HL Deb 22 April 1970 vol 309 cc820-50

7.58 p.m.

LORD FERRIER rose to ask Her Majesty's Government: Whether they are satisfied that the present service provided by, and the future planning of, the British Railways Scottish Region meet the needs of the community. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am asking this Question because of the wide feeling of unease on this subject in Scotland. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, will be able to dispel at least some of this unease when he replies. However, this sense of unease exists despite the essentially Scottish character of the Regional Board and the personnel at Buchanan House. Perhaps some of what is said here tonight—and it is not my intention to carp—may well strengthen the hands of the management and of the Scottish Board in their dealings with the Transport Authority. Perhaps even it may encourage the Secretary of State (if he requires such encouragement) in his efforts to promote the claims of Scotland to an adequate transport system. Incidentally, I am one of many who wish that he had a seat in the inner Cabinet.

The 1968 Transport Act is extremely specific on the subject of the duties of the Ministry and their powers to support railway services for social or economic reasons. The Act lays down in no uncertain terms (and I refer to Section 39) the powers of the Ministry in the matter of grants—of course subject to the Treasury. Is it possible that the Treasury is, as so often, what shall we say, the stumbling block? It must be borne in mind that outside the intercity services the background in Scotland is one of numerous railway closures, closed stations and curtailed services. Some of these closures were of course inevitable. Some, I believe, might have been avoided by a more imaginative approach by management and labour. Other closures are now threatened. That some of the closures have been arguable, and some downright incomprehensible, may well be due to the absence of public knowledge of the relevant facts, particularly the financial facts. But this is one of the disadvantages of nationalised industries, whose shareholders, the people, do not have available to them information to the extent that it is available to shareholders of a public company.

There is also a political angle. The setup under the Transport Act 1968 brought a sense of disappointment in Scotland—indeed, of resentment at the apparent increased subordination of the Scottish services to London direction. There is an undercurrent, too, in the general attitude of the public in Scotland for which I have some sympathy; namely, that the very substantial losses in, say, London commuter services are a charge on the total revenues of British Rail, and therefore on overall costs and resultant fares: a charge vastly in excess of the comparatively fractional shortfall on a number of axed or threatened services in Scotland. Further, I know from experience of services discontinued and stations closed because the operations were unprofitable through lack of traffic, when in fact the reason for that lack of traffic was that the services offered were timed so that they did not meet the needs of the community and therefore were not used. On the passenger side, for instance, the possibilities represented by diesel-electric railcars, successful in some countries, were never, in my opinion, properly exploited; and it is conceivable that something of the sort might yet be developed, not only for rural areas but to relieve urban traffic congestion in cities which have suburban routes, now discontinued, by making use of them again.

Incidentally, the running-down of suburban services continues. East Kilbride had to fight to retain its railway link, and hardly had the Greater Glasgow Transportation Study been published than British Rail withdrew trains after evening peak from lines proposed for electrification. They also withdrew a number of Sunday services, although the Study had stressed the importance of: accelerating the implementation of proposed public transport improvements",

because it is easier and makes more sense to sustain a high level of public transport patronage by the early introduction of service improvements than to attempt belatedly to regain patronage after it has been allowed to decline."

The major proposals for the electrification of the trunk Crewe-Glasgow line have received great publicity, including indications of the large outlay involved; but no published estimates of traffic figures at which this outlay will prove to be remunerative are available. I personally believe that it will eventually pay and, therefore, that the decision to go ahead now with reconstructing the signal system fully immunised against the high tension traction equipment is a correct one. This point was established in the debate on an Unstarred Question by my noble friend Lord Kinnoull on July 17 last.

As for this modernisation of the signal system, there is another factor besides the one made by the noble Lord, Lord Popplewell, on that occasion; namely, that ultimate savings will accrue in costs by going "the whole hog" with immunisation now. The additional factor to which I wish to refer is the problem of staff reductions in the signals section which must flow from it, and in the interests of those most intimately concerned the transformation should be extended over as long a period as possible.

There are, of course, those who hold the view that large sums of money such as the electrification of the entire trunk route involves would be more wisely spent on avoiding the economic and social damage which follows from the curtailment of the existing, if subordinate, network throughout the land. There are also fears that the need for high traffic density on the trunk route to make the electrification pay may mean the curtailment or discontinuation of the East Coast mainline service. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, will be able to dispel these fears later in the debate. We must remember the bitter blow dealt to the Border services by the closure of the Waverley line, something which could have been avoided by a true approach to the ideal of a properly integrated transport policy. I refer your Lordships to Section 1(2) of the Transport Act. I wonder: was the need for traffic on the trunk route to justify the trunk electrification a factor in the closure of this line?

Now there are threats to the Dingwall/ Kyle of Lochalsh railway when the grant runs out in 1971. If the grant is not renewed; and if the Stornoway/Ullapool ferry is established and the Kyle/Apple-cross ferry service is discontinued, it can hardly be expected that the Dingwall/ Kyle line would pay. Or would it? There are some who say that it could be operated more economically than at present, but I should like to know what is the factor of the capital cost taken into account in calculating the profit or loss on the operations: has not the capital cost been completely written off by now? I do not expect the noble Lord to be able to answer that question off the cuff, but a closure of this kind would obviously be a savage blow to a whole countryside, Highland and Island. Further, I make bold to say that the Ministry of Defence must allow some element of importance to this railway link. In other words, my Lords, the public in Scotland, and possibly the railway management itself, would like some assurance that the future of the Dingwall/Kyle line will be considered not only from the widest angle but also without delay. The uncertainties about it all in the North, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, is aware, are already proving damaging and confusing to the people and to the district authorities alike.

In general terms, what is required, I feel, is an assurance, which can be given only by more information, on cost/ effectiveness in relation to capital outlay, operation and grants, or at least a publication of the financial considerations which lead to decisions. There is too little publicity of the railway management's thinking. Could the railway administration, Scotland, contemplate issuing a regular, say quarterly, news letter to major customers, consignors, consignees, travel agents and the Press? I feel that such a publication would be of immense advantage in building up something in which the administration at present falls far below the desideratum, namely, proper public relations, so that the people feel that the railway system is part of them and that they are part of the railway system.

