HC Deb 16 January 1974 vol 867 cc751-62

2.21 a.m.

Mr. William Hamling (Woolwich, West)

I make no apology for returning to a topic discussed on previous occasions, almost annually it seems—the condition of rail transport in South-East London. Before I begin I should like to thank the Minister for his courtesy in coming here at this late hour to give a reply on this important matter.

I am sure that both sides are glad that the rail situation seems to have eased and I hope that that will go on, and that we shall have normal working from now on. Nothing in the remarks I shall make is calculated to exacerbate industrial relations in the industry, nor to prevent wiser counsels prevailing, nor to prevent a reasonable settlement ultimately being reached.

It is clear from what has been happening in London in the last few weeks that we have a peculiar problem in London and an even more peculiar problem in South-East London. It is something which is endemic, and it has been going on for years. I, in all the years I have been in the House, have been constantly referring to some of the great difficulties from which my constituents suffer and from which many people living in South-East London suffer and have suffered for years. Their rail travel, even in normal times, is no joke and I know that the Minister is aware of those problems. They make jokes in my constituency about the Dartford Loop and the Bexley-heath Line, but they are sick jokes, and those of us who, for years, have had to use commuter trains in South-East London know well that there are times of the year when travel is purgatory. Obviously in the last few weeks things have been outrageous.

It is surprising that we in this House seem to take so little interest in the transport difficulties of the people of London. London's problems have been and are being neglected. One of the difficulties, I suppose, is that London is not a region such as Mid-Wales or Yorkshire or Lancashire. One can have frequent debates on Mid-Wales and the North-East Coast but London, in this, seems to be overlooked. It seems that the trouble we have been having these last few weeks, in London particularly, but in the country as a whole, has been largely overshadowed by other problems, industrial, social and economic, and it is a pity that so little seems to have been attempted to get to grips with the difficulties we have been having recently. Transport is just as vital as fuel and power. Transport is vital to the solution of the problems of fuel and power.

It is almost incomprehensible that we have not had great minds in the art of industrial relations devoting their attention to a solution of these problems. For some years it has seemed to me that some of the old-fashioned attitudes in industrial relations are inappropriate in the business of transport, particularly passenger transport. A fact we have overlooked and still overlook is that rail transport difficulties affect the movement of goods, but the effect on them is not perhaps so dramatic, so obvious, as effects on the movement of passengers. I have no doubt, however, that British Rail, and Southern Region in particular, must have lost a lot of goods traffic in recent weeks. One of the problems they have had to face over the years is that of being on the knife edge of revenue. Yet they have these unfortunate periods when traffic seems to break down altogether.

Some people engaged in the industry seem to overlook the fact that an industrial dispute is to gain public support. It seems a singularly ill-advised method of gaining it to inflict so much trouble and difficulty on the very people whose support those in dispute are supposedly trying to win. It seems to me as a very ordinary person living south of the river a singularly unfortunate way of trying to get public support.

During the last few weeks especially conditions have been deplorable. On the first day of the industrial action I went to Well Hall, in the middle of my constituency, to try to get a train to come here. There were no trains at all. I went by bus from Well Hall to Woolwich Arsenal station, and there were no trains from there that day, either. Eventually I came by bus. It took me some four hours to get to the House. That was on the first day of the industrial action. For pretty well the whole of the period since then not a passenger train has stopped at any station in my constituency. Thousands of ordinary people trying to get to work have been affected. Many have gone to extraordinary lengths to get to work.

What are the alternatives? I heard of one young man who has been travelling by bus from Eltham Heights to the other side of the Blackwall Tunnel to pick up one of the tube trains on the other side of the river—an extraordinary way of getting to the centre of London. It reflects great credit on many ordinary people that they will put themselves to so much inconvenience to get to work. Many of them have been travelling by road in private cars. The roads at the best of times are chaotic, but in the last few weeks they have been indescribable. One morning I saw a traffic queue all the way from Surrey Docks in Bermondsey to Charlton Lane, moving at no more than walking pace. Some people have been taking two, three or four hours to get to London.

On Tuesday morning, I met my son-in-law, a civil servant who works in London, in the Strand at 10.15. He had just arrived, having left home at just after 7.30. He had travelled about ten miles from Plumstead and he had the same journey back at night. My son-in-law is a very uncivil servant at the moment, and has been for some weeks.

