Orders of the Day — Railways, North-West

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 23rd July 1964.

Alert me about debates like this

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

11.30 p.m.

Photo of Sir Ian Percival Sir Ian Percival , Southport

I am grateful for this opportunity to say a word about railway closures in the North-West for it is a subject which has brought very acute and very personal worry to many thousands of my constituents and to people in neighbouring constituencies in the North-West, particularly those of my hon. Friends the Members for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page), Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Bingham), Liverpool, Kirkdale (Mr. N. Pannell) and Ormskirk (Sir D. Glover), who have been so active in representing the views of users. I hope that this debate may help to bring some degree of reassurance to many of the people concerned.

The lines under consideration fall into two distinct categories. There are a considerable number, on which the traffic is light. Of course, even those are of considerable importance to the people who use them, but in these cases the only issue is personal hardship. I accept that the Transport Users' Consultative Committees provide a very suitable procedure for examining that aspect and I do not wish to say any more about them now.

What I want to speak about are the other lines, the lines carrying 50,000 passengers and upwards a week, the lines which are really an integral part of the life of the area, which are, indeed, in many cases the focal point around which the area has grown up. It is noticeable that there are several of these lines on the list of closures for the North-West.

A classic example of what I have in mind is the Southport to Liverpool line. It is a short line carrying upwards of 200,000 passengers a week. Some of these are visitors. They, too, are an essential part of the life of the area. But I am even more concerned with the majority, the people for whom this line is an integral and essential part of the pattern of their lives. I mean the people who use it daily to go to and from their work, the school children who use it daily to go to and from school, the university students, the housewives, the shoppers and people visiting relatives and so on.

Upwards of 7,000 of my constituents use it every weekday. It is not difficult to imagine their surprise and dismay when they learned that this line was under consideration. I share that surprise and dismay, and it is some measure of the feelings of my constituents that when recently Conservative councillors undertook to raise a petition some 10,000 persons added their signatures to it within a matter of a very few weeks.

I appreciate, of course, that the question of individual hardship will receive most careful consideration by the T.U.C.C. should the matter ever reach that stage. The point I want to stress is that lines like these raise far wider questions than the question of individual hardship, questions quite outside the narrow limits to which the T.U.C.C.s must by law confine themselves.

The area along the coast from Liverpool to Southport has grown up along that line. It is the backbone of the area. That development is continuing. It is wholly desirable that it should continue. It is only by encouraging development of this kind that one can avoid increasing the density in the cities while at the same time getting people out into the open air and, as is so important in these times of increasing leisure, into areas where there are ample facilities for leisure.

No wonder that there is substantial building going on in the area, in Crosby, in Formby, in Ainsdale, all centred on the line. It is plain common sense and it is what people want, and for both these reasons we should cater for it. It also produces the result that we are able to visualise the transport needs for some long time ahead. We have the certain knowledge that what we have to plan for is the task of getting a lot of people into and out of Liverpool in the shortest possible time and in ever-increasing numbers.

What transport is necessary to do that? One must have vehicles with high carrying capacity capable of travelling at high density, at high speed and to a schedule. These are the very characteristics which Dr. Beeching singled out as being the advantages enjoyed by the railways over all other means of transport. What folly it would seem to be to deprive oneself of this means of transport when there is plainly a heavy need for it—a need which will increase. I think that Professor Buchanan has said in effect that it would be madness at this stage to drop any of the existing commuter services into the cities. This is, and must be, especially true of railway services and of the kind of lines in the North-West to which I am referring.

This apparent folly becomes even more obvious when one relates what I have just said to the only possible alternatives—private motor cars and buses. It is not everybody who has got a motor car, so some would not have the option. But if any significant proportion of those who had the option chose to use their motor cars, there would be absolute chaos for them—and for those who are already using their motor cars, for one must consider them as well. There are many in the area who already use their motor cars, probably in many cases because they have not got a railway. In all conscience they have trouble enough in getting through into the city now. If any significant numbers were to be added to them, both the additional numbers and the existing users would between them create congestion beyond belief.

That leaves the buses. There are special difficulties in the running of bus services, in view of the layout of the roads between Southport and Liverpool, but I want to stick to rather wider considerations. It seems obvious to me that to contemplate carrying 200,000 or more passengers a week by bus is a very large undertaking by any standard. It must necessarily involve great capital expenditure and take a long time to implement. When one considers that in addition, it would seem that the bus company would be presented with precisely the same dilemma as that experienced by the railway, which is the reason why the railway wishes to close its line, namely that it would have to have large stocks of vehicles and large staffs which would be used to capacity only for two comparatively short periods during the day, it seems difficult to believe that such an undertaking can be a practicable possibility.