To conclude, my Lords, may I say a word about existing conditions for travellers. The sleeper services (which I understand are profitable) deserve careful nursing in the face of air competition. In the present state of Scottish air- fields, they are sometimes almost a lifeline. High speed is not of great significance—possibly the reverse—but convenient timings are. Some of next month's new timings will take some getting used to, and to some they are a great inconvenience. For the considerable number of passengers who wish to travel by sleeper to and from intermediate stations suitable stops are essential, and I believe that this should be borne firmly in mind. One of my noble friends who is unable to be here today has asked me to seek an assurance that the East Coast (Dundee, Cupar, Kirkcaldy, Edinburgh and Dunbar) sleeper services will not be curtailed, as some people fear may be the result flowing from the electrification of the West Coast trunk route.

Is the marketing policy for passenger services adequate? Indeed, could not the existing sleeper service be expanded? To many people, booking a sleeper is infinitely more difficult than buying an air ticket, because in most cases the passenger has to put down the cash at the time of booking at the station. Would a greater encouragement of travel agencies help here? Inadequate facilities for luggage is another problem. Some local trains have no guard's van, and some vans are unmanned. Congestion in passenger accommodation due to luggage in compartments is a consequence. Would a luggage registration system for specific trains be possible?

This brings me to my final point, the maintenance or reconstruction of stations, especially intermediate ones. I forbear to mention the horrors of the new Euston. Could not some money be spent on smartening up old stations? Talking of the old stations, take for instance Carstairs. Under the electrification proposals Carstairs will be of increased importance as a junction and a changing station in handling the traffic between Edinburgh, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham via the trunk route. I know that the station has been improved, but let us hope that there is to be some radical reconstruction of its narrow island platform, open to all the winds which blow off the Southern uplands—not only for the comfort and the convenience of passengers, but for the devoted staff whose conditions of work in winter are deplorable; and also for the Post Office staff who, particularly in the winter season because of the Christmas traffic, have to handle large quantities of mail up and down awkward flights of stairs. I believe that much could be done not only at stations like Carstairs, but up and down lines where stations which have been closed look so shabby as to be really rather a disgrace.

My Lords, as I have no right of reply I thank in advance those noble Lords who propose to take part in this debate. In referring to the list of speakers, I see that there is a blank space before the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hughes. Though that is an encouragement to other speakers to take part before he replies, I need not remind your Lordships that it is quite within the Rules for a noble Lord, having heard both sides of the case, to take part in the debate after the Minister has sat down. My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question.

8.15 p.m.


My Lords, I have no intention of waiting until the Minister has replied before making my speech, although I quite realise that I might have done so. One of the difficult problems facing railway management is, I fear, maintaining communications with, and regaining the goodwill of, the travelling public. The public come into contact with details, which usually are not given sufficient attention in major strategic plans. They cannot be. This is a matter upon which I fear that the railways, in Scotland anyway, are falling down. The overall planning and service provided is in many respects excellent. I think it is such a pity that, through lack of public relations, personal touch, attention to detail—call it what you like—the railways are getting, and have got, a bad name with the travelling public.

In a few moments I shall make one or two criticisms in this connection. First of all, however, I should like to say that the East Coast sleeper service between Scotland and London is the best that I have encountered anywhere in the world. I do not think that there is any railway service to beat it. If you are lucky enough to get into one of the intercity sleeping coaches (of which I think there are two) it really is an experience of what comfortable travelling can be like. I should like to record my appreciation of the friendly and courteous service one receives—at least, I do—from British Railways staff on all the stations and trains that I have to use.

Two other notable services which I think should be mentioned are provided by British Railways. I do not see why one should not produce their plums and give them a bit of publicity, even if we cannot get any ourselves. I should like to refer in particular to the PerthStirling car sleeper. There is a simple procedure of loading, the timing is good, and in these days it is a pretty good bargain. If I may illustrate by personal experience, last year I made a return trip to London on that service. I took my wife, our cookhousekeeper and the car, and the return fare was less than the firstclass return fare for two people from Aberdeen. I think that is a bargain, and it should be noted as such. The other "first" for the railways is their freightliner service. After a rather "rocky" start, this is growing in use from Aberdeen, and it deserves much more support than it gets.

I hope that I have said enough to the noble Lord who is to reply to convince him that I am sincere and that I am not trying to "knock" the railways. But I am now going to be a little critical. For instance, referring now to details that annoy travellers, why cannot the batteries on sleeping cars be properly serviced and kept charged up? This is most annoying and has happened twice recently on trains on which I have been travelling. I would hasten to add that if it has happened to me in a sleeping car it will also have happened to 11 other people in that car; so I am not speaking only for myself. It is most annoying to crawl into bed when you cannot see to read a book, or even to see your return ticket. I think that this sort of thing is stupid, silly and unnecessary.

Another question that passengers ask is why cannot the railways install more loud hailers along their platforms? When you have only one loud hailer, or very few, in a station, and that has to compete with the digestive noises of a diesel engine, unless you happen to be near the loud hailer you cannot decipher the Donald Duck noises which issue from it.

On April 1 the Press and Journal reported that the Dee and Don Rivers Purification Board were again complaining that the measures taken by British Rail while refuelling their engines at Ferryhill were not good enough, and diesel fuel was still getting into, and polluting, the Dee. I wonder whether they have done anything about this. I should think it is unlikely, but there we are; it is another detail annoyance. A silly thing which annoys is that British Rail have an excellent griddle car service but one side of the coach has a fixed bench and fixed tables. The table is so designed that you cannot sit opposite your plate, and in order to feed you have to become a contortionist. If the tables were moved six inches into the alleyway, which is 30 inches wide (unnecessarily wide), everybody would be comfortable and it would not cost more than about £ 30 a car to do it. British Rail themselves have admitted that these things are hopeless; then why do they not do something about them? They are admitted, recognised and agreed, and nothing is done.

