HC Deb 16 December 1974 vol 883 cc1315-26

12.47 a.m.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

I am grateful for the opportunity of catching the attention of the House briefly on the Adjournment to raise the continuing problems of the Bakerloo Line. I am particularly grateful to the Minister for coming to the House at this late hour. I hope that I shall not detain him too long.

Apart from consuming milk, consumers also consume journeys on trains, and in London on the tube trains. I am understandably raising the problems still affecting the line which serves my constituency and adjacent areas—the Bakerloo Line. I have a great deal of sympathy for all users of the Bakerloo Line, wherever it may start, including South London as well as my particular section.

I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Dodsworth), who may attempt to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to speak in the debate. If so I shall be delighted, because he represents a constituency immediately to the north of mine which is served by Stanmore station, the end of the Stanmore branch of the Bakerloo Line, which is in my constituency. That sets the geographical location. I shall now explain why I raise this matter on the Adjournment.

On 15th July I had the pleasure of accompanying the Chairman of London Transport on a journey on the Bakerloo Line. For various reasons we started at Baker Street rather than at Oxford Circus, although that station has tremendous problems of congestion in the rush hours, and went to Stanmore. It was an embarrassing trip for the Chairman of London Transport. I recall that we waited in the evening rush hour for 22 minutes for a train to Stanmore. At the end of that time three trains came in destined for Stanmore. The first and second trains were grossly overcrowded but we managed, painfully, to squeeze into the third one and went on our journey.

I was extremely grateful to the Chairman of London Transport for making that journey with me. I do not wish to extend vacuous criticism to him. It is all very well and easy for us to criticise the person who is the obvious fall guy on these occasions, especially when he faces the immense problem of running this extraordinarily complex transport network.

The Bakerloo Line is increasingly becoming the Cinderella line of the London area, just as the Northern Line was several years ago. The Chairman of London Transport has now seen for himself the problems of congestion, which are imemensely embarrassing during the rush hours. There is gross overcrowding. Antiquated rolling stock is in use. New rolling stock has been promised on the Bakerloo Line for far too long. There is inadequate co-ordination at Wembley Park, where a connection is made with the Metropolitan Line. People are often unable to change conveniently from one line to the other because one train leaves the station just before the other comes in. There are immense intervals between trains, not only in the rush hours—the main priority of my comments—but outside them. The gaps between the trains going on from Wembley Park to Stanmore have become an acute embarrassment to my constituents and probably to those of my hon. Friend, who are justifiably outraged about this.

However, as a result of being courageous enough to come and see these problems at first hand, the Chairman of London Transport promised that improvements would be made. He referred to wage increases and improvements in conditions for employees of London Transport which were introduced last August. One accepts that there had been a delay, but substantial improvements were introduced. It was a wage increase of about 25 per cent. on average. I am speaking from memory. There is now the prospect of fare increases next spring of about 35 per cent. on average. Instead of a single journey of 14 miles being purchased for 25p, the distance purchased will be nine miles.

None of the long overdue and now to be expected improvements for my constituents and others in the area—the line serves a very wide area—have yet occurred and there is little prospect of their occurring soon. Other Members of Parliament, apart from my hon. Friend and myself, are concerned about this matter. A Bakerloo Line Users' Committee has been formed. It was long overdue. I wish it success.

I am extremely alarmed about the continued deterioration. This is an important line serving an important area of North-West London. Up to June 1973 the daily schedule was 42 trains. Between June and October 1973 it was down to 40 trains. After October 1973 it was 32 trains. I think I am right in saying that the schedule is now down to less than 30 trains. That is the regular schedule. It excludes cancellations, particularly the damnable matter of the unannounced cancellations which drive to distraction my constituents and other consumers and commuters.

In a way, it is difficult for us in this House to distinguish between the agony of waiting for up to half an hour, or even longer, to get to work in the morning, and the sheer physical exhaustion of having taken perhaps an hour longer than expected to get home at night to the outer London areas. For those travelling to my hon. Friend's constituency who perhaps have to catch a bus in addition, the problem is even worse because the connection is impaired.

It is time that the future Chairman of London Transport—I am not referring to retirements or changes—got to grips with this problem. I hope that the Undersecretary will be able to make some useful comments and give reassurance to my constituents and the public at large, perhaps by referring generally to some of the problems of London Transport which I shall not have time to mention.

