HL Deb 14 December 1955 vol 195 cc95-156

2.35 p.m.

LORD LUCAS OF CHILWORTH rose to call attention to the position of the internal transport of the country, with special reference to the British Transport Commission; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, when I placed my original Motion on the Order Paper I sought to invite your Lordships to consider the Report of the British Transport Commission upon their activities of last year. Circumstances, however, caused continued postponements, until we are now almost at the end of 1955; and I thought that to ask your Lordships now to consider a Report for the year 1954 was rather like offering your Lordships' a dish of last Sunday's cold joint. So I have altered the wording of the Motion to invite the House to review the inland transport position to-day, in all its aspects—with, perhaps, the possible exception of air, with which I do not intend to deal.

I think it would be a fair assessment, in making a quick survey of the inland transport position, to say that more people travel to-day; and with 26 per cent. increased productivity from 1949 to the middle of 1955—a wonderful thing—more goods are in transit. But why is it that the roads of the country appear to take more and more goods and freight—certainly that is incontrovertible when we come to short hauls—while other forms of transport take less? Road congestion increases, and traffic flow on the roads is slower and slower. Yet if one discusses this problem with industry and commerce, one is told that, in spite of these factors, road transport is still the cheapest form of transport, taking efficiency and cost factors into consideration. Our road transport fleet, in terms of commercial vehicles, now stands at a record figure of 1,091,000. The increase has been steady. Why is it that other forms of transport find it so difficult to compete with road transport?

Let me take, first of all, the railways. I think it would be fair to say that the speeds of passenger trains are slower—I am talking about the actual speeds, not the schedules—and punctuality is worse. One draws on one's experience. Over the last two years I suppose I have travelled by train to a greater extent than I have ever done in the course of my life. I do not like the roads, because they are too congested, and I travel by train. I think it would be a fair assessment if I said that over the last twelve months, at least, in only about 10 per cent. of the journeys I have made has the train arrived at its destination at the time the timetable said it should.

There may be many reasons for this, and I will deal with one or two. The other day, on a bright day when there was no fog, my train, in travelling a journey which should take one and a quarter hours, arrived twenty minutes late. I went along and had a word with the engine driver and asked him why it was late. I will not repeat precisely what he said, but the purport of it was that I could not even boil a kettle on the coal he had been given to raise steam for his engine. That is one expert's opinion, and I make no comment about it. Delay on our goods services and delay on freight is still the prime reason given for not sending goods by rail. Why is that? The proposed plan of reorganisation and development was supposed to put the railways on a more competitive footing and to enable them to compete with other forms of transport by increasing their efficiency. I am going to ask the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, who is to reply for the Government this afternoon, whether he can give us a progress report. What is the reason for the present position? What lessons, if any, can we learn from it?

I suppose the first thing that would enter the head of those connected with industry, or those used to conducting large industrial enterprises, would be that there is an apparent lack of drive at the top—real commercial drive. Can that be true? If it is, to what is it attributable? I would suggest that it may be to one of three things, or to part of each: lack of commercial ability on the top strata of management; interference and lack of decision at ministerial level; or, perhaps, the fact that the system under which the British Transport Commission have to work to-day, under the conditions laid down not only in the 1947 Act but in the 1953 Act, is still too rigid. I will hazard a guess that some of each of those three reasons may be true, and perhaps my bias would be in favour of the third.

I am perfectly prepared to admit that Rome was not built in a day, but history records that at least it was burned down while Nero played a tune on a fiddle. From the standpoint of his reputation for quick decision in road development, I do not think I should be guilty of an exaggeration if I said that even Her Majesty's Minister of Transport is rather adept at playing tunes on fiddles. What can be done? I do not think the Government realise—and I am certain that the country does not realise; nor do I think Parliament realizes—that the British Transport Commission are the only nationalised corporation which have to face fierce competition. I have given your Lordships the number of goods vehicles—1,091,000. If we exclude the small vans and the vehicles operated by the Commission the total of vehicles running on A, B and C licences is about 900,000. I am not complaining about that. I am not complaining about the competition the Commission have to meet. But do the Government realise it? I would say quite frankly to your Lordships that if the British Transport Commission were 100 per cent. on its commercial toes, it would still have a 100 per cent. commercial job on its hands.

Is it handicapped? I cannot help thinking that although by the Act of 1953 the Government loosened the bonds, they have not yet been loosened enough. I want the Government to give serious consideration to this matter, because in the fiercely competitive world of transport how can one expect real progress when the commercial heads of the British Transport Commission have to spend a large amount of their time preparing cases for increases in freight rates and fares to go before tribunals? And before they have completed one case another is on the way: they are always about twelve months behind. Do not forget that coal, gas and electricity all have a monopoly in their own field, while the British Transport Commission have far from a monopoly, and unless the Transport Commission are given the same freedom as the other nationalised industries in the matter of charging and freedom to adjust their rates quickly, and the same freedom as their competitors, is it fair to expect them to compete successfully in the fierce competitive world in which they are placed? I ask the Government to consider that point very seriously. Perhaps that is why I feel there is an absence of commercial drive.

There is another direction in which I think there is an absence of drive. In industry to-day, a department of equal importance to the selling side in any industrial concern is the buying side. When an industry finds itself up against shortage of supplies, believe me they have, if I may use the vernacular, to "get cracking." Take steel. One of our shortages is lack of sheet steel. That is now a dollar import. I understand that one of the lags in the railway development plan is on the supply of wagons and coaches. There are over 4,000 coaches which are now being run on the railways of this country but which should have been scrapped twenty-five years ago. What a tragedy! Mention of the word "tragedy" reminds me of the evidence I read in the Press that was given about that unfortunate disaster at Barnes. It came out in evidence, as published in the Press to-day, that those people would not have lost their lives had steel coaches, and not obsolete wooden coaches, been used.

What efforts are being made to get steel? Do the British Transport Commission just passively stand in the queue? When you are in industry and in a queue, you have to use your elbows if you want to get supplies. Of course the Government policy is that there must not be any priority of supplies; there must be no physical controls, so it is "Every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost." How far down the queue are the British Transport Commission? This point requires some serious consideration in quite a number of directions. Here we have something that is vital to the industrial life of this country. We cannot do without the railways; we must have an efficient railway system. I am not asking the Government even to show bias in favour of the railways; but is the dice loaded against them? In other words, have the Government taken their policy so far that the railways of the country do not even get a "square deal"?

Let me take one other aspect while I am talking about railways. I would say that the fundamental issue in railway development in this country, as it appeals to the commercial and the travelling world, is speed, safety and punctuality. After all, the commercial and travelling world want speed, safety and punctuality, and any form of transport that cannot provide those things will not get business. I would say that the secret of getting those three things on British Railways to-day is the adoption of the fully-braked freight train. Frankly, it is no good increasing the speed of your passenger trains with diesel engines or the speed of your goods trains when you cannot stop the wretched things. The speed of all our freight trains, or the vast bulk of them, is governed by their automatic braking power. I suggest that this is so fundamental that it is no good trying on our railway system and upon the lines that we have to-day to do anything at all in the way of higher speeds and greater punctuality until we have solved this problem of fully-braked freight trains, because our lines are cluttered up with slow goods trains.

Will the noble Earl tell us what progress is being made? I understand that some great delay has been occasioned because technical decisions could not be made; but whether it will be this pattern of coupling or the other pattern of coupling the noble Earl will very likely tell us. I have been brought up in a competitive industry where, to use an industrial phrase, the time comes when somebody says "Let's go" and we go ahead with something. If we are going to wait until 100 per cent. perfection is reached on paper before we go into production, we shall, I think the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, will agree, never go into production. That is one of the things operat- ing against the railways to-day. They cannot do the job to compete with other forms of transport because of some of the things I have mentioned. The position is so serious for the future economic situation of this country that the Government will have to bring in a priority, and that is a priority for steel for railways.

The other day I walked down a street in Westminster—I happened to be going to the Passport Office. I passed a huge steel structure and saw on it a board saying, "New office building for the National Society of Locomotive Engineers." I suppose they are housed somewhere now. I know that structure was of a different kind of steel from sheet steel, but at a time when steel is being rationed through inability to produce it, when steel is a dollar import, surely it is carrying dogma a little too far when we say that we must slavishly adhere to no controls and let the most artful or the most energetic get the supplies. Some of the bonds and shackles which were implicit in the 1947 Act and which bound the British Transport Commission's right to increase their charges to the public were loosened a little by the 1953 Act. There was always a case for the old Railway Rates Tribunal, I admit—although I never thought it worked very well—but in those days the railways of the country had a monopoly. As I have pointed out to your Lordships, however, that monopoly went years ago. The only monopoly that it could be said that the railways have to-day is in the carriage of heavy minerals such as coal, and that is not the bulk of the freight of this country.

I am apprehensive, but not pessimistic, about the future finances of the railways. As I say, they are always lagging twelve months behind. Their costs go up overnight and the vast bulk of their chief commercial and administrative staff are engaged in preparing cases. I say quite frankly, that I do not think the demands upon the British Transport Commission for increased wages have anywhere near reached their limit. And they must be reflected in increased charges to the public.

May I state a case I have in mind? Two great factories in this country situated just outside Oxford—Morris Motors (now the British Motor Corporation) and Pressed Steel—have reached an agreement with the Government that their labour force at those works has reached the optimum and will not be increased. Pressed Steel, a vigorous, go-ahead concern, are building a huge plant at Swindon, where the local authority are building houses, and I think the L.C.C. are going to populate the area with some kind of labour. If the present average skilled man's "take away" pay packet resembles anything like that which is being paid at Cowley, it will be precisely double that of the average skilled man employed in the railway works at Swindon. What is going to happen? Who is going to pay? That is the kind of thing that is gong to occur in the future—and I think we have to face it.

If we are going to live in a world of full employment, as I hope we are, competition for labour is going to be very great, and what really counts is not an increase in the basic rates but the size of the "take away" pay packet. That is going to hit the underpaid industries. Perhaps I should not say that the railway men are underpaid; let us say that they are receiving below the average wage for that class of work. There is a problem which will remain until there is flexibility in management and in costing. If a motor car manufacturer wants to increase the price of his product he does not have to go to a tribunal to get permission to do it. If the Coal Board want to put up the price of coal, they do not have to go to a tribunal; nor do the Electricity Authority or the Gas Board. Why should transport? I think this problem must be faced.

Having said what I wanted to say on the railways, I now come to coastwise shipping. To my mind, coastwise shipping has always been linked with internal transport. I am told that coastwise shipping concerns—I am not talking about the tramps, which carry most of the coal cargoes—are having a slump: freight is going down ships are not being built. Coastwise traders are not having ships built because the traffic is diminishing. Yet we still have thousands of tons travelling by roads. Through the courtesy of the Minister of Transport, I had sent to me the other day a memorandum pointing out that the Minister proposed to tighten the regulations in regard to abnormal loads; but, with great respect, I say that the amount of tightening up will have about the same effect as sticking a pin in an elephant. This problem must be tackled. Road traffic is coming to a standstill, and although we may like freedom, there is not much freedom in travelling at about three miles per hour for mile after mile when carrying goods urgently required at the other end. I should like the noble Earl to do something about that.

Then again, what is the Government's policy regarding canals?—Blow hot, blow cold. Can the canals of this country be used as a commercial proposition? If they can, how many miles of canal can be used commercially? For goodness sake! let us get on and use them, if it is possible to do so. Do not let us keep setting up committee after committee because the Minister cannot make up his mind. I want the country's transport facilities used to their greatest advantage. I am not so concerned about the amenity side of the matter. I understand that there is now a proposal by the Minister to set up yet another committee, to investigate something that two or three committees have already investigated. To me, this is a subject of vital urgency. I know that there is a project to build a new "tube," at a cost of £50 million, between Walthamstow and Victoria. The other day the Minister of Transport said that this scheme would make perhaps the greatest single contribution to the relief of London's congestion, but that it would involve the London Transport Executive, on the reckoning of the chairman of the Executive, in a yearly deficit of £2½ million. Who is going to pay? Who is going to decide who is to pay? And when? If we do not make decisions in these matters, how are we to solve the problem, which is daily getting more urgent?

