Orders of the Day — Transport Policy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th January 1977.

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Photo of Mr Ronald Atkins Mr Ronald Atkins , Preston North 12:00 am, 20th January 1977

I can agree with the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Evans) in one regard. That is that the commuter lines between the Welsh Valleys and Cardiff and Barry certainly do not cater for higher income groups. There are many branch lines like that in Lancashire and no doubt in other parts of the country. I think that the comments on higher income groups using commuter lines arise from some brain washing which must have arisen in relation to those who live in London and the Home Counties. The position on commuter lines out in the provinces is very different.

The hon. Gentleman said that Wales had no control of its railways but that England had. That is not true at all. We have no control of English, Scottish or Welsh railways. I should like this House to have such control.

One of the most revealing features of the transport consultation document is that we have no transport policy at all. We plan for roads but not for public transport. It is very significant that my right hon. Friend mentioned the probability of a White Paper every year on road invest- ment. I immediately ask for a White Paper on railways. It is absolutely essential that investment in all modes of transport is considered together, both to see the relevance of the different forms of transport and to prevent duplication between them. If transport has suffered at all, it has suffered most of all from duplication.

I am not blaming my right hon. Friend for the lack of transport policy. I think that he said that he made some remarks on this subject 20 years ago. No doubt if they had been listened to, we should have a transport policy now. However, we have not had a transport policy since the end of the British Transport Commission. Over the last decade we have had just a series of non-events—the Transport Act 1968, the Rail Policy Review of 1973, the White Paper on Urban Transport Planning, the Railways Act 1974 and the Channel Tunnel. All were non-events.

We had high hopes for a sound transport policy in 1974, when there was a change of heart, but those hopes were dashed by the financial crisis that followed. Even the Tories were well disposed to rail transport in 1974. In their election manifesto, they said—it is worth-while hon. Members listening to this because they may have forgotten it— Continued growth of traffic has brought with it problems as well as advantages; and has, in particular, made necessary an increasing reliance on public transport. We have recently announced a massive 5-year programme for the railways, to provide a modern network with a secure future, and the opportunity to regain freight traffic from the roads. I wish that they had those sentiments today. It would help my hon. Friends very much if the Tories were to declare those sentiments today instead of continually asking for public expenditure cuts.

It is true that we were still in an oil crisis in early 1974 and that the Tory Government had created a large supply of money in the easiest way—by printing it. However, it is sad that the euphoria surrounding public transport was quickly dissipated in the storms of financial crisis which followed. This is the story often repeated since the war. Every plan to regenerate public transport, especially the railways, is destroyed by financial crisis, whereas what is needed is a long-term plan allowed to reach fruition. For, as our foreign competitors know well enough—they do not hesitate to spend money on the railways —railway investment is industrial investment and is part of the infrastructure on which our industrial prosperity must rest.

The consultation document was written at a time of financial crisis and became not a formulation of transport policy hut an apology for cuts in public expenditure. An anti-rail bias appears in the document, without doubt. It is predisposed to the Socialist Commentary report of April 1975, which it describes as "authoritative"—I wonder why—and to similar views expressed by Richard Pryke again, in a book called "The Rail Problem". Like that book—it is amazing how close it is to it—this document is more concerned with immediate financial objectives and less with the 1990s and beyond, when the oil shortage will really begin to bite and the need for the existing railway network and, indeed, for its expansion, will be unchallenged.

The document statement that passenger subsidies to railways benefit the lower income groups less than the higher income groups, who travel more, was well answered by Anthony Harris in the Financial Times of 30th July 1976. He says—and this is the view of many of us with regard to freight as well as passengers—that given the long-term existence of a railway system—and we must accept its long-term existence—there is a case for subsidising it—that from the Financial Times, let it be noted.

Where such an industry is operating with declining marginal costs, that is where the cost of carrying an extra passenger—and I should like to add "or ton of freight", because the same consideration applies—falls as traffic increases, a subsidy will give a greater benefit to the traveller than its cost to the taxpayer. Moreover, I may add, the lower paid who cannot afford a car would in many cases be isolated without a rail service on which they now have the advantage of concessionary fares. The progress which the railways have made on economy fares especially caters for the kind of passenger who, as I say, would in many cases be isolated without the railways.

There are many examples of the higher paid groups getting more benefit from public services than do lower paid groups —that is a way of life—but that would be no reason for reducing public expenditure on, for instance, higher education from which the higher income groups benefit the most, or the letter service which they use more because they are more literate and write more letters, or the health services. The higher income groups benefit from many of the services because they are intelligent enough and well educated enough to use them.

I now turn to the details in the document. Chapter 1, paragraph 9 and Chapter 3, paragraph 9 refer to the EEC. Chapter 3, paragraph 9 needs to be revised, because the Secretary of State has moved towards harmonisation on lorry size but not on tachographs and lorry taxation, and especially wages and hours. I wonder why there is no harmonisation on those matters. It seems to me that the road lobby has won its way in one regard but in other regards harmonisation has been ignored.

I now come to Chapter 2, paragraph 13. I do not believe in an open-ended subsidy to public transport, but the Government's financial support is very modest when compared with that given by countries such as Germany, Japan, France, and most continental countries. For instance, the Japanese and German Governments each pay £2,500 million a year to their national railways. These countries are high fliers. They are not inefficient. They realise the value of their railways, and how valuable the railways are in economic recuperation. We could well follow their example in this regard.

Nor, when they pay up to £2,500 million every year, do they say that the money must go to passengers and not to freight. Why should the money not also go to freight? Is the environment destroyed any less by lorries than by buses? The environmental disadvantages of heavy road traffic, both in towns and in the country, are very great, as are the social disadvantages of heavy lorries going through villages, destroying their peace and quiet, and also destroying their water and gas mains. No doubt, this is one of the reasons for the recent mysterious explosions—heavy traffic on urban roadways which were not built for heavy traffic, and lorries of ever-increasing size and weight.

The subsidy should be used to run the railways to capacity, and to integrate the different modes of transport, eventually reducing the need for a subsidy, as we have been in the United States.

Paragraph 22 of Chapter 2 of the consultation document is a good example of have seen in the United States. While traffic on motorways has quadrupled since 1964, goods vehicle traffic on urban roads has been falling. I discovered from the Department that the criterion for this happy conclusion was based on the number of lorries on urban roads but not their weight and size, whereas, elsewhere on other roads, it was based on weight and not numbers. As the document says in Chapter 2, paragraph 22, the sharp increase in goods carried by road has been catered for by increases in the size of lorries, not in their number. The Department admits it.

Conditions on urban roads are much worse because of the heavier lorries damaging roads more severely, since wear and tear is related directly to the weight on the axle to the fourth power. At least one of the recent gas explosions was the result of a fractured gas main caused by a heavy lorry, and there must be much more of this and other damage in our towns.

Turning to Chapter 2, paragraphs 24 and 25, I point out that the 300 million tons of freight now carried by road on distances of over 100 kilometres is the kind of traffic that Beeching envisaged as most suitable for carriage by rail. If even a relatively small proportion of this was transported by rail, it would have very beneficial revenue implications for British Rail, and would make a consider- able contribution towards its financial viability. The National Freight Corporation is carrying only 10 per cent. of the traffic envisaged by Beeching—3 million tons instead of the projected 30 million tons.

After putting a strong case in Chapter 3, paragraph 5, for public transport, the document goes back to twisting the facts again in paragraphs 12 and 13. Paragraph 3.12 states: Even if all freight movement of more than 100 miles were transferred to rail, total road traffic would be reduced by only 2 to 4 per cent. This is misleading because it fails to compare like with like. Total road traffic as mentioned in the document refers to all vehicles, including milk floats, passenger vehicles, cars, and, no doubt, even bicycles as well. It is true that if 11,000 million ton/kilometres were transferred from road to rail the decrease in road traffic would be only 2 per cent., but such a transfer would reduce road freight traffic by 12 per cent., or, if the transfer were in the over-100 mile range the reduction in road freight traffic travelling over 100 miles would be 28 per cent.

We do not suggest that this volume of traffic could be transferred to rail, but we believe, as did Beeching, that considerable amounts could be transferred, with benefits to the environment and dramatic improvement in railway finances.

Paragraph 3.13 states: Gains from getting some lorries off interurban roads might be offset by losses in sensitive urban areas—that is to say, in unloading a 700-ton freight train in an urban rail goods depot by 80 medium-sized lorries. The document overlooks the fact that the number of lighter lorries is far less important.