I accept that perhaps the Undersecretary will say—I hope with not too much alacrity—that he is faced with the delightful prospect of having no direct ministerial responsibility for these problems. We know the establishment and structure of London Transport and how the GLC relates to it. But we know that the London Transport Executive has direct operational responsibility for these matters within the overall budgetary decision as decided by its political master, the GLC. We know, therefore, that the relationship of the Government to all these matters is indirect.

I hope, however, that the Undersecretary will be positive in doing two or three things which could be of great help in attempting to renew public confidence in the future. Although the savage, high, spring fare increases of 35 per cent. have been delayed, I hope that the public may expect an improvement in the service in the future.

The provision of new rolling stock is long overdue. Something must be done urgently to ease the gross overcrowding on trains coming from central London, particularly in the evenings. It might be said that co-ordination at Wembley Park is now slightly better than it was six months ago, but it is still a serious problem. Recently the number of unexpected cancellations has tailed off. I do not know whether this has coincided with the fact that this Adjournment debate has been scheduled, but, judging from the number of letters I receive from my constituents on the subject, this too still is a serious problem.

The Government, through the Undersecretary, can say something to inspire confidence among commuters. They can say how they regard the urgent problems facing commuters in the outer London area. This is not to say that there are not many problems for inner London tube travellers. The Circle Line is a classic example of a line on which operational difficulties are experienced. By contrast, there is the splendid performance of the Victoria Line. In due course there will be the Fleet Line, which will have beneficial repercussions on the Bakerloo Line going out to Stanmore.

The outer London lines such as the Bakerloo Line and the Northern Line are the Cinderellas. The Government will no doubt assert that they have no direct responsibility and that they should not be pressed in this regard. We know the legislation. However, perhaps the Under-Secretary will be bold tonight and say what he would do and how he would react to a suggestion I shall make.

I have referred to the formation of a protest group, the Bakerloo Line Users' Committee, which consists primarily of people who are concentrated further up by Wembley Park and Finohley Road, although some of its members come from Stanmore. There are demands for an improved service and better conditions. There is the possibility of changes in the LTE in future. We know of the great financial problem facing London Transport and its serious budgetary problems for the future.

In view of ideas emanating from the Greater London Council, the Government should give consideration to instituting a top-level professional inquiry into these matters. The inquiry should concentrate on conditions on the Bakerloo Line and similar outer London lines, although there may be advantages in the whole Underground network being studied. Such an inquiry is long overdue. Why should not the outgoing Chairman of London Transport be a member of such an inquiry? Why should not senior officials of the GLC work with officers of the Under-Secretary's Department on the inquiry?

Once the fare increases are implemented next spring there will be a groundswell of public indignation if there is no improvement in conditions and if public authorities, including the Government, are not prepared to say to long-suffering commuters, "We acknowledge our duty to examine all these problems and try to rectify them."

1.0 a.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Dodsworth (Hertfordshire, South-West)

I am grateful for the opportunity briefly to intervene in this debate, particularly to express the thanks of my constituents to the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) for raising this matter, which is causing grave personal concern to many of my constituents. The problems of the Bakerloo Line are especially oppressive, notably because of the crowded and unpleasant travelling conditions. I understand that there have been signs of an improvement in recruiting for London Transport and that one might therefore expect to see an early improvement in the situation. My hon. Friend and I are looking forward to that with our constituents so that we can report the results of the recruiting drive.

I particularly share my hon. Friend's view about the need for a public inquiry. I recently put a Question to the Minister on this subject, but I was unhappy to find that he felt that sufficient facts were known and that the difficulties were well known. I noticed that there was no recommendation about what action should be taken, and my hon. Friend and I are mostly concerned about action in the interests of those who have to use public transport services.

There is a widespread feeling that not only the London Underground services but public transport services nationally are breaking down rapidly and that, unless speedy and urgent action is taken, there will be a clamour that will have to be recognised more materially than by a debate at this early hour.

I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene in this short debate on a matter of great importance to my constituents.

1.2 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Neil Carmichael)

The hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) has eloquently described the difficulties that commuters on the Bakerloo Line to and from Stanmore face, and I certainly sympathise with them. Travelling conditions on the line are still far from ideal, which is due almost entirely to the shortage of train guards. I accept that earlier this year conditions were very unpleasant indeed. The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Dodsworth) weighed in with his experiences and emphasised that similar problems affected his constituents.

