HC Deb 03 February 1970 vol 795 cc382-94

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

11.41 p.m.

Mr. Peter Tapsell (Horncastle)

I am grateful for this opportunity to challenge the recently announced Government decision to close the East Lincolnshire railway line to passenger traffic. This is a matter of the greatest concern to my constituents.

I last raised this subject, also in an Adjournment debate, on 10th May, 1966. The arguments I then used seem equally or even more valid today. There is also an entirely new argument of great importance to which I shall come a little later.

I wish to make seven specific points, of which I have given the Parliamentary Secretary prior notice, in the short time that is available to me. My constituents will be grateful if the Minister will deal with each of the seven points head-on and with absolute frankness in his reply rather than take refuge, as have some of his predecessors—and I have dealt with a number of them on this issue—in generalities about losses not continuing on anything like their present scale. I am glad to see the Secretary of State for Local Government and Regional Planning present. He has a constituency interest in this matter and I hope that he will bring to bear his influence in the Cabinet.

My first point is the hardship the closure will cause to many of my constituents. Two inquiries by the independent T.U.C.C. have reported, with a wealth of supporting evidence, that the closure will cause serious and widespread social hardship throughout East Lincolnshire. Does the Parliamentary Secretary accept or reject these reports? I hope that he will give a clear answer to this first question.

The second point relates to the economic implications of closure for the whole area. I have, in my constituency, unusually high seasonal unemployment, running at 7½ per cent. along the coastal strip, including Skegness, at present. There is also an urgent need to attract new light industry to the market towns. We have had some success in this regard recently, but closure of the railway line will reduce the possibility of further successes in future.

The proposed closure will leave many of my constituents 40 or 50 miles from the nearest railway station. Does the Parliamentary Secretary know of any other area of comparable size and importance within 150 miles of London which will be so entirely bereft of rail transport?

When I raised this matter on the previous occasion on 10th May, 1966, the then Parliamentary Secretary said: …we are moving away from the concept of considering one railway line towards looking at the needs of a whole area."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th May, 1966; Vol. 728, c. 365.] Is this still the policy of the Ministry? If so, how is it reconcilable with this closure decision?

What is the point of some Government Departments talking about building up the regions and spending large sums of money in trying to do so when at the same time another Government Department is destroying an important part of the economic infrastructure of this particular region? Where is the logic and consistency in this?

Thirdly, I would challenge the realism of the figures published by the Ministry for the level of losses the line is making. I do this on a number of counts. The diversion of the profitable Humberside freight traffic to the Market Rasen line was a deliberate decision taken by British Railways which inevitably in-inflated the losses of the East Lincolnshire line. Many of my constituents believe that this was done deliberately to strengthen the case for closure after this had been rejected by two previous Ministers. Whatever the motive, events have proved that it was clearly a mistaken managerial decision which should be reversed.

If there is only enough Humberside freight for one line, the poor state of the track on the Grimsby to Market Rasen line, and the discovery of massive quantities of natural gas close to the East Lincolnshire coast, which the operators wish to move by rail, should lead British Railways to give first priority to the East Lincolnshire line and reverse their previous decision.

Moreover, we were given a categorical assurance at the time by the noble Lord, Lord Champion, speaking on 10th May, 1966, on behalf of the Government in another place, that the losses resulting from the diversion of freight traffic would not subsequently be used to justify the withdrawal of passenger services. It seems that a clear issue of Government faith is involved here, and I hope that the Minister will read what the noble Lord said on that occasion.

There has been a sorry tale of incompetent and unimaginative management by British Railways throughout, because no attempt has been made to run a basic rural railway. As my hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Body) will confirm, if he gets an opportunity to intervene in the debate, on 2nd June, 1967, Mr. Gerard Fiennes, the then General Manager of the Eastern Region of British Railways, took us both in his private train on a tour of the East Lincolnshire railway line. He then told us that for a capital expenditure of £250,000 it would be possible for British Railways to reduce the annual deficit on the line to about £100,000, and he asked us whether the three Lincolnshire county councils would make a financial contribution towards that £100,000 loss. We said that we were sure they would. We subsequently had certain private communications with the clerks of the three councils which, without definite commitment on their part, sounded promising. But there was no follow-up by British Railways on this, and no action at all, apart from the dismissal of Mr. Gerard Fiennes as General Manager. Why has no attempt been made to produce a basic rural passenger service in East Lincolnshire?