With your Lordships' permission I should like to read part of a letter in Industry Week of March 24, from Mr. D. V. Ellison, whose title is Chief Passenger Manager, Marketing. He appears to live at British Railways Board, 222, Marylebone Road, London, N.W.I. He writes under the heading "Saving Time on B.R." The relevant part of what he says is: Your Report of a recent survey showing that a major proportion of executives prefer rail for inland travel is in line with our own recent research, which suggests that our share of the market is still increasing. Our policy on Inter-City routes has been for some years now to offer fast services geared to the business day. Now this is the relevant part: We have not forgotten—as Mr. A. J. Lucking's letter (March 6) implies—that many travellers live outside the city centre. A number of our business trains call at key stations outside cities. Then there is a whole list, among which is Motherwell, which of course is in Scotland. That is all I want to read there.

Now may I go on with a short extract from an article in the same publication, which is not from British Rail but is about them. The heading is: British Rail is short of investment capital, modern equipment and good labour relations— but not short of dissatisfied customers, whose losses run into many millions. It reads: The sagas from industrial companies about late delivery—or even non-delivery of goods— are innumerable. Mr. Dickson D. Russell, company director, Singer Sewing Machines of Clydebank says: 'Some good things are happening in British Rail that will benefit industry, but one is always inclined to take notice of what goes wrong rather than what is being done to the good. The problems with rail transport that we have come up against have mainly been that goods have been despatched into a limbo. If they fail to reach their destination, there has been no way of tracing them. Now we use road transport, rather than rail, simply because rail doesn't suit our particular needs within the U.K. But we are getting tremendous benefit from B.R.'s container system when we're shipping goods to the U.S. It is, in fact, one of the best developments by the railways within recent years.' I heard in your Lordships' House 10 or 15 years ago this complaint of loss of goods despatched on British Rail, but nobody has done anything about it.

We in the North-East of Scotland are very dependent on British Rail's connections in our endeavours to attract industry to our part of the world, which is difficult; and "as British Rail, we have been told, are subsidised to provide a service, they should not hinder our efforts to attract industry. I want to make it clear to the noble Lord that I am speaking not only for myself, but for the elected representatives of Kincardineshire County Council, with a small population of 25,000; Stonehaven Borough Council, a population that goes down to 5,000—


My Lords, the noble Viscount cannot do that. He can speak only on behalf of himself.


My Lords, I am speaking on behalf of myself, but I am urged on by these various people. Anyway, I want to make it clear that it is not only myself, because I was told last time that it was. The Deeside line has now been closed down and scrapped, and that affects people living in the catchment area for Stonehaven Station, which is the most handy station for going to Dundee, Edinburgh and places further South. The fact is that whether the train stops in Stonehaven, or does not, it makes a difference of three minutes to the trip time. I think that the difference caused by stopping and starting and accelerating is very small, and if British Rail were to stop putting the diesel oil into the Dee and put it into their engines they would counterbalance the amount of extra fuel they need to start up again.

There is really no case for running through Stonehaven. If you want to go to Edinburgh in the early morning you have to catch the Glasgow train, get out of that and wait in an uncomfortable waiting room at Montrose for 20 minutes for the following Edinburgh train, which runs through Stonehaven but does not stop. On January 10 I had to do that, and the following train, the Edinburgh train, owing to a brake failure was 25 minutes late in leaving Aberdeen. Nevertheless—and this is the point—we arrived in Edinburgh only three minutes late. Therefore, when British Rail tell me that that timing is critical, I just will not believe it. It is just pigheadedness on their part. Why cannot we give it a try? Why not for a trial period stop all trains at Stonehaven as they used to do? It would cost British Rail nothing, and it would build up goodwill. Quite a number of passengers could be built up, although nothing like a whole trainload. The train runs through the station which is fully staffed, and everybody is there. If British Rail do not stop it they cannot sell a ticket to somebody who wants to travel on it. When this is called commercial judgment, it seems to me it is pretty poor commercial judgment. That is all I want to say, and I hope that those remarks will filter down to British Rail.

8.30 p.m.


My Lords. I do not think the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, will need to be a Sherlock Holmes to know what I am going to talk about in this debate. But I should like to say one or two words, because we in the Borders have now had a whole year without a railway. I am very glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Popplewell, here and, as he and the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, know, we tried very hard to prevent the railway from being closed; but we failed. I can only tell your Lordships that the hardship which that closure has entailed to a great many people is very considerable. There are still a considerable number of people who have no cars and who depend on the buses. But recently there was a bus strike which lasted for three weeks, and the Borders, which is quite a large industrial area, as well as an agricultural area, had neither buses nor rail, and unless people had a motor car they could not get about at all.


That was because of Lord Beeching.


I know, my Lords. I fully agree that the closure was instigated by Lord Beeching, but I do not think he was necessarily all-powerful and all-right. I was prepared to fight Lord Beeching's proposals very strongly—indeed, I did fight them. We were promised that the bus services would be speeded up, and that we should have new types of buses which would make up for the fact that there were no railways. But the buses have not been speeded up; they still take two and a half hours to do sixty miles, which is a very long time; and they have not been made more comfortable.

To add insult to injury, the other day I was sent a poster by British Rail (I think by Scottish Region), with instructions to put it up in some place in the village where everybody would be able to see it. That poster told us how to negotiate new types of level crossings. But as there is no railway and no level crossing within sixty miles, I think that the public relations officer of British Rail might have spent his money on something else.

Negotiations have been going on between a group of private enterprise people and British Rail in order to buy the single line track of the Waverley line that still remains. But when I made some inquiries recently I was told that the Railways Board were asking such an enormous price—over £ 1 million— for the single-line track that the group could not raise the money. I wondered why so large a sum was being asked for what is going to become a derelict railway, and it seemed very unfortunate that some sort of adjustment or loan could not be made to these people who want to see whether they can operate that single line.

