Orders of the Day — Railway Services (Complaints)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16th June 1948.

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Motion made, and Question proposed. "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Simmons.]

1.13 a.m.

Photo of Dr Mont Follick Dr Mont Follick , Loughborough

I am sorry to detain the House at this late hour, particularly as I took over the adjournment to oblige a friend. What I wish to do is to pass a few remarks in criticism of some of the railway services. Let it be clearly understood that I am not criticising in any way the nationalisation of the railways: I have always been an ardent enthusiast for the nationalisation of railways, long before nationalisation was a plank in our platform. One thing I could not understand was why we had a nationalised postal system and not a nationalised railway system, because, after all, the railway system carries the mails and packets for the postal system. So let it not be thought that in raising these few questions I am in any way criticising the great thing done in nationalising our railways.

Nor do I believe, as is often asserted, that as soon as you nationalise a service it becomes inefficient. I have often heard that maintained in the old days in the case of France, where they had nationalised railways and private enterprise. The efficiency or inefficiency of a service depends on the knowledge of the people carrying out that service. It may be a fact that the nationalised service in France was not a great success, but the pre-1914 nationalised railways in Germany were such an outstanding success that they actually paid for the upkeep of the very efficient pre-1914 German Army. There is, therefore, no reason to suppose that because the railways have been taken over by the nation they will not be a success. From what I have seen of it, it looks as if the railways are making progress already, although they have been nationalised only a very few months.

Nor do I think that the success of a service depends on whether it makes a profit or a loss. The important thing is what service that nationalised system is rendering to the nation. I do not even believe that it should show a big profit. The very fact that it is showing a profit perhaps indicates that that profit ought to be turned back into the service. In the thirties the Post Office made profits of £7 or £8 million. Surely the right thing to do was to reduce the postage or the telegram rates, or to do something which would improve the service.

The first point I want to raise is the issuing of first-class tickets by the railways. From what I can see, as long as one is prepared to pay for a first-class ticket, a first-class ticket is issued to one regardless of whether there is space in the train for the number of first-class passengers. If a third-class passenger travels in a first-class carriage and the ticket collector comes along, he has to pay the difference but if one has a first-class ticket and cannot find any space in a first-class carriage, one does not get one's money back. If a third-class passenger travels first-class too often or too persistently, he can be brought up in front of the magistrate for attempting to cheat the company, but if the company cheats one by taking one's money for a first-class seat and making no attempt to find one a first-class seat, one has no claim against the company. The remedy for this is—

Photo of Dr Mont Follick Dr Mont Follick , Loughborough

—to abolish first class and have only one class of carriage, or to guarantee the people who pay first-class fares accommodation in a first-class carriage or return their money. This is an important point and is a very sore point when one finds time and time again that one buys a first-class ticket and cannot get first-class accommodation. It might be said, "Why travel first-class at all?" While first-class carriages exist and while one is prepared to pay for the extra comfort first-class carriages provide—one may be able to read better or do a bit of work in a first-class carriage—one has a right to travel first-class.

I do not know any part of the world where first-class has been abolished. It has certainly not been abolished in Russia. They have still got it there. They do not call them first-class and second-class. They call them Myak and Tbërd, which mean soft and hard, and, by Jove, the hard ones are hard. They are bare boards, and travelling a week or two on bare boards is hard. There is, therefore, no question of any country having abolished their first-class carriages, and the only way to get over this difficulty is to have one class or to live up to the guarantee and not issue tickets for first-class carriages in excess of the accommodation.

Now I come to the question of Pullman cars on British Railways. We have nationalised our transport system and have left Pullman cars out. They are using nationalised lines, nationalised engines and nationalised coal. I know I shall be told that there are international difficulties in breaking up this Pullman car system, but I think the difficulties should be overcome. There were a great many difficulties when we nationalised the transport system and the road system, but we overcame them, and I do not see any reason why we cannot overcome the difficulty of having a private enterprise company using British lines, British engines and British nationalised coal.

I turn to the question of the food provided by the railways. None of these complaints I am making has anything to do with the nationalisation of the railways, because they always existed. This question of food especially existed long before the war, and was a subject for the comic papers. But now that we have taken over the system it is only right that we should try to remedy some of these grievances. It would be to our credit if we did. Up to recently they were charging 3s. 6d. for a lunch, and it has now been raised to 4s. But the lunch is worth nowhere near that amount. It never has been. It is ridiculous not only to charge 3s. 6d., but to raise the price to 4s., for a meal that is not worth it. There are occasions when you do not get the meal even if you pay for it. On one occasion when I was coming back to the House from Loughborough I went into the dining car and I was told I could not have a meal until after we had left Leicester. When I went in then I was told, "The only thing we can give you is a slice of meat pie." There was no soup, no dessert, no cheese. When I came to pay the bill they charged the full price of a full meal. I said, "Surely, that is absurd." They said, "No, that is what you have to pay." And I had to pay it. That difficulty could be overcome by having a table d'hote meal and charging for it, and having an a la carte menu for circumstances like that. It is highway robbery to charge full price for something worth a few pence. [HON. MEMBERS: "Railway robbery."]

