Orders of the Day — Railways (Coniston-Foxfield Branch Line)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 12th December 1957.

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

12.14 a.m.

Photo of Sir Ian Fraser Sir Ian Fraser , Morecambe and Lonsdale

It being after midnight, I express my thanks to the Minister who has stayed to answer my plea, and to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and the servants of the House and all who are inconvenienced. I shall be very brief.

Coniston Water is a beautiful lake in the north-west of England, and by it is the village of Coniston in which about 4,000 people live. Foxfield is a station on the main railway line about 10 miles from Coniston, and Foxfield and Coniston are joined by a branch railway line. There is concern lest this railway line should be closed, because it is said to be uneconomic.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Rawdon Smith, the chairman of the Coniston Parish Council, and to others who have made available to us and to the public generally a very clear case against the closure of this railway. This case has been put to the transport users' consultative committee, and I understand that the Ministry—and the Minister will correct me if I am wrong in this—has been impressed by this case, and has put off its decision in favour of the British Railways for a few weeks.

It may, therefore, be wondered why I should think it necessary to continue to raise the matter. First, I did not know of that postponement of a decision until a few hours ago but, even so, I think it is important to make the case now so that it may go on record and that the Ministers may have the opportunity to consider it.

I preface my remarks by saying that we must realise that we have now entered an era in which the Government have determined—I think very rightly—that the railways shall pay their way. We all want railwaymen to have good wages and improving conditions of work, but not out of the taxes. If those things are to be brought about out of the earnings of the railways, it is not surprising that British Railways should look around to see where they can save losses, or come nearer to making profits. One of the steps will be to close down the most uneconomic branch lines.

Nevertheless, I think that it is still the duty of the railways, as with all near-monopolies—and the railways are still a near-monopoly in spite of the competition of the roads—to serve the public, and to serve not only where it pays best. It remains the duty of every public service to be a public service, and, therefore, to operate in disadvantageous conditions and not to close every service or part of a service that is not paying.

Who should the Member of Parliament represent? Should he represent the taxpayers generally, or his constituents generally? In this matter, the British Railways are the big fellows. I think that the hon. Member should represent the small people—those in Coniston and Torver and thereabouts, who feel that they will be greatly hurt and damaged if the railway is closed; and the following very briefly, are the reasons why they think they will be hurt.

This is in the most beautiful part of the Lake District, and a great many visitors like to go there. It will clearly tend to diminish the number of visitors who can go, and go conveniently, with their luggage—sometimes big luggage—if there is not a railway to take them to Coniston.

Then there is agriculture and those who work in Barrow-in-Furness, a busy town nearby. It is convenient for them to go by rail right into the town where they work. There are those who have to go to hospital; the children who have to go to school. There are the mothers who like to take their babies in a pram when they go shopping. They cannot do that on a bus. There are those, whether they be school children, working men or visitors, who like to take bicycles. All those are reasons for requiring rail transport.

We have had a railway there for ninety-nine years. Next year, we would celebrate its centenary. This is not a propitious time to close it; rather should it be a time for celebrating a considerable occasion.

It is now said that road transport will take the place of the railway that it is proposed to close, but anyone who knows this district as I do—and I was there only a fortnight ago, driving over these very roads—will know that those roads are narrow, twisting and dangerous. Some of them are only 13 ft. 6 in. wide, and neither big enough, wide enough nor safe enough to carry large buses. If one tries to put on more small buses, there will merely be a jam on the roads. When Donald Campbell goes to Lake Coniston to drive his "Blue Bird," motor cars may be seen, head to tail, on the roads for miles around, even though there is a railway. If the railway is taken away and more buses are put on, confusion will be worse confounded.

If the evidence is finally overwhelming and the railway must go, the Minister should improve the roads first. He should consider, therefore, what it will cost to improve the roads—perhaps £40,000 or £80,000. What will it cost to put on the much better road service? All these things must be weighed against the loss now made on the railway before a decision is made, not afterwards.

There is one other point I must make. Had it not been so late at night, my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Vane) would have been here to make it rather than myself on his behalf, but he had to catch his train. Between the towns of Oxenholme and Windermere there is another little bit of railway, and it is proposed to close that on Sundays in the winter months. The same kind of considerations apply to this as apply in the case I have already put, and I do not wish to repeat them. My constituents and his have asked us to say that we hope that the closing of the line on Sundays may be stayed.

I ask the Minister to consider carefully what must be done about the roads. If, at the end of it all, everyone is satisfied that the railway must go, will he assure us that it will not go until after the roads have been put right? I ask the Minister also to see that a public inquiry precedes a major closure of this kind. It is not enough to say that the matter has been referred to the local authorities and to the transport users' committees. Those advisory committees are, after all, I do not say the creatures of British Railways, but they are appointed with the approval of British Railways. I would not say they are the consumers' men. They are rather the railways' men. Something in the nature of an impartial inquiry should be instituted by Ministers before so drastic a step so gravely affecting many people in the district is taken.

12.23 a.m.

