HC Deb 11 March 1980 vol 980 cc1297-308

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. MacGregor.]

10.14 p.m.

Mr. Allen McKay (Penistone)

I am grateful for the opportunity of raising an important matter, namely, the proposal by British Rail to close the Woodhead rail link between Sheffield and Manchester. I am also grateful to hon. Members for attending the debate.

This is an issue which concerns not only my constituency but also the constituencies of a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends—the Members for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy), Sheffield, Brightside (Miss Maynard), Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley), Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) and Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley). There are many other hon. Members whose constituencies range from Sheffield to Manchester, and there are those who have a special interest in our transport systems. I hope that I shall be forgiven if I mention their constituencies during this debate.

After 14 years of work, and at a cost of £500,000 and 33 lives, the Sheffield to Manchester rail link was completed. The first train left Sheffield in 1852 on its 41-mile journey. The electrification of the route to a 1,500 volt DC system commenced prior to the Second World War, but was not completed until 1955. That involved the construction of a new double-tracked tunnel between Dunford and Woodhead, with larger clearances than any other transpennine tunnel and at a cost of millions of pounds.

Other lines were electrified on the same principle and have since been converted to a 25 kV AC system, which is the present standard form of overhead electrification. The new line provided a fast, reliable, weatherproof and economic service, carrying passengers and freight over the Pennines, providing a number of suburban services from intermediate stations and a direct passenger service between Manchester, the North-East, East Anglia and London. However, it appears that British Rail began to run down the rail link in 1959 by the withdrawal of through passenger services between Man- chester and London, and it encouraged passengers to use alternative services.

In 1966, British Rail applied successfully for permission to withdraw passenger services between Sheffield and Manchester, with alternative services on other routes. The reason given by British Rail at that time was that the Woodhead line was needed urgently to deal with increasing freight traffic as part of a rationalisation scheme for the transpennine routes. Over these years, the unions and the men have co-operated with British Rail in reducing manning levels. But now that manpower has weakened, and the passenger service gone, the proposal is to close the line.

A new development in this history of deliberate decline is that from 31 March, traffic from the South Yorkshire coalfield to Fiddlers Ferry power station is to be reduced from 60,000 tons to 25,000 tons a week. The CEGB is to use imported coal at Fiddlers Ferry through Birkenhead, and to divert Yorkshire coal to power stations east of the Pennines.

British Rail's previous actions lend plausibility to the view that it has played no small part in this latest diversion of traffic. It certainly seems not to have tried to persuade the CEGB to continue using the electrified MSW line, and it does not appear to be a rational decision on the part of the CEGB to divert fuel away from an already electrified line, which will reduce its demand, thereby increasing its unit costs and raising the price of electricity.

At the present time, British Rail is conducting a well-orchestrated publicity campaign which seeks to justify a case for closure, while at the same time decreasing traffic flow to ensure the closure. Yet the link in question has a good, well-maintained signal system. It is the only Pennine route with both bridges and tunnels that are capable of taking 8 feet 6 inches container traffic on banked curves on continuously welded track, re-laid during the last two years at a cost of £100,000 per mile, thus giving safe, speedy travel.

It is worth pointing out what British Rail said in 1965, when it selected the line for long-term development. I stress the phrase "long-term development". It said: At its eastern end the connecting lines provide a natural funnel for west bound coal from South Yorkshire/East Midlands coalfields and they also gather traffic from a very larger catchment area, extending eastwards to the Humber ports. At its western end the route is well located to handle future traffic flows to the South Manchester areas. It also provides a through connection via Godley with Liverpool and some intermediate areas". If British Rail thought that in 1965, what has made it change its mind now? The basic reason given by British Rail for closure appears to be that the present electrified system is worn out and in need of replacement. Yet it seems from its report that the equipment can be maintained for several years at a minimum cost. Therefore, why the hurry?

It is easier and cheaper to convert an already electrified system to a 25 kV AC system than to convert another line from scratch. That is admitted by the board. The board estimates that the cost of conversion would be in the region of £24 million. My information is that to put in a new system from scratch including tunnel improvements would cost about £200 million. The tax-paying public have a right to know whether these figures are correct.

In any case, in a period of escalating fuel costs the closure of an electrified line should not be allowed. It does not make economic sense to divert traffic from an electrified line on to a diesel system. Since there appears to be a shortage of diesel locomotives, how many more will British Rail need to take the diverted traffic; and what will be the cost?

British Rail says that it is losing £1.3 million on the freight service on this line. That is a comparatively small amount taking into account the fact that in 1978 British Rail's gross revenue was £384 million nationally and a large deficit was turned into a small surplus. On that basis it seems that there is no immediate cause for a revaluation of the transpen-nine routes.

