HC Deb 12 November 1968 vol 773 cc363-72

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

10.56 p.m.

Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

I wish to make it plain that my Adjournment debate tonight is directed against the British Railways Board, and not against the genuine railwayman. The genuine railwayman, be he a maintenance worker, an engineer, a driver, a porter, on the footplate, in administration, or whatever he be, has served the railways and the country in a magnificent and commendable way, and particularly during the war.

I know a number of railwaymen, at all levels. Though they may not vote for me, I regard them as my friends. They are "browned off" with the Railways Board. They say that when they put in reports, when they put in complaints, or when they put in observations, they never get anywhere; and there is great criticism of the relationship between the Board and the genuine railwayman.

I do not suppose that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will do so, but the Minister of Transport has a great habit of saying that this has nothing to do with him, that this is a matter of day-to-day administration. However, as the money for investment in the railways comes from the Treasury, and is subject to parliamentary debate, administration and the carrying out of proper policy are matters with which the Minister ought to concern himself.

I heard yesterday that the Board has apparently persuaded the Minister to allow the building of an engine to travel at a speed of approximately 125 miles per hour. I know that the Board is composed of men, and that men love trains, but I should like the Minister to understand that the travelling public, whose case I am putting, would rather have clean loos than piped music. The travel ling public want a quick, comfortable, punctual, and clean service.

I am glad to be able to tell the Minister that the punctuality of British Railways has slightly improved. For that I am grateful. But the public are concerned with having comfortable, clean and punctual trains, and when they arrive at a railway station they like to have normal amenities—and this is what the Board is failing to give them.

For instance, the general public do not like filthy stations. They do not like filthy lavatories. They are not all filthy, but many of them are. They do not like filthy bars on trains—and the restaurants occasionally give great cause for concern. Instead of concentrating on a train that will go at 125 m.p.h. it would be better, at this stage, if the Board could be persuaded by the Ministry what the travelling public would like.

I do not know whether the British Travel and Holidays Association has ever made any recommendations or protestations, but I wonder what it thinks when tourists—and we are very proud of our tourist trade—arrive here and go through some of our absolutely filthy stations. I am glad to say that the National Council of Women—a very reputable body, which goes into questions very closely and has a membership of very observant, fair, ordinary people—has written to me saying how much it supports my views about British Railways. When a person arrives at King's Cross to catch a sleeper train he finds that the station is like a morgue. If the train is late, as it sometimes is—often with good cause—nobody is there to announce that it is late and to say why it is late and apologise. There is an assistant stationmaster, but he generally has to be in the signal box. Some of the men who have served the railways for a long time, and know of the old traditions, are absolutely heartbroken because they are not given information which they can convey to the public.

I understand that the Central Transport Consultative Committee operated in the interests of the public. One day I thought it would be a good thing for me to attend one of its meetings so that I could put forward some of the complaints made by passengers. First, the committee tried to make me put the complaints down on paper, which is not my line of country. I said that I much preferred to appear in person, but this did not suit the chairman. Although there were many delightful and charming men there who were no doubt doing their duty as they saw it, the thought crossed my mind that most of them probably travelled by car. The chairman had a great ambition to get me away from the Committee as quickly as possible to an elegant lunch, but that was not my idea.

I have never known anything said by that Committee to have any great effect on the Railways Board. What amuses me is that today I have appeared both on the radio, on "The World at One", and on television. Although asked, the Board did not send someone to answer me. I agree that it was short notice, but it would have been an opportunity for the Board to have submerged me without trace or to have stated its case. Four delightful but not, from my point of view, friendly men appeared on behalf of the Southern Region, two of whom had retired many years ago, and they did the best they could for the Board. It is peculiar, in these modern days, when radio and television are open to all, and people like to appear to meet criticism, that the Board would not face me.

The next thing I want to mention is the lack of porters. I suspect—although it is difficult for someone to know who is not intimately connected with the railways—that these productivity agreements have meant railwaymen doing more work in a variety of ways with which they were not concerned before. In other words, the porters have now been taken from our stations, and people have to carry their own luggage, and they find it extremely difficult. People who have had operations or have children or are getting older cannot carry their own luggage. British Railways say as reasonably as they can that, if one is ill, one can get a chair, but most people do not want to be seen being wheeled to a train. It is difficult for these people to carry their own luggage and find their places in the train.

I recently went to catch the Flying Scotsman, a very good train, from Newcastle to London. One has to pick a seat and pay for it; no one objects to this. But the Flying Scotsman stops at Newcastle Central Station for only three minutes, and after one has a ticket one has no idea of what compartment or carriage to look for. Fortunately, this time, a kind porter carried my luggage, but he could not wait, so when the train came in I entered the first compartment I saw and took a seat which was not mine, although, fortunately, it was not reserved.