Then there is the question which nearly caused a strike among the waiters on the railways—the question of tips. A fortnight or three weeks ago it was touch and go whether all the waiters on the nationalised railways came out on strike. We as a party have always struggled and fought against tips, but whether we believe in tips or not we shall never do away with them. They have tried in France and other countries. Even if they are prohibited, as used to be the case in some London hotels, tips are still given. You feel that you want to give a tip as a mark of good service. I do not see that there is any difference between giving 10 per cent. for good service and Keith Prowse charging 10 per cent. for tickets. It is a service you pay for. But I do not see the purpose of a compulsory tip. Giving a tip is a pleasure. You cannot have any pleasure in giving a compulsory tip. Whether you get good or bad service you are obliged to pay a tip.

Waiters on trains have to be most skilful. Serving meals on trains is the hardest way of serving meals. It is a most difficult job to move along the narrow gangway between the tables, with passengers passing to and fro, and the train swaying all the time. Having a good waiter makes all the difference between receiving one's soup in a plate laid upon the table and having the soup poured down one's neck. So one must pay a good wage to ensure getting skilful waiters.

The waiters were satisfied with the 10 per cent. they received when the railways were nationalised, but suddenly the railway authorities turned round to the waiters and said, "You are doing too well," and took away the 10 per cent. and put a surcharge on meals instead, giving the waiters a little of the surcharge in more wages and keeping the difference. The majority of the public did not distinguish between the 10 per cent. service charge and the surcharge, and did not pay more in tips, and the waiters complained that they could not live on their wages alone, and that they were being penalised by the authorities by their keeping most of the surcharge for themselves.

The railway authorities came to a sort of agreement with the waiters, that instead of putting a 10 per cent. surcharge on the bill they would put up the price of meals 15 per cent., and they put a notice in train windows saying they expected the public to give tips once more. So instead of paying 3s. 6d. one had to pay 4s. for a meal not worth anything like the money, and then a tip in addition. That is a lot of nonsense, which could be avoided by bringing down the price of meals and paying the waiters well. We still have first-class and third-class dining cars in which the same price is charged for the same meal. Either the railways ought to have dining cars of one class only, or lower the price in the third-class cars.

Then there is the question of passengers who arrive at main line stations in the early hours of the morning, when the Underground is closed, and have no means of reaching their destinations. The refreshment rooms are closed, and the passengers have to hang about, unable to proceed from the station, and unable to obtain refreshment while waiting through the night. Another matter is one which disturbs temperance people, of whom I do not pretend to be one. Trains have bars, and liquor is served in the bars all the time the train is running. There is no restriction on the entrance of young children into the bars. They are allowed to enter bars on the trains, where they hear all sorts of language they ought not to be listening to, which is of no great benefit to their parents either.

I have been asked about parties travelling on railways to see if something could not be done for school children who are making use of the railways for educational purposes, for visiting places of historic and scientific interest. I have received this letter from Loughborough Grammar School: In my programme of inter-term visits for our Science Sixth Form, I have asked for permission for a party to visit the National Physical Laboratories at Teddington on July 10. I am, however, somewhat appalled by the cost. The local railway officials have been most helpful and have arranged for party rates for us, but under existing regulations adult fares are charged for all over 16 years of age. This amounts to 28s. 10d., which is a considerable sum for a boy to find for a single outing. You will appreciate that most of the Sixth Form are over 16 and in fact two members of the party only qualify for half fare. My own view, probably biased, is that all schoolchildren should be carried at half rate whatever their age. It is probable you might have a high level of contact with the Railway Executive and might have an opportunity to put forward this view before I actually pay for the fares. I appeal to the Minister. We have done so many things for the benefit of the nation, surely we can do a thing like this and allow those who are coming after us to get the advantage of the nationalised railways to see what the nation is producing, so that their development can proceed along the lines we have travelled.

1.33 a.m.

Photo of Mr James Callaghan Mr James Callaghan Parliamentary Secretary (Ministry of Transport)

My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Follick) has raised a number of detailed matters. He opened his comments by saying that he was not criticising the policy of nationalisation, and many of the criticisms he had to utter referred to matters which were in existence long before nationalisation. He said the railways were making some progress under nationalisation. I am bound to say that is my own impression, too. If I may dwell on the point of the timing of trains, there is no doubt, both statistically and, if one mistrusts the use of figures, from the evidence of one's own senses in travelling, the time-keeping of trains has improved considerably during the last few months. I am satisfied that there are several factors which account for that.

