HC Deb 24 July 1969 vol 787 cc2222-32

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

7.34 p.m.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles (Winchester)

I feel that I should start this short debate by an apology to you, Mr. Speaker, to the staff of the House and to the HANSARD reporters for keeping all of you here even for a few minutes more after so many middle watches were kept last night. I will in the circumstances be very brief indeed. Of course, it lies within the Joint Parliamentary Secretary's power to bring the proceedings to a halt within a moment by saying, "O.K. you can have your railway".

There is great concern about the future of the mid-Hants railway running from Alton to Winchester. Many people fear that the line is doomed anyway. There was a notice of closure in November, 1967, and they fear, from the run—down state of the railway and the way in which the line is run—I am not criticising the local staff—that the decision seems already to have been taken. I wrote recently to the Chairman of Southern Region— …the suspicion is voiced by many of my constituents that a decision in principle has already been taken and that the services have 'purposely' been badly run in order to produce bad statistics and to prove that the line is not a paying proposition …I am not myself suggesting this machiavellian intent but …I do feel that a fresh appreciation of the whole problem should be made … Another factor which causes suspicion arises from a recent reply by the Minister to a Question from me: I asked him what estimate of the additional revenue he took into account in reaching his decision that a halt at Kings Worthy would not be a significant factor for the future of this railway line. The right hon. Gentleman replied: No detailed estimate is necessary to show that revenue from a halt at Kings Worthy could not he a significant factor in reaching a decision on the future of the line."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th March, 1969; Vol. 780, c. 212.] This is an extraordinary reply in the case of a suggested halt in a district whose population is growing much more quickly than in any other part of the area used by the railway. My first question to the hon. Gentleman, therefore, is whether he will look again with a completely fresh mind at this question of a new halt at Kings Worthy.

I am not urging the Minister to keep open a railway which is definitely substantially uneconomical in the long run. I am too good a Conservative to suggest any such thing. But my case is that the railway is viable and if run properly could be a profitable little line. In deploying a case of this sort, one has to produce some statistics. It is difficult to bring them into a short debate like this so I shall produce the minimum of figures to support my case.

The latest figures for this line, given to the Ministry by British Rail, are that the total running costs annually are £125,000, less an earnings figure of £29,000. British Rail deduces a deficit of £96,000—a tremendous figure for a small line like this. But these figures are contested, both as to total costs and earnings, by the local authorities, headed by the Winchester Rural District Council, which has done some very useful and detailed research. I will give one or two quick examples of why the figures produced by British Rail are suspect.

British Rail has admitted that the figures are unduly high for some of the costs. The earnings figure is given as £29,000. This is very suspect—indeed it appears to be outrageously wrong. British Rail claims that passenger traffic has reduced since the main Winchester line was electrified, but a local census taken by a rural district council official shows that passenger traffic on the small line has actually increased.

The number of passengers on this small line has increased since the much more convenient revised time-table has been introduced, and commuters can make the connection which suits them at Alton when outward bound or inward bound.

In arriving at the figures for earnings it seems almost incredible that British Railways have not included the proportion of income from through tickets bought further up or down the line. The R.D.C. believes that 60 per cent. of the total passenger traffic is through traffic and should therefore be included as contributory income.

To sum up the statistics, it seems that the figures on earnings should be much more like £36,000 of direct income and £50,000 is direct contributory income, making a total of £86,000, which is much more like a viable railway. There is in existence a copy of a confidential memorandum, for the railway staff, which gives the figure of £85,000 for contributory income alone, excluding direct income. Has the Minister seen that memorandum? It has been forwarded to his Ministry.

My third specific plea to the Minister is that, as the Ministry is responsible for providing accurate figures in deciding a case like this, the railway should not be closed down for financial reasons except on figures agreed by the local authorities. The local authorities are very much taken up with this problem.

