HC Deb 06 February 1973 vol 850 cc419-28

1.13 a.m.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles (Winchester)

I am glad to have the chance to ventilate the problem of the future of the Mid-Hants railway. First may I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the Minister, my colleagues and the staff of the House for keeping them up any later at this time of night. It would not be necessary to discuss this or any other matters at dead of night if only the House would modernise its procedures by limiting the length of speeches. Unless this is done the House of Commons, instead of being the forum of the nation's affairs, will increasingly become obsolete, or to use a metaphor which will at least get me back into order—it will become like a derelict railway train on a siding, while the main line of opinion-forming is carried out by the television companies.

To get back to the Mid-Hants railway, this little line, popularly known as "the Watercress Line"—16 miles of it—has been running for about 120 years, until the day before yesterday. It now lies silent and still.

I do not quarrel with the procedure by which the decision to close was reached. The Minister will know there was a notice of closure about five years ago and that in 1968 there was a public hearing in Alresford by the Transport Users Consultative Committee, at which I said that people in the area "wanted to keep their railway and wanted to use it". The committee eventually reported that the closing of the railway would involve hardship for the present users.

In 1969 I initiated another Adjournment debate, again late at night, on the future of the line, but after all the processes had been gone through, in August 1971 the closure was formally authorised.

Since 1971 there have been various appeals and inquiries, all centred on the problem of alternative bus services. Now the line is closed, and I do not complain about the procedure, nor indeed about the decision. To be fair to the Minister, there is a genuine dilemma. To close the railway will cause inconvenience to many users and hardship for some. But equally it is difficult to justify a continuation of any service if it is losing a great deal of money year after year.

There are three points I wish to make to Minister. First, discussion has centred on how much the line has been losing, for it is agreed it has been losing money. At the eleventh hour the local authorities in the area offered a subsidy of about £55,000 to keep the line running temporarily, but British Rail stuck to its figure based on the "Cooper formula" of £100,000 a year. I regard the Cooper formula as unrealistic, and rigid observance of it may lead to wrong decisions being taken. It is too late to go into the arguments tonight, but I should like to throw some doubt on the validity of the Cooper formula.

Secondly, I wish to question whether the long delay of at least five years to go through the procedure has been justified. The degree of participation—participation is the "in" word in the Department of the Environment—may have become obsessive. Perhaps we would do better to observe Lord Salisbury's famous remark that the time comes when any decision, even a wrong decision, is better than no decision. The total loss to public funds would have been less had the time to take this decision, for better or for worse, been shorter.

Thirdly, these difficult decisions must be taken objectively and not emotionally. I assure the Minister that I am not seeking to bring any emotional factors to bear, nor would I expect any sensible person to do so.

Let us look at the new situation which now arises. The situation today is that a consortium of a private company and the local authorities in the area is being formed. This consortium will be known as the Mid-Hants Railway Limited. This is the same name as the original company which built the line in Queen Victoria's reign, when it became part of the L & SWR. This consortium plans to operate the existing track from Alton via Medstead, Four Marks, Ropley, Alresford, Itchen Abbas, a new halt at Springvale and to Winchester Junction which will be an interchange station with British Railways' main line.

The authorities involved are the Hants County Council, Winchester City Council, Winchester Rural District Council, Alton Urban District Council and the Hampshire Association of Parish Councils. Their efforts have been co-ordinated by Mr. John Taylor, the Town Clerk of the Winchester Rural District Council, who has become known as "Mr. Railway". This consortium plans to run a diesel car service on weekdays for the travelling public and also, probably, to run steam trains on holidays and Sundays for railway enthusiasts and as a tourist attraction to gather additional revenue.

Such lines have been run successfully in other places, like the Bluebell line, the Dart Valley railway and, I think, the Severn Valley line.

I come to the essential things that I want the Minister to do. There are eight.

First, I want him to encourage the concept of a consortium between private interests and public money. This is an interesting idea, which may have a much wider application than just to railways.

Secondly, I ask him to expedite the necessary light railways order. I understand that in the past these have taken up to 12 months to obtain. Surely it should be possible to cut the time drastically? It would also be helpful if the Minister's chief inspector could be asked to allow speeds above 25 mph—the normal limit for light railways—say, up to the 40 mph which British Rail services have been using on the same track.

Thirdly, I should like him to look favourably at a development grant under the Transport Act for an interchange station at Winchester Junction for four coach trains—not for eight coaches The trains cannot run on British Rail's main track, and a little interchange station is needed there.

Fourthly, will the Minister give a general direction to British Rail not to dispose of track for the time being? He has been kind enough to write to me to explain that the disposal of track is a matter for BR and not for him: but the new development is that the local authorities may be willing to pay interest charges to BR on the value of track for the time being.

Fifthly, I ask the Minister not to give approval for the disposal of the formation—the technical term, which really means "land"—until alternative bus services have proved satisfactory over at least 12 months' experience—winter and summer.

