HL Deb 03 February 1943 vol 125 cc899-914

THE DUKE OF MONTROSE rose to ask His Majesty's Government, whether they can now state what progress has been made in regard to developing producer gas propulsion for motor vehicles; and to move for Papers. The noble Duke said: My Lords, when I addressed your Lordships in July I did not anticipate that I should have to ask you to hear me again on the subject of producer gas, but I raise the question now because I do not think we have had any authoritative statement from the Minister of War Transport in this House since July telling us what progress has actually been made in the development of the producer-gas system. I think it was in April that the Minister of War Transport told us that he had decided to adopt the producer-gas system in some measure for transport purposes. In July he told us he had completed designs and had actually placed orders for 2,500 vehicles, and that in the course of a very short time he hoped to have deliveries made of further vehicles at the rate of 400 per week.

I do not know what progress has actually been made, but I think the kind of information your Lordships would like to have is the number of vehicles running today on producer gas, how many miles those vehicles have actually run, whether their performance has actually saved oil, and whether the Minister himself is really satisfied with this idea of substituting producer gas for oil propulsion. As I say, I have no idea of the progress that has been made, but I have heard rumours that the programme is behindhand. For instance, I understand that my noble friend produced a scheme whereby operators owning a certain number of vehicles in a fleet, should be requested to convert 10 per cent. of their vehicles. On that basis of 10 per cent. the Corporation of the City of Glasgow should have had an allotment of material or plant to convert forty-seven omnibuses, but I was informed only the other day that the Corporation has actually received allocation for twelve omnibuses only. I understand that thirty-five municipalities and corporations have been asked to convert vehicles on that 10 per cent. basis. If their position is the same as that of the City of Glasgow, the programme must be very seriously behindhand. If that is so—I do not know whether it is—I think your Lordships would like to know the reason and what chance there is of making up the programme, because it is a very important matter.

When I spoke in July I did think we had got the better of the U-boats, and that it would be easier, as time went on, to ship oil to this country. But we all know that the menace of the U-boats is still very grave, and that the shipping shortage is still very serious and is likely to become more so in the near future when the great offensive begins, for there is bound to be a call for more shipping then. I am sure that any policy which gives a promise of conserving oil in this country now, for the use of our Services, is a policy of the utmost importance. So we should like to make sure that this scheme to convert vehicles to producer gas is making real progress. I have a feeling that the Minister of War Transport is not really making sufficient use of the capacity and experience of private firms to back him up. I have seen a letter from the Ministry of War Transport saying that they were prepared to allot steel on the basis of 351 units among six firms for a period of six months. That is only 2½ units for each per week. Surely, no private firm could hope to keep in existence on a basis of 2½ units per week. That is simply slow murder of private industry. I am quite sure that very few firms will be able to remain in existence on such a basis. I do hope that the Minister will be able to see his way to give further support to private firms, for after all they have the benefit of a great deal of experience and capability in the manufacture of producer-gas plants.

Noble Lords will remember that when we were discussing this in April I was very rude to the Minister. I called his plant an "engineering haggis," and I understand that he was very angry with me for that. My noble friend went to a private firm Messrs. Tilling to pull him out of the mess. Now he has gone from the Mark III to the Mark VI plant mainly and almost entirely through the skill of the firm of Messrs. Tilling. The Highland Bus Company were pioneers in showing how to fit producer-gas plants internally in closed-in vehicles. As a private firm, they have also pioneered various filtering devices. Now the Glasgow Corporation are pioneering a system of applying producer gas to Diesel-engined vehicles. Hitherto we have principally thought of the producer-gas vehicle as a conversion from the petrol engine type. But now the Glasgow Corporation are showing how to do it with Diesel engines. This is a very important matter for when they run their omnibuses as ordinary Diesel-engined omnibuses they manage to get about nine miles to a gallon of oil. But when they run them with the Diesel principle coupled with producer gas they manage to get 25 to 30 miles to a gallon of oil. What does that mean? It means that if the application of producer gas to Diesel-engined vehicles is carried out generally there will be a saving of 2,500,000 gallons of oil in six months or 5,000,000 gallons in a year. Surely, that is a matter of sufficient importance when you think of the shipping space that would be saved.