One must, of course, also bear in mind against these considerations the question of the losses experienced on the railway at the moment. I want to make clear that I understand Dr. Beeching's point of view. If a railway is to be kept open at public expense, this is a matter for the Government, but I do suggest that this may very well be one of the cases to which Dr. Beeching referred in his Report, where it may be cheaper to subsidise the railways than to bear the other cost burdens which may arise if they are closed". If this line were closed, there would be immense losses in terms of time and inconvenience, and the mind boggles at the cost of the road improvements and the increased parking facilities which would obviously be necessary to keep the increased traffic moving at all and to provide a parking space when a traveller finally made a voluntary stop.

Nor do I think we are asking for anyone to pay for our railways. A lot of people live along this line and they pay a great deal in taxes. They are certainly not getting back any more than their share of the taxes which go to meet the railway deficits.

When one considers these factors, even thus briefly, it would seem as obvious as anything can be that it would be the height of folly to close such a line. Small wonder that users have expressed their views in graphic terms, and I agree with them. I have, as a cautious lawyer, expressed the view that it would be lunacy to close this line. I repeat that view. I have reassured my constituents, of course, by telling them that I know that the Minister is not a lunatic and therefore that T am confident that he will not close the line. I have done that because I am confident that the Minister will give the most serious consideration to the points I have mentioned and confident that he will conclude that they amount to an overwhelming case for keeping this and similar lines open.

My concern is with the timing. I do not doubt that in reply to this debate the Minister will assure me and my constituents and other rail users that all these points will be considered very carefully at the appropriate time. I am sure he will. I hope he will. I conclude by asking him to consider again what is the appropriate time for him to consider them. The kind of points I have been mentioning must be investigated at some time, and by him, not by the T.U.C.C.s. I want him to begin the investigating of them now. I believe that if he does so he will find that there are obvious and overwhelming reasons for saying that this line should not close.

I venture to express the view that in the case of a line like this people ought not to be kept in a state of suspense, and ought not to be subjected to the worry, the trouble and the expense of a T.U.C.C. hearing, and nor should the T.U.C.C, which has already more than enough to do, be put to this task, unless it is really unavoidable. I appreciate that the Minister may say that he feels that he must stick to the 1962 procedure in all cases, because if he departs from it in any particular case he may be asked to do so in all cases. Should he say that, may I offer in advance three comments to the contrary?

First, there are in fact very few other cases comparable to the commuter lines in the North-West. Secondly, in my view, all commuter lines ought in any event to be considered as being in a quite different category from the others. Thirdly, though I appreciate that there is some danger that the Minister may find himself in that difficulty, I have no doubt that he is quite strong enough to deal with it, if it arises, and I hope that he will feel that it would be both wrong and unnecessary to keep many thousands in a state of uncertainty and worry in order to safeguard himself against a possible difficulty which might well not arise, and which he could well deal with if it did arise.

The Minister's decision announced today not to allow the Manchester-Buxton line to close will give much pleasure and encouragement to many. It is very good to find that in a case like this the T.U.C.C. has adapted itself as readily to the urgency of the situation and has adopted a wholly practical course, and it is very good to find that the Minister has responded so speedily to that sense of urgency. Both are to be warmly congratulated.

There is great similarity between the case of the Southport-Liverpool line and the Manchester-Buxton line. If there be any significant difference—I am sure my hon. Friends will agree with me on this—it is that the numbers involved are far greater in the case of the Southport-Liverpool line and thus involve even more hardship and more difficulty than in the Buxton case.

I cannot believe that it is beyond the wit of practical men of the calibre of Dr. Beeching and my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to find a short cut in the case of the Liverpool-Southport line. It may be that, now that we have a yardstick, Dr. Beeching may feel, following the indications given in the Buxton case, that the Southport line might be withdrawn from the list. Alternatively, my right hon. Friend may feel he could follow the example set by the T.U.C.C. in the Buxton case, and, just as the T.U.C.C. felt it desirable to submit as a matter of urgency an interim report on hardship without taking time to go into every detail of hardship, so I would suggest that my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend might feel it right now to ask the Steering Committee, which they have appointed to consider the transport problems on Merseyside and which has been considering this problem for two years, to submit as a matter of urgency an interim report on the kind of considerations which are the considerations which must be dealt with by him and not by the T.U.C.C, namely, considerations of the kind to which I have endeavoured to draw attention this evening.