I come now to the last of the subjects about which I wish to speak—namely, British Road Services. Of all the sections of the British Transport Commission deserving of the thanks and congratulations of this country, those who have been responsible for building up British Road Services occupy a high place. They have been subjected to vilification, abuse and derision. I know it is said that a leopard cannot change its spots, but I wonder whether the present Minister of Transport, or the present President of the Board of Trade, ever read the speeches that they made about the British Transport Commission when they occupied the Opposition Benches in another place. The British Road Services have survived. They have proved themselves to the satisfaction of all commercial interests in this country, and have built up one of the most efficient transport organisations this country has ever known. I think, frankly, that on this subject and on this controversy—if controversy it can be called to-day—politics have almost evaporated. British Road Services are now a commercial proposition, dictated by sound commercial principles and common sense.

If what I read in the Press is correct, I congratulate Her Majesty's Government that in this matter they have stiffened their backs against a last "die in the ditch" fight by the only people who think they have something to gain—that is, the road haulage competitive interests. If I may be so bold, I would congratulate the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack. I hear that he was called in. I cannot imagine any unruly body not "caving in" after the noble and learned Viscount has used his influence on them for any length of time. I beg Her Majesty's Government to stand fast on this issue and bring the Bill in quickly, in order to give British Road Services the vehicles they require and so that they can retain those which they now have. I see no reason why I should not repeat the statement that I made in a previous debate: it would be a national service if the Disposals Board were to be disbanded overnight. That Board has not done one solitary act which the British Transport Commission could not have done in the ordinary course of its business. Any great concern of that kind, with huge fleets of vehicles, disposes of its obsolete vehicles year after year, as with plant and machinery. What has this overweighted body, the Disposals Board, done? The same thing, but at great cost to the country.

I have tried to avoid being politically controversial in what I have said, and I hope to maintain that approach. I hope the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, will not think me politically controversial when I say that I cannot imagine what, in the dictates of common sense, ever made Her Majesty's Government form this company to dispose of the share capital of the Parcels Service of British Road Services. The sum being asked, or which will have to be raised, for the share capital, is £7 million. If one adds up all the other extras required as working capital, the money market has to find about £10 million to £12 million to effect a purchase of a kind that will not act to the detriment of the taxpayers' assets. For the taxpayer has some assets: the most efficient parcels service that this country has ever had. Why do it? The noble Earl admitted to me across the floor of the House, when I asked the question, that the outside cost of forming the company was, I believe, £56,000. The internal costs were at the very minimum another £50,000, with all the hours, days and weeks of labour by the administrative staff—and for what? The noble Earl has not had a "bite," has he? He has not had an offer?


I am not in a position to say.


My Lords, I ask the noble Earl to tell us: has the British Transport Commission had an offer for this company.


My Lords, it is most improper for the noble Earl to ask that question, as offers do not close until the end of the month. If I had had offers I should not tell him.


There are not many days now to the end of the month.


I mean the end of next month.


My Lords, I will hazard a guess that they have not had anything near an offer. I do not know what the Chancellor of the Exchequer thinks of going into the City for £10 million. I thought there was a freeze or squeeze, or something of that kind on just now. I read to-day in The Times newspaper that the biggest "casualties" in this credit squeeze have been one-man businesses. They have gone. The bankruptcies are up. Fancy that! just to save the face—however, I promised that I would not be political and controversial, so I will end there.

Will the noble Earl say why this is allowed to go on? If the British Transport Commission had the whole of the vehicles they now have—the number they had originally, and the number which the Minister has given them permission to retain—what would it amount to? Perhaps your Lordships would like to know the figures, which are: general haulage 7,750 vehicles; special traffics—those are some of the vehicles of which I complained, which carry abnormal loads—1,000; meat traffic vehicles, 500; railway cartage, for British Roads Services cartage for the railways, 400; contract hire vehicles, 2,000. Parcels vehicles would be 4,000. Those figures add up to 16,000 vehicles. If I take out all the C licence-vehicles under 2 tons, delivery vans and tradesmen's vehicles, there are just on 900,000 vehicles with A, B or C licences in general use in this country competing against those 16,000 vehicles. Even those of your Lordships who have great appetite for companion must admit that that should be sufficient. The sad part is that the reason given for the destruction of British Road Services, as it was originally, has not been achieved: the small man has not come back into the haulage business. There has been no great influx of capital into the haulage business. Twenty per cent. of the vehicles obtained from the Disposals Board changed hands overnight. Many were "traded in" for new vehicles.

I would therefore ask the noble Earl to consider whether the last scrap of politics cannot now be taken out of this matter. I do not believe that the efficiency of the British Transport Commission's British Road Services is a matter of political controversy. If the noble Earl wishes to make certain that everything possible is done to smooth the way for the Commission to go ahead and fulfil their function, as we in this House all desire, where-ever we sit, to be an efficient service, I hope that he will accept my suggestions for releasing the shackles on the railways and giving them priority of materials, so that they may give better competitive service. And if he will give up this disposal of the taxpayer's assets in British Road Services, not only can we see it as an efficient service but we can also see politics buried so far as the transport of this country is concerned. I beg to move for Papers.

3.19 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity of taking part in the debate at this stage. My only regret is that I shall be unable to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Forbes, on his maiden speech. I can only welcome very warmly his reported intention to address your Lordships. I am quite certain that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, has done great service in raising this matter in the House to-day: it is high time that it was discussed.

I am not going to attempt to follow him on anything except the railway problem, because I believe that other noble friends of mine will be dealing with the road problem later in this debate. I will, however, just make one comment on the road haulage problem. I am sure that during nationalisation a very efficient depôt structure and organisation for the interchange of goods and parcels trade was set up, and it must be utterly wrong to think of breaking that up—indeed, no one has suggested breaking it up. But that is quite a different thing from stopping the disposal of motor vehicles and making it impossible for those who had to part with them compulsorily to get them back voluntarily. Therefore, I could not agree with the noble Lord's suggestion that the activities of the Disposals Board should be terminated now. But other noble Lords will be dealing with that side of the problem much more efficiently than I could do.

Coming to the railways, I shall have to begin by declaring an interest in that I am connected with firms manufacturing locomotives. That, in its turn, has given me a rather closer view of the railway scene than I otherwise should have had, and that is one of the reasons why I am venturing to say a few words this afternoon. It is true, as the noble Lord said, that those who have the fortune, or misfortune, to travel by rail nowadays suffer a good deal from unpunctuality and, shall we say, alleged inefficiency. But these things, as the noble Lord would certainly agree, are not the disease itself; they are symptoms of something which lies below. I have seen these symptoms as, of course, every traveller has seen them. But let us try to see for a moment what are the underlying causes of these troubles on the railways, because all of us here are at one in wishing to make some contribution to solving the problem of our railways and to improving their efficiency and the service they give to the customers.

I think we must go back to before the 1939–45 war, when the railways were in the hands of private enterprise. Some people may disagree with me, but I do not think that anyone could claim—with the possible exception of the Southern Railway, which had problems separate from those of other companies—that the railway industry in this country was remarkable either technically or, in the higher direction, for forward thinking, forward looking, or, indeed, forward financing. I am saying that as what I believe to be a fact, and I am not making any comment upon it. During the war an intolerable strain was placed upon the railways. It may be that when the war started they were not in the best condition. There again, I am putting it as a fact and not commenting upon it.

After the war, we had nationalisation. I am not going to argue here the merits or the demerits of nationalisation, but I am going to say that during that period of major upheaval in the industry which nationalisation was bound to cause it was almost impossible for anyone to get going on research or development or forward plans. No one can do it when the higher financial direction and higher policy direction of the railways are in the melting pot, whether the cause of that is nationalisation or anything else. Indeed, it meant that for another four or five years no serious steps could be taken to build up the deficiency which I think had begun to accumulate before 1939 and certainly since the outbreak of the war. Of course, when the Government changed there were prospects that the higher direction of the railways might change again. That climate, in its turn, was not favourable for any development, so I think one can say fairly that there was very little forward planning and very little technical progress on the British Railways until the beginning of this year or the end of last year.

What did happen, which seemed curious to those who could see what was happening overseas, was that, despite the difficulties of the coal position, which have been referred to to-day by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, difficulties regarding the quantity and quality of the coal, those who were in charge of mechanical engineering on the railways in those days thought fit to bring forward a whole range of new steam locomotives, not in essentials very different from the ones in use before the war. It is true that only two or possibly three of those types have been brought out, but there was a plan which was produced in brochure for a complete new outfit of locomotives for British railways in the year 1949 or 1950.

That brings us up really to the point where we are now. There has not been a great deal of research or planning—I am talking about main line railways and not about London Transport. Railways, as we read in the papers to-day, are facing a great staff shortage, particularly a shortage of footplate men. But, as we shall see in a moment if I may be allowed to refer to the modernisation plan, a great deal of that shortage is largely due to the fact that people are being employed as they are now, and no attempt has been made to save manpower by modern methods—certainly nothing comparable with what has been accomplished in other industries. There is on the railways a high proportion of men of very low skill—I am not talking about footplate men, but about what an airman would call "ground staff." I think it is true to say that there is a bigger proportion of really low-skilled men on the railways than in any other industry of comparable size. And, of course, as we know from reading the papers, for the last few years human relations and industrial relations on the railways have been far from what they should be.

It is curious to think that the railways are having all these difficulties and that the same difficulties do not seem to be occurring in any other nationalised industries. One never hears, for example, of such difficulties, either labour or financial, in, shall we say, the British Electricity Authority—granted that the industrial problem there is a good deal smaller than that of the railways, though I think that the financial problem is not. I believe there must be a lesson there for those who can draw it. I think there is a lesson to be drawn from the smooth passage which Lord Citrine and the British Electricity Authority have compared with that experienced by those who have the task of running British transport now. I wish I knew more about that matter so that better acquaintance with the facts might help me to suggest an answer to this problem, but I am afraid it is not now for me to say what the answer to the problem might be.

That brings me up to the beginning of this year, when this plan was produced for modernising the equipment of British Railways. I think we shall all agree that this plan, as a plan, was an excellent one, and it had in it the germs of really worthwhile reorganisation of the railways. Those who studied it will remember that there is a page which deals with the main elements in which alteration and improvement are necessary. There are four or five headings, but they can be cut down to three. The first two are modern signalling and traffic control, and steam locomotion and steam traction giving way to diesel or electric in its application both to main line traffic and suburban. Last but not least in importance, there is the point about continuous braking. That is a very important point indeed, because, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Ghilworth, knows, continuous braking has to become general if there is to be any real speed-up in the operation of the railways. Noble Lords will also know that ours is the only country in the world where freight trains are allowed by law to operate without vacuum brakes. So we see where we stand in progress. If your Lordships will allow me I will come back to that matter in a few minutes.

The whole scheme, we find, is to cost about £1,200 million over a period. I, for one, should have nothing but praise for this plan, as a plan. It was dated December, 1954, and surely the time has come when we can fairly ask what has happened between then and now. I should like to spend a moment to look at what I think has been the gap between promise and performance. To the layman, to the person who is a passenger or consignor of goods, I should say little has happened to indicate any improvement. It may not be quite fair to expect improvement after only a year; nevertheless. I say that I do not think there has been any sign of improvement to the passenger or the person who sends goods by train.

To those who have seen a little more of the railways than the passenger or consignor of goods, what then? There are very few of those outward signs of control and progress which exist in the British Electricity Authority, nor have the workers the same happy trade union relationships with the Commission as the B.E.A. and the Gas Board appear to have with their workers. It is true that much might have been done behind the scenes about the modernisation of signals, the replacement of hand signals by coloured lights, and arrangements for the centralisation of traffic control at big railway centres; but very little is apparent and very little has been said about what is being done. As for continuous braking, I think I am right in saying that all goods wagons which are now being produced and delivered to British Railways are still being delivered without vacuum brakes. If I am wrong, I apologise in advance, but I do not think I am. Sooner or later this problem of continuous braking and the alteration in shunting procedure consequent on it has to be tackled, and it is no good putting it off from year to year because nobody wants to take the cold bath of making a start with it. With the present density of railways traffic we shall never get any worthwhile improvement by better tracks, better locomotives or anything else, until we can solve the problem of speeding-up trains, which solution depends entirely on the adoption of continuous braking.

