HC Deb 28 March 1973 vol 853 cc1491-500

12.19 a.m.

Sir Richard Thompson (Croydon, South)

Now, after the pressing matters that we have been debating, we turn to one which to my constituents is the more immediate and equally pressing matter of coal supplies for Croydon B power station. This is a matter which I have raised in this House before, wholly without any beneficial result, but I am hopeful that tonight we may get a little further to a satisfactory solution.

Coal for Croydon B power station comes from Northumberland, a goodish long way. It might be thought that because there is a continuous web of railway lines between the colliery and the power station one nationalised industry would endeavour to serve another by utilising the railway to deliver the coal. That used to be the case up to some years ago, but it no longer is. What happens now is that the coal is shipped down the North Sea, down the coast by coastal steamer; it then ploughs its way up the Thames Estuary, up the Medway, to Kingsnorth Power Station, where some of it is allocated; and it then makes the rest of its journey to Croydon in 10-ton lorries.

This procedure of sea and road delivery, with all the extra handling involved, is really not appropriate when there is a perfectly good railway line to do the job. It causes very great congestion in an already inadequate road system, and particularly severe congestion in Croydon itself with its very heavy traffic. The extraordinary thing is that if there is one cargo which is traditionally ideally suited for carriage by rail it is coal. The railways carry millions of tons of it a year, but not to Croydon B, and I want to know why.

Despite all this, it is clearly advantageous to the South-Eastern Electricity Board to get its coal supplies by road notwithstanding the existence of the railway, and I certainly do not blame the power station. It needs economical, regular and reliable transport for its supplies, and it gets it from the road haulier, but not, seemingly, from British Rail, which runs a line right to the power station door.

The environmental consequences of sending this totally unsuitable freight by road are serious. My hon. Friend has general responsibility for the environment and not just transport through it. The top estimate which I have from the electricity board of its requirements amounts to 250 loads of coal a week; with a five-day week, 50 lorry loads a day. That is quite an impost on an overloaded road system. To be fair, this is the top estimate, and the electricity board considers it is more realistic that its requirement would be about half that, but even half that is 125 loads a week and 25 lorries a day.

These lorries set out from Kingsnorth, in a part of the United Kingdom where there are few good roads, and eventually find their way to London and to Croydon. It is a wholly unsuitable journey for these heavy lorries to make. We all know the experience of being penned in a car behind one of these monsters, of fuming, wondering why people cannot send things by rail instead of by road. I consider this to be totally unacceptable, and I hope that my hon. Friend will do something about it.

It seems to me great nonsense that British Rail should not be able to quote a competitive rate and supply a reliable service for a cast-iron customer like the South Eastern Electricity Board. How can British Rail complain about shortage of freight traffic if it lets opportunities like this slip through its fingers? Surely two nationalised industries ought to be able to serve each other better than is the case here.

All this business of the delivery of coal by rail is bound up with the future of the Croydon-West Wimbledon branch line which serves the power station and which for over a year has been under some threat of closure. This is an old story for me. I raised this matter on the Adjournment on 5th July last year, again by parliamentary Question on 15th November and again on 24th January this year. The Minister wrote to me on 7th February stating that no decision would be taken until after the report of the Layfield Panel on the Greater London Develpment Plan had been published. He also required the views of the Greater London Council and the South-East Economic Planning Council. He was waiting for a lot of advice.

We know that the GLC has since recommended a reprieve for this line, but when I reminded the Minister of this on 16th March, in a further parliamentary Question, I still got no definitive reply.

I have an uneasy suspicion that the denial of this coal contract to British Rail is all part of a plot to be able to prove that the line has no worthwhile revenue and that, therefore, it had better be closed. I suspect that. If it is otherwise, I cannot understand why this endless delay continues, while further reports are awaited from further authorities, and so on. It would not be the first time that this kind of device had been used to secure a result that someone in the Department desired to secure and intended to obtain by one means or another. I hope that this is not so. It would be most short-sighted.

It is an incredible state of affairs, when one considers the likely investment we shall be invited to make shortly, of hundreds of millions of pounds, in the Channel tunnel, that at the same moment we should be contemplating further dismantling of the railway system, which alone can serve the Channel tunnel if it is ever built.

