HL Deb 11 December 1974 vol 355 cc647-89

3.15 p.m.

Lord SOMERS rose to draw the attention of Her Majesty's Government to the future of the railways; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I happen to be one who believes that the railways have a very great future. Looked at from many points of view, they are by far the most satisfactory means of transport. One example, for instance, concerns the consumption of energy, which, after all, is a matter to be considered nowadays. This makes the railways extremely efficient because with the use of steel wheels on steel rails with the minimum of friction, very gentle gradients and as straight a run as possible making for a steady and high speed, it is possible to be far more efficient than by using other methods. In that connection may I quote from a paper entitled Transport 2,000. Some copies have been available in the Printed Paper Office for the past week or so for those who are interested in the subject. I quote from Section 6, a reprint from an article in the American magazine entitled Railway Age of 10th December 1973: The railroads could, in fact, bail this country out of the fuel shortage jam it is now in and which it probably will continue to be in for a long, long time. Purely and simply, the railroads are more efficient and more flexible in the work they can do and places they can go than other forms of transportation. This is no hollow statement; the facts are there to back it up. The evidence. Several research organizations, and individual railroads themselves have conducted tests to determine which forms of transportation make the most efficient use of fuel. Battelle's Columbus Laboratories made a study for the Association of American Railroads in 1972 to determine the energy requirements for the movement of intercity freight.

My Lords, the results are as follows for fuel measured in British thermal units per net ton mile: the railway 500 units; a 5-axle heavy duty diesel highway truck, 1,800 units. And for net ton-miles per gallon: the railways, 280; the diesel truck, 77. In another study, Missouri Pacific's Traffic Research Division sought to identify the btu requirements on the average to move a ton of freight one mile by rail, motor carrier and water. The results were: rail, 536 to 791; barge, 540 to 680; motor, 2,518 to 2,800. If that is not convincing evidence, I should like to know what is.

Then one must look at the railways from the point of view of safety. They are by far the safest means of transport. This morning, from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, I obtained some figures for 1972. Fatalities on the road numbered 7,700; on the railways, 99. Serious injuries on the road were 9,130; on the railways, 685. Slight injuries on the road were 260,600; on the railways, 11,300. From the point of view of safety, therefore, the figures prove that the railways are far ahead of other means of transport.

I should first like to deal with goods haulage. I do not think there can be many people today who will not agree that it is very desirable to get long distance heavy goods haulage off the roads and on to the railways, but up till now, of course, there have been certain objections to that so far as time and money are concerned. However, I am going to suggest a scheme which I believe, though it may sound over-simple and perhaps rather fantastic, would be workable. I am going to suggest a scheme to limit road transport to, say, forty miles. One must allow short-distance transport to go on—that is the only practical method—but if heavy lorries were limited by regulation to forty miles, and if for greater distances than that it were necessary to get a special licence, that would imply that there must be a rail connection within forty miles of wherever one happened to be.

That, of course, will take time. I must also admit that this scheme will need a fairly good expenditure of money, and the question today is: do we have it? On the other hand, this scheme could be implemented in small stages, one at a time, until it is finally complete. It would mean, of course, that goods depots should not be more than eighty miles from one another, but they could be of the simplest possible design—only three platforms on a loop line connection with the main line. They need not even be covered, because my idea is to use the roll-on/ roll-off system and carry the lorries complete without unloading and reloading. The lorry drivers could either remain in their cabs or relax in a passenger coach at the front of the train. Have I said anything which amuses the noble Lord opposite?


My Lords, I just wondered what would happen when the lorry plus the train came to a tunnel.


My Lords, I am sorry I did not get that, but, still, never mind. Rolling stock would consist of flat bogey trucks fast-coupled and with through brakes, to make for greater speed. I think this would eliminate the two great objections which have been made to goods transport by rail: the excessive time that it takes for goods to arrive at their destination, and also the great waste of time and money in loading and reloading while this sounds a very simple, but perhaps to some, not a very practicable proposition, I think one could make a beginning and see whether it worked.

As to passenger transport, I think the Beeching Commission in their Report in 1963 they did more damage to our railway system than they themselves realised at the time.

Several Noble Lords: Hear, hear!


I am not blaming them because they were merely acting in accordance with their terms of reference. The trouble is that neither they nor those who appointed them realised that although a branch line may not, if taken in isolation, be a paying proposition, it does not necessarily follow that it fails to add to the profits of the system as a whole. These branch lines are just like the tributaries of a river; they all bring traffic to the main line. Furthermore, they encourage people to travel much more by train because instead of having to motor about 20 to 30 miles before one finds a station one will find one much closer to hand.

Now, of course, after many years of having relied on the road for transport one will have to encourage the public to use the railways, and that will mean more than just issuing advertisements saying "Travel by train. It is quicker", or something like that. What is needed is a very careful analysis of what the average railway passenger wants. I am all in favour of high speed. I think it is a very good thing. Certainly we are making great strides in that direction; but quite frankly, I do not think that that comes first on the list of priorities of the average railway passenger. What comes first of all is comfort, and with it, perhaps, a sense of being looked after. A passenger should feel that he has staff around who will answer questions which he asks, who will see that he goes to the right place, and so on.

My Lords, the only two London termini that I use a great deal are woefully lacking in both those respects. They are Waterloo and Victoria. Neither of them has a waiting room. Waterloo had one some years ago but it was destroyed in order to make way for a splendiferous ticket office with, I think, some 12 or 14 positions, of which I have only once seen more than 2 manned at a time. That seems a little unnecessary. One does need somewhere to sit. At Victoria there is nowhere to sit on the platform if one is waiting for a train, not even in the open.

Then, from the point of view of being looked after, passengers are very often uncertain as to the platform from which their train is going or which part of it they should get into, and it is not very helpful, when you ask a man at the ticket barrier where you should go, to get the answer "I don't know", coupled with a shrug of the shoulders. Good manners mean a great deal, perhaps more than ever today, because they are becoming rather a rarity. They mean a great deal to the railway traveller and, what is more, they cost nothing. Porters, too, are becoming a dying race. Of course, we are expected to do everything for ourselves these days, so we have things known as self-help trolleys. The other day at Victoria I was interested to see a notice saying: "Self-help trolleys here." Not a single trolley was to be seen.

Then, my Lords, waiting rooms. Is there any necessity for waiting-rooms to be as bleak and comfortless as a prison cell? Why is it that in the larger ones, at any rate, we cannot have a few upholstered chairs and a table with a few magazines and ashtrays on it, or something of that kind? I know there is always the danger that hooligans will destroy it all, but if there were a small bar in the waiting-room, with an attendant, they would think twice before doing so, especially if they knew that the attendant had only to press a button and all their exists would be blocked.

I come to the food one gets at stations. The other night when I had a little time to wait for a train, I was foolish enough to go into what I suppose one would call a cafeteria by Platform 9 at Victoria and ask for a cup of coffee. I cannot tell your Lordships what it was made of. It tasted rather like yesterday's washing-up water. At any rate, it was one of the nastiest things I have ever drunk, and for that I paid 11p. Eleven pence in our old coinage is 2s. 2d. That is a bit much to pay for something of that kind. Then, is it not possible to have the windows of rolling-stock washed and cleaned after a wet journey? One of the simplest pleasures to be got from travelling is looking out of the window. But how can one look out of the window when it is so dirty that it cannot be seen through?

One last word, about punctuality. If only one knew, could tell for certain, that one's train was going to arrive at the time stated in the timetable, a journey could be planned with the minimum waste of time. The trouble today is that we never can be quite sure of that kind of thing. Once our railways were famous for punctuality. Why not try to revive it? My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, could he reply to the intervention of my noble friend behind me about loading limits? What happens to these enormous lorries which are loaded on to a train when the train has to go through a tunnel?


My Lords, I omitted to say that of course lorries would have to conform to British Rail loading gates.

3.33 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Somers, for giving us yet another chance to return to the subject of the railways. I should like at the outset to ask the House and, in particular, Her Majesty's Government, whether we think that British Railways are receiving sufficient long-term guidance from the Government. It is no good just saying, "Look at all the money we are pumping into the railways!" It has to be directed to the correct long-term needs of this country, both as to the passenger side and of course as to the freight aspect of the picture. The Guardian worked out that the maximum subsidy that the Government are proposing to pay would amount to some £2,800 million spent over the next five years. That is £560 million every year, or just over £10 annual levy on every man, woman and child in this island.

