HC Deb 02 May 1968 vol 763 cc1426-34

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

10.12 p.m.

Mr. F. Blackburn (Stalybridge and Hyde)

I thought at one time that this Adjournment debate would have taken place much earlier, but I was overlooking the capacity of this House for self-inflicted punishment.

I am sorry to have to raise this subject tonight, but the time has come when some things need to be said, because a nationalised industry has an obligation to carry out Government policy. The Government have said that there is a social as well as an economic aspect to the railways, and for that reason the Minister of Transport has decided that, because hardship would be entailed, some branch lines and commuter services have to be retained. It is, therefore, the duty of British Railways to try to make the best possible success of those lines. They cannot hide behind the 1962 Act.

British Railways have done a good job with the long-distance services between the large centres of population and I believe that if they displayed the same energy and thought in making a success of the branch lines and commuter services, they would render the country a distinct service. Government policy is to attract more traffic to the railways so as to relieve the heavy congestion on our roads, but British Railways' policy would appear to be to drive local traffic on to the roads.

In view of the losses and the criticism to which it is subjected, one would have expected the Board to make an all-out effort to make a success of every aspect of the service. In my simple economics, full trains and a well-used service should spell financial success, but that does not appear to be the view of British Railways.

In 1963, an officer of British Railways was reported as saying, "We do not want these passenger services," meaning the local lines. He added: If we do not lose them by this means"— referring to the Beeching Report— then we shall lose them by other means, even to pricing ourselves out of the market if necessary. It is true that today he does not recollect using those words, but they would appear to reflect the attitude of British Railways. There is not much point in the Ministry adopting a policy unless an attempt is made to carry it out and make a success of it.

I wish to illustrate my argument by reference to the Glossop-Manchester, Piccadilly, line which runs through my constituency and through the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for The High Peak (Mr. Peter M. Jackson). The Ministry of Transport decided that the line was to be kept open. British Railways reacted by doing three things. First, they cut out the Sunday service; secondly, they increased the fares; and, thirdly, they reduced the size of the trains. The resultant overcrowding was so grew: that one of my councillors remarked that if it had been animals that were travelling instead of human beings the R.S.P.C.A. would have stepped in.

At Hattersley, in my constituency, there is a large overspill estate from Manchester. According to information obtained from Manchester Corporation by the Town Clerk of Hyde, the present estimated population is 10,300 people and not 6,000 as British Railways think. In 1960, British Railways promised us a halt at Hattersley. Why in 1960 but not in 1967 or 1968 I do not know. The result was that when the estate was laid out an approach road to the proposed halt was constructed, so that we now have a road leading nowhere.

When, under the Beeching Plan, the closure of this line was proposed, I wrote at once to the Board of Trade asking what help we could expect for new industries to cope with the increased population. I was told "None", for it had always been assumed that the workers of Hattersley would be commuters to Manchester. Anyone who knows the main road from Hyde to the centre of Manchester knows of the congestion that exists. When the Minister of Transport decided that the line was to be kept open, I immediately wrote to British Railways requesting the Hattersley stop. I was refused, on the grounds that the site was expensive and that the financial return, if any, would not justify it. My reply was that the site was of their own choosing and that I did not see how, by stop- ping to pick up additional passengers, they could be certain that there would not be a financial return.

We were not satisfied and a census was taken of the Hattersley estate to ascertain the number of residents who would be likely to use a halt if one was provided. The result, supplied to me by the Town Clerk of Hyde, showed that 1,390 people said that they would use the service daily, that 1,010 would use it once a week and that 922 would use it occasionally. Even if those figures are unduly optimistic, they still show that there is a large potential population wishing to travel by rail. And they do not include people who might want to travel from Manchester to visit relatives and friends in Hattersley. The demand is there and one would expect that a commercial undertaking would be anxious to exploit it.

As a result of the census, the Town Clerk of Hyde wrote to the Divisional Manager of British Railways and I wrote to the Ministry of Transport and the Chairman of the Railways Board. The town clerk's reply from the Divisional Manager and mine from the General Manager, London Midland Region amount to the same thing in their refusal on the ground that censuses are often unreliable and in any case the financial return would not justify the halt… I hope that the next words will be carefully noted— as they would have to put on additional trains to cope with the peak hour traffic". In other words, they just do not want additional traffic. They do not want to provide the service which the public are asking for.