I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give me some satisfaction. Coal ought to go by rail where the lines already exist. If the railways cannot carry coal in competition with shipment by sea and lorry, with all the additional handling that that involves and the congestion that it adds to an already congested road system, what future have the railways got?

I invite my hon. Friend to say that he will issue a direction to British Rail to reorganise its freight policies to recapture a contract it should never have lost. I should like also to suggest to him that he reminds our right hon. Friend in the Department that it is now nine months since I raised the matter of the Croydon-West Wimbledon line and that it is about time that that matter was settled as well.

12.28 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Keith Speed)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Sir R. Thompson) on raising this small matter—in comparison with the great events that the House has been discussing today—but nevertheless very important matter in relation to his constituents and a great many constituents in the South-East between Kent and the London borough of Croydon.

I appreciate the concern my hon. Friend has about the problem of heavy lorries in his constituency. I have personal experience of this because there are four coal mines in my constituency and I know the problems that heavy lorries carrying coal can cause. Obviously, when coal has been conveyed by rail to a local power station for years and now has to be carried by road, this must make all of us look at the situation. My hon. Friend has outlined the background very accurately. I should like to fill it in as well for the record.

The problem, as my hon. Friend said, is the question of coal supply. Perhaps what he does not know, or did not say tonight, was the problem of the different qualities of coal needed for different purposes. In past years certainly coal was delivered to the Croydon B power station by rail from the Midlands coalfields; indeed, it might even have come from my constituency. Unhappily for Croydon, these supplies are now used by the new power stations in the Midlands, and for a time alternative supplies were provided by rail from the Kent coalfields. But there is no suitable coal from this source now. Instead, the Kent coal is especially prepared for use by the steel industry and is moved by rail to the British Steel Corporation and National Coal Board coke ovens in the Midlands and the North-East for making into coke. British Rail has secured a contract to convey from 10,000 to 15,000 tons a week to Scunthorpe, Corby and other steel centres.

Coal for the Croydon power station has been allocated by the National Coal Board from the North-East of England. In the first instance it is conveyed by British Rail from the colliery to the port of shipment and thence to various power station jetties in the south such as, in the particular case to which my hon. Friend referred, of Kingsnorth near Rochester. Supplies from this source will now be used by Croydon B, but as there are no facilities at Kingsnorth for transferring the coal for onward conveyance by rail and because there is no prospect of making an economic case to the CEGB for its provision by rail, road transport from Kingsnorth to Croydon B power station has had to be accepted.

It is not at this stage certain how much will need to be supplied. Estimates vary from 125 loads a week to a maximum of 250 loads a week; that is from 25 lorries a day in a five-day week to 50 lorries a day. I understand that letters appeared in the local Press which gave a misleading impression about this.

We are talking now of a small part of the total supply of coal which is moved from the North-East to the South and has been moved by sea for generations. Much of this coal, as in the case of Kingsnorth, is landed at a place where it is to be used. Surely this is the most desirable situation we can want environmentally. Over and over again people ask why more use is not made of waterways for bulk freights, and here is an example of just that.

British Rail is expected to pay its way on the carriage of freight and it is its decision that it cannot compete economically with coastal shipping for direct conveyance of coal from North East collieries to Croydon. If British Rail were to offer to carry coal below cost, not only would it not help other rail services—my hon. Friend will know that we are talking with British Rail about its financial position, which is not a happy one, at the moment—but shipowners would be able to invoke their rights under Section 150 of the Transport Act 1968, which enables them to apply to the Railways and Coastal Shipping Committee. This was intended as a forum for considering matters including complaints as to charges where coastal shipping is in competition with British Rail.

This is a case where four nationalised industries are involved—coal, electricity, steel and railways. But these nationalised industries are required to behave commercially and to serve a national interest, not simply each other. As I have indicated in describing the background to these events, the coal has had to be reallocated in relation to the types of coal available and the demand for those particular types. The railways continue to play a large part where this is appropriate.

