HC Deb 22 January 1981 vol 997 cc538-46

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

11.56 pm
Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch and Lymington)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a less controversial problern—I hope—than the problems of housing in Northern Ireland. But, if one seeks it, there is always a link between one debate and the next. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, notwithstanding his important position in the Government, is one of a number of railway enthusiasts in the House. He assures me that from his point of view the LMS "Duchesses" were the finest engines ever built. I do not wish to take issue with him. My hon. Friend the member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) already wishes to take issue with him, and I hope that he will take part briefly in the debate.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport for being present this evening. He is another member of what is loosely called the "brotherhood of steam." Last time I had the opportunity to raise an Adjournment debate, it was on the future—or lack of future, as it turned out—of the MG car. Tonight, I am discussing the preservation of another aspect of some of the better things in Britain. I hope that the future for preserved steam will be happier than it appears to have been for the MG car.

I am glad that my hon. and learned Friend has been selected—or has selected himself—to be present tonight. One of the problems that I touch on briefly is that railway preservation and the national heritage covers a multitude of ministerial responsibilities. The heritage is a matter for the Arts Department, The National Railway Museum's budget comes under the Department of Education and Science, the sport and leisure aspects are the responsibility of the Department of The Environment, tourism is the responsibility of the Department of Trade and the youth opportunities programme, which I shall touch on later, is the responsibility of the Department of Employment.

The object of the debate is to highlight the activities of railway preservationists and to discuss some of the problems. Perhaps one of the greatest problems is that of the unglamorous activities of maintenance of some railway steam engines that have been preserved. In the last few weeks, one of the most famous of those engines "Clan Line", which was purchased by the Merchant Navy Locomotive Preservation Society in July 1967, has been painfully restored to a suberb condition and has been working all over the country since 1974. In 1980 it had to be taken out of service for re-tubing and major overhaul, the estimated cost of which will be £30,000, using what the chairman of the MNLPS describes as slave labour.

Railway preservation is one of the most remarkable manifestations of voluntary effort that has ever been seen in this country, and the huge tasks and daunting projects that have been undertaken are a tribute to tens of thousands of people who have voluntarily contributed millions of man hours in the last 20 years to work on the preserved engines and railway lines and in fund raising for that.

I pay tribute to the Association of Railway Preservation Societies and to Captain Peter Manisty for the part that he has played. But help is needed, not in terms of Government handouts of cash but with the provision of facilities, which is within the remit of various Government Departments to provide. If we are to continue to maintain the impetus of railway preservation, we must generate new interest amongst the many millions of people in this country who are barely aware of railway preservation.

For that reason, I have been working with a number of people in the railway preservation movement on a project that we have called, in shorthand, "Barry Rescue". I will explain what it is all about. There is a scrapyard at Barry, in South Wales, where, by a quirk of fate, there remains the only stock of ex-British Rail steam engines—unpreserved—still in existence.

There are, on the one hand, those who would say that we must try to restore and preserve all those locomotives. There are, on the other hand, those who say that the Barry engines are a distraction and that the sooner they are all cut up the better, because their very existence distracts attention from the problems of raising funds for maintenance projects such as the Clan Line project that I have just mentioned.

With the considerable help of a number of people—including my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas), who was until very recently Minister for the Arts—I have brought together the Association of Railway Preservation Societies, British Rail, the National Railway Museum and various groups within the railway preservation movement. We have now an agreed objective—to rescue and restore some of the engines, to rescue others for use as providers of spare parts for engines which have already been preserved, but mainly to create awareness of the railway preservation movement in this country by drawing people's attention to the existence of these sad relics at Woodham's scrap yard at Barry, in South Wales.

The astonishing fact is that 120 of these engines have already been rescued from the scrap yard by the enormous efforts of individuals, groups of individuals and societies. Of these 120, 28 have been restored to full steamable working order, but there are still about 100 engines at Barry. They are, as I said, the unique source of material for the present, and for future preservation movements. The engines at Barry are a totem, and I should like to look, if I may, not only at what they could do for railway preservation but at what railway preservation does for the national heritage and, indeed, for this country.