Although this £2,800 million is, indeed, a vast sum, are the British Railways Board receiving enough support from the Government for their long-term investment plans? I suggest that they are not. We have just had the Report of the London Rail Study Group, which was under the chairmanship of Sir David Barran, and that recommended plans for the spending of £2,710 million over the next 25 years in the London area alone. We also have the various passenger transport executives—the PTEs—around the country planning to deal with their own local urban transport problems. Some of these PTEs are planning very grandiose schemes indeed. But are these schemes which are locally planned necessarily right in the context of the overall national transport system of British Railways? Should not British Railways Board have a larger voice in this field to try to avoid this piecemeal type of planning? Above all, there is the uncertainty in not knowing for sure which of their long-term investment plans may have to be delayed or cancelled.

Take for example the great electrification of the London/Manchester/ Glasgow line along which in some four years the exciting advanced passenger trains—APTs—will be running. I suspect that the Railways Board would like to receive some firm indication of long-term planning from the Government as to whether or not the East Coast route to the North should receive the same treatment. Electric trains are more efficient, and that is a proved fact. As your Lordships may be aware, the electric engine does some 27,000 miles before it begins to give teething troubles, whereas the diesel engine starts having troubles after 18,000 miles. With the energy crisis, to which the noble Lord referred, all round us, electrification would not only make a more viable policy possible for the Board but also help to conserve imported fuels. There may be some need for fairly speedy thinking on these matters, since I am told that when the present electrification works are completed, BICC, who do most of this work, will have to disperse their specialised workforce unless they are found new work. We all know what happens when these specialised forces are dispersed. They vanish, and then if it is wished in future to introduce an electrification programme one cannot find the experienced team with which to do it. That is another point upon which I should like the noble Baroness the Minister to let me have the views of the Government.

Another aspect of the lack of a firm programme of investment could, I am sure, mean that British Railways lose valuable and profitable opportunities in the export field for locomotives and rolling stock. If they are kept to a very tight amount they do not have the opportunities to produce enough to sell over and above their needs. This production is profitable as well as useful for our trade balance.

Let me now turn to the freight side. At the moment we have some 200 million tons carried on rail as opposed to some 1,700 million tons on the road. Of these 1,700 million tons on the road, only 200 million is carried, British Railways claim, distances over 50 miles. I believe it is a fact that the average freight load journey in this country is only 25 miles. But only 200 million tons are carried over 50 miles on the roads. British Railways claim that these 200 million tons represent almost 50 per cent. of the road-ton miles—this is the weight/distance equation—of everything carried over 50 miles. So, my Lords, British Railways would only have to double their present load from 200 million to 400 million tons, which with planning and investment correctly directed could easily be organised. British Railways themselves are convinced that given the right investment here they could do this.

One of the points which I did not like in the excellent speech of the noble Lord, Lord Somers, was the hint of compulsion and perhaps the lack of freedom of people to choose. I firmly believe that, given the right incentives, British Railways would be able to attract passengers and freight on their own merits without compulsion and without forbidding people to do this, that and the other. Apart from the higher tonnages carried, the productivity of transport systems is also very important. For example, in 1970 British Railways carried some 20 million tons in 19,000 privately owned wagons; in 1973 they carried 38 million tons—which is very nearly double—in only 18,000 wagons.

I am also very impressed with the way in which British Railways are tackling the opportunities presented by bulk transport. In 1965, only 62 million tons were moved by bulk trains, whereas in 1973 the figure had risen to 150 million tons. What the noble Lord said about bulk transport by rail is already happening. Bulk carriers are very much easier, because they are designed to deal with tunnels and so on. This is a field where progress and increasing business is regularly occurring, and private industry is now investing more in privately owned wagons for specific traffic. British Railways are also about to bring into operation an improved high-speed wagon-load service between the potential demand areas, in a connecting network. This highspeed wagon-load service would, of course, be for commodities which were unsuitable for bulk load treatment.

While talking about freight, I must express my regret that the Government seem to be cooling off on the Channel Tunnel. Although I know that many of our friends in Kent will not be averse to seeing the shelving of the whole project, it would be very sad from the railway angle. The long-term prospects and possibilities, in both the passenger and freight fields, were very exciting. If the cost of the new railway line which would be needed in Kent was frightening the Government, I wonder if the noble Baroness, the Minister, could tell me whether there has been any thought about trying to get our EEC partners to consider the prospect of a tunnel as an EEC project, with the possibility of substantial contributions being forthcoming for the new rail link. As a lot of the profitable business engendered by the tunnel would be carried by our European partners' railways and rolling stock, I should have thought they might well consider this idea if approached. The prospect of through-traffic from Glasgow to Barcelona, from Liverpool to Milan, or Newcastle to Marseilles would be very real, and would enable British Railways to play a much more significant part than they would be able to do without the tunnel.

So far I have talked only about railways, but I would emphasise that of course railways are only one of several forms of transport, and without the most careful long-term planning of a balanced policy which harmonises the nation's social needs—with the needs of safety and the environmental angle all taken into account—this country will not be getting what it should. I therefore end by once again expressing the hope that with the railway unions and British Railways both co-operating, the Secretary of State and the Minister of Transport will indicate some good long-term guide lines on some of the matters on which I have touched. Given this leadership, the long-term prospects for the railways will be as exciting as was the advent of Stephenson's Rocket to our Victorian forefathers.

3.46 p.m.

The Earl of DENBIGH

My Lords, while welcoming this debate on the future of the railways, I should like to remind noble Lords that the debate on urban transport last Wednesday brought out a considerable amount of discussion and comment on the railways. Various Members of your Lordships' House voiced the opinions of thousands of British railway users—regrettably most of them not very complimentary. The future of British Rail must, as I see it, be linked with an overall transport policy, and I am glad to see that this is now being implemented. On their own, the railways can be of little use without a comprehensive system of road transport to the stations for bringing people for the passenger trains, and of lorries and vans for delivering freight and containers and dispersing them at the other end.

It now appears that many more medium and long distance journeys will be undertaken by rail rather than road. In the last two days, we have heard that the private motorist will be bearing the brunt of the new oil restrictions, with speeds limited to 50, 60 and 70 mph, depending on the category of road used. Coupled with further increases in the cost of petrol which are likely to come, this will make the railways an even more attractive proposition than hitherto. To my mind, inter-City services run by British Rail arc first-class and a vast improvement on the services of a few years ago, with frequent trains connecting the main centres of the country. These are a real boon to the medium and long distance traveller. However, as I have said, good communications at both ends of a journey are essential if the railways are to attract more passenger traffic.

There is also the problem in making the required train connection that there are many stations to which it is possible to get only by private car, and cars have to be parked. I often find, even now, that the car parks provided by British Rail, or those in close proximity to a station, are too small. This is particularly so in commuting areas—and remember, my Lords, that London is not the only city or town with a commuting problem. A long walk, particularly in bad weather and with a heavy suitcase, is not a very attractive thought to the existing or the potential rail passenger. The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, told us last week that the GLC are to provide 25,000 more parking places at suitable underground and rail stations on the periphery of London, to encourage people to park and ride. This I welcome, as I feel that the inability to park near a station deters many people from using the railways.

As I have said, in my opinion the inter-City services are excellent on the whole, and with electrified lines and modern rolling stock which is extremely comfortable I, for one, will be making more use of these services than I have done before. However, my Lords, as we heard in the debate on urban transport, the suburban and medium distance commuter does not appear in many instances to be getting the services that he or she expects. It is extremely difficult to persuade people to travel by train when standing room only, and frequent cuts in schedules resulting in even more over-crowding, are the order of the day. From a passenger's point of view this is the area where British Rail must concentrate their efforts for the future.

Many of the problems facing British Rail, as with many other public service industries, are connected with staff shortages, and while this state exists it is quite understandable that trains cannot run to the full scheduled capacity. This puts an increasing strain on existing staff who will have to bear the brunt of irate passengers' feelings. If British Rail could arrive at a position where passengers knew that trains would leave and arrive on time, this would be a great step forward. British Rail must be in command of the facilities now offered, before embarking on any new proposals.

To turn to the freight side of British Rail, here is hope for us all. With the greater use of container freight, let us hope that the railways can pick up the extra 200 million tons which was mentioned by the noble Lord. While realising that an enormous quantity of goods delivery is local traffic, and that many goods are of a perishable nature and cannot be sent by rail, it would be pleasant to think that there could be fewer juggernauts on the roads if more freight were to go by rail.

