HL Deb 05 March 1953 vol 180 cc1037-9

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper—namely, to call attention to the Report of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe issued in Geneva on January 17 in the Transport Section of which it is stated that in Britain: (a) the number of journeys per person per year fell from twenty-eight in 1938 to twenty in 1951 during which time other European countries registered a striking increase in Railway passenger traffic; (b) the frequency of service, as measured by the number of trains per mile of line, has dropped, Britain now coming third after Switzerland and Holland, having been second in 1950 and first in 1938; (c) the utilisation of passenger coaches and goods wagons is the lowest in Europe; (d) the turn-round time of goods wagons is 10.4 days compared to 4.3 days in Germany; (e) the ratio of staff to traffic is the highest in comparison to West European countries; and to ask whether Her Majesty's Government will take steps in the reorganisation now under discussion to improve the efficiency of the system.


My Lords, I thought the noble Lord might have introduced his Question by making certain remarks but as he has not chosen to do so, I shall reply shortly. I am sorry that the noble Lord did not bring this matter up on the Second Reading of the Transport Bill, because it would appear to be germane to the subject discussed then. Therefore, I hope he will excuse me if I do not reply at great length to the points he has raised. These points are intricate and detailed, and would be worthy of a volume in reply. If the noble Lord wishes to pursue his investigations, the Transport Commission will be glad to hear from him and to deal in more detail than I shall be able to do to-day with the points he has raised. We are aware of the Report of the Economic Commission, which in some cases I should say is the answer to the poet's player: O, wad some power the giftie gie us To see oursel's as others see us. Of course it is an advantage to see that, but to a large extent these statistics are taken from figures published in this country. I do not propose to challenge them in any way, but they must be taken with a certain measure of caution, and to say that they are reliable indices of our railway system in this country would not be an accurate statement.

As I have said, I do not want to go into great detail, but I feel that a moment's reflection will show that the general structure or this country is entirely different, for instance, from that of Switzerland. We have the most densely populated country in the world, with the exception, I think, of one; and we have more railway lines per acre of land than any other country, with the exception, I think, of Belgium. The position, therefore, in many ways is different from that which exists in other places. If I may give an example, in Switzerland obviously the railway lines have to run along the valleys, and in some sense the traffic is necessarily concentrated into certain areas. That is the first point.

The second point is that the railways anywhere have to take careful consideration of the demands made of them. They cannot run services finless the social and economic factors make it necessary and desirable to do so. The noble Lord in his Question has drawn attention to the fact that the number of journeys per person has fallen between the years 1938 and 1951. That is perfectly true. It is probably also true that the average length of journey has increased, and that a certain transfer to road passenger transport has taken place. The noble Lord has also emphasised that the frequency of services represented by the number of trains per mile of line has fallen. That depends to a great extent on the demand made on the railway services. I must also say that in the Report mentioned by the noble Lord it is emphasised that there are various ways in which these figures can be presented. With regard to utilisation, again I would simply say—and I think this is fairly well known—that, for instance, in the export trade of coal, it is common practice to have a great deal of storage in wagons. It could be argued whether that is a good or a bad thing, but generally it is considered to be more economical and in the national interest to hold a reserve of coal on rail and in ports ready for instant shipping, rather than to run the risk of delaying ships. One result of that, of course, is a relatively slow turn-round of carriages.

I would also mention that at the present time the railways in this country are, in fact, running on an even financial keel, whereas I think it is common knowledge that fairly large deficit payments are made in a number of countries in Europe at present. I do not want to elaborate that point. It is the opinion of the Commission—who hold the view firmly—that if the restrictions which successive Governments have imposed on capital expenditure had not been necessary, the railways would have been able to show much more satisfactory results. I should say this, too, in fairness to the railways. Of course, we are not entirely satisfied that everything has been done, and I do not think the railwaymen themselves are satisfied that everything is as good as it might be. However, I think it is fair to say that improvements have taken place, and are taking place—indeed, it would be very sad if that were not the case. If I may take one or two examples, one important yardstick sometimes used is net tons per total engine hour in service. That figure is generally regarded as a fairly useful index, and it has shown a fairly marked increase. In 1938 the figure was 461, in 1948 it was 543, and in 1951 it was 605, an increase of 30 per cent. Locomotive failures now average one per 32,000 miles, as opposed to one per 15,000 miles in 1949. I am not going to pretend that those are decisive factors; I am merely indicating that progress is taking place, which is what we should all hope.

We believe that improvements can be made, and I think that that is also the view of a great many in the railway world. We have in front of this House at the present time a Bill which proposes quite considerable reorganisation of the railways, and we very much hope that in decentralisation, the freeing of the railways in regard to charges, and in other ways, there will be the opportunity of a really marked improvement. I am sure that that is the hope of every one of us. I have not dealt with the noble Lord's second Question, and the noble Lord can raise that if he desires to. I have dealt briefly with these points, but I can assure the noble Lord that they have not been missed and that we have them fully in mind.