HC Deb 28 May 1968 vol 765 cc1721-32

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

2.20 a.m.

Mr. F. V. Corfield (Gloucestershire, South)

I am grateful for the oppor-

tunity to discuss the Minister's decision to close the only main line railway station in my constituency. I am bound to say that my gratitude would be a good deal more profound if, in taking this opportunity, I was not adding yet more to the ludicrous Parliamentary burden with which the Government have overburdened Parliament and insulted the

country. But, as I said, Badminton station is the only main line station in my constituency, and, in turn, my constituency must be the largest in the West Country and the most rapidly growing; and, indeed, it must be one of the most rapidly growing constituencies in the country as a whole. So far as I can recollect, when I came into this House in 1955 the electorate was somewhere in the neighbourhood of 54,000 and it is now 80,000, and as a large proportion of the increase in population has been from young married couples moving in there is a larger proportion of young people under 21 than in the national average. This, of course, results in the population as a whole increasing even faster than the electorate has done.

Badminton station has hitherto provided an excellent return service to London for anyone wishing to go up for the day, as many people do, as well, of course, as an admirable service for those people wishing to go to London or through London for longer periods. There is a less convenient but nevertheless useful service to South Wales, which is quite obviously readily improvable. But in the recent past the area served has been a predominantly rural one which can be sub-divided into three; namely, the Luckington-Sherston area, which is just over the border in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Chippen-ham (Mr. Awdry), the Hawksbury-Hilles-ley-Wootton-under-Edge area, which is partly in my constituency and partly in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw), and the Yate-Chipping Sodbury area in my constituency.

The important fact is that in recent years this catchment area has been rapidly changing in character and rapidly increasing in extent. In the first place, the Yate-Chipping Sodbury area—two relatively small towns now joined into one—is being formed into a new town; admittedly, not a statutory new town but in every sense of the term a new town. The population which was only 4,000 six years ago is now 13,000. The annual increase is something like 1,000 a year. The first phase target is a population of 30,000 rising eventually to something like 70,000. Those two small towns were formerly served by their own railway stations, on at Chipping Sodbury and one at Yate. Both have now been closed. I want to stress that I am not so much concerned with the retention of Badminton, as with the retention of Badminton or the reinstatement of a station at Yate or Chipping Sodbury.

In the second place, the recent completion of the stretch of the M4 between the A38 at Almondsbury and the A46 near Donington Park, which is very close to Badminton, has brought in practically the whole of the rest of my constituency and made it closer in time, and very substantially closer in time, to Badminton than these areas are to the only alternative left, namely, Bristol Temple Meads. This, of course, has meant that there is now a population—admittedly, there are parts of my constituency which are not affected, but they are offset by parts of my hon. Friend's constituency which are affected—of something like 90,000 which can be served by Badminton, and which does not have any other station in the neighbourhood. Incidentally, this area includes another small town of Thorn-bury which is undergoing an expansion similar to that of a sizeable new town, as is happening at Chipping Sodbury and Yate.

So we now have a situation in which, when we ask what is going to happen to the train-travelling public in this area, there is only one obvious answer. The great bulk of them, who are only just beginning to realise the advantages of getting across to Badminton, will revert to the use of Temple Meads. We shall have a situation where, instead of encouraging people to drive away from Bristol on the relatively uncrowded approach roads and then on the M4, which is more than adequate, they will be forced to drive into the already over-congested streets of Bristol to a railway station where the parking facilities are inadequate, and which can be extended only at the enormous expense which is always associated with the redevelopment of central areas.

I suggest that, if there is one lesson which we ought to have learned in the last 10 years, it is the lesson of the enormous difficulties and expense of relieving congestion of traffic in urban areas and providing adequate parking space. It is true to say that at Badminton there is parking space, because the old goods yard is virtually unlimited and in any case it can be extended ad lib at very small expense, because the surrounding land is open land.

We have a situation in which a closure has been decided upon apparently from the purely narrow point of view of the railway authorities, without any consideration of the broader planning of the area. It is a classic case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, and of the Ministry of Transport not even associating its highways department with its railways department.