Finally, my Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Somers, I do not feel that a comment on British Rail would be complete without some reference to their catering. Here there really is room for improvement. British Rail tea has been a music hall joke—the noble Lord had coffee, but I had tea—for years. In most cases, something could be done to improve this situation.

3.51 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Somers, for having initiated this debate. His interest in railways has been unabated over the years. Today he has chosen a topic upon which from time to time he questions me—normally on technical matters regarding which I find myself in difficulty when answering him. I welcome, too, the fact that the noble Earl, Lord Denbigh, has just spoken in a transport debate. We shall look forward to hearing him again because his is a new voice in the list which we have before us today. I am also glad that my noble friend Baroness Birk will be answering this debate today. Already she has shown her competence in speaking for the Department of the Environment, and I am sure that she will do justice to the Ministry of Transport.

In his passage on passenger travel, the noble Lord, Lord Somers, placed great stress on the comfort of travellers, and of course I accept that. But I place even greater stress upon regularity of service, and upon trying to ensure that passengers obtain a reasonable assurance that when they go to the station in the morning there will be a train to carry them to their destination. I am an old signalman who served for many years in one of the most responsible and then very much underpaid jobs on the railway. I am bound to say that I deplore the action of a small group of signalmen which is causing so much difficulty and distress to so many people who have to rely upon rail transport to get them to and from their place of work. If their grievance is basically against the National Union of Railway-men, the union that caters for their grade, then the problems which arise between them in connection with differentials or anything else ought to be worked out within the union itself and not between the signalmen and the travelling public.

My Lords, there can be no doubt at all that one of the main causes of the decline of the railways over the past half century has been the loss of passenger traffic to the private motor car. In recent years we have seen a check to the movement away from the railways. Indeed, in their report for 1973 the British Railways Board tell us that, The value of the railways to the nation is borne out by the fact that in 1973 passenger business increased". That was undoubtedly due to fast intercity trains, improved coaching stock, park-and-ride stations, and, to some extent, road congestion. If, however, the railways cannot provide a regular and reliable service, then the movement towards the individually controlled form of transport will inevitably again gather momentum—this despite road congestion, increased petrol prices and motoring costs generally. And my Lords, who is to blame the man or the woman, fed up to the back teeth with an erratic service which is made intolerable by wildcat and unofficial strikes, who becomes one more oil user or road congester? Certainly not me, my Lords, for in like circumstances I should do exactly that.

Providing a service is the job of the railways and railwaymen. Over recent years it has become recognised as a social service and less of a commercial undertaking. In the passage on nationalised industry prices in his Budget speech the Chancellor of the Exchequer said: Revenue support for the nationalised industries is running at over £1,100 million a year. These subsidies are of two sorts. First, there is help for the continuing expenditure which is necessary for primarily social reasons—mainly, but not exclusiveley, in support of the railways. The remainder is compensation for price restraint. It is the escalation of this latter type which we must set out to reverse. I think it is obvious from that passage that the Government have no intention of going back on the policy which is embodied in the recent Railways Act. That Act was the result of the Government's review of the railways which accepted the fact that the railway network is basically unprofitable. The Act dealt realistically with the pressing problem of the railways' inability to meet their social obligations and pay their way.

That Act solved the immediate problem, but what of the future in the accelerating energy shortage? The experts tell us that we are inexorably moving into a situation where growing world demands for oil cannot be met. I suggest that the preparations for meeting that situation must be made now or they may very well be too late. Quite clearly, petrol rationing for the private motor car will soon be a "must" and the movement back to rail its inevitable consequence. Back to steam, my Lords, is not the answer, despite a nostalgic longing in many of us for the sight of mighty engines emitting a plume of white steam and, in the darkness, the colourful glare of the fire on the face of the fireman when the firebox door is open. I accept that today steam is not a contender for a place in the railways' future; but there is a very strong case for an extension of railway electrification, and that case does not only and solely arise from the oil crisis.

My Lords, the justification for rail electrification has been there for many years, but the desirability of it has been enormously heightened by the energy crisis and by the obvious fact that the whole economy is dependent on the will and pleasure of outside bodies and interests. There is nothing at all reassuring in the latest news that oil producers are demanding from us payment in dollars for the oil that they supply.

What are the known facts? Research into the problems of energy consumption by the main forms of transport shows that there is very little difference between the energy consumption of rail and the water carriage of freight, but the difference between those two forms and motor trucks is very great. The noble Lord, Lord Somers, gave the detailed figures. However, I can summarise the position by saying that it is a fact that motor trucks need four times as much energy to move freight as do the railways.

Our rate of conversion to electricity on our railways has been a very low one, averaging, between 1958 and 1969, some 200 track miles per year. This, by comparison with most other countries, is a pretty poor showing. In the European electrification league table we hold the 16th place with only some 17 per cent. of the rail total converted from steam or oil to electrification. More electrification is essential, not merely desirable in the developing energy situation. This means a pretty massive injection of capital—and here I would support what the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, said about the necessity for such a massive injection of capital. That is something over and above the grants for which provision was made in the recent Railways Act. The decision on this electrification is needed now, otherwise even the small teams at present engaged on this will be disbanded and this will in turn affect not only future railway electrification but also the strong export market that we at present enjoy—and here again I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton.

The noble Lord, Lord Stokes, speaking in the debate on the economic situation on the 26th November said: I have only to remind your Lordships that the motor industry alone suffered seventeen changes of Government policy from 1960 to 1970. This made planning well-nigh impossible, and produced a stagnant market. No wonder the industry in the past had little confidence invest substantially in the future."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26/11/74, col. 1301.] That problem seems to me to have been trifling by comparison with the problem of the railways, for the motor industry until very recently was an expanding one.

Since the railways came into public ownership they have had six separate Acts of Parliament and as many changes of policy as there have been Transport Ministers, and I am bound to say that I have lost count of the number of Transport Ministers that we have had over that period. In addition, the railways have had to deal with a declining industry in which the number of railwaymen has been reduced from 455,000 in 1962 to 200,000 in 1971. At the same time, I am bound to say for railwaymen that their productivity has been vastly increased, partly as a result of this and partly as a result of the change in methods brought about by railway management.

For some time our railway hopes have been buoyed up by the prospect of a rail-orientated Channel Tunnel with a rail link to it of virtually a new railway. This held out the hope and expectation of through traffic between the main towns of Britain and those of the Continent of Europe. It seemed to usher in the dawn of a new railway era. Now, it seems the rail link has "gone for a Burton ", and I half fear that the Tunnel itself is in jeopardy under the pressures that are building up from other interested forms of transport and from the difficulties of our present economic situation.

To permit those pressures to kill this long overdue project would, in my opinion, be not only a railway but also a national disaster. This decision on the Tunnel rail link is only one of a long series of changes of policy with which the railways have had to cope. Understandably the Railways Board says in its 1973 Report: It would be foolish in the extreme to underestimate the size and complexity of the economic problems facing any British Government today, but no organisation can cope efficiently with such abrupt and frequent changes of policy. There has been too much uncertainty for far too long over the future of the railways. That is a plea for the ending of the uncertainties surrounding the future of the railways which I heartily endorse. Give the railways the necessary capital for an increased rate of electrification; firmly confirm our intention to proceed with the Channel Tunnel and we shall go a long way towards solving our transport and energy problems.

My Lords, in my view this debate is worth while and I hope that when the noble Baroness replies she will be able to tell us something about the future possibilities of investment in this great railway undertaking, and I end by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Somers, once again for initiating this debate today.

4.6 p.m.


My Lords, I echo the last remark made by the noble Lord, Lord Champion, in a tribute to my noble friend Lord Somers for initiating this debate. In my opinion the subject is of such importance that the short debate procedure is scarcely appropriate to do it justice. We could well spend a whole day of debate, no doubt with thirty-seven speakers or more, doing justice to this subject. However, it is a short debate and we must do our best with it.

I have been accustomed in the past to address your Lordships on transport matters, wearing a variety of hats from time to time, but I hope your Lordships will disabuse your minds of the idea that I should now be wearing any hat such as you may in the past have observed. I am not doing so; if I were wearing one at all it would be as chairman of the International Road Federation, and I should only wear that because of the extremely useful opportunity I have been given to know much more about the transport scene in many other countries as well as our own.

