HL Deb 02 August 1965 vol 269 cc90-7

6.58 p.m.

THE EARL OF KINNOULL rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware that bus services, quoted as alternatives to rail services at Transport Users Consultative Committee hearings, have in some cases been withdrawn, and whether they will consider making public passenger road services subject to T.U.C.C. closure procedure. The noble Earl said: The Question standing in my name to-night is one which I know the Government have under review and I believe that a report is soon to be published on the matter. My question relates to the withdrawal of bus services, and I think it significant that there are areas in Britain which at the moment are totally lacking in public transport services. I hope that when the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, replies he will go beyond saying that the matter will be looked into, a survey made and some action taken.

I wish to draw the attention of the noble Lord to rural bus services which, following the withdrawal of local branch railway lines, became the only form of public transport. I have proof of nine bus services which have been withdrawn—there must be many more—and each was considered as an alternative transport service at the time when there were rail closures. They have subsequently been withdrawn on the grounds of economy, without any reference to the Minister of Transport or concern about public hardship. Section 56 of the 1962 Act would appear, at first glance, to indicate that it could not be possible for bus services to be withdrawn in this manner, for the Minister has a clear duty under the Act to see that an adequate alternative public transport service is available before confirming a rail closure. He may even impose conditions on this alternative service, and if it is necessary that the bus company should keep operating and it is making a loss, I understand that it can claim a subsidy from the Railways Board. The loophole to this Act appears to be that where the Minister is satisfied that there is a suitable alternative bus service but makes no condition, the service can subsequently be withdrawn without any reference to the Minister.

Of the nine bus services of which I have evidence, perhaps I may quote from a letter of the Magor and St. Mellons Rural District Council, which I think sums up the difficulties that face these areas. The letter was written to the National Council on Inland Transport in June of this year and is as follows: May I take the opportunity of asking for your assistance and advice on the transport problem which has arisen in my Council's area, due to the withdrawal of the Cardiff/Marshfield bus service. In 1959 the British Railways applied for the withdrawal of passenger facilities from Marshfield Station which lies approximately halfway between Newport and Cardiff. At the Transport Users Consultative Committee's inquiry it was forcibly pointed out by British Railways that an adequate bus service, operated by Newport and Cardiff Corporations, was available to residents of the area to Cardiff and Newport. The fact that this submission contributed greatly to the decision of the T.U.C.C. to support the closure has been confirmed by the Secretary to the Consultative Committee within the past three weeks. Now the Cardiff City Transport Department has withdrawn the service from Cardiff to Marshfield on the grounds that the annual deficit is having to be met by the Cardiff ratepayers. It is reasonable to expect a similar action by the Newport Corporation within a short time in respect of the Newport Marshfield service. When this happens there will be no public service of transport in this area.

Of the nine examples I have with me of bus services that have been withdrawn, perhaps I may quote five of them—Crewe to Market Drayton via Nantwich, in Cheshire; Princes Risborough to Thame, in Oxfordshire; Gleneagles to Crieff, in Perthshire; Hucknall to Chesterfield, and Bristol to Pilning.

I have heard it said in your Lordships' House that in this age of prosperity the rural bus service is really hardly necessary. I take exception to this type of thinking. I believe strongly in the principle that wherever you live in Britain, you are entitled to public services. Surely people living in rural areas have the same right as people in towns to enjoy these services. I should like to end by asking the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, this question. Does he think it right that where a bus service, considered at the time of a rail closure as the alternative service and now the only means of public transport in the area, should be withdrawn without any sanction or by-your-leave to the Minister or being submitted to any public hearing for objections? I hope that when the noble Lord replies he will say that some action is being taken to look into this matter. I am sure he is as anxious as many people are to see efficient transport services which will serve the whole country. May I suggest to him that to do this, he could do no better than to tackle the rural transport problem, as without doubt there exists a great problem at the present time in the rural areas? I hope that the noble Lord will look into the matter.

