HL Deb 08 May 1975 vol 360 cc481-507

4.41 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time. Before I say anything further may I acknowledge how grateful I am to the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, for having given me the opportunity of knowing what is the Government's attitude towards this Bill. I cannot confess that I am not disappointed it was not a more favourable one, but I am hoping that during the course of the debate she may be a little more drawn towards it. This Bill is a very necessary one, necessary in particular for one section of the community: those who live in rural districts, remote villages perhaps, without much means of transport. Not everybody drives a car even in these days. Some have not the money; others are perhaps becoming too old. Therefore, some means of public transport is absolutely vital for such people. In the debate on railways which we had a short time ago I pointed out that the railway is in fact by far the most economic and efficient method of transport so far as use of energy is concerned. But there are other considerations. Of course, buses have been supplied as an alternative, but buses are a poor substitute for trains. For one thing, they cannot keep to a strict timetable owing to traffic conditions. Also if one is waiting for them one generally has to do so beside the open road. That is pleasant in summer, but if it is blowing a blizzard it is not quite so pleasant.

I understand that one of the Government's main objections is on the ground of the use of land. In connection with that I would quote one paragraph from a statement made by the Department of the Environment apropos of disused railway lines. It says: The closure of railway lines provides an opportunity which is unlikely to recur for considerable possible linear use of the land such as roads, footpaths and bridleways. This does not mean that a linear use is necessarily the right one and other uses such as agriculture will also need to be considered. What is important is that proper consideration is given to what is the best use in the public interest, whether on a linear or a non-linear basis. Personally, I think it quite likely that many of the local councils will turn out to be those who wish to operate the local railway lines. So far as linear use of the land is concerned, the roads would have to be very narrow indeed. In the case of a double track railway there will be at the most only a two-lane road, and when it approaches a tunnel or a deep cutting it may become even less. So from the point of view of roads the contention is not very practicable. In any event, road transport is becoming more and more doubtful with the increasing price of fuel and also the much greater accident rate. One must remember that very strongly. Railways are about a hundred times safer than the roads.

When I first mentioned this Bill to one Member of your Lordships' House he said: "Oh, yes, I suppose you're making way for the steam enthusiasts." That was not my idea at all. But even if they do come in to some extent, which perhaps they will, what then? Look at the Bluebell Railway, for instance, which carries hundreds of people every day. These railways are an immense draw. I do not think there is any harm at all in letting the enthusiasts operate these branch lines if they wish to. However, what I had in mind for the vast majority of these lines is, possibly, a single diesel car or a diesel car with a trailer. In that case of course they could be run as light railways.

To look at the matter from the financial point of view, I feel that the British Railways Board must realise that if they do not want to operate a line they should not ask for exorbitant prices from those who do. Apropos of that, I would quote just one or two instances where they have done so. This is a quotation from the Western Morning News: During last month it was announced that the annual rental for operating trains into Taunton station had been increased from £6,000 to £13,000 and the charge for altering signalling equipment at Norton Fitzwarren raised from £6,000 to £12,700. One expects prices to rise of course every year—every month, these days—but not quite to that extent. In any case, if a body does not want to do something itself it should not, by exorbitant charges, try to prevent other people from doing it. That surely is a dog in the manger attitude, of which I do not think the British Railways Board should be guilty. That is why Clauses 3 and 4 have been inserted in the Bill. I seem to have mislaid for the moment details of another case I might have quoted. It was very similar to the previous one and again concerned an enormous increase in charges.

This Bill as it stands is not complete. It was rather hastily drafted, I admit. There is one bad gap in that there is nothing to give an assurance that those who are taking over these branch lines for operation have the necessary expertise and knowledge of railway working. If your Lordships will give the Bill a Second Reading, I intend to put that matter right at Committee stage. To go through the clauses of the Bill, Clause 1 provides for the two methods of transfer, either by outright sale of the line or by lease. Different conditions apply to each method—different responsibilities for upkeep and so on. Clause 2 provides for applications where the line is still running but where the closure of the line has been announced. As I have said, Clauses 3 and 4 provide for an independent Commission to assess the amount which should be paid to the Railways Board. Clause 4 deals with the matters they shall consider when they are assessing that price. Clause 5 deals with the eligibility of the applicant for a grant under Section 56 of the Transport Act 1968.

During the passage of the Children Bill I was very much warned by the remarks of the noble and learned Lord. Lord Simon of Glaisdale, who spoke of the horrors of legislation by reference. Therefore, I think it is best to read to your Lordships Section 56 of the Transport Act 1968. Subsection (1) says: Subject to subsections (3) and (4) of this section, the Minister may with the approval of the Treasury make grants upon such terms and conditions as the Minister thinks fit to any person towards expenditure appearing to the Minister to be of a capital nature or to be incurred by that person for the purpose of the provision, improvement or development of facilities for public passenger transport in Great Britain. Subsection (2) says: Subject to subsections (3) and (4) of this section, any local authority, or any two or more local authorities acting jointly, may make payments, upon such terms and conditions as they think fit, to any other person towards expenditure appearing to the authority or authorities in question to be of a capital nature or to be incurred by that other person for the purpose of the provision, improvement or development of any facilities for public passenger transport if it appears to the authority or each of the authorities in question that those facilities are or will be of benefit to the area of that authority. Those last words are very important, because benefit to the people who are living in the area is what we are dealing with in this Bill.