I should now like to come to the future of the Borders. There is a rumour, which I hope the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, will be able to refute, that the East Coast line from Berwick to Edinburgh is to be closed. That is, I believe, one of those "grey" lines which Lord Beeching included in his Report, and which resulted in the closure of the Waverley line. It would be absolutely disastrous if that East Coast line were closed, because at the moment Berwick is the nearest station at which people in the Borders area can catch a train. It is still fifty miles away, but it is nearer than Edinburgh and Carlisle. It is very difficult for people to get to Carlisle. The road is extremely unsuitable and twisty, and not nearly so good as the road that takes one to Berwick or down to Newcastle.

I want to ask the Minister whether he knows what is going to happen about transport for the Forestry Commission. We have the largest forest area in the United Kingdom and the trees are now beginning to be cut. I would ask whether all those millions of cubic feet of timber are going to be carried by road—because the roads are quite inadequate, and it is very difficult, if one is in a motorcar, to negotiate timber which is being carried by road. What is going to happen to the transport of that enormous amount of timber which should have gone by rail, and which will now be forced to go on the roads?

Also, as the noble Lord knows, we are expecting a big expansion of industry in the Borders. There is likely to be a big development in Hawick, and I hope that there will be a big development in Galashiels and Melrose. What transport is going to be provided for the incoming industry? At the moment there are inadequate roads and no railways, and I do not see how a big industrial company will be encouraged to come down into the Borders when the transport situation is so very difficult. We are quite as isolated as the Highlands and Islands: the only difference is that there is no sea, and we do not have to travel by boat. But we are between 50 and 60 miles from any railway.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, knows, I am a very strong supporter of the railways, and I prefer them to any other kind of transport. The other day I travelled down to your Lordships' House by air, but I spent three-quarters of an hour circling London Airport and by the time I arrived I had wasted an enormous amount of time. The railway services in this country are extremely good, so long as they come close. But one is in an extremely difficult position when everything is taken away and one then wants to develop an area. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, will be able to give us some encouragement about transport in the Borders.


My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, may I ask her whether the buses, either existing or planned, have adequate accommodation for heavy luggage?


None at all, my Lords. The buses are exactly the same as those that we have been travelling in for the past 20 years, and they are quite inadequate. A great many people use their own motor cars because it is so much quicker to do so; but the people who do not have motor cars are of course entirely dependent on the buses.

8.38 p.m.


My Lords, I hope that I may be allowed to intervene very briefly, with particular reference to the last point that the noble Baroness has raised; that is, how are we going to attract, and what is going to happen if we do succeed in attracting, some new industry into an area where the railway line has been pulled up? The noble Baroness does not have to go very far South to find what happens. First, there is very great reluctance on the part of any industry to go there; and, secondly, if pressure is put on a large company for public reasons it will strike a very hard bargain about road improvements. It can very easily be penny wise and pound foolish to pull up a local line, especially if it connects with an area where we all hope to see industrial development.

The bulk of this debate seems to have centred on first-class travel, transport with motor cars, sleepers and the rest. I should like to put in a plea for those who travel second-class, as I always do when I have to pay my own fare—and I do not suppose I am the only one in the Chamber this evening who is in that position. In this age of "Inter-City" mentality, with people like ourselves and businessmen who do not pay their own fares and travel first-class, the railways pay too little attention to those who travel second-class on business or on their holidays with their families. The new second-class coaches may look very bright and sparkling from the outside, but inside the railways have crammed so many poor people, and put them behind the horrid little tables, that the discomfort is really appalling. I should like to think that a little more attention was given to comfort here. The bulk of the travelling public travel second-class, and pay for their own fares, and they deserve more consideration than they often get.

I should like, too, to support the plea that the railways should pay a little more attention to public relations—relations with the local authorities in their areas, and with the editors of newspapers—and should try to get a bit more news across as to what they are doing.

My last point, my Lords, is this. I have never been to Stonehaven, but I have been to Crewe. Nine days ago, on the way to your Lordships' House, I was an hour late when I arrived at Crewe. I had a Question down on the Order Paper, and I had visions of the noble Lord, Lord Bowles, coming down to answer it, and wondering what had happened to my manners. Furthermore, the noble Lord, Lord Brown, was going to make a statement about the Committee stage of a Bill in which he was going to refer to me. I found a foreman on the platform at Crewe; I scribbled a draft telegram on a piece of paper, and I asked him whether he would take it to the station master's office and explain the difficulties I was in, and, in the interests of the noble Lord, Lord Bowles, and of the noble Lord, Lord Brown, would send it off in time to get to them. He did, and they got it; and I should like now to say, "Thank you very much."

8.42 p.m.


My Lords, I hesitate to jump into what might be regarded as a Scottish debate, but I think we have travelled a little wider than what might be called the railways of Scotland. I have been extremely interested to hear this debate; and I can only wish that Members on the other side in the other House had made speeches of this sort during the time when the noble Viscount. Lord Watkinson (as he now is), and "Ernie" Marples were at the Ministry of Transport—because it was during that period of time, when Lord Beeching be- came their mouthpiece, that all these changes took place. The closing of branch lines is a direct consequence of the policy that was adopted at that particular time. Although when these branch lines were closed it was said that there would be adequate alternative bus services, many of us pointed out the impossibility of this, because many bus services were not remunerative and there was no compulsion on bus proprietors to keep their buses on the road.

I believe that we have to hand it to this Government for keeping so many unproductive branch lines open. I do not quite know the extent to which the Government are now going to involve themselves in the subsidies that have to be paid, but these subsidies are being paid perfectly openly and, in consequence, the railways as a whole have been able to produce a profit in the way that they did last year. This is the first time for many years that they have been able to do that, consequent on the writing down of the capital involved. It has been impossible to go back on the line of policy which was adopted so many years ago by members of the Opposition, and therefore these evils are still with us. If members of the Opposition will persuade their Party as a whole to agree that the Government should increase the amount of subsidy which they are willing to pay for keeping these unproductive lines open, I think it will meet everyone's requirements. I think this is an extremely important point.

The noble Lord, Lord Ferrier (I feel that I must correct him on this particular point), referred to the fact that today less information regarding what is happening on the railways is available to railway users than was available to the old private shareholders.