7.4 p.m.


My Lords, first of all, I should like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, for the exposition he has given to the House of the problem of safeguarding the interests of those who, where rail services have been withdrawn, have only the alternative of bus services. He also made reference to the problem of rural bus services generally, but I shall not deal with that to-night. The noble Earl will know that a Committee was set up by the previous Government, the Jack Committeee, and as a result of their Report certain experiments were carried out in typical rural areas over a large part of the country. We hope to make a statement in regard to those services very shortly.

I think your Lordships are familiar with the careful arrangements which my right honourable friend has made to ensure that adequate alternative services are available when a rail closure takes place. These are reached only after detailed examination by the Transport Users' Consultative Committee, in the first place, and thereafter by my right honourable friend himself. The conditions of consent laid down in my right honourable friend's letter of decision to the Railways Board list these services specifically. Not only that, but they are so framed as to provide an effective control system in the interests of displaced rail passengers, so that my right honourable friend can deal rapidly with any difficulties that unexpectedly arise afterwards.

In view of what the noble Earl has said, let me explain how this works. There are two situations. One is where extra bus services have to be put on to carry the displaced passengers; the other is where my right honourable friend decides that the existing services are enough. In the first case, the Railways Board have to arrange with the bus operators to provide the services, if necessary, as the noble Earl has said, with financial support. It is a further condition that the Board must inform my right honourable friend of any proposal to withdraw or substantially reduce the bus services listed in the consent letter. Where the Board are subsidising the provision of extra services, the initiative in any proposal to take off a service lies with the Board, because they are footing the bill. Where they are not meeting the loss on the service, they have arrangements with the operators that if any operator decides to withdraw a service required by a consent, he will first inform the Board.

The effect of these arrangements is that if the question of withdrawing such a service arises, the Board have first to seek my right honourable friend's concurrence, and that arises with both types of service. When asked to agree to the withdrawal of one of the extra services. he examines the proposal in the light of the use made of it. If he decides that the service is still needed, the Board must see that it is maintained. But where it is clear to him that the service is no longer justified, then he will allow its withdrawal. In such cases I should perhaps add that the public are informed of his decision by its publication in local newspapers.

I should also explain that in this type of case there is already statutory provision to bring the T.U.C.C. into the picture. If, when he receives a proposal for a withdrawal of one of the additional bus services, my right honourable friend feels that there are grounds for a special investigation by the T.U.C.C., he has power to ask them to consider the matter and make a special report. Normally, however, the issues are clear-cut. We have figures of the actual use of the bus service over a period of months and we can see what alternatives people will have, if the service is taken off. So it would be unusual for my right honourable friend to need the advice of the Transport Users' Consultative Committee. I can say, however, that if he were satisfied that there was a good case for reference to the Committee, he would not hesitate to seek their advice.

At this point, may I again remind your Lordships that no bus service, whether extra or existing, can be operated without a road service licence granted by the Traffic Commissioners? The conditions attached by the Commissioners to licences have the effect of securing that, if an operator wishes to reduce a service, he must seek their authority for the variation of his licence. Such applications are published in Notices and Proceedings of the Commissioners. Copies of these are circulated to local authorities throughout the traffic area and are on sale to the public. Local authorities may oppose applications to vary licences, and while the general public have no statutory right of representation to the Commissioners, I understand that they invariably use their discretion to consider representations from individual users. It follows therefore that there is already machinery whereby local authorities and individual users can make representations about reductions in bus services. These representations can be made to the Traffic Commissioners, who are entirely independent of the Minister.

Because this machinery exists under the Road Traffic Acts, my right honourable friend could not agree that there is any justification for requiring the operators of bus services generally to submit all proposals to withdraw services to the Transport Users' Consultative Committees. The operation of bus services is already subject to the licensing provisions of the Road Traffic Acts. If my right honourable friend were to agree that there was a case for subjecting bus operators' proposals to withdraw services to further examination by the Consultative Committees, it would cut right across the present system of licensing bus services. He could not accept such an invasion of the statutory duties of the Traffic Commissioners.