I do not want to be told in reply to this debate that this is a matter for the commercial judgment of British Railways. There is not much point in having a policy unless it is carried out. No organisation, however important, should be allowed to flout that policy. Either the Ministry has a policy or it has not. The Ministry has already overruled commercial judgment by deciding that certain lines shall be kept open. I am sure that the Ministry wishes those lines to be a success by providing the best possible service for the public.

Nor do I want to be told that when the public transport authority is set up that body can give consideration to the provision of a halt. This is a railways problem, and it is a problem now. I realise that I cannot expect tonight from my hon. Friend who is to reply any definite answer to the points I have raised. All I can expect and I do expect it is an assurance that the Ministry will give them consideration.

10.23 p.m.

Mr. Peter M. Jackson (The High Peak)

I echo the frustrations very ably expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Blackburn). I wish to refer to three instances to which I think the attention of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary should be drawn.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde drew attention to the decision by British Railways to refuse a halt at Hattersley. I could relate, in similar detail, my experience in respect of the refusal by British Railways to provide a halt at Gamesley, in the same area as Hattersley, but I eschew doing that.

I want to refer to two specific experiences I have had when I attempted to discuss railway problems with the railway authorities. The first resulted from the initial decision by the Minister to close the Hope Valley line. I argued that the figures put in to justify that decision were suspect. I asked the traffic manager to break the figures down, but he refused to do so. I think it outrageous that an hon. Member representing his constituents should be deprived of this information. I was eventually successful in persuading the Minister's predecessor of the wisdom of retaining the line and I am very happy with the result.

The second instance concerns a very short stretch of branch line between New Mills and Hayfield. There is a very active users group in Hayfield. The group made various recommendations to the transport authority in Manchester in 1962 on how the line could be run economically, but all its proposals were rejected. After the Transport Users' Consultative Committee hearing, some of the recommendations on how the line could be run economically were put into effect. Obviously, the information which the Railway Board was able to put in at the hearing was based on completely inflated costs, yet no attempt was made in that period of four years to reduce them.

Unlike some of my hon. Friends, I perhaps have an in-built prejudice in favour of public ownership. My experience of British Railways has been somewhat chastening, and my belief in public ownership would have to be very different if I felt that all public enterprises functioned in a manner similar to British Railways' functioning in the North-West.

10.25 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Neil Carmichael)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Blackburn) for having raised this subject, which gives me the opportunity to explain some of the implications of the Government's railway policy. That is an opportunity which we are always glad to take. Our Transport Bill, now nearing the end of its Committee stage, sets out in legal terms what we want to achieve. But that is not enough. We must explain why we—Government and railways together—are embarking on a fresh start.

I do not think that it is quite fair to suggest that the Government are hiding behind the 1962 Act, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde suggested.

Mr. Blackburn

I did not say that the Government were hiding behind that Act. I said that British Railways should not hide behind it.

Mr. Carmichael

I am sorry if I misinterpreted my hon. Friend.

The Bill now going through the House removes a great deal of what I would describe as the sterility and obscurantism of the 1962 Act and makes the railways' job much clearer and more specific.

This evening I think it vital, first of all, to place the particular items which my hon. Friend has raised in the context of our general policy. He has had the courtesy to indicate that he understands the importance of doing this, and he realises that if I am not able to deal in detail with any of the points which he has raised, I shall certainly look into them further. But I shall, of course, do my best to assist him here and now.

The Government's main policy aim is clear and has no double meanings: we want to make the maximum economic use of the railways. After consultation with the railways, we have decided to retain and develop a network of about 11,000 route miles. That system must be run efficiently and well. But we recognise that at some places we must assist the railways without damaging this principal objective. On the passenger side, some services are still necessary on social grounds, even though they do not pay their way in strict economic terms.

We must help the people who depend on these lines. That is why we have agreed to try to support them with a Government grant, and the lines of this kind which lie within certain cities will come within the scope of the new passenger transport authorities.

I was sorry that my hon. Friend tended to suggest that the P.T.A.s may not be as effective as I am sure they will be. They will give great scope to local people, who will be responsible for the whole transport needs of the area, and will decide the service best suited, to how that service should be operated in the interests of the area, the fares that should be charged, and even whether certain services need specific help outside any that the Government can give.

On the freight side, the new road licensing proposals will help the railways to compete for the traffic which they can handle efficiently. I do not want to labour this point. We have debated it in Committee, in this House, and in the country at large for many months.

I must emphasise one of the essentials of the policy. The railways must run the railways. It is a technical job and the Government set out the policy framework. It is up to the Railways Board thereafter to operate within it. In today's conditions, this means that the Board must keep a keen eye on the economics of the operation. Indeed, the Transport Bill will help in many ways, including a large-scale recapitalisation which will reduce the burden of interest to be paid. It will remove the support of deficit grants. It will also impose on the Board the tough challenge not only to break even, but to achieve a sufficient surplus to build up adequate reserves.