Tourism is one of the factors in this saga. This is recognised now not only by the British Tourist Authority but by the English, Scottish and Wales tourist boards, which are all, in their way, doing their best to help the railway preservation movement.

One and a half million rail journeys were completed by paying customers on the preserved railways of Britain in 1980. The British Tourist Authority now publishes a guide to the steam railways of Britain in five languages, and tickets are issued by British Tourist Authority offices overseas. Help is available from the boards and, indeed, the English Tourist Board has contributed over £185,000 to various projects since 1971, which is an indication of their value to the nation.

I turn now to an unlikely aspect—that of jobs. The Festiniog railway, in North Wales, provides work for 55 full-time employees in a part of the country with one of the highest rates of unemployment. It is estimated that there are 2,000 people in full-time employment on the preserved raiways of Britain.

I pay tribute to the assistance that I have received from the Department of Employment in proposals that I put to it, the objective of which, as far as I am concerned, is to utilise the youth opportunities programme and to harness people who could be encompassed within the YOP to form teams of people who can go to work on some of our preserved railways. The Manpower Services Commission in Cardiff will shortly be receiving a deputation, which I hope to lead, in order to discuss the establishment of what I might lightheartedly call a latter-day team of navvies—navvies motivated by enthusiasm rather than the earlier motivation of such gangs when the railways were being built in the nineteenth century.

There is a lot of work to be done on the preserved lines. There are tunnels to dig, bridges and stations to restore, and permanent way to lay, as well as the restoration of many of the locomotives.

This morning I had the privelege of listening to Sir Peter Parker, who introduced a film that had been produced, amongst others, by the British Tourist Authority and British Rail. It concerns the West Highland railway to Mallaig and is called "A line For All Seasons." I can strongly recommend it. The essence of Sir Peter's remarks in his brief address was that British Rail need friends.

I turn to one aspect of the railway preservation movement. Although Sir Peter's heart is undoubtedly in the right place in his attitude towards the preservation movement, there is some evidence that his good will does not always permeate down to the lower levels. Some of the railway preservation projects do not receive as much co-operation as they might, for a variety of reasons. I shall touch at random on some of those projects.

The West Somerset railway, which is well-known to my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) is unable to complete the running of trains from Minehead to Taunton, because over the years members of the National Union of Railwaymen at Taunton have persistently obstructed the group's efforts to run trains on the last part of the journey from Bishops Lydeard to Taunton. They have done so for a spurious reason. They say that it will compete with the Western National Bus Company. My hon. and learned Friend should press British Rail to persuade the NUR to give up this thoroughly unhelpful attitude.

On the North Staffordshire railway, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Leek (Mr. Knox), a platform at Cheddleton station—one side of which is used by the North Staffordshire preserved railway and the other side of which faces the still-operational BR goods line—could have been a useful platform to the North Staffordshire railway if it had not been fenced and wired down the middle at the insistence of British Rail.

At Paignton, where the Torbay Steam Railway _operates, BR refused to allow the Torbay Steam Railway to operate into Paignton station. The company went ahead and built its own station adjacent to the BR station. It shares the signal box with BR in order to maintain access from BR's tracks to its tracks, but BR charges £20,000 for this privilege. My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Sir F. Bennett) joins me in hoping that 13R can be persuaded to be a little less harsh in its financial demands on the Torbay Steam Railway.

At Cranmore, on the East Somerset railway—which, as many people know, is David Shepherd's railway—a freight-only line is operated by British Rail. The connection with the East Somerset railway could be made easily, but it is made extremely difficult—well-nigh impossible—for the East Somerset railway. At Totnes, on the Dart Valley railway, BR has refused to give any access to the BR station for DVR trains. It is not a matter of payment. BR will not allow another railway to run on its lines or into its station.