Undoubtedly one factor has been the desire of everybody working on the railways, whatever his political views might be, to make the system work. In the last few months there has been an abundance of evidence of goodwill on the part of all ranks and of their determination really to make the system work. I am bound to say in that respect nationalisation has had an immediate moral effect on the working of the railway system. There have been other causes for the improvement. The railways have been able to get down to some replacement of tracks. There has been some improvement in the quality of the coal they have been using. I think we have witnessed during the last few months a small but steady improvement in time-keeping of trains and that is extremely welcome. My hon. Friend said, of course, that the results of nationalisation should not be judged by the profits which are made, if transport is regarded as a public service. That is too big a subject for me to enter into at this time of the night. I think there is an arguable case, and it is one which perhaps we may develop at some greater length on a later occasion.

My hon. Friend raised a number of detailed points to which I shall not attempt to reply in detail tonight. But my right hon. Friend the Minister will invite the attention of the British Transport Commission to those points, and they will have consideration. I should like to say generally, in regard to his criticism of meals on the railways—the cost, the sort of meals served, and so on—that the Hotels Executive, which has recently been appointed, will have these matters before it for discussion, and when the scheme of delegation has been approved—in the comparatively near future, I hope—they will be getting down to this job of making our meals on the railways much better than they are today. I think that all of us, including the railways themselves, recognise that great improvements can be made. They are working under great difficulties, of course, but this is their intention; and already we have seen in some of the refreshment rooms at stations visible signs of improvement. King's Cross, I think, is a good example. The new refreshment bar at Fenchurch Street is another good example of what can be and is being done.

There was a misunderstanding about the question of tipping, and I am very sorry it arose. The circumstances are briefly that the Railway Executive concluded a wages agreement with the National Union of Railwaymen which provided both for an increase of wages and a reduction of hours of work from 108 a fortnight to 88 hours a fortnight. They were entitled, under one of the many Orders which are approved by this House from time to time, to add the additional cost so incurred to the cost of meals. That was done, and the result was that tipping fell off to a great extent. The arrangement has now been altered, and I believe that tipping is going on in the usual way and perhaps with greater contentment than during the period in which this misunderstanding arose.

On the question of parties travelling on the railways, I would say that the railways are all out to get business. I think everyone must have had evidence of that during the last few months. The introduction of cheap fare facilities and of many other new services which they have brought into being are evidence of that. I think I can say that my hon. Friend can be assured that within the limits set by the rolling stock available, the railways will do all they can about the point he has raised with regard to getting new business. They are showing a spirit of public enterprise and I think they are making the best use of their resources. The 1948 Summer schedules, I am told, make provision for improved services both on the main lines and cross country services. On weekdays, the number of main line weekday trains shows an increase of 314 compared with last year, and on Saturdays an increase of 512 over the figure for the corresponding period of last year. The number of restaurant and buffet car services in operation on weekdays is 557, an increase of 117 on last Summer, and on Sundays the figure is 591. But the railways are very short of coaches still.

Photo of Mr Percy Morris Mr Percy Morris , Swansea West

May I interrupt for a moment to say that it might help my hon. Friend who has raised these points this evening if the Parliamentary Secretary would send him a copy of "Transport Statistics," the monthly document which is being issued by his Department. That would satisfy him that not only is great progress being made, but that everything is being done to expedite delivery of new and better stock; and in regard to the other departments to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention, that publication would, I think, meet all the criticisms which have been made tonight.

Photo of Mr James Callaghan Mr James Callaghan Parliamentary Secretary (Ministry of Transport)

I am much obliged to my hon. Friend and we shall carry out his suggestion, and I hope that hon. Members will acquaint themselves with the statistics given in this very excellent publication.

What I was saying was that the Railway Executive would very much like a substantial addition to the number of coaches they are getting. There was general agreement in this House last Autumn that there should be a cut in capital expenditure; but nobody wants to reduce the number of coaches for any reason. The circumstances of today are the problem. The enterprising railway Executive wants additions to the number of coaches which were so much reduced during the war. Something in the order of 1,200 new coaches will be forthcoming this year, although four times that number would be welcomed, but there is not the available steel.

May I say in conclusion that I am very impressed by the spirit which I find abroad in the railway service at present? It is an encouraging sign to see the way in which these people are going out for new business and are doing all they can throughout the service to ensure that the nationalisation of the railways will turn out to be a venture which it was well worth while to undertake.

Adjourned accordingly at Eighteen Minutes to Two o'Clock a.m.