I was interested in the suggestion by the hon. Member for Harrow, East that perhaps the increase in the efficiency of the service was due to the possibility of this Adjournment debate. I wonder whether we have found one of the secrets of solving transport problems, but I do not think so. If having an Adjournment debate were all that was necessary, we could do something about transport problems all over the country. But those problems are much more fundamental than that, and I am sure that the hon. Member realises it.

In the few minutes available to me 1 hope to explain some of the background and some of the things that have been done by the Government and London Transport to try to help. The hon. Member anticipated me: there is no doubt that it is not a responsibility of the Secretary of State to improve the quality of service on the Bakerloo or any other Underground line. Like other passenger transport executives—Scotland, Merseyside, Tyneside, the Midlands and elsewhere— London Transport is answerable to the appropriate elected local authority, in this case the Greater London Council. It is for the GLC, not the Secretary of State, to approve London Transport's policies.

Tonight I can answer the hon. Member's comments only on the basis of such information as has been given to me by London Transport. If the hon. Member wishes to pursue these matters, I can only suggest that he does so with London Transport, with which I know he has been in contact. I read the Press account of his journey with the Chairman of London Transport. I think that the hon. Member is quite right—it is good for the chairman to make these journeys, especially during the rush hour.

In view of their enormous responsibilities, chairmen of large organisations such as this must be highly selective in what they do because of the time factor. The Chairman of London Transport obviously knew from the figures and reports he had received that the situation on the Bakerloo Line had to be looked at. This is to some extent an answer to the points raised by both hon. Members about the top-level professional inquiry. It is not being superficial to say that the important facts are known. I think we can work with the facts we know and try to improve the situation from them in this and other transport situations before we need to go to the length of holding a special investigation into the situation. However, we have a long way to go to improve the conditions which we know should be improved with regard to all forms of public transport all over the country.

I should like to describe the situation on the Bakerloo Line in terms of train frequency. It is a tautology to say that frequency is of course of vital importance to commuters. It determines the length of time spent waiting for trains and the degree of over-crowding. Before the present difficulties arose, the scheduled service on the line gave a total of 210 trains a week running in the direction of peak flow in the two hours of the morning peaks. The same scheduled service operated in the evening peaks.

In June 1973 London Transport was forced because of crew shortage to introduce a reduced schedule which allowed for 160 trains in these peak periods. Even then it proved impossible to adhere to this revised schedule, so that in September of this year only about 120 out of the scheduled 160 trains were running. These unscheduled cuts were inevitably unpredictable, and could lead to long gaps between trains. At that time passengers undoubtedly experienced considerable delays and very uncomfortable travelling conditions. Despite what the hon. Member for Harrow, East has claimed, London Transport makes every possible effort, with the staff resources available, to keep passengers informed of the situation, but unavoidable last-minute cancellations may cause special difficulty. Sometimes people simply are not available to man the services.

The reduction in service frequency and the subsequent late running of trains caused by their overloading have led to the poor interchange between Bakerloo and Metropolitan Line trains at Wembley Park, to which the hon. Member referred. Trains which are scheduled to arrive at the station simultaneously usually wait long enough for passengers to transfer from one to the other, but if one is late the train on the other service proceeds so that the great majority of passengers on it who do not wish to change do not suffer an unnecessary delay and following trains are not delayed. This is really the lesser of two evils.

There has been a change, and I am happy to be able to report that since September the situation on the Bakerloo Line has steadily improved. London Transport is now running 155 of the 160 scheduled trains in weekday peak periods. I think the hon. Member suggested that the daily schedule worked out roughly at 31 trains. This figure is per peak period, not for the whole day.

Mr. Dykes

No ; 31 trains per hour.

Mr. Carmichael

I thought it was important to clear up that point. I should be horrified to think of only 31 trains running during an entire day.

In January it is planned to introduce a revised schedule with 190 trains at these times, although initially London Transport expects to be able to run only about 175 of these trains. In other words, there will be nearly a 50 per cent. increase in the number of peak period trains on the Bakerloo Line in the four months from September and January. This improvement in the service since the summer reflects a corresponding improvement in the staffing situation. The effects of labour shortages are very obvious on the railways since the absence of a single train guard or driver means that a train will not run. That obviously immediately inconveniences people, particularly those waiting on the platform. In other situations, when one individual does not turn up it may be possible to cover the vacancy. But London Transport knows that when an operator does not turn up, it is immediately obvious that his train cannot run.