This is the plight of thousands of people who live in London, particularly South-East London. The bus services have been undergoing tremendous difficulties and it is greatly to the credit of London Transport that they have been running as they have. Many people have not been able to come to work at all. One young couple in South-East London tried to come to Central London by motor cycle, but they were frightened by the competition from other traffic and eventually left the motor cycle at home.

The people who suffer are ordinary people, other trade unionists. They are not traditionally those against whom industrial disputes are levelled. They are ordinary working-class folk. The better-off can travel in by car but people who do not have cars and have to rely on public transport have been put to tremendous inconvenience. Big firms employ hire cars to get executives to work or take hotel accommodation for senior key personnel, but the ordinary person suffers. This is intolerable.

But the real problem in South-East London, unlike so many other parts of London and the country as a whole, is that there are no alternatives to the trains of the Southern Region. The bus services are difficult. They have often been run down because of staff shortages—a point never raised in the House before. I am sure that the Minister is aware of these difficulties. The road conditions are chaotic, and because of its peculiar geography, with roads carved up by bridges, railway lines and the Surrey Canal, road transport in South-East London is very difficult anyway.

The roads carry too much traffic at the moment, particularly heavy lorries. There are times of day when the whole of the inner part of South-East London seems to be one vast lorry park There is parking on yellow lines, parking on double yellow lines, and the police are powerless to do much about it. That problem is peculiar to South-East London.

The major difficulty is that there are no tube services in South-East London. The people who organise the tube system must have peculiar maps on which South-East London does not appear. Even when it is built the Fleet line will not serve the major part of South-East London. There is a complete lack of urgency about investment in alternative methods of public transport for South-East London.

The conditions of the last few weeks are not new. South-East London has suffered them many times. When I worked at the Elephant and in the Waterloo area I remember how often I was forced to start off for work at 6 a.m. to reach work for 9 a.m. or 9.30 a.m., and then to delay departure until 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. when conditions became a little easier. That means that many people living in South-East London and working in other parts of London are doing a 12-hour or 14-hour day, out of which they are working for only five hours. That is intolerable.

I often wonder who cares about this, apart from the people who suffer, many of whom are inarticulate. When I first came to South-East London way back in 1950 I remember expressing myself loudly on top of one of the old trams in the Old Kent Road to the effect that all that people of South-East London were fit for was to wait for hours in traffic jams. A representative member of the working class of South-East London invited me to step around the corner and go three rounds with him. That was more than 20 years ago. The trams have disappeared but the chaos in the Old Kent Road continues. Why do these conditions persist? Whose responsibility is it too see that ordinary folk are taken care of?

South-East London needs a comprehensive transport plan, an overall view of what is being done in public transport. The private motor car is not the answer. The roads of South-East London were never built for the volume of traffic that they have to carry. We need radical solutions. Perhaps now that the industrial trouble has subsided and we have breathing space and an atmosphere of more good will we can get down to the whole question of what needs to be done so that the people of South-East London shall be able to travel in reasonable comfort, not like cattle, not being pushed around and not having to endure hours of torture in going to and from work.

2.40 a.m.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) for raising this subject tonight and also for the way in which he has done it. I am grateful, too, for his opening remarks, which I appreciate.

Like him, I would not wish to exacerbate what is still a sensitive and delicate industrial relations situation. Like him, too, I pay tribute and give the thanks of myself and the Government to the commuters, not only in London, but in other parts of the country, who have had to bear the brunt of this situation. If some of the conditions they have had to endure had been inflicted upon animals we would have been deluged with letters from people saying they were reporting us to the RSPCA. These people have shown remarkable patience and fortitude. There have been some ugly scenes but remarkably few of them.

I know that the Minister for Transport Industries very much hopes that these matters can be properly settled between the three unions and the British Railways Board so that we can get an element of stability and common sense into the situation and so that the board can carry out its restructuring exercise with the unions concerned.

Quite naturally the hon. Member concentrated upon South-East London. I am aware of the problems personally because back in 1954 I was a student at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, and frequently travelled from Maze Hill into London for a night out in town—and sometimes came back on the milk train in the morning. I was travelling at that time on a Service concessionary ticket so I was only paying 85 per cent. of the normal fare. Currently my brother lives in Bexleyheath and has the honour to be the agent for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I am therefore aware of the problems of the Bexley line from a political and practical point of view.