For those reasons, it is absurd for the Parliamentary Secretary now to pretend that the line cannot be run at a loss of less than £700,000 a year, which is what he said in his letter to me the other day. How, if the then General Manager of the Eastern Region was confident that he could run a basic rural railway in East Lincolnshire at a loss of only £100,000 in 1967, has it now come about, only 2½ years later, that the minimum estimated loss should have risen to £700,000? It is unbelievable. This figure of £700,000 is evidently bogus.

Fourth, the Minister is statutorily bound, before agreeing to the withdrawal of passenger services, to ensure that adequate alternative means of transport exist. In East Lincolnshire they really do not. The roads are narrow and winding, and in summer are choked with traffic and caravans. The bus services are wholly inadequate, and the new additional bus services proposed are really quite laughable. I do not have time to go into details, but anyone living in the Mablethorpe or Alford area wanting to get to London should, the Ministry suggests, take a bus to Louth, change there and take another bus to Market Rasen, and then get on the train to London.

I often have to fly to Teheran in Persia on business, and I have worked out that I shall be able to get to Teheran a good deal quicker than my constituents will be able to get to London. Is this not absurd? Does the Minister realise and accept the truth of what I am saying about the inadequacy of alternative services? One of the things that irritates my constituents above all else is the bogus alternative. They would rather the Minister came clean and was utterly ruthless and said, "We realise that it will cause hardship and that we cannot give you anything else, but we will close it for these reasons." To pretend to my constituents that they are being given an adequate alternative service is adding insult to injury.

Fifthly, is it true that the Market Rasen line is barely capable of safely bearing the existing volume of traffic on it, as is widely believed by railwaymen in the area? How near are we to the margin of safety on the Market Rasen line? Will heavy expenditure upon it be necessary if the East Lincolnshire line is closed? I hope that we shall be told.

The sixth point concerns a new development in the situation of great importance and relevance, namely, the discovery of natural gas off the East Lincolnshire coast. We have been told in the past that this had no bearing on the railway situation, but I have recently discovered that that is not true. The gas terminal is at Theddlethorpe, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Louth (Mr. Jeffrey Archer), but only a quarter of a mile away from the end of the Mablethorpe railway line in my constituency.

A major international oil company, which is to be one of the operators for the Gas Council, has told me that it will shortly wish to move 450 tons of condensate, which is crude petrol, every day from Theddlethorpe to Immingham by rail. It wants to move it by rail from Mablethorpe via Willoughby Junction to Humberside. This will involve three freight trains, each of 30 rail tank trucks of 45 product ton capacity in perpetual use every day. The income to British Rail would be at least £150,000 a year—perhaps significantly more—from this one company.

But this is only a start. This oil company tells me that the capacity of this gas field may soon involve three companies as operators and that over 1,200 tons of crude petrol may have to be moved each day. This would be equivalent to nine freight trains of 30 trucks in perpetual service—a new freight income to British Rail of at least £450,000 a year, or perhaps more.

If the railway closes, this one oil company alone will need at least 25 huge 5,000-gallon road tankers making the daily return trip down these narrow, winding, crowded country lanes between Mablethorpe and Humberside. Later, if all three operators are in the field, there could be 75 or more road tankers needed, each making the return trip daily.

It is absolute sheer insanity to contemplate such a situation with the roads in their present state. All holiday traffic, on which the whole area depends for its livelihood, will be brought to a virtual standstill. The roads will break up, as the county council has already warned the oil company.

If a tanker slips into a ditch or a dyke, as is bound to happen sooner or later, and part of its potentially dangerous crude petrol is spilt on the still waters—they are not flowing—the road will have to be closed for many hours, if not days, while the petrol is pumped away.

Has the Minister really thought out the implications of what he is doing? I feel that he ought to order a thorough investigation into this movement of natural gas which can most suitably go by rail.

Lastly, if, as I understand, British Rail plans to keep the main line open to freight from Willoughby Junction north to Grimsby and from Spalding south to Peterborough, the only stretches of track which will be taken up, while the Skegness to Boston line remains open to passenger traffic, are the two short stretches between Willoughby and Firsby in my constituency and between Boston and Spalding in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston.

Why not keep all the existing main track, which has to be used for this very profitable and growing freight traffic, and run on it a basic rural passenger railway service to Peterborough via Spalding, as suggested by Mr. Gerard Fiennes when he was General Manager of the Eastern Region? And why not ask the county councils, which the Ministry has not yet done, to make a financial contribution towards the greatly reduced losses of running such a basic rural passenger service?

I hope that the Minister will at least undertake to study this suggestion and report to us later and will answer my seven points.

11.55 p.m.