It is true that, in the areas more immediately close to Badminton, there are alternative stations. Apart from Temple Meads, there are Bath, Chippenham, Swindon and Stroud. But the same considerations apply to them, except that in some cases they are more difficult to overcome.

In Bath, not only would there be the same heavy cost of improving traffic routes against congestion and providing parking space, but there is the irreparable loss which would result by virtue of damage to one of our most beautiful English cities. In Swindon, I am told that the bus takes something like 1½ to 2 hours from Chipping Sodbury, which is the nearest centre to it. In Stroud, it is rumoured that the railway authorities already are contemplating cutting down services because it is too expensive to repair the tunnel between Stroud and Kemble, and it is too far away to serve anywhere except Wootton-under-Edge, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud.

We have a position which, whatever its merits from the point of view of the railways, has none from the point of view of town and country planning. The railways are making a staggering financial loss. Badminton station shows a profit. Are they really in a position to turn up their noses at any profit in this day and age?

They say that they will have to have capital expenditure to remove the two links coming into the platforms, and then extend the platforms. But the links have to be removed, anyhow. If the railways are right in saying that the number of passengers off any one train is fairly small, a very modest expansion of the platforms would be adequate, given the use of a little ingenuity in labelling the carriages from which passengers could alight opposite the platform. But if the potential is as great as I believe it to be and a more ambitious extension of the platforms is justified, they will undoubtedly prove a good investment. But most Government bodies and nationalised industries these days want to have it both ways. That is one of the reasons why the public are so cynical about the desire of the railway authorities to serve the public rather than run a welfare state for their employees being genuine.

My second ground of complaint is that it is very problematical whether the railways' view is correct that, because many people go by car to Badminton, they will merely go by car to one of the other stations and they will not lose any profit. The fact is that people do get put off by congested streets and parking difficulties, and have reached the stage where they believe that the railway authorities are so uninterested in meeting their needs that they would prefer to motor all the way and meet the congestion at the other end, and have the advantage of having their car available when they get there.

My third complaint is the ludicrous nonsense that inquiries before the transport users' consultative committees have become. They are entitled to look only at the question of hardship. I am not denying that there is hardship here. When people from the country areas with luggage or children and prams are forced to stagger on to a bus, on which there is no sort of accommodation for the sort of thing, when they generally end up at bus stations well away from the railway stations, and when there is no porter to help them, of course there is hardship. There is also hardship for the person who has been able to get to the railway station for a 4s. 6d. taxi journey and is now charged 25s. But the committees should be able to consider the wider questions to which I have referred.

It is said that there is alternative public transport. There is a service to Swindon, but it is every two hours, and does not connect with London trains. There is a bus service to Chippenham, but it takes 1½ hours, and there are only three buses a day. There is a bus service to Bristol, but one cannot get back by night, and must change at Broadmead central bus station to get to Temple Meads. This is the sort of bogus answer given. We are told that there may be hardship, but that it can easily be met by a totally inadequate bus service.

I realise that under the present legislation there may be some difficulty in rescinding a decision, but there is no difficulty in ensuring that one or other of these three stations remains open. If there is, the Government cannot complain that they have not had the opportunity in the marathon Transport Bill to put that right.

I beg the Minister to realise that I am not making a plea for an unprofitable service. I would not do that. I do not believe in running the railways or anything else as a sort of welfare service, but this profitable line could be made much more profitable with a little ingenuity and imagination. To my way of thinking the decision is a relic of the ideas that because we inherited railway stations in the middle of our towns that is the only way in which we should in future organise our railway stations. The whole trend of town planning today is for people to move out of the centres and hand them over to business and commercial use, living more and more on the peripheries. This makes the railway stations that service the peripheries in many cases infinitely preferable to those in the centre.

I hope that the Ministry of Transport will occasionally think of something other than a rather bogus policy of trying to make a particular railway line a little more convenient to the railway authorities and instead consider the wider situation and the enormous extra costs that may be thrown on the city authorities in widening the roads in Bristol and providing adequate parking space.