I feel that the provision of an efficient form of transport to, maybe, the nearest market town will be of far more benefit than providing a narrow road, or a footpath, or a bridle path. And if I may dare say so in front of many noble Lords who are interested in farming, I cannot believe that a railway line is likely to be of much use to agriculture; either it will be in deep cuttings, or on high embankments, or running through a tunnel.

Clause 6 deals with the provisions for running the line as a light railway. This is rather interesting. I had great difficulty in finding the legal definition of a light railway, but I have it here. Contrary to what one might expect, it has nothing whatsover to do with gauge. It is not necessarily a narrow gauge railway. The legal definition is this: A normal railway is subject under special or general Acts to all the important and detailed statutory provisions designed to secure the safe construction, operation and maintenance of a railway intended for the unrestricted carriage of passengers and freight. These provisions were, and are, expensive to apply. A light railway, however, is one for which many of these requirements are waived, provided certain limitations are imposed in the interests of safety—that is, limits on the frequency of trains, on axle weight and speed. Therefore, the cost of running the line can be kept down without risk to the public. That is the kind of thing that I envisage—a light railway and a diesel car, with perhaps a trailer, running four or five times a day in each direction, which would provide all the transport that the local community would need but which would still be run as a light railway.

Section 28 of the Regulation of Railways Act 1868, which this Bill will repeal, is a section which lays down that the axle weight shall be 8 tons and that the speed shall not exceed 20 m.p.h. I hardly feel that that is suitable for present-day conditions. A diesel car can do a great deal more than 20 m.p.h. As to the axle weight, that, as your Lordships will see, will be left to the Minister to decide. As your Lordships know, the axle weight is the weight which is borne by any one pair of wheels.

The question is whether this Bill will be of any benefit to the public as a whole. I think that it will. It will enable the public to reach out-of-the-way places, and it will enable the people who live in those out-of-the-way places to reach the more populated ones. Therefore, it will be of mutual benefit. I hope I have said enough to prove that after, perhaps, some improvements at Committee stage, this will be a worthwhile Bill. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Somers.)

4.59 p.m.


My Lords, this Bill is the product of the passionate and faithful interest of the noble Lord, Lord Somers, in railways, which springs, as he has said again this afternoon, from his desire to see more intensive, and particularly rural railway services in this country. I fully understand his interest which led to a wide-ranging debate at the end of last year to which I also had the privilege to reply.

Since I have "dived into ", if I may use the expression, the railway scene, I have been fascinated to find that it is still such a male-dominated interest. As we move towards a change in the roles of men and women, and girls play with railways and boys play with dolls, it may be that there will be a bigger female interest in these debates. It is still, I think, too much of a masculine preserve. I should like to see the day—and no doubt the noble Lord, Lord Greene of Harrow Weald, whom I am delighted to see will speak in this debate, will comment on it—when there are women engine drivers. There are still no women engine drivers, and I imagine the usual retort will be given as to why not—that they have not applied. But equality of opportunity, and opportunities for training are necessary in this sphere.


My Lords, if the noble Baroness will allow me to interrupt her, this is not intended to be a game. I can assure her that this is a really serious matter of transport.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I wish the noble Lord, Lord Somers, would let me continue. This is not a game. It is perfectly true that this is something which is of mutual interest. I am completely serious when I say that both men and women should be interested in things which, up to now, have been considered the preserve of one or the other.


My Lords, would the noble Baroness allow me—

Baroness BIRK

No, my Lords, not just at the moment, because I really think I must get on to the noble Lord's Bill. However, I will give way a little later on. As the noble Lord, Lord Somers, was kind enough to say, I personally explained to him why, although I welcome his ideas, I cannot offer a similar welcome to his Bill. I am grateful to him for referring to that in such a felicitous manner. The Bill contains practical defects, and would give rise to major changes in Government policy on land use which the Government cannot possibly accept. The purpose of the noble Lord's Bill, if I may reiterate it, is to enable organisations and private individuals to take over and operate branch lines on which the Railways Board are no longer operating services. However, in essentials, the Bill adds nothing to existing legislation, and in many respects would detract from present arrangements.

My Lords, there are already adequate statutory powers to enable private individuals to acquire and operate branch lines if they can reach agreement with the Board on the financial basis of the transfer, and provided they can satisfy the Department that they are competent to assume responsibility for maintaining and operating the railway to the standards demanded by public safety. I discussed this the other day with a member of the Board of British Rail and he confirmed that the Board are always willing to dispose of their surplus assets to amenity groups and other potential private operators. I hope that the noble Lord will take it from that alone that I am approaching this matter with a very serious concern. They also co-operate with existing private operators, for example, by printing details of services in British Rail timetables.

In addition, the present arrangements have the advantage that objections from the public to the reopening or continued use of a branch line can be heard and considered. This Bill has no such provisions. Moreover, although the Bill may make it easier for private individuals to acquire the line, it does nothing to make it more simple for them to operate railway services, for which they must still obtain a Light Railway Order.

