HC Deb 16 February 1968 vol 758 cc1834-44

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

4.11 p.m.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I rise this afternoon to call the attention of the House to the proposed closure of no less than 20 railway stations between Birmingham and Leicester in the Midlands, something like nine of them in my own county of Leicestershire and the remainder in Warwickshire and Oxford-shire. I do not propose in the short time available to repeat to the Minister all the arguments with which he is so familiar and which were placed before the Transport Users Consultative Committee, and which I have subsequently placed before him in a memorandum. Some of the points addressed to him at the T.U.C.C. and in my memorandum dealt with a number of cases of hardship, and the Minister has been good enough to answer my letter in that respect in detail.

Today, I want to make a really special, direct and earnest appeal to him to retain, as either unmanned halts or manned passenger stations only, the following four stations of the whole 20 which he has down for the axe on 4th March. I am convinced that there is a really sound and urgent social reason why these stations should be retained in use. They are Croft, Narborough, Blaby and Wigston Glen Parva.

I make this appeal to the Minister to hold his hand at these four only until he can acquaint himself with the up-to-date passenger figures and population statistics at these centres. My certain knowledge is that the picture has changed out of all recognition since British Railways took passenger statistics in April 1964, which they presented at the inquiry in March 1965, and upon which the T.U.C.C. arrived at its decision. I beg him to take most earnest and serious notice of what I am about to say.

My constituency is one of the fastest-growing in the country, numbering nearly 100,000 electors today and increasing at a rate of around 3,000 new electors annually. The Minister would agree that in a fluid and violently fluctuating situation like this, statistics of three or four years ago must be hopelessly out of date. Let me endeavour to show him why and how the picture has changed since 1964–65.

In 1965 I had only a handful of letters representing objections. In 1968 I have a very large file full of letters with the most earnest pleas contained therein. In 1965 many who were affected by the proposed closures did not know or did not care about it. In 1968 a petition has been collected and forwarded by Blaby Rural District Council to the Divisional Manager of the London Midland Region of British Railways, signed by 1,300 regular users of these four stations alone. In 1965 British Railways submitted passenger statistics based on the census of April, 1964. But in 1968 Blaby Rural District Council sent the Minister statistics of a recent passenger survey showing that the numbers using the stations had increased since 1964.

Probably the most telling factor is contained in the letter which I have here dated 7th December last year from the clerk of the Blaby Rural District Council. I asked him how the population statistics had altered in the four districts or towns or villages affected by these closures, and for which I am making a plea. He wrote out for me the statistics relating to the number of new houses built in these areas since 18th March, 1965, when the T.U.C.C. sat in Leicester.

In the four parishes served by the railway line, namely, Wigston Glen Parva, Blaby, Narborough and Croft, there have been since 18th March, 1956, no fewer than 2,524 houses built and occupied This is a staggering change of circumstance. If we assume that there are three adult people in each house, it means that in the catchment area for these four stations there are another 7,500 potential passengers. The figures in the letter from the council constitute an absolutely unique set of statistics which warrant immediate and earnest consideration by the Parliamentary Secretary. He must throw away any brief which may have been prepared for him as a reply to this debate.

I have had the most despairing and piteous letters from many people in my constituency about how they will manage when the railway stations are closed. Many are from elderly people, but time does not permit me to deal with them. The Minister, when she considered all the aspects of these proposed closures, had to take into account many distressing cases of hardship. But they were based on the old population statistics and they bear no resemblance to the volume of new cases of hardship which have arisen in the past four years. The volume of hardship has risen to a level which is quite unacceptable for any Minister in any Government.

The line will be kept in use for passengers anyhow. Trains will still run between Birmingham and Leicester. Cannot we have, as unmanned halts if necessary, a passenger service for the people who live in Croft, Narborough, Blaby and Wigston Glen Parva, not only for their benefit, but for the ultimate benefit of British Railways. The gravest doubts still exist about the promised alternative bus services which are due to commence on 4th March. I can give the Minister the latest information on this matter which is contained in a letter dated 7th February from the parish council. The clerk writes: My Council are most concerned in this matter as, in view of a recent announcement that the station is to close on 4th March next, it is quite obvious that the bus service is still not adequate to deal with the transport of residents of this parish to and from the City". My case rests on the remarkable population explosion in these four districts. I ask the Minister to recognise that there has been a real change in circumstance since the evidence was presented at the inquiry three years ago. I ask him to be big enough to make a fresh inquiry into the dramatic figures which I have given. I hope that the hon. Member will forget any stereotyped reply with which he may have been supplied by his Department and will look into the matter again about these four vital stations.