British Rail conveys some 51 million tons of coal a year for the CEGB under a long-term contract which reflects the latter's policy of making the maximum use of rail. This is subject, however, to commercial and economic considerations affecting the CEGB, which generally means that British Rail has to accept that coal shipped from North-East ports —almost all of it being conveyed to those ports by rail—and then conveyed to coastal vessels direct to power stations jetties gives rise to consumer costs on delivery which British Rail cannot match.

I pointed out earlier that the rate of supply so far as it can be estimated seems likely to be 25 lorries a day and certainly no more than 50 lorries a day. Assuming a 16-hour day, this implies between two and four an hour.

The daily average is thus not likely to have a material significance either on Purley Way or on Beddington Lane. Present traffic volumes in Purley Way are about 12,300 vehicles per 12-hour day and in Beddington Lane 7,400.

Following complaints by an amenity society of coal traffic between the Kings-north and Croydon power stations using residential roads, the CEGB has agreed experimentally—when deliveries are resumed in July—to direct its contractors to use a route recommended by the society which consists in the main of Class 1 roads. It might be helpful to my hon. Friend to list them.

They are the A.20 to Crittalls Lane, thence A.224 Sevenoaks Way, Cray Avenue and Court Road—the Orpington Bypass; right into Spur Road A.232; left into Sevenoaks Road A.223, and then join A.21; left at New Fantail Restaurant, Farnborough, to A.232, Croydon Road; left into Addington Road, Addington Village Road; right into Gravel Hill, Coombe Lane, Coombe Road, Lower Coombe and Duppas Hill Road to Purley Way. This appears to be a suitable route, inasmuch as any route in this area can be suitable.

I should add that the haulage contractors are well aware of the need to avoid dust and any other nuisance, which I know from personal experience can be a problem, and the regional board of CEGB has confidence that they will take the greatest care in their haulage work.

I mention one point not raised by my hon. Friend, but which is germane, and that is the question of oil. About one train a week arrives at the power station with oil for the gas turbine units at the power station. This arrangement will continue, but this has no relevance to the coal supply. One tanker-load per day of lighting-up oil is delivered by road.

My hon. Friend referred to the Railway Board's proposal to withdraw the passenger service between Wimbledon and West Croydon. This is a matter in which my hon. Friend has taken a keen interest, and I assure him that the points he has raised will be taken fully into account by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State in reaching a decision on this case. I confirm that he will also take into account the views expressed by the Greater London Council, which is the transport planning authority for London, and by the Transport Users Consultative Committee for London, which considered objections made against the proposed closure at a public inquiry last July. The implication of the Layfield Report on the Greater London Development Plan which was published last month are also being carefully considered.

I appreciate my hon. Friend's concern about the delay in making an announcement, but I am sure he will agree that it is important from every point of view that we make the right announcement. I will pass on to my right hon. and learned Friend my hon. Friend's anxieties that the announcement should be made as soon as possible.

I know that my hon. Friend would not expect me to announce a decision tonight, but, whatever the decision, it should have no effect on the use of this line for freight. I hope that I have put his fears at rest. I have looked into this, and there is no deep and devious plot either by British Rail or by my Department deliberately to run down the line so that my hon. Friend is presented with a fait accompli.

I understand why not only my hon. Friend—who has pursued this matter vigorously—but other hon. Members have been anxious about the case. I cannot give my hon. Friend the assurances he seeks about a direction, but I hope that he has been helped by the explanations I have given and the great care that is being taken about the route.

I hope also that my hon. Friend will see, firstly, that these changes were caused by a change in the source of supply of the coal; secondly, that British Rail is still very much in the business of carrying coal where appropriate, and that coastal shipping has also been an important carrier of coal, for which, on environmental grounds, we must be glad; and, thirdly, that the switch of supplies means that coal to this power station will be going by rail to North-East coast ports, then by sea, and then by road to Croydon.

In view of the figures I have quoted, the effect of the extra heavy lorry traffic is negligible, although of course we do not want any more extra lorry traffic on the roads than is necessary. The CEGB and the hauliers have shown their readiness to try to route the traffic in the way most acceptable to the environmental groups concerned.

Although my hon. Friend will appreciate that I cannot meet all his pleas, I assure him that I think the arrangements that will be made later this year will be as satisfactory as possible in the circumstances, and I will ensure that as soon as possible we make a decision on the rail closure.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to One o'clock.