HL Deb 26 February 1986 vol 471 cc1123-51

8.7 p.m.

Baroness Stedman rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied that the existing procedures for public objection or support to be followed before a final decision is taken on the proposed closure of the Settle/Carlisle railway line will offer adequate opportunity for the social and environmental issues to be fully discussed.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in speaking to the Unstarred Question in my name on the Order Paper I should like to thank all those who have put their name down to speak, and especially the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle who will be making his maiden speech. We all wish him well. We look forward to hearing his contribution tonight and to hearing speeches from him on many other subjects in the not too distant future.

For some time there has been a growing concern that railway closure procedures are not really understood by the general public and that they need updating. The local authorities have felt that they have insufficient opportunities to comment on the closure proposals. There is also a wider concern because local authorities and commercial and environmental organisations have no statutory right to be heard, and there is no opportunity for the wider range of issues, including the effect of closures on the local economy, on the pursuit of leisure, and on the tourist interest, to be examined in public.

I believe that the time has come to argue for changes in the statutory procedure. At present under Section 56 of the Transport Act 1962 the Transport Users' Consultative Committees are required to report to the Secretary of State on the "hardship" likely to result from the proposed closure of a passenger service; and the wider issues are not subject to any public discussion or independent report. However, they can be considered in private by the Minister and his advisers.

As I see it, in practice this means that the inquiry is limited to the representations of existing passengers using an existing service on the adequacy of alternative public transport provision. Effectively, therefore, any consideration of matters prior to the issue of the closure notice is precluded. These matters could cover the rundown of the frequency of the service leading to reduced passenger usage and a further reduction in services, and even a reduction in maintenance work leading to deterioration of track and buildings.

I accept that in his private discussions with his advisers it is possible for the Secretary of State to take account of these wider issues when making a decision after the consultative committee has reported to him on hardship. The problem is that the statutory procedures do not lay down exactly what the Secretary of State does or should take into consideration, or even what he should legitimately take account of. I believe that the time has come for all the relevant and appropriate grounds on which representations may be made to be clearly defined and specifically set out in the statutory procedures.

One has only to measure this procedure against the very thorough and wide-ranging examination which takes place under town planning legislation to realise that the divergence of approach between the two types of inquiry procedure really cannot be justified. Surely the removal of important public facilities and services is just as vital as the construction and implementation of new development and facilities, especially as such a withdrawal from public services may well substantially influence public and private future investment decisions.

Many local authorities have either a statutory responsibilty or a very strong interest in public transport. Many individuals and local organisations are increasingly concerned about the rail closure proposals. They feel that there ought to be a genuine opportunity for discussions on proposed closures, not only with British Rail but with all the interested bodies.

The future of freight lines and lines with only occasional passenger services is also part of the problem. They are not covered either by the general consultation or by the consultative committee procedure. If you are looking at proposals for closure the freight aspects are critical and they assume a greater importance because possible future passenger use may not be considered. Nor is any consideration given as to whether freight traffic using a line is relevant to the withdrawal of passenger train services.

I was prompted to table this Question because of the proposed closure of the Settle/Carlisle railway and I should like to use that as the example tonight. Noble Lords may well ask—indeed. I have been asked this evening—why is someone from the edge of the flat fens concerned about this particular proposal? It is because almost 50 years ago it was my introduction to the high fells of the Lake District. Many people still enjoy this unrivalled access to remote country over a superb scenic route.

For those who do not know the area, the line was opened in 1876 by the old Midland Railway as an express route to Scotland. I am told that Appleby church bells were rung when the Railway Bill was passed in another place. The countryside through which it passes led British Rail themselves to issue a leaflet calling it, England's greatest historical scenic route". In 1969 there were 14 weekday passenger through trains. In 1984 the last intercity train from Glasgow to Nottingham was removed, reducing the use then to four weekday passenger through trains. In 1985 this was reduced to two trains a day in each direction. In recent summers since 1974 the Dales rail service runs at weekends, and this has been funded by the national parks, by the Countryside Commission and by the county councils. There have also been extra daily and Sunday excursions by British Rail and excursions have been organised on steam trains.

However, there will be hardship if the line is closed. The local commuters for whom this railway really is a lifeline will lose their mobility, especially in the harsh winter conditions in the area. Those who know the area will know that it can be extremely severe on those fells. Alternative employment opportunities are scarce, if not altogether unobtainable, so there will be job losses. While these may be small, they are very important in a sparsely populated area. There will also be a knock-on effect from the economic problems which affect the more remote rural areas everywhere.

As a diversionary route for both east and west coast main lines, there is no other acceptable alternative either for emergencies or for planned closures. This line has a strategic role in linking the industrial centres of Strathclyde with Yorkshire and the East Midlands. On the very day that British Rail published the intended closure of the line it was used as an emergency diversionary route. Indeed, between January and December 1984 over 200 diverted passenger trains used the line during the engineering operations on the west coast line.

Then, too, this is really a part of our national heritage with the Ribblehead viaduct and all the other structures. The Ribblehead station building was at one time also used for church services and as a weather station. The station approach road was used as a sheep market. Dent station further along the line is the highest on any English main line. The highest water troughs in the days of steam were found at Garsdale. This marked the end of Victorian railway engineering. It was constructed through some of the most remote and hostile, yet most beautiful, scenery in our countryside.

The navvies and their families lived in hutted camps on site. There were some 350 families who lived in a local shanty town, 1,300 feet up the fells. They were connected to the Garsdale road by a tramway. More than 100 of those workers are buried in the little graveyard of the small church of St. Leonard's at Chapel le Dale. Those navvies moved one quarter of a million cubic yards of earth to make the embankment above Settle alone, and in all the length of the track there is only half a mile which is level, and that is between Settle and Blea Moor. Many of the viaducts, tunnels, bridges and stations on that line are now ancient monuments or listed buildings. I see them as a testimony to the work of those navvies over 100 years ago.

Our citizens today have more leisure and there is an increasing concern for an appreciation of our national heritage. As part of that heritage, this railway can only really be appreciated and understood if it is a working railway. A Cabinet Office Enterprise Unit document on tourism urged British Rail to take measures to preserve their historic heritage and British Rail, I believe, could do a lot more to exploit its tourist potential. The Countryside Commission is also interested in this area. It wants to expand the Dales rail service which it, the national parks and the county councils finance. It wants to provide interlinked bus services. It wants to arrange guided walks with special events and publications. If we updated the procedure for closure all those points could be considered, and surely as we enter a new era of leisure and recreation this is not the time to close this line but to preserve it in working order.

The procedures are outdated, as I have said. The Transport Users Consultative Committee is only required to consider hardship, not the matters I have raised today. There really should be an opportunity for public debate and the chance to cross-examine British Rail. The case for maintaining the investment in this line and developing its real potential is overwhelming. I have not developed British Rail's financial case for closure but I urge the Minister to consider the PEIDA report by independent consultants and their cost-benefit appraisal. PEIDA's analysis and suggestions ought to be fully considered by the Secretary of State and by British Rail.

One of the weaknesses of the existing procedure is that British Rail do not have to make their case in public as they would have to do at a public inquiry. Nor can they be subjected to cross-examination. While the TUCC chairman may allow questions to be put to British Rail, through the chair, he cannot insist on replies being given. I understand that at the former Yorkshire TUCC hearings into the Derby Dale closure proposals British Rail declined to comment on, or answer, any of the criticisms made of them. British Rail in effect are quite free to play a very limited role in the hearings in the knowledge that they will make their case in private to the Minister and his advisers.

I believe that these procedures must be widened. There ought to be an opportunity for public discussion not only on hardship, as the Transport Users Consultative Committee does at present, but consideration ought also to be given to freight as well as passenger and to recent financial performance, including the revenue which the line may generate on other parts of the rail network, and to what scope there could be for improving the financial performance by operating economies, by developing the service and even by more forceful marketing.

There should be a wider consideration of the role of the railway in the local community and economy. The elected members of an affected area should be able to make public representations and not leave the advice to the Secretary of State to come from an unelected consumer watchdog—the TUCC. We ought to be able to take a wider view of the general economic, social and environmental consequences of closure decisions and to appreciate the interdependence of lines within networks, both regional and national.

