HC Deb 21 March 1972 vol 833 cc1419-40

Order for Second reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That the Bill be now read a Second time.

7.0 p.m.

Mr. Daniel Awdry (Chippenham)

My reason for speaking on the Bill tonight is to try to explain its provisions. I should first say why we are debating the Bill at all. It is usual for Private Bills to be given a formal Second Reading, particularly when they contain nothing of a controversial nature. It will have been noticed that no blocking Motion has been tabled against the Bill. However, as the Bill has been objected to orally on each occasion when it has been called for Second Reading, the promoters have asked me to speak in support of it.

Since the railways were nationalised in 1948, the British Transport Commission and subsequently the British Railways Board have promoted a Private Bill every year, the first one being in 1949. On every occasion on which a Second Reading debate has taken place—and there have been several in the last 20 years—the procedure has been for the Minister of Transport or his Parliamentary Secretary to speak in reply and deal with as many as possible of the points raised during the debate, but it was no one's responsibility to present the Bill or to explain its provisions.

This procedure was traditional for a railways Bill, and appears to have worked satisfactorily, as no criticisms were raised and no attempts were made to change it. However, the last time on which there was a Second Reading debate on the Railways Board's Bill was in March, 1970, and this arose from the tabling of a blocking Motion. On that occasion a statement on behalf of the promoters was sent to all hon. Members, as has been done on this occasion, but criticism was levelled at the promoters during the debate for their not having arranged for the Bill to be presented and explained, although that had not been the practice in the past. However, on that occasion a feeling was expressed that there had been some lack of courtesy to the House and, as a consequence, the Chairman of Ways and Means made it known to the parliamentary agents that in future someone should be found to open the debate and to explain the powers that were being sought in the Bill. That explains why I am speaking tonight.

The reason why British Railways need to promote Private Bills in Parliament—and this is the tenth consecutive Bill that they have promoted since they were constituted under the Transport Act, 1962—is that when they decide to construct new works they need compulsory powers to acquire the land on which those works are to be constructed.

There is another reason, which is that the British Railways Board is a statutory authority and, therefore, bound by the statutes governing its activities. From time to time, it is necessary to amend or repeal certain provisions of those statutes, and only Parliament can sanction such amendments or repeals.

I will now deal with the Clauses in a little more detail, but quite shortly. Part I of the Bill is preliminary, and it defines terms and incorporates provisions of general Acts for the purpose of subsequent Parts of the Bill.

Part II is concerned with the works. By Clause 5 power is sought to construct a number of works. Works Nos. 1 to 3 comprise new railways to provide a rail link from the board's London Tilbury and South end line on to Canvey Island required in connection with a proposed oil refinery. Works Nos. 2 and 3 are to be withdrawn following a decision by the oil company to provide a pipeline to connect with work No. 1.

By Clause 6 power is sought to stop up a level crossing in the borough of Gravesend, but not until a diversionary road has been constructed and opened and a footbridge has been provided in place of the level crossing. The Clause also authorises the diversion of footpaths in connection with works Nos. 1 to 3.

By Clause 7 power is sought to reduce the status of a level crossing in Lockinge, Berkshire, to a bridle and footway, and to reduce the status of level crossings at Tunstead, Norfolk, at Great Barton, West Suffolk and at Hessay and Bentley-with-Arksey, West Riding of Yorkshire, to footways. Adjoining owners are granted private rights to use the crossings with vehicles and will be given keys to the vehicular gates. In each case the local highway authority agrees with the proposal.

Clause 8 contains provisions which are all in common form and have appeared in all the special Acts of the board and its predecessors.

Part III deals with lands. By Clause9 the board seeks power to acquire lands for the purpose of the works sought to be authorised by the Bill and for the purposes set out in Schedule 2. By Clause 10 the board will be given an option to acquire rights or easements in certain cases without being obliged to acquire a greater interest. Clause 11 limits the compulsory acquisition of land and easements to 31st December, 1975. The incorporated provisions in Clause 12 are in common form and have appeared in the board's early special Acts.

Part IV relates to protective provisions, and the incorporated provisions in Clause 13 are all in common form and have also appeared in the board's earlier Acts.

Part V is a miscellaneous Part. Clause 14 amends Section 17 of the board's Act of 1970, which empowers a constable to arrest without warrant any person whom he has reasonable cause to believe has contravened or attempted to contravene a byelaw and from whom he cannot obtain a correct name and address. Be fore making the arrest the constable must decide whether the byelaw is one made: for the safety and security of the railway, the preservation of good order or the comfort or convenience of persons upon the railway". These words were included in the Section at the instance of the other place. London Transport Executive has been successful in obtaining similar powers of arrest without those words of limitation, and the Clause seeks to bring the board's powers into line with those of the executive.