It seems appropriate, and perhaps a little ironic, that this debate should have been tabled for a day on which the BBC radio gave us two interesting items of news. One was that this was the day on which British Rail would begin tests on its new high speed advance passenger train. That would be frightfully good news, were it not for the fact that it was also announced that the Japanese have found it necessary temporarily to withdraw their similar trains from service because of the unsuspected and rather dangerous faults that were developing. There must be some kind of message there, if your Lordships care to burrow about and sort out just what it is.

In his opening speech my noble friend Lord Somers gave us a number of figures, and if I appear to criticise those figures I hope he will absolve me from any personal reference to him because I know perfectly well that he did not compile them himself. While it may be said to be critical, I would say that the figures he gave us were, to use a contemporary expression, "a load of old cobblers ", and if your Lordships do not understand that and think it is an un-Parliamentary expression I will explain it as being figures as to the accuracy of which some dubiety may be attached. I notice that my noble friend Lord Mowbray and Stourton rather tended to fall into the same trap, as I thought did the noble Lord, Lord Champion, in the figures that he gave. Superficially attractive they may be, but are they complete? My Lords, they are not complete, and the reason they are not complete is because they do not include the factors of cost or time.

If I can be corrected, or if anybody likes to produce evidence after this debate, I will willingly accept it, but I do not believe this will be done. It can be superficially claimed, as it has been by British Rail public advertising, that rail shifts a given weight of goods over a given distance at a greater economy of energy than does road. Does it do so, when you take into account the cost and the time? Are we better off in sending it that way? I am simply asking, but I believe that this is a question that very urgently needs answering.


My Lords, we have heard the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, speak so often on this subject. Will he be honest with his figures? Will he say that in his comparisons between sending goods by rail and sending goods by road he has taken into account a figure for road travel which includes repairs, leasing, or something like that, of the roads?


My Lords, while the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, is still sitting, may I interject one question. Does the noble Lord deny British Railways' claim that in comparing fuel costs of road to rail, the rail has an advantage of 1: 3½?


My Lords, I do not deny that. I would remind the noble Lord, Lord Popplewell, that he has not heard me on anything at all for six years. Therefore he could not have heard me on this subject quite so frequently.


Oh yes I have, my Lords.


My Lords, I am gratified at the memory of the noble Lord, Lord Popplewell. Are we talking about superficially clever arguments with figures, or are we talking about efficiency for industry and the consumer? I maintain that efficiency to industry and the consumer is what is important. Let me say to my noble friend Lord Mowbray and Stourton that it may well be that he can produce some beneficial figures of this kind, but three weeks ago at extra cost I sent a consignment the size of a small portable typewriter—it was not, in fact, a small typewriter but it was about that size—from Preston to Southampton, a distance of 260 miles; it took eight days and it arrived smashed. To send a consignment by rail from Birmingham to Southampton, about 120 to 130 miles, apparently takes just over three weeks. It is not cheap, either, although a consignment that I sent did actually arrive in one piece.

My Lords, having said that, I will freely and willingly acknowledge that a large number of consignments are regularly delivered, in one piece and on time. I also acknowledge that a large number of people travel on trains which usually arrive punctually. It is not all bad. One swallow does not make a summer. But it all too often happens that things arrive late and broken. Unless one can include factors of cost and time in the calculations, I do not believe that the figures which we have been given today are truly accurate and in the interests of the nation. That is my only point there.

My Lords, if there is to be the kind of vast investment which has been hinted at—which has been more than hinted at, because from somewhere I have an idea that it is the intention of the Government, or the hope, the plan, the dream (I am not quite sure which) to make an investment over the years of, I am told, some £1.5 billion, whatever that may mean, because it has more noughts than my mind can cope with—this will be a very large investment indeed. At the end of it all, having made that investment it may or may not work. I would hope it would. Wearing my hat again, we have always thought and acknowledged that modes of transport other than roads had a very important part to play, modes such as rail, sea, air, water, et cetera, but perhaps more believably and easily rail rather than the others. It has never been denied or contested. People have merely queried what it can do. I hope it can do it, and will do it. It might work better if it were conducted in an operational spirit more applicable to 1974 than 1874. It might work better if there were restrictive policies such as were mentioned by my noble friend Lord Somers; for instance, restriction of road transport, which sounded remarkably and suspiciously like outmoded Labour philosophy of 15 or more years ago. I rather expected, when the noble Lord, Lord Somers, said that, that there would be a rousing round of "Hear, hear" from the Labour Benches. I can only assume that there were so few people on them at the time that they could not make that much noise.

My Lords, I am not arguing this. It is an argument for today, but we really have no time to argue it. All I am saying is that it may or may not work. But just for the sake of the interesting argument, let us assume that it does work. As my noble friend Lord Somers again correctly pointed out, the railways do not actually go everywhere. The fact remains, whether or not we like it, that having been sent by rail, everything—perhaps not everything because such statements are questionable, but 99 per cent. of everything sent by rail—reaches its destination by road. This is an inescapable fact, because man has chosen, by and large, to live in densely populated areas in which he demands highly efficient services of every kind. He demands that supermarkets, stores and shops shall be well stocked, that everything he requires shall be provided; and everything he requires reaches him by road, even if it has come part of the way by rail. If your Lordships would like me to put it another way, I believe I am correct in saying that if one looks at the present system, there is a rail depot per thousand shops in this country. I believe that it is right that there is a rail depot per 600 factories in this country as things are at the moment. Therefore, road has an enormous part to play to supplement or to serve—whichever way you care to look at it—the increased efforts of the railways.

My Lords, now I come to the real point of what I am trying to say. I have seen that, not only in this country but in a number of other countries, Governmental thinking is tending to swing away from the natural, logical and, indeed, I would regard it as essential development of a carefully planned road system—not roads at all costs—in favour of a swing back to rail with occasional sops thrown to the waterways; a swing away from logical and sensible road development to complement it. I am not asking the noble Baroness who is to reply for any kind of answer today, because that would not be right, but I would ask her to accept, and the Government to accept, that at this stage, as thinking and popularity, if you like, swings away (as it particularly does in the case of urban transport) it should swing back again. If there is a case for carrying much more by rail, then automatically with that goes an absolute basic necessity to improve urban transport systems to distribute all the goods by rail. I believe from what I can see and hear that there is a great danger that this is a matter which is being overlooked. All public announcements of public thinking on this matter indicate the opposite. It is swinging away from this. I ask Her Majesty's Government to devote their attention to swinging back to it.

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, we are all most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Somers, for introducing this debate and producing so many interesting arguments. If this debate is to run to time, then I believe at least I should be very brief. My Lords, there must be a future for the railways. I do not entirely agree with all that the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, has said, because I believe the railways offered a very large network until it was cut back. If sufficient money were invested in the railways, a really efficient system with many technological advances could be introduced which would make the railways far more economic. I will not go into the arguments with regard to the various figures as to fuel costs of railways and diesel lorries. I should like to centre my argument on the need for investment.

Costs are always going up, and one of the major costs in rail, as in other transport, is maintenance. Therefore, I feel it absolutely essential that we now concentrate on investing in items which will reduce maintenance costs in the future. Already some of these points have been taken up. One of them must be the expansion of electrification. This vastly reduces costs. It has many other advantages as well: environmental cleanness and also flexibility of fuels. Hydrocarbons are going to get scarcer and at some point Lord Chesham's lorries are going to find it difficult to get hydrocarbons; perhaps, as we heard the other day, they will be working on methanol instead. Another item which must reduce costs is laying new concrete lines. This can be done quite simply. The technology is there. British Rail have the equipment and they have laid experimental lines. It reduces costs vastly.

Here I should like to take up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Chesham. He talked about the closure of the Tokado line in Japan. This railway had to be closed down for one simple reason; it was designed incorrectly. It was designed on the basis of brute force. The engines are extremely heavy. They are travelling at about 130 mph, but they are capable of travelling at 180 mph. The trouble is that the weight of these trains has shattered the special concrete lines. These were laid on special tracks, specially built to withstand these strains. The answer is obviously in a new suspension system, and the APT has this. Therefore, one area which would vastly reduce costs would be to spread the APT suspension system on to eventually, hopefully, all equipment which goes on the railways. We know that the track wear would be very greatly reduced. On the Tokado line they had teams of men out at night trying to keep it going. In the end the damage was greater than the repairs that could be effected. My argument is that the APT would save costs in reducing wear and tear on track.

