Railways (Christmas Services)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st November 1975.

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4.0 p.m.

Photo of Mr William Molloy Mr William Molloy , Ealing North

I propose to raise the issue of the decision or proposal by British Rail to run no services in England and Wales on Boxing Day.

I acknowledge straight away the responsibilities of the British Railways Board and its Chairman. I acknowledge their immense responsibilities at all times and the very difficult task that they have in this period of inflation. I acknowledge immediately that they have to look at almost every halfpenny they spend in an endeavour to make their contribution to the fight against inflation. The task involves their looking at financial arrangements, technical arrangements, safety issues and aspects of modernisation, and I am sure that Mr. Richard Marsh and his Board are endeavouring very sincerely to make whatever contribution they can to aiding the general economic situation from their standpoint in running British Rail.

Before launching into my case in general, I want also to say that I am well aware of some of the problems heaped on the shoulders of those who run our publicly-owned industries. Sometimes Parliament expects them to perform miracles. However, they are not always on the side of the angels, as we know from our experience of British Rail. In the past, from former chairmen of British Rail and their boards, we have had panicky, myopic decisions, which have been costly in economic, industrial and social terms. The House knows it and the country knows it. However, a statement from the Chairman or the Board of British Rail is not necessarily the equivalent of tablets brought down from Mount Sinai before which we must all bow.

We made that mistake in the past when decisions were made. We were told "But this is the decision of Britsh Rail". The result was that, because of a lack of courage on the part of some hon. Members to challenge these decisions, we almost paralysed British Rail transport, and we vowed never to do it again.

I make that point because I am not prepared to accept without challenge anything falling from the chairman of a nationalised industry. I have the greatest respect for the Chairman of British Rail. He is a humane and fundamentally decent person, and he is concerned with all aspects of his immense responsibility. Nevertheless, any proposals made by Mr. Marsh and his Board have to be looked at carefully and, if necessary, challenged, if only because it has been extremely expensive to rectify the crass bloomers made by former British Railways managements.

Despite the difficult times, during the tenure of office of the present Chairman of British Rail we have seen sensible co-operation with the trade unions involved and with Parliament, and excellent progress has been made in the modernisation programme. At the same time, he is human and, like the rest of us, he can make a mistake. I believe that he has made a mistake in this instance.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will not argue that this is so small an issue involving so few people that it really does not matter. If the day comes that anyone in the House is willing to accept the argument that the minority concerned are such a minority that it is not worth bringing the matter to the Floor of the House, the House will have lost a great deal of its status.

I am not concerned with what chairmen of publicly-owned industries say. I believe that they have a right to say it. I believe that some of them show great courage in saying what they say. They have the nerve to dish it out, but they must have the guts to take it as well.

I know that British Railways perform the almost yearly miracle of providing 730 million passenger journeys and that total railway receipts, excluding grants, amount to about £582 million. Therefore, when such figures are quoted one could be tempted to ask why there is all this fuss about no trains running in England and Wales on Boxing Day. The answer is that the saving of £130,000 is so minuscule that it is regrettable that I have to raise the matter on the Floor of this legislative Chamber this afternoon. I believe that that single argument should be enough to convince my hon. Friend that he and Dick Marsh ought to get together to look at what is really involved.

British Railways exist to serve the nation. I do not think that the legislation that took the railways into public service said that they were to serve only those going to and returning from work, or going to this or that place. The railways exist also to convey people on happy journeys, as well as on sad ones. Some parts of the British Isles are entirely dependent on British Railways, and if one aspect of the lives of the people there is threatened, as it has been in the past, by a shortsighted, myopic and blindly stupid decision that is expensive to put right in later years, we have a right to see to it that the House of Commons has a chance to examine what is involved.

I knew the Chairman of British Railways when he was Minister of Transport, and I know him to be a humane person. I know that he is courteous, and that he is prepared at all times to listen to argument. Were it not for that, I should not be too happy about bothering to raise the issue in the House. It it because I believe that I have a chance this afternoon of getting my submissions examined once again, with the genuine possibility of action being taken, that I am raising the matter. When one considers the global figure of finance for British Railways, one realises that a saving of £130,000, bearing in mind the anguish, pain and annoyance that will result, is not worth it even in these difficult days.

The Chairman of British Railways is a big enough man to amend his previous thinking if he is willing to take into consideration some of the facts that I shall present today. In fairness, I ought to quote what he said on 12th November: While there are many problems peculiar to public transport, there is at least one which rears its ugly head whenever the nation considers the problem of the present level of public expenditure. Everyone wants the public sector to reduce its expenditure painlessly. It's a nice thought, but it's time we stopped pretending. When people, including MPs, say that British Railways should reduce its demand on the public purse, I don't complain, but we can't make significant savings simply by cutting back on the amount of carbon paper used by teenaged typists. We have to cut out hopelessly uneconomic activities, and our decision to suspend passenger services on Boxing Day was taken for just that reason. He went on: Of course it will cause hardship to those who wish to travel on Boxing Day and have no other means of transport, but we just cannot afford to run a service on Boxing Day at considerably higher cost than normal because of the enhanced rates of pay for one-twentieth of the normal number of passengers. He concluded: Double talk is a luxury this country simply cannot afford in its present state of health. Are we to accept that, in a budget of nearly £600 million, our economic salvation will depend on not having trains on Boxing Day to save £130,000? That cannot be a serious argument. It is almost laughable.

But let us consider the serious aspects. This decision will hit the poorer sector—the people without a car who depend on British Rail. Most people will be on holiday on Boxing Day. There is an ancient tradition then of British families getting together. At this time of the year there is a serious increase in road accidents, with people going to parties. We have asked them, as we did last year, not to use their cars to go to parties on Boxing Day. This year we say "To hell with death and mutilation on the roads. There will be no rail service. Use your car." As for those who have no car in this so-called compassionate society, that is their hard luck: they will have to do without.

These are the feelings of ordinary people. This is not the talk of the high tables of our posh universities, but the expression of the bitterness in working- class pubs and clubs. Some people think that they have already booked their tickets. They have made bookings in good faith, but I presume that they will now be told "We shall work a flanker on you: there will be no trains."

People like to visit hospitals on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. In some parts of England and Wales the major part of the journey to hospitals in the main towns, if one does not have a car, is by local train. This opportunity will now be denied.

This decision has been taken by the same British Railways Board which the next day will be saying in television advertisements "You want to go to see a loved one? Use British Rail." This is bordering on hypocrisy—that is the language of ordinary people. Jibes are being made throughout the country about this appalling decision to save £130,000 in a budget of nearly £600 million.

British Rail say "Please use our trains. Don't you want to see a loved one? Have you got someone in hospital? Is there not a relative you want to see? Please use British Rail." Yet we must forget all such emotions on Boxing Day.

This thinking is repugnant. I do not care how educated and brilliant are those in the exalted positions of British Rail who thought up this idea, or whether they have a double first degree. They must come down to earth and listen to the opinions of ordinary folk. I hope that in some small sense I am voicing such views.

There are people such as nurses, firemen, policemen, doctors and, in some cases, milkmen, who work on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Many who live in remote areas will require a train to get to work. I have not been arguing their case because I have been putting forward the case of those who want to visit hospital or have a family gathering. However, many people have to go to work—policemen, firemen and hospital workers, for instance. British Rail have the immense responsibility of getting them to work, and this year they will not carry out that responsibility.

It is possible that the costs will be much greater, even in financial terms, if those who should be at their posts—who want to be at their posts—cannot get there because of this incredibly myopic decision of British Rail to run no trains on Boxing Day. Therefore, it is an economic as well as a social argument that has to be answered.

The rail unions are unhappy. They have the great tradition of maintaining services, together with the police and the ambulancemen. We still get a supply of gas and electricity on Boxing Day. When British Rail men get home, they can switch on the lights or turn on the gas because those who supply those services are at work. In addition, there are others who have to get to their place of work, for example, maintenance crews. Many will depend on British Rail getting them to their place of work.