Miss J. M. Quennell (Petersfield)

Hear, hear—

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

I am glad of my hon. Friend's support. I have had, and I am sure my hon. Friends have had, many complaints already about this and the Minister should recall that the TUC said at the inquiry that there would be hardship.

My sixth point is that the Secretary of State should exercise his overall co-ordinating functions so that the line of the M3 motorway—which, by coincidence, he announced today—will not cut the line of formation of the railway. This is of tremendous importance, because it is unlikely that the railway could be viable if it did not connect Alton with Winchester Junction. If it were to be a line only from Alton to Alresford it would not be viable at all, so there must be a way over or under the M3 for the railway.

The seventh and perhaps the most important point is to ask the Minister to take a long view, to realise that this is an area of rapid growth of population and to understand that the traffic problems of Winchester make bus services a questionable alternative.

Eighthly and last, I put it to the Minister that it should be possible to revolutionise this line in an imaginative way, to make it a test case for a passenger transport system connecting the new Solent City complex with its hinterland. Here is an opportunity for the Minister to do something imaginative. Failing this, I ask him to look favourably and benevolently on the combined efforts of this local consortium and to issue a message of encouragement to it tonight.

I end by saying "The line is dead, long live the line".

1.25 a.m.

Miss J. M. Quennell (Petersfield)

I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) on his initiative in obtaining this brief period of parliamentary time to discuss a matter which is of pressing importance to his and my constituents.

Alton possesses several local newspapers. One of the most moderate is the Alton Herald which, on 2nd February, reported that the Secretary of State responsible stipulated that the closure should be subject to provision of a 'satisfactory' alternative bus service. The "satisfactory" nature of the alternative or substitute service has led to local anger and disappointment. As the newspaper put it: Local opinion is beginning to use such words as 'misrepresentation' and to suggest that while the Government Department which has made the final decision has no doubt acted completely within its legal powers in its interpretation and decision, it might well have attracted the attention of the Trade Descriptions Act had it been an ordinary commercial organisation. That is a fair criticism of the way in which this local issue has been handled. The train service at weekends is such an unsatisfactory substitute that on Sundays it is impossible to get to Alton until 1 o'clock or to leave Alton until 11 o'clock. That is the public transport that is available. What prospect is there of people who do not own a motor car being able to go down to the coast or to visit their families?

I strongly urge my hon. Friends to take note of the arguments advanced by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester. I call on them to support the consortium and, above all—although they may not have the legal means to do so, we know they have the influence—to leave the track alone until we have got something running on it of a mixed nature, such as advocated by the consortium.

1.27 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Reginald Eyre)

I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) for raising this matter, and I have carefully noted the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Petersfield (Miss Quennell).

The debate gives me the opportunity to outline to the House not only the long and tangled history of this closure proposal but also the discussions and negotiations which have taken place over the last few days.

Hon. Members—in particular, I am afraid, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester and my hon. Friend the Member for Petersfield—will be only too aware that the Railways Board withdrew the Alton to Winchester rail passenger service on 5th February. The service was originally proposed for closure in 1967. The Secretary of State gave his consent to closure, subject to the provision of specified replacement bus services, in August 1971.

The local bus operators had to apply for a variation to their existing licences which would enable them to operate the rail replacement bus services. The traffic commissioners granted this variation despite objections from several authorities. The local authorities appealed against the commissioners' decision. The Secretary of State dismissed the appeal in late November 1972. So rather more than a year had already elapsed since the closure decision.

The Railways Board was then free to withdraw the rail service as soon as the replacement buses were in operation. The local authorities were notified of the proposed date of withdrawal—5th February 1973—on 21st December.

My hon. and gallant Friend asked about the costs and earnings of the line. This service's costs were far in excess of its earnings. In 1970 total costs were £135,000 a year, and earnings were £31,000. This left a gap—or rather a gulf—of £104,000. So, if the service had been reprieved, the general taxpayer would have had to pick up a six-figure bill—much more than the rail users were paying in fares—and the gap between costs and earnings was expected to continue to widen in the longer term, even after allowing for optimistic assumptions of traffic growth, which would have related to the growth of population to which my hon. and gallant Friend referred.

Not all of these costs would have been saved after closure. I have noted my hon. and gallant Friend's comments about the Cooper formula. Nevertheless, closure was expected to produce a medium-term saving—just in running costs—of £110,000 a year. This is the ordinary expenditure that is needed to keep the service going. But it was estimated at the time by British Rail that to keep the Alton-Winchester service open would have meant paying out an extra £245,000 for necessary renewals—for example, replacing track—over the next four years.

It was with these figures in mind, as well as the Transport Users' Consultative Committee's report, that the Secretary of State decided that the continuation of the service was no longer justified.

The local authorities first showed interest in supporting this service well before the closure decision was announced. Winchester Rural District Council offered to contribute up to £10,000 towards a new halt at King's Worthy, and Alton Urban District Council a similar sum towards the very heavy capital costs of electrification. But neither of these offers related directly to the question whether the service should remain or not.

