HL Deb 01 February 1956 vol 195 cc764-72

5.38 p.m.

VISCOUNT THURSO rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have yet decided on the best method of improving communications between the centre of London and the airport at Heathrow, either by means of mono-rail or by the construction of a new branch line between the airport and one of the London stations; and when the work is expected to begin. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, my only source of consolation as I rise this afternoon is my confidence in the indulgence which it is the custom of your Lordships to extend to those who address the House for the first time. In the year of the Coronation of our Gracious Queen, it was a constant theme of public speeches and newspaper articles that we were entering a second Elizabethan Age. In the first Elizabethan Age our national leaders foresaw, and events have proved, that our destiny lay upon the Seven Seas. In the second Elizabethan Age, those of your Lordships who have contributed to the important and searchingly critical debate to which we have just been listening have shown us that we shall be able to fulfil our destiny only if we are strong in air defence and if we win for our country a leading place in the rapidly growing sphere of air commerce, both for passengers and for freight.

Our Mercantile Marine has been served by great seaports—London, Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow and many others. There is room indeed for well-equipped airports, but for a long time to come London, with its satellites, will remain, as it is now, the principal centre of international air communications, both for this country and, I believe, if we are wisely led, for Europe as a whole. So to-day I cast myself for the rÔle of the Derby dog, cantering along behind the important debate to which we have been listening, in order to draw attention to one of the deficiencies of London Airport, a deficiency which has been publicly criticised by its principal users.

I shall not attempt to detain your Lordships to-day by discussing the failure of successive Governments—though I think it a possibly dangerous failure, and certainly one which is hampering the operations of the airport—to provide a fog- dispersal apparatus, such as was used by Bomber Command during the war. Nor shall I discuss the failure to provide a free customs area at London Airport, although London Airport is now losing traffic to Amsterdam and Frankfurt, where such free trans-shipment areas have been established. The most obvious and glaring deficiency at London Airport, and the one most loudly and constantly lamented by its users, is the inadequacy of communications with central London. Travellers fly into London over the Atlantic Ocean and across the Continent of Europe and debouch on to a road which is congested and ill-lit.

It was for these reasons that I ventured to put down a Question to Her Majesty's Government a year ago. I asked whether the rail development plan, of which we had then just been told, included provision for the improvement of the communications of London and other principal airports and whether they were considering the use of the mono-rail for this purpose. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend your Lordships' House on the day the Question was called and my noble friend Lord Rea was good enough to ask it for me. The noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, replied on March 1 that Her Majesty's Government had had this matter under constant review and that they would be glad to entertain proposals of a practical character. The noble Earl threw a douche of cold water over the mono-rail, and referred optimistically to the Cromwell Road extension. But that extension will serve not only London Airport, but also the whole of the private car and lorry traffic between London and die West Country; and the increase in that traffic will rapidly choke the new artery between London Airport and the city.

On July 13, having learned that the practical proposals which the noble Earl had requested had been submitted to Her Majesty's Government, I raised the question afresh. I found that the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, was still standing with his feet firmly on the Cromwell Road extension, but wish one eye cocked at the memorandum which had been presented to him from British European Airways. I received no encouragement from him on July 13, and accordingly, on November 30, I tried again. This time the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, assured the House that the possibility of providing a rail link between London Airport and one of the London stations had been the subject of considerable discussion in the Department, that the proposals of the British Transport Commission and of British European Airways were being studied in detail, but that he could not encourage me to hope that he would be able to report progress before Christmas. So I thought it better to leave it for a little time. I hope the noble Lord will now agree that we have left it long enough.

Meanwhile, Mr. Masefield, the former chief executive of British European Airways, has published some calculations about the effect of the construction of a mono-rail. The traveller would be conducted from London Airport to the centre of London in five minutes, compared with something like thirty to forty minutes under present conditions and even longer w hen the conditions are unfavourable to motor traflic. The journey from London to Glasgow by Viscount would be reduced by 1. to 2 hours if there were a mono-rail. When pressed on this suggestion, not only by me but also by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and others, noble Lords representing the Government have suggested that the mono-rail is not a practical method and that in America they have dismantled sore of the mono-rails. That is not the view which is now taken in Germany, for on December 23 in Cologne a plan for the construction of a mono-rail from Cologne to Opladen was approved by the Cologne City Council. It is now just on a year ago since the noble Earl, Lord. Selkirk, told your Lordships that Her Majesty's Government had had this matter under constant review. Meanwhile, the Germans in Cologne have acted.