I turn to a couple of much broader aspects of the future of the line which I hope the Minister will consider when making his decision. The area served by this railway has a population which is growing very rapidly. Many categories of travellers will be affected, not only in villages where there are stops or halts on the railway, but in the whole agricultural community spread over the large area served by the railway. Not only are stops and halts in my constituency affected but also stations in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Petersfield (Miss Quennell) and Alton and Winchester itself.

There are some special features about the type of passengers who use this railway. In a letter which the county education officer wrote to the Ministry of Transport it was stated: The public transport situation has changed considerably since the proposed rail closure was brought forward for reconsideration about two years ago. Throughout the county there are increasing difficulties in arranging for the conveyance of children to and from school. The bus companies are unable to maintain their full staffs for a variety of reasons of which no doubt the Minister is well aware. One local bus company near Winchester has recently been discontinued and the services which the company provided have not been taken over by the major public bus company … whose resources are already fully extended. The education committee have with considerable difficulty been able to make alternative contract arrangements but the cost has been more than doubled. The road transport industry is unable to convey at appropriate times the passengers who would be displaced if the rail services are withdrawn. It is believed that owing to the labour situation the education authority could provide special transport for these scholars only at a very high cost and additional public expenditure and not benefit other rail passengers who would be displaced. This is a very strong case, in broad and general terms, that the total cost to the public funds will be greater in respect of serving these schools.

On the subject of hardship, an inquiry was held by the transport users consultative committee. It was held in April this year in Alresford and the committee expressed the opinion that the closure would cause considerable hardship to travellers from in the period 1st April to 31st October, 1968. journeys over the line to Eastleigh or Southampton by reason of additional travelling time. They considered that the incidence of delays to buses arising from traffic congestion in the Winchester area would often aggravate this hardship, as well as causing inconvenience to local passengers to and from Winchester …They also expressed the view that the developments envisaged in the South Hampshire Study, coupled with the need for road improvements in the Winchester area, made the closure proposal premature, and that based on such financial information as they had any financial gain would be outweighed by the hardship caused. Does the Minister recognise the hardship referred to in this report from which I have read extracts?

Alternative road communications are inadequate and are getting worse. A comparison of the bus timings shows that anyone wishing to travel from Alresford to Eastleigh can do so in 23 minutes by rail on the present timetable but it would take 102 minutes by two buses even if the buses were not delayed in Winchester traffic as they almost always are.

The fifth point which has a direct bearing on the future of the railway is that the congestion in Winchester, the natural capital of the area, where people who live beside this railway have to go for shopping and so forth is very bad indeed. I had a letter from the city clerk which emphasises how extremely serious this problem is and how much worse it is likely to become every year. Will the Minister write to the town clerk of Winchester and ask his views on the effect of the closure of this railway on parking, road access to and from Winchester and traffic congestion within Winchester? It would be right for the Minister to have a report from the city council about how this would affect the city.

There is a wider issue for the future. "Strategy for the South-East" the Government's overall plan, which is the latest of many plans for orderly development of the south-east of England, speaks of a huge so-called "Solent City" and envisages many growth points to the south of the countryside served by this railway. The map on page 36 of this Green Book, "Strategy for the South-East", shows the railway quite clearly as one of the transport arteries which served this vast conurbation we are expecting to see in the future. I feel strongly that people from the hinterland will want to get into this enormous Solent City daily for employment. That is inevitable. Equally important people will want to escape at weekends to country places to keep themselves healthy and sane.

It is not too much to say that if public expenditure must be made on maintaining this railway, it would be better spent on that than in providing additional new mental hospitals in the Solent City! I urge the Minister to take a long-term strategic view and not to be fobbed off in his Ministry by short-term financial considerations. This is a brief summary of what I feel about the future of this railway. I end with a quotation made by the town clerk in a recent letter he sent to me: Anybody who signs away any item of public transport in this area will qualify for a grave in the close of Winchester Cathedral —beside that of Ethelred the Unready.

7.50 p.m.

Miss J. M. Quennell (Petersfield)

I support most warmly everything that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles) has said. I will not recapitulate on his arguments, which were excellent. However, there is a certain oddity about this issue which has given rise to considerable public disquiet. If there was a case of the handling of an issue lending it a certain oddity, this must be a prime example.