It also seems that British Rail is taking a narrow and pessimistic view in believing that there is no possibility of increasing the amount of traffic between Lancashire and Yorkshire, particularly in view of the commitment not to build a motorway between Manchester and Sheffield. Will the Minister confirm that a motorway is not to be built? If it is to be built, why is it that the road surfaces will carry freight when British Rail is failing to increase the volume of freight on this line? Can the Minister confirm that it is not the intention of British Rail to sell a modern redundant tunnel to facilitate the opening of a motorway?

We must take into consideration the social problems. The eastern and western ends of the line have passenger services that are subsidised by local transport authorities. If freight traffic ceases on the Woodhead line, the amount of subsidy to be provided by those authorities will increase. South Yorkshire county council will not subsidise the Penistone to Sheffield route at present and, because of Government cut backs, will not be able to find the money to subsidise a new service between Sheffield, Penistone and Barnsley.

The withdrawal of this service would leave Penistone isolated. Penistone is a fast growing area and the closure of the rail link would mean that the endeavours of the local authority to attract industry to the area would no longer be viable. The arrangements for closure by British Rail rely to a degree on the transfer of the costs of passenger services on the west link of the line to the Transport Executive.

It is reasonable to assume that increased costs and the cut-backs in public expenditure will again lead to further closure of passenger services. Will the Minister assure the House that there will be no closure of existing passenger services if the freight line is closed down?

The Woodhead line is frequently used by Sheffield and Manchester passengers on Sundays during engineering works on the other line. It is also used when the other line is temporarily closed due to accidents. When British Rail was asked about this problem it said that in that event passengers would be bussed on a journey by road that takes many hours. That is not much of an incentive for people to use the railways.

How in any case will passengers travel when the transpennine road is closed, as it usually is during bad weather? What will happen to other passenger schedules if passengers from Woodhead are diverted to other services as a result of closure?

British Rail estimates that 261 jobs would be lost by closure—this in a period of high unemployment. Will this be the only closure and will these be the only jobs to be lost or will the marshalling yards at Wath in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dearne Valley (Mr. Wainwright) and at Tinsley in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Attercliffe be the next to close?

The proposed closure has wider implications. When the railways were nationalised in 1947 the Government set up a regional structure which conformed largely to the historical spheres of the old companies. Sheffield was and is unfortunate with its service to the north and east, distributed between the eastern region and the London Midland region and all lines to the south and west, crossing a number of regions. The fragmented structure has produced the peculiar spectacle of a major city with a notoriously bad passenger service to London, a passenger service to Manchester which is liable to constant disruptions because of bad weather and an underused freight service between two major industrial conurbations which is now threatened with closure.

Sheffield is in a unique position in the rail network. It links all the networks. It is the hub of the British rail system. It generates 10 per cent, of British Rail's traffic and has enormous potential. A converted electric line could be a final link in a St. Pancras to Manchester, via Sheffield, service.

The closure of the MSW line would remove from Sheffield about one-third of the transpennine traffic and severely prejudice future development in the region. Has the board considered further development in that areas as a result of Rotherport?

The closure of the line will cost dear in lost traffic, wasted resources and increased reliance on other forms of energy. The board's attitude to the closure calls into question its commitment to the long-term goal of an electrified network. The closure will be an admission that British Rail is not interested in a transpennine route. The cost of electrifying another line makes that possibility unlikely.

The rail unions, district, county, rural and parish councils, the chambers of commerce, trades councils, passenger and environmental associations and the public at large question the wisdom of the proposed closure, and its economics. It is no longer good enough for the Minister to say that it is a matter for British Rail and the unions.

Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepool)

My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. McKay) is aware that as the chairman of the Labour Party transport group I have cancelled a visit to the transpennine route because I discovered the type of situation that he has mentioned and the anxiety of Manchester and Sheffield authorities and, more importantly, of the trade union movement. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the gravity is such that it is prudent and important for the local communities to insist on a public inquiry so that all the facts are made known?

Mr. McKay

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) for deciding that the factfinding mission would turn out to be a tour of what British Rail wanted us to see.

It is no use the Minister ducking the question. Many questions have been asked which must be answered. I ask the Minister to say that he will put a stop to the proposed closure. If he cannot do that I hope that he will set up a public inquiry so that the social cost, the cost of diverting traffic on to already congested roads, the cost of unemployment and of future employment, and the cost to the region as a whole can be counted. I am sure that the Minister does not want the area to degenerate.

10.29 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. McKay) on raising the subject. I am not surprised that he chose the subject because he has been interested in it for some time and he has frequently questioned me about the possibility of the Woodhead line being closed. From our exchanges he knows the political and constitutional position.