For the benefit of the House, I will deal first with the objections of principle to the Bill, and then with some of the practical difficulties. The major policy issue involved, as I think was recognised by the noble Lord, Lord Somers, concerns land use. I think that the quotation by the noble Lord, when he referred to the Department of the Environment, supports what I am about to say; that our country is small, but our population is large enough to make it imperative that land is used in the best possible manner. This means that a wide range of options must be considered before deciding what is the best use for an unused piece of land. While I appreciate the high value attached by the noble Lord, Lord Somers, to the continued use of land for railways, I must emphasise that no proposal to close a railway would ever be accepted without a full investigation of hardship caused to the travelling public. Railways are not closed just on a whim. The transport difficulties and problems of the country referred to by the noble Lord are well understood. In the Government's view, where British Rail are authorised to dispose of railway land, its use for purposes other than railways must be considered.

My Lords, to ensure that this is done there are standing arrangements under which British Rail offer surplus land to the relevant local authority. We believe that only the local authorities, with their intimate knowledge of the needs of their area and their direct responsibility to those who elected them, can decide whether it should be retained for use as a railway or put to some other use. I would point out that over the past five years, the Railways Board have reopened 12 stations for passenger use. In every case, the reopening has been agreed by the Board following a local initiative, and the costs of reopening have been borne locally, mainly by the county councils. Noble Lords may have seen reports of the two most recent reopenings which took place on the 5th May, one at Magdalen Road, Norfolk, and the other at Ruskington, Lincolnshire.

My Lords, Clause 1 of this Bill completely overrides the local authorities, since it would ensure that a person or organisation wishing to operate a railway service on a line no longer required by the Board could purchase the line, regardless of the possibility of better use being made of the line. Indeed, there is no provision in the Bill for objections by interested people, such as local authorities, to the purchase or leasing of the line from British Rail. Prospective railway operators under this Bill would have an absolute right to the land whether or not British Rail wishes to sell, and whether or not others wish to buy. What would happen if more than one organisation wanted to buy the same line?

Further, the Bill contains no provision to ensure that prospective operators would have the necessary financial backing and the expertise to run a successful and safe railway service. The expense involved in running a railway is enormous, and since British Rail are not in the habit of closing down profitable services, the financial resources for maintaining the track and signalling are not likely to be forthcoming from the revenue of the services run on the line. On this point it has been said—the noble Lord himself has said it on this occasion and in the previous debate—that many railway societies run branch lines as a profit. This is true, but they achieve this in the main by running seasonal rather than regular services, and by using voluntary labour. These lines are run largely for pleasure, and people are prepared to pay a higher price than they would pay in a normal travelling, fare-taking situation.

The provisions in Clause 4 of the Bill for the valuation of a branch line are not entirely clear to me. The Commission appointed under Clause 2 to set the purchase price of the line would be obliged to take account of the traffic the branch line would contribute to British Rail services. The contribution made by branch lines to revenue on main lines is notoriously difficult to estimate because it vacillates to some degree, and depends on so many varying factors. I do not think it would be practicable to attempt this as part of the valuation process. Furthermore, this revenue would be lost to British Rail should the new owner of the branch line for any reason prove unable to operate the railway services, or discontinue them.

Therefore, it seems that the valuation provisions of the Bill would result in British Rail getting a low price for their land. In effect, British Rail would be required under this Bill to subsidise a private operator. We must be clear about this, because it means in effect that the taxpayer would be subsidising the private operator, and those who use his services. The provisional estimate of the Railways Board of the grant they need this year to support passenger services is £340 million. This is somethting that we must remember in the light of what the noble Lord said about such prices, as he put it, being asked for by the Board. We are attempting to cut public expenditure, not to increase it. The Government could not possibly agree to a provision which, by putting extra financial pressure on British Rail, might increase the grant requirement in future years.

My Lords, Clause 7 gives the Secretary of State powers to make regulations governing the safety and the efficiency of the transferred railway service. This is unnecessary. The Secretary of State is already able to impose conditions relating to safety and operating methods under the Light Railway Order procedure. These conditions are imposed on the advice of the Railway Inspectorate and are monitored by them. However, the clause introduces a new principle which I believe to be dangerous. Safety regulations imposed by the Secretary of State under this Bill could be annulled by either House of Parliament. In the Government's view, it would be quite wrong if the expert and independent judgment of the Railway Inspectorate could be set aside in this way. Though your Lordships' House has its distinguished railway experts—and some of them are speaking in the debate today—I am sure they will agree that our collective experience does not qualify us to undertake this responsibility.

1 have dealt with some of the important issues raised by this Bill. I should now like to mention some practical points. First, under present law authority to operate a railway service must be granted either by a Private Bill, or by a Light Railway Order made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. This Bill does not enable these procedures to be bypassed. Therefore, were it enacted, those people to whom branch lines were transferred under the Bill would still not have authority to operate railway services, and indeed there might be compelling reasons for not granting such authority. For example, they might lack the technical competence to run a railway. Therefore, the purpose of the Bill would be defeated.

Clause 1(1)(b) of this Bill allows the Board the option of leasing the railway line to the prospective operator rather than selling it outright. On the face of it, this sounds quite an attractive proposition. But if the option were taken up British Rail would be compelled to retain responsibility for the track, signalling, bridges, level crossings and tunnels. It is hard to see why the Board should ever wish to exercise this option which would force them to maintain expensive equipment, when the assets concerned were unlikely ever to bring them much—if any—financial benefit, and it would be contrary to public policy for the Board to behave in this manner. Even if the Board did wish to lease the line on this basis, the division of responsibilities between the branch line operator and British Rail would be very difficult for both parties.