What about locomotives? Up to date, British Railways have ordered 130 diesel electric, 11 diesel hydraulic and 30 power equipments. The first two kinds have been ordered from the outside industry and the 30 power equipments have been ordered to enable locomotives to be built in railway shops. Again I must declare an interest, but as the matter has been ventilated in another place I do not feel entirely inhibited from putting another point of view. Why are British Railways wanting pilot models for these diesel locomotives? There is only one type of diesel locomotive which is being offered to British Railways—namely, the English Electric "Deltic," which has not been tested all over the world under far harder conditions, on far greater gradients and with far less skilled attention and driving than they will get from British Railways. The only people who do not appear to know the capacities of the diesel electric locomotives which can be bought here through the trade must be the engineers of British Railways. This business of ordering pilot models is simply delaying the whole re-equipment of the railways, for no reason that I can see. I think that should be known.

I want to say a word about the question of building locomotives in railway shops. As I say, I must declare an interest, but already the matter has been raised by an honourable gentleman in another place, who, on December 1, said that the railway shops in South Wales are likely to be deprived of work as the result of the decision of the British Transport Commission to put out to tender these 141 new diesel engines. Let me say, first of all, that the amount of locomotive building, as opposed to repairing, in British Railways locomotive works is only about 6 per cent. of the whole. Secondly, private locomotive builders are able to build them at once, as they have the plant; British Railways have to start anew. I suggest that in a period of over-full employment there can be no better time to redeploy labour. The workmen in both railway shops and private shops are members of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, and no doubt they will decide where the unemployment should be taken. I shall leave it at that, but I should like to have this point considered by noble Lords opposite, if they will.

Having given your Lordships some indication of the battle which is going on, may I come back to a more general point raised by the Report? Recently British Railways engaged as an adviser a great railway expert, Mr. den Hollander, of the Dutch Railways. He gave an interview to the Press, in which he made these remarks, among others: A railwayman's job is to run trains. It is not his business to be a caterer, hotelier, painter or builder of locomotives. I suggest that Mr. den Hollander gave very sound advice, which he is following with the greatest success in Holland, as all railwaymen know.

Where does all this take us? I think it is fair to say that there has been unreasonable and unjustifiable delay in putting into force this modernisation plan. I think it is perfectly reasonable to suspect that battles are going on behind the scenes which are not to the good of the users of the railways. I think it is justifiable to ask this question in regard to the British Transport Commission: who is actually calling the tune, and for whose benefit is the tune being called? So far as the railways go, several people can conceivably be calling the tune—the trade unions, the old guard of railwaymen, the chairman and members of the British Transport Commission, the Minister of Transport, or some gentleman in the Treasury. You can take your choice, my Lords. For whom should the tune be called? To that there can be only one answer; the tune should be called for the people who make use of the railways, who want to travel by train or send their goods.

Of course one knows perfectly well that no decent employer, least of all the British Transport Commission, would want to make changes without proper regard for the personnel they employ; but, as I have already suggested, in a time of overfull employment the difficulties are not great. It is a case of doing the difficult thing at once, and of the impossible taking a little longer. If, in this time of full employment, we cannot redeploy labour, when on earth shall we be able to do it? Unless we get busy, we shall have the railways nothing but a museum, because at the present rate of progress we are not overtaking the backlog and we are dropping back a little more and more.

Before I finish I want to say one thing which perhaps I should not say. For all I know, there may be excellent reasons for having two unions in the railway world, but for the ordinary layman like myself those reasons grow less and less and the disadvantages to the railway industry and the public grow more and more apparent. I feel intensely sorry for the British Transport Commission having to try all the time to implement this plan and to produce industrial peace on the railways when it seems that no plan can be produced which is agreeable to one union without, ex hypothesi, its being anathema to the other. This may be something that is quite impossible—and noble Lords opposite will know that better than I. None the less, I have no doubt that on the day when the British Transport Commission—leaving out the railway shops—can negotiate with one powerful union, a large number of the difficulties and problems which dog the railway industry will disappear. That is not the only problem, but it will be no good our improving our rolling stock and control, and doing all these things, if we still have behind us an industrial situation which does not match the improvement foreshadowed in this pamphlet. Otherwise, as I say, the railways, instead of developing, will become a museum, and it would be a great pity if among the other Emmett-like exhibits in that museum there was ever to be found an uncut copy of the pamphlet on the modernisation of British transport.

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, debates such as this, which take place at infrequent intervals in your Lordships' House, necessarily compel the speakers to cover a wide field and to leave unsaid much that they would like to say and perhaps much that ought to be said and asked. When I appeared before a Committee of the other House some time ago, with your Lordships' leave, I ventured to suggest that the setting up of a Joint Committee of Both Houses might be the best way of enabling Parliament to keep in touch with the progress of the nationalised industries in a way which cannot be done in ordinary debate; and I feel that if Parliament does desire a closer knowledge of the progress which those undertakings are making, that still is the most hopeful approach.

This afternoon there are three or four points I should like to touch upon briefly. If there is one part of the changes on which the British Transport Commission seem to be entitled to congratulation it is the smooth way in which the regional boards have been brought into being and, so far as one knows, have worked. With the disappearance of the Railway Executive I felt that some step of that sort was necessary: indeed, as some of your Lordships know. I should have been glad to see a regional board for Scotland introduced at a much earlier date than was in fact done. They should enable greater flexibility to be introduced into problems of management, on which railwaymen themselves never have been agreed, and probably never will be agreed, such as the relations between the commercial and the operating departments; and it is a good thing that one region should be able to try one plan of organisation and another region something different.

I come now to a different point, and I should like to ask the noble Earl who is to reply what use has been made of the freedom from the old restrictions against discrimination in charges and the old obligation to publish rates, a freedom which the railways secured two and a half years ago. In many quarters it seems to be supposed that those freedoms do not come into existence until a Charges Scheme has been approved by the statutory Tribunal, but unless I completely misread the 1953 Act, that is not so. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, has made a great point of the difficulties the railways have in putting up their charges. That is the freedom which they still lack. It is a difficult point, and I am not altogether convinced that, in the long run, in transport, which has always been regarded in a special class by Parliament, some approval by a tribunal, where everything can be threshed out, may not be necessary. I have a bitter recollection of the occasion when, in my time of responsibility, we did go to that Tribunal and, after many weeks of argument, got leave to put up certain fares, and the Government came to Parliament and asked Parliament to stop us. The same kind of thing had happened before, as far back as 1894. It has left in the minds of railwaymen a feeling that, in the long run, they and they alone among the industries of the countries are likely to be dealt with by that sort of restraining action. Although I can sympathise with what the noble Lord said, about how nice it would be to be free of that restraint, I am not convinced in my bones that it would work, having regard to the state of Parliamentary and public opinion. But at any rate, the railways have had for over two years the freedom from these old restrictions which were undoubtedly hampering them.

Once it had been decided to adopt a policy of intensified competition between road and rail, it was clearly necessary that the railways should have some measure of relief. I do not take quite the same poor view as does the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, of the commercial ability of the railway officers. I can understand their caution, and even their hesitation—if hesitation there has been—to exercise the new right to cut rates in all sorts of directions in order to get traffic, without being certain that, if their estimates or speculations do not prove quite right, they will be able to put up charges in other directions. They may be wise in waiting. Nevertheless, the trend of merchandise traffic has not been too encouraging, and I feel that undoubtedly some additional revenue could be obtained by a more active commercial policy. It is not too soon to ask the noble Earl if he can tell us whether any substantial volume of goods traffic has been regained by the exercise of these freedoms upon which the Government laid so much stress; and, if so, from where that traffic has come. Has it come from the general road haulier, the C licence holder or the coastwise shipowner?

I now turn from commercial to technical developments. I listened with the closest interest to the speech which has just been made by the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, who dealt with some points which are of fundamental importance. I cannot agree with him that, even in the early years of the Commission, a great deal of attention was not given to thinking out the methods and directions for technical development. Within a few months of the appointment of the Commission we set one party to work on the future of motive power, one of the fundamental questions, and another party to work upon the standardisation of rolling stock, out of which arise some of the problems to which the noble Viscount referred. I feel that it is not true to say that, in spite of all the other preoccupations, thought was not given to these matters. I will give one or two instances in a moment. Nevertheless, I find it difficult to withhold agreement—though I am sure many of my old colleagues would not agree with me in saying so—with the suggestion of the noble Viscount that many of the highly placed and most experienced technical railway officers of that time still thought that the iron horse, as they knew it, and as they themselves had largely developed it, was going to have quite a long run yet.


May I interrupt the noble Lord for a moment? I am sorry if I gave him the impression that no thought had taken place during the time he is referring to. What I intended to say was that nothing had happened; that no steps were taken as a result of the thought.


With that I am bound to agree. We could not get the money which is now to be so generously forthcoming. We were only too anxious to move, had we been allowed to do so. Undoubtedly there was in the minds of some very able and experienced men the feeling that we were not going to see a revolution in the method of traction in the future on the scale that most of us in the Commission believed was inevitable. There was a certain slowness, also, in developing the new types. There was the disposition upon which the noble Viscount has commented, and I think fairly criticised, that something that had been known to be running quite satisfactorily in some other part of the world needed a long period of test piecemeal in this country. I chafed against that very often, and without much success.

On the other hand, I am bound to point out to your Lordships that many improvements of seemingly undisputed technical advantage did, in practice, require prolonged tests and a long series of adjustments to meet the exacting conditions of day-to-day operation. I would not too lightly dismiss the caution, if you like to call it that, of the practical men and the operating men in not going wholeheartedly for a new type of vehicle or instrument until they had had it tested under the conditions of actual operation. Look, for example, at the simple case of what is called automatic train control—a device accepted in principle by the Commission five or six years ago but still, I believe, not brought to that point of final test which satisfies the railwaymen themselves and the Inspecting Officer of Railways as to its complete suitability under the actual conditions of operation. So, though I admit that I chafed against these delays which the noble Viscount has criticised, I would not dismiss the cautious attitude of others as something approaching obstruction.

May I for a moment come to some of the instances he has mentioned. I have been an advocate of large wagons for over thirty years. It is five or six years ago that the Commission decided to standardise the mineral wagons with a 24½-ton wagon as being the largest load which can be carried on two axles. We told the Coal Board, the Electricity Authority, the Gas Council, the Federation of British Industries and all the representatives of large industrial users that that was the decision, and urged them to adapt their tips and sidings to enable them to take the larger wagon, from which a very large economy can undoubtedly be secured. I wonder what progress has yet been made. I thought that was a fair point for the noble Viscount to stress. Still more so is the need for continuous brakes. We decided that matter, in principle, some three or four years ago. The Plan itself (I hope that I draw the right inference) has said quite definitely that the Commission mean to standardise on the vacuum type—it was a question whether the vacuum or the air brake should be adopted. Anyhow, that seems to be something definite. The noble Earl who replies will tell us whether that decision still stands. In any event, I am afraid that the cost of the change, which was then put at £75 million, will prove much greater than that.

I should like to see some concentration on further electrification. The directions in which electrification would be of great benefit to traffic were indicated years ago: the completion of the electrification in south-east England; action to remedy the obsolete and, indeed, appalling conditions round Glasgow; the very good field for electrification in the industrial areas of Lancashire; the extension of the electrification now proceeding to Chelmsford and, I should hope, a real main line scheme starting from King's Cross.

As between the expectations and intentions of four or five years ago, and the promise in the early part of this year, what progress is, in fact, being made? There is an important new factor there of which your Lordships may not be aware. Some four years ago or so it was discovered in France that they could adopt a method of taking a high voltage current from the original source of generation and transforming and converting it on the locomotive itself. I will not weary your Lordships with technical details, but by eliminating sub-stations and reducing the section of the wire, the capital costs of electrification could thereby be much reduced. I am sure that the Commission must be giving anxious consideration to the question of whether that method will be practicable in this country, in spite of our dense traffic, our numerous tunnels, the lack of clearance under our bridges and so forth. I would ask the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, whether he can tell us something about that matter, or whether one is deceiving oneself in thinking that this is a hopeful means of reducing capital expenditure. Is there any risk that the process of electrification which could go on rapidly on presently accepted methods will be put off for a period of years if the new method is adopted? I do not see why that should be so, and I hope it will not; but I would ask the noble Earl whether he can give your Lordships some information on dial: important point.