If my hon. and learned Friend's Department grants light railway orders to preserved railways, it is a recognition that those preserved railways are responsible bodies. If that is good enough for the Department of Transport it should be good enough for BR, and BR should treat them as if they were responsible bodies. I should like BR to regard a light railway order as a certificate of respectability. It should not continue to imply as it sometimes does, that these people are just playing trains. If that is all they were doing I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend would not grant them a light railway order. Notwithstanding these comments, however, BR provides overall considerable support and encouragement for railway preservation and relations are pretty good.

Railway preservation has come full circle. Steam engines were sold for scrap by BR. The preservationists got to work and restored many of the engines. We then worked to persuade BR to allow the engines to run on BR tracks. At length, we were successful. BR then saw that preserved railways made quite a lot of money out of their projects and ended up by chartering some of the engines that it had sold as scrap to run on its own tracks! It is an extraordinary saga and a remarkable tribute to the voluntary efforts of tens and thousands of people.

My final tribute to the railway preservation movement is a quotation not of my words but of a National Savings poster that has just been produced. About 10,000 copies are being distributed to schools. The poster reads: When British Rail abandoned steam in the 1960s, in favour of diesel and electric traction, it seemed that the steam engine was destined to become a relic of the past, to be displayed in museums … However, railway enthusiasts were determined that the excitement of travel by steam train should not be lost for ever, and small societies sprang up throughout the country. Their aim was to preserve in working order sections of railway, locomotives and rolling stock that were no longer required by BR. Thanks to the voluntary efforts of these enthusiasts, a magnificent collection of items from the Age of Steam can be enjoyed by today's generation. There are more than 100 centres now open to the public including passenger-carrying railways, working museums and depots, at many of which locomotives are 'steamed' on special occasions. It was once every schoolboy's ambition to drive a steam engine, and that dream is again a possibility. But the apprenticeship is long and exacting, and only a few people can be engine drivers. Much more is involved in preserving a steam railway—the restoration and maintenance of locomotives and rolling stock, the relaying and upkeep of track, the renovation of buildings and other structures, and the many day-to-day operating duties. Anyone who has the interest and is prepared to devote some spare time to these important tasks is very welcome. Though much hard work is done out of the limelight, the reward is a share in the preservation of a vital part of our heritage. My final words to my hon. and learned Friend are: if it is true that God helps those who help themselves, let my hon. and learned Friend be his minister in this important task.

12.12 am
Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)

I intervene briefly. I support my hon. Friend. When I first met him he was working on preserving the S.S. "Great Britain" and bringing it from the Falkland Islands to this country. His argument tonight is comparable. I am glad that he put his argument in the context of preserving not only our national heritage but the engineering skills that made this country great and which should be preserved.

I urge my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary of State to support the case. We are not talking nostalgically about the past but about the future and the lessons in engineering and skills which have a great relevance to the nation's future. We are also talking about the excellence of our railways and the skills of our engineers, which are of great importance to my children and future generations. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend, with his customary sensitivity, will realise that we are not speaking only as historians and of preservation; we are speaking about the future. The history of our railways has a great relevance to the future. As Burke, who was a Member for Bristol said: A nation that looks not to its past has no idea for its future.

12.13 am
The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley) on raising this interesting, unusual and important subject. I have been, and still am, an enthusiast in this area. I do not know whether I belong to anything known as the "brotherhood of steam", but 20 years ago I spent much of my life looking at steam locomotives in various parts of the British Isles and abroad. I am afraid that my subscriptions to bodies such as the Railway Correspondents and Travel Society and the Birmingham Locomotive Society have long since lapsed. I did not have the sense to take photographs of the Standard which would have enabled me to publish books my hon. Friend now does.

However, I am still interested. The sight of the Great Western "Castle' still excites me more than most other locomotives, but I shall visit others. I have made private visits to most of the preserved railway lines and steam centres in the last few years.