What we have to be clear about are the responsibilities of the various bodies involved in the running of the railways. There are two operators, London Transport and British Rail. The hon. Member mentioned the design of London's Tube system. One of the reasons for its appearance and for South-East London being so badly served by it lies in the success of the old London-Brighton-South Coast line, the London-Chatham line and the London-South-Western—all the railways that went to form Southern Railways.

There was a time when there was a very good system to the South Coast. The line was pressing forward literally into green fields and creating the traffic, which is why many people moved to the area, away from areas served by the not-so-good services of the old London-Midland-Scottish and London-Midlands lines. The success, in the 1920s and 1930s, of this line accounts for the neglect of this area by the tube system and other forms of transport.

We are having to live with that situation. Various things are now happening which will, in the longer term, be of considerable assistance. For example, since June 1970 we have committed about £130 million towards the cost of projects totalling £200 million for London and the South-East of particular assistance to commuters. This is an important cash injection into the system to provide capital for the renewal and improvement of the services. But the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the initiative for proposing and working up improvements to the system rests with the operators, London Transport or British Rail.

Secondly, and more important, we must remember that for the first time for a very long time there is a comprehensive look being made into the problems of London's rail system. I refer to the London Rail Study, under the chairmanship of Sir David Barran, which has representatives from my Department, the Greater London Council, British Railways and London Transport. At present it is examining the future of London's railways.

Its terms of reference were deliberately drawn extremely wide, and I do not wish to circumscribe its work by suggesting what it should choose as its priorities. But my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and the GLC will be looking to the study for guidance on such matters as investment priorities, service levels and standards and possible financial policies. Obviously the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot give firm commitments on points which we might expect the Rail Study to cover, and I am sure that this House should not try to do the study's job for it. But it will provide a valuable blueprint to which all the interested parties will be able to work. I expect the group to report in the late summer of this year.

Of course, railways are not the answer to every passenger transport problem in and around London. To be fair, the hon. Gentleman did not suggest that they were. He mentioned especially the problems of heavy lorries in South London. They are problems to which attention has been drawn in previous debates by the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Guy Barnett). However, the Government are pressing ahead with the construction of the M25 and the outer orbital road which should help in the longer term by taking lorries going to the North, to the East Coast and to the industrial North-West and providing a properly designed, largely motorway route which avoids the need for heavy lorries to plough through the outskirts of London as they do at the moment.

Railways are best suited to providing for heavy passenger flows, with not too frequent stops, and where the demand pattern seems likely to be stable over a relatively long period. Once a railway is built, its life must be reckoned as 100 years or more, and many of London's railways are of that age and even greater.

There is a tendency amongst some members of the public to think that all London's transport problems can be solved by constructing new railway lines into and across London. However, there simply is not the traffic potential on many suggested routes to justify them in social cost-benefit terms, let alone in financial terms. On the other hand, well-routed new lines can bring immense benefits. One thinks immediately of the success of the new Victoria line, although that has not generated new traffic so much as it has relieved certain sections of the old Northern line.

Mr. Handing

Can the hon. Gentleman say what progress has been made in studying the provision of an orbital railway line which, if one looks at the railway map, has great possibilities?

Mr. Speed

I shall be coming to that in a few moments. This is a matter which has been raised by a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House in the past year or so.

I was saying that the Victoria line is an example of the way in which pressures on existing systems can be relieved, especially when there are interchanges with main line stations.

There are major changes in service patterns which can be considered. The hon. Gentleman referred to the possibility of an orbital railway round London. There have been a number of suggestions. Some have been to use existing lines, to build new lines or to use a combination of both. I have no doubt that the Barran Study will examine this proposal and the variations of it which have been suggested.

I should not wish to prejudge that study, but it is important to consider whether the benefits to potential travellers outweigh the expenditure of several hundred million pounds on adapting existing tracks and having to build new ones to take the services. If it is to work properly there could be delays to travellers on radial routes into London caused by stopping their trains to allow interchange with the orbital service.

I am not saying this to damn the thing. I should not wish to do that. But there will be problems of resources and priorities, and it may be that this is one answer. There may be others, involving both rail and other solutions, which might be as efficient and much cheaper. This is a matter that I should expect the Barran Rail Study to consider and we can look at it later in the year.