Before I leave the question of electrification I should like to refer to Lots Road Power Station, a familiar object in the landscape to most of your Lordships. Much of the plant it that station is still non-standard, and some of it must be verging on, if not past, obsolescence. Is it the intention that London Transport should itself meet the cost of re-equipping that station and of continuing to generate current for itself, or is it the intention that the provision of current should be regarded as the duty of the national grid, transport buying the current as it needs it? I am well aware that there are many powerful arguments why London Transport should generate a supply for itself, separate from the grid; but it is a big issue, involving many millions of capital. A decision cannot be long deferred. I should like to feel that all the considerations have been properly formulated and balanced and that a definite decision on that issue of policy will before long be taken.

In suggesting the advantages of electrification, I am not in any way criticising the British Transport Commission for continuing to introduce diesels, particularly on the lightly-trafficked lines. Like the noble Viscount, I cannot see why prolonged periods of tests should be necessary in order to find a suitable diesel for main line use, but I am bound to add that we have been told very little about the economic justification for wholesale dieselisation of the main lines under the actual traffic and operating conditions of this country. If the facts and figures have in truth been worked out, I suggest that they ought to be made available.

I will not now go into another large question at which the noble Viscount hinted. Either electrification or dieselisation must involve revolutionary changes in the location, layout and staffing of the present railway workshops and maintenance shops. He may very well be right, if I may say so with respect, in saying that, if that problem and that revolution have to be faced, it could not be better faced than at a time of full employment. Otherwise, it might indeed give rise to problems of redundancy of which the staff would be legitimately apprehensive.

On all grounds, the techncial plans necessary to the efficiency of the railways ought to proceed, even though in the absence of much more detail than is available their net financial results are obscure. I need only remind your Lordships that all previous estimates mean very little, for they were based on the conditions prevailing in the Autumn of 1954. They need recasting. I am afraid that that will mean that all the costs will be raised. My view remains that neither freedom to discriminate in charges nor radical technical improvements will, of themselves, or in combination with one another, prove a sufficient substitute for a transport policy co-ordinating and combining different branches of transport. I remain convinced that it is a mistake to look in blinkers at the economy of the railways alone.

Unfortunately, at the end of last year it was necessary to add £12 million to the deficiency of some £27 million which still remained in the British Transport Commission's accounts. It was a deficiency accumulated in the first three years of nationalization, when some deficiency was by general admission inevitable, and the actual deficiency was increased by the cause to which the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, has referred, at a time when he and his friends were responsible—namely, the delay in allowing the Commission to put up their charges in spite of large increases in costs. There is that accrued deficiency now of £39 million. It would have been much greater if in 1954 the road haulage business had not made a large working surplus, no less than £9 million, a higher rate of return than that obtained on any other part of the Commission's business and in itself a high proportion of the total working surplus of the Commisson. It is not correct to belittle the earning capacity of the road haulage part of the Commission's undertaking. It is true that it is small if it is compared with the gross receipts of the undertaking, but it is substantial if compared with the net receipts—and that, surely, is the proper comparison.

I do not know what the deficiency for the current year in the Transport Commission's accounts as a whole may be, but when one has a profitable business, is it wise to go further in dispersing it? Forced by the statutory limitation on the number of vehicles which they might retain, the Commission, quite rightly in my view, elected to keep a general haulage business, to such extent as the figures allowed them to go. But why should they be forced to sacrifice and sell the Parcels Service, now on offer? May I, without offence, put it this way? I am sorry I have so largely to follow the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, in this particular matter. I hope he is right in saying that politics are evaporating from this subject. I have no politics to evaporate.


If the noble Lord has no politics, I do not know why he has to express regret that he has to support my argument, which I thought was non-political and based on sound common sense.


My regret is that I have to appear to follow so closely one of the political leaders when I do not base my arguments on any kind of political ground. On this particular point of the Parcels Service, over twenty years ago the four main line railways thought it right, proper and in the interests of their shareholders to acquire Carter Paterson & Co. Why is it not equally right, proper and in the public interest that the Commission should retain what they inherited, especially after they have developed and improved that service at considerable cost to themselves and with an immense expenditure of effort? I find it difficult to answer that question. I venture to think that if, as we should like, politics are to be taken out of this matter, it is the very sort of transaction which almost invites reversal if there is a political change at some future date.

I do not think that anyone can fairly attack the Government for not having amply fulfilled their undertaking to allow previous hauliers who wanted to do so to come back into the long-distance field. Every haulier who wanted to come back has had a good chance of doing so. I wonder how many of the vehicles which have been sold recently have been sold not to hauliers but to dealers—or, perhaps, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, has said, to hauliers who have at once disposed of them to others. Can anyone reasonably attack the Government if they go no further in a direction which has weakened, and must weaken, what remains a national transport structure?

I do not know when we are going to recover the lost financial equilibrium or begin to pay off the accumulated losses. As regards this year, we have been told with commendable frankness, that the deficiency is going to be a "thumping" one. Before it begins to thump on the door of the Exchequer for relief, if not by subsidy then by some postponement or remission of interest, or relief in some form or another, I would appeal to the Government to consider whether they should not now end the long-drawn-out process of dispersing the profitable road haulage assets of the Commission, including the Parcels Service. I recognise the realism with which they have already faced the situation and, if it would not be thought presumptuous on my part, I would also say the courage, with which they have faced it. It would mean going very little further to say, "We will sell no more," and to stop this expensive machinery which, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, has fairly said, costs a good deal of money. It also distracts and takes up the energy of men who ought to be giving their whole time to the improvement of their organisation and the solving of the serious problems which press upon them.

Sir Malcolm Eve himself has said that the minimum number of vehicles required to maintain a general haulage service is a difficult matter of opinion. Without attempting to make nice calculations of less or more, I cannot see that the road haulage industry outside would be harmed, and I am sure the strain and difficulties of the Commission would be greatly relieved if the Government were now able to say "We will leave with you all the vehicles, including the parcels service, which you are now so successfully operating." My Lords, I apologise for having detained your Lordships for so long and for covering such a variety of points, but, as I said in my opening remarks, I think these periodical debates on a subject of such vast importance and interest, drive one unwillingly to cover far too many points in one short afternoon.

4.13 p.m.


My Lords, I hope your Lordships will grant me the usual indulgence given to those who speak in your Lordships' House for the first time. I need not tell your Lordships what my feelings are at this moment, as I am sure that those of your Lordships who have already spoken in this House will remember only too vividly what their feelings were like when they made their maiden speech. I should like to begin by referring to the Transport Commission's Report of 1954 and, at the outset, to congratulate the Commission on a clear and concise Report. However, I think I should draw your Lordships' attention to the fact, as stated in paragraph 24 of the Report, that during the year under review there was a decrease of 3 per cent. in the amount of freight carried, as compared with 1953. It is about the carriage of freight, especially long-distance freight, by rail, that I wish to speak, since I feel that the freight system of our railways to-day is the weakest link, although, from a national point of view, it should be the strongest.

I know that it is easy to criticise, but I wish to attempt something perhaps not quite so easy. That is, with all humility, to offer some constructive criticism, in the hope that it may be useful not only to the Transport Commission but also to Her Majesty's Government. We all know that during two great wars the railways were hard used, with the result that the Transport Commission are now only just catching up on arrears of maintenance. However, the Commission now have "the green light" from Her Majesty's Government, and it is up to them, like any other trading organisation, to go ahead and give their customers, the general public, what they want. I am sure that your Lordships are all in agreement that a first-class system of moving freight by rail is of paramount importance. I therefore hope that what I have to say will not be too controversial, though I realise that I shall probably have to attempt to handle the porcupine without disturbing its quills.

May I now give your Lordships some figures to illustrate how freight is carried in this country to-day. Working on a ton-mileage basis (which I maintain is the only reasonable method of comparing the carriage of freight), 43 per cent. of the freight goes by road, 37 per cent. by rail, and the remainder by coastal shipping. I think this illustrates that too little freight is going by rail and, conversely, that too much is going by road, thereby adding to our already over-congested roads. This is because the present system of moving freight by rail is outdated and slow; also it is the present practice of industry and retailers alike to keep small stocks. This means that, when an article is wanted, it is usually wanted urgently, with the result that the railways, unlike the road services, are not in a position to give this quick delivery, except by passenger service, which in the majority of cases is far too expensive.

My Lords there are two essentials in moving freight by rail: the first is speed, and the second is a schedule of services which should be available to the public. I say "a schedule of services," because the receiver of goods must know when his goods are going to arrive. With the present system, the consignee does not know the time of arrival of his goods; nor does he know the date of arrival of the goods. This compares most unfavourably with the road services, where at least the consignee can usually find out the date of arrival of his goods. I maintain that a new system of moving freight by rail must be evolved, and I suggest that in this system there should be a degree of co-ordination and integration between road and rail, and that all unnecessary handling of goods should be cut out. This will produce speed, and it will also conserve manpower. To achieve this, I suggest that fully laden lorries should be moved by rail as well as by road. Your Lordships may remember that during the last war many Service vehicles fully laden were successfully moved by rail, as well as by road. If this practice was successful then, I do not see why it should not be even more successful to-day. I would also advocate that the present system of moving goods by containers and pallets should be gradually developed.

I should now like to give your Lordships a few examples of how I consider these systems should work. I will take first the moving of lorries by rail as well as by road. The lorries of the British Transport Commission would collect goods from a certain area; they would then be driven direct to the railhead, which, in the case of large towns, could be sited outside the town, so that it would cause the minimum amount of congestion and would be less vulnerable in the event of war. On arrival at the railhead the lorries would be checked and marshalled into train loads before being driven to loading banks where they would be loaded on to low-loading flat railway wagons. The railway wagons would have end flaps to let down, so as to bridge the gap between the wagons. In this way lorries could be driven across the railway wagons so that the train could be loaded from front to rear. Once the drivers had secured their lorries on the railway wagons they would then return to the local Transport Commission depôt.

The train would be an express goods train, capable of high speed and averaging not less than fifty miles an hour. For this purpose it would be necessary for all wagons to be fitted with continuous brakes. The train would be scheduled in a timetable on sale to the general public so that the consignor of goods could notify the consignee of the exact time of arrival at railhead of the goods. It would be an essential factor in this service that trains should run to time. On arrival at railhead the train, or part-train, would be met by a pool of drivers from local Transport Commission depôts. The drivers would check the lorries, then drive them direct to the consignee; part-loads would be driven to the local depôt for sorting. I sec no reason why this system should not be made available to the private haulier. The only difficulty might be that the private haulier would probably want his drivers to accompany the lorries. In that case a carriage would have to be attached to the train to accommodate those drivers. This system might appeal to the private haulier for we all know that long-distance haulage is a very wearisome business for the driver, apart from the element of risk and uncertainty through accidents and mechanical breakdown.

My second system would cover the movement of goods by the existing container and pallet systems. Containers are used for moving a variety of goods from door to door by road and rail. There are various types of containers—insulated, for moving refrigerated goods; others for moving perishable goods and types for moving goods in bulk. The great advantage of the container system, apart from eliminating unnecessary handling of goods, is that containers can be sealed, which should reduce pilfering to a minimum. Bricks are one example of the goods which can be carried by the container system. Bricks can be loaded into a container at the factory and delivered direct to the building site without being touched on the way. To illustrate the expansion of the container system I need only quote two figures. In 1938 there were 15,511 containers available; in 1954 the number was 32,403. Akin to this system is the pallet system of moving goods. Pallets are used mainly for moving goods from factory to shop. As your Lordships will know, pallets are flat platforms on to which goods are loaded. They are then manœuvred into position for loading and unloading by mobile fork-lifts. It is an essential part of these services that adequate mechanical means for handling containers and pallets should be available at railhead.

One further brief point: having been elected to your Lordships' House in what I might call a truly democratic manner, I should like to attempt to do some justice to my Scottish electors. For this purpose I should like to take your lordships to Scotland for a moment, not to look for that winged grouse last seen going over the crest of a hill but to examine a point in connection with the Firth of Forth ferry service. Whilst we welcome the statement, made on page 173 of the Report, that the piers at North and South Oueensferry are being improved, and that an extra ferry-boat is to be added to the service, facts must be faced. No ferry-boat is, or can be, made suitable for carrying large lorries, such as six- or eight-wheeled vehicles. Even to load four-wheeled lorries on to a ferry-boat is as awkward as trying to put bulls into a china shop. With the industrialisation of Fife there will be more articulated lorries plying north and south of the Firth of Forth, with the result that the present system will be further adversely affected. The present improvements being effected to the Firth of Forth ferry service by the Transport Commission do not get to the cause of the trouble. I know that no system can be ended abruptly, just like a rabbit's tail. I would ask, however, that the present system should fade away as quickly as the sun goes down on a winter's evening and that, in the meantime, the Transport Commission should concentrate on bringing up to date their existing equipment, which will be of use in the system which I have just outlined.