My present duties are more concerned with British Rail, but my hon. Friend is right to say that my department and the Government are involved with the railway preservation movement. We have to play our part in supporting the many enthusiasts who have achieved a great deal in putting together a substantial number of preserved lines and steam centres. The Government should back the dedicated effort that so many volunteers have made in the last few years.

I am astonished that since the early days when the first few enthusiasts saved the Talyllyn and Ffestiniog so much has happened. It was believed when the preservation of lines first began that such effort would be spread thinly and that many schemes were ill founded.

Throughout the country, there are 28 preserved old railway lines operating under light railway orders covering 195¼ miles of railway line. That continues to be added to. My right hon. Friend approved on Tuesday of this week the making of the Blaenaa Ffestiniog (Central Station) Light Railway Order, which will enable the railway to make another advance by building a northward extension to a new station in the middle of the town, where there will be a direct interchange with British Railways, as services on the Llandudno Junction branch line will terminate there.

As a result, when the extension has been completed, as I am sure it will be, passengers will be able to travel by train from Port Madoc via Blaenau Festiniog to the North Wales coastal towns and Llandudno Junction.

My hon. Friend is right to say that the efforts of that railway concern alone are providing a worthwhile contribution now to tourism in that area and full-time paid employment to a number of people. I am, therefore, glad to say that we continue to make orders for the extension of successful railways such as that and to new enthusiasts when they present well-founded ideas.

The main way in which the Department of Transport can help is in giving guidance through the various procedures under the Light Railways Acts of 1896 and thereafter in order to obtain the necessary light railway order under which most preserved railways find it is best to operate.

I can assure my hon. Friend that my Department will always be co-operative and helpful in every way we can to people who present well-founded projects. We will always advise sensible applicants about the statutory requirements which are involved under the Light Railways Acts and the procedures that must be followed before an order can be obtained. The Department's railway inspecting officers will also give technical advice about safety and operational matters. Our approach to projects that are brought to us is to see how we can facilitate an idea and progress it so that it can be put into serious practical effect, while safeguarding the safety of the public and other legitimate public interests.

The Secretary of State has a quasi-judicial role in finally making the light railway order, so it is not always possible for Ministers to give particular views for or against applications as they come along. In fact, as I say, the officials of my Department, particularly those with expertise in this field, will always give helpful advice in order to lead applicants through the various technical and legal requirements that have to be fulfilled before an order can be made. I hope, therefore, that we are continuing to facilitate such sensible ideas as continue to come along.

The story of the Woodham Brothers scrap yard at Barry is a remarkable one, which has led to a substantial number of steam engines surviving in the scrap yard for so many years and continuing to be drawn upon as a stock for enthusiasts to transform them into working locomotives again. I admire the efforts of the Barry Steam Locomotive Action Group to save the remaining steam locomotives which are still at Barry.

I am afraid that there is no financial way in which I can help, because my Department is not responsible for giving financial help to projects of this kind and at present we could not find funds for such a purpose. But my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science, who is now responsible for the arts and museums, can give some help and advice. I understand that the action group has been in contact with the Science Museum through the agency of the Department of Education and Science and that it has been possible to give the action group advice about types of projects on which grants may be available. I am also told that some grants have been made to other societies and museums, apart from the action group, which have led to the preservation of locomotives from Barry.

My right hon. Friend the member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas), who until recently was Minister for the Arts, told the House on 10 November last year that a working party had been set up at the National Railway Museum to advise whether any of the remaining steam locomotives at Barry could be preserved or provided with spare parts through the agency of the museum.

I am told that the working party visited Barry on 21 November last year and that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and Lymington accompanied it. My hon. Friend raised a number of specific problems that some preserved railway lines face in their operations up and down the country.

Mr. Adley

I know that my hon. and learned Friend's speech will be read most carefully. He rightly paid tribute to the Barry Steam Locomotive Action Group. It must, however, be emphasised that a large number of the railways which actually operate the engines and trains have themselves done a great deal to save engines from Barry over the past 20 years. The hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) is one who played a part in this. I therefore would not like it to be read into anything that my hon. and learned Friend has said that the BSLAG group is the only one to have done anything. Many people have done a great deal over many years.

