HL Deb 18 March 1965 vol 264 cc482-96

6.12 p.m.

LORD MERRIVALE rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they would not agree that in certain cases branch lines could be usefully and economically converted to light railways; and whether they will give favourable consideration to suitable applications received for such a type of operation, made after a branch-line closure application has been submitted or approved; finally, whether they would agree that an effective start could be made by authorising the use of the existing track of the Havant—Hayling Island branch line for a modern light railway. The noble Lord said: My Lords, at the outset I would say that I have no financial interest in any of the proposals that I shall be bringing to your Lordships' attention this afternoon. My interest could lie only in the fact that I am a vice-president of the Light Railways Transport League and President of the Railway Development Association.

May I stress, too, that I recognise that some railway lines that have been closed down, or are being closed down, can never be made to pay? On the other hand, there are many that can be made viable, and I certainly deprecate the fact that so many assets are being allowed to go to waste. The object of my Question this afternoon is to endeavour to show that in certain cases it is feasible to convert our branch lines into an economic proposition by operating them on the light railway principle. I would add, also, that I am not pressing for any particular type of traction unit or power unit; I am not pressing for diesel or electric traction but purely for light railway systems, using modern rail cars.

Let us consider what is being done abroad. In West Germany, for instance, undertakings operating light railways have retained considerable importance. They are members of the V.D.N.E. (Verband Deutsches Nichtbundeseigenen Eisenbahn), and according to the latest information that I have these 225 light railways, operating public or private transport, form a system 3,456 miles in length, which is a not inconsiderable length of light railway. Recently examples of conversion to light railway operations took place at Karlsruhe, on the line to Ittersbach, and also between Nürnberg and Fürth. In Switzerland the V.S.T. (I will not mention the German words) members operate a total network of standard and narrow gauge "private railways", as they are called, amounting to 1,380 miles in length.

These "private railways" are of great importance, particularly in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, mainly, I am advised, due to Government assistance given in the form of their Railways Act dated December 20, 1957. There, everything possible is done to ensure that the light railways can continue to maintain, and even extend, the service they render to the community. In certain regions, in fact, the "private railways" represent the backbone of the public transport services. I am sure that many noble Lords are well aware of the rapid-transit light railway facilities to be found in the United States of America.

To turn to this country, it is interesting to note the unanimity of opinion on the part of consultants who have been brought in by outside bodies or organisations to consider and report on the economic feasibility of operating on a different basis certain branch lines that are being closed. To quote a few specific examples, there is, for instance, Kinord Associates, who, in their report on the Deeside railway from Aberdeen to Ballater, confirm that scope exists for improving the operation of this railway to a point in excess of a break-even on operating costs. Martech Consultants, in their report, entitled An Approach to the Problem of Branch Lines, take a similar view. They give as an example the line from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh—though I recognise (I say this in case the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, should mention it), that this line has been kept open for social and general economic reasons. But I understand that the Ministry of Transport have said that the net cost of keeping this line open is £120,000 a year.

But I am advised by Martech Consultants (who advised British Railways on their liner-trains) that by a completely fresh approach the line could be made into a commercial proposition. In the main, this approach is based on the use of lightweight twin-car trains only and unmanned stations, except at the two terminals at Dingwall and Achnasheen, while providing an extra stop between Inverness and Dingwall. The level crossings would be controlled by traffic lights, and the staff would amount to one-fifth of the present number but would be paid an average of 40 per cent. more. On these premises I am advised that the cost of operating the proposed service, including interest on capital, would be £70,000 a year, against a revenue of £85,000 a year. These figures are based on a capital outlay of £183,000, including £100,000 for the permanent way. For this to be achieved the complete line would have to be transferred to an independent operating organisation and the line reclassified as a light railway.

The noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, is well aware of the existence of numerous small bodies interested in the less important railway lines that are being closed down. I will mention but a few: the Deeside Railway Preservation Committee, the East Sussex Travellers' Association, the Forest Row Link Line Association, the Hayling Light Railway Society, and so on. I would therefore strongly urge the Minister to believe that such organisations need some sponsoring and co-ordinating authority to look after their interests, as well as to assist and sympathise with their efforts in a practical way.