I understand that the consultative committees in the Carlisle/Settle area are considering the matter in late March and April. Is it too much to hope that something may be done before then to enable real public discussion to take place on the lines indicated? There is a need to take an overall view so as to evaluate the total costs of policies—social and economic—prior to their implementation. There is a need to retain basic facilities and a basic service structure in all these rural communities.

We know that certain individual parts of rural infrastructure are not of themselves economically viable. However, we must look further than this year's balance sheet, because any future costs of re-provision of such a service will be far in excess of the cost of retaining the existing services now.

8.22 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Newcastle

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for her kind welcome and her kind remarks. I noticed that the Standing Order of your Lordships' House concerning maiden speeches states that they should be unprovocative. That makes yet more difficult the task of a maiden speaker, for many of the subjects considered by this House are subjects of controversy. Not surprisingly, the subject under discussion this evening is a cause of acute controversy in the area through which runs this stretch of railway. Nevertheless, I hope to be able to steer clear of the shoals of controversy, at least in tone and manner and intention, in the following three points.

The first point flows from the reason why I wish to contribute to this discussion. At first sight, I may seem to be trespassing on the particular interests and concerns of my right reverend friend the Bishop of Carlisle. However, the diocese of Newcastle covers that part of the county of Cumbria which contains, I believe, the highest A-road in the country; the highest parish church, at Nenthead; and the highest market town, Alston, itself but 14 miles from the railway which is under discussion this evening. Further, the diocese of Newcastle also includes wide, sparsely populated areas of border country. All of us who live in those parts are aware of the extent to which life there has been affected by cuts in public transport.

It is commonly held that British Railways should have pruned their network more purposefully long before the Beeching reforms. Had they done so, the cuts would probably not have been so extensive. Now, with hindsight, there is a very general view that these cuts were excessive. In particular, the Waverley line from Carlisle over Whitrope summit through the border towns of Galashiels and Hawick to Edinburgh, should never have gone. The result is that a great swathe of northern England and southern Scotland, from the Tyne to Edinburgh, has no railway at all apart from the east and west cost main lines. People in rural Northumberland and in the eastern tip of Cumbria have spoken to me about the difficulties caused to them by cuts in the railway network and by the withdrawal and cost of rural bus services.

It is sometimes alleged that the services in question—both rail and road—are little used. The truth is that any diminution in public services of this kind counts for a great deal in small and remote communities. Families move to more populous parts; they are not replaced. The population of the rural parts of Northumberland is still declining. Younger people move into the towns and move south, partly for the sake of employment and partly for public amenities. Any cut in the railway network is bound to have adverse social consequences.

The second point can be put more graphically. Over the past 35 years or so I have walked frequently—indeed, very frequently—near the Settle/Carlisle railway by Dent and Garsdale, by Ribblehead and Horton in Ribblesdale. The passenger trains on that line were never numerous unless the west coast main line had been blocked. However, one has a vivid memory of freight traffic, of heavy freight trains toiling and struggling up to Aisgill. Where has all this freight traffic gone? The noble Baroness came close to this point when she asked her Question. Some indeed has gone up and down the west coast main line which is now being electrified, but some has just disappeared. Where has it gone? We all know that much of it has gone to road transport, and that adversely affects the environment.

In the press recently there have been reports of yet more of the newspaper and mail contracts being given to road haulage. I do not doubt that there are formidable difficulties in the way of retaining, let alone of attracting, freight traffic for the railways, but certain routes have managed to do so. Indeed, 20 years ago few people would have believed that the West Highland line to Fort William would have such flourishing and profitable freight traffic. It is said that the freight traffic pays for the line and keeps it in being for passenger use.

As regards the Settle/Carlisle line, one may ask: is the traffic from quarrying stone, slate and gypsum really being exploited as much as possible? Further, the closure of any railway obviously precludes the possibility of regaining some freight traffic from road to rail.

The third consideration which I would advance is neither more nor less than a plea that the educational opportunities afforded by this line and by the country which it traverses should be investigated and used. I have touched on one social and on one environmental factor; now for an educational one.

A headmaster friend recently wrote to me saying that he would dearly love to exploit this line as a resource around which to plan an integrated curriculum. What a variety of subjects lie ready to hand for inclusion, ranging from Roman roads to Anglian field settlements, to the development of country towns. Even geology could become a subject of some vivid interest if one could actually see and touch Dent marble, limestone pavements between Ingleborough and Ribblehead. The entire Great Pennine Fault is to be found in the Birkett tunnel north of Aisgill. Industrial archaeology, social history, railway architecture, botany, too—all and more besides could easily form part of such a course. The Countryside Commission has drawn attention to even wider opportunities for recreation and adult education afforded by this line. Would not the restoration of the Ribblehead viaduct be a piece of modern technological education in its own way as remarkable as the raising of the "Mary Rose"?

I have tried your Lordships' patience and courtesy for long enough, if not for too long. It would be easy to go on at length about the scenic beauty of this line, about the problems which attended its construction and about the heroism of those who have served it in foul weather. But this Question concentrates on social and environmental factors. Those factors change over the years. No longer is it necessary to have a social club for farmers under the water tank at Garsdale, or to have a room set aside for the divine service at Ribblehead station. There are other social and environmental factors which need to be borne in mind today. Does the procedure for public inquiry allow for sufficient consideration to be given to them?

Social and environmental factors were clearly in the mind of William Wordsworth when in 1844 he composed his sonnet, "On the Projected Kendal and Windermere Railway", a line which runs not so far from the line which is the subject of this Question. The poet referred to a "false utilitarian lure" which had led to the planning of the railway. One cannot help thinking that precisely a false utilitarian lure underlies the proposal to close the line, and that there are powerful social and environmental forces which more than outweigh this false utilitarian lure's attractiveness.

8.32 p.m.

Earl Peel

My Lords, perhaps I may first say what a great honour it is to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle, and how much I enjoyed his speech on a subject which obviously is very much to his heart in an area which is very close to his heart. Try as I could, I suppose in view of the nature of the speech, I found it impossible to establish which of the various categories of bishop he belongs to as described by Sir Humphrey the other day in "Yes, Minister".

I must also say how grateful I am to the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, for having put down this Question, for we are undoubtedly discussing this evening a question which evokes much feeling, particularly for those of us who live and work in the North of England, and to the many visitors who come to that part of the world and have had the honour of travelling on the Carlisle to Settle line.

It strikes me as ironic that we find ourselves in this position where the local planning authorities and the public at large are arguing for the retention of a railway and its dominant viaducts, when the very idea of constructing anything similar today would provoke every possible objection from those same planners and public. But it is not surprising that there is this strong public support for retention of this line when one considers that we are dealing with a railway which winds its way through some of the most beautiful and remotest parts of England's countryside combined with those stark, magnificent viaducts which have now blended themselves into the countryside so that they have become part of the countryside. They act as a memorial to the opulent development of the Victorian age.

It is apparently obvious that the reasons for the proposed closure are based on purely economic grounds, and so far as they go I do not think that one can blame British Rail for this. But it would appear that the on-going costs, excluding the viaduct repairs, are no greater than many other provincial lines. In fact I believe they are considerably less.

The noble Baroness made reference earlier to the independent consultants, PIEDA, who were invited to carry out this survey on behalf of the various planning local authorities. They, I believe, have estimated that even including the cost of structural repairs to the viaducts, the Settle to Carlisle line still compares favourably well. It therefore has to be questioned whether all commercial avenues have genuinely been explored, and certainly the preliminary reports would indicate otherwise.

The noble Baroness also made reference to the Dales Rail Service. This initiative was set up by the Yorkshire Dales Committee in conjunction with the West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive. If I may, I should like to give your Lordships some figures relating to the 1985 year. In 1985 £26,000 was spent on chartering trains for seven weekends. That included various other costs on top of the purely chartering costs. That included £3,000 spent on promoting the project; 5,000 people used the service; and an income of £24½ thousand was raised. This demonstrates, from a relatively modest input, exactly what can be produced for this particular line.

In addition to that, and as an offshoot, over 2,000 people participated in guided walks, and obviously helped from the point of view of local industry. It is perhaps interesting to note that the North York Moors Railway now runs with 350,000 passenger journeys, and it is nice to see that they are re-scheduling their lines in order to try to fit in with, and help, the local community.