There is another area where I feel we ought to be investing at the moment. This is the self-propelled, unmanned single freight truck, slightly different from what the noble Lord, Lord Somers, was talking about. But it is a system which British Rail have already pioneered. It does work. It can be set up and it can run on small lines. Obviously, there is an enormous investment cost in setting this up. That brings me to another area where we ought to be investing and that is in computerised train control. All these things are there; they have been developed by British Rail. The engineers have done a great job. I want to come to the engineering side in a moment.

There are so many other spinoffs that have come from what has been developed. For instance, there is the taperlite suspension, which makes the small trucks very much safer and able to be run at much higher speeds. This has come from the APT programme. What is happening at the moment is that with the cutbacks—I stand to be corrected here—we are going to be left with 27 high speed diesels and only 3 APTs. I think this is very sad, because the high speed diesel is again the old dinosaur approach of brute force. We are to have only three APTs which are now not going to be run on the gas turbine principle but on electric, because the other engines were not practicable.

A further point is that we are advancing only very slowly on the electric side. We have not got it on the North-East line. I have said that we ought to be investing and investing. At this moment what is the answer? My solution is promptly and actively to market our technological developments such as the APT. There are tremendous markets the world over for this. I believe that we can sell them. The only problem is this. British Rail was set up originally on a different premise; the engineering and the design side were set up to service only British Rail's requirements. I believe that we must radically change our thinking and move over to a selling operation, to a marketing operation. On this basis, we must not look at it as servicing British Rail, but should look at it like the aircraft industry, but not make the mistakes of the aircraft industry whereby they built a plane like the Trident which was to be used only by one airline, BEA. We need to look at the railway developments so that they can be sold worldwide, perhaps not selling the individual trains and making them here, but at least selling the technology so that they can be manufactured under licence elsewhere.

At the moment the problem with the system we have in British Rail is that we have a limited design force. In fact I know that so far as draftsmen and designers are concerned there is a chronic shortage. Obviously, there must be greater incentives to bring people into this industry. It means spending now to get revenue later. The closure of the Tokado Line is a perfect example of the need for this technology, and we can sell it.

There is another point which is much closer to my mind; that is, that although we have a considerable amount of technology, at the moment British Rail are only playing at selling. This does not require a vast investment plan, but the setting up of a really professional and really active marketing team to go round the world. I know that we have had teams going abroad and they have done a good job, but it has been terribly limited. They have not had the backing, and, most important of all, they have not seen the will on the part of British Rail. This goes back, of course, to Government and changes in Government. Therefore, it is very hard for them to have the enthusiasm given to them which is needed to mount a really effective marketing campaign worldwide. But, my Lords, I feel that if we did this we could produce enough revenue, which could then be put back into our rail system so that, in the end, we would have the most advanced and most economic system.

I wish to return, my Lords, to a point concerning transport on the roads. This matter goes back to a previous debate which we had, when I raised the subject of the extremely dangerous loads that are carried on the motorways. I have in mind, for instance, tankers carrying highly toxic matter or highly corrosive acids, travelling at relatively high speeds along with family motorists. It does not take much to cause a crash. We have seen what has happened in the past when people have suffered horrible burns due to tanker crashes, and I feel that many more similar accidents could happen. We are very lucky that there have not been more accidents of this sort. We ought to aim at getting dangerous loads off our roads, and putting them safely and effectively on to the railways.

My Lords, the noble Baroness is always so very courteous in her replies, as I found the other day, and it would be rude of me to ask her something without giving prior notice. However, I ask her to consider the need at the moment for developing our manufacturing capacity, our design capacity and our marketing capacity in British Rail, so that we can have a real railways industry—with manufacturing and the selling of technology—which will be the pride of the world and which can be channelled back into developing our own rail system.

4.31 p.m.


My Lords, may I, like other noble Lords, thank the noble Lord, Lord Somers, for bringing this matter to our attention for further debate? We had a debate on transport in March, which covered a rather wide field. The only point on which I can agree with the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, who has just gone out of the Chamber, is that this matter could have been more fully ventilated if there had been a whole day to debate it. This is a big subject, and so much is taking place that it is difficult to embrace the main points in a debate lasting two and half hours.

I want first to echo a little what the noble Lord, Lord Champion, said with regard to the trouble on the railways involving signalmen. It is a rather disconcerting situation. I speak as a signalman with something like thirty years' service before I came into your Lordships' House, and I very much deprecate the industrial action by a small group of individuals who have been an irritant for some forty years, and who have never made any real progress, but who now seem to be jumping on to the bandwagon of saying: "If you are a little difficult you can get results", which I think is extremely unfair.

Bearing in mind the recent settlement in the railway industry—the biggest settlement ever known—of some £50 million, and taking into account the further negotiations taking place, I sincerely hope that this small group, who undoubtedly upset and irritate people, will not be taken as representing a fair balance of railwaymen as a whole. They are very irritating to our customers, the general public, and their case—in my opinion and in that of the union that has been negotiating for a long time—is entirely unjustifiable.

Although we are having only a short debate on rail transport today, great interest in it is again developing in the country. Naturally, this is being exemplified by the shortage of oil and the difficulties that have arisen. I know from my postbag that there is some need for a re-think in relation both to the convenience of people who want to get from A to B, and to the general strategy of our transport development.

I trust that your Lordships will not object if I weary you once more with a favourite theme of mine, that I have expressed on several occasions; namely, the difficulty that has arisen from Governments in general refusing to look upon transport as a whole. In the latest Act passed by a Labour Government we have different lines of approach with no coordination at top level. I believe that in this small, densely populated island of ours we must have a co-ordinating scheme which makes the best use of the available resources. It has been the practice since the 1947 Act to look at the various transport undertakings as individual enterprises, and not as part of the whole. The noble Lord, Lord Chesham, spoke quite a lot about cooking figures. He was expert at cooking the figures which he wanted to give to us this afternoon. Anyone who takes the trouble to read his speech and to break down the figures will see which hat the noble Lord was wearing very well this afternoon.


My Lords, I hate to interrupt the noble Lord, but he really must be accurate. I did not give any figures this afternoon, so the noble Lord cannot cast doubt on something that I have not given. I merely cast doubt on other figures which have been given.


My Lords, the only figures that the noble Lord gave referred to rail travel. We want figures for road travel in order to make a comparison. I said that the noble Lord was cooking the figures because he was not making a fair comparison. But, of course, this is usual, because since the noble Lord left the Ministry he has made several observations which had a similar bearing. I do not blame the noble Lord if his interest is in road transport—and he declares his interest to be there—but the House as a whole will assess his figures accordingly.

Judging by some of the speeches that we have heard from noble Lords this afternoon, particularly the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, who spoke from the Government Front Bench, one would think that transport was something new. Noble Lords have been talking about small developments in transport as if they were new. However, if we take the history of transport in the postwar years we find that long-term planning—the need for which has been mentioned—has been tried times without number. People who really understand rail travel, and who look at transport as a whole, tried to co-ordinate transport in the immediate postwar years.

Then the change of Government took place, and Lord Robertson preferred to resign after two and a half years of his second period of office as chairman of the Railways Board because of the changes in Government policy of Marples and of the other Ministers of Transport—as my noble friend Lord Champion says, too numerous to mention. They changed policy to such a degree that Lord Robertson himself even then knew that we were heading for real transport trouble.

Some part of the trouble that we are in today was specifically mentioned in a debate in the House of Commons on 27th June 1962, when the Beeching Plan was being prepared to utilise road services and curtail rail development by stopping electrification and the installing of tracks for diesel locomotives. At that time it was distinctly said: That was a common sense approach with the utilisation of the nation's resources—coa] to produce the electricity, and the electricity to give us cheap running power. But the "— Government of the day have now— stopped that development. They turned completely from electrification to dieselisation. Thousands of pounds were spent on ensuring that bridges and overhead structures on the East Coast line from King's Cross to Newcastle were prepared for overhead cables. Thousands of pounds were spent on work which is no longer necessary because dieselisation is replacing electrification, and dieselisation depends on imported oil. Heaven knows where we should be if there were a war or other crisis! We are pinpointing our economy on oil. That was said on 27th June 1962, at column 1214. Many more things were said during that debate, and now the chickens are coming home to roost.