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord for one moment? I meant that, today, under the current Companies Act, the ordinary shareholder in a public company gets more information. I did not refer to the old days. I agree with the noble Lord there.


My Lords, I appreciate the explanation given by the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, because I was going to refer to the tremendous amount of information that is given to the Transport Users' Consultative Committee. Very often that is questioned—


My Lords, does the noble Lord suggest that the Transport Users' Consultative Committee are of any use? I thought from debates in this House about a year ago that it was agreed generally they are absolutely and totally useless.


My Lords, if the noble Lord will control his soul with patience, I am dealing at the moment with the point put forward by Lord Ferrier, concerning the information which is available. This information is given to the Transport Users' Consultative Committee. I know that many of us query the value of that information, and query the facts which are given in so far as those things are concerned. Nevertheless, more information is now being given than ever previously, and I think this ought to be placed on record.

The noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, also referred to the question of what was going to happen when the West main line to Scotland from Crewe is electrified, with the colour-light system which is to be introduced. As one of the persons who dealt with the colour-light system when it was first introduced on the railways in prewar days, let me assure the noble Lord that this will certainly speed up the service and that the men displaced will be dealt with generously. They may have to suffer the inconvenience of moving their homes, but they will be dealt with in the most generous way compared with what generally happens when people are made redundant. The unions have some excellent agreements in that connection. Due to advanced railway thought, too, as distinct from union pressure, the Board realise the past value of these extremely good servants and make very good provision for them when these changes take place.

I would agree with a certain amount of the criticism that has been made, particularly about the concentration on city-to-city service, neglecting the in-between stations. Not only that, but there is this question of the delivery of goods which are still carried by the railways. I know of many instances where what are now British Road Services, or the National Carriers, or whatever their correct title is, will give to some of these outlying stations that are not directly connected a service only twice a week, or something like that, and where goods are held in the station offices for this length of time. From an accountancy point of view this looks well on a balance sheet, because, naturally, if a lorry is going to call every day it increases the costs, whereas if a lorry calls only once or twice a week there is a reduction in cost. But this is a great disservice to the people, and does not encourage them to use the railways for the carrying of goods.

All this is part of a pattern. It is part of a pattern which was established by the Party of noble Lords opposite, through Lord Beeching, when he distinctly pressed the service at that time to ignore stations of smallness. Only one thing mattered, and that was the full-load service. This is the consequence, and therefore it is extremely interesting to me today to listen to the observations of noble Lords opposite. It is never nice to say, "I told you so", but in this case there is a certain amount of truth and justification behind that statement.

8.50 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to compliment my noble friend Lord Ferrier and other noble Lords who have spoken on their perseverence in raising this subject. It is one of very great importance to the people and the industry of Scotland and it is a subject which ought to be discussed in Parliament. But, of course, we cannot reasonably expect the Minister to give a comprehensive reply to an Unstarred Question of this nature in this House at ten minutes to nine at night. I gather from what has just been said by the noble Lord, Lord Popplewell, that even when the Beeching proposals were discussed in another place there appears not to have been time for all these questions to have proper Parliamentary attention. There was, indeed, a great deal of misunderstanding about them. I remember the question of the Dingwall to Kyle railway which has been mentioned by the noble Lord behind me. The Secretary of State for Scotland at that time categorically stated that this railway would not be closed down until a first-class road had been constructed from Dingwall to Kyle—which was not likely to happen for a long time. Did anybody pay attention? No! Everybody in Scotland declared that this railway was going to be closed down. The matter was never properly explained to them. I think that this is perhaps a very strong argument— we have so little Parliamentary time for discussing these important matters—for more political devolution or Parliamentary devolution of one kind or another.

My noble friends very largely concentrated, as one would expect, on certain local closures. This is a question on which we must take as balanced a view as we can; although it is often very difficult to do so. There is no justification for spending the taxpayer's money in a very inflationary manner on a railway which is losing money and which is not giving a commensurate service to the public. This may sometimes happen in an age when the development of road transport and air transport are superseding rail transport to such a large extent.

I have had experience of many closures. Not long after the war, the North of Fife railway from Dundee to Perth, going by Lindores and Newburgh, was closed down. The Fife County Council brought an injunction against British Rail saying that they had no right to do this; and they won in the first instance. But a year or so later the matter was reversed on appeal and the Fife County Council were badly stung because they had to pay all British Rail's expenses and losses incurred in the meantime. But there is, I think, a clause in all the Transport Acts, certainly in the 1968 Act, which provides that if there are strong reasons of local public interest and convenience, and if there is no other convenient means of transport, the Government may provide money to subsidise uneconomic local lines, some of which we must have and to whose case we must listen. A few years ago, two lines were closed down which happened to run through my own property. One was the line from Stirling via Balquhidder and Killin Junction to Crianlarich. The local population, as always happens, felt this very keenly. I felt it keenly, too. It was not only inconvenient to me but, much more important, there was a small train on this line which took all the secondary school children from the whole of the Glendochart area to Callander. That could be replaced by a bus; but it was of great temporary inconvenience.

When I looked into it, I could not really conscientiously condemn this closure, or support the view which the local Transport User's Consultative Committee were bound to take; because there were so few people travelling on this line; it cost so much and the people who were inconvenienced could be catered for in other ways. Furthermore, there were good roads; and I did not really feel that it was right to condemn British Rail and the Government. On the other hand, I thought that British Rail were equally right, at the same time, in keeping the line from Crianlarich to Fort William for many reasons. One of these was the enormous afforestation development going on which was, rightly, coordinated with the new pulp mills at Fort William which in future the railway from Crianlarich is expected to serve.

Of course, one of the main functions of railways in future will be goods traffic, if their efficiency is improved, as well as passenger traffic. My noble friend Lady Elliot of Harwood was saying last night that she did not want trees to be planted in the Borders; but now she is claiming that as there are so many trees not very far away, it would be a good thing to have this railway. If only she had had 200,000 or 300,000 acres planted in the Borders, by now she might have kept her railway and everybody would be happy.