Clause 15 repeals Section 3(1) of the Southern Railway (Superannuation Fund) Act, 1927. Under present arrangements the contributions of members to the Southern Railway section of the board's superannuation fund rank only in part for income tax relief. To enable members to obtain full relief, approval of the section must be given under the Finance Act, 1970, as a preliminary to which the board has to amend the rules to com-form with Inland Revenue requirements. These amendments cannot be made to the Southern Region section rules, as Section 3(1) of the Southern Railway (Superannuation Fund) Act, 1927 renders alterations of the kind envisaged ineffective unless authorised by Parliament. This Clause seeks to remove the prohibition so that the rules can be changed as has been done in the other three main line railway sections of the fund.

Clause 16 amends the Act of 1971. Section 30 of the board's Act of 1971 makes provision for the protection of the Harwich Harbour Conservancy Board and the Felixstowe Dock and Railway Company arising from the construction and operation of the extension to Parkeston Quay authorised by the Act and is a consolidation of two separate protective Sections. Since the Section became law it has been discovered that the effect of the consolidation is to create a certain amount of ambiguity of interpretation, and the Clause seeks to repeal the existing Section and to re-enact it in unambiguous form.

The effect of Clause 17 is to apply the Town and Country Planning Act, 1971, and any orders, regulations, rules, schemes and directions made under that Act to development for which powers are sought by the Bill, and limits the planning consent for such development to 10 years.

The hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) has indicated to the promoters his intention during the debate to raise certain points arising from the powers being sought in Clause 9 dealing with the acquisition of land in Berkshire, details of which are set out in Schedule 2. I should make it clear to the House that in accordance with the usual procedure this Bill, if it receives a Second Reading, will be referred to a Select Committee whose responsibility will be to hear any Petitions against it and to consider its various provisions in detail. At the same time, the Committee will have regard to any points raised on the Floor of the House tonight, and will be able to consider the explanations given in order to satisfy themselves that the case has been made out by the promoters in support of the Bill.

I am asked by the promoters to give an assurance that all the points raised on the Bill tonight will be most carefully considered and full explanations will be available by the time the Bill is taken before the Select Committee. In addition the promoters will provide any information which can be supplied direct to any hon. Member who wants it. All hon. Members will appreciate that I cannot deal with individual points on the Bill which may be raised during the course of this debate.

With those few remarks, I hope that the Bill will be given a Second Reading.

7.12 p.m.

Mr. Airey Neave (Abingdon)

The House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Mr. Awdry) for explaining this Bill. The position is a good deal better than it was two years ago when we debated a similar Bill, and since my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) and myself were involved I had better mention this. We complained about it to the authorities concerned with these matters. There was no one to present the Bill at all. I was a strong opponent of the Bill on account of the level crossings in my constituency. I had to introduce the Second Reading. At least we are not in that rather ridiculous position today. My hon. Friend has clearly explained the situation.

I want to deal with level crossings yet again because the Railways Board is always trying to close level crossings in my constituency on the line between Swindon and Didcot. It is proposing to do so again. I would like to refer to these matters entirely. They are of great local importance to farmers in my constituency, and to the passage of traffic at those points in the area of Shrivenham particularly. As my hon. Friend said, they are referred to in Clause 9 and Schedule 2 of this Bill.

The Bill proposes alterations and improvements to the railway line between London and Bristol. One of the reasons is the increase in the speed limit which is proposed for trains along this stretch of line, which has rendered some of the crossings pretty dangerous. At the present time the proposal is that two automatic half-barrier type crossings at Knighton and Ashbury Lane should be closed. The Railways Board wrote to me originally in January and stated that bridges would be provided at both those places. I object to the closure of both those crossings until undertakings are given that bridges should be built there. I will say why in a moment. I am objecting not only on behalf of the farmer who is involved, but also on behalf of the Faringdon Rural District Council and the Shrivenham Parish Council. We shall hear that they were not adequately consulted by the Railways Board, through no fault of that board, or by the Berkshire County Council, whose fault it was. I wish to refer to that tonight because it is of great importance to my constituents.