When the Minister considers the application of British Railways, may I point out to him that there is one group of railway users which my hon. and gallant Friend did not mention. This group of people need the railway to get to their institutions of advanced education in Southampton. There is no other way in which they can get to Southampton from the Alton area in my constituency, Many scholars need the railway in order to undertake their daily schooling. Should the line be closed there would be no alternative means of transport for them. They would not be able to continue in the institutions in which they are studying.

It is not my intention to prolong the debate unnecessarily, although I believe that it is possible to go on until 10.30. Therefore, the Minister is fortunate that all the Hampshire Members have not seen fit to attend the debate. I urge the hon. Gentleman to take a very long look at the application of British Railways in respect of this line. I urge him to consider the figures which my hon. and gallant Friend advanced. I urge him to consider the various reports including "Strategy for the South-East", and the future development of this area and then consider what would be the consequences of the closure of this line.

7.52 p.m.

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

I, too, am grateful that other Hampshire Members are perhaps as tired as I am. Last evening I had to deal with two items under the Consolidated Fund Bill which were separated by eight hours. I am therefore grateful that not all the Hampshire Members are present.

I need hardly say that I have been aware for some time of the great interest which the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) has expressed in the proposal to withdraw all passenger services from the railway line between Alton and Winchester. That interest has been shared by several other Members and the speeches we have heard tonight cannot have failed to impress by their genuine and reasoned concern.

Under the relevant provisions of the Transport Act, 1962, it is the Minister who is responsible for deciding whether or not to give his consent to this closure proposal. As in all cases of this kind, the process of consultation and consideration is extremely lengthy and detailed and I should like to take this opportunity of emphasising the care which is devoted to the examination of these proposals and which accounts, in large measure for the time which has elapsed between publication and decision. I assure hon. Members that a decision has not yet been taken.

Apart from the voluminous information provided by the Railways Board at every stage of the inquiry, the Minister receives the advice of the Transport Users Consultative Committee on hardship matters, of the Regional Economic Planning Council on planning and development considerations, of other Departments of Government which have a special interest and of his own Divisional Road Engineer on road traffic and congestion. He also takes into account the views expressed by local authorities and other organisations and I would like to pay a special tribute, in this case, to the efforts made on behalf of present and potential users by the Winchester Rural District Council, representing the local authorities concerned in the case, to ensure that no relevant consideration is overlooked. All the information assembled in this way is subjected to the most careful analysis by the Department's administrators and economists before the decision is taken.

The Mid-Hants railway is a single track line about 17 miles long. It was shown as a "grey line", that is one not selected for development as part of the basic system, in the Railways Network for Development Map which, it will be remembered, was published jointly by the Minister and the Railways in March, 1967. The closure proposal was published in December, 1967, and the Minister received the Transport Users Consultative Committee's report in August last year. The report concluded that closure would give rise to hardship due mainly to increased journey times and difficulties caused by road traffic congestion in the Winchester area if buses had to be used instead of trains. Five weekly counts of rail passenger usage had been taken between April, 1967, and June, 1968, at different seasons of the year, but at the Minister's request a further census was taken in October, 1968. These counts showed a general decline in usage after April, 1967. However, the latest tendency shown by single day counts in April this year is towards a return to April, 1967, levels.

We have given a good deal of thought to the question of whether buses would provide a satisfactory alternative to rail services. We are particularly aware of the problem posed by road congestion at peak hours in Winchester. We know, too, that routeing between Alresford and Winchester presents some difficulties. We have been told of recent changes in existing bus services in the Winchester area. We have discussed with the Department of Education and Science how schoolchildren, who account for about half of the regular daily users, could be catered for, possibly by contract bus services. Our conclusions on these matters will strongly influence the Minister's final decision and if he were to decide to give his consent to closure he would ensure that the necessary conditions were attached to his consent which would have to be complied with before the train service could be discontinued.