But the other closure which passed through my own property—although I do not use it any more because of the bridge—was the line from Dundee by Wormit to Newport. I have no personal interest in this because I always go by the bridge; but I am bound to say that I thought that the British Rail case here for closure was thoroughly bad and untenable and that the Transport User's Consultative Committee was right. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, said that the Transport Users' Consultative Committee are quite useless; that they do not mean anything. But they are intelligent and capable of drawing up their case. The reason why they are useless is that whether they are right or wrong, they are utterly ignored by British Rail; they are impotent; they might just as well not exist. I listened to the Inquiry. I have never listened to a more drivelling piece of idiocy than the case put up on behalf of British Rail. It was really a contemptible and rather distressing spectacle during the whole of this Inquiry to see a rotten, hopeless argument prevailing—and no means of upsetting it.

However, there it is. It is not for me to suggest a remedy. Whether or not it is possible to have a private company running an electrified line and to make it pay, I do not know. But I am sure that this is the kind of thing which causes resentment when compared with the treatment of commuters in the great conurbations like London which has already been referred to. There are thousands of people who travel to and from London by car. They do not need underground railways any more than I need a local railway when going between Dundee and Fife. But there are millions of others who do need underground railways—and look what a huge sum the Government are losing over them! In towns like Wormit and Newport, which are residential suburbs of Dundee, many people need a local train service; and it causes resentment when they see millions of pounds of public money spent for the convenience of commuters in the London area while not a penny is spent for the convenience of commuters in more provincial places.

My Lords, if this is not an argument for political devolution, I think it is at least an argument for greater administrative devolution in the structure of British Railways themselves; because they are far too topheavy and so centralised that you cannot get a letter answered for several months. I even know of a case in which a railway official, very politely and sweetly, replied that he was afraid he just could not answer. He said, "If only you could see my desk! There are letters there which came three months ago and which I have not yet had time to open." That is what happens when you have a huge top-heavy bureaucratic edifice of this kind, and I think there is a case not only for devolution of Parliamentary affairs, but perhaps equally of the affairs of British Railways. I shall not pursue this question any further now. I wish we had more time to discuss it, and I am quite sure that we shall be sympathetic about the difficulty in which the noble Lord must be in replying at this late hour.

9.0 p.m.


My Lords, it does not appear that anyone else wishes to speak. The points made by my noble friend Lord Popplewell about the origins of these closures reminds me of a speech, to which I think I have referred once before in your Lordships' House, and the admirable way in which a Scottish provost summed up the position which led the previous Administration to ask the noble Lord, Lord Beeching—Dr. Beeching as he then was—to look into the situation. The provost put it in this way. He said: "The Government found that the railways were losing money, so they got hold of a lad called Beeching and said to him, 'Will you tell us how to make money out of running a railway?' So this lad, Beeching, got hold of a few pals, and he had a look at it; and he came back and said to the Government, 'I have got an admirable solution for the problem. The only way of making money out of running a railway is not to have a railway'—and the Government acted on it."

The noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, in putting his Question, said that the primary purpose was to get information out to the people in Scotland. I am afraid, my Lords, that any reply which I start to make in your Lordships' House at 9 o'clock at night is as likely to appear in tomorrow's Scottish papers as it is to appear in tomorrow's edition of Pravda. However, I shall reply to some of the points. I say that deliberately, because a good many of the matters which have been raised during the discussion that followed Lord Ferrier's points referred to matters which are not for the Government. They are not things for a Minister to reply to. They fall entirely within the control of British Railways, and I will make certain that a copy of tomorrow's OFFICIAL REPORT is sent to Sir Henry Johnson so that those matters which are for his attention will be brought directly to his notice. I will now proceed to deal with the matters upon which I can comment on behalf of the Government.

First of all, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, for giving us this opportunity of questioning some of the problems which face British Rail in Scotland. Before going on to some of the detailed points which have been raised, I should give a general view of the railways in Scotland. Most railway passenger services in Scotland are loss-makers for which the Government have agreed to pay grants under the provisions of Section 39 of the Transport Act 1968. These grants have been paid since January 1, 1969, when the previous grant deficit financing powers ended, in respect of individual unremunerative services where the Minister was satisfied that they met a social or economic need.

I wonder how many, even of your Lordships, apart altogether from the people in Scotland generally, realise that out of a total expenditure on grantaided services in 1970, of £58 million almost £10 million is devoted to meeting the deficits of unremunerative passenger services operated wholly or partly within Scotland; so that when we look, sometimes perhaps with envy, on what is done in London, we should remember that it is not always the case that the dice is loaded against Scotland. Do not let us develop too much of an inferiority complex in these matters.

My Lords, I think this demonstration of the amount of money which the Government are putting into maintaining these socially necessary but wholly uneconomic services is a demonstration of the importance which the Government attach to Scottish railways. The arrangements for the working of the new grant system require the Railways Board, when preparing such grant applications, to take account of all reasonable economies consistent with operating the services; and the Minister of Transport, in consultation with the Secretary of State for Scotland in Scottish cases, decides whether to pay grant for one, two or three years—if a grant is to be paid at all—on the basis of the figures projected in that application.

If during the period of the grant a region is able to operate a service with a smaller deficit than was forecast, it will still receive the sum which the Minister had undertaken to pay. If, on the other hand, the losses are higher than forecast, it will have to bear the difference. Therefore, a region has every incentive to increase earnings and to cut costs. The system has operated well in Scotland and sufficient financial incentives are there to encourage the Railways Board in Scotland in its very commendable determination to create an efficient and modern railway service.

The day-to-day management of the services is a matter for the Board, but the overall performance of regions, as well as individual services, can be assessed by the Area Transport Users' Consultative Committees. I hesitate to mention these after what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood. The committees are independent bodies to whom users may make specific representations on all quality of service matters. The Committee for Scotland can make recommendations direct to the Minister of Transport if it is dissatisfied with any aspect of the service and the facilities provided by the Railways Board. Where grantaided passenger services are concerned, the Minister of Transport normally consults the Transport Users' Consultative Committee and the Scottish Economic Planning Council on any substantial proposals involving the reduction or modification of the level of services.