If something is not done fairly quickly, the lines which have already been closed, or are to be closed, will soon become derelict, so that any later takeover or conversion would certainly be most costly, due to the rehabilitation that would be necessary. Therefore, I sincerely ask the Minister to give serious consideration to the setting up of some sponsoring and co-ordinating authority, such as a light railways board, so that the assets and advantages of these branch lines are not wasted and may be used to provide an efficient, effective and economic transport system.

On the advice of Mr. J. P. Cunliffe, a consulting engineer with railway experience dating back to before the last war, the Heathfield line, between Eridge and Hailsham, which is due to close down on June 14 of this year, could be put on to an economic footing. In the main this could be achieved fairly simply by installing new signalling apparatus, the mechanisation of track maintenance, the long welding of rails, the conversion of the majority of stations to unattended halts, and the adoption of diesel units. Equally, the Three Bridges to Ashurst line, on which I understand the T.U.C.C. will be reporting next week to the Minister, could be run at a profit.

Regarding the Havant-Hayling branch line, on which the last train ran on November 3, 1963, the Havant and Waterloo Urban District Council have now submitted to the Minister a compulsory purchase order for part of this railway land. I think that the objections to this would be as follows. First, a single line railway track is unsuitable, and too narrow, for conversion to a highway; secondly, any extension of roadway facilities between these two points would, in the main, be of use during only four months of the year; thirdly, the ratepayers should not be saddled with the cost of an extra road mainly of use to people residing outside the area; and, fourthly, consideration should be given to the needs of the population of the urban district who have not motor cars in which to go to the seaside. I understand that the total population is around 85,000. According to a resident of Hayling Island, on Saturday there are no buses between 8.30 in the morning and 4.10 p.m. Finally, greater attention should be paid to the needs of the residents of the Hayling Island-Havant area, who might have luggage, prams, babies and so forth. Even during the summer congestion periods, a light railway could operate a half-hourly service, while there would be a bottleneck at the road bridge.

If I may, I would mention the Lang-stone Viaduct, as not so long ago the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, expressed interest in the cost of repairing this viaduct, in view of the high figure which was quoted to him. I am advised authoritatively by a consulting civil engineer in Victoria Street that the cost of renewing the central swing span would be in the region of £3,500 and, extra to that, there would be required an annual expenditure of £1,600 for the other parts of the bridge for the next ten years—a total expenditure of only £19,500.

In conclusion, I would ask Her Majesty's Government to consider the fact that under certain conditions there are effective economic advantages in modern light railway services and that many of the branch line systems which have, or are being, closed down were Victorian in concept and operation. I would further ask Her Majesty's Government to consider setting up some sponsoring and co-ordinating authority for the purpose of developing such a form of transport, within the overall context of the objective planning of transport systems, each method of transport being assessed on its true potential.

6.25 p.m.


My Lords, as I have to keep an engagement in a few minutes' time, my noble friend Lord Somers has kindly allowed me to speak at once. I have very little to say. I am not at all averse to a close look at the possibility of operating some of these lines under light railway conditions, but I am bound to say that a long experience of the operation of light railways leaves me in a mood not very sanguine as to their probable success. What I would urge upon the Government is not to commit public money to ventures of this sort in the first place, because, as we found so often in the past, grants and grants in aid have been sunk in light railways which have not become profitable undertakings.

Another point which I think is important, and which I am sure is not in the mind of the noble Lord who has asked this Question, is that no pressure should be put upon the Railways Board to shoulder a burden of this kind. The only other point I should like to make is that, though I would agree with the noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, that a great many economies could be made in operation and maintenance, the important thing is a realistic study of the traffic potential. That is one of the great services that Dr. Beeching has brought to bear on the railway system, and it is here that promoters or enthusiasts or those who genuinely want to see the facilities maintained are only too apt to take an unduly sanguine view.


My Lords, I am not trying to bring pressure on the Railways Board in any way whatsoever. What I am saying is, if they do away with certain branch lines, why do they not let some other organisation use them?


My Lords, I agree with that, but too often in the past it has come back on the public authority. I very well remember that when, a great many years ago, Sir Eric Geddes was amalgamating the railways, against the advice of most of his experts—which was very much on the lines of that which the noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, has quoted, that all these things ought to be taken into the main line railway system—he said that they were going to be "white elephants" and it was better to leave them out. We do not want to stable any more "white elephants" in transport, upon either the taxpayer or the ratepayer. If private enterprise is willing to do it without any kind of subsidisation, that is another question.

6.30 p.m.