In London there is a shortage of suitable labour to man the public services, and transport industries find it particularly difficult to attract staff because of the unsocial hours worked. The calibre of staff on the railways must be high if safety standards are to be maintained, and the need for selectivity adds to recruiting difficulties. The pass rate of would-be London Transport guards after the initial eight-week training course varies between 50 per cent. and 70 per cent.

Recruiting for London Transport is especially hard in North and West London where the traditional pool of railway workers has been tapped by alternative employment, mainly in the light manufacturing industry in which the hours are not unsocial, whatever the wages may be. The Bakerloo Line has therefore been particularly badly hit by staff shortages because a substantial part of its labour force is based at Neasden depot.

The pay award made to London Transport workers as a special case last August has already made a marked impact on the acute staff shortage which persisted throughout the summer. Six months ago there was a shortage of 360 trainmen on the Underground; this has now been reduced to 160. Recruitment of train staff is now proceeding at twice the normal rate for the time of year, while staff wastage due to retirement and people leaving for other reasons has remained fairly constant. Because of the time taken to train staff, present rates of recruitment should ensure that the quality of service on the Bakerloo Line will continue improving.

The condition of the rolling stock on the Bakerloo Line also makes it difficult for London Transport to provide a completely reliable service. The stock, built in 1938, is the oldest operating on the Underground and inevitably more liable to break down than modern stock. Although the stock is being reconditioned, work has been delayed by the shortage of skilled craftsmen. This is what we are up against all the time in public transport. All the vehicles in current use should be replaced by 1982 at the latest. It is an ongoing programme, and therefore improvements will be seen as time goes on between now and 1982.

So far I have been talking about the Bakerloo Line as a whole. But the hon. Gentleman is primarily concerned with the Stanmore branch. As the House will know, the Bakerloo Line divides into two northern branches at Baker Street. Inevitably the number of trains that can be run on each branch is only about half of that on the stem line between Baker Street and Elephant and Castle, which governs the total capacity of the line. The repercussions of the service cuts have been bad enough on the stem line, but in terms of intervals between trains they were obviously twice as bad on the branches.

The stem line too has its problems. The hon. Member has drawn attention to the overcrowding at Oxford Circus during rush hours. This was a problem when I first came to this House in 1962. The difficulties at Oxford Circus have existed for a long time, and I do not suggest that the situation is simply because of staff shortages on the Bakerloo Line, because staff was more easily available then. The only way in which this overcrowding could be substantially relieved in the short term would be by the staggering of working hours to reduce the numbers using the station at the height of the peak periods.

The only solution to this problem of the branches and that of overcrowding at Oxford Circus is a long-term one but one which, I am glad to say, is well under way. Stage I of the Fleet Line, which is planned to open in 1977, will take over the Stanmore branch of the Bakerloo Line from Stanmore to Baker Street and then proceed to the Strand via Bond Street and Green Park. This will mean that train frequencies can be increased on both northern branches of the present Bakerloo Line and overcrowding on the stem section and at Oxford Circus Station could be relieved.

The Fleet Line will further benefit commuters on the Stanmore branch through its effects on staffing and rolling stock. Trains on the line will be one-man operated and the rolling stock used will be modern—initially new vehicles currently in use on the Northern Line and eventually new stock built specially for the line. Cancellations due to staff shortages and defective stock should be minimal. Thus the problems facing commuters on the Bakerloo Line to and from Stanmore have already begun to be eased.

The hon. Member may claim that the recent decline in the number of complaints London Transport has received about the line from the public is an indication that commuters despair of any improvements being made. Although he spoke of the Bakerloo Line Users' Committee, there has been a reduction in the number of complaints received by London Transport. It could be a matter of fatigue and a feeling of apathy on the part of commuters, but I consider that it is due much more—

Mr. Dykes

I do not want to give the wrong impression. The number of complaints that I am receiving is not reduced.

Mr. Carmichael

All 1 can say is that the number of complaints that London Transport is receiving is reduced. I think that the figures I have given have some significance in the short term. The number of complaints is reduced because the reason for complaint has been reduced. The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South-West suggested that there had been an improvement, especially recently.

I have tried to show that, given the labour situation in public transport, which undoubtedly is an acute problem, especially because of unsocial hours—I think that we must accept that we have to pay people for working unsocial hours —future prospects are bright. The opening of the Fleet Line should guarantee commuters in the north-west of London one of the best Underground services in London, and I hope—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Monday 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 seventeen minutes past One o'clock.