These things of which I have spoken were done by private firms. Therefore I say that having regard to the work which independent manufacturers have done, utilizing their experience and skill, I would like to see the Minister of Transport more expansive in his attitude towards them, and calling them in to back him up so as to get rapid development of his scheme. There is one other point upon which I wish to ask my noble friend a question. I have seen a circular letter from his Ministry in which it is said that operators have the right to choose what kind of producer they like. We know that the Government have the Government emergency producer, and I should like to know whether the freedom of choice applies to Government Departments as well as to private operators. Have they the same right in this matter as the private operators?


Yes, that is right.


I am very glad to hear the Minister say that, for I had heard rumours that some Government Departments were having undue pressure brought upon them to use the Government producer. I accept the noble Lord's statement with pleasure. Then we turn to the matter of fuel. It is quite obvious that the results obtained from gas producers in vehicles are very largely dependent on the fuel. We need a good fuel if we are to get good results. The Minister told us that Welsh anthracite of a certain kind was the only fuel really practicable for present consideration. But it is not the best fuel. What I would like to know is whether, if this movement expands, there is enough Welsh anthracite to meet all possible expansion even up to 50,000 vehicles. If there is not enough, what steps is the Minister taking to provide more fuel? I did bring to his notice a factory which was lying closed in July. I thought it a very great mistake that this place should be allowed to remain closed. I felt that it should be opened up, for if that factory was running at full pressure it would be capable of taking care of the fuel supply for about 3,000 or more vehicles. That would be a very important contribution towards the solution of the fuel problem. I understand that the activation of ordinary gas coke has been ruled out because of the cost of the plant needed to activate it. What other sorts of fuel have we?

The only other one I can think of at the moment is charcoal, which is an excellent fuel. I would like to know whether the Minister has been in touch with any groups of people who are concerned with the manufacture of charcoal. I know we did not use much of it before the war; and we imported most of what we used from Belgium and Holland. But there is now in existence a Charcoal Manufacturers' Association in this country which embraces some 14 to 16 of the best charcoal makers. I know that the Minister of Supply and his Department are pressing very hard to induce all landowners to cut trees to meet our timber requirements within the next few months. That means that large amounts of timber will be avail- able, especially in Scotland. To bring Welsh anthracite to Scotland means a long journey, and if charcoal could be produced to take care of Scottish requirements it would be of very great assistance. I hope that the noble Lord will be able to tell us that he will actively pursue, or is pursuing, the development of the use of charcoal as an alternative fuel. We shall be very grateful for a statement from him, and I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, I am sure that many of your Lordships are very grateful to the noble Duke for having once again brought this interesting matter before the House. It has fallen to my lot to take an interest in producer gas from a purely technical standpoint, and, in view of that experience, I ask your Lordships' permission to say a few words. It is some months, as the noble Duke said, since the matter was last discussed, and in the interval the Government have taken the most remarkable and very useful step of publishing their plans in complete detail. Drawings of the equipment have been circulated to the Press, the names of the contractors have been announced, and details of the arrangements for selecting the vehicles and for servicing and maintaining them have been given. There is no longer any mystery, therefore, as to what the intentions of the Government are.

There are two things which I should like to say about this scheme, but before doing so I wish to say a word about producer-gas traction in general, and about the scale of any future scheme. Although it has such a distinguished sponsor in your Lordships' House, producer-gas traction is of very humble origin, and is a very poor relation indeed of petrol traction. It involves a loss of power of some 40 per cent. at the best, and often more, compared with petrol traction. In France it is simply called gaz pauvre. So that it is only during a war, or in exceptional circumstances such as might follow on a war, that the use of producer-gas traction can be justified. At the same time, it is the only large-scale and practical alternative to oil traction. The question of the balance of advantage and the question of what emphasis should be placed on producer-gas traction in our total transport economy must be very difficult, therefore, to decide. The question of the fuel to be used has been mentioned, and on the fuel available depends to some extent what use can be made of producer gas. It is very desirable that the range of fuels which can be burnt in a producer should be extended, and research on this subject is continuing. On the other hand, there is a general shortage of fuel. I feel that it is really outside the scope of this debate to say to what extent coal can be spared for traction as apart from other purposes.

