HL Deb 07 February 1957 vol 201 cc631-7

5.12 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, I have been trying to suggest that the forces of good will in the railway services should be mobilised by and through the "noncommissioned officers" of the three great railway trade unions. After all, this is not entirely a novel idea. I remember that after the General Strike of 1926 the London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company attempted something along the same lines. But I have in mind something far bigger and more continuous than that which the L.M.S. attempted to do then. I know that what I have suggested will be opposed by the Communists, the near-Communists and fellow-travellers as "class collaboration". I suggest that it is nothing of the kind. Railwaymen must realise that there is not a bottomless purse from which they can accept monies in vast sums as a subsidy to the railway industry. They must realise that if they themselves are not prepared, in these five or six brief years, to put the industry on a sound financial footing, then the railways will go the way of the stage coach; the rails will be torn up and the main lines will be allocated to fast-moving motor traffic. But before that comes about, the challenge should be accepted by all railwaymen. They must realise that their industry is faced with highly organised competition from the road transport industry. That industry is alive and active and is always conducting a high-powered campaign in every quarter to discredit the railways and railway transport. Railwaymen should measure up what it is that they are opposed to. I could say more, but at this late hour I will refrain.

There is, however, just one point which I should like to make. I know that London Transport is outside the scope of this measure. But I confess that I have always marvelled at seeing in the trains of London Transport, and now also in the buses, advertisements for road passenger transport which is competing with British Transport. The undertakings advertised are in no way associated with British Transport. I do not know whether this is an instance of altruism on the part of London Transport, or whether the advertisement department takes the view that, "Money does not smell in any case." But I confess it irks me, as a railwayman, to see those advertisements. It maybe that the plea which a Member of your Lordships' House puts to these railway unions, and particularly to my own old trade union—the old Railways Clerks' Association, now the Transport Salaried Staffs Association—will fall on deaf ears. Be that as it may, I am convinced that, unless something along the lines I have suggested is done, the railways will cease to function and will be only an exhibit of a great industry which has failed to satisfy and to serve the public because of the inertia of those employed in it.

5.17 p.m.


My Lords, I should like briefly to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, upon the lucidity of his explanation of this Bill—he even made me think that I understood it. That may be rather dangerous but the noble Lord will have the opportunity of putting right anything upon which I may go wrong. The impression I got was that, in a more lowly sphere, one might say that the railways were "asking for a sub." We are not giving them money permanently. Eventually, it is to be paid back, for it is a loan. But I think one is justified in asking what security we have that this money ever will be, or ever can be, paid back. I am completely satisfied that the recent modernisation plan will give the railways great technical efficiency, and I regard that as very desirable. But it certainly appears to me not to emphasise the equal necessity for building up commercial efficiency. I admit that the plan does not ignore it altogether, but it does not seem to me to put upon it the real emphasis which I think should necessarily be laid on that point. The two things do not necessarily go together.

Without wishing to say whether the timing was good, I would point out that railwaymen have recently secured an increase in wages. Whatever anyone thinks about it, they have secured that increase, and one must realise that already because of that increase, the forecasts made by the railways in connection with the modernisation plan have now gone completely adrift. I think it would be futile to imagine that in the next five years there are not going to be other, and probably substantial, wage increases granted, and we must look carefully into whether the railways are going to be able to repay this money at the specified date or will have to borrow again, and re-borrow and re-borrow in a vicious circle. It seems to me that the railways are still tainted with the Victorian outlook of the days when they had a monopoly and had to compete only with horse traffic and when the problems with which they are faced to-day never occurred.


My Lords, may assure the noble Lord that that is absolutely incorrect? There is to-day on the railways a spirit alive to the need of competition. Some people may have a Victorian outlook, because they are still living in the Victorian era, but they are not the railwaymen.


I am glad of the noble Lord's intervention. The point I was trying to make is not that the railwaymen were necessarily to blame. It is often the case that the customers they are dealing with still have a Victorian outlook, and between customer and railways the net result is that we are not getting the modern outlook which is necessary.

I come to the question of the extra traffic which petrol rationing has diverted to the railways. I am told that from the railways' point of view the figures have been disappointing. The increase of general merchandise traffic has been 9 to 10 per cent.; of minerals, about 4 per cent., and of passengers, 15 to 20 per cent. These increases have not taken up anything like the railways' existing capacity to deal with extra traffic. It is worth leaking at some of the reasons for this, some of which were brought out at a recent conference of the Transport Central Joint Commission. The following bodies were represented—the British Transport Commission, British Railways, British Road Services, British Transport Waterways, the Federation of British Industries, the Association of British Chambers of Commerce, and the National Union of Manufacturers. I think that these organisation represent the authoritative opinion of both sides, and the conference showed that the railways are endeavouring to get down to this problem.