I mentioned that there was a farmer concerned. He is Mr. R. L. Sheppard, of Chapelwick Farm, Shrivenham. When the Railways Board wrote to me in January proposing these closures, it suggested that bridges should be built at both those points. I have to mention in passing that under Clause 7 there is also a proposal to close another crossing in my constituency—yet a third—at a place called Butterfly Lane in the rural district of Wantage. No objection has been received by me to that proposed closure, but if one appears, no doubt—as my hon. Friend has just reminded the House—this will be considered by the Select Committee.

The position, therefore, turns upon the Ashbury Lane and Knighton crossings. Certainly the Ashbury Lane crossing is by far the most important for the purposes of what I am going to say this evening. I said that originally the Railways Board proposed bridges at both those places. As an alternative, it also proposed to retain the crossings with widened road approaches and central reservations. Since that proposal was made tome in a letter of January, 1972, the Railways Board has decided—no doubt with very good reason—that central reservations and half-barrier crossings are no longer considered safe. The board also seemed, from what it told me at a conference yesterday evening, to have changed its mind about a bridge at the Ashbury crossing, deciding apparently that the crossing should be stopped up altogether—it will have to get a stopping-up order for that, to which objection could be made—and that it would rely in future on diverting traffic a considerable distance to a realigned railway bridge at Shrivenham. This would be disastrous for a great many people who use the Ashbury Lane crossing, and for my constituent, Mr. Sheppard, of Chapelwick Farm. From his point of view, it is totally unacceptable, and it will be strongly opposed locally unless an undertaking is given to build a bridge at the Ashbury Lane crossing. There will be opposition to this at the Select Committee hearing.

Mr. Sheppard's position is that his farm is close to the railway, and he has a farm level crossing as well. That is a complication in this matter. My hon. Friend on the Government Front Bench will know that farm level crossings still exist in many places, but they are exceedingly dangerous when trains are coming at high speed and there is inadequate control. The farm is on both sides of the line so that Mr. Sheppard has to cross somewhere. Negotiations between his solicitors and the Railways Board have been taking place since May, 1971, to close the farm crossing which immediately adjoins his farm. The farm is only a few yards away from the railway. The farm crossing is too dangerous. The negotiations have been held up for some time past because the National Trust also owns land in the vicinity of the railway, and it has a right of way over this farm crossing.

This has caused some distress to Mr. Sheppard, who naturally wishes to receive the compensation which he has already been offered by the Railways Board for the closure of the farm crossing. I hope that the board will see its way, with the National Trust, to bring this matter to a rapid conclusion because Mr. Sheppard is in poor health and may be in need of money.

During the negotiations between the Railways Board and Mr. Sheppard's solicitors, nothing at all was said about the proposal to close the Ashbury Lane crossing. At first sight I thought this was an unfortunate omission, but I have had the opportunity of talking to the Railways Board's legal advisers, and I am assured that it was not decided at that time to close this crossing, and that to that extent no one was to blame for the fact that Mr. Sheppard's solicitors did not know this. Having talked to the board's representative last night, I am bound to say that I feel very much easier about the whole situation, as I shall tell the House in a moment.

Mr. Sheppard's farm, which, as I said, has this farm level crossing adjoining it. is three-quarters of a mile to the east of the Ashbury Lane crossing on the Didcot side of the railway. That is already quite a long way to go to cross to the other side where he has land; that is to say, on the north side of the line. He has 60 acres there, and he wishes from time to time to take his animals from the farmhouse along a track to the Ashbury Lane crossing. He has some distance to go from the Ashbury Lane crossing north of the railway to the land. If that Ashbury Lane crossing is closed without a bridge erected over it, then I calculate and—these are my own calculations—that he will have to take his animals all the way to Shrivenham Bridge a distance of nearly three miles.

There are proposals to carry out works to improve Shrivenham Bridge at a cost of £35,000. This is nearly three miles from the farmhouse, compared with the three-quarters of a mile the fanner has to go to the Ashbury Lane crossing at present. He would have to go into the village of Shrivenham, and with his animals, would have to travel five miles altogether from his farmhouse over Shrivenham Bridge to his land on the north side of the railway. This is unacceptable to the farmer and constitutes a valid objection to the proposal to stop up and to close Ashbury Lane Crossing, without building a bridge there.

The Board acted under the influence of Berkshire County Council, which was not representing the views of my constituents in the matter when it made an agreement with the Railways Board.