It would appear that the very substantial cost of maintaining the viaducts is the main stumbling block; but I believe they are listed buildings and presumably the commitment to their upkeep would have to be discounted against any cost of keeping the line open. But if in the event of this section of line being closed, and British Rail then failing in their obligation to maintain the structure of the viaducts to a satisfactory standard, the national park authority may well find itself in a position, having served a repair notice on British Rail which they then chose to ignore, of having to acquire it compulsorily.

Therefore I ask my noble friend on the Front Bench whether he could give me some assurance as to whether the Government, presumably through the Department of the Environment, would be prepared to take on the responsibility of maintaining the viaducts so that at least they still stand and the quality of them will be retained for public enjoyment.

Leaving the financial arguments to one side, I believe that in the Settle to Carlisle rail link we have a national asset which has implications from a heritage, environment, social, and tourist point of view. They must be considered when coming to any conclusion. The Government have, quite rightly, over recent years given considerable support both morally and financially to conservation and tourism. The opportunity for expanding the latter, I believe, could be considerable and would have great benefit to remote villages like Garsdale (which has already been referred to), which has now become a deprived area and is looking very much for any support that could possibly come to its aid.

The rub-on effects from this service could well produce a much-needed boost to the local economy. As we know, tourism is growing apace but we are still at the stage of identifying the new leisure demands. It would be sad indeed if British Rail and the local community were to miss out by any premature decision that might be made on the closure of this line.

The standard procedures—which the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, has already referred to—when dealing with such closures are not adequate, and certainly not in this special case. I cannot believe that it is beyond the initiative of British Rail, central and local government, and all the various statutory bodies involved in the countryside, to come to some satisfactory conclusion as to how to retain this particular line.

It may indeed be opportunistic in the future for private investment, and I hope that the Government will look towards that avenue as well. But I ask at the very least that all these arguments are considered, and that the decision is not based purely in terms of the narrow procedures which apply to the assessment for closure of normal lines. If the only satisfactory way of doing this is through a public inquiry, then I would certainly endorse that viewpoint. We are not talking about a normal line: in fact we are dealing with—and I quote from a British Rail publicity brochure—"the most spectacular line in England".

8.40 p.m.

Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, I too should like to congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle on his maiden speech and to congratulate him on his very apposite remarks relating to the northern end of the area we are considering and on the thoughtful suggestions and comments he made on the educational aspects.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, for opening this debate and for drawing attention to the whole question of inquiry procedures and relating it to the Settle-Carlisle railway. Unlike the noble Baroness, I speak as a native of Yorkshire and with considerable pride in the unique character and beauty of the Yorkshire Dales. I speak as one who knows the area very well indeed by rail, by car and on foot. I also speak with some pride about the technical achievements of the last century which can be seen most dramatically in this line, with its 21 viaducts and 14 tunnels stretching over 72 miles of very difficult, though magnificent terrain.

However, I want to concentrate my remarks on this subject largely upon the point of view of the inhabitants of West Yorkshire. Together with the county councils of North Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria, West Yorkshire metropolitan county council has been very concerned about the proposed closure of this line from the point of view of the economic and social repercussions upon the inhabitants of West Yorkshire. Their concerns fall into four main categories: first, the hardship that the closure of the line will cause primarily for those areas surrounding the line but also for people in West Yorkshire and in the conurbations. Secondly, there will be a considerable loss of opportunities for leisure and recreational travel by West Yorkshire residents, especially bearing in mind the Dales Rail Service, which has already been mentioned in the debate. Thirdly, the closure will continue the erosion of the good main line connections between West Yorkshire, Cumbria and the West of Scotland. Fourthly, there are the possible long-term effects on the costs of supporting local rail services in West Yorkshire—those between Leeds, Bradford and Ilkley, which I use regularly, and those between Leeds and Keighley, which share the route of the Leeds-Carlisle trains and which consequently also share part of the expenses.

I consider first the hardship. The majority of journeys made by the residents of the rural areas surrounding the Settle-Carlisle line are probably to destinations in West Yorkshire—trips to Leeds and Bradford for purposes such as work, further education, shopping and cultural and recreational activities which are not available in the rural areas. All these journeys will be made much more difficult, and some may be impossible, if the line is closed. For example, early morning commuters from Settle will have to make their way to Giggleswick station to catch their train to Leeds. Saturday shoppers from the remoter Dales area will be deprived of the benefit of the Dales rail service to the cities. If the line is closed, these journeys will probably either be made by car—imposing a further strain on some of the busiest roads in the area, and putting a further strain on the limited parking facilities in West Yorkshire—or, for those who do not have cars, will not be made at all. In either event it means that the hardship which will be felt by the people in the Dales communities will also be shared by those in the urban communities because of the lack of business and contact between the new communities.

Secondly, I shall consider leisure and recreational travel. One of the advantages of living in the West Yorkshire conurbation, and one which I am continually telling my friends in the South about, is its close proximity to the extensive areas of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, the North Yorkshire Moors National Park and, in particular, to the Dales National Park. The Yorkshire Dales have been called the lungs for the cities of Leeds and Bradford. This is due in no small part to the ease with which the railway services have enabled people to reach the heart of the Dales. In saying this I am conscious of the fact that West Yorkshire has one of the lowest percentages of cars per family in the country. Consequently, the inhabitants of West Yorkshire are used to relying on public transport.

Therefore it would be a very shortsighted policy from many points of view if the recreational services which have been introduced in recent years were to be withdrawn. These services, as has already been said, have the support of the West Yorkshire metropolitan county as well as other areas. For the West Yorkshire residents, closure of the Settle-Carlisle line will mean the loss of the convenient access to this very important recreational environment. It is not easily possible for this access to be replaced by bus services because of the limited road network and, in any case, road transport does not provide the same remarkable vistas that rail transport does. If there were to be an increase in road transport as a consequence of closing the line, that would mean further congestion on the already busy Dales roads and also further congestion in the limited parking facilities.

The Dales rail service has over the last 12 years been expanded. It consists of four separate services: the West Yorkshire service operating on Saturdays from Leeds to Carlisle and back; the Lancashire services—the Lancashire urban areas are also involved—operating on Saturdays from Preston via Clitheroe to join with the West Yorkshire services at Hellifield, the Cumbria services operating on Saturdays from Carlisle to Leeds, Bradford or Blackpool, again via Preston and Clitheroe, and the Sunday service operating from Leeds to Appleby and back. Feeder bus connections have linked with the train services, so there has been access to the heart of the Dales.

The fares charged have always been kept as low as possible, but matching income with expenditure. For the local authorities concerned the services have generally achieved an overall break-even point.

The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, referred to the service provided for the fans of steam railways. This has been a great success. She also referred to British Rail themslves having attempted to market the line as "England's greatest historical scenic route". This, too, has been successful. So that there is an enormous tourist potential in this line which is largely unexploited.

My third point is concerned with the loss of mainline connections. These have been continuing over the years. The route has been allowed to decline and services have progressively been diverted from it. If this particular line is closed, British Rail propose to re-route services from Leeds via Carnforth and Lancaster, and this will add to the journey time. But that is not the important point. The important point is that some of the connecting services are so bad that the line is really not going to be a viable proposition at all. It really is very hard to avoid the conclusion that British Rail are not serious about retaining the traffic between West Yorkshire, Cumbria and the West of Scotland.

Reference has been made in the debate to the PIEDA Report. I am not being at all critical here about alternative modes of transport. I think that both are essential. But the estimate of PIEDA is that the cost of the retention of the line would be under £10 million over a 20-year period. By contrast, the by-passes proposed for Gargrave and Settle, both of which I think are essential, on the A.65 route in North Yorkshire are expected to cost £11.5 million and the recent runway extension at Yeadon Airport cost over £20 million and caters for about 400,000 passengers a year. So it can be seen that in contrast to these and with an increasing level of traffic that could be generated, the line could be a very viable proposition.

Finally, I should like to comment on the effects on local services, because, apart from the loss of revenue from the tourist lines, there are financial implications for West Yorkshire. The local rail services between Leeds and Ilkley and between Leeds, Bradford and Keighley are supported by the West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive under a Section 20 agreement under the Transport Act 1968. The costs are therefore shared, and British Rail's proposals at the moment are to retain all the existing services so that the cost can continue to be shared but to re-route them via Carnforth. However, at an earlier stage, British Rail also proposed to close the Leeds-Lancaster line and, if this were so, it would mean that the full cost of the line between Leeds and Keighley and the intervening stations would have to be borne by the local transport executive. One can see that, at a time when there are constraints on finances for local services, this could be a very severe burden on West Yorkshire.