Mr. Richard Body (Holland-with-Boston)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Horncastle (Mr. Tapsell) on being more successful than I was in the Ballot and for raising this subject. I echo every word he has said. All the arguments have been represented to the Minister, but has he paid sufficient regard to what the Maud Report said? If the Government intend to act on the Report soon, I regret that they have not heeded what it said about the need for good communications between Spalding and Peterborough. I doubt whether the hon. Gentleman realises that many people, particularly in the southern half of Holland, will now have a journey of more than two hours at least and sometimes as much as three hours to reach Peterborough. The County of Holland is a chronically low income area and it is out of the question for thousands of families to acquire a car, which means that they will be dependent upon public transport—which will not be available, no matter what he may say about future bus services.

Because of the shortage of time, I can put only one question, but I hope that it is answered. What will the cost be of keeping open a light diesel unit for a rural train service between Spalding and Peterborough? If the hon. Gentleman does not know, we may be sure that about 35,000 people in the southern half of Holland, who are tragically affected by this decision, will say that he has not made a just decision.

11.57 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Albert Murray)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Horncastle (Mr. Tapsell) for raising this subject, which gives me the opportunity to explain my right hon. Friend's decision to consent to the Railways' Board's revised proposal to withdraw rail passenger services from a number of lines in East Lincolnshire. If I do not pick up all the points mentioned by him and his hon. Friend, I will write to him on the others.

Several hon. Members made strong representations before this decision was taken, and, of course, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Local Government and Regional Planning, who is here tonight, took a close interest in the proposal. I know that he and they were concerned about the effect of this decision on their constituents. I need hardly say that all aspects of the proposal, social and economic, were carefully considered before the final decision.

Hon. Members do not need to be reminded in detail of British Rail's problems over recent years, caused by competition from other forms of transport, or of the Government's plan for a stabilised railway network or of the scheme for the payment of grants for the retention of unremunerative but socially necessary services embodied in the Transport Act, 1968.

In 1962, with the general support of hon. Members opposite, the right hon Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples), introduced his Transport Act. This set the newly constituted Railways Board the formidable task of reducing its deficit, without assisting it in anyway with the burden of providing these loss-making services. Consequently, the board decided that it could no longer justify the high cost of continuing to provide rail services in East Lincolnshire except to Boston from the main line through Grantham and from Lincoln. Closure proposals to this end were published in 1963 and 1964 but when the present Government came to look at these proposals, following the receipt of the reports by the Transport Users Consultative Committee, we took the view that they were too far-reaching.

Mr. Tapsell

I do not wish to be discourteous but we all know the history of this, and all my constituents know the history. We would like answers to my questions and not a recapitulation of old history.

Mr. Murray

I do not wish to make the debate acrimonious, but I gave more than half the time to hon. Members opposite and I want to make a number of points. I have given the hon. Member certain assurances that if I do not answer all his points now, I will write to him. It is important that the history of this is seen, rather than just the day-to-day points which the hon. Member has made.

The services concerned were clearly unremunerative, but we could not countenance leaving such an important centre as Skegness without a rail connection. The board was therefore asked to think again.

The proposals were then revised in 1968 to meet our objections, and as a result the proposed withdrawal of services between Boston and Skegness was dropped and a new rail service was proposed from Grantham and Lincoln to Skegness via Boston and Sleaford together with an improved service between Grimsby and London via Newark and the East Coast main line. This was envisaged in the basic network map published in 1967. Detailed improvements were also proposed to the alternative bus services to serve people who would not be served by the new rail services.

The T.U.C.C. made a further report after considering these changes, and my right hon. Friend then had, in effect, to decide the future of the services between Lincoln and Firsby, between Peterborough and Grimsby, and the branch line from this line to Mablethorpe.

The T.U.C. considered that closure would cause widespread hardship because of lengthened journey times and increased fares, although it recognised that there was no justification for keeping some of the little-used stations. On the other hand, my right hon. Friend found, after a detailed examination, that most of the journeys made were of an occasional nature and, clearly, the impact of hardship would not be as great as if these were regular daily journeys. Moreover he was satisfied that other public transport services, supplemented where necessary to fill gaps in the existing pattern, would provide acceptable alternatives for all but a relatively few journeys.

To have kept all these services would have cost £700,000 in grant-aid every year, after allowing for the very substantial cost of keeping the services to Skegness. This figure reflects the low level of usage in relation to the very considerable route mileage involved.