I should like to summarise, briefly, the conclusions to which the conference came, The industry and commerce side said that they were opposed to diverting traffic to the railways because they found it led to excessive breakages, excessive times in transit, delays and excessive costs of packing. Even after rates had been adjusted, they still remained uneconomic, and the extreme case was given of certain goods whose transit was 450 per cent, more expensive by rail. The transport side said that industry and commerce often assumed that the rate would be high without bothering to find out. They said that the rates they would adjust would be those which they regarded as commercial rates and they could not necessarily match the market value rate. I thoroughly agree that rate-cutting for the sake of rate-cutting is a futile occupation, but I must also point out that the railway rate for demurrage is just as futile. Twenty-eight years ago, when I first started work, that rate was 3s. a day for an ordinary wagon: today it is exactly the same. In those days one day was given to clear the wagon: it is the same now. I say without hesitation that the railways should triple the rate, but give customers two days to clear. I think that industry would squeal—but let it. It is an unsatisfactory and unnecessary obstacle against which the railways have to work.

I would ask my noble friend who is going to reply if he can give me an assurance which would largely satisfy my mind. The merchandise that is being carried by the railways now is being carried by rail because that is the most efficient and most economic method; otherwise it would be going by road. If we accept that certain traffic is suitable for handling on the railways, I should like to know whether the increased traffic which is forecast lies in the normal growth of the traffics which the railways are handling at this moment. For instance, I think that traffic in coal is going to increase, because it is estimated that the output of our power stations is going to be stepped up, and a large amount of their coal is carried by rail now. Rationalisation and modernisation is bound to add to costs, including service costs, and I should like to be assured that so far as anyone can tell, rates will not have to be increased to such an extent that that will drive suitable traffic away from the railways. If I could have that assurance, my uneasiness about the working of this plan would be considerably allayed. The sooner the railways can make a decent profit the better, and I think that the first call upon that profit is decent wages. The railways are doing a good job. They have a light, but they are hiding their light under a man-sized bushel. Their publicity somehow or other lacks—




—Not necessarily punch, but popular appeal. I think that we must also be sure that publicity and punch are not directed to the sort of traffic that is not suitable, and never will be suitable, to the railways.

5.30 p.m.


My Lords, this evening's debate has shown a marked degree of agreement, so much so that there is little left for me to say, and I do not propose to take much time in saying it. I think noble Lords are generally agreed that the Bill that we are discussing—and, after all, it is the Bill and not the modernisation scheme which we are discussing—is both drastic and revolutionary but it is a drastic situation that the Bill is trying to meet. I agree that it is an easy measure to criticise. It is easy to maintain that some of the targets are over-optimistic and that some of the proposals show a good deal of optimism in the minds of those who have made them. If it is over-optimistic, or if it is over drastic, what is the alternative? That is the question that must be asked, and several of your Lordships have asked it this afternoon. The noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, asked it, and nobody speaks with more authority on this matter than he does: if I may say so, he made a most helpful and statesmanlike speech on the subject. He has said that the only alternative is a subsidy. My noble friend Lord Stonehaven referred to it as a "sub", and said that he thought he saw a subsidy rearing its ugly head in the clauses of this Bill. I was at pains to point out that the difference between a subsidy and the proposals of this Bill stands out quite clearly.

Even if this Bill is drastic, it does contain, as the noble Lords, Lord Lucas of Chilworth and Lord Burden, made clear, a challenge, and unless the railway industry as a whole accepts this challenge, this Bill, when it becomes an Act, will fall to the ground. I liked the expression used by the noble Lord. Lord Burden, when he said that each and every railwayman in the 800,000 of them must be a railway publicity officer. I hope that his old colleagues will follow the noble Lord's wise advice. The scheme will not work unless the men and women in the industry respond to the challenge which this Bill now gives to them. They now have something concrete to work for.

I sympathise with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, in his difficulty about the Oxford route. I know that that has been a route where there has been complaint in the past, and I think the noble Lord has had some correspondence with the Commission about it. I am sure he will agree with me as to this. How can the men working on that line really put their backs into their work if they realise that they are dealing with out-of-date stock and equipment? Surely, it is this new scheme which will give the incentive to give a better service.


I agree with the noble Lord. As he said, this is a challenge. What I am asking the Government to do is this. In this imperfect world they are in competition—they are selling a service—and they must work on commercial lines. They are not working on commercial lines.


I fully agree with the noble Lord when he says that the Government, the railways and the porters must work on lines of dynamic commercial enterprise and go out and get the trade. I hope that, to a degree, the railways are already working along those lines, but I should not deny that there is room for improvement. I am sure that Sir Brian Robertson would be the first to express the wish that the dynamic leadership which he is seeking to give to the railways will be more closely followed by some of his subordinates. I agree with my noble friend Lord Stonehaven as to the need for enterprise in getting the goods. But when we are talking about the problem of road against rail, I am sure both my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, will agree that there is no point in the railways' going in search of business which obviously will not be profitable.

I will not occupy your Lordships' time further. We are agreed on the main principles, and I am sure we agree on this last principle: that, drastic though this Bill and the problem may be, and revolutionary as ate the proposals, even the most pessimistic of us hope that they will work and will prove a success. If they do not, the blunt fact is that we shall be faced with national disaster. We may as well realise that.

On Question, Bill read 2a; and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.