It is for all these reasons that the county councils involved feel that a full public inquiry would be much more appropriate so that the wider problems could be fully examined and brought to public attention. In the light of that, I believe that the debate that we are holding this evening is all the more important.

8.55 p.m.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords, the noble Baroness who has just sat down has spoken very largely about the southern end of this great line. I propose to talk a little about the more northerly end. Before doing so, I should like to express my own great pleasure and, I am sure, the pleasure of the House as a whole at having listened to the most notable, sympathetic and knowledgeable speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle. I thought that he probably knew the area better than all of us who live in the North West know it ourselves. I should like to say that I hope that he will come to the House many times, indeed as frequently as Bishop Nicolson who was Bishop of Carlisle in the early 18th century and whose presence in this Chamber was so frequent and whose influence was so great. If he can follow in his footsteps, he will be very welcome indeed.

Perhaps before leaving the Lords Spiritual, I should like to say how very well represented they have been in the House today, by not only the Bishop of Newcastle but the Bishop of Carlisle and until recently, for the first half of the debate, the Bishop of Derby. I should like also to recollect the great service rendered to this very line by the late Bishop of Wakefield. So distinguished was his service that a plaque was put up to his memory in Appleby Station, and I am happy to say that the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, who is here tonight was present at the unveiling of that plaque.

We are very grateful to he noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, for introducing this Unstarred Question today. It could hardly have been more timely. Whether this was by accident or design, I know not. But here we are debating this only a few weeks before theTUCCs are going to be consulted at the end of March and the following weeks and months. This is, as everyone who has spoken so far has said, a matter of more than local interest and I shall attempt to show that as well. There are of course social and environmental aspects connected with this line but I should like first to talk about social hardships, local social hardships, that are already being suffered by those who live along the line which it was built to serve and whose deprivation will be all the greater if British Rail's closure proposal is allowed to proceed.

Perhaps I may illustrate this by the local area that I happen to know well—that is, the head of the Eden Valley which used to be served also, I must mention with nostalgia and regret, by that superb link between Darlington and Kirkby Stephen which alas! was axed by Beeching. It must be realised that in a remote area, mainly dependent upon agriculture and also on quarrying, as the right reverend Prelate reminded us, agriculture is a job-loss industry and quarrying cannot be expected to flourish if there is no rail to take out the gain from the quarry. So where you have job-loss industries like agriculture on which the community depend, it is vital for employment or for the relief of unemployment—whichever way you care to look at it—that there should be access to the towns. And not everyone by any means has a car—for goodness sake!—and even if people do have cars there are times of the year, as the noble Baroness has pointed out, as, for instance, just now, when it is dangerous to travel by road for long periods in the winter. A rail commuter service would promote employment in the area: there is no question about that.

Unfortunately the familiar pattern of the centralisation of hospital services has of course applied to the North West of England as it has everywhere else, but it is more of a hardship in this area than in most other places for let me say that if you happen to live in Kirkby Stephen you live 45 miles from Carlisle and there is simply no bus service. So if you do not have a rail service and there is no bus service you are effectively cut off from your friends and relations if you go into hospital, unless you are fortunate enough to have a car or can beg a lift from friends.

Those two points alone—the very important points of employment and the inaccessibility of Carlisle to so great a portion of the residents of Eden Valley—mean that this is a vital railway link from Kirkby Stephen to Carlisle. But of course, there are many other reasons for access to towns. There are shopping, communication with friends and relatives all over the North of England and not just in the immediate area served by this line but, for instance, via the connections at Leeds to Hull and connections via Carlisle to Newcastle. So there are important links which ought to be reopened for the sake of local communities all over the North of England.

The House, I think, will be interested to hear how one local area has this very day taken an important step towards providing expanded local rail services; namely, between Skipton and Carlisle. I believe this is one of the initiatives of the Eden District Council and of course they were interested to get the line going—a regular commuter line—between Kirkby Stephen and Carlisle. This is an improved version of the original proposal and it could now provide two trains in each direction, using car diesel units carrying 120 passengers: that is on every weekday, Monday to Saturday. On three of the four journeys, connections at Skipton would provide a Carlisle to Leeds service. That is a very impressive thing which has gone to the transport sub-committee of the Cumbria County Council today. It was on a joint report by the director of engineering and the county planning officer.

This is only happening because of the initiative of the Eden District Council, and now the Cumbria County Council—I am happy to say that it is on an all-party basis: this cuts across the whole spectrum of political parties—have agreed that this should be a viable project. I believe that if the cost which they are having to fund themselves at the rate of £155,000 per annum can be shared, say, between three authorities then it can go ahead this very summer.

Let me list some of the advantages of this service and let me say, incidentally, that British Rail would not do this of their own volition: this has to be done on a contract basis. The county councils will have to contract with British Rail and guarantee the sum of £155,000 a year. Of course they may very well get back a very large amount of that capital expenditure in revenue. Some of the advantages are that this doubles the basic service on the Settle/Carlisle line. It allows the reopening of all the Dales rail stations on a daily basis except Sunday. That in turn will allow a greatly improved service, particularly in Cumbria. For instance, it will allow daily commuting by rail into Carlisle from Kirkby Stephen, Appleby, Langwathby, Lazonby and Armathwaite; it will allow for shopping trips on a daily basis from all British Rail and Dales rail stations either into Carlisle or into Leeds.

It will give rail access into the Eden valley and the Yorkshire Dales via any Dales rail station, and it would permit day trips on any day of the week, except Sundays, or longer overnight stays. Even the 9 o'clock service out of Carlisle would allow longer shopping time in Leeds for visitors from Carlisle and other Cumbrian stations, using the Settle/Carlisle line. So it should appeal to locals and to visitors—though of course I am talking particularly about locals—for work, for education, shopping, leisure and recreational purposes, or merely for a run on the Settle/Carlisle line which is so popular among tourists to the area.

There was all-party support this morning when this was agreed in the Cumbria County Council subcommittee and I have no doubt that this imaginative plan, which they are prepared to fund with neighbouring county councils and perhaps the Countryside Commission, will lead to a viable commuter service running this very summer. If you superimpose this new service on top of the British Rail services, which can be done, your Lordships will see how dramatically new opportunities are opened up in the way that I have described. It is clear that such an imaginative approach must be allowed not just for one season's trial but for several seasons to test its viability.

It hardly needs saying that this, which is for the benefit of local people, will have immense importance not just for the tourist industry—which of course it will have—but nationally. We have heard about the strategic importance from the noble Baroness who opened the debate, but there are many other projects of national significance which I can think of and, if you like, they can be combined with the significance to tourists.

If you just take the enormous numbers of visitors to this country who come to London and then want to go on to Edinburgh—there must be many thousands who want to do that—how very exciting it would be for them to go up to Edinburgh via Leeds on the Settle to Carlisle line and then, when they have visited Edinburgh, to come back down the East coast, looking at all those wonderful cathedrals on the way—not least, and most special of all, Durham. What a very exciting journey it would be for the Americans and others who come to see London and Edinburgh! I should have thought that that would bring in a huge amount of foreign currency, just from foreign visitors alone, which means that the line is of national and not merely local importance.

It is absolutely inconceivable that any closure could be contemplated before the next general election. I say that because, though this is not a party matter, I cannot believe that elected representatives in the North-West would allow any political party to be a party to this rail closure. I remember that the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, said from the Opposition Front Bench at the beginning of this Session that the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, "knows a banana skin when he sees one". I would say that this is a banana skin if

ever there was one, and he knows that he would not wish to tread on it. I believe that we, and all those of us who live in the North-West and who wish this line to prosper, must be glad that the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, lives in the North-West and will point out that this is a very slippery skin on which to fall.