Although the Government have taken these special powers to grantaid unremunerative passenger services, grants are given only when there are good social or economic reasons for continuing to operate services. It has been made clear to the Railways Board that it would be contrary to the will of Parliament to maintain such services where such reasons do not exist. That is the point to which the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, directed attention in speaking of some services. The Minister of Transport must therefore decide whether any service is of sufficient importance to the community to justify grant aid.

The noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, referred to the future of one of these services: that between Dingwall and the Kyle of Lochalsh. The position here is; that in terms of grant paid for each passenger travelling a mile, it is one of the most expensive lines in Scotland. The Minister of Transport has undertaken to pay about £175,000 a year for the two years 1970 and 1971, towards the cost of the service between Inverness and Kyle of Lochalsh. But he has taken the view, because the line is so expensive to maintain, that he needs to be positively assured that the economic or social need for the service warrants the amount of money which is being paid for it. I do not think that anyone, in Scotland in particular, could regard that as an unreasonable way of looking at it. The Minister's tentative conclusion that the service may not represent value for money will therefore be examined by the Scottish T.U.C.C. and the Scottish Economic Planning Council as part of the statutory railway closure machinery, and they will report on hardship and economic factors respectively.

In addition, the Minister will consult with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. I cannot, of course, prejudge the Minister's decision, but it may well be that when the time comes he will decide that the service is after all necessary. I can give the assurance, however, that he will in any case not consent to the withdrawal of the passenger service between Dingwall and Kyle until the roads are sufficiently improved to permit the introduction of an adequate alternative bus service. And I hope that they do not get the noble Baroness's 20year old buses sent up there.

I should perhaps mention here the suggestion that the sea service to Stornoway should operate from Ullapool instead of Kyle. The Scottish Transport Group, not the Railways Board, are responsible for that service. If they decided that it should be rerouted, they would need the approval of the Secretary of State for the necessary capital investment, including the provision of roll-on, roll-off facilities at Ullapool and Stornoway, and for any operating grant that may be necessary. Even if the proposal proves acceptable—and it is still at a very early stage of consideration—the future of the Stornoway sea service is unlikely to be a significant factor in the Minister of Transport's decision on any closure proposed for Kyle of Lochalsh.


My Lords, before the noble Lord leaves the Kyle service, may I be assured that he has taken my point about the Ministry of Defence?


My Lords, I did note it. The noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, mentioned the Waverley line. The present position is that the Border Union Railway Company have been negotiating with the Railways Board to take over the line and operate a passenger service, but, as she said, those negotiations have fallen through. I understand that the company have since approached the Railways Board about buying the formation of the line—that is, the land on which the track is laid—with a view to preserving it for some future transport use. Subject to the Minister of Transport's agreement to the disposal of the formation, its sale is a matter for negotiation between the Railways Board and prospective purchasers and is not a matter upon which the Government can intervene, except for one thing: that the Board are required first of all to offer the line to local authorities.

The Scottish Region of British Rail are not concerned simply with operating unremunerative passenger services, fortunately, and over the next few years they will provide many improvements and expect to see an expansion of their business. The Region have recently instituted a new regional organisational structure, based on 60 senior area and depot managers, backed up by a central headquarters organisation with highly specialised coordinating groups. Under this new organisation, despite the various problems raised by air and road competition and the remote nature of much of the areas which they serve, the Region are steadily improving their position. They estimate that there will be 70 million passenger journeys in 1970, 4 million more than they had in 1965.

The Region have plans to improve their services still further. The Weaver Junction/Glasgow electrification has already been approved by the Minister of Transport and will mean fast electric trains, taking only 5 to 5½ hours from London to Glasgow.

In this connection I am rather interested in the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, about cost/effectiveness and what the expected revenue is going to be against this expenditure. It is another interesting thing about the railways that when they propose to close something and give information about the revenue and expenditure, showing how much the loss is, everybody says: "I don't believe it." Now that they are proposing to invest a considerable amount of money, for which pressure was made, in your Lordships' House, among other places, that the investment should be carried out, one then finds people looking the gift horse in the mouth and saying: "Ah, yes, but before you spend all this money should we not be told what you expect to get in revenue and what your expenditure should be to justify this capital expenditure?"


My Lords, may I interrupt? The problem in my mind is that there is a strong body of opinion in Scotland which says that it is the wrong route, and that the route should go from Dumfries via Kilmarnock. It would be interesting to the public to know why the route was selected. I think I know why —it is because of its connection with Edinburgh—but we should like to know.


The last time that the subject was raised, before the decision was made, I had to point out that it was a very large sum of money that was being invested, and that the Minister had to be satisfied on investigation of all the information before he could possibly take a decision recommending the expenditure. The noble Lord may be right—I am quite certain that he is—in saying that there is a large body of opinion in Scotland which thinks that. It does not matter what the railways do; there will always be a large body of opinion in Scotland which knows that it can run the railways better than Sir Henry Johnson, or anybody else who is chosen to run them. That is a fact of life; but listening to some of those opinions will not necessarily make the railways earn one penny more. We must allow these experts to have these opinions, and, fortunately, rest happy in the knowledge that in most cases they will never be in a position to put them into operation.

The Region also have plans, which the Minister is considering at the moment, to improve the Edinburgh/Glasgow service. Apart from these major schemes, small improvements are continuing being carried out. For example, the motor-rail services are steadily improving, with better facilities being brought into operation at Stirling this year; stations are being improved—the works going on at Waverley Station at the moment will cost a total of £130,000, and the Region hope to follow those works with a major reconstruction costing some £500,000. The Region have also introduced a new fare structure, including a five-day season ticket (with free car parking) aimed at the businessman.

This shows that quite a bit of good modern thinking is going on in the railways and that they are not lying down to competition from air and road. They are not merely seeking to hold what they have but trying to win back what they have lost. I may say that, like the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot, I am a supporter of the railways. Because of an alteration in my arrangements I had to fly down on Monday. The railways will be glad to know that this is the first occasion this year on which I have travelled from Scotland to London other than by rail —even though I do not know to whom they sell sleeper No. 2 when I am not travelling; nobody else seems to be able to sleep over the rails.

