HC Deb 12 March 1984 vol 56 cc89-106 8.25 pm
Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

I am grateful for the opportunity to initiate this debate on the Settle to Carlisle line, which runs through my constituency for slightly more than half its length. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Watson), who is not in the Chamber and who has much of the remainder of the line in his constituency, can catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, not least because he has been involved longer in the fight to save that line than I have and has considerably more experience in presenting its case. Other hon. Members from both sides of the House, including the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Lewis), have been involved in the campaign to lend support to the Settle to Carlisle line, and I hope that we can keep that all-party unanimity on this issue, even though we might disagree on other aspects of railway policy.

British Rail, in its current publicity leaflet, described the Carlisle to Settle line as England's Greatest Historical Scenic Route. It said also that it was the most spectacular main line in England. The Midland railway built the Settle to Carlisle line to connect its Skipton-Carnforth route with Carlisle, because originally it could not negotiate a satisfactory route with the London and North Western railway to use the route via Shap. The agreement was reached before construction started, but the Midland railway was refused parliamentary powers to abandon the scheme. In 1869, work started and the line opened throughout in May 1876.

The Settle-Carlisle line is a double track main line built to high standard, running for 72 miles from Settle junction to Carlisle. It forms part of the trunk route from England to Scotland, and is the shortest route from the south-east, the east midlands and south and west Yorkshire to Scotland.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that there is tremendous support in Scotland for his campaign to save the railway? Because the train has frequently gone on through Dumfries, Kilmarnock and Glasgow, people in those areas feel as much a part of the campaign as my hon. Friend's supporters in Cumbria.

Mr. Maclean

I am delighted at my hon. Friend's intervention and his support. I know that for some time my hon. Friend was a keen supporter of the line as well, and I am pleased to have his support.

The line was not only a main line route between Yorkshire and Scotland but provided a valuable local service in 20 communities along its route. In 1970, those local stations were closed, severely disadvantaging my constituents in those villages and beginning the spiral of decline. The real importance of the line, however, lay in the fact that it was a link between England and Scotland.

At the beginning of 1982, the line was a part of the British Rail inter-city network with three express trains each way using it from Nottingham to Carlisle and Glasgow. Despite poor marketing of the service by British Rail, it was popular and well used. From 17 May 1982, those trains were withdrawn. Mr. Peter Walton, one of my constituents, to whom I am indebted for a great deal of information on the line, in the October 1983 edition of Steam World wrote: The late 1970s witnessed the emergence of the successful East Midlands West and South Yorkshire to Carlisle-Scotland service via the Settle and Carlisle route, providing a direct link between these areas of population. Simultaneously, the remaining Settle and Carlisle stations of Settle and Appleby were served, providing a vital local link for the upper Eden valley, and an excellent facility for tourism in an area that relies heavily on that industry.

The Nottingham-Glasgow trains in this form were extremely well patronised. Three expresses ran each way, Monday to Saturday inclusive, and one each way on Sundays. The Dales rail service came into being. It was initiated for day trippers, shoppers, walkers, and cyclists on selected weekends. Certain closed stations were partially refurbished to cater for this service and its success was self-evident. To the delight of railway enthusiasts, the route welcomed back steam trains in the late 1970s, and Settle to Carlisle became the route for steam specials.

Freight services from a variety of locations south of Leeds and north of Carlisle made regular use of tie line, which had the advantage of being able to offer paths to slow, heavy traffic without disrupting passenger services. On the freight side, the Railway Development Society in a publication of March 1983 said: The Settle to Carlisle line has always been an important freight route. Not only were there plenty of local trains from quarries and farms but a substantial number used the route as a fast link between the industrial centres of the Midlands, Yorkshire and Scotland. Until recently the line handled a large number of these freight trains. However, there have been some recent developments which are reducing the line's importance as a freight artery. For example: Trains that should use the Settle to Carlisle line are being re-routed on the other, less convenient lines. A classic example is the Clitheroe to Scotland cement trains. These used to travel over the line as it was the most direct route. Now they travel south to Blackburn and use the already busy, west coast main line. British Rail have turned away substantial, local, quarry traffic on the grounds that there are no locomotives available. This has made it necessary for lorries to use small, local, roads for which they are not suited. British Rail are planning to open the line for only one shift per day. This means that night freight, parcels and newspaper trains now have to use other routes. Mr. Walton in his article in Steam World continues: An air of optimism prevailed over the whole route it the late 1970s and at that time even British Rail itself boasted the importance of the route. In a publicity leaflet BR said, 'The Settle and Carlisle Railway serves today as part of British Rail's Inter City network, and also as a magnificent monument to Victorian engineering … the Settle and Carlisle is no obscure branch line meandering through the gentle countryside but a main line railway built to take its trains over the hills at speed.' Then, apparently, British Rail's attitude appeared to change, culminating in the notice in The Times on 17 November 1983 of British Rail's intention to apply for the closure of the line. In an article in The Times on that day, Alan Whitehouse said: Behind that bald announcement lies an extraordinary story of leaked documents, contradictory letters of reassurance to MPs and others and a secret closure plan which had become partly implemented before its existence became known. Writing in Steam World of October 1983, David Wilcocks said: In fact British Rail made its decision to pursue the closure of the Settle and Carlisle three years ago but senior management knew full well that any attempt to shut a line which was still part of the Inter City network and an important Anglo Scottish freight link, would involve a considerable public outcry. British Rail also knew that its case for closure would be measurably more powerful if it could demonstrate to the Transport Minister that the line was a loss maker which had become surplus to requirements. And so, while publicly insisting for the past three years that 'no decision has yet been reached' on the future of the Settle and Carlisle British Rail has been privately planning and executing the running down of the line in pursuit of what might be termed, a 'formality closure'. Essential to that aim was the need to remove the Settle to Carlisle status as an Inter City route and this they succeeded in doing in May 1982 by diverting six daily expresses between Glasgow and Nottingham to other more circuitous routes. BR replaced the Glasgow-Nottingham train with a Leeds-Carlisle service operating the bare minimum of two trains each way on week days and none at all on Sundays. The timetabling of the new service was about as unattractive as it could be with the first of the two trains from Carlisle not arriving in Leeds till the early afternoon by which time important connecting trains for the south had long since departed. Pressure on BR to re-time the Leeds-Carlisle trains to make them more effective has been received with callous contempt; when the new timetable appeared in May the morning trains were found to be re-timed even later than before. Such cynical disregard for its passengers leaves little doubt about British Rail motive: to produce a set of figures (which can be used as evidence at a public enquiry) suggesting that the Settle and Carlisle passenger service is little used and largely unwanted. I have initiated the debate because that public inquiry will be held shortly, and I am worried that the overwhelming mass of evidence in favour of the line will not be presented because the TUCC inquiry will be empowered to hear only evidence of hardship. I appreciate and sympathise with the position of my hon. Friend the Minister. He cannot comment on anything which may prejudice the outcome of that inquiry, but I ask him to take careful note of the evidence presented here which will not be presented at that inquiry.

I ask him to note the tourist potential of the line, that the Steam Locomotive Owners Association is interested, that hundreds will suffer hardship and not be represented at the inquiry because their stations were closed in 1970, that the inquiry will not consider the freight potential of the line, its strategic importance if the west coast main line is put out of action, and its diversionary route importance on those all-too-frequent occasions when the west coast main line route is out of action. Not least, I ask the Minister to consider the damage which it would do to Appleby-in-Westmorland. The minutes of Appleby town council on Wednesday 24 January state: The tourist trade will be particularly hit, especially if account is taken of the number of tourists attracted to holiday in the town by day excursions.… There is considerable potential for development in the area, not just in the town, both tourist and industrial, which could be greatly stimulated if the line was run efficiently, if closed stations were re-opened and if British Rail treated the line as a business proposition. The Secretary of Appleby chamber of trade wrote in his letter to the TUCC: Appleby-in-Westmorland is a particularly picturesque town, set within an area of outstanding natural beauty and is, consequently, heavily dependent on tourism which is a major local industry. This dependence upon visitors to the town is explained by the estimate of several of our members that as much as 20 per cent. of their trade is generated directly by the railway. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to accept that there is a widespread belief that British Rail engineered the rundown of the line to help it win its case at the TUCC inquiry. It is not just a handful of railway enthusiasts who are making a fuss. I have been inundated with letters from constituents who complain that the timetabling introduced by British Rail in May 1982 and May 1983 has resulted in making the Leeds to Carlisle service completely unattractive. A classic example was the morning Carlisle-Leeds semi-fast train timed to arrive at Leeds at 12.48, thereby missing by just three minutes the Leeds-King's Cross train departing at 12.45, and missing by 14 minutes the Sheffield-Birmingham-south Wales service which departed at 12.34.

In May 1983, British Rail retimed the Carlisle-Leeds service to leave Carlisle much later in the morning to connect with the 13.45 Leeds-King's Cross train and the 14.52 Yorkshire to south Wales service, but that drastically reduced the amount of time that passengers from Scotland, Carlisle, Appleby and Settle had in Leeds. As another constituent of mine, Mr. Andrew Connell, said in a letter to me: The re-timing of the southbound train reduced the time available in Leeds, to a day-tripper, to 2½ hours. The significance of this was that the bargain day return to Leeds from Carlisle and Appleby had been the single most popular journey for travellers. At the same time the price of this journey was increased by 50 per cent. but after objections was changed to 30 per cent. I have also been sent pages of evidence showing that the passenger usage figures are not as low as British Rail claims they are. They were compiled by a constituent who noted the number of passengers alighting and boarding at Appleby. I hope that those figures will be fully discussed at the public inquiry. If not, I shall send them to my hon. Friend the Minister.

What of the future of the line? After the closure announcement, Cumbria, West Yorkshire and Lancashire county councils awarded a study contract to Planning Economic and Industrial Development Advisers to carry out an independent appraisal on the future of the line. The consultants were asked to cover a wide range of issues, including the cost of existing railway operations, the effect of the proposed closure and diversion, the potential for improving financial returns, the tourist potential and the condition of the Ribblehead viaduct and other major structures on the line.

That report is eagerly awaited as we hope that it will provide the first really authoritative statement on this railway line. Until now, we have had assertion and counter assertion, with British Rail claiming that the Ribblehead viaduct is in urgent need of replacement at a cost of between £5 million and £6 million. However, supporters of the line claim that £600,000 has already been spent on maintenance, between 1970 and 1980, and that there are years of useful life in it before reconstruction is necessary. Even then, the costs are disputed.

It is disturbing that British Rail was encouraged to make an application for an EEC grant towards the restoration of the viaduct, but did not do so. Another option was a grant from the National Memorial Heritage Fund. That option was suggested in this Chamber on 25 November 1981 by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley), but apparently British Rail did not follow up that option either.

I have been sent a report by Messrs. Burke and Williams of the department of business and professional studies at Teesside polytechnic. They wrote: We are concerned that the market for both passenger and freight services potentially making use of the Settle to Carlisle route has not been exploited to the full. They go on to explain how retiming of schedules could greatly increase passenger traffic. Of Appleby station, the document states: Termination of rail services between Settle and Carlisle would remove the railhead at Appleby which not only serves the needs of the indigenous population but is also a major provider of transportation into the area for tourists who, through their spending, generate income and employment in the locality. The case for the retention of that line is strong. Last year the public service obligation grant to British Rail was £819 million. This year, the ceiling is £865 million. On the basis of route miles alone, the Settle-Carlisle line could expect £6 million to be spent on it, but not a fraction of that amount has been spent on it by British Rail. If it had been, it would now be highly successful. I believe that the line could be highly successful once again. It is laid out for high-speed running and could provide a future high speed link between south-east England and Scotland. The opportunities exist for making profit out of its potential. There can be no doubt that it is underutilised at present. The only serious attempts to market that line have come from the SLOA and Dalesrail. There has been outstanding success there. Imagine what British Rail could achieve if it, too, made a strong marketing effort.

The line should be retained for the following reasons. First and foremost is the hardship that could be caused to my constituents. I shall not elaborate on that as I shall present a large file of evidence on their behalf at the TUCC inquiry. Second, the line is the most direct route between two important areas of population—Glasgow and west and south Yorkshire. Third, it is the natural and the only sensible relief-diversionary route for both west and east coast main lines. As travellers between Carlisle and Preston last Sunday and next Sunday will testify, the Settle line is being extensively used for inter-city trains while the west coast main line is out of action for essential maintenance.

Sir Hector Monro

It is ruddy chaos.

Mr. Maclean

I see that other Conservative Members have experienced the effects of the west coast main line being out of action last Sunday.

Fourth, heavy passenger loadings on service trains, SLOA steam excursions and Dalesrail weekend diesel multiple units have consistently demonstrated public demand for the line. Fifth, some commentators, as was said in the document for Teesside polytechnic, believe that there is every likelihood of substantial future growth in the demand for speedlink services and, to a lesser extent, train-load freight. We must have the basic infrastructure to provide Anglo-Scottish freight services.

Sixth, the route is a uniquely spectacular part of our national rail heritage and is a significant tourist attraction in its own right. Seventh, the line is of social importance to the isolated communities through which it passes, first, to give long distance mobility to those who rely on public transport, second, to encourage the growth of light industry and, third, to bring tourists to a part of the Pennines that depends upon tourism to support jobs and small businesses.

In my constituency, we have the attractions of the Pennine way and in the Eden valley the best salmon fishing in England, bolstered by hotels, boarding houses and camp sites that have won some of the highest accolades in Europe for their standards. Considerable damage has already been done to tourism in Cumbria because of misguided concern about nuclear energy. Closure of the line would only cause further unnecessary damage.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to give us a fighting chance to develop our full potential. We could begin if he told British Rail to show some flair and imagination, to get out and market the service and to develop an integrated tourist plan that would incorporate the best examples of private enterprise ventures found along the line's route. That is not too much to ask, and I hope that my hon. Friend will so direct.

8.48 pm
Mr. Ron Lewis (Carlisle)

I declare my interest, as is the custom of the House, as a member of the National Union of Railwaymen.

I am sure that everyone who has listened to the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) will agree that he has made an unanswerable case to the Government about the Carlisle-Settle railway line. The hon. Gentleman is my parliamentary neighbour. I offer him my congratulations on making such an effective case only four days after making his maiden speech.

The matter is not new. Six years ago I was approached by my constituents when rumours were circulating that British Rail intended eventually to close this stretch of railway. As the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border said, history shows that the line is a testimony to the type of engineering that was accomplished last century, albeit at the cost of a number of lives. It would be the utmost folly to close the line. Like the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, I have a large file of correspondence from people all over the country about this stretch of railway.

I am not making a party political point, but I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) is present, as the matter was raised at the Liberal party conference last year by a gentleman who felt very strongly about it. I know that he had a personal interest, but I believe that he raised it on the basis of wider consideration.

I understand that more than 2,500 objections have been lodged. If all those people were allowed to give evidence at the hearing, it would last even longer than the Archway road inquiry. I hope that the objectors will be present to put their case.

British Rail, in its brochures not many months ago, described the line as "scenic", but it has now been run down according to the sequence so familiar to those of us who know anything about the railways. British Rail has lived up to its reputation of running the line down, cutting the services and then bringing in a closure order. The Carlisle-Settle line has been no exception. Passenger and freight services have been massacred to the extent that British Rail can now say that the line does not pay.

I remember attending a meeting at the Home Office just over two years ago with Lord Whitelaw, the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), now the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Watson) at which British Rail showed slides and explained what it then claimed was the real reason for the problem—the Ribblehead viaduct, which was crumbling. Apparently, everything else was all right. British Rail said that it could not be responsible if the viaduct gave way when a train was crossing it. That viaduct is in a bleak area of the countryside and has stood there for more than 100 years, battered by winds and storms. Very little has been done by way of repairs. Far more could have been done, but it is part of British Rail's technique to use any excuse for the rundown of the line.

As the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border pointed out, the retiming of services has been useless in terms of connections at Carlisle and Leeds. If the stations at Settle and Appleby were closed, the people of those sizeable towns would be left to the tender mercies of the bus companies, if any existed. A case could be made for the retention of the line and for the reopening of Kirkby Stephen station.

British Rail has offered the excuse that there is insufficient population. I readily agree that the Settle-Carlisle line goes through sparsely populated, mountainous country, but the most recent national census shows that between Appleby and the edge of Carlisle, excluding the citizens of Carlisle, there are almost 25,000 people living within a mile and a half of the stations on the line. If the line were revitalised and imagination were shown by British Rail management, far more could be done to attract more passengers.

We are grateful for the support of the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro). I am sorry that he has left the Chamber. If this major route were closed, there would surely be a knock-on effect on the Skipton to Carnforth and Hellifield to Blackburn lines, thus leaving a vast expanse of Cumbria and Yorkshire without any rail facilities.

Some time ago, Cumbria county council, in consultation with British Rail, issued a plan entitled, "A Rail Charter for Cumbria", which states: The Structure Plan authorities consider good rail communications in Cumbria to be vital in supporting the social and economic health of the area. Rumour has it that the next timetable issued for the line in May will be the last and that, when the 1984–85 timetable finishes, with the consent of the Minister, British Rail hopes to close the line in May 1985. If that plan goes ahead, it will be in direct contradiction of the Cumbria plan, which was agreed and signed by the then chairman of British Rail, Sir Peter Parker, and the then chairman of the Cumbria county council, Mr. Naylor. The Conservatives were in control of the council at that time, but the Labour party backed them up, and the situation is now reversed. There is a unanimous view in the council chambers of Cumbria. All parties, including the Liberals, wish to keep that stretch of line open.

In bad weather, the electrified west coast line suffers when the cables are torn down. Trains are delayed for hour after hour and have to be rerouted either via Workington and Barrow or on the Carlisle-Settle line. In almost every case, trains are diverted down the Carlisle-Settle line. If that line is closed, how will those travelling from Glasgow or Carlisle to London reach their destination in reasonable time? Will the trains be diverted via the west coast? If so, that will take much more time.

The Government will, of course, consider the TUCC report, but I hope that the Minister will turn it down lock, stock and barrel and take up the suggestion that approaches should be made to the national heritage fund for a grant towards the repairs to Ribblehead viaduct. The Government should also approach the EEC to find out whether any help might be forthcoming there. Last but not least—we have to face hard facts—Government money must be devoted to the line if it is to be saved. It is no use the Government saying that this or that can be done. Government money must be made available at the start. With Government money and investment—not only in the viaduct but in providing more up-to-date trains such as are used in other parts of the country—there is hope.

I know that the Minister will not say much tonight. In the final analysis, he is the judge and jury. The hon. Member for Penrith and The Border has put his finger on the problem, and Parliament has discussed it. However, the problem with Parliament is that no line is important except the line that runs through an hon. Member's constituency.

I lived through the Beeching era. I was working for British Railways at the time. Lines were closed that should never have been closed, including the Carlisle to Silloth line. It was a tragedy when that line was closed. It had great potential, but it was closed. I hope that common sense will prevail in the end. With good will on all sides and with the co-operation of the railways trade unions—I believe that will be forthcoming if the Government and British Rail show some initiative—that stretch of line could be brought back to its former glory.

9.3 pm

Mr. John Watson (Skipton and Ripon)

I normally try to speak without notes, on the assumption that a speech given without notes is more easy to listen to and more convincing than one that is read verbatim. However, because this matter is important to my constituency and I am anxious to pick my words with care and precision, I hope that I may crave the understanding of the House if I rely to a greater extent than usual on my notes.

Last year the British Railways Board decided to submit this line for closure under the Transport Act 1962. It has been suggested that the decision was taken, in practice, several years earlier, although such a suggestion has been emphatically denied by the board. One of the most valuable purposes of the debate is to consider whether that denial is genuine. I am sure that the House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) for his diligence in choosing this subject for debate.

The wishes of Parliament are laid down with great precision in the Transport Act 1962. Any proposal to close a line must be published in the prescribed manner. If there are objections, the local TUCC must consider them and report to the Minister accordingly. Evidence on grounds of hardship may be heard from objectors or their representatives, and the Minister must then give or decline to give his consent to the closure. I suggest that if such a procedure is not followed in principle, spirit and practice, the House, through the Minister concerned, is entitled to take action to put the matter right. Has the spirit and principle of the 1962 Act been maintained? I suggest four items that could lead us to conclude that it has not.

First, a decision was taken in 1981 to reroute the Nottingham to Glasgow passenger train away from the line. That decision, following other route changes in previous years, removed a large portion of passenger traffic that would otherwise have been a solid reason for the line's retention. I want not to question the reason for that decision — I am prepared to believe that it was based on sound commercial grounds—but to emphasise its effect.

Secondly, a discussion paper presented to the meeting of the railway executive group in January 1982 stated: There is general agreement that closure of the line must be progressed. The view of the London Midland Region is that the proposal should remain confidential until the through passenger services have been diverted in May 1982, as otherwise this diversion could be barred until completion of the statutory procedures. After May 1982, the closure proposal would go to consultation and the region will initiate a closure proposal. The principal recommendation to the railway executive group in that discussion paper was that it should: (a) Approve the proposed closure in principle. That was in January 1982. In a letter to me earlier last month, Mr. Bob Reid, the chairman of the British Railways Board, did not deny the authenticity of that paper, but emphasised that the group had decided that further evaluation was required and that it was only after those further studies that the closure decision was taken.

Thirdly, there has been no realistic attempt to promote the line's tourist potential. Promotional literature is poor and frequently unavailable. Schedules are not generally conducive to tourist traffic. When passenger trains, perhaps surprisingly in the circumstances, have become overcrowded with tourists, there has been a marked reluctance to put on extra coaches.

Fourthly, and perhaps most serious of all, there is a factor that is based entirely on rumour but from a source that I have found trustworthy in the past. The independent report on the line that is being prepared for the local authorities concerned is, I understand, likely to show that the maintenance of the line has been run down to such an extent that repairs to the value of £10 million would now be necessary to ensure the line's long-term survival in any form. The problems of the Ribblehead viaduct are well known and widely acknowledged, but I understand that the structural problems of the line now go for beyond that single cost and, crucially, are far greater than they would ever have been if reasonable maintenance schedules had been maintained. That information might not be biblical in its accuracy, and if it proves to be incorrect I shall be the first to say so. However, if it is correct, the British Railways Board will effectively have ensured that no one, neither it nor any other operator, will be able to run a service over the line at any time in the future.

If the four factors that I have outlined are put together, what should we conclude? That the decision taken in August 1983 to submit the line for closure had by then become but a pure formality; that the consequences of earlier decisions had by then so removed the economic value of the line that arguments for its retention could be shown as specious; that the true decision upon closure had been taken years earlier; and that the spirit and wishes of Parliament, so clearly reflected in the 1962 Act, had been frustrated accordingly.

What then should Parliament's remedy be? We need look no further than the Transport Act 1962. In part IV, clause 56(8) and (9), the scope of an inquiry into a line closure is clearly defined. Such an inquiry must confine itself to evidence of hardship, which can be taken only from users of the line or their representatives. However, in subsection (10) the Minister has effective power to widen those terms of reference. He may require an Area Committee to make a further report". Significantly, that need not apparently be bound by the constraints of hardship and wastage. Therefore, I ask the Minister to give that possibility serious thought. I ask him not to give a response in answer to the debate, but to consider asking the area TUCC to deliver to him, in addition to its report under clause 56(9), a further report at the same time under the authority of subsection (10) dealing with the wider economic questions which are so crucial to any fair judgment about the line's future. Only by such a procedure can the inevitable charges of deliberate neglect, economic blackmail and closure by stealth be substantiated or repudiated for ever.

9.12 pm
Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) on the fluent and enthusiastic way in which he presented his case. It was a persuasive part of the debate. It would be an act of great folly to abandon this railway line, because it is the fastest route between Yorkshire and Scotland, an alternative west coast main line route, a great tourist attraction of considerable potential, which has not yet been encouraged and realised, and a great part of our industrial heritage.

I do not have to declare a financial interest, but I willingly declare an interest of heritage, as I come from a railway family. My grandfather worked on the Lancashire and Yorkshire railway and my father on the London Midland and Scottish. I have vivid memories of being able to travel a great deal because of my background and of standing on Keighley station and feeling, the Thames Clyde express thunder past. However, my argument about the Settle to Carlisle line will not be based on nostalgia, because there are pertinent and crucial aspects which must be expressed and debated.

One instinctively feels that the Ribblehead viaduct is the key to the case. The examination of which the hon. Member spoke might be beneficial to the argument whether it needs the sort of resources that have been quoted. If the high cost of repairs and renovation which was quoted turns out to be right, one must accept that, on operating grounds alone, there is no case for maintaining the line. It is crucial to realise that the case for maintaining the Ribblehead viaduct does not depend on operating costs and operating benefit alone.

Two further points should encourage us to go ahead and maintain such an important part of our industrial history. First, there is tremendous potential for tourism and for our industrial heritage to be preserved. It is interesting that in recent years those two matters have gone together. It is fascinating to look at the north and the way in which tourism has been developed, and to see that it is not just a matter of looking at green pastures and those objects which one always thought were part of tourism in this country. There are also attractions in industrial architecture and engineering. In that context, the Ribblehead viaduct provides two facets of the same argument.

I agree with the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Lewis) that the case for maintaining railways has not been sufficiently argued and that railway closures have often been based on shortsighted reasons. It would not be especially kind to say that that is evident in hindsight. Many people argued at the time with great force that that would be the result. However, even if we argue from hindsight that the closures have been shortsighted, we must at least ensure that we do not make similar mistakes. We can all think of stretches of railway lines that were closed because they were not part of an operating pattern which, had they been retained, would now be extremely precious to us if only because of tourism. Examples are the line between Whitby and Robin Hood's bay and the old Cheshire Lines Committee railway which went to Southport, Lord street. Can one imagine a line that would attract more tourists than that? It would be sad if we did not learn from what has gone before. As other hon. Members have said, this line could be made profitable on its own terms.

In the Yorkshire Post of 25 February, Mr. Alan Whitehouse said: Rumours of closure have turned the line into the most profitable steam approved route in the country. Increased patronage on BR's scheduled services has led to would-be passengers being turned away because the line runs over several viaducts and there was concern about the extra weight. It will hardly encourage people to use a threatened railway line if British Rail says that it cannot use it because of weight problems on viaducts.

To close this railway line would be a further blow to the north. If this line were to close, it would not only be a crucial blow to the communities along its 72 miles, but would further isolate industrial west Yorkshire. I agree with what the hon. Members for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Watson) and for Penrith and The Border said about the way in which British Rail has skilfully and quietly engineered its case. However, in the Yorkshire Post of 9 March Mr. Whitehouse said: Rail chiefs have decided to stop using the threatened Settle to Carlisle line for diverted trains, except in emergencies … British Rail admits the change is being made to strengthen their case for closing the 72-mile route. A spokesman said: 'We … can manage without the Settle-Carlisle line as a diversion route, and this is part of that process. The article continues: Travellers wanting to get from the Midlands or the North-West to Carlisle and Scotland will be faced with manhandling luggage from train to bus to train. The journey will take longer in both cases than by routing the trains over the Settle to Carlisle line. That is further evidence of British Rail's tactics in trying to engineer its case before it is decided by the proper authority. British Rail has a philistine-like attitude towards this line and is showing great cynicism, when what it needs is imagination and flair. I hope that the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border has highlighted his case and that of those who believe in the future of railways, of the north, and of tourism, and who believe that we must preserve those parts of our industrial heritage that cannot be preserved unless we hang on to what we have, such as this railway line.

9.18 pm
Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen)

I rise to speak in support of the retention of this line, even though it does not run through my constituency. It is needed for the communities which it has served for many years. It is also needed as a reserve line—we have heard much from other hon. Members about that—and for tourists, many of whom would not make the journey if it were not for that route.

The story is one of a great beginning which to some extent fizzled out in later years. Primarily, the Settle to Carlisle line was built for one purpose—to gain separate access to Scotland and in doing so to challenge the monopoly of the London and North-Eastern Railway. This competition is no longer necessary, as all the lines and services are part of British Rail, but the line has become part of our national heritage and we should keep it.

The building of this important link was started in 1844 and building continued until 1876, with the loss of many lives, as we have already heard. It was built not as one route but as a series of individual railways, in a manner that can only be described as fortuitous. Of all its many lines, that which went north from Leeds over the Pennines to Carlisle was by far the most dramatic achievement of its day and its history is one of great endeavour. The Settle to Carlisle portion was known to countless enginemen as the "long drag". It was conceived in pique, nearly abandoned through blackmail and finally built with great difficulty through some of the most mountainous terrain south of the border.

In 1966 the possible closure and consequent reduced service over this line prompted Peter Baughan to embark on a detailed work of what was one of the most dramatic railway engineering feats of the 19th century. Undoubtedly, he established a case for the retention of this unique service. It is still needed to serve the people of the communities along its route and also the people of west Yorkshire, many of whom are my constituents in Batley and Spen. I, and I am sure many of my colleagues here today and others representing the north, have received many letters on this subject and all are in support of retention of the line. Many of these people will be unable to attend the public inquiry and have therefore written to me as their Member of Parliament to put forward their views.

I used the southern end of the line as a daily commuter some years ago, so I have personal experience of the running of the line. I travelled from part of what is now north Yorkshire to industrial west Yorkshire where my business is.

We are constantly being told that the main problem with the line is the Ribblehead viaduct, which will need approximately £5 million spending on it to protect its structure. However, as I understand it, this is a listed structure and will therefore need to be maintained whether trains are run over it or not. Therefore, costs cannot now be used as an excuse to close this valuable railway, which not only my constituents but many people in Yorkshire and along the route all the way up to Carlisle wish to see maintained.

9.23 pm
Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

The House will be grateful to the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) for initiating this debate and for the unshakeable case that he put for the retention of this stretch of railway line. Few proposals for the closure of a railway line have met with as much opposition as the one that the House is discusing tonight. I commend the speech of the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Watson), which raised important legal questions about the action of British Rail management in diverting lucrative traffic from this stretch of the railway line to better its case.

Surely, if the procedure laid down by the House for the closure of railway lines, procedure that has stood the test of time for over 20 years, is to be adequately observed, the method used by the railway management to bring about this closure proposal is at best deplorable and at worst in direct contradiction of the aims and intentions of the House of Commons and the other place under the 1962 legislation. I hope that the Under-Secretary will consider carefully the points made by his hon. Friends and their apparent criticism of the action of the British Rail management when at that meeting in 1982 it diverted profitable and lucrative traffic away from the line. It prevented objectors among the previous users of the trains from as far afield as Nottingham and Glasgow having any say in the closure procedures, which I understand are to take effect in November this year.

I shall come back, if time allows, to the letter and minutes of the meeting of the railway executive group on 6 January 1982, which were read out by the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon, because, as well as the relevent portion that he read out, there are other matters that should be considered in the context of these closure proposals.

As various hon. Members have said, we are not talking about a short piece of rural railway line. We are talking about an inter-city rail link between major centres of population in the east midlands, south and west Yorkshire, Carlisle and the west of Scotland. As we have heard, until mid-1982 no fewer than six daily express passenger services between Glasgow and Nottingham used this stretch of line. The House has already heard how these trains were replaced, without consultation, by services over a more circuitous and inconvenient route, and replacement passenger services on the line were timetabled to create maximum inconvenience to business passengers, giving rise to more than a suspicion about the motives of British Rail management.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Lewis), I have an interest to declare, in that, like him, I am a member of the National Union of Railwaymen. However, my speech tonight has nothing to do with that, and it equally has nothing to do with the fact that my father, like myself—perhaps I should have put that the other way round—works in the railway industry. We are seeing the first fruits of a policy that is denying investment to what should be a vital part of this country's transport infrastructure. Unfortunately, the proposals to close the Settle to Carlisle railway line are likely to be only the forerunners of further railway closure proposals in the not-too-distant future.

I come back to the attitude of British Rail management to the retention of the line and to the way in which it treated objectors and those of us who expressed concern about the future of the line. For the first time for about 20 years, a couple of weeks ago I had the privilege to travel over the Settle to Carlisle line. We had to use a special train because of inconvenience to the scheduled services, to which I referred, and that special train was paid for at normal commercial rates by my union, the National Union of Railwaymen. When the initial application was made to charter that special train, it was refused by the management of the eastern region of British Rail, on the ground that acceptance of such an application would be "contrary to board policy".

There was a row about the refusal, and as a result the tune was changed somewhat. The management said to the Yorkshire Post, which conducted an energetic and creditable campaign against the closure proposals, that it was all a misunderstanding. The management said that it understood that the NUR wished to use the train for nothing. I have spent enough years working for British Rail to know that one gets nothing for nothing from that management, and it was never the intention of the railway unions and other interested parties to expect the railway management to provide a special train for nothing. That excuse really will not do.

When we eventually managed to get our charter, we arrived at Carlisle after an interesting and pleasant journey, stopping at the few remaining stations along that line. We were met by crowds of people, all of whom expressed their concern about the line's future and all of whom expressed their desire and belief in that future. When we arrived at Carlisle, there was a party on the platform which did not approach any of the train's passengers. Those passengers included my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), in his capacity as deputy leader of the Labour party, and the general secretary of the NUR, Mr. James Knapp, that body having paid for the train. British Rail's party included a man who bore the somewhat surprising title of project manager for the Settle to Carlisle line. No attempt was made to involve any of those who traveled on the train in any conversation about the line's future.

I understand from various press sources—I have no means of ascertaining the accuracy of this — that the only reason for the presence of railway management at the time of the special train's arrival was to prevent any of us holding a press conference on British Railways Board property. That allegation might or might not be true. In any case, it is entirely in keeping with the general attitude of British Rail's management — a management which appears determined to butcher its own industry and to collaborate with the Secretary of State for Transport in doing so.

It is appalling that railway management should indulge in the sort of subterfuges that it has with regard to the erosion of the potential of the Settle to Carlisle line. What is the alternative if that line is eventually closed? We have heard from the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) and others that the diversionary routes, such as they are, are likely to be extremely inconvenient to passengers who at present use the west coast main line. We have heard from both Conservative and Labour Members that the Settle to Carlisle line has traditionally been, at least until the past few weeks, the normal diversionary route for passengers who for one reason or another cannot use the normal west coast main line. Indeed, on British Rail's own forecasts for the scheduled engineering works on the west coast main line it is envisaged that no fewer than 20 normal Sunday blockages of 11 hours and two or three 24-hour blockages will take place annually.

It is reasonable to assume that if those projected blockages take place there are only two alternatives if the Settle to Carlisle line is closed. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of passengers who normally used the west coast main line will be bussed across country to pick up trains on the east coast main line, provided that there is sufficient operating capacity for extra trains to use that line, or trains will be diverted, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle mentioned, via the Cumbrian coast route.

The hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon referred to the document of the railway executive group about a meeting that took place on 6 January 1982 when diversion possibilities were discussed. Paragraph 3.8, referring to the problems of diverting trains off the existing west coast main line via the Cumbrian coast route, said: The provision of full standard clearances for the passage of Mark I, II and III stock would require expenditure in the region of £1.5 million and an early start would be required for completion by 1984. The House will be aware that when we speak of clearances within the railway industry we are talking about the loading gauge which, for historical reasons, is smaller in Britain than it is in the rest of the EEC. On the Cumbrian coast route it is even smaller than on much of the rest of British Rail.

The document continues: An alternative to full clearances is being considered, namely provision for physical passage of Mark III stock. Mark III is the latest air-conditioned stock used by the bulk of trains on the west coast main line. This involves work on underbridges and platforms only and could be carried out more cheaply and quickly than full standard clearances. The question then is whether air conditioned stock with sealed windows is acceptable from a passenger safety point of view, with reliance being placed on the public address system and possibly additional on-train staff, to prevent passengers using the vestibule door drop lights. The Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways would inevitably have to be involved in this issue. That is probably true.

One questions the idea of brand new modern rolling stock on the Cumbrian coast route carrying additional staff in these days of supposed efficiency, where the less staff a train carries, the more efficient the mode of transport is seen to be. If this closure goes ahead and the Cumbrian coast route is used for these diversions, presumably it will be necessary to carry an additional member of staff in every coach to instruct passengers not to put their heads out of the windows because if they do, given the limited clearances on the Cumbria coast route, they are likely to get their heads removed sooner rather than later. This is a very strange way to conduct the working of a modern railway industry.

I do not believe, as I think many hon. Members would agree, that the closure of this stretch of line would be good for the transport infrastructure of the country or for the well-being of people who have used the line, are using it and will use it. If the British Railways Board, instead of tamely taking the view that it is running a steadily declining industry, did what some of its competitors have to do and went off in search of additional traffic, if it marketed this stretch of line in a way that it has not tried to do, at least until recently, it might be pleasantly surprised at the freight and passenger demand for the use of the line. As we heard from the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon, and other hon. Gentlemen, the reverse has been true in recent years. As on other lines, the railway management has consciously turned away passengers and freight because it has taken the decision, prior to invoking the proper closure proposals, that the line is no longer necessary, and should be closed.

The closure of this line will inevitably mean more heavy goods vehicles on the roads. Travelling as I do from time to time as far as Carlisle, or into Scotland, I am conscious of the heavy goods vehicles, each with an individual driver, pounding their way up the M6, with the resultant damage to the motorway structure, contributing to the 6,000-odd road deaths that this country appears to be prepared to tolerate year after year. In the mid-1980s, I cannot believe that such a system of transport replacing the Settle to Carlisle line is inherently more efficient than a train of 500 or 600 tonnes, hauled by a diesel locomotive, and crewed by one man. I cannot believe that the first system is inherently more efficient than the second system.

As the House knows, there are different methods of financing the road transport system in this country. Under successive Governments, those methods have traditionally been more favourable to the first mode of transport than to the second. Many hon. Members, regardless of party, believe that the Settle to Carlisle line is well worth preserving, for the reasons outlined in the debate. We shall see the attitude of the Government once the TUCC reports.

I believe that if the closure proposal succeeds, not only will this be the first loss of a section of main line railway since the days of Beeching, but that it will be the forerunner of many other closure proposals. Many hon. Members—again I hope regardless Of party—will resist this planned closure as fiercely as we shall resist the shortsighted philosophy that lies behind it. We shall continue to criticise the management of British Rail when it indulges in the sort of subterfuges in which it has indulged over this line. The friends of the Settle-Carlisle line association, who have been active in writing to hon. Members, are not alone in their concern. The campaigns that are being conducted, particularly by newspapers such as the Yorkshire Post and by local authorities throughout the north of England, to preserve this line will eventually be successful. It would be a tragedy if the line were to be allowed to close.

9.41 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Mitchell)

This has been an extremely interesting and useful debate. It has demonstrated clearly the vigour with which my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) is representing the interests of his constituents and the depth of concern that is felt in all parts of the House about the future of this line.

As hon. Members have said, the Settle-Carlisle route passes through some of the most beautiful country in the world, though perhaps I should speak of it in the way in which the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Lewis) described it—the Carlisle-Settle line.

Mr. Ron Lewis

We need not argue about that.

Mr. Mitchell

The railway there is a tribute to the engineering skill, enterprise and ingenuity of the Victorian age and the men who built it. Thus, the first point that I wish to emphasise is that my right hon. Friend and I recognise the great affection that is felt for this line and the concern that is felt about this part of our national heritage.

My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border fascinatingly outlined the history of how the line came to be built — ironically, because Parliament would not allow the company to withdraw and use the line which is now known as the west coast main line—and my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) spoke movingly of how it was built and about its history. Clearly it has a widespread appeal.

The second point that I wish to emphasise is that the procedure for dealing with proposals for railway closures is clearly set down in statute. By law, the responsibility for proposing closures lies with the British Railways Board. It is required to publish notice of the proposal under section 56 of the Transport Act 1962. If there are objections to the proposal, they are considered by the transport users consultative committee for the area concerned. The function of the consultative committee is to hear and report to my right hon. Friend on the extent to which the proposal would cause hardship. In the light of that report — and, I stress, any other relevant considerations—it is my right hon. Friend's responsibility to decide whether to give his consent to the proposal.

That statutory procedure is being followed in this case. The British Railways Board has published its proposal for the closure of the line, the TUCCs will be hearing objections later this year— the hon. Member for Carlisle spoke of some 2,500 such objections having been lodged—and the TUCCs will then report to the Secretary of State.

My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border referred to a belief that BR had deliberately run down the line to enhance its case for closure. Such a suggestion is a matter not for me, but for British Rail, to answer. BR has made it clear that the decision to reroute the Nottingham-Glasgow service away from this line was taken on commercial grounds, including a significant saving in the amount of rolling stock which had to be employed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Watson) spoke of the spirit of the legislation and asked whether it had been complied with. He referred also to the rerouteing of the service from Nottingham, and I have dealt with that point. My hon. Friend complained about tourist traffice not being encouraged and helped. That is a matter for British Rail management.

I emphasise — I am grateful to hon. Members for recognising this — that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are in a quasi-judicial position. We must, therefore, not only be utterly impartial but be seen to be so. Only in that way will the House and the many people who care so much about this line have confidence in the statutory closure procedures that Parliament has provided. It would be wrong, therefore, for me to express any view on the merits of the closure proposals. I hope that the House will understand why I have become uncharacteristically silent on the arguments put forward by hon. Members.

Without expressing any view on the merits of the closure proposal, I can help the House on one or two matters. The hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) referred to the Ribblehead viaduct and its attraction as a piece of our industrial archaeology. The hon. Member for Carlisle spoke of the condition of the viaduct. I understand that local authorities have commissioned a survey into its condition, and I wish to see that survey as soon as it is available.

Mr. Ron Lewis

I am glad that the local authority has commissioned a survey, but there have been many surveys. It is time to add to them. I suggest that the Department of Transport should set another survey in motion so that we get the full facts.

Mr. Mitchell

I shall consider that point, but first I should receive the survey which is already under way. I wish to examine that survey carefully.

My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen reminded the House of the preservation order on the viaduct and pointed out that it would be an unavoidable expense for British Rail to maintain it. In those few Delphic words, my hon. Friend raised a major question about whether the railways should have the responsibility to look after industrial archaeology or whether we should find some other means to meet the expense.

Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that, although the viaduct is listed as a grade 2 structure, each year hundreds of grade 2 listed structures are, unfortunately, demolished? It is possible that British Rail, if closure of the line occurred, might apply for that structure to be demolished because its upkeep was unreasonable.

Mr. Mitchell

I shall bear my hon. Friend's point in mind.

My hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon referred to closure by stealth and suggested that the closure issue had become a charade because British Rail had made up its mind—that is up to BR—but it is for Ministers to consider the issues, and they certainly have not made up their minds. They will consider all matters, including my hon. Friend's point about section 56(10) of the Transport Act 1962.

My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border feared that the interests of those who cannot show hardship will not be considered. I assure him that, although those people will, I understand, be unable to make their case to the transport users consultative committee, we shall carefully consider all the points made during this short debate and in correspondence to Ministers by Members of Parliament and the public, even though they are not relevant to the precise coverage of the TUCC.

My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border said that he had evidence that there is an error in British Rail's figures of the numbers of passengers. I should be pleased if he would send me that information so that I can study it at the appropriate time.

The hon. Member for Leeds, West implied that British Rail was rigging the evidence before the matter reaches Ministers. I assure him that we shall take into account what the line can do as well as what it is doing.

The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) charged British Rail with having less than good faith. I somewhat resent his continual attacks on British Rail and its management. The use of phrases such as "determination to butcher its own industry" is not helpful, in this debate or any other, as a rational response to the way in which the chairman, the board, the management and staff of British Rail are tackling the problems that BR faces. I emphatically deny his assertion that this is the first fruit of Government policy of denying investment to British Rail. He is well aware that British Rail is not being denied investment where it has investment projects that it believes to be worth while.

Mr. Snape

The Minister must know that as well as criticising British Rail management for carrying out what I regard as the Government's dirty work, I also criticise his Department. It is proposing a cut of hundreds of millions of pounds from British Rail's investment over the next few years. That inevitably prejudices the future of lines such as the Settle to Carlisle railway.

Mr. Mitchell

It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman, who speaks for the Opposition on these matters, is so ill-informed. Far from slashing the amount that British Rail will spend on investment, we expect that there will be a 40 per cent. increase in its investment between now and 1986. The hon. Gentleman should do his homework better.

I give a firm assurance that we will take all relevant considerations into account in arriving at our decision. That includes the invaluable contributions that have been made during the course of the debate.