If I am not detaining your Lordships too long, I should like to add a few words about the scheme for 10,000 producers. First of all with regard to the design of the producers, it is, of course, much too late now to alter the design, but I do feel some sympathy, as no doubt many of your Lordships do, with the views and criticisms of the Government design which the noble Duke has expressed to-day and on former occasions. Your Lordships may, perhaps, take the view that the difference between one producer and another is a matter of opinion, just as one man will prefer an Austin and another a Morris, but it is not really quite the same thing. No one has yet evolved a really satisfactory producer; you have only to ask even the most enthusiastic omnibus driver to learn that. No doubt it is in course of development, but I think that the Government have been inclined to be rather arbitrary in fixing their design, if I may say so very respectfully. They have clung to their original design too long, and they have only recently begun to make sufficient use of the great experience which exists among the private firms in this country. One firm has been mentioned, but it is not the only one. I speak without full knowledge, but I believe that that criticism is a fair one, I think it is true to say that the Government were optimistic in choosing their first design. They have now brought out a second design, and it remains to be seen how these producers will work when they come on the road.

With regard to the operating side, it was absolutely necessary for the success even of this relatively small experiment that there should be a sufficient and nation-wide organization behind any scheme brought forward. The education of operators and drivers, the provision of materials for maintenance and the provision of fuel had all to be attended to. If I may say so, I think that the Government proposals on these points are very practical, and I have no complaint to make on this score. Full use has been made of the big motor firms and their agents, and suitable sheet metal works have been chosen. The built-in producer, in my opinion very wisely, has been preferred for goods vehicles to the trailer. There is only one omission, and that is in regard to oil vehicles; and I understand that this is being studied. Although this is still to a great extent only a paper scheme and an experiment, I think that on the side of organization the difficulties have been well anticipated, and, although I have made some criticism in regard to design, your Lordships will want to wish all those connected with the scheme the very best of luck, because I am certain that they will need it.


My Lords, before the noble Lord replies, fresh as he is and sunburnt as a result of his important Mission in North-West Africa, I should like to ask one or two questions which perhaps he will be good enough to answer. First of all I should like to congratulate him on the very agreeable chief whom he has obtained for the department dealing with mobile gas-producers, Sir Alfred Faulkner, with whom I have been in contact in regard to these matters. He was good enough to give me some information, but he stated that the noble Lord in his reply to-day would be giving information on the main points regarding which we have been in correspondence. There is one point about which the noble Lord may be able to inform your Lordships. I understand that anthracite is to be the primary fuel used with these 10,000 units, but that an experimental quantity of high-temperature coke—not low-temperature coke—will be available also. I should like to ask whether that coke fuel is to be activated or not.

With regard to the technical questions which have been raised by the noble Duke, whom I am proud to support again on this Motion, and by my noble friend who has just spoken, the noble Lord, the Minister of War Transport, is obviously well aware of these questions, because when he addressed your Lordships in April of last year he had then determined that the 10,000 units were to be of one type, but as a result of further experiments in July he determined on two types of improved emergency producers, and he quoted certain figures as to the numbers of each type. I would like to ask the noble Lord whether those figures still stand the same as to the numbers of each type that are to be made, whether he proposes to introduce any further type, arid whether he proposes ordering additional numbers beyond the 10,000 units programme which he informed your Lordships he had visualized some months ago