This means that the Board must continue to cut its coat according to its cloth. Our responsibilities here will make us check that the level of any grant aided service will be adequate to cater for social need. But we will also need to be satisfied that such a service, either in its existing or some modified form, would represent true value for money. All services including those supported by grant, must be tailored to demand and to cost; and fares and charges, subject always to the Government's prices and incomes policy, must be flexibly adapted to changing circumstances. We must remember that the railways, far from enjoying their old monopoly position, are fighting in a tough, competitive field.

Both my hon. Friends dealt to a large extent with quality of service. They have urged the Government to intervene in a number of matters, but particularly in this one. But this is precisely one of those instances which are primarily matters for the Board itself. It must run the system and work out, for example, train frequencies. Sunday services, additional passenger halts, and so on. It really is asking too much to expect the Government to know exactly the type of service that will be required in all the areas of the country at weekends, and at peak periods. This is a highly technical job.

As long as the Government lay down the machinery and see that it is operated properly, that is sufficient job for them. It is for the Railways Board to decide on such changes as it considers necessary and it must bear in mind the need to cover costs. It is striving to contain the large deficit which ultimately falls on the taxpayer. It knows that, from next year, it will be called to achieve viability under the new financial framework which the Bill will give it.

If my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde wishes to pursue any immediate complaints which he or his constituents have about the quality of the existing services provided by British Railways—and he has pursued these questions for a long time now—he should first of all yet again tackle the Railways Board. If he is still not satisfied, he should go to the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for the northwestern area. These committees were set up to protect the interests of the users of the services. They have become too closely associated in the minds of many with public hearings on the hardship arising from railways closures, but the Government want to underline the positive rôle of the Committees in connection with quality of service.

Here, perhaps I can deal briefly with my hon. Friend's reference to his constituency and to Hattersley Station. I know that he has pursued this matter vigorously with my predecessor. I have read the voluminous correspondence he has sent to my Department and also the replies received from the Board. But I cannot pretend to assess the case he has made, particularly with some of the new facts he has given tonight. But in any case the task of assessing his case falls squarely on the Board and the Minister has no power to intervene in a matter which is clearly for the Board.

My hon. Friend knows already that my right hon. Friend proposes to set up the P.T.A.s, and one of the first, we hope, will cover the Manchester area. While we cannot be sure that it will include Hattersley, it seems a strong possibility, especially if the facts given by my hon. Friend are accurate.

Let us assume for the moment that this would be the case, and the Hattersley Halt were considered by the new P.T.A. for the Manchester area. Under the Transport Bill, the Minister will be able to make an order transferring responsibility to the Passenger Transport Executive, which is the operating body of the P.T.A., for deciding what local rail services should be provided in the P.T.A. area. Then the Executive will have to look at the whole public transport system in the P.T.A., including local rail services.

A Passenger Transport Authority for Greater Manchester would eventually have to weigh up whether a new station was justified at Hattersley. This would place decisions where they ought to lie; in other words, jointly with the people who will use and pay for new services and with those who will operate them— with the local authorities and with the railways, perhaps helped by some measure of Government support in the early stages.

In replying to a debate such as this, it is difficult to satisfy hon. Members, but, thanks to the correspondence from my hon. Friend, I am aware of the problem. I know that the Railways Board is keen to co-operate with the Government's transport policies. It has before it a difficult task to reverse the decline of the past few years. There may be moments of apparent disappointment, but we hope that Government and railways together can adjust speedily to meet a changing situation with a genuinely new policy. I shall digest what my hon. Friend has said—and what my hon. Friend the Member for The High Peak (Mr. Peter M. Jackson) said—about the relationship between the Government, the railways and the public.

10.37 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Marks (Manchester, Gorton)

May I urge the importance of this Hattersley Halt, to which my hon. Friend has referred? The road which is used as an alternative to the railway is the A.57. It is extremely congested and has been the subject of representations by me and by the local councils through whose areas it passes.

It is a need which the Railways Board cannot be expected to judge. The people who travel by bus to compensate for the lack of a rail halt and the traffic from Glossop mean a considerable number of buses every day on this congested road. For that reason, and not because of railway traffic, the matter should be examined closely. Here we have an under-used railway and an over-used road, and something should be done about it long before the Transport Bill goes on to the Statute Book.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to Eleven o'clock.