To sum up, I hope that Her Majesty's Government realise that the present Firth of Forth ferry system is to-day becoming totally inadequate and that, if the Transport Commission are not to go on wasting money, a road bridge or tunnel must be constructed just as soon as it becomes within the resources of the nation to do so. I would also ask the Transport Commission to give their railway freight system that new look which it so urgently requires, so that operating costs may be reduced. This should lead to reduced charges and, later, to increased traffic. It is my fervent hope that the British Transport Commission will be among the first to start reducing charges instead of carrying on with the now familiar and distasteful medicine of increasing charges.

4.29 p.m.


My Lords, it is now my privilege and pleasure to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Forbes, on an excellent, knowledgeable and well-argued maiden speech. I am sure your Lordships will agree with me that the Scottish democratic system has worked extremely well in this Election and we hope to hear a good deal more from the noble Lord. Not because of any reference to the spines or quills of the porcupine would I venture to criticise what the noble Lord has said—obviously, one does not do that in replying to a maiden speech—but I can tell the noble Lord this from my own experience in the railway service. He has spoken of people constantly knowing at what time traffic would arrive by rail. I can tell him that that usually happens with a regular flow of traffic. For instance, in the heyday of the export trade in cottons from Manchester through the London docks, at the station where I was employed we knew what train that traffic would arrive by, and though it is forty years ago I still remember the time of that train—it was the 10.23 a.m. And so careful were we to see that the necessary documents were forthcoming, that we would not trust to the Post Office to deliver invoices: copies of the invoices accompanied the goods. A later instance relates to the Aberdeen fish train, which used to arrive at Broad Street at a time when your Lordships would be, or should be, in bed—that is to say, in the early hours of the morning. And the fish was in the fish market by 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. That was pretty good going. There were one or two other points in the noble Lord's most interesting speech which I could deal with, but I will not attempt to do so now.

In the long and chequered history of our railway industry, it is, I think, only fair to say that the railways have been hampered. They have been hamstrung by ignorant legislators and by the rapacity of landlords and lawyers who piled up a heavy capital debit for the railways, responsibility for which has still to be borne to-day. Factors such as these helped to give us a railway system which if it were possible for us to plan to-day would be developed on different lines. But we have to take the situation as it is and make the best of it—except that I would say that the time is rapidly approaching when, in the interest of transport itself, there should be a searching inquiry into the question of transport capital, to see what should be the legitimate charge on the transport industry and what might be transferred to other quarters. I know of no other industry in this country which is subject to the criticism of such a large number of people who think that they could run the business better than it is run by those concerned. I do not know of any other industry which could be compared with the railway industry in that respect. In any railway carriage running on one of our suburban lines, you will hear these amateur railway men explaining in detail how much better they could run the railways than the railways are run by men who have devoted their lives to the task. Even to attempt to put these people right would require a day or more of one's time.

Sometimes, in regard to goods traffic, the fact is overlooked that the standard wagons of ten tons and twelve tons have been imposed on the railways by the nature of traffic which offered itself from British industry. Were other opportunities offered, things might be different. The old Great Western Railway Company, for example, was quite willing to make trucks of larger carrying capacity. And even to-day, when the transport industry is hampered, restricted and be-devilled by politics, no one knows what is the real future so far as the road transport still with the British Transport Commission is concerned. I would join with the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, in his plea for the Transport Commission to retain the great organisation which had been built up under private enterprise.

I wish Her Majesty's Government would make up their minds about what they are going to do with regard to the inland waterways of this country. It is quite unfair that the British Transport Commission, having itself conducted an exhaustive inquiry into the waterways, should not be allowed to dispose, in appropriate ways, of redundant pieces of waterway—canals which are no longer required. I should think that the appropriate river boards, with Government assistance, would be the bodies to take over the pieces which are not required. Again, something ought to be done, I think, to deal with the position which immediately arises when the Transport Commission wish to close a redundant branch line. Duties have been imposed on the Transport Commission to conduct their undertaking in accordance with good commercial principles, and no business man who wanted to keep out of Carey Street would carry on branches of a business which had ceased to be remunerative. But, as everyone knows, Members of Parliament are bombarded, and there is an outcry in the local Press and much local agitation when proposals for closing down are made known. People who have never travelled on a branch line, and never intend to, men who habitually travel by car, will join in the protest. Railways are regarded as quite legitimate sport in cases of that kind.

The noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, has referred to the putting out to contract of the construction of a number of diesel engines. I am not aware of the circumstances, but it may be that British Railways, or the railway undertakings of the past, never built diesel engines. I am not quite sure. But, at any rate, they did build ordinary railway locomotives in their shops, and I believe that the old London and North Western Railway made everything in their shops, from a wooden leg required by a man who had lost his leg in a railway accident up to locomotives. Therefore I would suggest that the question of putting the making of these engines out to tender is a matter for the Transport Commission to deal with in the best way. All the time, at the back of my mind there is the view that in this post-war period the railways of this country have not been treated fairly. They have been left to get on as best they could, starved for capital, and subjected to a public outcry if they do not immediately reach a very high standard. While I agree that there may be some delay in carrying out this modernisation plan, I would plead for care and consideration so that mistakes are not made like the mistakes forced on the railways in years gone by. I believe that in regard to modernisation the railways are taking into account the best informed engineering opinion they can get, and I know that they will make the best possible use of that opinion. The noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, made the comment that the railways have not yet attempted anything in the nature of automatic train control. I think I am correct in saying that on the Western Region at the moment a method of automatic control is being worked.

I was interested to see that the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, has become converted to the idea of industrial unionism. He said that there were two trade unions in the railway service. There happens to be three large unions—the National Union of Railwaymen, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, and the Transport and Salaried Staffs Association, which used to be the Railway Clerks' Association; and of course there is a host of craft unions in the workshops. I wonder what the noble Viscount would say if there were one union for the whole of the Civil Service, from the administrative grades right down to the office cleaner. There is the obvious argument that it would be better to deal with one union, but the point is that small, or even large, minorities with special skills feel that their interests are not always properly safeguarded in a large industrial union. It would be hopeless to attempt to go into the reasons why trade unions in this country have grown up in a haphazard and, if you like, unsystematic manner, but they are typically British in that respect.

I should like to say a final word to the Transport Commission and to the railway unions. I know that the primary purpose of a trade union is to maintain and improve the standard of living of its members, but I suggest that trade unionism to-day, particularly in the nationalised industries, should be moving away from that idea, though it must never be lost sight of, and should be developing a different outlook, regarding themselves as partners in a great industry serving the public. To do that, a spirit of understanding is required on the trade union side and on the management side as well. I know that on paper we can demonstrate that there is an excellent system of consultation from the departmental committee right up to the top, but I am con- vinced that that machinery requires a new spirit infused into it. I believe that there is a latent fund of good will and a desire to co-operate among many of the older men in the railway service, and that if that spirit of mutual co-operation and understanding could be developed it would help many of the problems which are arising, because the younger men in the railway service do not always seem to be imbued by the old ideas which some of us in the railway service felt to be in our blood.

In the old days men developed a love of and loyalty to their service. To a large extent that is missing to-day and nothing has come in to replace effectively the old affection and understanding which existed in the days when I was an active railwayman. We had our rows, like all families, but when we met we argued our differences across the table and always parted good friends. So I would say that we might have the finest of modernisation schemes worked out, but until the men and women working on the railways are brought into conscious co-operation with that new machinery, things will not go well. My appeal is to both the railway unions and the Transport Commission, from the top to the bottom to try to get that new spirit into the railway industry, that spirit of service to the community as a whole.

4.48 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to address your Lordships for only a short time. I start by congratulating the Transport Commission on the admirable way in which their Report has been produced: I think it is clear and effective. One thing we do not often see in your Lordships' House is the special edition of the Report, produced by the Transport Commission for circulation to all men. It is an admirable document, much smaller than this, not too long or burdened with a great many statistics, yet it contains a great many of the attractive features of the full Report.

I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Burden, said about the need for better co-operation between all grades in the railway industry. I am sure the noble Lord was correct when he said that we shall never get what we really want until there is a better understanding and until more trouble is taken to see that the men, in all grades, understand what the management are trying to do. I think that effort is being made. Of course in these days of full employment it is extremely difficult to get men to serve the railways in any dirty job. There are plenty of people who will sit by the fire in the porters' waiting room, but very few who will work on the permanent way. The shortage of labour on the railways is very serious and is affecting the efficient operating of the railways. I think the railway unions might show a little more willingness to assist in recruiting, even foreign labour, if it is available, to work on the railways, certainly on the permanent way.

I should like to add, from this side of the House, my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Forbes, for his admirable maiden speech and for bringing to the attention of your Lordships the difficulties of handling goods unless all modern contrivances are used. In the old days of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway the large sum—at least, I thought it was a large sum—of £25,000 was offered to any engineer who could design a lorry with an engine which would haul itself on to the vehicle on the rail, to save travelling from one end of the train to another, as described by the noble Lord, Lord Forbes. That reward was offered; many people put in schemes, but not one of them, so far as I know, was practical, and nearly all involved the use of a crane or something of that sort. What is necessary nowadays is that the design of road vehicles should be, as the noble Lord said, of the type that we had to evolve during the war, which enables them to be carried on a low-loading wagon. But if that is done it must be remembered that the loading gauge of British Railways, both for tunnels and stations, restricts very considerably the operation of vehicles carrying existing loads. There is no doubt that some further move in that direction can be made.

I want to deal with two points that I feel are important, because we do not want to go from one period to another and always be late for the developments of each of those periods. I know that the Transport Commission are actively engaged on this matter, but it is as well that your Lordships should realise that, although we are, necessarily, spending large sums of money on dieselisation, in my opinion, long before the last diesel is delivered we shall be in the nuclear age and shall have nuclear power stations operating. Seven years from now, in 1962, there will be probably four nuclear energy stations in practical operation. Their siting, of course, will depend on various things. It is of the greatest importance to realise that seven years is not a long time in which to place orders for the new rolling stock that will be necessary for intensifying the electrification of railways in the United Kingdom. It takes a long time to get delivery of this sort of vehicle.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, mentioned, one of the greatest developments recently has been the work done on the French Railways to utilise A.C. and D.C. in a different way from that usually adopted. This method enables much higher speeds to be attained; it is much cheaper to operate, and I believe it involves, not the third-rail system but the overhead wire system. That saves a great deal of trouble, but it means that the equipment of the electric locomotives has to be of a dual character if a particular train has to operate by drawing current from the third rail or from the central wire. Many of your Lordships will have seen the developments in France and Switzerland. We have to remember that hydro-electric power is much more readily available in those countries than it is here, although great steps are being taken by the Scottish Hydro-Electric Board. But there again millions are being spent, and before the last project that has just been approved is carried out, one of these nuclear energy stations will be capable of providing current even more cheaply than by hydro-electric power. In 1975 few of us in this House will still be alive, but I think it is worth recording that the complete change over to electrification will be a practical possibility, utilising not only the power that can be derived from coal and from hydro-electric schemes but an ever-increasing amount from nuclear energy. By that time breeder stations may have been evolved; and that will mark the beginning of an epoch which will make a complete change in the operation of transport in this country.

The other matter with which I wish to deal concerns the Disposals Board. I think that we all feel that the railways are already burdened enough without having more burdens put upon them, and I do not think the Disposals Board are likely to give any further assistance to the transport of the country. It is always puzzling to me to understand the whims of Party politics. Frankly, I do not understand them, but they have a disastrous effect, especially on the transport industry. Each political Party has its own particular remedies and attempts to apply them whenever it is in office. The consequence is that the unfortunate railwayman is perpetually having to readjust himself completely to try to carry out the new political ideal.