As announced last January, the Minister is paying an interim social grant for the maintenance of the present service on this line under Section 39(4) of the Transport Act, 1968. If the Minister were to decide that the service should be retained a grant of the order of about £90,000 a year would have to be paid under Section 39(1) of the Act. This would amount to a deficit of over 6d. a passenger mile. This figure is cal- culated in accordance with the recommendations of the Joint Steering Group on the assumption that the line would be maintained in perpetuity, that full provision would be made for depreciation and renewals on a replacement cost basis and that provision would also be made for administration and interest. The estimated deficit is based on a revenue of about £30,000 which accords with the railways latest traffic figures, but is a good deal lower than figures of earnings quoted in the past.

The Minister cannot ignore the fact that this service is losing a considerable sum of money annually, that the deficit has to be met by the taxpayers and that because this 17 miles long track is already singled there is little scope for major economies.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

Would the hon. Gentleman say whether the grant which is paid takes into account the contributory income to which I referred? The figure of about £30,000 for income which he has given obviously does not include the contributory income by "through" passengers.

Mr. Carmichael

We have some difficulty in convincing people about certain figures, but the fact is that on the figures of which I have spoken, the Government already pay the railways £90,000 a year.

I was discussing the question of providing alternative public transport, the extent to which road congestion in Winchester and Alton can be relieved by new roads and the possibility of some growth in the number of potential regular rail users in the area. These are all matters which in the last resort must be analysed and assessed by the Minister. But he is most anxious that the factual evidence on which his decision will be based is reliable and is seen to be reliable.

We have paid special attention to the information and the arguments brought to our attention by the local authorities acting on behalf of the users of this line. We are by no means convinced that they have made out a case for the retention of a passenger service on the basis of the facts which have so far been assembled. But we think that they have argued sufficiently strongly to justify our asking the Railways Board to carry out new counts of users during typical summer and winter weeks. The Minister has also decided that when this new information is available he will ask the transport users' consultative committee for the South-Eastern area to make a further report to him on the proposal. The committee will, moreover, be able to take into account any revised proposals for alternative bus services and any change in circumstances such as the effect of new road improvements on the problem of traffic congestion in and around Winchester when compiling their report to the Minister.

I know that claims have been made that the census figures previously provided by the Railways Board are unreliable. I do not accept this, but I am most anxious that those concerned should have no cause for complaint even if their suspicions are unfounded. I intend therefore to ask the Board, when they carry out the new census this summer and during the winter, to invite the local authority to be associated with the passenger counts. I hope that this will make sure that whatever is the Minister's final decision there can be no dispute about the traffic figures on which it is based.

Since the Minister has decided to ask the T.U.C.C. for a fresh report, he also intends to ask the Board to review all the financial information which they have previously provided, taking into account whatever estimates of future usage may seem reasonable as a result of these further traffic counts.

Miss Quennell

When the Minister asks the Railways Board to provide further financial information will they do so on the basis of Report No. 72 of the National Board for Prices and Incomes?

Mr. Carmichael

There is some confusion. The Railways Board were given authority under another report by the National Board for Prices and Incomes to charge commercially for their services —in other words, to charge market prices for the services. Of course, they are looking to the future, not simply looking at a static position. They are looking at the question of increased traffic. If the loss-making is relatively small and a reasonable increase in fares is likely to counteract this loss or to bring it within a reasonable figure, then obviously, not only in this case but in all cases, that is considered. Hon. Members frequently say to me, "Will it not help if fares are increased?" Unfortunately, in a large number of cases—I am not commenting on this case—the increase in fares would need to be astronomical to make the service a going concern.

To sum up, we shall not reach a final decision until the Minister is entirely satisfied that he has full and accurate information on all aspects of the case. I hope that what I have said will assure the hon. and gallant Gentleman and his hon. Friend that all this information is being assembled and analysed, even at the cost of prolonging the time before a final decision can be reached. I am sure that that is the right thing to do and that, although perhaps it will take longer, we shall ultimately reach a decision of which we can say that at least everyone will be clear about the basis on which it has been reached.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes past Eight o'clock.

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