My Lords, I cannot help feeling that my noble friend Lord Hurcomb is unduly pessimistic over this, though I quite agree with him that we do not want to risk the taxpayers' money. I think that under a modern system these railways could be made paying propositions. It has been a very hard thing for the residents, who live in the areas where these lines have been closed down, to see their means of transport going, and I think that if they can be operated on an economic system, they are well worth preserving. I believe there is every evidence to prove that they can be.

To most people, a light railway means a narrow gauge one, but I am not suggesting that the gauge should be altered at all. The permanent way can remain just as it is, except for the renewal and, I hope, long welding of the track. I have here details of the Heathfield Line mentioned by my noble friend Lord Merrivale, which I think could be a very workable scheme. It is a single track throughout, with passing loops at each station, but under a new system of signalling, known as the tokenless block system, the whole length of line can be operated by one man with a push-button control and coloured lights for the actual signals.

I quote from the description given here: It is fundamental to this system that only one train can enter a single line block section at any one time, and until this train has been proved complete and clear of that section a second train cannot enter. Essential safety is therefore assured. It goes on to give a summary of the various advantages of the system. There is push-button control for all signalling work on the single line. The time for trains to cross or to enter their respective single line sections can be reduced from minutes to seconds. Effective control by telephone from a distant control office such as Croydon is easily possible. If we were to reduce the manpower on these lines, and class them under an entirely different heading as light railways, I cannot help feeling that they would pay. The stations need not be manned at all. If we were going to run, say, single diesel cars, it could be done by one man who would act as driver and conductor, and there could be a standard average fare of, say, 2s. or something like that, which the passenger would pay whatever the distance he travelled, and, therefore, would save the bother of various fares for which change would have to be given. If you are going to have a trailer, you would obviously need to have a second man in the trailer.

Then there would be needed automated rail repair services in the way of rail cars and a rail loader equipped for various tasks, a motorised inspection vehicle, a controller weave control apparatus and so on. All that would involve a considerable preliminary capital expenditure. I see that the estimate given by the East Sussex Travellers Association for this line is £44,000. That is a heavy expenditure, and if they are going to be owned by private bodes it would be practically impossible. Therefore, I think the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Merrivale of having a parent body who would control all light railways is a very good one, since they would be able to give financial as well as technical help.

So far as safety devices are concerned, it is obvious that these railways would be open to any official railway inspector if he wanted to see that everything was working efficiently. I cannot help feeling that these light railways would be a very workable project. One has to realise that if the branch happens to be a double track one, the problem is easier still, because there could be just the automatic self-cancelling signal such as is used on the underground, except at the terminals. Again, there could be unmanned stations and a single-manned car for the driver and conductor. I hope that the Government will think over this proposition and see whether it cannot be worked to save these valuable branch lines.

6.34 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to speak quite briefly in support of my noble friend Lord Merrivale. As a member of the National Council of Inland Transport I have seen many letters throughout the country showing the hardship felt from branch line closures. I believe that, to a certain extent, the Ministry of Transport appear to have forgotten the powers that they have under the old 1896 Light Railways Act. This is a most useful Act, because, in one sense, it is vague in character and allows the Minister wide discretion to run branch lines as economically as possible.

I should like to cite a recent example of where successful use has been made of the Light Railways Act. This was the case of the Central Wales Line running between Swansea and Shrewsbury. This was, I understand, to be closed down in 1962. However, after much local and national opposition, the former Minister of Transport decided to reprieve this line, and instructed British Railways to work out a scheme for operating the line under the Light Railways Act. The interesting point of this is that the Railways Board later announced that they hoped to reduce the existing annual loss on this line of some £176,000 down to a figure of £30,000. This, I would submit, gigantic saving is of itself proof of how useful the old Act can be. I believe there are many other examples of branch lines that could be saved under the powers of this Act by reducing their running costs.

This Act, as I have said, has the advantage of allowing the Minister wide discretion as to the conditions he may impose. It has an added advantage of not defining exactly what a light railway is, and thus allows the Minister, as I see it, to consider using his powers for any branch line under this Act. I feel that we are fortunate in this House to have the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, a man who has a wealth of practical experience of railway matters. I believe he started his, if I may so describe it, brilliant career in the old L.N.E.R.


The Great Northern.