Whatever the Government's decision may be, no one will say that they have rushed it. No one will say that they have left any stone unturned or any expert unconsulted. For my own part, I will cheerfully accept whatever the noble Lord may offer me this afternoon, whether it be a rail link or a mono-rail, but I hope that Her Majesty's Government will be able to announce a decision to-day, or at least tell the House what they propose to do to improve these deplorable communications. Perhaps the noble Lord would also be kind enough to add, as I put at the end of my Question, when the work will begin.

5.48 p.m.


My Lords, I would not quarrel with any statement of fact that the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, has made. So far as I am aware, his facts are perfectly correct, though I am awaiting corroboration of the Cologne monorail scheme. Meanwhile, I will tell him what the present position is. We are well aware of this difficulty, which occurs not only in London but in every major city in the world. The usual method of reaching an airport is by road. I believe that Moscow and Brussels are the only exceptions, where a rail link is provided. But for London we are thinking beyond the road: for the alternative airport of Gatwick the main approach will be by rail and, as the noble Viscount knows, schemes for rail access to London Airport itself have been studied and are being studied at the moment.

The noble Viscount twice asked Questions on this subject last year. In each case I had to reply that in the first instance we relied on the Cromwell Road extension as providing a considerable relief for the next few years. I did say, however, that we were fully aware that it could be argued that, further ahead, something more than road transport would be required. One development which provides relief straight away is the establishment of the new B.E.A. terminal in the Cromwell Road curve. Admittedly that is some distance from the centre of London and from Waterloo, but it is not necessarily farther away from the residences and hotels of travellers, and it is expected to reduce the ordinary road journey from an hour, which is the approximate time taken from Waterloo, to some thirty-five minutes. That is a fairly substantial reduction. If we were able to do it in thirty-five minutes at the moment, London Airport would compare not at all unfavourably with most of the other airports in the world.

What about the future? First of all, we have eliminated certain suggestions or projects. There is, first, the suggestion of helicopters which is sometimes put forward. We think that that would be much too expensive and would create great problems of air access. Then there is the extension of the existing underground railway, which would be a feasible proposition, but would bring us to the point that the underground railway exists to run stopping trains, and unless one carried out some major engineering works any trains on such an extension would have to continue to be stopping trains to the centre of London. That would not be much good, because it takes quite a long time. Therefore that suggestion has been ruled out. Then there was the possibility of the rail link-up with the Great Western Railway into Paddington. That was ruled out, I believe, on the score that it would cost more than the Southern link.

In the middle of September there was an inter-departmental committee of the operators, the British Transport Commission and the Ministry, appointed to study possible rail routes to the airport. Its first job is to find an alignment, and then to have an engineering survey carried out; and meanwhile it can go on making what one might call statistical inquiries about potential passengers, operating costs, and so on, and deficit, if any—I would call the attention of the noble Viscount to the word "deficit." When this committee have finished their task it is then for the parties concerned—that is to say, the operators, the British Transport Commission and the Minister—to decide whether to sponsor the scheme or not, in order to get it inserted in some capital programme; and if so, how the loss—again I dwell on the word "loss"—is to be met. The committee have worked out what seems to be a reasonably good alignment by Whitton Junction, Barnes and Clapham. There are certain alternatives in the middle of that, but those have not yet been evaluated. That link could lead ultimately either to Victoria or Waterloo, whichever is convenient, but it would probably go to Victoria, because I understand that B.E.A.'s tenancy of their terminal at Waterloo ends in 1957. There is quite a good deal of engineering involved in this link; tunnelling under the airfield itself; a possible doubling of quite a fair section of the track; and even a possibility of having to add an extra line on the bridge over the river into Victoria. This means that it is a somewhat extensive undertaking, but it does seem to be the best rail link available.