We have dieselised our railway lines. I think that the railways are one of the largest users of imported oil. The last figures I saw made them about the fourth largest user of diesel oil. We could have been using our own resources of coal to produce the electricity. In addition to that, as you travel along the railways you will see factories on the line side that used to have rail connections. They are now taken up, and all the products have to go by road—road, with a service dependent upon imported oil! As I said earlier, we are now reaping the consequences! In reply to my noble friend Lord Somers and the noble Lord opposite, one must remember that it was the deliberate policy of the Government, in closing down railway-connected places from something like well over a thousand to scarcely a hundred, or just over a hundred, at the present moment, to make it more difficult than ever for goods to travel from the place of production to destination point.

One also knows full well—the noble Lord opposite mentioned it, and it is frequently referred to in this House—the difficulty that has been created by closing down so many branch lines. We are pressing now for them to be reopened, and some are being reopened, but we must remember that it was deliberate Government policy that brought this trouble about. We hope that the appointment for the first time of a Minister for Energy—charged with the task of looking at all forms of energy and seeing how they can best be harmonised—is a step in the right direction. It is quite a contrast to the years and years of continuously changing Tory policy. This is what actually made the railwaymen themselves in charge—the chairmen of the respective Boards, apart from Dr. Beeching—despair. Of course, Dr. Beeching knew where he was going all right. He was following a city-to-city line for passenger services, and so far as other transport needs were concerned he was quite prepared for all of them to go on to the roads, so long as we had a city-to-city service.

So far as the number of plans is concerned, I have a whole list of them here—1954, 1962, 1962, 1963, and one could go on. The men who actually understood, and could run the railways, have never had a chance at all because of the constant interference that took place at Government level. Investment policy has been laid down on quite a number of occasions, and each time they have tried to work that investment policy the Government have stepped in again and refused to admit the full implications involved. In 1971 and 1973 they cut it back £67 million. The railway people who believe in railways, and can give a service at the behest of the Government, have not been able to do so.

I sincerely hope that, as a result of the change that is now taking place—some of it brought about through the difficulties resulting from depending on imported oil—that pressure will be kept upon this Government to really look at transport as a whole. Remember that inland waterways, the roads, the railways, air and coastal shipping, are all an integral part of our transport needs. Under this new Ministry of Energy, I hope that many of these factors will be co-ordinated with one point very clearly in mind, and that is not to waste oil, not to waste our resources, but to ensure that we get efficiency of use irrespective of what the profitable end might be.

4.50 p.m.


My Lords, it is now my turn to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Somers, for inaugurating this debate. I certainly support those noble Lords who say that this subject should be debated over a much longer period, which I hope may be possible in the future. I wish to add my expression of praise and gratitude to those noble Lords who have praised the achievements of British Rail in the past and given it encouragement for the future. For my own part, given any choice, railway travel is what I prefer, although a number of your Lordships know that aviation and certain developments of that industry are an especial interest of mine. My chief use of British Rail at the moment is travel by Inter-City to the North of England or into Scotland. In Inter-City we have a service to be proud of: fast and comfortable, and with the possibility of even better service to come. Our national pride is quite in order because many travellers from other countries, including railway experts, have expressed genuine admiration for the service.

Last year I had the great privilege to be a passenger on the trial run of the latest high-speed train. It was both fast and very comfortable while almost uncannily quiet and smooth. The smoothness was first noticeable when rising from my seat and not having to brace myself against any sway. As to the quietness, I took a tape recording of parts of the run. When playing it back I found that conversations between people at the very far end of the coach, where I sat, were definitely audible, even though those persons were not actually discernible. I am pleased to relate that I have heard favourable reports from foreign visitors, and from my own experience of travel in other parts of the world I certainly believe that in British Railways we have a service equal to none. Possibly the nearest to it would be a train called the "Metro Liner," on which I travelled from New York to Washington.

Regarding our suburban services, I am in no position to offer any real comment. My daily life does not involve commuting. Nevertheless, I hear numerous rumbles from colleagues in my office, one of the basic factors of which is, I believe, a knowledge of what our railways can and have achieved and, naturally, any short comings are immediately noticeable. The noble Lord, Lord Somers, mentioned various points relating to passenger comfort and safety and the necessary staff to look after them. I certainly support his comments. Often a handicap at the station is in not knowing where to go; and it is not always easy to find out. The problem of trolleys exists. I personally once wrote a complaint to Glasgow Central when I could not find one, and I received the assurance that trolleys would be provided in future. People are on the train and it is nice to know that trolleys are available, if one can see them.

While I have no complaints about catering on the trains—I cannot say that I have used the cafeterias very much—recently I was travelling South from Darlington. I did not take lunch, but I went into the buffet car for a beer and a sandwich and had to wait a considerable time for service because, owing to shortage of staff, the barman had to go into the dining room to help serve lunch.

As to seats on trains and in waiting rooms, I would mention a station that I use in Scotland—Arrochar and Tarbet—on the Glasgow-Fort William line. It is one of those lines for whose retention I have pleaded and which I think will remain with us for some time, for which the many passengers up there will be thankful. While waiting for the Southbound train with sleeper to return to London I was all alone on this very attractive station with nice scenery around, with masses of seats to choose from, and even a waiting room to go into to ensure that I should keep warm. If a wayside station can provide that kind of service, why cannot a London terminal? I have heard that Waterloo Station, which I have visited a number of times and which I remember had vast rows of seats, had those seats removed on the excuse that so many tramps were coming in and "dossing" down.

From tributes on passenger services, I now turn to the matter of freight. Here I hope I may have some encouraging news for noble Lords who, like myself in recent years, and in this debate have noted the concern which has been expressed about the environment and transport, particularly concerning heavy goods vehicles on the roads. This problem is likely to find at least a part solution by the modernisation of British Rail's freight system. British Rail are producing a book for the public to read—I have been fortunate enough to obtain an advance copy—called British Rail Today and Tomorrow. If any noble Lord would care to see it later I should be delighted to show it to them. In it is mentioned a service called "Tops", meaning Total Operations Processing System. When complete this system will have details by computer—here I refer to the speech of my noble friend—of every locomotive and wagon of the British Rail freight fleet. Some of the advantages that it is hoped the system will provide are: Empty wagons available to customers with least delay. Accurate information flow as to whereabouts of rolling stock. Easy disposition of empty wagons. Control of rolling stock for priorities. Maintaining an even flow of wagons. A minimum effort when there has to be any change in traffic patterns. No wagon should even remain idle once it has been emptied. With my noble friend Lord Mowbray and Stourton I certainly continue to support any possibility of the Channel Tunnel scheme continuing. In a debate on the Tunnel last year I expressed concern that there might be a bottleneck of freight if this computing system, which British Rail hopes to provide, cannot also be provided on the Continent, particularly among the European Community. With an international network I think that we can avoid such blockages of traffic should our Channel Tunnel finally be built.

Finally, as your Lordships probably all know, next year will be important for British Rail. It is the 150th anniversary of the creation of the Stockton-Darlington Railway. I mention an interest because I shall be slightly involved in the celebrations merely as a result of the past connection of my family with railways, and in particular my ancestor, Edward Pease of Darlington, who saw how George Stephenson's steam locomotive could revolutionise transport. This was not "The Rocket" which my noble friend mentioned earlier, nor was it the famous locomotive No. 1 which can be seen at Darlington Station. It was named "Blucher" and it pulled trucks at Killing-worth Colliery. There will be much railway history brought to public notice, and anyone who has any connection whatsoever with railways can be justly proud of what has been achieved. Let us hope that these achievements of the past will create inspiration for the future, so that the country may continue to have pride in its railways and the will to provide the resources which will result in that high-quality rail system which this country really needs.

5.0 p.m.

Viscount THURSO

My Lords, may I have the leave of your Lordships' House to intervene in this debate—although my name is not on the list of speakers—with just a very few sentences, knowing that this is a short debate and that time is pressing this afternoon? Everything that I have heard this afternoon has confirmed me in my view that the logic of the railway truck as opposed to the road truck is unassailable, and in my view the reason why the road transport system is able to take so much freight and so many passengers from the railways which ought really, to our advantage, to travel on the railway is the question of cost. The question of cost was explained in his intervention by the noble Lord, Lord Popplewell, who pointed out that the roads are provided by the public purse at a very modest fee to road transport whereas the railways have to raise the whole cost of providing, maintaining and operating the permanent way, the signalling and every other thing which has to do with transport on the railways out of the individual freight quotation or the individual ticket. Therefore, I long for a Government which has the courage to consider that railways are trunk roads and should be treated as such and provided as such for the benefit of the community, and that British Railways should be asked to run a service upon such trunk routes.