12.35 a.m.

Mr. Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield) has performed a public service in calling attention to this astonishing and perverse decision of the railways to close Badminton station. He has, in particular, called attention to the planning anomaly, which we can be sure, unfortunately, whatever the Minister may gallantly say, has not been considered in any degree by the railway authorities, who have neither the power nor the interest to consider town planning as a whole.

May I refer to some of the detail? I have an interest to declare in that this is the station which I normally use, as do a large number of my constituents living in the southern part of my constituency who cannot conveniently get to Stroud or Gloucester in order to get to other points. The point about inconvenience is valid. To say that someone carrying luggage and going to London for the day can catch a bus which can take two hours to get to a place where there is not a train to meet it is a most futile argument which is always put forward at transport inquiries, as though it had some validity. It is an insult to our intelligence to think that the buses provide an alternative to getting to the station.

A short time ago, when the Secretary of State for Education visited Dursley, he was happy to be able to get to Badminton to enable him to catch an aeroplane to Paris. It was the only possibility he had of catching a train in order to perform his duties. When my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition recently started a tour of the West Country he, too, found Badminton most convenient as a starting point. Therefore, it is not just ordinary people but the gentlemen who use Badminton when carrying out their public duties.

The decision to close the station on planning and convenience grounds and financial grounds—and this station makes a profit for the railways, which should be happy to make a penny considering how much they lose on other operations—should be reconsidered. I shall think twice about motoring to Chippenham to catch the alternative train. I shall take my allowance from the Fees Office for motoring and face the congestion of London rather than take the railways' trains.

12.37 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Bob Brown)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield) for raising this subject. I know of his keen interest in it from the many letters which he has written since the proposal was published. This affords me the opportunity to set before the House some of the factors involved in the policy now being worked out to place the finances of the Railways Board on a new footing. As hon. Members know, the intention is that, after allowing for proposed social grants, the Railways Board should yearly maintain a break-even position. This will require most detailed scrutiny by the management of operating costs and efficiency. In this process, the continued operation of even a single station may play a magnificent part.

I come to the Government's responsibility. The wording of the Motion leads me first to point out that the initiative for closure of stations or lines comes from the Railways Board, not the Government. Had there been no objections, the Minister would not have come into this issue. Since there were objections, the Minister gave full and careful consideration to the issues of hardship examined by the transport users consultative committee for the area. He has consulted his colleagues and taken advice from the economic planning council for the region, the most important advice any Minister could take into consideration. The Minister is concerned to assess whether issues raised in the examination provide any overriding reason why the Railways Board should not be permitted to proceed with closure. In this case, none of the issues raised provide a valid case for interfering with the decision to close the station.

What are the facts? On the face of it, as the hon. Member has said, and as mentioned by many objectors, here was a station that was earning its keep. According to figures furnished to objectors by the Railways Board, annual originating revenue was some £5,400, while direct costs, apportioned between terminal, track and signalling, only amounted to £2,720. But more significant were the figures for renewals required to permanent way and buildings, amounting to £12,250 over the next five years.

Some objectors have said that this is little more than two years' revenue from traffic at the station. But an essential part of the case advanced by the Railways Board is that if the station closed, the bulk of this revenue would not be lost to the railway.

The hon. Member has referred to the many of his constituents who use the station, but the facts hardly bear this out. The April average figures for Mondays to Fridays for down trains are four joining and 20 alighting, and the July figures eight joining and 24 alighting. For up trains the figures are 13 joining and two alighting, and 20 joining and three alighting. I hardly find this, by any stretch of the imagination, to be a great many of the hon. Member's constituents.

More than 80 per cent, of the objections from individuals showed that they were car owners or passengers in private cars. The Board could reasonably assume that the majority of such users will continue to travel by car to one of the other railheads, either Bristol, Bath, Chippen-ham, Swindon or Kemble. I cannot understand the hon. Member's argument on planning grounds. Is he suggesting that a large part of the populace of Bristol wanting to travel to London would travel to Badminton and then travel up from there?