Clause 5 adds nothing to existing legislation. It specifies factors to be taken into account by the Minister in reaching decisions on applications for grants for capital projects under Section 56 of the Transport Act 1968 to which the noble Lord drew attention. In the first place, these grants are now paid only in Scotland, in England and Wales they have been subsumed in the new Transport Supplementary Grant. In the second place, any Minister would take account of the factors specified in this clause when taking decisions on grant applications. Clause 6 of the Bill is, I am afraid, also unnecessary. The Minister's power to impose speed limits when granting a light railway order already exists under Section 9(4) of the Light Railways Act 1896. The repeal of Section 28 of the Regulation of Railways Act of 1868 is also of little or no consequence in this context. This section restricts the weight and speed of trains on light railways, but under later legislation this restriction can he waived at the Secretary of State's discretion.

To sum up, this Bill effectively sacrifices all other possible uses of land to railway operation, which would, in the Govment's view, be quite wrong. It appears to do this in ways that may well cause British Rail to lose money. The Bill does nothing to bypass the admittedly rather cumbersome method by which authority to run a railway is secured. But the Government are currently looking at ways of granting this authority more easily. Lastly, the Bill, by giving private operators the right to acquire disused lines, could stop land being put to a use of greater value to the community, and it is this which I believe to be the major objection to the Bill.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Somers, for giving us the opportunity for a debate on the railways, and for what I am sure will be a most interesting debate. I hope that from what I have said I have made it quite clear that I cannot offer the noble Lord Government support for his Bill, nor can I offer him any encouragement that his attempts to amend the Bill will achieve any greater acceptability. The differences between us on the major points of principle are so great that the Bill could not possibly be amended to make it acceptable to the Government. I think it only fair to make this quite clear, and I decided to speak early in the debate so that the noble Lord knows exactly what is the situation. I hope he will think seriously during the course of the debate about the grave disadvantages of his Bill, and, although I appreciate the amount of time and work that must have gone into it, I hope that at the end of the debate he will seek leave to withdraw it.

5.16 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Somers, is something of a railway enthusiast and from time to time from both Front Benches I have been pleased to welcome his contribution to, and his support for, the railways of this country, but I find it absolutely impossible to support him on his Bill today. My noble friend's examination of this Bill, and her exposition of what is contained in it leave very little to be said by those who, like myself, have spent a lifetime in railways. I would tell my noble friend that I did not play with them; I worked on them and therefore her challenge about "playing with dolls" certainly does not affect me.

The noble Lord, Lord Somers, said that his Bill has substantial financial implications, and one of my main objections to the Bill stems from its financial implications. From the very outset of railway nationalisation Parliament has laid a financial duty, first on the Transport Commission and subsequently on the Railways Board, to break even. The Transport Act of 1962 repeated the formula: Each of the Boards shall so conduct their business as to secure that their revenue is not less than sufficient for making provision for the meeting of charges properly chargeable to revenue, taking one year with another ". Then we—Parliament, Government—have hedged the railways about with instructions and prohibitions which add to the difficulty of achieving that end, and this Bill seems to me to be another attempt to persuade Parliament to add an instruction to the Railways Board which may well have the effect of forcing the Board to dispose of certain of its assets below what might be their market value.

What does this Bill tell the Board it must do with a branch line after going through all the procedures laid down by the Transport Act of 1962 and that of 1968, and the Minister has said that the Board may close the line? There is a testing period to be gone through before finally the Minister says "Yes, you may close the line ". Almost invariably—and I am bound to say this to the noble Lord, Lord Somers—the railways have tried all the things possible to attempt to ensure that the line could be kept as a viable entity: the running of diesel engines, the running of diesel cars, and so on. All these almost invariably have been tried before, finally and reluctantly—and I stress the word "reluctantly"—the Board decides that it has to go through the procedure to close that branch line.

What would happen under the Bill when the Board is finally permitted by the Minister to close the line? Instead of being permitted to sell its property to the highest bidder, after giving the offer of the first refusal to the appropriate local authority, it shall, under the terms of Clause 1 of the Bill, sell or lease the property to an individual or organisation who, or which, desires to establish the service on the line.

The price to be paid for the sale or lease of the property will, in the event of a failure to reach agreement by the parties, be fixed by a Commission, and, on any appeal by any of the parties, by the Minister of Transport. In those circumstances the price is bound to be related to what the Commission or the Minister thinks would be its value for the purpose of trying to re-establish a service which the Railways Board has been permitted to cease, after having gone through all the statutory procedures and trying all it knows to make it an economic part of its system. That would, having regard to its obligatory sale or letting in mind, under the terms of this Bill, be a very low price indeed. That is inevitable. If the local authority wished to purchase the property for a road or other purposes, or any developer for housing or factory development, the Board would have its hands tied by the terms of this Bill. I am sure that the House would not wish that to be imposed upon the Railways Board in addition to the things I have already said are imposed on it by Statute and Ministerial decrees.