My farmer constituent is not the only objector to the proposal to close the Ashbury Lane crossing. There are other objectors through the local authority. There was a meeting in July, 1971, at which the Railways Board's proposals were put to Faringdon Rural District Council and to Shrivenham Parish Council by a Berkshire County Council representative, not by the Railways Board. This is rather like the situation which we had in the debate two years ago when an objector to the Bill moved its Second Reading. On this occasion the Berkshire County Council put the Railways Board's proposal to the two local authorities concerned; namely, the Faringdon District Council and the Shrivenham Parish Council. Both local authorities strongly objected to the closures at Knighton and Ashbury and demanded that there should be bridges at both places, especially at Ashbury.

It is regrettable that the Railways Board did not meet the local councils but relied on Berkshire County Council to carry out for it the job of consultation. Following the discussions I had with the Board last night, I understand that a different procedure will be followed and that the Board will be going back to the local authorities to discuss matters with them. I certainly hope that that will happen. The Berkshire County Council thought fit to ignore the demand for a bridge at Ashbury, although it reported the local objection to the Railways Board, but it decided itself to overrule the local objections altogether. It agreed to the closure of the Ashbury Lane crossing. Not only was the level crossing to be closed but the lane leading to the crossing was to be stopped up. As I have said, the county council relied on an improved bridge being built at Shrivenham, which is further towards Swindon and would necessitate a long journey for the farmer and his animals.

This proposal would also deprive local people of a crossing at the Ashbury Lane which is used locally by school buses and other traffic. If ever there was a matter that should have been the subject of proper local government consultation, it was this one. However, local opinion was totally ignored by the Berkshire County Council. By overruling local opinion, it has made people really angry, and this is why I have taken this opportunity to take part in this Second Reading debate.

The county council did not tell Shrivenham Parish Council until a very late stage that it had made this agreement with the Railways Board. This was a very unhappy situation and was quite wrong. The county council did not even reply to a letter in which the Shrivenham Parish Council asked what was going on. I regard this as a clumsy and discourteous performance by the county council. I have to say this, much as I regret doing so.

I have already told the House that last night I had a talk with the board's legal advisers and, as I understand the situa- tion, they feel that, in view of the manner in which the negotiations took place and the way that Berkshire County Council ignored Shrivenham and district, they must go back to square one. I regard this as the only thing that can be done; namely, to hold a proper democratic discussion about the future of the Ashbury Lane crossing. Before a Select Committee considers the Bill, the board must hold a meeting with the district and parish councils and consider this matter. This is the only reasonable thing to do in the circumstances.

I hope this will mean that Ashbury Lane will not be stopped up, but that a bridge will be provided at that point. I understand from the Railways Board that the cost of so doing would be about £76,000. This would be fully justified in the circumstances of the traffic involved and in the light of the situation of the farmer, Mr. Sheppard. I hope that in future the county council will pay more attention to what people think in Faringdon and Shrivenham and will not try to ignore their wishes. This is a bad example of what happens when a county authority ignores local opinion.

I would emphasise that this incident arose through activities of the council's officers and not of members of the council. I do not think the latter were consulted about this matter at all, and I am sure they will be upset to hear what I have had to say tonight.

Schedule 2 in the Bill will also give powers to build an underpass underneath the line at Knighton. This would be a little further along from Ashbury Lane and would be of great benefit locally, and I would seek to support such a proposal. I understand that the land has already been acquired for this purpose.

I support the Bill subject to what I have said, and I would ask that the wishes of my constituents should be borne in mind. I wish to thank the Railways Board for its co-operation yesterday evening in unravelling the situation. I have no further comment to make on the Bill.

7.28 p.m.

Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

This evening I would much rather be discussing the exciting and wonderful Budget introduced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but our parliamentary procedures are laid down and I must observe them. I have blocked the railways Bill for the past two or three months with the object of having this opportunity to state my case. My hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) and I appear to be the only people in recent years to have blocked a railways Bill. It is a good thing that we have made this opportunity available, since there is little chance in the nationalised industries for back benchers to raise objections to their activities.

I listened with great interest to the introductory speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Mr. Awdry). I received a statement of what he was to say on behalf of the Bill, and I was most interested to see it. I was somewhat surprised that he did not refer to the Clause of the Bill in which I am interested. That just shows how things can develop when an hon. Member has to block a Bill. Unless I receive some satisfaction following my efforts at blocking the Bill, I shall block every railways Bill that comes before the House. It seems the only way to protect people's interests.

I was very interested in what my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon said about his farmer constituent. I am glad that the Railways Board made its peace with him. But I feel that nationalised industries are not nearly sufficiently interested in people. I have no doubt that they are interested in running their industries to the best of their ability. But I mind about people. I am not concerned whether they be Governments or nationalised industries: people must be protected and they have the right to have their case heard in this House.