My Lords, the noble Duke has asked if I would state what progress has been made in the development of producer-gas propulsion for motor vehicles. I am very happy to be able to say that substantial progress has been made since the subject was debated in the House last, on the 22nd July, and I hope when he hears my full statement that he will regard it as satisfactory. We have completed our production plans for the two standard types of producer in numbers approximate to what I indicated when I last addressed the House, and we have taken steps for all the necessary spare parts. By the middle of January some 530 of the omnibus type of producer had been distributed throughout the country and the staffs of all those companies are now getting the experience of the use of producer gas. Further-producers of this type will now be delivered at the rate of 300 to 400 a month, and production will be completed substantially by the end of July. A good deal more work was necessary when we came to deal with the producers for goods vehicles, and it became clear, when we took into account all the things that had to be brought into construction, that we had to give the greater part of the contract to one firm skilled in the process of quantity production. A good deal of time was entailed in tooling up, but I expect to get nearly 400 in March, rising to nearly 1,300 in May, so that by that process manufacture should be completed by August. We would have preferred a more rapid rate of progress, but it must be remembered that it is very hard indeed to start up a new manufacturing process at this stage of the war. We could have secured greater speed only at the expense of sacrificing other work of even greater value in the war effort. Furthermore, there would have been no point in accelerating the rate of manufacture since the present rate will give us as many producers as we can see our way to fit, bearing in mind that the staffs at the garages are already seriously depleted and great difficulties are being experienced in maintaining the road vehicles in an efficient state of repair.

Noble Lords are already aware that five of the leading manufacturers of goods vehicles are co-operating with each other and with us in the arrangements for fitting the producers to goods vehicles. The actual work of fitting will be done by dealers and agents selected by these manufacturers, who are also setting up schools to train mechanics in the fitting of the producer-gas units and are making arrangements for the teaching of drivers. I must record my gratitude to these firms for the great advantages we have derived from their practical experience and ready co-operation. On the passenger side the undertakings are handling their own conversions and training their own personnel, and it is only right that I should express our thanks to Messrs. Tilling and the London Passenger Transport Board who have made facilities available to us at their depots for the education of the staffs of other operators.

The difficulties of making fuel available have now been satisfactorily overcome, and arrangements have been made for suitable stocks throughout the country. Fuel, however, remains a limiting factor. Noble Lords will be aware that certain special fuels are required in sufficient quantities, and we know that we can only secure these sufficient quantities by taking the selected range of anthracite fuels. I am satisfied that it would not be possible to go beyond the 10,000 vehicles, so long as we must confine ourselves to this special fuel. For this reason great importance attaches to the experiments which are now proceeding in an attempt to run producers efficiently on the ordinary high-temperature coke. That high-temperature coke, I think, would have to be activated, but I do not want to anticipate what will be the result of the tests, or give indications of what precisely is the nature of the coke that is now being the subject of those tests. I should say a word about charcoal. I had left it out of my statement, because on a previous occasion this was examined and found to be of so little value—in respect of the quantity available, not in respect of the fuel itself—that I had to disregard it. I anticipate, however, that in the cutting down of timber more will be available for use in the production of charcoal. But we must not look for any big development of producer gas arising out of the use of charcoal during the war period.

Since the Government decided to embark on the producer-gas scheme the whole war situation, as it affects road transport, has undergone considerable change. A year ago our primary concern was to effect the utmost economy in our consumption of imported fuel and the producer-gas scheme is one, but only one, of the means we adopted. In addition, all motor vehicles are under a rationing control which has been made progressively stricter. We have cut down all unessential services; we have gone far towards rationalizing wholesale and retail distribution. The loss of Malaya and the Dutch East Indies has made it even more important to save rubber than it is to save oil, and the recently announced scheme for long-distance road haulage is designed to concentrate in the fewest possible vehicles all traffic which has to go by road. In this way we expect to save some 25 per cent. of fuel and rubber in carrying the long-distance road traffic. The present use of road haulage in this country must be limited to the carriage of goods which cannot be carried by alternative means, such as the railways and coastal shipping. It is fair to point out that producer gas not only will not help us in saving rubber but may actually lead to wastage in that the reduced power of the engine when running on producer gas must mean smaller loads, and the pay load is also reduced by the weight of the producer itself.

This is the background against which we have to look at the producer gas scheme. When it is in full operation we can look for an appreciable saving in imported fuel, but the really big saving in fuel and rubber will come from the other measures of economy we have taken. The particular value of the producer gas scheme is that it will spread practical knowledge of producer gas operation very widely among road transport operators and will establish a nucleus of mechanics and of trained drivers with knowledge of the fitting, maintenance and operation of gas producers. This gives us a valuable insurance against the possibility that war circumstances might compel us to turn over to producer gas on a considerable scale.