I do not believe for that one reason alone that this line will close before the next election. I believe that British Rail will be so impressed by this latest initiative, and by everything that has been said in this House about the wider significance of this rail link, that they will be very well advised to withdraw their notice of closure and not persist with it. One thing is absolutely clear. If this scheme, which has had the stamp of approval of Cumbria County Council, is to be viable, it will be viable only if it is properly marketed. There should be a very vigorous form of marketing, such as did exist, started by British Rail. There was an abortive attempt to market this line in 1984 and very creditable it was. I have some of the literature here—"England's greatest historical scenic route." That was British Rail itself in 1984. Just suppose that that was spread all over the country and to the tourist offices abroad. What a huge revenue this line would bring in. For that reason alone, I would say that British Rail will be much better advised to realise that they are already defeated and to withdraw their notice of closure now.

9.12 p.m.

Lord Clitheroe

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, for allowing me the opportunity of listening to this very interesting debate and for the excellent way in which she marshalled the whole subject. I should particularly like to congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle on his very splendid maiden speech.

I have listened with great interest to the very full debate of your Lordships, and am afraid that I have very little to add that has not been said already. I might say that it was 140 or 145 years ago that my great-great-grandfather was busily engaged in battling with the navvies. Every night he would go out with his chaps and dig up the railway line that went close to our home, and every day the navvies would lay it again. He delayed that railway by about 30 years. It was not the railway which we are discussing, but an adjacent one. Anyway, as you may gather, he was not a great railway enthusiast. But my father and my grandfather both were. They saw the light and were very keen on railways. The Settle/Carlisle one was a particular favourite of my grandfather, who was a director of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway.

In view of this I have the temerity to emphasise just two points which have already been touched on. The first is that the Settle/Carlisle line is undoubtedly the most beautiful stretch of railway line in this country. It is possible that people in Wales or in Scotland may have their arguments but I have no doubts. It is a super scenic trip and a marvellous experience and example of engineering. It would be a great shame on all concerned if it were closed without taking these considerations very seriously. The Ribblehead viaduct itself and I think other parts of the line are listed or scheduled and ought to be treated with respect. I have taken American visitors to look with astonishment at the achievements, and they have taken super photographs. It should not be left to decay. It must not be allowed to happen.

My second point is that so much of the industry of the country, including tourism, is gravitating south. It seems that with time everything gravitates south—one's own waistline moves south. But, anyway, tourism needs to be generated, particularly in the north of England. If the line was promoted effectively, I believe it could draw considerable revenue from this source for a relatively small outlay. One has only to think of some of the tremendous investments that people contemplate to bring tourism into a country. How about building Disney World? You do not need to build it; you have the best line in the world, 72 miles of it, there. Develop it. Forgive me, my Lords, but I have become slightly carried away.

I am particularly concerned that the closure of this important line would herald the creeping closure of the adjacent Hellifield/Blackburn line. It may seem somewhat ironic and very disloyal to my great-great-grandfather but I rather like that railway line. It is particularly useful and I think it would be a very great sorrow if that was closed. It is an essential artery for the north of England.

Finally, it seems to me to be very regrettable that the present procedures for dealing with railway closure cases do not apparently ensure that all these issues are dealt with in public. I hope that the noble Lord the Minister will be able to assure us that he will be thinking about this in due course.

9.16 p.m.

Viscount Buckmaster

My Lords, I should like to add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, on introducing a subject which is not only of great local importance but I think of great national importance. More particularly I should like to congratulate her because it gives me the opportunity to speak on a subject very dear to my heart. I mean of course the Settle/Carlisle railway and not the prospect of its closure.

I must of course add my very sincere congratulations to the right reverend Prelate. Perhaps I may say here how delightful it is to have a Bishop speaking about railways, because the link between railways and the Church has always been very powerful. I see the right reverend Prelate nodding his head. He did not say that he was a railway lover but he implied so in his speech. There are examples of a great many distinguished prelates who have also been very fine railwaymen. As a railwayman and a church man, I am very happy to welcome him to your Lordships' House and hope we may hear him speak on many subjects.

I do not want to overlap on what other speakers have said, but I should like to say very briefly from a purely personal point of view that this line has always struck me as more than a railway. It is in fact an uplifting experience. Anyone who has travelled along it by service train, by enthusiasts' special; anyone who has walked along it or over the tunnels; anyone who has even looked at it from the road—I have done all four—cannot fail to be moved by the magnificence of the great structures and the superb grandeur of the rugged upland scenery.

I should like to say a very few words about the history of the line. The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, has told us that it was built in 1876. It might perhaps be of interest to know that it cost something like £3½ million to construct; that it greatly exceeded the budget of £2¼ million—a large sum in those days; that it cost far more than the Midland Railway was prepared to spend; and that it took six and a half years to construct—again very much longer than was envisaged. At one time more than 5,000 workers were involved and many hundreds—perhaps 500 or 600—died.

One detail that might be of interest to your Lordships illustrates the appalling terrain—and here I speak particularly of the boulder clay, which, when wet, becomes like Yorkshire pudding. I say that with no disrespect to the noble Baroness and others of your Lordships who come from Yorkshire. On one particular viaduct, over a period of two years more than one-quarter of a million tons of material were poured into the site of an embankment. After all that effort the embankment had to be abandoned and a viaduct was built instead.

Another example of the difficulties posed by the terrain is the Ribble valley. At one point the Ribble had to be diverted and the railway line was built along its course. Other speakers have mentioned the ferocious climate. Those of your Lordships who come from that part of the world do not need me to remind them that the rainfall there is sometimes as much as 70 to 100 inches a year, and the winds are so severe that it is impossible to walk against them.

I should like to speak particularly about the Ribblehead viaduct, which is really the key to the problem we are discussing this evening. British Rail has said that it might keep the line open if the Ribblehead viaduct could be restored. The news of the viaduct's impending collapse first came to the notice of the public in 1981, and it was then given a three-year life. Like a patient who has lingered on despite the doctor's prognosis, the viaduct remains standing today. However, it is deteriorating very rapidly and the extremely severe winter has, I am sure, accelerated that process. It is not only the Ribblehead viaduct that is in need of repair, because there are many other large viaducts, such as Arten Gill, which also are deteriorating.

What is the solution? British Rail estimate that it would cost £4½ million to rebuild the viaduct. An alternative might be to undertake a major repair work of grouting with concrete. That work would cost in the region of £3 million and the repair would last for some 10 or 15 years. I must say straight away—and I believe all noble Lords would agree—that to rebuild the Ribblehead viaduct as a ghastly modern concrete structure would be quite unthinkable. As some of your Lordships have said, the viaduct is a listed structure, and so it must remain.

From where is the money to come? It looks as though British Rail will be unwilling to advance any money, but there are other possibilities. One is a grant from the National Heritage Fund. Another is a grant from the EC's regional development fund. However, I believe that neither would be very likely and perhaps the noble Earl who is to reply will give me his thoughts on that likelihood.

The problem of funding is particularly sad when one considers that the Department of Transport's budget is measured in billions of pounds. The sum now required of £10 million would pay not only to repair the Ribblehead viaduct itself but also to restore the other structures in need of attention, restore the track, and carry out other essential repairs and maintenance. All of that would cost about £10 million.

A sum of £10 million is chickenfeed. What would it do in terms of roads? I am informed that £10 million would pay for one-half mile of rural motorway or about 100 yards of the West London relief road. So we are talking about chickenfeed. If somehow or another the money required were to be found then I feel, as your Lordships have expressed this evening, that this great line could pay its way. Noble Lords have indicated various ways in which that could be achieved.

I would say from the point of view of the railwaymen, that first of all we must think in sensible terms. The line must be reduced from double track to single track. It is quite unnecessary to have two lines of rail. In fact there is one line over the Ribblehead viaduct now; it should be single track the whole way. Then the signal boxes and the signals could be removed and one could operate the line by radio signalling. That is a plan which British Rail are now considering and they hope to introduce that system of radio signalling on the central Wales line running from Shrewsbury down to South Wales. That of course would greatly reduce overheads.

I do not want to talk much about tourist potential and so on, as it has been dealt with by other noble Lords. Perhaps I could say just a few words in that context about other ideas which I do not think have been mentioned. The three mountain stations of Ribblehead, Dent and Garsdale (and my noble friend Lord Henderson assures me it is pronounced "Gahsdull") could surely be used as youth hostels. One could be a museum—and I think it has been proposed that Garsdale itself should be set up as a museum to which children could be brought—and indeed there are all sorts of ways in which the stations could be used.