The Preamble of the Bill says: …whereas it is the duty of the Board under the Transport Act, 1962 (inter alia), to provide railway services in Great Britain and, in connection with the division of railway services, to provide such other services and facilities as appear to the Board to be expedient, and to have due regard, as respects all those railway and other services and facilities, to efficiency, economy and safety of operation". It is on that statement that I want to raise what I consider to be meant by "efficiency", and I shall then deal with "economy and safety of operation".

In my opinion—and I am sure that the Railway Board agrees—efficiency depends on having a co-operative and properly treated number of people working on the railways. By that I mean not only those employed today but those who in the past, have served the railways with great enthusiasm, courage and with ability. They have helped British Railways to become a viable industry. The Railways Board cannot have efficiency unless it pays attention to those whom it employs. That is why I raise this point, and that is why I have blocked the Bill.

I do not know whether there are any proposals in the Bill affecting my part of the world, but for many years I have been interested in the welfare of those who try to exist on small fixed incomes. Whenever there has been an increase in national insurance pensions I have received letters from superannuitants of the railways and the gas and electricity industries. Each time I have written to the chairmen of the three nationalised boards to ask whether their superannuitants will get what is their due, and what has always been their due, as ex-employees of the boards. I am proud that these super annuitants have relied upon me to try to protect them.

On the occasion of the last pension increases I wrote, as usual, to the chairmen of the three boards, asking whether their superannuitants would get the benefit of what had always been done for them since their respective industries were nationalised. In the case of the Railways Board I received a reply which resulted in my decision to block every Bill until I was certain that the railways' superannuitants would receive the protection that they deserve.

The Chairman of the British Railways Board wrote to tell me that the railways' superannuitants were being paid the usual amount that they had got ever since the railways were nationalised. He added that as this Government had decided at that time to review pensions every two years, he could not give me a guarantee that he would be able to protect the interests of the railways' superannuitants in the future. Now that this Government are reviewing pensions every year, probably it is all the more complicated for the Chairman of the British Railways Board.

This Bill does a number of essential things, provided that my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon has his criticisms dealt with properly. A great deal of money must be involved. But it makes me hopping mad to think that people who have served the railways in the past may be deprived of the small additional amount to which they would normally be entitled in the event of a national insurance pensions increase coming along.

I shall not go into all the ways in which money could be saved. We all have a good idea of the waste of money that goes on in Government, in nationalised industries, in private enterprise, and in life in general. But when a nationalised board of the magnitude of British Railways says that it does not know whether it will be able to afford to look after the interests of its super annuitants, that has to be challenged at every level, and I have every intention of challenging every Bill until I know that the board can find this small sum of money.

It is only fair to point out that the Railways Board appears to have entered into a new arrangement on pensions for the future. But I am not certain whether the chairman of the board will give any guarantee that when the new pension scheme comes into operation, those who will benefit from it will be able to rely on the board's being able to pay what it is supposed to provide.

A short time ago I had a letter passed to me from the manager of the Corporate Pensions Department of British Railways, dated 7th March, 1972. It reads: You will see from paragraph (iv) that the Railways Board recognise their moral responsibility towards these pensioners and in their forward planning they are taking account of the cost of possible future schemes of supplementation. The Railways Board hope that they will have sufficient money availble to pay for such increases but they cannot guarantee at the present time that this will be the case. These people have served the railways very well indeed. I have a great affection not only for those who serve on the railways today but for those who served on the railways during the war. I shall never forget what they did. They were absolutely magnificent. However, for the Chairman of the Railways Board—who had a great deal to say in Opposition about the way that my Government dealt with pensions, and so on—to suggest that if they put this scheme into operation, which, quite rightly involves contributions, they may not be able to meet their liabilities, is absolutely intolerable and unacceptable. It will not be acceptable to masses of people when they know what is going on.

The bother with this nationalised industry—neither the gas nor the electricity people have raised this point; they have always paid up—is that the public have no idea that the railways' super annuitants may not be paid by the British Railways Board. The only chance that I have of getting my views on the record is to block the Bill. So when this increase comes next year, as was foreshadowed by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer this afternoon, I shall block the next railways Bill until I know that the super annuitants have been paid. This kind of thing creates a feeling of insecurity among men, and probably women, too. The board has no right to make its staff feel insecure. If employers do not treat their staff properly they cannot expect the kind of support which makes for a good running system.