My Lords, the second objection to the the Bill that I have on financial grounds stems from Clause 2. As I understand the present position, it is that when the Railways Board decides that the time has come to close a branch line there is a procedure to be observed, for which provision is made in Section 56 of the Transport Act 1962 as amended by Section 54 of the Transport Act 1968. That is a very lengthy, time-consuming process before the Minister, if he finally agrees, consents to the closure. Once that consent has been given, it is clearly in the Board's interests to close that part of the system as soon as it can, for the obvious reason that it does not want to go on wasting the Board's money, wasting the taxpayers' money—because that is what it amounts to—by running something which clearly everybody who has examined it, the consultative committees, et cetera, have said is not a viable part of the railway system of the country.

Clause 2 of the Bill will give prospective purchasers two months within which to send a notification of their interest to the Minister and the Chairman of the Board. On the receipt of such a notification the Board would, under subsection (2) be under an obligation to continue to operate the existing service for a further six months. As I see it, such a notification would cause the Board to continue in the loss consequent on the operation of an uneconomic branch line for anything up to eight months; that is, for the two month period during which the prospective purchasers can make up their minds about sending notification, plus six months under subsecton (2) of this clause. The question immediately arises in my mind, who is going to reimburse the Board for the continued loss it will sustain by running as a service something which the Minister has agreed should be closed? I can see nothing in the Bill which suggests that the Board is going to be reimbursed for the loss which will continue on that branch line—certainly nothing respecting compensation to be paid to the Board by the prospective purchasers for that loss consequent upon the continuing of the uneconomic service.

My Lords, another objection I have to the provisions of Clause 2 is that nothing is said about the examination of the bona fides of the person, or persons, notifying the Board of their interest, so that a branch line may be kept functioning at a loss by people who have neither the intention, nor the financial standing, to enable them to purchase or to lease the line. I believe this is important. It clearly is a serious omission in a Bill of this sort.

Mention has been made—and I accept this—of the private operators who have made a success of the lines that they have operated. I think what has to be said about that is that such operators have been mostly selling trips rather than necessarily contributing to regular travel facilities. This is something different; selling trips to holidaymakers in highly specialised conditions. The trips are in so many cases taken by railway enthusiasts, and at the height of the holiday season. As my noble friend has said, much of the work is done by volunteers because of the exceptional conditions operating on that bit of line. I have nothing against that, but it must be noted that these railways have been obtained by the operators, and are worked, under the existing Acts of Parliament.

We do not need a new Act in order to permit them to do just that; they are doing it under the existing Acts of Parliament, the Act of 1962, the Act of 1968, and so on. All the operators did was to reach agreement with the Railways Board, and also satisfy the Department that they were competent to assume responsibility for the safety and maintenance of the system they proposed to operate. My Lords, it is not, as I conceive it. and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Somers, here, for the Board to sit on any of its assets in a dog in the manger fashion saying, "If we cannot operate this stretch of line with due regard to our obligation to break even, no one else shall have it ". But the Board must be permitted to behave within the bounds of sound commercial practice. They must have this in mind quite clearly.

I am also far from happy about Clause 7, which might be construed, as my noble friend said, as a clause to permit the Minister to make provisions for standards of safety lower than those already imposed upon British Railways, whose safety record, I am proud to say, will stand up to the closest examination. I think we are all proud of our railway system, certainly in that connection. Despite what recently happened at Moorgate, the safety conditions, taken over the years, are such that the railways come out as a shining example of safety in transport as against road. As I understand it, the present system, which allows for the exercise of the independent judgment of the Railway Inspectorate, is both accepted and generally admired. I, who have had the pleasure before now of sitting on some of the inquiries that look into such accidents as do take place, have been delighted with the care and attention devoted by that Inspectorate to the job which they have to do when, unfortunately, some accident occurs—so rarely, thank Heaven!

Finally, my Lords, I think it is pointless to clutter up the legislative machine with Bills that just have not an earthly chance of becoming Acts of Parliament. Perhaps this does not matter so much in this House, for the moment that is, but I believe we shall be under considerable pressure by the time this Bill, if given a Second Reading, could reach the further stages. Altogether I am bound to say that this Bill is not of a quality which your Lordships should be asked to pass. I really think that the noble Lord, Lord Somers, having given his ideas an airing, would be well advised to withdraw his Motion for the Second Reading, and then perhaps with his advisers give further thought to the whole matter in the light of this debate today, and in the light particularly of the objections of the Department, as voiced by my noble friend Lady Birk.

5.30 p.m.


My Lords, having heard so much from the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, and the noble Lord, Lord Champion, of the facts of the case, there is little left for me to mention. What came out clearly from the introduction of the Bill by the noble Lord, Lord Somers, was the genuine concern that he felt for the welfare of the people in what he called "out of the way places ". He saw this as a Bill to try to help this group. I was puzzled at one stage when I thought that the noble Baroness was about to report the British Railways Board, the trade unions and the railways generally to the Sex Discrimination Board. However, I was glad to see that we were able to sail clear of those choppy waters. Also, for one moment I thought that the noble Lord, Lords Somers, was campaigning for the anti-road, lobby in the debate. However, that, too, was safetly put aside.