With regard to road hauliers, when this matter came up in another place (I was then a Member of the other place) we did our best in order to provide the Transport Commission with an adequate number of vehicles to operate transport in this country in an efficient way, looking upon transport as something which was one and indivisible, which indeed it ought to be. The argument that the hauliers must come in to give competition was quite a feasible argument, up to a point. But surely it has now been tried long enough. The vehicles that are available are all getting very long in the tooth, and many of them have been completely re-built. And if your Lordships read or follow the proceedings of the Disposals Board you will realise that even members of that Board are not very optimistic about their ability to carry their business any further forward to the advantage of the taxpayers.

We are told by the Treasury that everybody has got to be "squeezed"—except, of course, the Government, who are spending money lavishly on all sorts of schemes—and it seems to me quite fantastic that this Disposals Board should be allowed to continue, because I do not believe that advantage has been taken of that scheme to enable road hauliers to obtain the sort of vehicles they want. I do not believe that it is practical politics. In studying the paragraphs in this Report dealing with the road services, and reading between the lines, one sees not only the large sums of money that have been thrown away because we have not had the advantage of linking road services with rail, but the further sums that have been wasted—as, in fact, they have been wasted—through the endeavours of the Disposals Board to sell vehicles that people do not want to buy.

I do not believe that at this time it is justifiable in any way to stand between the Transport Commission and their frequently expressed desire, which I am thankful has now been supported by the Minister of Transport. Although there are in another place certain people who are still opposing the idea, I trust that the Minister will stand absolutely firm and will endeavour to work out with the Transport Commission a scheme; because everybody engaged in transport, without exception, realises that that is the only means of getting an efficient transport system in this country without considerable waste of money. That is a matter which I believe is of such importance that the House ought to know the views of the British Transport Commission on it. I think it has been stated quite clearly that they cannot bring the road services back to a condition of efficiency unless they are permitted to retain those vehicles and see that no further vehicles are sold.

5.0 p.m.


My Lords, I am going to deal with only one aspect of this country's transport to-day, but before doing so I should like to join with other noble Lords in giving my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Forbes—I am sorry he is no longer here to receive it—for his extremely able and convincing maiden speech. My own maiden speech is not so far back that I can forget what a terrifying experience it was, but I gather from the way in which the noble Lord made his that he did not find it so.

I want to confine myself solely to the canals and inland waterways. I have been studying both what is said about that subject by the Transport Commission's Report and the Report of the Board of Survey, made in 1955. On reading these Reports, the general impression I have is that canals as a whole, or, shall we say, taking them on an average, are a decadent and rather outmoded means of transport, and a financial burden on the country. I must confess that my view is entirely the opposite. I do not by any means hold that there are not some canals which are quite useless and which should be disposed of, but I feel that there are a great many which have been considered only suitable for disposal but of which a great deal of use could be made. The Board of Survey have classed them under three headings: those which are to be developed, which cover 336 miles; those which are to be maintained, which cover 994 miles; and those which are no longer considered as suitable for transport, which cover 771 miles.

Speaking of canals generally, I feel that, without unreasonable expenditure, a great many of them could be made a valuable means of transport and a useful way of easing the ever-increasing and ever more menacing congestion on the roads to-day. There is the old argument that canal transport is slow, but, even if it is slow, I do not think that in some cases one could say that it is slower or anything like as slow as rail transport, where a truck may lie in a siding for something like ten days. Also canal transport is steady, and that is a desirable thing. A steady delivery of goods is for many industries a much more useful thing than a large delivery in bulk, followed by an interval of some weeks.

In looking back at the history of the canals, I must confess that I find a surprising statement in the historical background which the Board of Survey have given. They seem to imply that during the nineteenth century, at the time when the railways arrived, the canals were steadily falling into decadence and that the railways, in order to support them during their last years, bought them over. I hardly think that any business concern, however altruistic its outlook, would be quite so foolish as to buy up a rival concern during its last tottering years, when it was dying a natural death in any case, just to support it until it died. No, the obvious reason why the railways bought up the canals was that they considered them a very serious competitor. Of course, once they had bought them up, the railways did what was in their own interests—namely, they let the canals fall into decadence; and that, of course, is the unhappy state in which they arrived into the hands of the British Transport Commission.

I will take as an example one particular canal, not because it is in any way unique but because it is typical of many others. It is one which has been discussed, I believe, quite a good deal lately—the Kennet and Avon Canal. I happen to live quite close to that canal, so I have had an opportunity to inspect a good length of it. I must say that it is in rather an unhappy state. Except for a short length of it near Bristol, it has been classed in Group 3—those which are to be abandoned. The Kennet and Avon Canal provides a through route for water traffic from London to Bristol which, I feel, is of great commercial advantage. After leaving the Thames at Reading, it does not pass through any important commercial centres until it arrives at Bristol, with the exception possibly of Bath; but it does go through a large area of agricultural land, grain-growing land. As such, I think it might be of great use to the farmers, not for perishable goods, of course, because the transport would be too slow, but for the transport of grain, farming machinery and other things.


And coal.


Coal, too, indeed. The figure given by the Transport Commission for the restoration of this canal to a condition where it could be used for navigation is £700,000. I happened to see in The Times of December 2 an article which mentioned another estimate, I gather by somebody who knew something about the subject, which is very different indeed—only £250,000. In view of the great discrepancy between those figures, I feel that before condemning the canal to its final death there should at least be a public inquiry into the matter, to find out whether the canal is of use and whether it is possible to put it on a working basis again or not.

The question is: would this expenditure be justified? An experienced manager of warehousing and shipping has estimated that warehousing and storage alone would bring in £40,000 a year, with the existing facilities as they are. Naturally, in time those facilities would be expected to expand and so bring in more. Potential traffic for the year would include £10,000 wood pulp, £10,000 timber, and £200,000 stone from the Mendips. That is important. The canal, even in its present state—that is to say, provided that it was dredged and restored to its proper condition—would take motor-driven craft of 80 tons. I do not feel that the restoration would necessarily require the sealing of the banks. After all, rivers do not need that, and I cannot see why the wash of motor traffic craft, travelling at the speed at which barges would go, would necessarily require the scaling of the banks. I think the natural banks would be perfectly satisfactory. The necessary annual revenue to make this a paying proposition has been estimated at something like £92,000 a year and from the figures I have mentioned it seems to me that this would be easily achieved. In view of all the figures that I have quoted to your Lordships, I think the Transport Commission are turning rather a blind eye to a valuable source of transport and, as I have already said, a useful way of getting traffic off the roads, which is something we all want to do. Even if it did not do it directly it would do it indirectly by easing rail traffic and so providing more rail transport for that which at present goes by road.

I come now to another point. Even if the arguments that I have produced do not sound convincing to the Transport Commission what are their responsibilities towards this canal and, as I have already said, to others in a similar condition? A few days ago I walked along a short length of it. In many ways it is in a poor state. The water level has been allowed to fall in some cases to a depth of no more than eighteen inches. The canal is used as a means of drainage for the population all around. If the water level is allowed to fall to a depth like that, it is obvious that before long it will prove a serious menace to health and hygiene. It seems to me that the Transport Commission's responsibilities towards the canal, even if they do not put it back into working order, must include the maintenance of the water level. When one takes over a property, one naturally has responsibilities towards it. If one buys a house which is likely to fall to the ground and kill those who are walking by it, one is bound, legally, to do one of two things: either demolish it altogether or put it into proper repair. It seems to me that the Transport Commission are here faced with the same problem: either they must put the canal back into working condition or they must maintain the water level. They must not allow it to go into decadence and so prove a great menace to the health of the population.

5.13 p.m.


My Lords, in opening this debate this afternoon my noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth spoke of British Railways working in what he might have described as a statutory straitjacket because, under the terms of the Act, they were unable to enjoy the commercial freedom that was necessary if they were to discharge their proper duties. That applies not only to the railways side of the British Transport Commission but also to the side to which I should like to confine myself this evening; the British waterways. Other noble Lords this afternoon have expressed the hope that some decisions would be come to and sonic finality be reached, and that canals would be enabled to play their full part in the transport system of the country. That is a hope which I am sure is shared by everybody.

It is for that reason that I regret very much that an eight months' delay has taken place without any sign from Her Majesty's Government of action or decision since the issue of the Report of the Board of Survey on the British Transport Commissions' Waterways, which has been referred to by other noble Lords. That Board was set up, at the suggestion of the Minister, by the Chairman of the Transport Commission. It consisted of one member of the Commission as chairman and two independent members. It published its Report and, as your Lordships will have heard, its main recommendation was that the Transport Commission should be allowed to concentrate on those waterway routes which were of real value as part of the transport system. Following up this recommendation the Board divided the waterways into three categories. The first, your Lordships will remember, comprised waterways to be developed and modernised to the maximum. The second category were those to be retained in the hope that they would prove of more use for transport than they had proved hitherto. The third were classed as waterways having insufficient commercial prospects to justify their retention for navigation.

I should like to draw your Lordships' attention first to these group one waterways because it seems to me that all public attention is being concentrated now on the least important waterways, the ones that have ceased to play a part in the national transport system, whereas we ought to be thinking of the really active ones where the Transport Commission are having great success in expanding traffic and which are playing a part in the economic system of the country. Which are they? We have the North-Eastern and Yorkshire waterways, serving the Humber, including the River Trent; we have the River Severn, in the South West; we have parts of the Grand Union Canal and the River Lea, serving the Port of London; and the River Weaver, serving the Mersey. Those are the waterways on which a surplus of £300,000 was earned in 1953. They carried over 10 million tons of cargo, which is 85 per cent. of the total tonnage carried on inland waters in this country. Can there be any doubt that the Commission should concentrate on those waterways? They carry millions of tons of coal and oil, so relieving the congestion on the roads. There is the unique system of coal-carrying on the Aire and Calder Canal, which made a handsome profit—the system whereby coal is carried in trains of boats capable of being lifted up and tipped like ordinary railway wagons. That is where the profit and benefit lie to the economy of the country as a whole. So, by any standards, I cannot understand how Her Majesty's Government hesitate to endorse a recommendation of that sort.

The second category is something very different, because many of the canals are narrow and inherently uneconomic; they have not been successful in maintaining the traffic. Whereas the canals in group one have mostly increased traffic, those in group two have almost all lost traffic in six years. These are such important waterways—the ones crossing England, such as the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, the Trent and Mersey, the Grand Union, going right up to the Midlands, and the complex system of canals round Birmingham, the Shropshire Union and the River Avon, which forms part of the Kennet and Avon. Those canals carried 2¼ million tons of cargo, yet they made a net deficit of £150,000; so one might say that it was almost on the basis of probation that the Board recommended their maintenance. It would not be justifiable to spend a lot of public money on modernising or enlarging these canals, because many of them do not serve the purpose that they did when they were built.

Finally, there are the group 3 canals, the 700 miles of waterway which have cost £200,000 a year—a dead loss to the Commission. Of course, if this loss were removed from the Commission, they would show a handsome surplus over the whole year on their canal owning. The noble Lord, Lord Som̃ers, spoke about the Kennet and Avon, and he quoted a number of figures from an article which appeared in The Times. Perhaps he did not see a subsequent issue of The Times, in which I took the opportunity of casting some doubt on the figures that were quoted in the original article. The Board of Survey were businessmen, actuated by no motive other than to examine the waterways system, and to make the best recommendations for its future. They invited evidence from a number of bodies representing trade, industry, the waterway industry itself, the Electricity Authority and a number of others, all of which are listed. The great majority of those whose lives have been spent in transport, particularly in waterway transport, were convinced that the recommendations of the Board of Survey were correct. There were some dissenting voices, but they were not those of the experienced and expert people.

What is the business of the Transport Commission but to provide transport services for the country? On a matter of transport, I would take the opinion of those most versed and experienced in the business. In default of some definite evidence that there is a given quantity of traffic waiting to be carried on certain routes, in certain quantities, to certain destinations, and without having that evidence almost in the form of an advance contract, I should be most hesitant to accept anything other than the recommendations of the Board. Still more should I be hesitant to invest a lot of money, on the chance that the traffic might be there when the canal was restored. I think we must take the opinion of those who know the subject, and also that of the users. Let us not forget that the Transport Users Consultative Committee have also expressed complete approval of the recommendations of the Board.