I have put forward some suggestions on how a short cut might be achieved. In fact, of course, I do not mind how it is done, but I do ask the Parliamentary Secretary and all concerned to consider, as practical men, whether it really is impossible to put us out of our misery. I urge them to do it now and to remove the uncertainty. Do not put us through the hoop any further. Find a way of giving us at an early date the decision which those of us who have considered the matter in detail feel is inevitable in the long run, and let us now get on with our lives and our plans for the area.

11.45 p.m.

Photo of Hon. Thomas Galbraith Hon. Thomas Galbraith , Glasgow Hillhead

I have answered a great many Adjournment debates on railway closures in the last year and although I think I have said everything that can be said, since my hon. and learned Friend's adjournment is linked specifically to the North-West, I hope that this debate will receive wide publicity in that area and will enable people there not only to learn of the activities of my hon. and learned Friend in their interest, but, what is perhaps more important from my point of view, to understand the principles and procedure which govern railway closure proposals and realise that they are designed to safeguard particular interests, to which my hon. and learned Friend refered, as well as to reach a decision which is in the best national interest.

To go back to the start, the aim of the Report on the Reshaping of British Railways was to fit the railways to do the tasks for which they are best suited and to leave to other forms of transport tasks which they can do much better and more economically than the railways. The heavy deficit on the system is a burden to the taxpayers and a waste of resources which the country really cannot afford. One-third of the system is carrying less than 1 per cent. of the total passenger traffic and it is against this background that passenger closures must be examined.

What is always forgotten is that although the railways deficit is down this year by £22 million, the cost still amounts to about 6d. in the Income Tax. It does not seem right that all this money should be used to keep little used railway lines open. My hon. and learned Friend divided the lines in his area into two categories, those that are important and those that are not. We are always coming across this sort of division. Other people's lines are usually expendible, but for our own it is nearly always possible to find good reason for their retention.

Photo of Sir Ian Percival Sir Ian Percival , Southport

I did not intend to give that impression. I meant to divide the railway lines in my constituency as between the little used and the heavily used, remembering that both are important to their users.

Photo of Hon. Thomas Galbraith Hon. Thomas Galbraith , Glasgow Hillhead

To be fair, I concede that some rail closure proposals do present difficulties, and this is especially true of the proposals affecting large conurbations, which are of particular interest to my hon. and learned Friend. He recognises that there may well be a case for closing unremunerative lines carrying only a handful of people, but he believes that some lines form an integral part of the economy of the area and that these should be retained. I say "integral" because that was the adjective he used. As an example, he quoted the Liverpool-Southport line.

I will say something about our procedure for dealing with these sorts of cases. Before the Railways Board can proceed with any passenger closure, it must first of all publish a formal notice of its proposal under Section 56 of the Transport Act, 1962. This brings the statutory processes into operation; users have a right to object to the proposal once it is published. And, if they do object, the closure cannot take effect until there has been a public hearing, and unless my right hon. Friend gives his consent.

The Transport Users' Consultative Committee hears the objections, and it reports to my hon. Friend on the hardship, if any, that it considers the closure would cause. My right hon. Friend carefully considers what the T.U.C.C. has to say on hardship, but I cannot emphasise too strongly that hardship is not the only aspect that he considers. There are many other issues—and very important ones, too—which must be weighed up before any closure proposal can be decided.

My right hon. Friend goes to great lengths to ensure that he has all the information he needs to consider the wide issues, and this may involve defence considerations, housing needs—to which my hon. and learned Friend referred—industrial development, tourist possibilities, as well, naturally, as the state of the roads and the amount of traffic on them. My right hon. Friend receives representations from local authorities and other bodies on these sorts of subjects, and to help him reach a decision he consults his colleagues whose responsibilities may be affected—for example, the Secretary of State for Industry and Trade and the Minister of Housing and Local Government. If, therefore, a passenger service is in fact an integral part of the economy of the area, my hon. Friend can rest assured that this will be brought to light as the result of the close study we make in this way of all opposed closure proposals.

I should now like to turn to the Liverpool-Southport case, and straight away let me say that I fully appreciate my hon. and learned Friend's concern in the matter, and I have sympathy for his constituents and, indeed, for all other hon. Members, of whom I see another in the House, who are interested in the matter. But I must confess that I think their concern a little premature.

All the Railways Board has so far done is to include the Liverpool-Southport line in its Reshaping Report as one it plans to close. Nothing more definite than that has been done so far. If the Board does decide to go ahead with this proposal, it still has to publish a formal notice under Section 56 of the Act, and issue advertisements in the Press and, of course, this is something it has not yet done. Until it has published a formal notice, the statutory processes cannot begin. If the notice is published, and opposed, the elaborate procedure I have described, with the public hearing of objections and a ministerial decision, have to be carried out first of all before the closure can take place.