This is a freight-only line. The result is that there are no direct ministerial powers in the question of whether the line should be closed. The British Railways Board has been given by successive Governments—this Government and the previous Government—a remit to operate its freight services on a commercial basis. It is not subject to any statutory or ministerial constraints on how it does that. A decision whether a line which carries only freight should continue in business must be a matter for the commercial judgment of the board.

I therefore repeat the position that I have made clear to hon. Members from Yorkshire on previous occasions. Ministers have no powers to intervene in a decision whether to close.

I do not want it to be thought that I am shielding myself behind the strictly legal position. It is wholly consistent with the duty laid upon the board to operate its freight business on a commercial basis that Ministers would not wish to have such powers. This matter must be decided by the board, using its own commercial judgment about the best way to develop the railway system in the area and how best to meet the needs of industry and users of the freight services in the locality.

Mr. Leadbitter

We have had this year after year, even under Labour Governments. Ministers say that they have no powers to do this or that. The answer is this. Ministers have influence. They have an abundance of responsibility and duty to consider the community and the consequences of decisions made by high corporations. It is not right that the Minister should seek in a normal Adjournment debate to read a prepared speech on the basis that he is not responsible and therefore cannot intervene. The fact is that people are concerned. The House of Commons is concerned, above all, about people.

Mr. Clarke

I shall deal with the question of redundancies later. Those are the people directly involved. I was not following a prepared speech at that moment. I have not yet referred closely to my brief. I am familiar with the position. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman confirmed that that was the position of Governments for some years. An instruction to the British Railways Board to run the freight business in the interests of the railways, and of those who work on them, on a commercial remit and a commercial basis is inconsistent with saying that Ministers should respond to political pressures by seeking to influence or intervene in a way that runs counter to the board's own commercial judgment.

The freight position is distinct from the passenger position. Parliament and successive Governments recognised that there was in many instances a social case for considering the needs of isolated communities for, and the provision of, passenger services.

The hon. Member referred to the passenger services which run along parts of this line. I assure him that there can be no question of withdrawing those passenger services without the express consent of Ministers. British Rail need the consent of the Minister to divert the Passenger Transport Executive services out of Manchester and the services at the other end between Sheffield and Huddersfield, which go via Penistone. A statutory procedure is laid down. That would have to be gone through before those services were affected.

Mr. Allen McKay


Mr. Clarke

I should like to proceed a little further. Then I shall give way. I must be allowed to say something. The freight-only line through the Woodhead tunnel is initially a managerial responsibility of the board. It has a commercial remit to meet on its freight services under this Government as under the previous one. In the end it must be a matter for its commercial judgment. In the background against which it must exercise its commercial judgment is the prospect for British Rail's freight business as a whole.

It is in the interests of those who work for British Rail and everybody else who has an interest in the freight system of this country that we develop the freight services of British Rail in the best possible way. There is great potential for freight business on British Rail. It has a clear idea of the traffic that it should seek to win—whole trainloads over considerable distances, regular traffic, and traffic by means of which it can compete on favourable terms with its rivals in road transport. We are about to agree freight business financial targets with British Rail which it believes—and which we hope— that it can meet.

It means that everyone involved with the railways must accept that there will be changes in the way in which the freight business is run. Those changes will involve identifying opportunities and markets where they can successfully compete, and developing their business. That sometimes means a choice of priorities about redundant freight facilities which it is not justified to maintain. The background against which the board has to exercise its commercial judgment on the freight-only business is encouraging.

The background of road costs, oil costs and so on in Britain is such that the competitive position of rail freight vis-a-vis road freight in many areas will probably improve during the years ahead. Therefore, we hope that British Rail will respond in a competitive and agressive way to make the most of its freight business. That is the basis on which it must act. It must use its commercial and managerial judgment about how best to handle the freight that can be carried by rail, including increasing freight. It is not for the Government to step in to respond to political pressures and to seek to direct the future of the freight-only lines.

Mr. Allen McKey

Will the Minister take into consideration that freight services on that small part of the line about which he is talking could close two passenger services? I accept what he says, because Ministers in previous Governments have given the same answer. I repeat what I said to them. I think that the Minister is abdicating his responsibility. A region will be deprived of the possibility of build-up because two passenger services are being taken away.

Mr. Clarke

I hope I have made clear that the future position of the two passenger services involved is different—with regard to ministerial responsibility—from that of the freight-only line. My right hon. Friend has made clear that the Government's attitude towards passenger services on the railway is that we do not expect there to be widespread closures, and that we accept that there is a public interest in determining the future of passenger services that might not have a strict commercial basis.