If this were done, then the sort of co-ordination to which the noble Lord, Lord Popplewell, referred could take place in the provision of services for oil development in Scotland. For instance, sections of about nine miles or more of the A9 in the centre of Perthshire and Inverness-shire are being turned into dual carriageway at enormous cost, when all that would need to be done to carry the freight which it is necessary to take over the Pass of Drumochter would be to replace the other railway line which was lifted. If we could only think in terms of providing once again the services which, in certain areas of the country, the railways successfully, usefully and at reasonable cost once provided, then we should go a long way towards providing the infrastructure in areas where development is taking place.

I refer also to the area around Aberdeenshire, where there is great oil development taking place at the moment and where railways were almost totally removed—passenger services were totally removed—by the Beeching axe. I refer also to the great amounts of capital expenditure which are being incurred, and are about to be incurred, in bridging various firths North of Inverness, going up towards the oil developments in Orkney and towards the various developments around Nigg, providing oil rigs and eventually refineries, and so forth. The firths are to be bridged for roads, saving 15 miles of road. If, at the same time, they were bridged for railways, too, it would be cheaper than doing it separately, and would provide a great deal more transport and very much more efficient co-ordination of transport in that rapidly-developing area.

Again, I hope that a third bridge will go across the Kyle of Sutherland between Tain and Dornoch, and that when that happens it will be very largely causeway, which, consistently made wide enough to carry a railway track, can save another 11 or more miles of railway track and can bring the whole East coast of Sutherland into the commuter belt of Tain and Nigg. I therefore hope that Her Majesty's Government will see that a case is being clearly made out for the railway system; that we need a railway system for this country; that we need to give it a fair crack of the whip, and that we need to put it back where it is wanted—as part of the infrastructure where great and important developments are taking place.

5.5 p.m.


My Lords, together with the other speakers who have taken part in this extremely interesting and, for me, highly-educative debate, I should like to express my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Somers, for initiating it, and also to other noble Lords who have spoken for their valuable contributions. Trans port is a subject on which everyone is his own expert. I think we saw that last week when we discussed urban transport, to which the noble Earl, Lord Denbigh, referred; and today we are discussing the railways. I think my noble friend Lord Popplewell was so right when he said that we should be looking at transport as a whole, and today it seems more necessary than ever that one should take this overall look rather than have what I might call battles on the sidelines between road and rail. There was one moment this afternoon when I thought the whole debate was rather like a private discussion among the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, and my noble friend Lord Popplewell. I was about to jump up and say, "May the rest of us join in?" However, the points made were, I think, all very valuable and interesting.

Whatever the differences between us—and it is quite clear there are differences in approach and method, and also as to finance—I think there is wide agreement on the valuable, and indeed irreplaceable, contribution that the railways make to transport needs. This was confirmed in the debates on the Railways Act, to which I think practically every noble Lord who has spoken has referred—a measure which was given a welcome here, as it was in another place. Again, I think almost every noble Lord who has spoken today has stressed the importance of new investment to improve services, and we should all like to see an even faster rate of rail improvements. But we have to be realistic. It is true that the railways have suffered from a very inadequate investment for a very long time, and although passenger services have been speeded up on the electrified West Coast main line, and further improvements will come as high-speed diesel trains come into service, to attempt at a time of severe economic difficulties to remedy all the neglect of years would not only be quite wrong but would have quite unacceptable effects on other public expenditure programmes which are equally desirable socially (and some even more so) at this time. We must remember that railways compete for resources not only with other transport, but with hospitals, schools, pensions—in fact, with programmes right across the public sector.

The noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, in his extremely interesting and experienced contribution to this debate, asked me about the long-term guidance which is being given by the Government to British Rail. I can tell him that we shall be discussing plans with British Rail in the light of the forthcoming White Paper on public expenditure and their corporate plans. But British Rail cannot expect to be exempt from the restraints which apply to all public expenditure, and I am afraid that this has to be the theme of any honest discussion of the railways problem that we have at this time and of the future of the railways.

The high-speed trains, the diesels, were referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, and also by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale. British Rail have started to test the high-speed diesel train on the London to Bristol route, and ultimately this will travel at up to 120 mph. But, if I may point this out to the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, this is still conventional technology. The Japanese, to whom he referred—and I also heard it reported on the radio this morning—have been running very fast trains, but only on a specially built line with no curves. Whether this affects it—I am no technological expert—I do not know, but it is quite clear that they are experiencing very high failure rates. In this connection, the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, put in a very strong plea for the Advanced Passenger Train. This will come later on. Till now, British Rail have asked only for three or four prototypes. There are no more problems, I think, about production because the designs are going ahead; and although it will take some time, there is no question of progress being delayed at the moment for any other reason.

My noble friend Lord Champion, who asked me to apologise for his absence because he had a meeting to attend, referred to the railways as being a service. I can only reiterate that rail has to compete for financial support with the other services that I have mentioned and with many that I have not mentioned. Therefore we must choose carefully the areas in which to concentrate the available resources, areas where rail is most effective; and, as I think all noble Lords, starting with the noble Lord, Lord Somers, pointed out, freight is one of those areas, for only rail can carry the heaviest flow of bulk freight efficiently without severe environmental disruption. The other area is that of commuter services. Again, only rail can handle the heaviest commuter traffic and therefore the programme of improvement on Southern Rail will be continued as well as new schemes in other major urban areas.

The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, about environmental damage is also relevant and where possible we are trying—and I shall come to this matter in a moment when referring to the grant system—to deal with freight carrying in this way so as to reduce the environmental damage to which he referred caused by lorries carrying heavy loads of dangerous materials.

The noble Lord, Lord Somers, in stressing the importance of freight, argued for forcing long-distance freight on to rail. I must point out that this would mean departing from the long-established practice of giving consumers freedom of choice in transporting their goods. Moreover, although I hate to tread heavily in other people's fields, there is the point about how this ties up with the whole concept of free enterprise supported by noble Lords opposite. It could also lead to much higher transport costs and therefore to higher prices in the shops; because we have to face the fact that small loads are expensive to handle by rail and that many places are not, and could not be, served by rail. There will still therefore be the need for lorries to transport goods. If we take what I call the rather strong line of the noble Lord, Lord Somers, we have to accept that we shall be paying a great deal more for goods in the end. This really is the practical outcome of what he was saying. Quite fairly, at one point, he asked, "Have we got the money?" I am afraid that the answer is: No, we have not—which is why a number of the points that he made which, when taken in rail isolation, are good points are really not economically viable or feasible at the present time.

The noble Lord, Lord Chesham, made reference to a number of figures and figures were quoted by other noble Lords. I think I will leave this argument as it is. I have tried to use as few figures as possible. A number of noble Lords referred to the closure of branch lines. It is true that in November 1973 the Conservative Government announced that no further significant closures would take place. This policy has been endorsed by the present Government and although some minor closures may have to take place, as far as possible major closures will be avoided.

The noble Lord, Lord Somers, my noble friend Lord Popplewell and the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, all referred to the question of reopening branch lines, mainly rural branches, to improve transport in other areas. As I am sure they are aware, such reopenings would be very expensive and in the majority of cases transport needs could be satisfied more cheaply and efficiently by buses. And if branch lines are re-opened people may have to travel some considerable distance from where they live in order to get to the nearest station.

My Lords, I now turn to a point which caused a great deal of discussion and which generated a considerable amount of heat: the question of the electrification programme. The noble Lord, Lord Somers, led off with an argument for a major electrification programme. My noble friend Lord Popplewell unfortunately turned out to be not just a prophet but a Cassandra when he quoted what he said in another place. Of course this is so. It is also true that taking this particular argument and looking back at decisions made in the past, one could argue that to have run down the coal mines (which was a policy at a particular time) now appears to have been the wrong policy. But at any time when decisions are taken, they are taken on the basis of the facts known at the time and projected into the future as far as is reasonable. They may be difficult to justify when later events occur. Perhaps the answer is that it may be that we were all not as wise as was my noble friend over the question of oil.

Nevertheless, it is simply unrealistic at the present time to aim for a programme of the size proposed in Transport 2000. It would be stupid of me to deny the operational advantages and fuel saving in electrification but the capital cost is simply enormous. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, was right when he referred not only to the financial cost but also to the question of timing. Here, too, is an area of individual choice in the matter of personal transport as well as of freight transport.