Similar advances are being made in the freight field. The use of container trains, to which reference has been made, is steadily increasing. For example, two company trains run daily each way between the Rootes plant at Linwood and Coventry. A new rail connection has been built to the big oil refinery development at Grangemouth. This will enable up to 2 million tons a year of oil and other products to be transported by rail. I would interpolate at this point— although I now feel I am rather intervening in a family argument between the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, and the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot, about the transport of trees from the Borders— that this shows how the railways will come in when there is clear evidence about transport for them—profitable transport, of course, because we cannot expect them to start running new services which are going to be new losers of money. I hope that the steps which are being taken to bring back both population and industry to the Borders will certainly not be allowed to fall down through lack of needed transport facilities.

May I turn to the East Coast main line? I do not understand why there should be this alarm. I hope I can allay the fears of noble Lords by quoting what my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport said in another place, as long ago as March 24, in answer to similar doubts which are raised there. He said: The Railways Board have told me that they have no intention at the present time of reducing the East Coast services after the electrification of the West Coast line to Glasgow: indeed, they expect that traffic on the East Coast route will increase as the services are progressively improved". I wish I knew who it is who keeps on stirring up these rumours again after they are effectively answered. I am quite certain that in another two months somebody will raise exactly the same doubts.


Not after your statement.


Well, nobody will read it, except those who buy Hansard. Noble Lords may not be aware that the main electrification of the West Coast main line does not include the electrification of the Carstairs/Edinburgh spur; the Railways Board are I understand considering, as part of a long-term exercise, whether there is a case for further extensions to the electrified system, and if so where; but I am informed that electrification of the Carstairs spur is unlikely to be coming forward for the Minister's approval in the near future.

A number of noble Lords have expressed some dissatisfaction with the sleeping-car service on the East Coast main line. As I have indicated, I am as regular a user of it as any. I need not remind the House that it is entirely up to the Railways Board to decide how many sleepers they should run, and at what standards of service—or, indeed, whether to run them at all. My right honourable friend cannot tell them how to run the railways. Parliament has placed that task in their hands. But I have made some inquiries on this point, and I have ascertained that the Railways Board are planning to increase their sleeping business and, noble Lords will be pleased to hear, are concentrating on providing extra services, in the hope that it will please the customers and bring more of them.

Some trains now give full bar facilities—a service which I know from personal conversation is appreciated by some of your Lordships. They all now offer refreshments, sandwiches and newspapers; and certainly when we are going North we get them for northing—the newspapers, not the sandwiches. They are provided by the train attendants. Not surprisingly, regular travellers by sleeper appreciate these new facilities. A new sleeper train will run from London to Glasgow every evening from May 6, when the new timetable comes into force. This will mean that there will be two sleeper-only trains, each with full bar facililtes until one a.m., as well as the usual part-sleeper trains, every night.

The sleeper service has its deficiencies, of course, and I am aware that there was a shortage of first-class sleeper accommodation on the East Coast main line last winter. However, demand for first-class sleepers is higher in the winter than in the summer, and the Railways Board already have plans to remedy the situation next winter, by converting 30 second-class sleeping cars to bring them up to first-class standard. In case the noble Lord thinks that this is a case of the second-class passenger being sacrificed for the benefit of the first-class passenger, I may say that the position is that in the winter the great demand is for first-class sleepers, and in the summer for second-class sleepers. So this conversion will help the railways to make the best possible use of its total. This is only an interim measure while the need for a new build of sleeping car is being considered. I think I remember seeing at the railway exhibition in Glasgow a few months ago a new type of sleeper which can be used for either first-class or second-class purposes, depending on the time of year. This is another of the forward-looking ideas for which the railways are making provision.

The Board estimate that the new cars which they will have as a result of these alterations will accommodate normal winter demand, but they quite recognise that they will not perhaps be able to cater for exceptional peak demands, such as those at Christmas and New Year. This is reasonable, because if they were to make provision for doing that they would have expensive stock lying idle for most of the year; and that of course would mean that people would have to pay more for their services.

My Lords, this debate, as was inevitable, has provided an opportunity for people to get rid of their criticisms, their grumbles and their grouses against the Railways Board. Incidentally, when I prepared my notes I wrote "this afternoon", thinking that that was when I should be replying. But, of course, the afternoon has now long gone. But even though there have been quite a number of these grumbles expressed, I am quite sure that there are many noble Lords in the House each with his own private 5tock of grumbles. But when we think of our grumbles we might recall what was said by one noble Lord—it may have been the noble Viscount, Lord Stonehaven: that people are very much inclined to ventilate their grievances against the railways but seldom express their thanks for the things they do for them. I think we are all very guilty of this.

But, my Lords, with this we ought to remember the difficulties with which the Board have to contend, particularly in Scotland where services often run through remote and sparsely populated areas, and where competition from road and air transport is as keen as anywhere. The noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, said that in the Borders people were using their cars. Of course this is happening all over the place. It is part of the experience of the affluent society in which we live that more and more people travel by car. Yet on the odd occasion when they want to use a railway which perhaps their cars have made unprofitable they grumble because it is no longer there. People cannot have the best of all possible worlds at all times.


My Lords, I hope the noble Lord does not suggest that there was not extreme difficulty and inconvenience, and in some cases risk, caused for the people who had no cars during the time of the strike.


My Lords, I would not dispute it. I recognise the fact that those people who are using their cars and do not need the railway, and who may have been responsible for putting that railway out of operation, may have caused considerable inconvenience for the majority—or minority, whatever it may be—who do not have cars and must rely on some form of public transport.

My Lords, I hope that I have said enough to satisfy the House that the railway services in Scotland are steadily improving, even though some people think that the improvement could be going on faster than it is. But I have no hesitation whatever in saying that the Government are satisfied that, given the railways' statutory duty to break even, the Scottish Region are doing their very best to provide a service which meets the needs of the community.