This side of the House—the Conservative Party in particular—have in general always been inclined to welcome enterprise and initiative. We believe that people who show enterprise and initiative have helped to make this country great and will go on doing so. It does not matter whether they are amenity groups, individuals or local authorities. In essence we are considering what are afterthoughts on this problem. The railway pattern of lines, as we have established, is likely to be substantially the same for many years to come. Already British Railways have cut out most of their uneconomic lines, with the exception of those which have been retained for the social and economic necessities of certain parts of the country.

Having said that the broad picture will be the same, there may still be the odd lines here or there which will find themselves condemned to extinction. The noble Lord, Lord Somers, would through the Bill give a right, subject to certain conditions, for any new body to continue to operate these railway services. Although it may sound attractive at first sight to let enthusiasts or amenity groups—or those doing it for the clear good of moving people in an area—have this right, I must sound a note of caution. As the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, said, when we were in Office we introduced a code of practice into these matters which should not be lightly cast aside. When Ministers have confirmed, as the noble Baroness explained, closure orders, it was and still is customary for the local planning authority to be given the problem about what to do about derelict lines and buildings, and to consider and make recommendations in the general interest of the area and the people in it.

In certain cases, planning authorities occasionally recommend that certain bodies should be allowed to operate railway lines. We had such a case in North Yorkshire. In other cases the authorities might decide that some other use was made more appropriate, perhaps was more appropriate, perhaps some form of new access road or a new by-pass. I remind the noble Lord, Lord Somers, it is always easier to add a strip to an existing road or railway than to start completely fresh somewhere else. Although the location may not be all that wide, it is still a nucleus on which to build. There can also be provided footpaths and bridle paths and there are other kinds of permutation which can be thought of for disused railway lines, even in certain built-up areas which can be used as natural areas for flora and fauna. Many people would regard such planning as excellent for many of our overdeveloped areas.

I also think that where local authorities might wish to take over the running of railways themselves, with the consent of their planning authorities, they should be entitled as of right to have priority to purchase over other bodies. Under this Bill, that would not be the case. Under recent legislation we have placed greater responsibilities on local authorities over transport measures generally. New councils have greatly increased responsibiliites for introducing safety measures. I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Champion, would be averse to local authorities, if they saw fit, exercising their power in this way. I do not think it would necessarily clash with the railway inspectorate's safety measures. Having spoken generally of the principles involved, feeling chiefly that the local authorities should have their planning say first, I hope that I have presented a reasonable and common-sense view of the problems. I have purposely not involved myself in the technical details. If the discussion should reach the Committee stage, we can discuss these matters more fully later.

5.37 p.m.


My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Somers, as a long-lost friend. In many years I have opposed railway closures. I do not desire to see any of them closed. When I saw this Bill, my natural instinct was to race to their defence. But I do not think that this is the right way to deal with this serious problem. The situation facing the railways in this country today is the responsibility of successive Governments who have not been so generous with the railways of Great Britain as have Continental Governments with their railways. Over a number of years we have had a reduction in the route-mileage of railways from about 17,000 miles to 11,000 miles. The impression I had for a long time, was that that would continue to be the position on British Railways.

I am not trying to be facetious, but if the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, wants to be an engine driver or a guard, I have not the slightest doubt that the railways will become viable straight away! The Bill states, offer the said branch line for sale to the said individual or organisation … It raises the questions: who, what for and where? In the light of those circumstances, one cannot leave the matter so open. Even if one were able to do it in that way, what would happen if an organisation or an individual took over a line and it failed? It might well be that they had taken the land and the assets of the railways, but when they eventually failed they would find themselves with an asset whose worth was out of all proportion to what they had paid. I accept what the noble Lord has said that in most cases the sale of railways in the past—for example, the Dart and Bluebell Lines—was connected with an enthusiasm for steam, which does not arise now because the railways are either all diesel or all electric.

One of the difficulties about an electrified line is in providing a section to be run by somebody else. If a line is closed because there are no passengers, the necessary rolling stock is removed. What is left are the passenger stations, the per- manent way, but no rolling stock. Then it has to be decided what rolling stock is required for the people likely to travel on the railway. Another difficulty in the railway industry at the moment is in trying to find people who want to enter the industry in order to take other people to work early in the mornings and bring them home late at night. Are we going to get a body of enthusiasts or individuals who will depend on people coming in, certainly in some cases, to give their services free? If one considers the Dart Line, the Bluebell Line or the Blaenau-Ffestioniog Line, there are many people who work for those lines for absolutely nothing at all and out of pure enthusiasm. But they are running their railways at times when people are there for enjoyment, and not out of necessity such as for getting to and from work or because people do not have motor cars.

There is an organisation called "Transport 2000" which tries to do something to keep the railways running in order to provide adequate services. It is not so easy to run a railway as some people think, particularly when one must get people in an industry organised to turn out at certain times of the day to provide a service to the passengers, and, if what the noble Lord, Lord Somers, has in mind is to give a service to the general public, then I do not believe this is the way to go about it. Probably, if one made representations to Dick March, he might sell the lot straight away, but that is not the issue either.

