has been made or at least ensure that that decision is soon enough to enable the Board to run its financial affairs properly.

12.50 p.m.

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

I have listened with great interest to the speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. Victor Yates) and Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Christopher Price). I know my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood has been very concerned with this issue over a substantial period. He has corresponded with me about it and has also raised it in conversation. I am glad that he has raised it today. I will try and reply in the short time I have available. Nearly all the matters my hon. Friends have raised are questions of management which, under the Transport Act, 1962, are made the sole responsibility of the Railways Board. That will be no surprise to my hon. Friend the Member for Ladywood. When we corresponded, I explained the position to him but I appreciate his wish nevertheless to have these matters aired in this House. Clearly, they are important questions and should be aired.

My hon. Friend stressed in particular the inconvenience that travellers are suffering following the Board's closing the main entrance at Snow Hill Station. It may be helpful if I explain to the House just why this is something on which it would be quite wrong for my right hon. Friend to try and intervene. As I have said, questions of this kind—that is, question of day to day management—are placed by the 1962 Act in the sole responsibility of the Board. There is only one proviso. If there are representations to the local Transport Users Consultative Committee and it refers the matter to the Central Committee which, in turn, makes a recommendation to the Minister, then and only then does my right hon. Friend have power to issue a direction to the Board. My hon. Friend is aware of that I believe.

In this case there were indeed representations to the T.U.C.C. and it considered them on 20th April. I do not know whether my hon. Friend knows that.

Mr. Victor Yates


Mr. Morris

This adds force to what I have to say. I understand that the Committee concluded that, in view of the Board's reasons for the closure—its desire to operate the revised services into Snow Hill as economically as it could, as part of its general anxiety to keep down the deficit—it could not support the representations.

There is therefore no question of any reference to the Central Committee or of any recommendation from that Committee to the Minister. In these circumstances I do not think it would be right for me to take up the time of the House by going into the merits of the question; the Board have made its management decision, the proper consumer body has studied the representations and has drawn its own conclusions.

My hon. Friend has suggested it would have been better if the T.U.C.C. had been told in advance about the changes. I think generally it is helpful to both the Committees and the Board if there is this sort of informal contact; though there is of course under the Act no obligation on the Board to do so. I understand the West Midland Committee do in fact find London Midland Region most helpful in answering their queries.

My hon. Friend also referred to the accesses to be provided at New Street Station. As the House will know, this station has been comprehensively re-built as part of London Midland Region's electrification programme. I had the privilege of going to the opening. I confess I am sorry that the occasion on which I should have to speak about the new station should be one of criticism, because I think in many ways the Board has done a magnificent job in producing a right up to date major terminus which accords so well with the new spirit of that great city.

But if detailed complaints have been made about the accesses it is right that they should be looked into. Here again the proper body for such examination is the Transport Users Consultative Committee, which is specifically charged with considering and, where desirable, making recommendations about any matters affecting the services and facilities provided by the Board which have been the subject of representations.

In fact in this case also the Committee has received representations. I know that it has been looking into them with great thoroughness and that members of the Committee have made a special investigation of the sites in question. But I could not tell the House what their conclusions might be. This is because the matter is still within the consultative machinery. If the Committee should decide to make a recommendation to the Central Committee, and that Committee in turn were to make one to the Minister then and only then would she have the power, if she thought fit, to intervene.

I can tell the House, however, that it was as a result of some suggestions by the Committee about the present temporary access from Stephenson Place that some practical improvements have been made, for example to the steps and to the handrails. I think this is a good example of what can be achieved by this sort of informal contact between the T.U.C.C.s and the regions. The wider matters, such as whether this arrangement is to be permanent, are still in the consultative machinery.

Hon. Members have referred to the reduction of services at Snow Hill, particularly to the Welsh coast and other parts. Again, however, I must point out to the House that these reductions are, under the Transport Act, 1962, matters of management for the Board. We in the Ministry knew the Board were going to make these changes, in order to get the best possible return on their investment in electrification. But it was entirely their decision. This does not mean of course that the public have no right of redress. On the contrary it is open to them, notwithstanding the current closure proposals to withdraw all services into Snow Hill, to make representations to the T.U.C.C. about the current level of service—though not the reduction itself—if they feel it is inadequate and this would bring into operation the procedure I have described.

Hon. Members have also raised the question of the Minister's decision on the Snow Hill to Wolverhampton closure proposal itself. I know that Members and the people in the area are anxious that there should soon be an end to the present uncertainty about this and other services. All I can say is that my right hon. Friend fully appreciates the need to take a decision as soon as she can.

The considerations outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Ladywood indicate that this is a matter which will need a little time to investigate. We shall need to study thoroughly all these considerations to ensure that at the end of the day the right decision is taken. I know that the delay is causing anxiety but I am sure that I carry my hon. Friends with me in saying that it is better that there should be thorough examination of this very complex proposal and that in the end, the decision should be the right one, even though it may take a little time.

I see it has taken me almost as much of the House's time to tell Members why I could not answer their points in detail as it might have done to answer them. I ask the House's pardon. But I wanted to make it absolutely clear what my right hon. Friend's statutory position is in these matters. The Transport Act, 1962, left questions of management to the Railways Board, subject to the very important proviso that the T.U.C.C.s should have the duty of looking into representations by the public, in the knowledge that if they feel something is wrong and the Board are not willing to put it right, they have a direct line of access to the Minister. In this situation my right hon. Friend wants the T.U.C.C. machinery to work. This is why she has decided only recently, and has begun the work, to widen the basis of their representation. This has already been done in many parts of the country.

My right hon. Friend is anxious to ensure that the T.U.C.C.s represent a wide variety of people, including those who use both the railways and other services. I do not carry all the details of the Birmingham area in my head and I will write to my hon. Friend the Member for Ladywood. But I know that a number of appointments have been made of people representing women's organisations, the National Parks, the disabled and the elderly, among others who place almost complete reliance on public service. All these matters that have been raised will certainly be studied by the Board. It will consider what my hon. Friends have said. They can properly go through the existing machinery and therefore to the Board itself.

The debate having been concluded, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER suspended the Sitting until half-past Two o'clock, pursuant to Order.

Sitting resumed at 2.30 p.m.

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