I was determined to put this point today on the Floor of the House. I do not know whether I shall be able to bring any evidence before the Select Committee when the Bill gets there. However, I do not like the idea of the board, for example, building a new portico at King's Cross—I am devoted to King's Cross; I am sure that it will be a wonderful portico—when it does nothing to ensure that its staff are properly treated.

I want to raise two other points, one concerning economy and the other safety in operation. In my part of the country the coast line, which runs from Newcastle to Tynemouth, carries an enormous number of commuters. British Railways spent masses of money on their intercity lines for businessmen. However, I notice with great interest that when ordinary people, women, invalids, and so on, travel on trains, they cannot get a porter for love or money. Something comes over the intercom. Most businessmen travelling on inter-city lines are very pleased. It is a good thing that they can get to London, do their business, and get back again quickly. They generally have only brief cases with them; they do not have to carry a great deal of luggage. We are often told that when we get to Darlington, Durham and Newcastle the porters will be lined up on the platform. Indeed they are—but not for ordinary people. The businessmen, to whom I am devoted because of all that they do for the country, can certainly do without porters if we cannot have the railways' super annuitants properly treated.

One station on my coast line had a Victorian cover made of glass, which had to be taken down. That was all right. But the board said that it could not afford to put up another roof. We did not want a Victorian roof. To expect commuters to stand out in the snow, ice, rain and wind which we get in that part of the country is not to look after the travelling public.

I turn now to the question of safety in operation. At Percy Main station the platform has sunk. That platform was built many years ago. It must have been built on coal, because in those days coal was everything. We did not know as much about subsidence then as we do today. Elderly people may be carried in safety on trains, but safety also involves getting in and out of them. The old, and women with prams, cannot get out of trains on to the platform at Percy Main with absolute safety. I should not like to feel that I might sprain my ankle when hopping in or out of a train there.

I have received representations from many people about this problem. I have taken them up with the chairman of the board and the regional managers, or whoever they are. I was told: "Of course the platform has sunk, but we have not got the money to repair it." If British Railways are in such a state that they cannot ensure a safe platform on to which people can alight from trains it is about time that we looked into how they spend their money. My Government take a great deal of interest in my part of the country. If the British Railways Board took as much interest as the Government take it would not allow this platform to be left in this condition because, among other things, it may mean more disabled people with whom to deal. It is absolutely scandalous.

I know that it will be difficult for my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment to reply to what I have said. However, I am jolly certain that, as he has responsibility, he will talk to the chairman of the board. It is won- derful what can be done behind the scenes.

I give my hon. Friend and everybody else notice that unless people in the North of England and the railways' super annuitants, who come from all over the country, are properly treated, I shall do my best to block this Bill. The board is apparently to build porticoes, to put in all kinds of lighting and to take it all out again. If the chairman of the board really knew what the public thought he would not sleep comfortably in his bed.

I suggest that my hon. Friend should be very nice about what I have said. I am sure that he will be. If he does not want to say anything—thank God, he is not responsible for the railways—perhaps he will see the chairman of the board and find out about safety on my coast line, and what is being done to protect men and women who have served this country and the industry so well. Of course, private enterprise did not do much regarding pensions, so I put it in the same category. But private enterprise is in the past. It is no good going into the past. I am looking to the future.

I was interested to learn that we have a British Railways Bill every year. This will provide me with a wonderful opportunity. I shall be on the same track on every Bill until I am sure that these matters, in which I take a great interest, have been properly dealt with by the Railways Board.

7.50 p.m.

Mr. David Stoddart (Swindon)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Tyne-mouth (Dame Irene Ward) on her ingenuity in raising the points that she has on the Bill. She has taught me a good lesson. I also congratulate her on her continuing fight on behalf of railway super annuitants. I represent a railway town, although that glory is fast fading from Swindon. The hon. Lady said that she would have preferred to be discussing the other great events of the afternoon, but, as one of my hon. Friends said to me, Parliament is like an elephant—it has a sensitive trunk which can move a boulder or pick up a pin. It is a good thing that this Parliament can deal with great matters of state and the lives of individuals who are affected by the actions of great corporations or the Government.

The hon. Lady rightly spoke of railway super annuitants in glowing terms. Operational and workshop staff alike have given marathon service to the railways and the country. They deserved much better treatment from the Railways Board than they have had up to now. I am concerned with people who are still employed by the board, at least for the time being, in my constituency.