My Lords, we are talking about fuel and fuel consumption and I must point out that comparisons between different sorts of transport are extremely complicated. In fact the Transport Road Reseach Laboratory have written several books on the subject. It is probably true in the case of two trains fully loaded and covering the same journey that the diesel engine would use more fuel than the electric engine; but the situation is rarely as simple as that. One does not have equal amounts of load and there are other factors to be taken into account. Even if it could be shown that electrification always saved fuel, we must remember that the cost of the fuel is only a small part of the total cost of the railways. In financial terms, one cannot argue that fuel costs savings would pay for the heavy capital costs of conversion to electrification. This I am afraid really cannot be over-emphasised. I must say there are no firm proposals for new schemes at present; although the Board have more plans for electrification and these will be carefully considered when they are submitted but they will be considered in the context of the current economic and energy circumstances.

As has already been pointed out by many speakers, investment is a long-term matter and the Government want to see a great deal of traffic transferred from road to rail as quickly as possible.

My noble friend Lord Champion referred to the Railways Act and to the power of the Secretary of State to pay grants towards expenditure for providing private sidings for freight where he considers this to be in the interest of a locality or its inhabitants. The £1,500 million referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, is, as I understand it, a grant covering the next five years. The next year's basis of Government support will be different from that of previous years, but I do not want to go into that subject in great detail because it is long and complicated. The object is to encourage industry to send goods by rail which would otherwise go by road, and these grants will also contribute to reducing the environmental damage caused by road transport to which the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, referred and which is, in my opinion, an extremely important consideration.

The new grants system will also, I hope, give satisfaction to the points made by the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso. These grants will mean that his suggestions about trunk roads and railways and all the new track and signalling can be included in the grant claim. In addition, in May this year my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport invited about 100 of the country's leading firms to discuss with British Rail how to increase the use of rail for freight. We hope that these talks will indicate how firms come to choose a particular mode of transport and what action will attract industry to send goods by rail where it is economic and sensible to do so. That is, after all, the only basis on which this can really be discussed.

The Government are well aware of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, on manufacturing capacity and exports and this, again, is a problem that the Government will be discussing with British Rail. British Rail themselves have achieved a great deal. Much more use is now made of each wagon than was the case a few years ago and, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, said, the computerised wagon control system which is in operation should lead to further improvements.

Several noble Lords, and in particular the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, referred to the Channel Tunnel and asked me whether it would be possible to turn it into an EEC project. It would be quite premature to make any statement or even to hazard a guess or opinion on these lines, because at the present time delicate negotiations are in progress following the Statement of my right honourable friend on the Channel Tunnel on 26th November. There is really nothing more I can add to that. As the House is well aware, British Rail are now urgently examining a range of lower cost options which arc intended to achieve the greatest possible volume of through traffic, including freight, while at the same time avoiding the adverse effects on the existing Southern Region system.

My Lords, I think the point that disturbed most noble Lords considerably was the question of quality of service on the railways. We heard about the shortages of guards and signalmen and the problems with ticket offices—though I would point out that the question of whether or not all offices are manned depends very much on what time noble Lords travel. If it is the rush hour on a Friday night or a Thursday night, this makes a considerable difference. I think noble Lords will find that ticket offices are usually completely manned during rush periods. It is perfectly true that many stations are grim and grubby and there are certainly waiting rooms which are not places of beauty or joy in which one would want to linger long. On the other hand, I must point out that there are some extremely clean and good stations; there have been new buildings in many areas and the service is not always as bad, and certainly the punctuality does not uniformly descend to the standard suggested this afternoon.

We know that there is a staff shortage and also an insufficient amount of money to employ the numbers of staff that would be needed, particularly to do some of the things mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Somers. To be able to have the bars manned as suggested would need a large number of staff and, even if they were so manned, it could happen that, as the noble Lord, Lord Gainford told us—and he was quite justifiably annoyed about it—the barman had gone into the dining car when he wanted to use the bar. Seriously, this would mean a large increase in staff, and here we must not underestimate the conditions in which railwaymen work. We must remember how railwaymen and their unions have co-operated with management in reducing manpower demands, and hence rail costs. Over the last decade, railway manpower has declined by about 40 per cent. Many railwaymen work unsocial hours, though they have had a new pay structure which is an attempt to compensate for the unattractive conditions of railway employment. If one were to make a positive effort to increase the number of railway staff to the extent that would be needed to provide the services which some noble Lords have asked for, the cost would be almost prohibitive and very few of us would be able to travel by rail.

My Lords, I think we were very lucky to have in this debate the contributions of two signalmen, my noble friends Lord Champion and Lord Popplewell. While the negotiations are going on, British Rail and the National Union of Railwaymen are doing all they can to solve the present problem. I shall therefore not add anything to what the noble Lords have said about a matter about which they know very much more than I do. However, I would point out that the quality of railway life also depends on passenger behaviour. This is not a one-sided matter: to accept ugliness is bad enough but to create it is appalling. It becomes extremely depressing after a time for even the most enthusiastic managers of stations—or whatever the phrase is today—to find things disappearing and to see places that have been clean and tidy dirtied up almost immediately.

The noble Lord, Lord Gainford, was unfortunately quite right when he explained why the seats have been removed; that is, that the stations were becoming unofficial lodging houses. This may be a right use for them, but I think that is a matter which must be discussed in another context and on another occasion. To spoil and even to destroy their own and other people's environment is unforgivable, and this is unfortunately what is happening today. Vandalism of this order can affect the very high standards of safety on British Railways and the chief inspecting officer, in his recently published report on railway accidents, points out that, although train accidents which had been maliciously caused dropped from 225 in 1972 to 167 in 1973, the figure is three times higher than ten years ago. Here we are in the area of personal social responsibility and education.

There is an added sadness about this desecration and neglect, for it is quite clear—and my view on this has been reinforced by the debate today—that the railways are very romantic. Fathers take over their children's toy train sets and there is a deep nostalgia for the old "huffer-puffer". This is mainly a male nostalgia which is perhaps demonstrated by the fact that I am the only woman speaking in this debate—but speaking in it has increased my affection for the railways. I find, as the noble Lord, Lord Gainford, pointed out, that it is an extremely peaceful way to travel. There is no telephone, thank goodness!—at least not so far—and one can read in peace. I do not know whether I should like to travel on the same train as the noble Lord if, as he says, he takes along a tape recorder recording things that happen on the train.

To summarise, the Government are committed to maintaining the railway system and to improving it as fast as finances allow. The system requires a large amount of financial support and we are providing as much as we can afford. I accept that, ideally, many aspects of the railway should be improved, but I think we all appreciate that there must be a limit to what we can do in the country's present difficulties.

5.31 p.m.


My Lords, we have had a very interesting debate and I think we are still within our time limit. I should like to thank all those noble Lords who have taken part, and in particular of course the noble Baroness who has just replied. I must confess I was a little disappointed when she said that there is not much hope of re-opening some of the branch lines that have been closed. But the thought has occurred to me that if British Railways do not feel they can run a branch line themselves, why do they not sell it or rent it to a private company who will operate it for them?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord would give way. Yes, this is done; we are always prepared to do this. However, a line has to be sold at a commercial price and what has usually happened in the past is that when one has been bought, it has been bought for the land and not used as a railway. So although it may produce more money which can be used for the railway in other ways, it does not usually mean a continuation of a branch line.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend what the commercial price of a railway branch line would be if it were not running?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, it is the value of the land concerned, as my noble friend knows very well.


My Lords, I can quite see that, of course. But I should have thought it was possible to sell it on condition that it was operated as a railway line. A nationalised railway system and privately owned branch lines have operated in Switzerland very satisfactorily for years, and the Swiss Railways are among the most efficient I know. So I think it would be a possibility.

I should like to say to my noble friend Lord Chesham—I must call him that, despite the fact that we no longer sit on the same Benches—that I was not trying to stage a war between road and rail transport. I quite realise that road transport has its place and indeed, certainly for short distances, I do not think anything can replace it. But I was thinking of heavy, long-distance goods transport which might be more efficiently carried by rail. Of course, it cannot be done in this way until we have easier conditions on rail, as he said. Once again, my Lords, I should like to thank everyone who has taken part in the debate and I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.