Then, of course, we must not forget the enthusiasts' specials. Several noble Lords have mentioned the Dales Rail Service. I shall not repeat what has been said about that, but I think that somehow or other we must try to preserve those magnificant enthusiasts' specials. I myself have been on those enthusiasts' trains; and what a wonderful experience it is to travel up the so-called Long Drag, one in a hundred gradient, 15 miles from Settle junction, up to Ribblehead behind an old steam engine, a train of 13 or 14 coaches packed with enthusiasts, heads leaning out of the windows, listening to every blast of the engine. The pleasure which these enthusiasts' specials and the Dales Rail Service give, and the enormous potential for tourism and educational facilities and so on are immensely important factors, I think.

Sooner or later we must grasp the Settle nettle. I hope that what has been said this evening will enable the noble Earl the Minister and his colleagues to do so without stinging their hands too severely. At all costs we must preserve this great railway line.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, I too should like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, for taking us on a tour of the Dales. It has been a very nice occasion listening to her going along there. I think it could be bettered a little only perhaps by Brian Redhead, who lives in the area, or Russell Harty, who also lives there. Both those personalities could do this tour for us and probably get it over to more people than we can this evening.

At this time of 9.28 in the evening I do not want to repeat everything that has been said already. I had prepared quite a number of points. I was going to mention the procedures, which have been mentioned several times; leisure, which has been mentioned several times; tourism, which has been mentioned several times; the lung of the north-west of England, which has been mentioned once; education, which has been mentioned once or twice; the social problems that could occur if the railway were closed; and of course National Heritage.

At this point I regret to say that I omitted to congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle on his enlightened maiden speech, and to thank him. I look forward to other speeches that I am sure he will make from time to time.

The points I have enumerated have been made by several speakers far more eloquent than I am, and therefore I have no intention of repeating what has already been said. However, I wish to correct the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, in the suggestion that tourists coming from afar would travel via London and Leeds to Edinburgh. Surely it would be via London, Crewe and Preston to Edinburgh and not through Yorkshire. It would be through Lancashire, and that way round.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords, if I may say so, it is not a correction but a preference that the noble Lord is expressing.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, I shall argue the point with my noble friend on some other occasion. I ask only that we should try to get the matter in order. I know that the financial argument is that we cannot retain the railway, but there is far more to a railway than finance. Please let us keep the line open.

9.31 p.m.

Lord Mountevans

My Lords, I concur in the universal gratitude expressed to the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, for giving us the opportunity to debate this issue. I was delighted to be here when the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle in making his maiden speech reminded us of the link between church and railway which, as my noble friend Lord Buckmaster has just said, is an ongoing one and one which is not subject to either consultation or closure procedures. I too share tonight's universal affection for the Settle/Carlisle line. I wish that I could share most of the other sentiments expressed.

As has been hinted at, it is a main line that has fallen on hard times. The ambitions of its builders were never really met; it was never particularly viable. Nowadays it is sadly and definitely not viable. It is not those who use the two trains each way each day and who patronise the two stations that are open who are paying for the line. It is we who are doing so through the PSO grant. We must always remember that we are British Rail's principal customers by virtue of our subscription to the grant, even if we never buy a ticket. The PSO grant comes with strings, not least that the railway shall be as efficient as possible and that the taxpayer shall get the best possible deal for the over-£800 million that he is contributing this year. I feel that British Rail's decision to put forward a proposal to close the line is sensible and it is one that I support on economic grounds.

I have mentioned the two trains and the two stations. There is admittedly the commuter train that goes to Leeds in the morning. I can only say that the good workers of Leeds must work extremely short days, because if they go in on that train and come back on the afternoon train they will be in Leeds for only seven and a quarter hours.

Figures have been bandied around. My noble friend Lord Buckmaster and I have a common source in the most recent issue of the Railway Magazine. One fact that he did not use in the article to which he referred is that there are infrastructure costs variously between £3 million and £13 million that would be required to preserve the railway just perhaps for another 10 years. British Rail can do an awful lot of things elsewhere in the country with such money. If one takes £13 million, it is not far short of the cost of electrifying the 35-odd miles of railway between Bournemouth and Weymouth which the Government have recently sanctioned.

The grant is falling. British Rail are becoming more efficient and productive. There have been closure proposals—and we have this one which is behind the debate tonight—but we must bear in mind that the major directive given to British Rail away back in 1974, and which governs their PSO grant, is that they must maintain a network generally comparable with that which was operated at the time. I cannot believe that closing 72 miles of line will go against that directive, particularly since, as I say, I cannot find an economic case to keep the line open.

The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, and several noble Lords felt that the closure procedure was too concentrated and did not take account of all interests. I made my maiden speech on the point that the closure procedure, far from being too concentrated, was far too long nowadays. It can take 18 months to close two miles of railway in south London—two miles of railway where one is never more than one and a half miles from another station among the 24 that I argued about in making my maiden speech. That does not seem to me to be the right way of spending the taxpayers' money.

Several noble Lords have said that the consultation procedure is too short. I would remind your Lordships that the consultation procedure begins when customers stop buying their tickets, when they vote with their feet. That is when it begins. It may not be enshrined in statute. But when the customer takes away his custom, he has already begun to consult, not least with himself, and he has decided that there are alternatives that he finds preferable. I would remind those who have implied that one must wait for a closure notice to be posted before embarking on consultation of a not dissimilar case in Wales in recent years—the case of the Barmouth viaduct.

The Barmouth viaduct, an enchanting wooden structure against the Barmouth estuary, was attacked by some form of ocean-going woodworm. This attack implied a threat that the railway could be closed. The local authorities in mid-Wales did not wait for the closure proposal to be nailed to the billboards. They started consulting and researching straightaway. They established that perhaps 40 per cent. of the tourism—many of your Lordships have mentioned tourism—in that area of the Cardigan Bay coastline was rail-related and would be vulnerable if the railway closed down. They established the other social and economic pluses and minuses that the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, would like to see established through the present consultative machinery. But they did it before the consultative procedure started. And no closure notice was ever posted in respect of that railway.

In the fulness of time they persuaded British Rail that it was worth spending £1.4 million on restoring the Barmouth bridge. Not only that, but the county council, Gwynedd county council, took the lead, and, with the district councils and the mid-Wales Development Corporation and, of course with British Rail putting in a fair amount of money, agreed to spend £4.6 million on installing the radio signalling, mentioned by my noble friend Lord Buckmaster, on contributing to the cost of the new trains, on bringing the permanent way of the route up to scratch and recovering from years of deferred maintenance, and on automatic level crossings. So it can be done. It does not need a closure notice to provoke these things.

I feel that perhaps the councils here have missed the boat. They are, quite simply, too late out. The Settle/Carlisle line is enchanting. I do not dispute that. But it is not the line about which I would choose to become very emotional in terms of fighting a closure proposal. As the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, hinted, it is when the metropolitan councils go, when the present PTE structure goes, that we shall find ourselves with much more essential routes to defend.

9.38 p.m.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, may I take two minutes or less, if that is allowed? As president of the tourist board in Cumbria, I find it sad to see how far the railways have been run down with over-enthusiasm shown by those at the head of the railways. They forget some of the interests upon which we place a higher priority. There has been mention of the Eden Valley line. No encouragement of any kind was extended to that line. However, when the traffic had left it, they announced that too few people were travelling on it and that it was not viable.

Exactly the same is happening now. I have in my hand an ABC timetable guide. On not one of its pages is there recorded what might be termed inter-city services, through trains from St. Pancras, London to St. Enoch, Glasgow. They are shown nowhere in today's ABC. One can find a train that zigzags from Carlisle to Sheffield or Nottingham. There is nothing to show that it goes any further. Again, for those travelling from St. Pancras, it will not be possible to find details of any through trains in this ABC. That I think is barely honest.

I must not say any more, although my mind is also directed from time to time to Austria and Switzerland. There is terrain which is more difficult than our Pennines. The Swiss and the Austrians have managed to continue to run trains without these great difficulties, combining trains and post buses. I should hope that we can look at it before there is a final decision about this line. I have taken two minutes, as I promised.

9.40 p.m.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, for raising this very important matter. I think that it gives us an opportunity to go perhaps slightly wider than merely the line which she was discussing and to consider what the right reverend Prelate referred to in his—as he said—non-controversial speech. He was quite persuasive enough without being controversial. He said that we should look a little more closely at the whole idea of closing this line.