Mr. Clarke

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. I am sorry if I did not make it clear. My understanding—perhaps if I use my off-the-cuff under-standing I shall get it wrong again—is that this stock of locomotives has been drawn on over the years by all kinds of groups from Barry who have bought particular locomotives or acquired stock for railway lines and that many have been brought back into use. I understand that the action group is now trying to rescue what is left of the stock and is probably the most active group going through what remains to see what can still be rescued and whether more can be put back to useful future life on preserved railways in various places. But I realise that a wide range of groups have been working on the locomotives from Barry over the past 20 years.

Perhaps I may touch briefly on one or two of the problems faced by preserved railway lines. Very few of them can be dealt with directly by the Government. Certainly, it is unfortunate to find that occasionally technical problems arise.

The history of the West Somerset Railway, which was touched upon by my hon. Friend, is a sad one. That company has faced difficulties in extending its services to Taunton. One of the problems which I hope can be resolved is that the Taunton board of the National Union of Railwaymen has apparently not been very helpful, to say the least, about the extension of the service to Taunton, on the basis that its members operate services of the Western National bus company in the area. So they have placed themselves in the somewhat undesirable position of being railwaymen opposing the reopening of a railway line in order to defend a bus service.

I am also told, however, that there is a problem in meeting the cost of retaining the connecting railway track between Norton Fitzwarren and Taunton. That track has a recovery value of a fair order to British Rail, which, not unreasonably, is therefore asking the company to pay an annual rental to retain it. The railway company will therefore have to negotiate with British Rail to see whether it can afford the retention charge and come to some financial arrangement.

With regard to the Dart Valley railway, I am told that both lines operated by the Dart Valley Light Railway between Paignton and Kingswear and between Totnes and Buckfastleigh are connected to the British Rail network, at Paignton and Totnes respectively. But my hon. Friend plainly challenged that. I therefore hesitate to pit the advice of my Department against his very close knowledge of these matters.

This leads me to say that most of the problems that my hon. Friend touched upon, in Staffordshire and elsewhere, are really matters for British Rail. They will have to be resolved by negotiation between British Rail and the companies concerned. I assure my hon. Friend that my understanding of the policy of Sir Peter Parker and the British Railways Board is that they attempt to be helpful and are anxious to encourage these lines. As my hon. Friend has said, most of the people active in the railway preservation movement are also good friends of the present-day railway network. It would be foolish for ill-feeling to develop between the railway enthusiasts and British Rail. I am sure that that view is shared by the board and its chairman.

I will make sure that each of the complaints drawn to the attention of the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and Lymington is put to the board so that it can write to him and explain its understanding of the present position in each case. I shall also make sure that I see a copy of the reply myself, so that I may understand the situation better. I hope that, as a result, it will be possible for the board to look at some of the problems and see whether it can sort out the difficulties that have arisen between some preserved railway companies and its own local management.

British Rail, of course, must behave commercially and look after the interests of the taxpayer and recover the legitimate costs of keeping the facilities installed which preserved railways need. But I am sure that it will try to come to a sensible and fair solution.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

May I say, as first chairman of the Keighley and Worth Valley railway for 10 years and as shareholder of five £10 shares in that railway, that I think that the Minister will acknowledge that many railway enthusiasts who are supporting the railways and providing great knowledge and advice are practical railway men, and that although there may be individual problems, NUR and ASLEF members are in fact among the keenest enthusiasts.

Mr. Clarke

I agree entirely. As a shareholder myself in the Great Central Preservation Society at Loughborough, I can confirm that many railwaymen are actively engaged on these preserved railway lines. I think that these are local difficulties. Perhaps particular individuals or particular local managements have taken a rather unnecessarily difficult view towards these railways. I cannot judge any of these cases. I shall draw them to the attention of the British Railways Board, and I am sure that the board will do its best to sort out and minimise some of the problems.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Twelve o'clock.