In addition to this orthodox study, the International Mono-rail Company have put forward a project for a mono-rail starting at the new B.E.A. Cromwell Road terminal and running down the Cromwell Road and Bath Road, suspended on great pylons over these roads down to the Airport. Incidentally, I may say here that I understand the sponsors reckon a journey time of eighteen minutes at a maximum speed of 50 m.p.h. So that if the noble Viscount's five minutes is correct, and for the centre of London we take the Cromwell Road curve, I leave him to do the precise arithmetic, but it would require a speed of something in the neighbourhood of 150 m.p.h., and I do not think the Member of Parliament for the people en route would have a very light post-bag on that subject.

This particular scheme involves a unique adaptation of an almost unique principle. I understand that in this particular patent no mono-rail has ever been constructed. It involves engineering problems of great magnitude, and it must have an unknown impact on the life of the community through which it would run, particularly if the astronomical speeds which the noble Viscount proposes were to be considered practicable. And., of course, questions of safety would arise, on which the railway inspecting officers would have a lot to say. My information is that this type of project is still at the drawing-board stage, and even a large-scale model has not yet been erected. It would therefore be a bold decision indeed by Her Majesty's Government, not only to pin all their hopes for ready access to the Airport on so untried a scheme, but to submit many thousands of Londoners to be the preliminary guinea pigs.

Another study is proceeding on the question of traffic congestion on, around and near the Airport. It is possible that the people who are conducting that inquiry may interpret their terms of reference rather widely and may make recommendations which would have effect on traffic further back into the middle of London. So one can say that studies are being made on mare than one front, but it is all for the long term. For the short term, we regard the Cromwell Road extension improvement, which is due to be completed during the year 1959, and which I am informed should reduce the journey time to thirty-five minutes, as a reasonable contribution.


May I ask whether that time includes the fly-over at Hammersmith Broadway? If it does not, I think it is very optimistic.


I understand that it does not include the fly-over at Hammersmith Broadway, so that with the fly-over one should get something better. When my right honourable friend gets reports from the Transport Commission and the Air Corporations he will have to satisfy himself on what he would like to see clone, but I am afraid it is quite impossible at this moment to guess whether it will be done. Large sums of money are involved, and large quantities of steel. If the decision had to be taken at this moment, I think there would be little doubt that it could not be a favourable one, in view of the financial situation and the steel situation. There are many other much more urgent traffic projects which need to be carried through—for instance, the C tube scheme. If the noble Viscount were to send a reliable observer to Oxford Circus station between the hours of four and half-past five, he would be horrified at what he saw. Hundreds of thousands of Londoners are travelling under the most uncomfortable and tiring conditions, all due to lack of capital expenditure—to say nothing of the trunk roads, the Great North Road, and so on. All these would have to compete with this scheme. I appreciate that the noble Viscount has a fear that the situation may get progressively worse. If it does, there are other works besides rail works which can he called into aid. But in the present state of our finances and the transport problems of this country, it would be very difficult for any Government to justify spending something like £ 10 million of public money on reducing by a further few minutes the time of the air travellers from London Airport. I apologise to the noble Viscount for not having been able to give him a softer and smoother Answer, but I believe that I have given him a realistic one.

6.4 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord for the full and courteous answer which he has given me this afternoon. I am glad to hear that so much work and study has been going on, of which hitherto we have not heard very much. At the same time, I trust that further consideration will be given to the two major proposals for preventing what is already a bad, and will become a deteriorating, situation at London Airport—the mono-rail and the link with Victoria or Waterloo. For the rest, I hope that the ameliorative proposals of which he has told us will be successful. I was not quite sure about the economy in time of this new terminal at Cromwell Road. It seems that it will cut down the time to thirty-five minutes, but only for those who live near Cromwell Road. Of course, the importance of London Airport from the point of view of the economy of the country is the facility it affords for the transaction of business, and those travellers will be going to and from the City of London. Perhaps the noble Lord will permit me on some future occasion to revert to this matter to ask him how things are going.


My Lords, I have so often seen the noble Viscount sitting in his place that it never occurred to me that it was his maiden speech we have heard. I offer him belated congratulations for an excellent speech. I will not go further, because I may tell him that he was quite out of order in speaking a second time, and so am I.