4.20 p.m.

Mr. Leslie Huckfield (Nuneaton)

I am grateful for the opportunity of raising a subject so important for the constituents of Meriden and Nuneaton and I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) for giving me some time to speak during the debate on a subject which he put down for the Adjournment.

This is a subject very near and dear to my heart, for in the past I have been a regular commuter on this line between Nuneaton and Birmingham. It is also near and dear to my heart because in the original closure approval made last August the Minister admitted that some hardship would be caused to the passengers at Whitacre, Coleshill and Water Orton. Notwithstanding that, the closure order was approved and what I consider to be some very unsatisfactory alternative arrangements have been made in their place.

I advance a very similar case indeed to that which has been adequately made by the hon. Member for Harborough—namely, that the statistics which British Railways used for the hearing were taken almost three years ago, that the hearing was held in November, 1965, and that the closure was approved well over six months ago. In fact, we are talking about action to be taken on 4th March on the basis of figures which were collected and evidence which was put together almost three years ago.

During that time, I submit, my constituency and the Meriden constituency, too, have been very fast-growing parts of the country. Not only have we had a large natural population increase, but both constituencies have had a vast influx of population as part of the overspill arrangements, both public and private, from the Birmingham conurbation. In my constituency I have had a whole new housing estate of local authority houses erected in Stockingford. I have had three or four vast new private developments in the same area. In the Meriden constituency there is a whole host of new developments at Whitacre, Shustoke, and Kingsbury, admittedly on the Birmingham-Derby railway line, not to mention the whole of the Castle Vale development, a very important part of the Birmingham overspill arrangement, and the whole of the development to be associated both industrially and residentially with the new Kingsbury terminal. All the people connected with that will want to use many of these services.

On the basis of that evidence, I submit that the situation has vastly changed since the statistics were taken and the inquiry was held. Apart from that, I submit that the kind of alternative arrangements which have been made, especially with reference to the bus timetables and fares involved, could not possibly have been adequately surveyed at the time of the hearing or when the Minister approved the closure order. For instance, at Water Orton, which is supposed to be used as a commuter station for the areas to which I have referred—the kind of station to which people will want to go by car—British Railways have just sold the car park and are actively scouring the countryside trying to find an alternative site for a car park for Water Orton.

The situation is aggravated by traffic jams in the Birmingham conurbation which literally grinds to a halt about every six months. The last example which we had was pust over a fortnight ago on a snowy Monday evening. It is always the eastern side of Birmingham, particularly the A47, which will have to bear the brunt of this additional traffic, which suffers the worst. I submit that the question of unstaffed halts and ticket machines, to which the hon. Member referred, has been insufficiently considered. These are already operating in the Birmingham division as part of the Birmingham-Redditch line, and they are already operating very successfully in other parts of the country.

I also submit that the publicity about these closures has been very inadequate. There are people who have moved into my constituency even since Christmas who had no idea, because of the complete lack of publicity, that the railway stations were to be closed. Even more important is the fact that there are several people who have written to me personally and in an individual capacity saying that they moved out of Birmingham on the specific assurance from the Railways Board that these stations were to remain open. In many cases it was the whole nature of the commuter service which permitted them to move out of Birmingham.

I have here with me 30 real hardship cases from places like Whitacre and Shustoke. Many of these people will find themselves paying something like £1 a week extra in fares and having their journey times doubled. Some will have to sell their houses, the very houses to which they moved on the promise by British Railways that the stations would remain open, and some of them will have to give up their jobs. Many will have completely to change their ways of life. I have 10 or more similar cases about Saltley in Birmingham, the same number from Coleshill, and from Castle Bromwich as well. From Stockingford in my constituency I have a very adequately drawn up petition which I have already given to my hon. Friend and bearing no fewer than 230 signatures, and a very high proportion of those people are regular commuters, there are those travelling from the Nuneaton Abbey Street Station which is also to suffer, and in many cases they will have to pass that railway station to get to the Trent Valley Station. In Stocking-ford we have a station used by the residents from the fastest developing part of Nuneaton and they will have to pass this very station, on the public transport, very expensive and very inadequate, to get to Trent Valley Station.