There remains the alternative that where an existing bus service is specified as an alternative service in a consent to a closure, it should not be withdrawn without scrutiny by the Consultative Committee. This would mean that where the Minister had specified a certain bus service operating in the area as one which might be of value to displaced rail passengers, the service should become subject not only to the conditions of licences issued by the Traffic Commissioners but also to a further scrutiny by the T.U.C.C. This would be a form of discrimination, which would be open to considerable criticism and would be quite unjustified, bearing in mind the existing control machinery provided by the Road Traffic Acts. More important, however, such scrutiny would be quite unnecessary because the Minister already has power to intervene when operators withdraw essential bus services which they were already operating at the time of closure, and he can secure the restoration of any bus service which an operator decides to withdraw, if he is satisfied that the displaced rail users still need it. This is the users' safeguard.


My Lords, if I may interrupt the noble Lord, can he make clear whether, where the bus company is a municipal bus company, it will operate in the same way he has just described?


As I understand it, subject to correction, bus services of municipal undertakings are in no different category in ref and to their road ser vice licences than are private operators. But I can give an instance of what happens. The noble Earl referred to a case in Cardiff or Newport. Perhaps a good example is the case of an early morning bus service in Somerset. This bus service provided an essential service for up to a dozen people travelling to work regularly each day. The operators' application to withdraw the service was made to the Traffic Commissioners in the usual way, and as no objections were received, the Commissioners authorised its withdrawal. Subsequently it came to light that the local parish councils had not been advised of the withdrawal of the service by the rural district council, which had received notice of the procedure of the Traffic Commissioners, and they have made representations about the effects on the regular users. My right honourable friend has satisfied himself that the bus met essential needs formerly covered by the train service. He has therefore asked the Board to arrange for a substitute service to be provided. I hope that it will be operating very shortly.

This then is a practical example of how the Minister can step in. Experience has shown that cases where the Minister would have to intervene in this way are likely to be few and far between. Nevertheless, the Minister's power is there and, as I have shown, it is an effective power. My right honourable friend will not hesitate to use it where he is satisfied that it is justified to resolve hardship which arises in the first place from a rail closure. To sum up, therefore, the way in which the Minister gives his consent to closure ensures first of all that no extra bus service, which he requires, can be taken off without his making a proper assessment of whether or not it is needed. Secondly, so far as bus services existing at the time of closure are concerned, the Minister can and does see that if an essential service is withdrawn, a replacement is provided, if necessary with the Railways Board's financial support. I hope that this will satisfy the noble Earl.


My Lords, may I keep your Lordships for a moment longer? Having listened to the problem, which I think was quite fairly posed in the Question put by my noble friend Lord Kinnoull, and equally properly answered in an honest and straightforward appraisal of the present situation by the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, I believe this raises one point in our minds. It emphasises one thing my noble friend said, and that is, broadly, that the evils besetting the rural bus services are akin to those that were, and to some extent are, besetting the railways; they simply are not used by enough people for them to run properly. My noble friend said that the Cardiff municipality objected to running bus services at a loss, at the expense of the ratepayers.

If the situation is to be met by a comprehensive bus service to take an insufficient number of people, whether or not they arc displaced from too many trains, so to speak, somebody somewhere has to pay for all this. I think that on investigation—and it has been going on now, as the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, rightly said, for some time, as the difficulties have been realised which gave rise to the Jack Report and subsequent investigations—this will turn out to be a pretty expensive operation. Therefore, I think there is nothing that can sensibly be said or thought at this time, except that we shall look forward to the reports and announcements which the noble Lord told us will soon be made as to a further step forward—we hope in the right direction; and let us hope that the large problem that it is will somehow be capable of solution in due course.