On the Lincoln-Firsby line, most of the local travel is confined to the first 20 miles from Lincoln, and bus services, strengthened for workers' journeys, will adequately meet this need, although on some journeys people will have to change buses. Each of the other stations on the line had, on average, fewer than five people using it in a day. The rest of the travel is mainly between Lincoln and Skegness, and there is no point in keeping the line for this purpose when there is the other route from Lincoln to Skegness via Sleaford and Boston which, together with the Grantham link, will serve other needs at the same time. The route from Grantham also carries the summer Saturday holiday trains to Skegness from the Midlands.

The possible freight requirement north of Mablethorpe in connection with the natural gas terminal does not materially affect the position.

Hon. Members

Why not?

Mr. Murray

I will say why not. If the Railways Board finds it profitable to accept this traffic—and we do not know that it will—the quantities so far mentioned have been of the order of one train load a day. Lines carrying infrequent freight services are maintained to very much lower standards than lines carrying passenger services. The difference in cost is so great that the presence of a freight service would not significantly affect the track and signalling costs allocated to a passenger service.

I come to the question of the Peterborough-Grimsby line, in which my right hon. Friend obviously has a considerable interest.

Mr. Jeffrey Archer (Louth)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that it is not correct to say that his right hon. Friend has that great an interest, for the Minister will be able to get straight to his constituency via Newark. We, on the other hand, face problems between Lincoln and Grimsby. The right hon. Gentleman's interest does not compare with ours in this context.

Mr. Murray

My right hon. Friend has shown a great deal of interest in this matter. The mere fact that he is in his place tonight, at this late hour, listening to an Adjournment debate on the subject is proof of his interest.

I was about to say that in respect of the Peterborough-Grimsby line the section between Boston and just south of Firsby Station is to be kept for the Skegness service. To have retained the service over the whole length would have involved something like £½ million every year in grant aid, and I do not think that it can be argued that such a large sum of the taxpayers' money would be justified at this time if other satisfactory transport arrangements can be made.

One-fifth of the total travel on the line throughout the year is by people travelling all the way between Grimsby and London. They travel mainly by the two through trains a day each way and also by changing at Peterborough to the main line London train. One of the main points which influenced the decision on this service was that the Railways Board has undertaken to introduce an improved service between Grimsby and London via Market Rasen and Newark. In particular, it will continue by way of Newark the through train facility to and from London.

This improved service can be provided at no additional cost to the taxpayer. Thus, the cost of retaining the Peterborough-Grimsby service would have been, in effect, for the benefit of the remaining travellers. About one-fifth of these are regular daily travellers who, in the main, travel to the next station or the station beyond. Buses will serve all but a very few, and we have specified additional bus journeys where necessary. Journeys will, as has been pointed out, take longer, but not so long that the need for a train service could be considered over-riding.

On the Grimsby-Firsby section of line, Louth and Alford are the only stations apart from Grimsby which originate travel of any consequence to the South beyond Firsby, and this is mainly to London. But the numbers making such journeys are more appropriate to a bus than a train. An alternative can be provided by bus to Market Rasen to connect with the through trains that will run to and from London via Newark. This we have also specified.

South of Firsby, much of the travel is between Boston and Skegness and from Skegness, Boston and Spalding to London. With the exception of Spalding, these travellers will be served by the retained rail service. Bus services between Spalding and Peterborough will be improved and they will stop at the station approach there.

Because the T.U.C.C. took the view that hardship would be caused by the additional journey time and cost of the diversion via Grantham for people using the service from Skegness via Boston, and because the bus service is a less convenient alternative, my right hon. Friend paid special attention to the possibility of retaining a basic rail service between Boston and Peterborough via Spalding. But after careful consideraion he concluded that the £150,000 needed annually in grant-aid terms for such a service could not be justified, bearing in mind the very few known regular daily travellers between the two towns of Boston and Peterborough. Moreover, the occasional journeys on this section of line are, as I have said, usually made as part of longer journeys; and for those passengers the additional time involved in going via Grantham would not be an unreasonable proportion of the whole journey time.

On some of the other points I shall contact those hon. Members who raised them. As hon. Members will know, my right hon. Friend has no power to revoke the consent which he has now given to these closure proposals. He has, however, power to vary the conditions attaching to that consent. The conditions that have been attached all relate to bus services. As a first step, an application for licensing these services has to be considered by the independent Traffic Commissioners, to whom local authorities and others will have the opportunity to state their views and to make representations. It will be for the Traffic Commissioners to decide whether they are prepared to license the bus services specified by my right hon. Friend. If they disagree—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Tuesday evening, 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 eleven minutes past Twelve o'clock.