The closure decision was announced in August 1971. The local authorities held informal discussions with the Railways Board, and in August 1972—a year after the decision—informed my Department that they were interested in the possibility of contributing to the continuation of the railway service. They wanted to know what contribution might be forthcoming from the central Government. The Department made it quite clear, from the outset, that it would be prepared to meet those costs which would, in the event of closure, be reallocated to other grant-aided services.

For example, Winchester station is remaining open; my Department will have to pay towards its upkeep anyway, under other grants towards passenger services, and the proposition was that therefore the Department would not look to the local authorities to pay the contribution which the Alton-Wincester service should make to these costs. We also said that if the authorities proposed some arrangement involving a really substantial contribution towards the service's costs the Department would consider it.

On 29th January, a week before the service was due to be withdrawn, the local authorities eventually made to British Railways a firm offer of financial support—some £58,000 over a year. However, assuming a contribution from my Department on the lines I have mentioned—amounting to roughly £20,000—this would still leave a shortfall of some £40,000 a year between the authorities' offer and the service's operating deficit.

This would be enough to keep the line running for only a matter of months, and the British Railways Board very understandably wanted a more lasting arrangement than that. It also wanted to be sure that if unexpectedly heavy capital expenditure were required—for example, for safety reasons—it would not itself have to bear the cost. So at the end of last week there was a gap between what the local authorities were able to offer and what the board felt able to accept.

I realise that there were hopes that a local group of businessmen would be able to guarantee the remaining amount; this was the consortium to which my hon. and gallant Friend referred. I did not know that it was operating in conjunction with the local authorities. There was a plan that this group would apply for a light railway order, take the line over and run it as a light railway. But last week no one was prepared to promise or under write the £40,000, so the British Railways Board was unable to regard the offer as representing a sufficient guarantee against loss on this line for it to accept it. If this consortium, in conjunction with the local authorities, can come forward with sufficiently firm proposals, they will be considered seriously, but I stress that it is necessary for action to be taken very expeditiously, for reasons that I will come to.

My hon. and gallant Friend asked a number of questions about which he had not told me earlier. I have tried to respond in suitably cautious terms to his first point. His next point was about expedition of a light railway order and a grant for an interchange station. Again, I notice a request for the use of public money. Those matters would depend on the main question, where we must make demands on the consortium and the local authority to see whether they are prepared to produce enough money to make good the severe cost to public funds of the continuation of the railway line.

My hon. and gallant Friend asked me also to undertake that there would be delay in the disposal of the track equipment. I shall come to that in a minute.

We might be asked why we did not postpone the closure. Consent to the closure was give 18 months ago. At that time my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State decided that its continuation—at substantial cost to the taxpayer—was not justified, either on social or economic grounds. The line was, of course, supported by the Exchequer all last year, while the provision of replacement bus services was being thrashed out. Those interested have had 18 months to get together, collect the financial backing they need and come to terms with British Rail. My hon. and gallant Friend must remember that when he asks for further time for consideration. It could be only very limited. We did not feel that postponing the closure by a few months was likely to enable them to do so. On that basis, to postpone the withdrawal would, in addition to further cost to the taxpayer, have caused a great deal of bother and confusion to travellers, to the bus company, and so on, all to no avail.

The Railways Board is free to remove the track and signalling equipment and station structures now that all rail services have ceased. If the local authorities want them to be retained, they are free to make a suitable financial arrangement with the board, but because of the threat of vandalism negotiations would have to be completed reasonably quickly. Again, I stress the need for urgency. The railway formation and station sites, the land itself, cannot be disposed of by the board without my right hon. Friend's agreement.

My hon. and gallant Friend asked about preserving the formation with reference to the line of the M3 motorway. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries announced earlier today the route for the M3 between Popham and Compton. It crosses the railway line between Alton and Winchester. But today's announcement relates only to the line of the road, not to whether it crosses over or under the railway formation, or intersects with it at grade. Were the railway line to be working when the M3 is constructed, there need be no physical impediment to the continuation of rail services. If the line were closed, however, it could well be extravagant to bridge the line—and I cannot promise that in those circumstances the formation will not be interrupted.

My hon. Friend the Member for Petersfield also referred to the replacement bus services. The services were carefully designed for replacement purposes, and were approved by the traffic commissioners. I hope that the difficulties to which my hon. Friend referred are only teething problems and that the bus replacement services will be successful—that is, I hope that the Hampshire public will support them.

It would be wrong for me to hold out any hopes for the restoration of railway services on the line. It is, of course, still open to anyone to make an arrangement with British Railways to run services on it or to leave the track in position. But these arrangements are bound to be expensive. If people have not been able over the past 18 months to reach such an arrangement, it gives rise to doubt whether there is a practical possibility that they will be able to meet these substantial sums.

It is for that reason that I have to tell my hon. and gallant Friend that, helpful as my right hon. Friend wishes to be, it would be for only a matter of days that he could permit consideration of the business aspect to which my hon. and gallant Friend has referred.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Two o'clock.