I should like to pay tribute to the work of Mrs. Stokes of Whitacre, and to Mr. Kealey, the Clerk of Atherstone Rural District Council, and to Mr. Hale, the Clerk of Meriden District Council for the efforts they have put in to make available to me these cases of hardship.

I do not wish, even on this very important topic, to delay the House any longer as time is short, but in conclusion I urge my hon. Friend seriously to reexamine the future of these stations. We have a Transport Bill in Committee and the inauguration of passenger transport authorities, and so I would urge my hon. Friend at least to wait till the transport authorities have been set up, wait till the whole situation has been reconsidered, especially as Ministers from the Department of Economic Affairs have now told the West Midlands Economic Planning Council to put emphasis on this very kind of commuter development. I urge my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend to reconsider this very serious question.

4.28 p.m.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) for raising this subject this afternoon and for the brevity of his remarks, because this gives me an opportunity to explain the reasons for the Minister's decision to consent to the Railway Board's proposal to close rail passenger services at certain stations on this line. Several hon. Members have written to me about this, including the late Christopher Rowland, and hon. Members have been very assiduous in their representations. I know they are genuinely and seriously concerned about the effects upon their constituents of the decision. I fully understand this.

Hon. Members again have set out some of the issues of hardship, and I should like first to assure the hon. Members concerned that the Board's proposal to close these stations between Birmingham and Leicester was examined very fully. The Minister's decision, made under the Act of 1962, passed by the last Government, to agree to closure is a final one. She took it knowing it was to be a final one under the terms of the Act, and she took it only after studying all the issues involved with the utmost care.

We had a great deal of information before us about the use made of the services, the reports of the East and West Midland Transport Users Consultative Committees on hardship, and advice from the regional Economic Planning Councils and from my right hon. Friend's colleagues concerned with particular aspects of the proposal such as future development, industry, employment and so on. We recognised that the railway was more direct than the buses for some of the short journeys being made. We also recognised that certain special day return rail fares had been kept at a low level and so were cheaper than bus fares for smaller journeys. I know that many people have complained bitterly because the closure of these stations will mean for them the loss of these very cheap rail fares.

But I must ask the House to realise that these rail services were losing money. If the Minister had refused consent to closure, the Board would have been obliged to make further efforts to improve this situation and it would have been open to them to review the fare structure on the line. The Minister was satisfied, in agreeing to the closure of the stations concerned, that the alternative bus services available, together with additions and improvements required, would cater for the needs of people using the stations to be closed.

The hon. Member for Harborough has complained that there are no direct bus services between Blaby and Hinckley, and I agree that this is so. But, in fact, only a handful of people were travelling by railway between these places and it is difficult to justify providing special bus services on this basis when other public transport is available. Much the same applies to travel outside peak periods between Elmesthorpe and Hinckley or Leicester, where only a few passengers made occasional use of the trains. But we are seeing whether some improvement can be made in response to these specific complaints, and I will let both the hon. Member and my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield) know the result.

As I have already told the hon. Member for Harborough in correspondence, the Minister would be very willing to consider whether improvements to any of the bus services are required following experience of closure. We should, of course, need some evidence of the numbers of people affected and the particular journeys where they were finding difficulty. I know that some people are worried about whether the additional buses will in fact be provided. I should like to make it clear that the provision of these buses is a condition of the Minister's consent to the closure of the stations concerned. This means that the trains cannot be taken off until the buses are available for use by the public.

I am also aware of suggestions that travelling time between Stockingford and Birmingham could be improved. My hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton has spoken to me about this, and I am investigating whether any improvement is necessary. We have already made it a condition of closure that a new feeder bus should connect Shustoke, Whitacre, Coleshill and Kingsbury stations with peak-hour trains at Water Orton, and we shall be watching to see that this bus meets the needs of those users. We are genuinely trying to devise, at reasonable costs, the best all-round pattern for the majority of users.