Swindon has a great history as a railway workshop town. It was in Swindon that the great King George V engine was built, where Brunel built his great workshops for the Great Western Railway. Only a few years ago about 13,000 people were employed in the workshops doing a fine job. That number has been reduced to about 3,500, and it is to be further reduced from September by a further 1,300 through the closing of the locomotive workshops.

I am very concerned about this, and I am not sure that it should be done. I am not sure that the board has considered the whole matter in its proper perspective or that it has made a proper projection of the future of the railways in the 1980s. Had it done so, it would have had more confidence in the railways and what they mean to this country than the closing down of the Swindon workshops, putting 1,300 men on the dole, suggests.

These 1,300 people are highly skilled, responsible and stable people, many of whom have given a lifetime of service to the Great Western Railway and then to British Railways. They are now being thrown out of the workshops in which they have worked all their lives. I have tried to impress on the Chairman of the Railways Board the importance of the Swindon workshops and the need to ensure that railway engine maintenance goes on in them. I have urged him to bear in mind that when labour is taken on in some other parts of the country there should be more work sharing to ensure that our workshops, which are very well equipped, continue to maintain locomotives on a reasonable basis, and show good additional employment for the town, and keep highly skilled people employed in the workshops.

So far, however, my appeals have fallen on deaf ears. We have reached not just the eleventh hour but almost the twelfth, but I am still hoping that reason will pre- vail at the headquarters of the British Railways Board, so that some further hope can be held out to my constituents that they will continue to be employed and will still be able to maintain the new locomotives on the Western Region.

There is a great future for the railways. They have been going through difficult times. The growth in private car travel has had an effect on their revenue, but if we are to concern ourselves more and more with environmental questions, the railways have a great part to play. They will be carrying not less traffic but a lot more.

It appals to me to think that the Railways Board should now be turning away traffic which it could easily carry. It would be possible for it to convey car bodies between Swindon and Oxford. I understand that the British Leyland Motor Corporation would be very happy for this traffic to be carried, but the board does not want it because its computers or its accountants say that it does not pay. So these car bodies are going by road, congesting towns in Wiltshire, Berkshire and Oxford shire. Eventually, the taxpayer and the motorist and all of us will have to build new roads to accommodate this traffic which could go by rail. This is crazy. It is economics gone completely and utterly mad.

I hope that the Railways Board can extend its thinking. It may have to press Ministers, of whatever political colour, very hard indeed. It might have to educate Ministers into realising that we need not just a railways policy or a roads policy thought out in isolation but a transportation policy which takes into account the transport needs of goods and people in the country and also the facilities which road and rail can give. It is sometimes wise to get tough with Ministers.

It is well known that the railways operate under difficult and unfair financial circumstances. Heavy lorries are greatly subsidised by the taxpayer and private motorist, whereas the railways must pay the full cost of maintaining the permanent way, signalling and policing. These items place a heavy charge on the railways, and this is why they cannot easily compete with subsidised road traffic.

We should be thinking deeply at this time about these problems. The British Railways Board should be giving a lead and putting these points forward on every possible occasion. It should be shouting them into the ears of the responsible Ministers. I have written to the Minister of Transport suggesting that if the railways are to be made viable and play a continuing part in our transportation system, as well as helping to protect the environment, the right hon. Gentleman should do his best to relieve the board of some of the heavy costs involved of maintaining the permanent way, signalling and policing activities of the railways.

If the Government were prepared to take over the maintenance of the permanent way and these other activities—in other words, do what they are prepared to subsidise on the roads—the British Railways Board would be able to carry goods and passengers on a really competitive basis. The railways could then become very competitive indeed. They would be able to provide the calibre of services which the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth is anxious to see, and people would want to travel by rail.

It is not only in this country that the railways are going through a difficult time. Throughout Europe, the United States and Canada the railways are experiencing difficulties. On the Continent, however, they are adopting some new thinking towards the railways. For example, private firms are being invited to establish sidings of their own with government assistance. Imaginative ideas of this kind encourage the transportation of goods by rail. My impression is that the British Railways Board is frightened of the Minister, and I do not know why. After all, he can only say "No". The board should put its difficulties and ideas forward in a strong fashion.

The hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) spoke succinctly about the problems being faced in his constituency generally and by one constituent in particular. I agree that it is intolerable that people should be overriden in the way he described. They should be consulted by the appropriate authority in a matter as important as the one he raised.

I recognise that British Railways want to improve their services as part of the process of becoming really competitive. However, they and the other appropriate authorities must take account of the interest of the public, even if this means receiving assistance from the Government. I trust that the facilities which the hon. Member for Abingdon requested will be made available.