Mr. Corfield

If the hon. Gentleman will look at the map he will see that a very large part of the people he thinks live in Bristol are, in question of time, much closer to Badminton. And as it becomes more difficult to move in the streets of Bristol, the advantages of Badminton become very great indeed.

Mr. Brown

I will come to the question of the increased population in the immediate area later on. But it seems reasonable, as I have already stated, for the Board to make this assumption.

Then, when the M4 motorway is completed, it is reasonable to think that many more people might decide to travel all the way to South Wales or London by car. But for the present it could reasonably be assumed that the bulk of the revenue which previously originated at Badminton would be retained for the railway by the use of alternative railheads.

What follows from this? The avoidance of renewals to track and buildings at a cost of £12,250 would become a significant item on the credit side in the formidable task of achieving a breakeven position. The hon. Member might well say candle-ends, but as we have heard from hon. Members opposite so many times in the past, the accumulation of candle-ends can make a far from negligible impact on the operating costs of the railways.

Mr. Corfield

I do not think it is candle-ends, but I think the estimate of costs is bogus.

Mr. Brown

We can go into that another time. The argument on the relative powers of the T.U.C.C. is not a new argument, and the hon. Member must appreciate that when his party were in Government the same complaint was raised. I did not notice any particular effort by the Government of the hon Gentleman to alter the set-up of the T.U.C.Cs. in this respect. The T.U.C.C. has carefuly sifted the evidence of 173 objectors and has come to the general conclusion that only inconvenience would result to the former users of this station Naturally, in some cases this must amount to hardship but it is the job of the Minister to determine the public good against the hardship to possibly a very small number of individuals.

The economic implications have been mentioned, and, turning to the wider implications of this closure on development in the area, which the hon. Gentleman himself has raised in previous correspondence, I would assure hon. Members opposite that these issues were carefully examined by the Economic Planning Council for the South West and by my right hon. Friend's colleagues in other Departments. The advice given was unanimous that this closure would have no significant effect on economic planning or on development in the area.

The Minister was aware, of course, that there was a rapidly expanding development in the Chipping Sodbury-Yate area, to which the hon. Member has referred; and for this very reason my right hon. Friend has given no consent to the disposal of the Yate station, realising that at some time in the future there might well be a case for a reopening of a passenger service from this station. It is also the case that the Railways Board In the future would not be free to dispose of the site of Badminton station without the Minister's prior consent; and this, of course, would be given only after careful consultation with the South West Economic Planning Council. I would suggest this must clearly safeguard the position for the future.

The hon. Gentleman has referred to alternative bus services, and the connections to the alternative railheads of Chip-penham and Swindon. The hon. Gentleman has been informed—and I regret, and would apologise for the fact, that the letter may not have reached him much before the answer to this debate—that the existing bus services are not specifically designed to make good connections with main line trains at these stations; and on the evidence considered by the Minister it did not appear that there will be sufficient ex-rail users making use of these services to justify revision of the time-tables, with all that this implies.

I shall bring to the attention of my right hon. Friends the points which have been made so persuasively by hon. Members in this debate, and they will be studied with the greatest care. It may be that some adjustment to the conditions of consent will be required in the future. If the need can be plainly shown, we shall act expeditiously to remedy any defects. But I feel bound to repeat that my right hon. Friend is faced with the need only to withhold consent from closure proposals by the Railways Board in cases where it can be clearly shown that the opposing arguments, whether on hardship or economic grounds, are in the highest degree compelling and affect a substantial section of the community which is not so in this case.

Mr. Kershaw

Can the hon. Gentleman give an undertaking about destruction of buildings? When another branch line in my constituency was closed about a year ago, bulldozers moved in during the next week and made impossible reinstatement of the line. Will the hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that that will not happen at Badminton?

Mr. Brown

I have said that the demolition of the station would need to have the consent of the Minister.

The debate having been concluded, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

MR. SPEAKER suspended the sitting of the House at ten minutes to One o'clock till Ten o'clock this day, pursuant to Order.