Which lines are being closed down? I do not know where they are, and perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Somers, will tell us the answer, because I have heard of only two in dispute; one is the Kyle of Lochalsh, but I do not know where the other is. While I would support anybody who was trying to keep the railways open, which I have had a great interest in doing, I do not think this is the right way to go about it. I suggest to my very good friend the noble Lord, Lord Somers, that this is not the way around the problem, and we should not attempt to put this responsibility or stricture on a nationalised industry or on any other industry. When one wants to abandon a certain part of an industry, one is subject to somebody coming along and making a case for keeping it open, but under this measure the only reply in connection with the cost would have to be, "I cannot do that. I must pass it over, subject to arbitration." In my view, that is not the right way of going about it and, while I have great sympathy with the points of view which the noble Lord, Lord Somers, expressed, I suggest that this is not a Bill which should be passed by this House.

5.43 p.m.


My Lords, I had not intended to intervene in this debate but it seemed to me that somebody from the Back-Benches on this side of the House should comment on the Bill. I was for 10 years the Member of Parliament for Swindon, and during that time I had 12,000 railway workers as constituents. Then for 18 years I was the Member of Parliament for St. Marylebone and had the headquarters of British Railways in my constituency, so I have had some experience and knowledge of the operations of the railways.

I have to declare an interest in that I and my family run the miniature railway from Ravenglass up the Eskdale Valley for seven and a quarter miles. In a few days' time we celebrate our centenary. It was certificated to run for the carrying of iron ore, but the railway inspector who took a look at that line was not at all satisfied that it was properly built for the carrying of passengers, and it was not until a year later that it got the necessary certificate to carry passengers. We carry about 300,000 tourists a year, so we are quite a busy little line. I was interested in what the noble Lord, Lord Greene, said about the running of a service and the operating of a railway at times when it is convenient to everybody. It so happens that our first train down goes in the morning at 7.30, but we have on occasions to pick up boys from the Outward Bound School at an earlier time, at 6.30. I recall an occasion when a train went down at 6.30 a.m., arrived at a level-crossing at which it had to blow its whistle, which it did, and apparently a woman in a nearby house got up and made her husband his usual morning cup of tea thinking it was 7.30, only to find it was 6.30, and got a good "raspberry" for doing it.

I feel that there is really no need at all for this Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, on behalf of the Government, gave a full description in great detail, clause by clause, of the reasons why this Bill should not be given a Second Reading. The noble Lord, Lord Champion, from his great experience of the operating of railways, gave a careful, thorough and again detailed statement of the reasons why this Bill should not have a Second Reading. I will not repeat what they said because I agree wholeheartedly with all of it, except to remark that from my dealings—and I have had considerable experience of dealing with the Railway Property Disposal Board about the disposal of railway property, and I have had certain interests in acquiring branch lines that were closed and put up for sale—I can tell your Lordships that they really fall over backwards to delay a sale and try to help potential purchasers. I confirm what the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, and the noble Lord, Lord Champion, said about how reasonable they are in the prices they ask, but of course one must consider the taxpayer. After all, this Board are the guardians of public money, and they cannot give public money away just like that. Nevertheless, they are always fair and reasonable in what they try to do.

The fact is that full gauge branch line operating, even with a great deal of voluntary help, is not a viable operation. It was not viable before the inflation acceleration, and to try to start a new line today is quite out of the question. About two years ago in the Railway Magazine there was an interesting article which divided the railways into three groups: miniature, light railway—not as defined by the noble Lord, Lord Somers, but of a gauge less than full gauge—and full gauge. The article showed that, with one exception, all the privately-owned railways in the United Kingdom were not viable commercial operations. They were all losing money.

Any surplus was nothing like enough to make the necessary track replacements when the rails wore out or sleepers needed renewing. But above everything, the great big engines and rolling stock which were got at break-up or nominal value must, in due course, be replaced and that, of course, is an extremely expensive business. It is, therefore, not true to say that they are run at a profit, because they are not. The one exception mentioned was the one which we own and run. We were supposed to have a rating which indicated that we made a profit, though on appeal, by employing a railway expert, we were able conclusively to show that far from a profit there was a £30,000 deficiency on this little railway. We are able to keep going because of camping coaches, cafés, shops, car parks, and similar accessories, so to speak, which bring in extra money which keep the railway operation going. Without them a profit can not be made.

Viscount AMORY

My Lords, I am interested to hear that my noble friend has managed to get a railway working at a profit. May I ask him if, as an old age pensioner, I pay £4.60, I may travel at half price on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays?


My Lords, not on our railway! In my view there is little possibility of any branch line being opened in future, if it is to operate over ten miles or less, unless it is operating as a miniature. The main reason is that the capital costs of running a railway are so much less for a miniature than for a full gauge railway.

All over the country, the British Rail Property Disposal Board have been holding up sales to the public disadvantage because they have been leaning over backwards to help people. Some of the improvements that ought to be taking place have been held up. I know of one example in the Barnstaple area, in a manufacturing and industrial area, where the road ought to be widened; there is terrible congestion there. But that improvement has been held up for several years simple because of the possibility that a preservation society may raise the money to run a branch line there. Some people put up a few thousand pounds, but it is all finished with and I am afraid that they have lost their money.

My Lords, what is wanted—if, indeed, anything is wanted—is a Bill to speed up the work of the Disposal Board, not to delay it. From my personal experience, I believe that there is no need for the Bill. The Board are doing a good job and should be encouraged to get on with their work as fast as possible. They should not be hindered and delayed, as I fear the Bill would do. I hope that the noble Lord, having heard all the arguments that have been put forward, will consider withdrawing the Bill. I thank him for giving us an opportunity to talk on this fascinating subject. Perhaps we may hope that, somehow or another, these privately operated railways—which give an enormous amount of pleasure to quite a lot of people—will, by hook or by crook, be able to continue for many a long year.