I turn now to investment. It is easy when sitting on the Opposition benches, whichever Government are in power, to criticise that investment is inadequate. The tenor of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, with which I do not quarrel, is that past investment under all administrations has been inadequate, especially when it is remembered that British Railways alone require about £20 million of investment in the London commuter network each year simply to replace outworn assets and to keep the system running. Certainly rail investment levels have not matched the services required. I think that we are making considerable improvements in this respect. No doubt there could and should be more, but I think that matters are improving.

Rail investment levels for the next five years, published in the Public Expenditure White Paper just before Christmas, are a considerable advance on previous ones. The total figure for London and the South-East is nearly £400 million over five years, even after allowing for the effects of the 20 per cent. cut in 1974–75 announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 17th December. That shows that a considerable amount will be of benefit, which will be obvious in various ways—track, signalling, stock, and so on.

Perhaps I should mention one investment programme with which the Government have been helping in the shorter term. Many of the services about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned come into London Bridge, Cannon Street and Charing Cross. The Government are making a 75 per cent. infrastructure grant on a £163 million scheme for the resignalling of London Bridge which should be completed in 1976. This will considerably improve the services into these three terminal stations—London Bridge, Cannon Street and Charing Cross.

Another familiar aspect of complaint by the public is the standard of service, reliability and comfort of coaches. On the commuter side it is true that in recent years standards have not matched the high standards on Inter-city services on the Southern and other regions of British Rail. That is for a number of reasons. We must bear in mind that when a coach is built it has a basic life of about 30 years. It can be upgraded and improved, but we still get a basic coach which can be 30 years old. We certainly wish public transport not only to have the best possible image, but to be attractive so that more commuters will use it, knowing that they will be carried comfortably and speedily. The economic realities are that it is often taxpayers' and ratepayers' money that it is at issue because of the infrastructure grants to British Railways or London Transport. This means that there is a disparity between the standards of rolling stock used on different services, particularly the intercity and commuter services.

Nevertheless, there are considerable investment possibilities to try to improve the situation. The hon. Gentleman no doubt knows of the prototype commuter train being run on Southern Region. There have been criticisms of that. A few months ago I replied to an Adjournment debate raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) who raised a number of important points which British Railways are taking seriously, as they are the various points being put to them by commuters during the survey that they are carrying out. This new PEP stock as it is called will be the new commuter train to take us into the next century. It is important that we get the right answer, and all the indications from British Railways are that the right answer will be found.

The hon. Gentleman did not say very much about the underground. In the present situation, particularly in central London where there have been problems of industrial action and dislocation, both the underground services and London Transport buses have done a great job, and I should like to pay my public tribute to the staffs of both services, and particularly to those on the buses who have had to cope with abnormal traffic conditions due to more cars and motorcycles coming into the city. The staffs have done a first-class job with safety and great cheerfulness, and we pay tribute to them.

With regard to the underground, the House may be interested to know that the Government are paying 75 per cent. grant towards the cost of converting London Transport Circle, Hammersmith and City line services to one-man operation. But the economics of railway operation, with the long life of rolling stock and fixed equipment, mean that improvements can be made only as existing equipment wears out, and this the London Transport Executive will be examining carefully.

History has endowed London with a fine railway network. It is possibly the most heavily used network in the world. During the peak hours each morning, British Railways and London Transport between them convey into central London to work about 850,000 people. That the system normally copes so well with this considerable load—although there are black spots in South-East London and elsewhere—is a tribute to the operators and all engaged in that operation.

But no one would pretend—and I do not—that there are not deficiencies. Many, if not most, result from a lack of investment both by operators and by Governments in the past. We are changing all that. Capital investment provision of about £400 million over the next five years is no mean achievement. This important rail study in which all the interested parties are involved—local government, operators and central Government—under the distinguished chairmanship of Sir David Barran—is having a longer-term look at the problems and I hope that it will provide a clear signpost to the way ahead.

I have indicated that many of the problems are long term. Because of that, we need a great deal of vision to make sure that we do even better in our planning than people on the tube lines did 30 or 40 years ago. That is why the Government and the GLC set up the London Rail Study. Answers to the longer-term issues must await the conclusion of this work, but I hope I have said enough to indicate to the hon. Gentleman that even in the comparatively near future the situation will be improved for his constituents and that the longer-term outlook for London and London commuters should be very much better.