My hon. and learned Friend asked why my right hon. Friend could not take a decision right away, and inferred that this was a perfectly clear case on which to give a decision. I am afraid that there are two objections to doing what might be described as "jumping the gun" in this way. In the first place, to people who think a line should not be closed, the case for retention is always clearer, but my right hon. Friend has to take a rather more dispassionate view. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, until there is a published and opposed notice under Section 56 of the Act, my right hon. Friend's statutory responsibility does not begin. At the moment, as my hon. and learned Friend knows, there is no Section 56 proposal before my right hon. Friend with regard to the Liverpool-Southport line, so that he has no locus, and there is nothing he can do or say.

It might then be asked why cannot an immediate decision be given once a Section 56 notice is published, without going through all the laborious T.U.C.C. procedure. The reason my right hon. Friend cannot decide in advance whether a service should be closed or not is that the procedure laid down by Parliament must be followed through, and all the evidence on matters other than hardship has to be properly assembled. For example, the evidence to the T.U.C.C. will often give comparable times by bus and road but it may be possible by improving the road to reduce the times and thus reduce the hardship. Alternatively it may be possible to alter the route and so preserve the basic structure of the railway service.

A very interesting example of this was the Stranraer lines which the railways wanted to close as they were losing over £300,000 a year. As a result of consideration following the T.U.C.C.'s report it was found possible to re-route the trains in such a way as to provide a service from Stranraer to Glasgow and to London, both of which would have been lost if the railways' proposal had been accepted, and still save £240,000 a year, that is the bulk of the money. This is the sort of solution which my right hon. Friend could not possibly have reached without going through the laborious T.U.C.C. procedure and the interdepartmental investigation following on from it.

I must stress that a snap decision of the sort that my hon. and learned Friend suggests is not possible. My right hon. Friend must know about numbers, times and alternatives, and this he learns from the T.U.C.C. He must also know in the light of these facts the effect on roads, industry, and development and this is something he cannot begin to consider until the basic facts have been brought out at the T.U.C.C. My right hon. Friend's concern in all these cases is to ensure that he has sufficient evidence to enable him to reach a proper decision. He does not want to come to a quick decision merely for the sake of quickness. He wants to reach the right decision and it depends entirely on the nature of the case what evidence he calls for to ensure that the pros and cons are looked into exactly and as fairly as possible.

I assure my hon. Friend that this will apply to the Liverpool—Southport line just as much as to any line that comes before my right hon. Friend for decision. As I see each proposal personally before it reaches my right hon. Friend, I assure my hon. and learned Friend that every one of them is subjected to the same exhaustive and careful scrutiny. In case, however, that my hon. and learned Friend is in any doubt about the effectiveness of our examination I should like to quote a few examples from decisions already announced to illustrate the detailed care that is taken.

My right hon. Friend in many cases has made his consent conditional upon the provision of extra bus services, and some consents include the requirement for limited stops to provide a speedier bus journey. The Southport-Preston closure is a good example of what I mean. Sometimes the bus is re-routed to bring it nearer to the station, as in the case of the two closures affecting the Carlisle line. Where additional services are required, for example the Wigan-Glazebrook line, they must be in operation before the closure takes place and must be kept on as long as my right hon. Friend considers necessary.

Then there is the condition of the roads. In the Alston-Haltwhistle line there was a good case for closure but the road could not carry the buses and could not be made to carry them except at excessive and prohibitive cost, and for that reason the line was kept open. Sometimes it is not so much the condition of the road as the amount of traffic on it that affects my right hon. Friend's decision. A good example of this is the Cardiff-Coryton line. This ran across the city in a way that made it impossible for a reasonable bus alternative to be provided. Substantial numbers of people would have had very large increases in travelling time, and for this reason the line was kept open to help commuters. Another example is the Manchester-Buxton line which my right hon. Friend decided to keep open because he did not think that the alternatives would cater satisfactorily and adequately for commuters.

Just the reverse of this are the Glasgow low-level lines losing £300,000 a year which my right hon. Friend decided to close because the new electric blue trains provide an excellent substitute only a short distance away. These two contrasting decisions in great industrial conurbations show that there is no one decision suited to every area. Each case has to be considered on its merits. I hope that what I have said will be of some help to my hon. Friend and his constituents. At the moment there is absolutely nothing to worry about because the railways still have not made a formal proposal. The very first Adjournment debate we had a year ago was about the Broad Street-Richmond line. Like the Southport line it had not been formally proposed then and it has not been formally proposed yet—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twelve o'clock.