Later he was Deputy Regional Commissioner of the Midland Region. He has the further advantage that up to last October he had no political commitment directly involved with the railways. He is therefore, I suggest, uncommitted with preconceived ideas, except for one fact, and that is that the Labour Party at the last Election gave a clear commitment as regards branch lines. I am hopeful that when he comes to reply a satisfactory answer will be forthcoming from the noble Lord, and that he will undertake to make more use of the powers under this Act.

6.39 p.m.


My Lords, I think we should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, for raising this matter, and I should like to offer support to him. It is perhaps a little unfair to refer to "the dead hand of Beeching", because, after all, the poor man was only doing what he was appointed to do within the terms of reference, and he has received, so far as I know, nothing but praise for his work. But one sees examples up and down the countryside of semi-derelict or derelict lines, and it must be remembered that every time a branch railway line is closed down, especially one going to a seaside place like Hayling Island, it merely adds to the congestion on the already overcrowded road, fills up the car park at Hayling Island, and makes it almost impossible for people to go to and fro.

These examples can be multiplied many times throughout the country especially in the West Country. I remember the railway line which in the old days ran from Plymouth to Princetown on Dartmoor, one of the most beautiful railway lines on which I have ever travelled. Now, of course, it is derelict and has been pulled up. If that line existed to-day, as a holiday attraction with a light rail car running up and down, I am quite sure it would be a viable proposition. There was another case many years before the war of a light railway between Chichester and Selsey, which was taken over by a bus company and closed down, I think I am right in saying, in 1935. There, again, the crowded road between Chichester and Selsey makes it almost impossible to travel from place to place. If that little light railway existed today, I am sure it would be a great attraction, and there is no earthly reason why it should not be a viable proposition.

I could not understand why it was that the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, was so reluctant to bring pressure to bear upon the Railways Board. It seems to me that we should direct pressure on them to provide a decent public service as well as looking at the exact cost of small sections of branch railway lines which happen not to pay under certain statistical methods of approach. But I think the whole subject is one which should receive encouragement from the Government, and I hope very much that the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, will feel able to support it, or at any rate let us feel encouraged that some measure of activity may be allowed to take place. I hope that where the Railway Boards are not willing themselves to undertake to run services, private enterprise will be allowed to step in and will be encouraged as much as possible, wherever it can be done.

6.42 p.m.


My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, for introducing this debate to-night, and also for his usual courtesy in letting me know beforehand the general line on which he was going to approach this subject. Of course, his general approach has been supported by every other noble Lord who has taken part in the debate so far.


With the exception of Lord Hurcomb.


My noble friend Lord Champion, in more than a whisper, reminds me that it was not complete unanimity, because the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, entered a caveat in regard to it. Of course, there may be some significance in that, because the noble Lord has had responsibility in operating transport services.

At the start, I should like to make it clear that my right honourable friend is always ready to consider favourably an application for a Light Railway Order. In order to put the matter in perspective, I think I should first of all set out the various ways in which my right honourable friend, as Minister of Transport, is concerned. The noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, referred to cases where a closure proposal for a branch railway line has been submitted or approved. My right honourable friend's position in relation to railway passenger closure proposals is, I think, well known to your Lordships, and I need do no more than summarise it briefly. When such a proposal is published and opposed, the Minister has to consider the report of the Transport Users Consultative Committee. He also considers all the other factors which may be relevant. He then either consents to the proposal, with or without conditions, or he refuses his consent.

Let us take first the case where he refuses his consent. When that happens the Railways Board must maintain a passenger service, and they will naturally consider the most economical means of doing so. One such instance was referred to by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull. What I want to make quite clear is that this consideration of the method of operation where a consent has been refused is entirely a matter for the Railways Board. Where conditions are suitable they may decide, for example, to leave stations without staff, as has been suggested by a number of noble Lords during the course of this short debate. If they thought it appropriate, they could ask my right honourable friend for his authorisation to operate the line as a light railway. But, I repeat, it is essentially for the Board—not my right honourable friend—to decide whether or not this is the right course to adopt. The consideration of the Board's application—like any other application for authorisation of light railway operation—would be a matter for my right honourable friend, as I shall explain in a moment.

If, on the other hand, consent to the closure is granted, the Board will probably wish to dispose of the line—that is, assuming that it is not required for freight. But some other body may be interested in running the line as a light railway, and may make an approach to the Board with a view to taking it over. In such circumstances, the usual procedure is for the Board first to apply to my right honourable friend for an order to enable the line to be operated as a light railway. The other body then applies for a further order to authorise them to take over the line. This may seem a roundabout method, but it has been found convenient in the past. It does, for instance, enable the light railway interests to know that a Light Railway Order will be granted before they commit themselves too far. This was, in fact, the procedure followed in the case of the famous "Bluebell Line".