Also affected will be those who have been preparing the amusements for Boxing Day—those involved in pantomimes, theatres and cinemas. They will be working. These shows are run for the enjoyment of the family as a whole and many parents take their children to see them. I am not pleading this afternoon for the hooligan wreckers who smash up trains serving football matches. I am pleading for the ordinary decent people who, apart from their normal holiday, once or twice during the year get together with the rest of their family. It is a time of being happy, and they visit the pantomime, the theatre, or the cinema. They are not hooligan wreckers.

Photo of Mr Myer Galpern Mr Myer Galpern , Glasgow Shettleston

I hate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I would remind him that the debate finishes at 4.30 p.m. If the Minister is to cover the ground that he has covered, he will need a bicycle.

Photo of Mr William Molloy Mr William Molloy , Ealing North

My hon. Friend the Minister can intervene whenever he likes to say that he agrees with me and will make these representations to British Rail. He may do so if he wants to. I do not mind giving him an opportunity to do that. It is that simple.

However, these are important matters. People are saying "We are not the hooligans. We do not smash up the trains. Why should we be punished?" People in the entertainments business and those in the vital services very strongly urge that if there were a need for this cut on Boxing Day, which is not an ordinary day, and that if it made a massive con tribution to economies, they would not be making the representations they have made.

Even people not directly affected or not personally concerned feel very deeply that this is a wrong decision. I remind my hon. Friend that even Scrooge relented. I hope, therefore, that this proposal will turn out to be merely a ghost of an idea that never materialised. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give me an assurance that the views I have submitted will be presented to the Chairman of British Rail, for I am confident that he will be prepared to examine them to see whether this decision can be amended.

4.21 p.m.

Photo of Mr Gordon Oakes Mr Gordon Oakes , Widnes

I want to begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Molloy) for the very forceful way in which he has presented this problem to the House this afternoon. It will be my aim to reply to the debate in a clear and constructive way—although, I regret, not as fully as I might have done, because I have only about eight minutes in which to reply.

I begin by assuring my hon. Friend that all his remarks and the concern he has expressed will be conveyed to the Chairman of British Rail for his attention and for the attention of all the members of the British Rail Board.

I assure the House that I recognise the anxiety—indeed, in some cases, the anger—which has been aroused by the decision not to run rail services in England and Wales this year on Boxing Day. My hon. Friend will appreciate that I would never advance any argument in this House that because only a minority of people are involved, it does not matter. It certainly does matter and that minority are entitled to know fully and clearly why what, as my hon. Friend has said, is essentially a public service, a service for the public, will not be operating on a particular day.

I agree with my hon. Friend that traditionally, of course, Boxing Day is a time for getting out and about—for visiting friends, going to football matches and sporting events or taking the family to a pantomime or the theatre. There is no denying that there are old or lonely people whose loneliness seems all the more desperate at Christmas time if they are unable to make contact with their friends and family.

I fully appreciate that for restaurants, cinemas and, particularly, the live theatre, Boxing Day is one of the main events of the year. For them it is both a day of service to the public and a day when they expect their earnings to be high. They must, therefore, be concerned about any move which could affect their business on Boxing Day.

I appreciate what my hon. Friend said about the railwaymen's unions. I know that the railwaymen's unions support the case for running rail services on Boxing Day. Their members are prepared to put up with the inconvenience and separation from their families on 26th December in order to serve the public. My hon. Friend will agree that we hear a great deal of union bashing, which very often comes from the Press, but very little of the spirit of public service which will inspire men to work over the Christmas period in order to serve the public.

I hope I have said enough already to show that I do not in any way underestimate the consequence of the Railway Board's decision not to run any services on Boxing Day this year. I know that the Board takes no pleasure in its decision, and reductions such as these in public transport must be unwelcome to any Minister responsible for transport.

Why, then, has the Board decided not to run any services on 26th December? Whose responsibility is this? The decision to withdraw the Boxing Day services in England and Wales was taken by the Railways Board. I agree that decisions of the Board or words from the Chairman should never be taken as tablets from Mount Sinai—I think that is the expression—and must be looked upon and criticised if necessary by hon. Members, by the consumer organisations and by the public. The reason why the Board took this decision is that it is necessary, because it must find savings if it is to meet the financial target which the Government have set the Board for 1976.

The House will recall that in 1974 we passed the Railways Act which set aside up to £1,500 million for the support of the railway passenger system. At the time, we expected that this money would be sufficient for up to five years or so. But it became clear during the first half of this year that the money would run out far sooner than anyone could have expected unless strong and determined counter measures were taken. Railway costs have been rising faster than those in the economy generally. This year, the taxpayer will be putting nearly £500 million into the railways, and £300 million of this will be for the support of the rail passenger system alone.

Let me be quite unambiguous about this. We cannot, of course, avoid subsidising the railways to some extent. Neither in Europe nor in North America is there a single national railway that comes anywhere near breaking even financially. It would be salutary if some of the critics of the rail unions—not my hon. Friend—and of the British Railways Board would come to grips with this fact before they begin making allegations about the efficiency of our network by comparison with others.

We accept, therefore, that we must support the rail passenger system financially. But we cannot afford an openended subsidy. There must be a limit on how much the country can sensibly devote to the revenue support of the railways in our present economic situation. This was why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment told the House on 30th June that we had no alternative but to tell the Board that it must seek ways to reduce its dependence on the Exchequer. He also told the House that we were having to set the Board the short-term financial target for 1976 of limiting the passenger support payment to no more than the present level in real terms; and, as I said earlier, the support this year is likely to be about £300 million.

The House needs no lessons in economics and knows quite clearly what the country's financial situation is and the need for restraint. So we cannot increase our support for the rail passenger system because it could be done only at the expense of other programmes—housing or the social services, for example. This is why we have to tell the Board that the support payment for next year can be no greater in real terms than it will be in 1975.

It is the Railways Board's responsibility to decide how to achieve the target we have set it. This must be right because the Board is statutorily responsible for providing the services. Only it has the knowledge and experience to say how, at the minimum inconvenience to the community, the essential savings can be found.

As I have said, the decision to withdraw the Boxing Day services was taken by the Board. It accepts full responsibility for the decision. It is part of the action which, in its judgment, has to be taken if it is to meet the target we have set it.

Boxing Day falls on a Friday this year. The Board believes—and it is in a better position to judge this than I or anyone else—that most people are likely to travel by train before Christmas and during the Saturday and Sunday after Christmas. It estimates that only about 55,000 people would use the trains on Boxing Day this year compared with about 1 million on a normal Friday.

The railway staff would have to be paid time and a half for working on Boxing Day and be given a day off in the year in lieu. By withdrawing the services, staff costs of about £240,000 can be saved. With this, and savings on fuel and otherwise, the Board believes that, allowing for lost revenue, it can make a net saving of £130,000 by not running services on Boxing Day.

I know that my hon. Friend was disparaging about the amount. But unless the Board can make economies like that, it has no hope of achieving the target the Government have had to set it.

I believe it is essential that in our debate today we should not give the impression that there will be no public transport on Boxing Day. On the contrary, London Transport will run both its underground and bus services on 26th December. The level of those services will be similar to that on normal Sundays. Outside the London Transport area, there will be restricted bus services in all parts of the country. Long-distance coaches, too, will be running a restricted service, and, of course, rail services will be operating in Scotland on Boxing Day, which is perhaps not held in the same high regard as it is in England.

If the saving of £130,000 were not made, it would mean that British Rail would be subsidising Boxing Day travel by 55,000 people at a cost of over £2 per head. In the present economic climate the Board of British Rail could not possibly take on this commitment.

This is not the thin end of the wedge. The situation arises as this year Boxing Day falls on a Friday. It is not to be taken as a precedent that a rail service will not be provided on future public holidays. This action has been taken in our special financial circumstances and in view of the high subsidy per passenger—

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

Adjourned at half-past Four o'clock.