Photo of Sir Richard Nugent Sir Richard Nugent , Guildford

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser) on his eloquent advocacy of his constituents' grievances and anxieties. He is, of course, renowned for his care for his constituents in their very widely spread area, and I assure him that it is a pleasure for me to reply to him this evening, or, perhaps I should say, at this early hour of the morning.

I welcome his support for the Government's anti-inflation policy as it applies to the British Transport Commission and the railways generally. His comments have demonstrated, however, how narrow is the scope for the Commission in meeting his wish to keep open unprofitable lines generally and the Coniston-Foxfield line in particular.

Last year, the British Transport Commission made a loss of over £50 million, a deficit at present met by loans authorised under the 1957 Act, which moneys, of course are provided by the taxpayer. The Commission has a formidable task ahead to achieve solvency, and it is its hope and intention to do so under its modernisation plan by 1961–62. But it is clear that if the Commission is to give the nation the modern services needed at fully competitive rates without recourse to the taxpayer, it just has no alternative but to propose to close unprofitable lines. The alternative would be to carry them either on the back of the taxpaper or at the expense of other travellers.

I readily assure my hon. Friend that the Commission is always reluctant to close any line. No railway man would ever be willing to close a line if he could possibly keep it open. The Commission is very conscious of the value of these rural lines as feeder lines to the main lines, and is prepared to carry a fair amount of unprofitable traffic in that way. It has gone to much experiment to try to cheapen the costs of running these lines.

I have myself tried out the new experimental light diesel set, one of which is running between Bletchley and Banbury in the same region of British Railways as my hon. Friend's constituency; this is one of the Commission's many efforts to reduce the running costs of these rural lines. Even so, whatever is done, some of them are bound to be really uneconomical and, of course, lines of this kind, which were built, as my hon. Friend says, about a century ago, when the railways really did have a monopoly, are facing very different conditions today.

I should say one word about the constitution of the transport users' consultative committees, because my hon. Friend has made a point about the need for a public inquiry and he evidently feels doubt about the independence of these committees. They are appointed by my right hon. Friend the Minister. There is a central committee which makes an annual report to the Minister and also sends its minutes and recommendations direct to the Minister as well as sending them to the Commission. There are nine area transport users' consultative committees. Their minutes and recommendations go direct to the Commission as well as to the central committee.

The membership is completely independent. They are representative of transport users generally—passenger transport, freight transport, and so on. Their members are men and women who are willing to give their time to do this work on a voluntary basis. They are public-spirited people who evidently have the interest of the community at heart, and we have every reason to be grateful to them. We leave procedure largely to them because we feel that in that way we shall get the best result.

Photo of Sir Ian Fraser Sir Ian Fraser , Morecambe and Lonsdale

If the appointment of these ladies and gentlemen is neither approved by British Railways, nor their procedure guided by British Railways, then I offer an apology to them. I thought that it was.

Photo of Sir Richard Nugent Sir Richard Nugent , Guildford

Included in their membership on each of these committees is a representative of the Transport Commission, who is there, of course, to provide any information that they require and generally to assist them in any way he can to reach a fully considered conclusion. The usual procedure that these bodies follow—they vary from one area to another—is to notify all local authorities in areas that are affected by proposals of this kind, including parish councils.

In this particular case, the North-Western Area Committee considered most carefully this proposal of the Commission to close the Coniston-Foxfield line, and appointed a sub-committee to sit at Coniston on 8th November last to hear the objectors. I am told that they attended in considerable numbers. There were present the representatives of no less than two parish meetings, four parish councils, two county district councils, the Lancashire County Council, the Lancashire Education Committee, and four other local public bodies; so I feel sure that my hon. Friend will recognise that the area committee concerned really has taken proper steps to see that those who will be interested or affected had a chance to attend and ventilate their concern and grievance.

As to the road, the Transport Commission had provisionally arranged with the Ribble Motor Service to run its bus service to replace the line if it were to close. It is true that the Lancashire County Council, which is the highway authority, is considering a weight restriction on the Broughton—Torver road, a classified road and a very narrow and tortuous one, and that if that weight restriction were introduced it could prevent buses travelling on it. To relieve the anxiety of my hon. Friend, I should say that such a restriction requires an Order which my right hon. Friend would have to confirm, and we would not confirm such an Order unless we were fully satisfied of its necessity.

Because of this doubt about the road, the area transport users' consultative committee decided, at its meeting last Tuesday, to postpone its decision on this case until its meeting in March next year. The committee hopes that, in the meantime, the doubts and uncertainties about the road can be cleared up, so that it can then take its decision with the whole position fully clarified. It is quite clear that the committee is fully aware of the various factors to which my hon. Friend has referred.

As to the future of the road, the initiative for its improvement lies with the Lancashire County Council. I know from having seen its activities that it is one of the most active highway authorities in the country, and I am sure that it will take an imaginative view of its responsibilities here as elsewhere. I cannot say what priority we could give to a scheme for the improvement of this road. It must compete with all the other road schemes in the country, but I will undertake that my right hon. Friend and I will fully bear in mind the needs of the local people, and the difficult local circumstances to which my hon. Friend has so eloquently referred, when we come to consider its merits. We shall certainly do our best to cater for the obvious problems of the neighbourhood.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-seven minutes to One o'clock.