What impressed me was when the right reverend Prelate referred to Beeching, saying that perhaps we had been too hasty then. I think that many people who are interested and concerned about railways are now only too aware that we got involved in Beeching and decided the fate of our whole transport system to a large extent at the period when the motor mania was at its height and the demand for motorways was very great. I think that his phrase about the false utilitarian view could apply to a great many of the things we have done in the past. In some ways perhaps we have a chance to pull some of it back by looking at a line such as the Settle/Carlisle line.

I am only too aware of the great knowledge and intimate detail which most of the people who have spoken about this line were able to furnish us with tonight. Although I believe I have been over the line twice, it is over a long period, once when I was very young, and once a few years ago. I cannot claim anything like the intimacy with which many people have spoken tonight.

I must say that I do not treat the idea of railway closures as something which must be opposed. I believe that that is unrealistic. I can accept the part of the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, which related to the PSO grant, but to some extent the noble Lord is taking the false utilitarian view referred to by the right reverend Prelate. That must always be considered, because there are other ways of spending money, and the railways have other ways of spending money than keeping going something which is quite uneconomic, but there are also other ways of looking at certain services and lines.

However, some services are not viable under any circumstances. I myself was involved in the agreement to close quite a number of them. I must say that I cannot feel ashamed of most of the decisions that I made, or was a party to, in the days when I had to make recommendations to the Secretary of State for Transport of the period.

I do not believe that all lines should be saved willy-nilly. We cannot keep such a railway network as was bequeathed to us by the Victorians when one has 20 million vehicles on the road compared with about 3 million before the war and when there are no longer 200 million tonnes of coal and 50 million tonnes of steel moving around the country. That was the backbone of the railways, and one cannot pretend that it was otherwise.

In fact, one of the tragedies of the railways was that in the pre-war era passengers were to a large extent supernumerary and we perhaps did not build up railway finances and infrastructure as well as we might have done. Therefore—and I do not suggest anyone has been like that tonight—there is an element of over-enthusiasm about railways from some people. As a railway buff said to me, one of the worst things about some railway people is that they keep playing trains whereas it is a serious business. Charming, wonderful and lovely as trains are, one cannot play with them. They have a purpose and they are expensive things to run.

I believe that the line we are now discussing—the Carlisle/Settle line—is one of the rather special cases. I am not suggesting that it ought therefore to be saved. What I suggest is that a much deeper examination should be made of the line, including all the points raised tonight, before a final decision is made as to whether or not it should be closed.

Although I realise the form these debates take, it would perhaps have been helpful if the Minister had spoken first and given us more information about the economics of the line before we started the debate. Unfortunately, that could not be the case, but the Minister will no doubt be giving information which we shall be able to look at at our leisure. On the basis of that and the debate we have had tonight, perhaps we can look more deeply at the suggestion from the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, for a much wider list of factors to be taken into consideration before the railway is given permission to close a line.

From all that I have heard tonight, from what I have read about it, and from my little experience of it, I see this line as much like the two lines I do know rather well, which are of the same nature. I refer to the West Highland line to Fort William and Mallaig and the line from Inverness to Kyle. In strict terms none of those lines is a paying proposition, although railway accountancy has always been something which baffles me. It has been raised once or twice, but I hope there is no question of these lines being closed now. Why do I say that? These lines are particularly fine examples of Victorian engineering. They have a very large potential. They have a very large existing use and the marginal cost necesssary to keep these lines going, in terms of our national heritage, is not, I suggest, so much as to strain the coffers of a nation such as ours. I refer, of course, to all three lines—the Settle/Carlisle, the Inverness/Kyle and the West Highlands.

I believe the PSO is around £950 million, and the Minister will no doubt correct me if I am wrong. The extra required to keep one or two lines like these running is very small. I can assure the Minister that members of my party will be very selective on the lines which we are, so to speak, willing to go out on a limb and try to retain. The Settle/Carlisle line is certainly one of them.

I should like to put a number of points to the Minister. From the figures I have I calculate that including all the excursions and special attractions about 130,000 passengers a year use this line. That is a PIEDA estimate. That seems to be a very large figure. I might be out perhaps by a factor of 10, but I doubt it. I should like the Minister to tell me, if he does not agree with that figure, what his estimate is. I include all the additional possibilities that have been discussed tonight, and not just the straight railway running with all the existing special excursions and trips on this line. Has any estimate been made as to what could come from the additional attractions suggested tonight? I am sure that they have already been put forward to the railway and to the department from people who are opposed to the closure in order to try to persuade the Minister to encourage the railways to withdraw the closure notice.

I now come to my final point, because I do not want to repeat what has been said by other noble Lords. How long does the Minister think it will take before a decision is made? Is there any intention of allowing a much wider investigation and analysis of this closure before the Minister gives his consent? In other words, will we, in Parliament, be allowed to speak to the Minister before he makes a final decision after the TUCC has issued its report?

I have been told that there are a very large number of registered objectors to the closure. I have been told that they number as many as 20,000. That number may have changed. It may have increased or it may have decreased by people withdrawing their objections or feeling that the matter was too complicated for them to make an objection. I understand that there are about 28,000 objections. I also understand that the TUCC will need to examine all those objections and somehow or other sift them to make a reasonable report to the Minister.

I have been told that it is estimated that it will take at least a year before the preliminary assessment can be made. It is also suggested that altogether it will be about five years before the Minister could definitely give a date for the closure of the line. I hope he realises that that would be considered slightly unfair because we all expect there to be a general election before that time. If it were merely a question of giving enough go-ahead to enable it to last until after the general election, I am sure that the Minister's attention has been drawn to the electoral volatility of that part of the country and that it would be considered not quite playing the game if five years were given in order to get over a very difficult period.

In my view this is a special case. Most of those who have spoken tonight have shown by their expertise and knowledge that this is a particular line just like the other lines which I have mentioned tonight. I hope that the Minister will give it great consideration and will realise that when the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, gave us the opportunity to discuss this matter tonight she was giving an opportunity to many, many more people than are here in this House: she was giving an opportunity to the whole country to realise that perhaps we have had enough rail closures, particularly rail closures of the very important and special nature of the Settle/Carlisle line.

9.53 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (The Earl of Caithness)

My Lords, we have heard many tributes tonight about the Settle/Carlisle line. The line passes through glorious mountain countryside whose challenges were courageously and skillfully met by the Victorian railway engineers by the construction of 325 bridges, 21 viaducts and 14 tunnels. As has already been said, British Rail have referred to the line as England's greatest historical scenic route. However, I would tend to agree with my noble friend Lord Peel when he said that it would not stand a chance of getting planning permission today. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Clitheroe recounted his ancestors' feelings towards the railway. They and many others felt that the countryside was more beautiful without the railway and its imposing viaducts, and battled to resist it at the time.

Nevertheless, I can assure the House that the present Government fully recognise the deep concern about the line's future. The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, to whom we are grateful for giving us the opportunity of discussing this matter this evening, has asked whether the Government are satisfied that the existing procedures offer adequate opportunity for all the social and environmental issues to be fully discussed. The noble Baroness said that the procedures are misunderstood.

Therefore, I think it may be helpful if I describe the procedures which apply. I hope that in doing so I shall be able to reassure your Lordships that the existing statutory arrangements offer the flexibility to ensure that all the relevant issues are fully considered.

The Railways Board cannot withdraw rail passenger services from a railway line or close any rail passenger station without going through the procedures set out in the Transport Acts of 1962 and 1968. Indeed, the 1968 Act has survived the test of time well, and it is one that the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove, will know well because he was a Minister in the Department of Transport at that time.

Where there are objections from users the closure cannot take place unless the Secretary of State for Transport gives his consent. British Rail must publish a formal public notice of any proposal. This gives any user of any service affected by the proposed closure an opportunity to object, and such objections are considered by a Transport Users' Consultative Committee, known as a TUCC.

The TUCCs are independent bodies, and one of their functions is to consider objections from users to closure proposals, and to report to the Secretary of State for Transport on hardship aspects. The TUCC may hold public hearings to hear oral evidence from objectors and representations from British Rail. Their report identifies any hardship to users, and may also include recommendations on measures to alleviate that hardship. In reaching his decision the Secretary of State considers all factors which appear to him to be relevant, including, in addition to the hardship aspects reported by the TUCC, social and economic considerations.