My Lords, there are two problems arising out of the Report of the Board. The first, I have already dealt with: should we allow the Commission to develop, modernise and enlarge certain of their canals and their navigable rivers? The second problem is: what shall be done with those for which there is no present-day transport use? I say again in regard to the first problem that I cannot understand why Her Majesty's Government hesitate to endorse this view. It is not a new idea. The same idea has been put forward by every single major Government inquiry in the last fifty years—namely, that certain waterways are of use in the modern world and, naturally, that the others are of less use or are of no use at all. It is not as if there were anything revolutionary about this proposal. The Royal Commission on Transport in 1931, the Chamberlain Committee, in 1921, and the Royal Commission on Canals, in 1906, all said that in the twentieth century world only certain waterway routes are of value, and they are the ones upon which concentration should be centred. No doubt circumstances and other Governments are to blame that nothing has yet happened during this century to deal with the canals; but surely Her Majesty's present Government should act on the advice that the Transport Commission have now received.

The second matter that arises from the Report is not one of transport but one of amenity. We should all like to keep all the amenities that we can in this country, and in my view the canals have a high place among those amenities. I have travelled some 1,200 to 1,500 miles over them, and there is nothing I should like better than to see all these waterways kept for pleasure cruising—the Kennet and Avon included. But who is going to pay? It is clearly not a question of transport to allow holiday makers to cruise wherever they like. It would he delightful, but the cost should not fall on the transport interests: it should be borne by the pleasure-boat owners themselves or by the local interests who will benefit by the presence of tourists. There is nothing that I should like better than to see all of the Kennet and Avon kept open, including the Summit Pound and that remarkable monument of engineering, the pumping engine built in 1796, which is still the only source of supply of water to the summit above Savernake.

Apart from the pleasure boating side there are other questions of amenity. Undoubtedly, these canals and bridges, aqueducts and so on, are a feature of rural England and it would be a great pity to lose them. Moreover, there are the towpaths, which at present are not a right of way. But in 1947 the Hobhouse Committee on National Parks threw out the suggestion that if all canal towpaths were made into public rights of way it would add a tremendous system of long-distance footpaths to the amenities of the country. Some of these waterways are in, or very close to, national parks—for instance, those at Brecon, in Abergavenny, in the Peak Forest, and near the Yorkshire Dales. All those would be adjuncts to national parks which would be of enormous value. Wherever there is a town, small or large, the addition of pleasure-boating facilities, even over only short lengths, would be of benefit to local inhabitants. Some towns I have seen have been enterprising in this respect, but a great many have not; they have neglected the facilities at their doors. For all those amenity reasons we should treat these waterways like any other amenity that we like and want and are prepared to pay for—public parks, public libraries and other things—for they are an addition to the total sum of the amenities of the people of this country. We should decide how much we are prepared to pay for that amenity and which authority is to maintain and operate it for that purpose; and we should decide, also how the money is to be raised, whether locally or as a subsidy from the Central Government.

Canals perform two further functions. One is water supply. Numerous parties, industries, or private residents, possess water rights, some dating back centuries, which cannot be extinguished. Water must therefore continue to run in these canals. Then, the land drainage question arises. The noble Lord, Lord Som̃ers was perhaps confusing that question with urban sewage disposal. This is a matter of carrying surplus water off the land and has nothing to do with health.


If I may interrupt the noble Earl, I was referring to urban drainage. I believe that this applies in this particular canal at Pewsey.


My Lords, though I am not well versed in local government, I should be very surprised if sewage were ever allowed to flow into a watercourse in this country. These two functions, land drainage and water supply, are essential for the countryside; and for that reason, if no other canals will not be filled in wholesale, as suggested by a great many people, for they have to be maintained with water flowing in them. But who is to carry out those functions? A Report was submitted five years ago, upon which, last week, I asked a Question. That land drainage sub-committee gave as their opinion that on the whole the river boards were the bodies most suited to take over these functions; but, as was to be expected, there was a great deal of disagreement and no doubt other local authorities had something to say on the subject. I repeat what I then said in a supplementary question: that, however divergent opinions might be, I should not regard five years as an unreasonable time in which to expect Her Majesty's Government to come to a decision. I hope that on that question, as on the question of concentration on important waterways, Her Majesty's Government will shortly come to a decision. Not only the Transport Commission but all the members of its staff, traders and potential traders, and others who might provide traffic, are in a state of complete uncertainty; and until a lead is given by Her Majesty's Government there will be no development in this small but not unimportant branch of the transport industry.

5.36 p.m.


My Lords, I should like at the outset warmly to congratulate, as a number of your Lordships have already done, the noble Lord, Lord Forbes, on his maiden speech to-day. He speaks with that authority and real knowledge of his subject which this House always enjoys; and, for myself, I can say that he has given me great fortitude in thinking that I cast my vote in the right way at the last Election.

This is a difficult debate to which to reply because it is couched in the widest possible terms and it has gone into some extremely fine detail. It is not easy for me within reasonable compass to do justice to a number of the very important questions which have been brought up. We must remember the broad general position of transport in the country to-day. I suppose that the characteristic of the twentieth century, as compared with any other, is the great technical change. There has never been a century in which change has taken place more quickly and more formidably. Yet in the field of transport that change has gone almost hand in hand with capital starvation. All the way through there seems to have been starvation of capital investment in transport of all kinds at a time when rapid change was taking place. It is very much against that background that we must view what is to be done to meet modern requirements.

Your Lordships probably recognise that for some twelve or thirteen years, from 1939 to 1951, there was a complete stoppage of all capital development. Now some noble Lords say, "We want all this development carried out very quickly." I believe that the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, and some other noble Lords would be the first to complain if the Transport Commission took a quick decision and made a mistake which they subsequently had to regret. Taking the Motion as it stands, I would only say that the road programme announced in February stands unaltered by any budgetary provision, and I very much hope that that programme will be shown to be more considerable in effect than was, perhaps, at first thought. It is right that we should realise that this is the third major revolution in the organisation of the railways over the last thirty-five years. There were the amalgamations in 1921, there was nationalisation in 1947 and now we come to the development of the 1953–54 era, now taking place.

In this last there are three factors: first, freedom of the railways to organise their affairs on a competitive basis. Here I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, that he is not quite right in saying that these freedoms took effect immediately upon the passage of the 1953 Act. Certain matters, like equalisation of charges and discrimination, took effect from that time; but the general and most important regulations enabling the railways to be quite free as to their charges, subject only to a maximum, will take effect only when the new freight charges scheme goes into effect. It is true to say, therefore, that the full benefits of that freedom are not yet available to the British Transport Commission as a whole.

The second factor in the present stage is decentralisation in the Regions, including the appointment of the area boards. I was glad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, speak on that, for, whatever may be one's views on this point, no one who is interested in railways can but be filled with a sense of pleasure at the quality of the men who have accepted appointments in the area boards throughout the country. That goes to show the profound interest which the railways naturally and properly hold among many people at this present time. They are seeking (and I say this especially to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth) to set a keener commercial sense in the area and region of the board. I think anyone reading the new directive to the Eastern Region must realise the importance which they are attaching to personal relations—not only relations with the staff but also relations with the general public—which I suggest is a matter of very real importance.

The third point about development is the emphasis on capital development. Some people appear to have formed an impression that major technical development in the railways has more or less come to an end. Lord Hurcomb, who, if I may say so, knows more about this subject than any of us, very rightly talked about a revolution in the technique of railway management—or words to that effect. I think it is true to say that technical development on the railways holds out greater possibilities than technical development on the roads. I say that deliberately. I think it is of tremendous importance that the younger people to-day should appreciate the importance of possible developments on the railways. If any of your Lordships feels inclined to doubt that, I would ask him to think for one moment of the question of discipline. Where there is higher discipline, clearly there are opportunities for better technical development, such as the development of automatic signalling and things of that kind. I think it is for that reason that railways hold possibilities of development of a very far-reaching character.

I believe it is also true to say that, in its proper sphere and under proper conditions, the movement of passengers and freight can be cheaper on the railways than ever it can be on the road. I do not say it is true, but I am given to understand by those who can speak with authority that the cost of a loaded freight train can be less than a halfpenny per ton-mile, which I understand is a figure never likely to be reached in road traffic. I have used the word "proper" to indicate that the railways must concen- trate on the right traffic. To use the railways for transporting odd loads, small quantities in erratic trickles of goods and passengers, is to use them not for the right purposes but for the wrong purposes. The true economic value of the railways will never be realised so long as that is done.

If I may, I will carry that one step further. Your Lordships have asked for a statement on long-term finance. We have to make up our minds whether we want the railways to be competitive or to carry other burdens, possibly of a social character. I believe it is extremely important that that should be clearly before our minds. I was very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, said he wanted the railways to be competitive. That is what I think we are coming to more and more. More and more we are realising that the railways must be competitive, if they are to fulfil any economic purpose. That means that those parts which are completely uneconomic have to be cut out. It means that any duplication of services with a demand which perhaps does not justify either service, must be dealt with by the cutting out of one of the services. I am quite certain that in that way, and in that way only, can our railways be made selfsupporting. And may I say, at this stage, how glad I was to hear Lord Hurcomb emphasising that point. It is not the wish of the Government that there should be subsidisation of the railways, and I am sure that it is the wish of the Commission that they should stand independently and not have to rely upon any form of Government finance. In these circumstances, it means that progressively we shall have to eliminate uneconomic services. It means that we shall have to cut out those services which are not sufficiently popular to take anything like enough traffic to justify their continuance. It means, of course, that branch lines where there is just not enough traffic will have to be closed. It means that slow trains which stop at every station will have to be abolished. It means that the railways will have to concentrate on long-distance traffic and on high-frequency, short-distance traffic. In France this fact is fully realised, and I am given to understand that they have already closed about one-quarter of their system of passenger traffic. They have done that in spite of a subsidy of upwards of £100 million a year. Very much the same thing is being done in the United States of America.

I should like to underline this point by reference to a speech made by my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport last July. My right honourable friend quoted from an American journal which said: The disappearance of the branch line and a large part of local trains is only a matter of years. I know that what I am saying is highly unpopular. I know that changes of this kind will be extremely unpopular when it is learned in many parts of the country that they are to be made. I want to emphasise that where it is possible to use diesels as an alternative system to steam, that will he done. But I must emphasise that their adoption is limited by the high utilisation which is essential if the best use is to be made of a diesel engine. These matters are always referred to the Transport Users' Consultative Committee, and the greatest care is taken to ensure that any inconvenience is mitigated by the provision, so far as possible, of alternative transport. None the less, I think it must be frankly recognised that the railways have got to close down some substantial part of their present system and concentrate on those services which they can run most economically. I think we must recognise that there is here a very sharp division between local interests and long-term rail interests. In the matter of essential transport services in this country, there is inevitably a conflict of interests, and we must all recognise that we are living to-day on a pretty narrow edge and that the welfare of our transport services goes to the roots of the sound economics of this country.

I now wish to refer to one other side which I believe is an essential element to the modernisation plan. The British Transport Commission is probably the largest single commercial and industrial organisation in the world—something like as big as General Motors or the Ford Corporation. It is essential that people of the first calibre should go into our railway industry. We take trouble to send our ablest young men to universities to get the best education we can give them, and it is essential that a fair percentage of those should find their way into British transport. I believe that this is happening to some extent, but I am given to understand that there is both scope and need for a larger number of technical men and men who have the ability to become first-class organisers and administrators.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, asked for a progress report with regard to the modernisation scheme. The scheme has been going on only a short time, though it had some roots about twelve months ago. I think it is fair to say that progress is not unsatisfactory. I cannot endorse what the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, said, to the effect that the scheme is being unduly held up. Very big decisions have to be made. Early next year a two years' forecast will be published of the work which it is intended to carry out in 1956–57. It is still hoped that the whole programme will be put through in fifteen years. Among the difficulties that have been experienced are shortage of technical staff and shortage of steel and other materials. I really cannot agree, however, that a complete system of steel allocation to meet this requirement would be justified. We believe that the steel shortage will be caught up in due course.