I shall not attempt to block this Bill. The railways have a job to do, and I will do my best to help them do it. I hope that they will take encouragement from the fact that some hon. Members are interested in the railways and their problems. If that is so, and if heed is taken of the remarks of hon. Members, this debate will have served a useful purpose.

8.6 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Eldon Griffiths)

As hon. Members have made clear, we are debating a Private Bill. This does not involve the direct responsibility of the Government, but the House may find it helpful if I briefly indicate where the Government stand on this Measure.

In doing this I trust that hon. Members will acquit me of any discourtesy if I do not—it would be improper for me to do so—deal with the various points that they have made, save to say that I am sure that the British Railways Board in its meticulous way will have regard to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) in respect of the railway crossings with which he was concerned; that the chairman of the board will, as I am sure he always does, want to take note of everything that was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward)—I shall be pleased, if I do not infringe on my neutrality in this matter, to send Mr. Marsh a copy of the OFFICIAL REPORT containing my hon. Friend's remarks so that he misses none of their special flavour; and that the points made by the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. David Stoddart) will have been noted.

My Department has studied the provisions of the Bill, which was deposited last November, and we have raised some points with the promoters. As is customary, my right hon. Friend will in due course be making a report to the Committee to which the Bill will be referred if, as I hope, it is given a Second Reading tonight. There is now nothing of importance between my Department and the promoters. I expect that the report will indicate that the Secretary of State has no objection to anything proposed in the Bill.

Apart from containing the sort of powers that frequently appear in British Railways Bills—to authorise new work, to alter the status of level crossings and so on—this Measure includes a few more complicated provisions, in particular the Clauses relating to powers of arrest and superannuation.

The justification for these Clauses cannot be properly examined here on the Floor of the House, so I recommend that we follow the convention of Private Bills of giving this one a Second Reading so that it may be studied more carefully in Committee with the benefit of evidence from expert witnesses.

Perhaps it would be helpful if I made a few general points on the whole subject. The British public and hon. Members often display a certain Jekyll and Hyde approach to the railways. At heart, we are deeply fond of them, remembering with pride that Britain pioneered the Railway Age; and clutching to our memories of the splendid old steam trains. At the same time we are frequently exasperated, sometimes perhaps unfairly, by our experiences with British Rail. It only take a long wait for the 8.06, or a dirty waiting room, or a litter-strewn main line station to turn fondness to frustrated anger.

Both these attitudes to railways are being sharpened by events. Our fondness for the railways is increased by a growing desire to protect the environment from the impact of the motor vehicle, a point very fairly made by the hon. Member for Swindon. Our exasperation over the railways is heightened by higher fares and higher losses.

But of one thing I am certain: Britain needs—it cannot do without—a viable railway system. How big it should be, how much it should cost, what share of the expense should be borne by the user, the taxpayer and the rate paper are questions to which my Department and the British Railways Board are giving their close attention. But, looking further ahead, there are three good reason for believing that the railways can have a good future, provided that they remain competitive in the transport market.

The first reason is technology. The inter-city trains are doing well; and there has been a welcome improvement in freight-liner traffic, especially on the maritime services. There is now opening up an exciting railway prospect in the advanced passenger train, which by the late 1970s will cut the journey time from London to Glasgow from 5½ to 4 hours. This will materially increase the railways' competitiveness with both road and air. British Rail are well placed to stay in the van of technical progress because at their Derby Technical Centre they have possibly the best railway research organisation in the western world.

The second reason for believing in the railways' future is the environment. Slowly but surely we are coming to recognise that the railways can offer a lot of attractions to areas and to people afflicted by the noise, fumes and congestion of the motor vehicle. It is far too simple to say that road freight should just be transferred to rail: far better, in my opinion, to have a liberal transport policy whereby the customer can decide which mode of transport is to be used. Yet in the long term I believe that the environment card will prove a strong one for the railways.

Third, there is Europe. As our trade with the Community increases, I see no reason why the railways should not win what I am told is described as a valuable "piece of the action". If, as is quite possible, a Channel Tunnel were to be built, the railways of tomorrow would be able to offer high-speed services all the way from Bristol to Dusseldorf, and Birmingham to Milan and points south. The potential network available to British Railways can thereby be multiplied several times in Europe.

So, while repeating that this is a Private Bill, I very much hope that the House will give it a Second Reading so that the detailed points within it may be examined very carefully in Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed.