Railways

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 4th July 1973.

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Photo of Mr John Osborn Mr John Osborn , Sheffield, Hallam 12:00 am, 4th July 1973

We have debated these matters before. I have witnessed this dialogue over a number of years in the periods of Conservative and Labour Governments. In 1962 we had the Transport Act of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples) and the Beeching Plan, and I believed at that time the first steps were taken in the right direction. The right hon. Lady talked about previous Ministers being forgiven, but she should remember that when she was in power car-stickers used to say "Come back Marples: all is forgiven".

The most important feature of the 1968 Act is that quantity licensing was not imposed by the previous Government and that my right hon. Friend will almost certainly feel inclined to repeal it in due course.

Having gone over all this ground, what is new about the situation facing railways throughout the world? What progress has been made in the last decade? What lessons can be learned from other countries?

First, we can take pride in British Rail. Its image has improved over the last 10 years. This is something for which both Governments can take some credit, but the initial steps were taken early in the 1960s. There would be the advanced passenger train and the highspeed train. By contrast, the United States of America has let its railways disintegrate over the last 10 years. The railways have given way to the monsters on the road and to the airlines. This has been regretted in the United States

Europe has had some added protection, largely through the tariff quota system. There are grave doubts about the financial performance of all railways in European countries. In the Commission, those concerned with transport are asking what has gone wrong. In a recent report by the European Conference of Ministers of Transport. it was stated: Rail traffic is expanding slightly, or in some cases marking time in absolute terms, but is still losing ground to other forms of transport. Varying figures are given for subsidies. In Britain, the lose of £26 million must be augmented by the grant of £95 million. In West Germany, there was a loss last year of £143 million and in Italy of £273 million. But these figures depend on which charts we consult.

What is certain is that railways, in spite of tariff quota protection, and longer journeys in Europe, present a problem to all countries that own them. I welcome the fact that because of Regulation 1192/69 there is to be normalisation of accounts. It is reasonable that charges which are to be put on railways should not include the cost of level crossings and bridges, for instance. The cost of these developments should be put where it belongs.

Ten years ago the South African system of rigid laws to put traffic on freight was relevant to our debate. But the advantage there lies in the fact that freight journeys are much longer than they are in this country.

What has been the performance in Great Britain in the last 10 years? Between 1962 and 1971 the tonnage taken by rail in this country fell from 228 million tons to 196 million tons, yet the total tonnage of goods has moved up by 30 per cent., going mainly by road, in that time. In this period passenger miles have risen from 173,000 million to 268,500 million. Passenger miles on the road have risen by 55 per cent. in that time, while the number of rail passenger miles has remained almost static dropping 4 per cent. at 22,000 million passenger miles in 1971.

In this country 85 per cent. of our freight moves by road and 63 per cent. of ton miles are on the road. The figures in the annual report of British Rail show that there has been a remarkably limited increase in turnover, in spite of increased fares and the subsidies and social grants given to passenger traffic. In fact, the number of passenger miles are down and the freight turnover is down.

The right hon. Lady has criticised the Government for doing nothing, but it is reasonable to say that while her efforts and those of her right hon. and hon. Friends who were Ministers have resulted in a facelift that we are proud to see they also resulted in a reduction in the use of the railways over the past 10 years and particularly over the past five or six years, during the passage of the 1968 Act and immediately afterwards. In the annual report of the British Railways Board, there is reference on page 7 to the extensive use that is being made of road transport.

What are the realities that face the nation, citizens, Parliament and the Government? In spite of the 1968 and 1962 Transport Acts, more passengers and freight have gone by road, which provides an advantage compared with steel wheel and rail.

The point was brought out at a Council for the Protection of Rural England conference in the Sheffield area by someone who said that when they first owned a car many people in the east end of that area were liberated, being no longer tied to timetables, and that they had a freedom which was denied to them hitherto. Many new motorists value the freedom and opportunity given to them by owning a car. There is the same flexibility in moving freight by the juggernaut, however unpopular it may be environmentally.

What more can we do to direct freight back on to the railways? Over the past 10–12 years there has been an increased use of the freightliner service. It is estimated that whereas it is transporting 5 million tons per year now, which is small compared to the whole, this figure may rise to 11 million tons in 1981. That will be a 120 per cent.

increase, but it is still scratching at the problem. My right hon. Friend was right to remind us that those who want to transport goods from one place to another by road and the juggernaut frequently do so because that method is flexible and reliable and has economic advantages.

I turn to the future. My right hon. Friend said that average freight journeys in this country are 40 miles. Freight journeys are longer in Europe, and a bonus of the Channel Tunnel which was explained to Members who listened to a recent presentation is that our freight journeys into Europe could well increase.

But moving freight by rail does not reduce congestion, as was pointed out in the debates on the 1968 Act, when quantity licensing was considered. I remember citing the example of a motor component factory in Sheffield sending components to Luton, Coventry and elsewhere. It costs money to fund large stocks that are not in production, and many customers now want regular deliveries by the hour and not by the day or the week. They cannot afford to have key components lost in a goods wagon on a siding. If lorries are used for journeys from the factory, reliability can be achieved.

But the same journey by rail would mean a lorry to the Sheffield depot and would clutter up roads in the city. At the Sheffield depot, the goods would have to be transferred to a railway wagon to go to another depot near the customer—a motor works—transferred to lorry at the far depot and then taken to the customer. Congestion could well be increased again. I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider these issues when reviewing the alternatives before industry and society, but moving freight by rail today does not necessarily reduce congestion in our conurbations.

One of the difficulties of using public transport is that those who use it are at the mercy of those who provide it, and too frequently in recent years those who provide it have been able to hold users to ransom.

Flexibility is an added advantage when the mobile transport unit is used. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) has produced a Bill to restrict some environmental consequences of heavy lorries and juggernauts. The lorry presents us with environmental problems. My right hon. Friend the Minister has announced a reduction in the road programme, of which he gave details in a Written Answer yesterday, at a time when investment is going ahead in our car and vehicle factories to deal with future opportunities.