Regarding the freight-only service, we asked British Rail to use its best managerial judgment as to how best to concentrate its resources, and how best to carry the freight. I hope to have time, given that that has implications for employment, to deal with the position of the 180 or so men whose jobs are at present dependent upon the freight-only service.

The background, given the basis upon which the board makes its decision, is that it has analysed the present position on the four transpennines routes. There is spare capacity on those routes, compared with the traffic that they can and need to carry. Overall, on all four routes there is a total capacity of 360 trains a day, but there is a maximum daily requirement of only 154 trains. Of the four transpennine routes—the Diggle route, the Woodhead route, the Hope Valley route and the Hebden Bridge route—the Woodhead route has the greatest spare capacity. It could take up to 120 trains a day, but there is freight to justify only the 39 trains a day that use it at present. It is against that background that the board has analysed whether it can afford to keep those four transpennine routes open.

As the hon. Member for Penistone said, the main traffic carried at present on the Woodhead route is coal from the South Yorkshire coalfield across to the Fiddlers Ferry power station. There is no way in which British Rail can compel the Central Electricity Generating Board to accept the fuel for its power stations along particular railway lines. The present position is that the demand for coal from South Yorkshire for Fiddlers Ferry is likely to decrease, and that the CEGB will look for its coal west of the Pennines.

Mr. Allen McKay


Mr. Clarke

No, I shall not give way. I have already given way. I know what the hon. Gentleman wishes to say.

I pass on—I hope for the assistance of the hon. Gentleman—information from the board. I am told that the board's intention is to concentrate output from the South Yorkshire coalfield at Woolley, Grimethorpe and Houghton Main collieries, which will mean that any coal that has to travel across the Pennines will best be routed by Healey Mills marshalling yard and the Diggle line.

What this adds up to is that the present traffic on the Woodhead line is a long way below capacity. The Woodhead line is only one out of four over which there is excess capacity across the Pennines. The main traffic across the Woodhead route is this South Yorkshire coal going to Fiddlers Ferry power station, for which there is not a very encouraging long-term prospect. I will give way for the last time.

Mr. Allen McKay

I have two points. First, the demand for Fiddlers Ferry has not dropped, because coal is being imported into Birkenhead to fill Fiddlers Ferry. The only reason why coal is being taken away is to help British Rail to close that freight line.

The second point concerns rationalisation at Houghton, Grimethorpe and Woollcy. The coal at present from those three collieries travels across the Wood-head line. The only thing that has happened is that the coal is being concentrated on those three points, so it would help British Rail.

Mr. Clarke

It is perfectly possible to take this traffic across any of the lines. Because of the geography of the area it is perfectly possible to carry the coal from the three collieries upon which production is to be concentrated the Diggle line. The suggestion of the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Huckneld) would take traffic from the Diggle line. The position is that there is excess capacity, and the board is entitled, it seems to me, to look at this and decide what future traffic needs are and how best to rationalise the position.

I have only a short time left to me because I have given way to interventions. I will deal briefly with electrification. Of course, it is an electrified line, but as the hon. Member for Penistone said, it is an electrified 1,500 volt system, which was long ago abandoned. It was electrified a long time ago. I remember as a schoolboy going across that particular route to have a look at the new electric locomotives. The position nowadays is that they are out of date and are not electrified to the system which prevails over the rest of the British Rail network and which British Rail hopes to extend, the 25 kV AC system.

The Woodhead route has reached the stage where the equipment is wearing out after 25 years and needs renewal. British Rail has endless prospects of electrifying and modernising its lines in various places which it would like to pursue, but it is extremely difficult, given the background I have just illustrated of excess capacity, to say that at the moment it is a high priority to divert resources which might be available to it away from investment in electrification and expensive modernisation of a redundant freight route. That is a judgment which the board is entitled to make and which the Government entirely understand.

I am not insensitive to the fact that the important background to this is that there are jobs involved, and obviously the unions are very deeply concerned about the position of the men who at the moment work those trains that are going across the line. The board's proposals would result in the disappearance of about 260 posts on establishment but, as is very often the case with British Rail, a lot of those posts are not filled and about 180 men are at the moment working on jobs dependent on the line. I am told that the great majority of those men will be offered alternative employment on neighbouring lines. This is an area thick with railway lines. The position is—and this is what the board is at the moment consulting the unions about—that with natural wastage and redeployment of the manpower concerned it is highly unlikely that many of those men would face any kind of enforced redundancy.

Finally, I should like to underline the fact that the board has been consulting about this because of the strong feeling in the local community and because of its concern about its staff relations and the problems of dealing with the redeploy ment of these 180 men. As a spectator, I can only say that those consultations have been going on for a very long time, and I am impressed by the extent to which the board—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock 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 sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.