I had my two suitcases with me and there were two very polite men in the compartment. One, an elderly man, said, "I cannot help you put your luggage up, because I have a war wound and am not allowed to." A charming young man in the corner said, "It is frightful for me, but I have had an appendicitis operation and am not allowed to lift luggage." So I was sitting in a seat which was not mine, and nothing could be done about my luggage, so we had to throw it into the corridor.

It is intolerable that porters are not provided for the travelling public. It is true that now, because of nylon and other materials, the public do not have to carry such heavy cases, but they have much further to walk. The other day I was trying to get over to the West Coast from the East Coast. I arrived in Manchester, where one must walk from one station to another to change trains to get to Preston, and must walk a very long way. There was no porter and no one to give directions and no announcement on the Tannoy. Therefore, a passenger kindly carried my suitcases and showed me the way. These complaints are being made all the time and the Railways Board could not care less.

We are told that the porters have got other jobs to do. In the old days, porters did not have other jobs to do, as far as I know. They were always very agreeable and helpful. They were there to help the general public. What with filthy stations and often filthy trains, partly because the staff do not have time to clean the trains, everybody has to travel in very unpleasant circumstances.

It might be a good thing if we could have a competent woman on the Railways Board. I like the attributes of men very much indeed. I know they enjoy discussing increasing the speed of railway trains, but when it comes to the comfort of the travelling public and dealing with the dirty conditions, it would be very much better if a competent woman were able to direct the attention of the Board to such matters so that British Railways were put in a competitive class compared with railways in other European countries.

Today, I went to an illuminating and fascinating address given by the new Secretary of State for Social Services at the National Council for Social Services. Various points of view were put forward by disabled persons. I was told to mention this matter by members of the well-known committee called the Disabled Income Group, in which hon. Members on both sides of the House are interested. One of the spokesmen for this group said, "If you are going to talk about the railways tonight will you point out to the Minister that until recently, or possibly until the railways were nationalised, when a disabled person wanted to travel he could engage a compartment, whereas now British Railways say that anyone who wants to reserve a compartment must pay 3s. a mile?"

The disabled take a very dim view of this. It is the same with the Postmaster-General. If people want to be called to enable them to get to work in the morning, they have to pay 2s. for the telephone call. This treatment of the disabled has caused annoyance and is extremely unhelpful to those for whom the railways ought to be trying to do their best. The railways used to do their best for these people in the past. I cannot believe that the attention of the railways has not been drawn to these dirty conditions and lack of facilities.

What is very disconcerting is that when one goes to a railway station there is nobody to whom one can address an inquiry. The Railways Board says that the Tannoy system will enable people to have information. The other day, at Newcastle Central station, the Tannoy was working and the announcer was saying that the 11.26 was due to leave at 3.15 or something of the sort. But at the same time, a diesel engine arrived in the station and emitted the most terrific hoots. It went on hooting so that nobody on the station could possibly hear the announcement. I have not the slightest doubt that if somebody had missed the train, the Railways Board would have said that it was the fault of the intending passenger because he had not heard the Tannoy announcement.

I had a nice reply from the Minister of Transport when I asked about the appointment of a woman to the Railways Board. It was a typical politician's answer. He did not say "No" and he did not say "Yes". He did not rule it out. If the members of the Railways Board are to continue to give all their time to designing new engines, the passengers will not get the treatment to which they are entitled. No one wants to travel at 125 m.p.h. The present speed is adequate. A passenger cannot easily drink a cup of tea or drink his soup or have any other drink at the present speed. At 125 m.p.h., no one will be able to have a drink or to eat a meal in the restaurant car.

It would be much better if the Board learned what the ordinary railwaymen think and if they talked, for example, to the maintenance men. There are very nice maintenance men who come along when the electric light goes out just as the sleeper train is drawing out of the station. They are very competent men. They say to me—I know them well—"It is no good our talking to management. Nobody listens to what we say". That is one of the depressing distressing features of the British Railways system. Men who, in the old days, had pride in the way they ran the railways and the service which they gave, will say today, "Nobody cares, and it is no good talking about these things". I am coming to the conclusion that that is true.

I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will not say that this is not his business. Having appointed a Railways Board and provided money for the Board to increase their investment, I do not believe that the Government have no interest in ensuring that the railways are properly run for the benefit of the passengers—and I am arguing only on behalf of the passengers.