That briefly is the general procedure. In this particular case British Rail have proposed the withdrawal of the passenger services on the Settle/Carlisle line and the line between Blackburn and Hellifield. British Rail have incorporated the latter into their proposal as it is used by services chartered by West Yorkshire County Council which also run over the Settle/Carlisle line.

British Rail have explained that they have proposed the closure of the Settle/Carlisle line because they do not consider that the expenditure needed to maintain passenger services would be justified. I can confirm to the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, that the TUCCs plan to hold their hearings in March and April of this year. Indeed there are to be hearings by the North Western TUCC in Appleby and Carlisle, and by the North Eastern TUCC in Settle, Skipton, and Leeds.

In addition to objections sent to the TUCCs, a great many representations have been sent direct to the Department of Transport covering issues such as the effect of closure on tourism, employment, rural population change, and heritage aspects. In any closure proposals the Secretary of State has, in the end, to weigh the Board's case against the arguments forwarded for retaining the line. I think there is agreement that the hardship issues, some of which were mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, and the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, can be fully discussed within the existing procedure.

As for the wider non-hardship issues, I cannot offer an exhaustive list of what in this case those issues are. Fresh representations continue to arrive, and the relevant considerations are clearly not the same for every closure case. Indeed, I can inform the House that we in the department have received over 850 representations, including a petition. The Secretary of State is required by statute to take into account all relevant factors. This he has been able to do in considering other closure proposals without having recourse to the public inquiry system.

My right honourable friend has already carefully considered the suggestion that in this instance the non-hardship issues need to be debated in a public forum in just the same way as the hardship issues are. There is provision under the Transport Act 1962 for the Secretary of State to hold a public inquiry, and he has considered whether it would be appropriate to apply that provision. Nothing that has been put to him so far has persuaded him that this case is so substantially different from previous closure cases that the existing procedures should be supplemented by a public inquiry.

If anybody feels aggrieved that the Secretary of State has not taken account of all the relevant evidence and that he has acted otherwise, he is of course open to challenge through the judicial review procedure. Ministers fully recognise that local authorities are in a good position to comment on the wider issues, and this was a point that the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, made to us. We shall also be ready to listen to views on any individual closure proposals. Some meetings have already taken place with representatives from local authorities and I have no doubt that more will follow. Ministers will also take account of all relevant information passed on to them by such bodies as local business groups, chambers of commerce and environmental groups. I also confirm that we shall consider any material which the TUCCs pass on on non-hardship issues.

Because of the quasi-judicial position it would be wrong of me to express any view on the merits of the closure proposal, and the House will understand why I must remain silent on the particular arguments put forward by so many noble Lords tonight. But I can assure the House that all the points made during the debate will also be thoroughly examined and taken into account.

Perhaps I may deal with one or two points in a general way. The noble Baronesses, Lady Stedman and Lady Lockwood, said that the route was an invaluable diversionary route. This is something that my right honourable friend will wish to take into account in considering the proposal. Many noble Lords spoke about the effects on local economy, tourism, bus services and other such matters. I was fortunate enough to be brought up in a very rural area and some people up there, when the local line was closed, felt, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, that they would prefer to be where they were rather than in a relative centre of civilisation, such as Kirkby Stephen when compared with the Highlands of Scotland. These points on local economy, tourism and bus services will be fully considered. Points made by noble Lords tonight will only ensure that my right honourable friend takes them into account.

The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, said that it was difficult to have access to British Rail figures and an opportunity to make representations against them. I am sure that the board recognises this and that if it brings forward a closure proposal it has to be prepared to make a case for it. I can appreciate that objectors may wish to make representations to the Secretary of State which bear on the financial aspects, but in such circumstances it would be for objectors to approach the board direct for such information. I shall ensure that the views expressed in the House tonight about financial disclosure are drawn to the board's attention.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle made a good speech. I should like to add my congratulations to those expressed. I hope he continues to be non-controversial in the future for our sake. On his interesting point about the educational aspect and its great potential, I wonder whether the headmaster to whom he referred has been in touch with British Rail. I hope he has, because I am sure that this is something BR would like to consider. If he has not, perhaps the right reverend Prelate would pass this on.

My noble friend Lord Peel mentioned the PIEDA report. This was a report commissioned in 1984 by the local authorities and the tourist boards to study the line, the cost of maintaining it and the scope for retaining it with external funds or for private operation. The consultants reported in early 1985. It was a long report which reflected the thorough examination of the issues and it is certainly a report which my right honourable friend will wish to take into account.

The noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, said that British Rail had let the line run down in the past. I know that the railways board would reject that claim. It considers that the line has been maintained to an adequate standard to carry local traffic. It is true that the board did not consider it was necessary to maintain this line as a high-speed intercity link, because in its view there are suitable alternative services available on the east coast and west coast main lines. The noble Baroness mentioned that there probably had been insufficient marketing of the line, but I understand that special efforts have been made recently to promote travel on the line. The board has done quite a lot to try to mitigate the situation.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, will the noble Earl note the point I made of no through trains being shown in the ABC? Therefore, they are not marketing much.

The Earl of Caithness

Indeed, my Lords; I am very happy to note my noble friend's point on that, and to pass it on.

The noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, mentioned the Barmouth Viaduct and the contribution that the local authorities are making toward upgrading and modernising the Cambrian coastline. The noble Lord was quite right to point out that the local authorities can and do support local lines in this way. For that reason, I was interested to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, had to say on this subject. I hope that the local authority has been in touch with BR on this matter, because again I am sure that this is something that BR would wish to know about.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords, may I say that, of course, they have; because the whole of the programme which they are considering is one of contract and you can only have a contract with the knowledge of British Rail. They certainly have been in close consultation.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am delighted to hear that. I think that the point of local authority and other support for local lines, takes me on to the question of the heritage and the maintenance of the line, a point made particularly by my noble friends Lord Peel and Lord Clitheroe. If there are parties or bodies interested in making some financial contribution towards the retention of the historic structures on the line, we should be very pleased to know about it. This, again, would be taken into account by my right honourable friend when he comes to make a decision on this matter.

Earl Peel

My Lords, is my noble friend saying that if British Rail are not prepared to commit themselves to maintaining the structures of the viaduct, and the Government themselves are not prepared to do so, they will actually allow them to crumble?

The Earl of Caithness

No, my Lords, that is not what I am saying. I am saying that my right honourable friend will take all these matters into account. It is too soon to judge the situation. What I was saying is that in such instances as the Cambrian coastline mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, the local authorities are making a contribution. All I was suggesting to my noble friends was that if they knew of local authorities or other bodies who would wish to contribute, we should be delighted to hear about it.

The noble Lords, Lord Mountevans and Lord Carmichael, mentioned the public service obligation grant. This grant, which currently stands at over £2 million a day, recognises the social value of railways by enabling BR to provide a level of service throughout the subsidised network which would not be justified on commercial grounds alone. This grant, as Lord Carmichael well knows from his previous experience in the Ministry, is not paid in respect of individual lines or services. It is a grant paid to BR. They allocate it as they see fit.

The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, asked me about various figures. I can tell them that BR estimate that 250,000 journeys were made in 1985, which represent an average of about 700 a day. We are expecting some updated estimates in the near future on that.

If I may recapitulate on the existing procedures which are of long standing, they were fully considered and enacted by Parliament and they have served well enough in the past in handling other major stretches of route which BR have proposed for closure. One was mentioned: and that was the Waverly closure. Discussions and meetings will certainly continue to take place on this closure proposal. This debate is one example of such opportunities. We have made clear that we should be happy to receive representations at any time before my right honourable friend makes his decision. We have recognised the role that we think local authorities have in commenting on the wider issues. My right honourable friend will consult colleagues in other government departments and may seek whatever expert advice on particular aspects of the proposal or representations made about it that he thinks would be helpful.

I stress that the existing procedure is flexible enough to allow all this to happen and, I believe, to admit the fullest and fairest consideration of all the issues involved, even in a proposal of this size and complexity. Under the existing procedure my right honourable friend will have to take account of all the material points which your Lordships have raised this evening; and we are grateful for them.

House adjourned at eleven minutes past ten o'clock.