My right honourable friend has specific functions in relation to the operation of light railways. No light railway may be operated without the statutory authorisation of a Light Railway Order. When he is considering an application for such an Order the Minister must satisfy himself that the applicants are a body which can properly be authorised to provide a light railway service. To this end he will wish to be satisfied on the technical aspects of the proposals for operating the service, and on the applicants' technical resources to maintain the appropriate safety standards. He will also wish to be satisfied about the financial resources of the applicants to meet any demands which might possibly fall upon them.

He must also take into account any objections duly made to the application when it is advertised in accordance with the statutory procedure. In all these matters he has the benefit of the advice of the Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways and his staff, whose reputation in matters of rail safety is well known to your Lordships. If the Minister is satisfied that the proposals are sound, he then authorises the service by means of a Light Railway Order.

Now what is my right honourable friend's policy in such matters? I can give an unequivocal assurance that he is very ready to consider applications for Light Railway Orders. He will give such applications every consideration. In the preparation of proposals his Department will be ready to give any advice they can. Whether individual applications for Orders or for the transfer of a line can be granted, however, must obviously depend, as I have said already, on my right honourable friend's being fully satisfied that he can authorise the interests concerned to undertake the operation of what is of course a public service. Every application must be carefully examined, and my right honourable friend must be fully satisfied about the technical soundness of the proposals and about the technical and financial soundness of the undertaking to operate the service. His first care must be for the safety of the travelling public.

I come now to the question of the Havant-Hayling Island line. The Hayling Island Light Railway Society have been in touch for some time with the Ministry about their proposals. They have been given technical information on various aspects. So far, however, no application has been made for a Light Railway Order. The noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, quite rightly suggested that my right honourable friend should give favourable consideration to the Society's proposals, because a light railway would provide a better alternative service than the buses can. Again quite rightly, he referred to women concerned with youngsters and carrying push-chairs, prams, parcels and that sort of thing. I appreciate his desire to see the best possible service available, but, as I have already said, in considering light railway operation the overriding consideration must be the safety of the public.

Meantime, the Havant and Waterloo Urban District Council have prepared a scheme for using the line for a new road and have sought the necessary planning permission. I should like to make it quite clear here that that planning permission is not a permission from the Ministry of Transport: it is the normal planning permission from the Hampshire County Council. And should there be any dispute in regard to that, it would be a matter to be dealt with by the Minister of Housing and Local Government, and not by the Minister of Transport. The Havant and Waterloo Urban District Council have advertised a compulsory purchase order for the acquisition of the line. This order will require the confirmation of my right honourable friend, and if objections are received from any of the owners or owner-occupiers of any of the land covered by the order, and are not withdrawn, my right honourable friend must arrange for a public inquiry or for a hearing of such objections; and these objections, of course, are those referred to as statutory objections.

Objections from other sources will be considered by my right honourable friend, and he may, if he thinks fit, hold a public inquiry into them. For the benefit of the noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, I would say (although perhaps he already knows) that such an objection has already been lodged by the Havant and Hayling Rapid Transit Company.

If I may sum up my right honourable friend's position, it is this. He is always ready to consider applications from any body to run a line as a light railway. Before he can authorise light railway operation, however, he must be fully satisfied about the relevant aspects of the proposal, and, in particular, those affecting public safety.

In the particular case of the Hayling Island line, noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, will not, I am sure, expect me to commit my right honourable friend in any way as to the decision he would take on an application for a Light Railway Order, bearing in mind that first of all no such application is before him at present and that, on the other hand, the Urban District Council's compulsory purchase order has come to him for confirmation. Therefore, too, I am sure the noble Lord would not expect me to make any comments on his observations with regard to the practicability of the road scheme, because that is a matter which would have to be dealt with by my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport when he is called upon to confirm the order.

Again, my Lords, I would express appreciation for the opportunity for this debate. I think I have made it quite clear that so far as the Minister is concerned he is happy to use his powers to issue Light Railway Orders to the full. He is concerned, of course, that those who undertake operations under them should be of a standing and status, both technically and financially, to enable them to do the job as a public service, and that public safety should be assured as well.