At one time I occasionally used the line on which there was that dreadful accident at Hither Green. I hated travelling on that line because, although I am not a nervous traveller, the train swayed so much that the speed seemed to be excessive for steadiness on the rail. I wrote to a former Minister and pointed that out. In a very nice letter he replied that the train was not going too fast. But after the inquiry it turned out that the train had been going too fast for the track. I hope that the Minister understands that when Members of Parliament of either side of the House write making complaints, they are complaining not against the railwaymen but against the administration, which at top level needs an overhaul. We want men in the administration who know about the psychology of travel, as well as about designing new engines to travel at 125 m.p.h.

I hope that the Minister thinks well of what I have tried to say. I want the railways to be a success, for I prefer to travel by rail than to travel by air or by car. But unless there is proper treatment of passengers, the railways will get worse and worse and their losses will grow bigger and bigger.

11.20 p.m.

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

I am grateful for this opportunity to explain some of the responsibilities of the various bodies concerned with this matter, including the Railways Board, the transport users' consultative committees, and the Central Transport Consultative Committee and to show how my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport fits into the picture. All of these bodies and individuals are concerned to ensure that the railway service is maintained with the highest standard of comfort, compatible with efficiency and reasonable economy.

The matters raised by the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) are essentially matters of management for the Railway Board. She said that nobody listens to what the railway-men say, that the railway workers are "browned off", and so on. To some extent she is probably right, but that is precisely why my right hon. Friend the former Minister of Transport introduced the Transport Act. As she explained, it is difficult to have good morale among the workers in an industry which continually has large deficits—because railwaymen feel that they are always losing—the Transport Act was introduced.

The Act is designed to break through this feeling; to put the railways on a completely new footing and eradicate the idea of the railways merely being given a deficit grant. Instead, the railways must pay their way—that is, as long as the nation takes responsibility for certain charges which should properly be the responsibility of the nation and not of the railways.

When we consider the responsibilities involved, there must be a point at which we must allow the people appointed by the Minister to do their work. Considering the changes that have come about in the railway industry, which is over 100 years old, and particularly the changes of the last 10 to 20 years, one must admit that the difficulties which these changes have thrown up have been tremendous. Few industries can claim to have reduced their number of employees—in this case there has been a reduction of 29 per cent. in the last five years—so smoothly and easily. This has been an example to other industries.

The Railways Board recognise the importance of achieving and maintaining a high quality of service. It treats seriously all complaints made by members of the public and remedies deficiencies as far as it is able. The Board must operate within the limits of its financial resources and, as I have explained, we have changed the Board's remit in the Transport Act. It is only reasonable to expect the Board to take into account amenities for the public as well as speed and convenience of travel if it is to attract the custom which will enable it to pay its way, which is the ultimate touchstone by which the railways must operate.

The hon. Lady referred to her visit to the Central Transport Consultative Committee and her discussions with the Railways Board. The Committee and the Board work closely together and receive many suggestions from local transport consultative committees and from T.U.C.C.s for Wales and Monmouthshire and Scotland, which are also able to make direct representations to the Minister on important matters. I regret that the hon. Lady felt that she received cavalier treatment, however charming, from the C.T.C.C. when she attended one of its meetings. I am sure that that was not intended. I understand that the matters which she discussed there were already known to the Committee and had been considered in conjunction with the Railways Board.

Dame Irene Ward

But nothing had been done about them.

Mr. Carmichael

As I explained, the matters were known; and, in any event, the Committee exists to consider complaints made by the public. It is also responsible to see that those complaints are met, if possible, within the remit of the Railways Board.

The responsibilities of the Minister are numerous. He receives recommendations on quality of service from the C.T.C.C., the T.U.C.C. for Scotland and the T.U.C.C. for Wales and Monmouthshire. He can then, if he wishes, give directions to the Railways Board, but this power of direction is rarely used. Where improvements are practicable, they are normally carried out by agreement with the Railways Board.

The hon. Lady made a lot of the question of porters. I make no complaint about that. A number of productivity deals have been done in the railway industry in recent years, and the most recent of these concerned a change in the tasks of porters. One reason why the railways have been able to reduce their manpower by 29 per cent. has been their ability to cut out certain jobs, so helping to make this a viable industry in which conditions and wages are improved for the men on the job.

Porters as such no longer exist. Officially, they are now "railmen". Their main job is to carry out essential station duties, such as attending to trains, closing doors, seeing that trains leave on time, unloading luggage vans, dealing with parcels, helping with station cleaning and acting as bill-posters. They are available to assist individual passengers only when their other duties permit. They expect to be called on in case of special need, such as to help the infirm, the elderly, women with prams, and so on, but advance warning is desirable.

It is impossible, in modern conditions, for the staff of railway stations to be economically—

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

Adjourned at twenty-six minutes past Eleven o'clock.