As your Lordships will see from the Report, last year some 40,000 16-ton steel wagons were produced, and last May an order was placed for 120,000 wagons which will be delivered in 1957. I think that meets the point the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, made about the standardisation of wagons at the present time. In regard to 24½-ton wagons, which the noble Lord is anxious to see more frequently used, we are held up by the limits of existing facilities for unloading at terminals of the National Coal Board and other big users. Until terminal facilities exist for the larger wagon it is no use increasing indefinitely the number of 24½-ton wagons. There was a good deal of pressure on the question of brakes. It is the policy to put brakes on all wagons in future. I hope that when the decision has been made as to the precise nature of that brake, that decision will include its use on every single new wagon next year.


My Lords, does the noble Earl mean to tell us that there has been no decision made up to the present time upon what type of brake is to be used?


I am indeed telling you that. I am not going into details, but I am certain that if there is any doubt about the best kind of brake to be used it illustrates the care with which the decision is being made. This problem occurs with regard not only to brakes but to other technical questions which arise: should we standardise what is best now or go on trying further? That is a very ordinary problem. I am not in a position, and I doubt whether the noble Lord is, to criticise the Transport Commission on this matter.


My Lord, the plan says that it was the vacuum type of brake and gives an estimate of the cost. I do not want to press the noble Earl unduly, because it may be necessary to reconsider this matter, but that was one of the respects in which the plan was definite.


My Lords, I understand that the decision on this matter is to be made in the very near future. I am afraid I cannot claim any further knowledge, because it is a technical point about which the noble Lord knows far more than I do. I can say that 10 per cent. of the wagons at the present time are already fitted with continuous brakes. The noble Lord, Lord Forbes, wanted some information about the number of express freight trains which are being used. I can tell him that this number is increasing. In the week ended March 27, 1955 (which, for some reason, appears to be a convenient date), there were 2,900 express freight trains, which was a substantial increase compared with the number in 1939. The average speed of these trains was 37 miles an hour.

I would inform the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, that a large number of the recent orders for diesel locomotives have gone to outside contractors—in fact, 140 out of 170. Of course, this is no indication of their final decision, but I think it shows that the Transport Commission are willing to consider the capacity of outside interests and are fully aware of the specialised knowledge of the private contractor. What I can say, although not a great deal, indicates the success of these new methods of locomotion. For instance, in the West Riding of Yorkshire the new multiple unit diesel trains have proved extremely popular, and passenger bookings have increased by something like 30 per cent. this year. Similar results have been shown in West Cumberland, where results for six months' operation have been almost twice as successful as had been expected. Next year the inter-city diesel service, betwen Glasgow and Edinburgh should be in operation, and in the following year there should be a similar express between Birmingham and Swansea. This is only the initial stage of the modernisation plan, but I think it shows progress. I think most noble Lords would agree that the main line coaches have been steadily improving over the last few years. So far the contracts for locomotives, freight and passenger rolling stock placed under the modernisation scheme amount to £45 million, which is a substantial figure.

May I say to the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, that the Commission will submit their future electrification policy to the Minister in the very near future. I think the noble Lord, Lord Glyn, also referred to that point. Putting the plan in one word, it is utilisation—higher utilisation of locomotives, rolling stock and available manpower. I would explain this by saying that the new locomotives will give higher utilisation of locomotives because they can be refuelled on the spot instead of having to go round to the local depôt; they can be more easily looked after as they stand; the lines can be more fully used as trains will run more rapidly behind each other; and there will be greater cleanliness to the public which I am sure will improve public relations. The new signalling will allow for higher frequency and greater safety. Freight traffic will be speeded up through better marshalling yards and the installation of brakes on freight wagons. We shall be able to make much better use of manpower which is available and give more attractive services to the public. On this basis the British Transport Commission have every confidence that they will be able to balance their accounts.

Perhaps we are inclined to criticise our railways a great deal because they are old friends who have been with us for a long time, but I should like to quote an analysis made by the Railway Gazette, comparing the position of British Railways with the railway services of fourteen other countries in Europe. Only three of these fourteen show better results than British Railways, and of the remaining eleven who showed less satisfactory results many are in receipt of subsidies of one sort and another. I do not advance this point because I think the British Transport Commission are above criticism. Speaking on their behalf, I would say that they welcome criticism, and it is right and proper that they should do so. If they are able to get on to a competitive system by cutting out services which are better done by other people, and as a result are able to give a better service themselves, so much the better, so long as they are able to do this whilst retaining what we all regard as important—that is, the freedom of the public to select their own way of travel, whether for themselves or for their goods. If any noble Lord doubts the value of that, I would commend him to read the recent lecture of the noble Lord, Lord Heyworth, on transport. Is it the business of any transport authority to decide how margarine should be distributed? Is that not essentially something about which the manufacturer must make up his own mind?

May I turn to some of the more detailed questions that were raised? The noble Lord, Lord Forbes, emphasised the value of containers and pallets. I think the Transport Commission are in full agreement with him there. I have little to add to what the noble Lord said, because he knows the facts and figures of the situation well. I can say that 200 more pallets will be added to their stock by the end of this year, and the latest figures show that containers in October, 1955, had risen to 34,000. There are a great variety of containers—ventilated, insulated, available for fish, fruit and frozen foods, and those which are used for special conveying of bicycles, chemicals and grain in bulk, building materials and cement. I think this indicates that these are recognised as important steps forward, and I am glad the noble Lord emphasised them.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, talked about punctuality. We agree that punctuality is not good enough and, in fact, it has deteriorated slightly since last year. I feel that the figures which the noble Lord gave of his experience are unfortunate, because the general figures are that about 70 to 80 per cent. of the trains run within five minutes of their advertised time, which is perhaps not too bad in itself. What should be recognised is that this year there has been a great speeding up of trains, which indicates that they are working to a rather narrower schedule. In point of fact, there has been an increase in the number of trains which have an average speed of 60 m.p.h. between starting and stopping. That is quite a good speed, taking it from start to stop.


Timetable speed?


It is timetable speed, of course, but it is also what happens. I do not think the railways put out a timetable which they never keep to, although I recognise that they do not live up to the timetables in every case. This is a subject that is being discussed between the Consultative Committee and the Transport Commission.

I should like to refer now to the question of freight wagons. One of the problems that exist in this connection is that a number of organisations persist in using freight wagons as a form of storage, and that problem, on the whole, has tended to become worse rather than better over the last four years. The Chairman of the British Transport Commission appeals to people not to use them for this purpose, and it is desirable that they should not do so. Another difficulty in regard to freight wagons is that we are now using more coal in this country, and the coal is not going a short journey to the coast but in many cases is being distributed inland. The installation of brakes is important, and the shortage of footplate staff at the present time presents a difficult problem. What is of significance is that, for these reasons, some hundreds of freight trains have to be cancelled every day. That, of course, is a serious matter.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, did not mention the matter of cleanliness, but I imagine it is one of the general subjects that he may have had in mind. The British Transport Commission are anxious about this matter, and it is true to say that the last years have shown an improvement in cleanliness, on the whole. Part of the carriage cleaning has been put out to contract, and the Commission are spending currently about £1 million on washing machines. I would add one further point in that regard. In two years' time the Commission hope to reduce the consumption of coal by about 2 million tons a year, and that, in itself, will be an aid to cleanliness.

A good deal has been said on the subject of canals, and really it is worthy of a debate to itself. I hope the noble Lord will appreciate that I do not want to keep the House unduly long at this time of night. I think it is a pity to suggest, as some people do, that there is something underhand going on about canals. It is one of the subjects that at one time or another has been extensively examined by a number of committees, as the noble Lord himself said. Moreover, I do not think it is fair to argue that the railways bought up the canals deliberately to starve them. Whet happened in some cases was that the canals deliberately challenged the railways. The Avon-Kennet Canal was one in point. A railway was built along its banks to challenge the Great Western Railway, and they were bought up in due course. There were a number of cases of that kind. Having come under common ownership, what was to happen? The companies could have put all their money into canals, and it is conceivable that to-day we might have been deploring the starvation of the railways to the benefit of the canals.

What would have been required if they had wanted to develop the canals would have been a really big scale development. I want to express it in this way. If we think we can compare canals with the waterways on the Continent of Europe, we must recognise that in place of 20-ton or 30-ton barges we should need 200-ton barges. A great many of our canals are not capable of taking those craft except by a substantial capital expenditure of some sort or another. Even seventy years ago, when this matter first started, it would have been extremely expensive to accommodate the larger barge. What has happened—the noble Lord, Lord Som̃ers, mentioned this—is that the canals have been divided by the British Transport Commission into three categories: those which are to be developed, those which will be, retained for the time being and those which have insufficient commercial prospects. It is only the third category that is really in question at the present time. What is to happen to them? Perhaps I might mention, in passing, that the Commission have already spent something like £2 million—I think that figure was mentioned—on improving the canals, and are currently expending a further £500,000.

These canals are being used sometimes purely for amenity purposes, such as disposing of surface water and trade effluent, and a variety of other purposes. It is really a question of who is responsible and what is the best way of dealing with a problem of this sort. The British Transport Commission have said: "We do not think this is our job," and I think one can have a certain amount of sympathy with them in that respect. I can assure noble Lords that Her Majesty's Government are aware of the problem and are anxious to bring it to a termination as soon as they reasonably can. I am afraid I cannot add anything further on that point. I might say that the matter of the Avon and Kennet Canal is dealt with in the British Transport (No. 2) Bill, which is already deposited in the House, and I would rather not make any statement on that subject which might be held to be prejudging the situation.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, mentioned coastal shipping. I really do not think I can add anything to what I said (I dislike using the expression) to the noble Lord, Lord Winster, on October 26. However, I must say that I do not think it is true, from our figures, that coastal shipping is carrying less. There are slightly larger ships and rather fewer of them. I would say, also, that they are not doing too badly in regard to the coal traffic which has unexpectedly come to them from Continental ports. There are a number of protective clauses for coastal shipping in the 1953 Act. They have statutory rights in certain respects which I do not think they will hesitate to use if they want to use them; and particularly I would call to the mind of the noble Lord the statutory right they possess where the actual rate charged by the railway to the trader can be shown to be less than the cost to the railways of providing the services. In other words, if the railways subsidise a competitive service, the coastal shipper has a clear statutory right to object to it. In allowing this commercial competition I think we are probably serving the best interests of all those who are concerned.

There has been a certain amount of talk about road haulage. There will shortly be a Bill presented to Parliament, as my right honourable friend said last July, and it will contain provisions which I hope will expedite the termination of the disposal of certain classes of vehicles one way or another. How long that will go on for I do not know. The noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, seemed to think it was right and proper that the railways should go on benefiting from the profits of road haulage. Does he really think it is right that road haulage should sub-sidise the railways? It is not integration; it is not working the two together at all. It is simply asking the people who are working road haulage to subsidise the railways. I am going in the other direction. I want to see the railways competitive, so that they can meet competition from road haulage by the efficiency with which they serve the public, and get the traffic in that way.


I will not seek to argue that point at the moment, but I would ask the noble Earl to answer the question I put to him, which was that if before amalgamation railways thought it right to acquire, operate and get the advantage of Carter Paterson & Co.'s services, why is it not right that it should remain part of the national transport structure now? That is the point I put to him, and I will not argue the general one.


The noble Lord does not agree with everything that was done in the pre-nationalised railways, and he picks out some things which suit his policy and others which do not. The matter will come up for discussion in this House, and I think it is better to leave these points until then. I do not know whether there is any other point I have missed. I appreciate the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Burden. I think he made a number of important points. The personnel factor behind the modernisation scheme is of tremendous importance. Personnel engaged in the industry on whom the whole thing necessarily depends must realise that they are in an expanding—I mean expanding in ideas—and a progressive industry. It is of the first importance that they should be conscious of cooperating with new machinery. These are the words which were used: that they are, in fact, partners in a great industry. If we can get to that stage, then I am sure we shall turn over a new leaf in this respect. I am sure I can express your Lordships' good wishes to Sir Brian Robertson and all those who work with him in carying out this difficult task.

6.12 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for his forthright reply, for the trouble he has taken, and for the tone and tenor of his reply. I also endorse what he said about cutting down unremunerative services. I am glad he said he is facing unpopularity and opposition, but it does betoken one thing: that the Government must see that country services of some kind, obviously by road, are provided for the rural areas. The last thing we in this country can afford is a drain from the rural areas into the urban areas because of a lack of transport. I hope I live to see the day with the noble Earl when my freight can be carried by rail; then, at least, we shall have made some progress. Again with my best thanks to the noble Earl and my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Forbes, on his maiden speech, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.