I know, too, that many people believe that Castle Bromwich and Kingsbury stations should not be closed because of local development. We did know, of course, about the Castle Vale estate and the oil depots at Kingsbury. But the people of Castle Vale have good bus services available on the A.452, and I think that it is fair to say that the majority of the residents who will want to use public transport will find those bus services at least as convenient as the train, particularly if they do not need to go right into the centre of Birmingham. The oil depots at Kingsbury are under construction, but not yet finished. In deciding to allow the station to be closed, we had in mind that some at least of the labour force will be available locally. and that a lot more people would have to use the station to justify keeping it open. So we took the view that the Board should not be made to continue losing money at the station for the sake of a future demand which might not materialise.

But in the case of all the stations to be closed there is a safeguard. Before the Board can dispose of the site of any such station, or the formation of any line, they must get the Minister's agreement, and before giving that agreement she again consults the Economic Planning Council. This is an important safeguard in view of what the hon. Gentleman has said.

May I ask the House for a moment to consider the wider aspects of the decision to close those stations, which are very relevant in the context of the future railway system as a whole. The line between Birmingham and Leicester is one of those indicated for development in the railway network map published last year. The Railways Board is not closing the line but only certain of the smaller intermediate stations on it, and the benefits are twofold.

Firstly, by withdrawing trains serving these stations the Board can save large sums of money and so reduce the general burden on the taxpayer. Secondly, by this rationalisation, it can improve the efficiency of the services at the larger stations which the majority of passengers use and where links with services to other parts of the Midlands area are found. The Board has designed changes in passenger services in the Midlands over recent years to cut out waste and to enable them to compete for the passenger traffic they are best fitted to carry. In most cases, this is semi-local and long distance traffic which is less easily attracted to trains stopping frequently for comparatively small numbers of passengers.

For example, on the 7¾ mile stretch of line between Elmesthorpe and Wigston Glen Parva, there are five stations. Up to now, the Board has maintained a good train service with low fares. But there simply has not been enough traffic to justify this.

I know that a number of people have suggested, as hon. Members have suggested, that some of the stations on the line should remain as unstaffed halts, that tickets could be issued by conductor guards, that certain trains only should be retained and that various other economies should be made. All these suggestions have been examined. But this would give rise to formidable difficulties of practical operation. Moreover, a drastic reduction in trains, which may in itself cause hardship, can never produce a generally acceptable local service which pays its way.

We have to face the fact that the railways have here lost a great deal of purely local passenger traffic to buses which are often more convenient for short-distance travel. I say, "often" because there are exceptions which we recognise. But the public demand for bus travel for short distance journeys is considerably greater than the demand for rail travel and the intensive network of bus services in the Midlands area generally is evidence of this. Rail services for very small numbers of local travellers usually lose money. The direct saving from this whole closure is £114,000. I think hon. Members opposite, in view of their concern for the taxpayer in connection with the current Transport Bill, will agree that we cannot expect unremunerative rail services to be supported by the Exchequer indefinitely unless there is some very good reason, for doing so. But, if there is a reason, my right hon. Friend has made it abundantly clear that, as she has done in the past, she will refuse to allow closure.

Mr. Farr

Can the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that if the demand proves itself to be there these stations can always be reopened as unmanned halts?

Mr. Morris

Now that my right hon. Friend has reached her decision that is entirely a matter for the Board. She has protected the stations by ensuring that the sites cannot be disposed of without her express permission after consultations with the Economic Planning Council. That protects the future, about which the hon. Gentleman is so concerned. But re-opening is a matter for the Board. However, I have given him an important assurance which I am sure the hon. Gentleman appreciates.

We must, however, be very clear about the fact that such services represent a continuing burden on the taxpayer which can only be justified if there are valid social and economic reasons and if cheaper alternative bus services are impracticable.

Let me repeat my assurance about the alternative public transport for people using the local trains between Birmingham and Leicester which are to be withdrawn. We are anxious that reasonable facilities should be available and these are based on the use being made of the trains. At the same time, whilst we accept that there may be teething troubles whilst people accustom themselves to the changeover my right hon. Friend will certainly look into any difficulties that may arise.

Mr. Leslie Huckfield

Will my hon. Friend say something about the provision of a car park at Water Orton Station?

Mr. Morris

I will look into that matter but I would think that it is for the Board to decide.

The Question having been proposed after Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour,Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKERadjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at nineteen minutes to Five o'clock.