5.53 p.m.

The Marquess of AILSA

My Lords, I feel that I should stand up in support of the noble Lord, Lord Somers, for I believe that a Bill on the lines suggested is needed. I have an interest in the subject in that I am interested in a full gauge railway branch line of British Rail in Scotland and have, for my sins, had the honour of being a general manager of a railway under conditions virtually laid down by British Rail but not, fortunately, on the mainland of the United Kingdom. So I know the problems. Some of them were named by the noble Lord, Lord Somers, and some by the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, and the noble Lord, Lord Champion. That was the opposition that I faced when I took over the railway to which I refer. I overcame it for some years, and the proof of my point is that, after I gave up the running of the railway, it still continues to run because the Government of the country in question said that it must not close. It had closed before I got there.

I gather that the reason why the Bill is not welcome is, first of all, that there is a possible misuse of land. I accept that there is a possibility of misuse, but I believe that the cases in which this happens are minimal. I know of many other areas where railways have been closed and the lines lifted and the land stays there. It has been thrown in with the adjoining farm. I have some, but it never again becomes incorporated with the adjoining land. I have land which I have not been allowed to develop and the use of which has now been held up for fifteen years. At that time it was to be used as a road. I am still not allowed to develop it. It may be used as a road, but there is no plan to make it so, and nobody can tell me when it will be used as a road. Possibly, my son, if he is fortunate enough to succeed me, and if he is lucky, will see it used as a road. While I accept that there are occasions when land use comes into the picture—and I believe that the noble Lord mentioned a case outside Barnstaple which may be very pertinent—all too often this is not the case, and we find these—I hate to say "scars" because I am a railway lover—tracks which are still there. They can be seen to this day because they were never reincorporated when the line was taken up.

People have brought up the question of difficulty of operation, and the noble Lord who preceded me mentioned the cost. I know from personal experience the fantastic cost involved in running a railway; but it can be done and, if there are people who are willing to undertake it and who are fully aware of what it entails, I do not think that they should be discouraged. They should be given an opportunity at least to place their proposals before a responsible body, be it the Board or the Minister, and to say what they intend for the line. They should be allowed to say why they think it can continue and can play a part in the life of the country. That is why we should not allow ourselves to become bound up in the statutory powers which we all know of and which tend to be killing rather than life-giving. Quite often, we want things to go on which, with all due respect to the Board of British Rail—and it does very well and I have a great deal of time for it—a small unit can do better than a large one. If that small unit can show that, with all its complexities and difficulties—and I know those difficulties and have faced them—the thing can be done and it can win, it should be allowed to go ahead.

I think we should give the noble Lord, Lord Somers, a hearing and should welcome the Bill. The noble Lord mentioned dealing with the prices asked by British Rail. I believe that there should be a consideration of this sort put into it because British Rail, naturally and rightly—and I do not argue against it—has to get the best bargain for what it has. Most of what it has is scrap. As the noble Lord, Lord Greene said, the rolling stock will not be there. British Rail will have taken it away. There will be the track, the sleepers and the track-bed. The track and the sleepers are scrap and can command a scrap price; but there will also be the cost of lifting them, which may take up all that British Rail would have got for the sale. If the track and sleepers could be left in situ and somebody could use them and get a reasonable return, so much the better. Before condemning the Bill which the noble Lord, Lord Somers, has brought forward, as I rather gathered from every speaker I have heard was the intention, I believe that some encouragement should be given to it. I welcome the Bill.

5.58 p.m.


My Lords, until the noble Marquess, Lord Ailsa, spoke, I did not think that a single word would be said in favour of the Bill. I see that there are grounds for criticism, but I confess that the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, made me feel that my diction must be exceedingly bad because she did not hear several of the things that I said. For instance, she complained that there was no provision for ensuring adequate expertise in the organisation taking over the branch lines. I had already said that I intended to introduce a clause at Committee stage to deal with that point.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, when I wound up I said that the Amendments which the noble Lord wished to put down at Committee stage did not answer the major objection to the Bill; that it would still make it unacceptable to the Government. I specifically said that.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness. The noble Lord, Lord Champion, to whom, naturally, I always listen with great respect when railways are under discussion, was, I am sorry to say, wholeheartedly against the Bill. He talked about British Rail's disposal of assets below their value, but who can say what is their value when they are not being used and when they are lying there as disused tracks? For instance, if one has an old suit which one never wears and which is rapidly deteriorating in quality, one does not expect a great price for it. On the other hand—


My Lords, the noble Lord asked, who is to decide what the value of the assets would be. In his Bill the Commission will decide the value of the assets. Surely the point he is now making has no validity at all.


My Lords, that is just what the Bill provides for. I thought the noble Lord was complaining that the assets would be below value. I am merely saying what is their value, when they are being completely unused by anybody? However, though this Bill certainly has its imperfections as it stands, I am very glad that I have had one supporter in the noble Marquess, and I must tell him that I am extremely grateful to him. Although I think it possible that your Lordships will not want to pass the Bill, I should like to test the opinion of the House.

On Question. Motion for Second Reading negatived.