From what I have said noble Lords will understand why I cannot in present circumstances expand the scheme beyond the original 10,000 vehicles. I have already mentioned the limitation due to the quantity of fuel available. There is also the general fact that road transport as a whole must be restricted to bare essentials, and that the use of producer gas involves a definite loss of efficiency. I am very glad to have had that contribution from the noble Lord behind me, who really seems to know what producer gas means to us. I am very happy to say that operators have responded extremely well to the scheme. We have been promised the co-operation of all the organizations representing road transport, and they have already rendered us much help. The reactions of the technical Press have been most encouraging.

In this brief review I have not attempted to disguise the fact that producer gas is far from an ideal motive power. It is dirty and inconvenient, and involves a loss of operating efficiency both in maintenance and in power output. It however, the most promising alternative to liquid fuel for general use in road transport. It is true that at present, out of a total of 11,615 road vehicles operating on alternative fuels, only 1,504 are running on producer gas. The largest section, consisting of some 6,412 vehicles, runs on electricity, but this form of power is only suitable for short runs. There are also over 1,200 vehicles running on coal gas, and over 1,400 on creosote. The present design of producer-gas apparatus is far from being final, and extensive research is being pursued both to improve the performance of the unit and to widen the range of possible fuel. I hope that one result of putting these 10,000 units into operation will be to secure many improvements from the experience of the hauliers concerned. As I have said to your Lordships previously, I am quite open-minded about future types, and I have recently reached agreement with the proprietary manufacturers in an endeavour to keep them in existence, if possible. The number which the noble Duke mentioned—some 300—was precisely the number that these manufacturers sough to receive from us in order that they might be kept going.

I know that the outline of progress which I have given will not satisfy the enthusiasts for producer gas, but I am certain that the Government have been right in refusing to rush into a grandiose scheme of development. Our policy has, throughout, been severely practical. We have sought to provide for emergencies and to give producer gas its due place in our war economy. I claim that our policy has secured the best practical balance between the maximum use of producer gas and the minimum disturbance to the general war effort.


My Lords, I am afraid I must be one of those enthusiasts for producer gas whom the noble Lord feared he would not be able to satisfy by what he has told us to-day, but I should like to express my appreciation, which I am sure is shared by the House, of the frankness of the noble Lord in coming down and taking us into his confidence in this matter. I would associate myself with the satisfaction which has been expressed at seeing him back again in his place after his recent extensive travels. The subject now being debated may appear to occupy a time which is out of all proportion to its importance, but there are many other subjects which have been repeatedly discussed in this House in the last two or three years, all covering much the same ground and all brought forward by enthusiasts who have urged them in the conviction that they were bringing forward something of importance to the conduct of the war. We must remember that this subject has been brought forward by the noble Duke and others, like my noble friend Lord Sempill, because they are convinced that here is a chance to economize in shipping in the matter of the imports of liquid fuel. This was urged before the war, and it has been urged since.

With that reminder which I have presumed to mention, I would return to the speech of the noble Lord in answering the points raised by the noble Duke. I must admire the persistence of the noble Duke in sticking to a subject on which he holds such strong convictions. The House will admire it. By way of illustration, I may say that the country might have gained by similar frequent reiteration in other matters such as the welding of tanks in the early days of the war. I feel it would now be admitted that those protagonists who, in the early days of the war, maintained that tanks should be welded and not riveted, just as in the early days there were those who held that ships should be welded rather than riveted, have now proved to have been right. My noble friend Lord Beaverbrook is present, and as he does not contradict me I hope I may assume that that deduction which I have made as to the superseding of riveting by welding is justified. This demand which the noble Duke has reiterated has been based on the conviction that it will result in a saving of shipping and also that it represents foresight in providing against later possible emergencies. It is for that reason that I would express some regret that the noble Lord, in spite of the dangers of the import situation owing to U-boat activities, has not been able to revise the decision which he told us on the last occasion had been taken.

The point to which I wish to address myself is that of fuel. The noble Lord emphasized that we must confine ourselves to anthracite fuel. Lord Sempill asked many other questions to which the Minister could hardly be expected to reply to-day, but I hope my noble friend will be able to secure replies in the future and that publicity will be given to them. Incidentally, I appreciate Lord Leathers's assurance regarding the co-operation of the haulage history as a whole and the technical Press in particular. I understood Lord Pentland to say that, in his opinion, no satisfactory filter or producer has yet been made available, and he regretted that the Government should have clung so persistently and so long to the present design. If anthracite is the only fuel we can hope to get service from, then clearly there is no appreciable future for producer-gas road haulage vehicles as an alleviation of the problem of imported fuel. These 10,000 vehicles which it is the intention of the Government to put on the market cannot be more than just a test. In these circumstances the Government would be justified in abandoning this as an effort to relieve an intense situation because the experiment can lead to no practical purpose in war-time. That is why I cannot help repeating my regret, as I said on the last occasion on which I spoke on this subject, that the Government should not have frankly said: "There is nothing to be done in this matter of producer gas during the war." Still, they were warned of that before the war, and were urged to take steps in advance.

It is for that reason that I venture to appeal to the noble Lord to consider, in these critical days with regard to imports, the importance of making provision for the production of a supplementary alternative fuel. That of course will involve steel for the construction of the plant, and I can understand that the Government will be loath to embark upon any programme involving the substantial use of steel at this stage of the war. It has been said that Hitler is depending upon his Navy to win the war. That is an idea to which we have not been habituated during the last eighteen months, when we have thought chiefly of vast land Armies. Coming back to the reason why I urge the use of activating coke, I think it is necessary to have something upon which we can fall back at a period when the war may, be at a more difficult stage. Lord Beaverbrook was sagacious enough to remind us the other day that we may yet be faced with severe bombing that might change entirely our present ideas of what course events will take, and it may be that we shall be placed in a difficult position if we are faced with a shortage of tonnage for the importation of liquid fuel. I therefore hope that the noble Lord, Lord Leathers, may revise his decision, and consider the construction of a number of plants, properly sited in different parts of the country, which would produce this supplementary fuel. There is an adequate supply of material in the country to produce that supplementary fuel, though it may at the moment have been diverted to other purposes. The supply of anthracite is limited, and it involves carriage from South Wales to various parts of the country and even to Scotland, which is a great disadvantage in view of the shortage of transport. I hope I have said enough to convince my noble friend Lord Leathers that there is justification for considering the supply of an alternative fuel.

The other point I wish to make is with regard to the number of the types of these vehicles. There has been only a limited provision of them due to the difficulty of getting the materials required for their production. The noble Duke said that there had been only 351 units between all the manufacturers for six months. What I wish to know is how many of this limited production of vehicles are now actually on the roads. I remember that in the early day of the war emphasis was laid on what the Government were buying, and it was said that the important thing was not to know what the Government were buying but what was being delivered. It was much more important to know what was being delivered than what was being bought. Lord Leathers speaks about what we are producing, but what I want to know is what is the actual number on the roads. I have been told, and perhaps the noble Lord would like to correct this statement if he thinks it is incorrect, that there are only twenty-eight passenger omnibuses actually in operation under the new plan of the Government, and no trade trucks or vehicles. The total number said to be running in the whole of the country on producer gas is 1,500. No doubt that includes vehicles of different types which were operating before this Government scheme was adopted.

In conclusion I would urge the noble Lord to endeavour to increase the provision for the greater use of electricity for road transportation within the areas of boroughs. Electricity, I contend, ought to be much more widely used for this purpose. I say that while fully realizing there is great pressure on the production of electricity for other purposes. We know well that if the right kind of fuel is delivered to the right pumps at the right places, use will be made of it, and that an additional amount of electricity could be produced if fuel was made available for that purpose. I hope the noble Lord will consider sympathetically the points that I have put before him.


My Lords, I am sure we are all very grateful to the noble Lord, the Minister of War Transport, for tae very interesting and full report he gave of the progress that has been made in these matters. If it is a real disappointment that the progress has been slow, still I quite understand why that is so. The noble Lord must have been faced by great difficulties, and I am sure he is now fully anxious to push on with all speed. I am convinced that once these omnibuses and lorries get going on producer gas, and once we have as good brains working on the producer-gas system as have worked upon oil fuel for transport, we shall have a very efficient system of transport and one that will continue when the war is over into times of peace. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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