British Rail

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th May 1977.

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Photo of Mr Donald Anderson Mr Donald Anderson , Swansea East 12:00 am, 27th May 1977

I congratulate the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Le Marchant) on the manner in which he has moved his motion and the work which he has clearly put in. I also congratulate him on his private enterprise in choosing to discuss transport at this time. During the course of his speech I was flipping through the consultative document published in April last year. I noticed that the last sentence from the then Secretary of State of the Environment, the late Anthony Crosland, said: We shall welcome forthright views on the issues which it raises. Those forthright views have not been given in Parliament except in one brief debate, and it is therefore all the more commendable that the hon. Gentleman should have allowed us at least a short debate on the future of British Rail. I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman said, and although I shall draw examples from Wales, they meet many of the points put so eloquently by the hon. Gentleman.

I shall try to look at some of the long-term trends because the debate provides an opportunity to project future trends and to try to forecast the transport problems that are likely to arise in the next few decades. I shall also try to consider whether the policies that are being adopted and are likely to be adopted in the White Paper can be properly adapted to meet new demands.

I am struck by the contrast between the objective case for rail expansion and the bullish attitude towards the railway industry as a whole and the negative, restrictionist attitude that one finds so often when looking at the railway industry, even from the British Railways Board itself.

Among the major problems looming on the horizon is that of support for greater rail usage. The hon. Member for High Peak referred to the energy crisis, and this subject was debated in another place this week. Projections indicate that by the mid-1980s the western world will be approaching an oil crisis. President Carter has shown his leadership qualities by his psychological challenge to the Americans to face up to the problems posed by the shortage of oil. Oil conservation must play a greater rôle in our policies and, both on passenger and freight, rail is less energy intensive than its competitors, except buses.

The Government should follow President Carter's lead and tell this country that, even with our North Sea resources, we have to face up gradually to adapting ourselves so that we do not have to make policy changes too abruptly in the early 1990s. This adaption will have to be made by pricing policies on petrol, traffic management schemes and a whole range of transport policies to reorient people gradually in favour of greater rail usage.

The second important factor is the environment. Quality of life arguments are likely to play a greater rôle in the policies being pursued by the Government. Until my election to Parliament, I was a councillor in the Golborne ward of North Kensington, which had the West-way visited upon it in the mid-1960s. That road was put there without any concern for its impact on the community. People were brought in and we are still trying to pick up the pieces of that obscene intrusion into our inner city life in an area that was already multi-deprived. It is difficult to quantify the environmental impact of such roads, but we know the effect that they have on the quality of life in cities and villages that suffer from juggernauts.

Railways do not present the same problem. They are there already, and housing policies can take their existence into account. In addition, there are increasing land use arguments in favour of rail. A recent report by a group at Reading University on future land use in Britain forecasts an increasing demand on scarce agricultural resources being made by roads. The demand and protests made by people against the environmental intrusion of road projects are certainly far greater than the protests at rail subsidies and the cost of rail and public transport.

We must also consider the safety factor. I need not underline the heavy daily toll on people's limbs and lives on our roads, and I was surprised that the consultative document did not include safety as a relevant criterion in its list of objectives in a national transport policy. It is significant that no passengers' lives were lost on British Rail in 1976. Compare that with the enormous toll on life and limb on the roads, and one need say no more. I am disappointed that the Government appear to be pussyfooting around the road safety problem.

The Government have made concessions on speed limits and appear unwilling to push the Bill on the compulsory wearing of seat belts, despite the effect on human life that can be quantified as a result of that unwillingness. There has also been a deafening silence from the Government in response to the Blennerhasset Report on drinking and driving. When are we going to learn what the Government intend to do about this vital report that is gathering dust in a recess in the Ministry of Transport? Why do the Government appear to be so unwilling to take an initiative in road safety? Are they mesmerised by the road lobby?

The whole basis of the consultative document is laissez-faire. There are projections of the likely car ownership in the 1990s, and all other conclusions on rail and public transport are drawn from the basis of allowing an apparently unrestricted expansion of car ownership. That may be a popular view—we have to take people's preferences into account—but it may not be a possible view in light of the energy and other costs that will assume a greater rôle in future projections.

If there are a number of factors in favour of great rail usage, what is the spirit in which the railways face their future? In talking to railway men in South Wales, I am struck by the relatively low morale of the work force. There is a fear of cuts. They have gone through a period of restriction. In my part of the world, more than 70 per cent. of the rail network has been excised since the early 1960s and there are fears that the rail network in Wales will be restricted to the Swansea and Holyhead lines. There are even fears about the Cambrian Coast and the mid-Wales line that is so vital in tourist and community terms, even though certain assurances have been given about the future of the line.

A management that has grown up and been trained in a period of retrenchment and restriction is still adopting a defeatist attitude to the future of rail. I say this despite the introduction of the high-speed train on the line to Swansea which has resulted in a 15 per cent. increase in passenger use of that line. But those who are used to an atmosphere of cuts will find it very difficult to adjust to a period of expansion, as we have seen in British Rail's current defeatist attitude to the future of the Fishguard-Waterford line. I and others have been very distressed by the restictionist criteria that the Transport Users' Consultative Committee has adopted in looking at the future of that service.

That defeatist attitude contrasts with the more buoyant, more expansionist future for rail among our Continental partners which the Select Committee noted in its recent Report, particularly in Western Germany, in spite of the higher car ownership and usage in West Germany. What I have said about that defeatist attitude must be at least qualified by what we see now as the attitude adopted by the new Chairman, Mr. Peter Parker, who appears to be ready at last to bang the drum for rail, which is bound to have a beneficial effect on morale within the industry.

If we will the end of the greater use of rail, for a number of reasons, can we will the means by a bigger investment and more Government support? On the freight side, I have been very disappointed to see the relatively low take-up of the Section 8 grants for private sidings. Apart from the effect that they would have on freight usage as such, private sidings would also have environmental affects in preventing the rail journey from having to be completed by lorry to the eventual point of delivery.

The Government project £35 million to be allocated under that head for the next five years. The latest figure I have is that by last October only 14 schemes under Section 8, totalling £2·7 million, have been approved. In Wales only two schemes have been approved under the section, with a total of less than £200,000. This lack of push, this lack of drive on Section 8, is scandalous, and there needs to be a Government inquiry into the reasons. Whether the reasons are a lack of will, planning objections or whatever, the performance on Section 8 is very poor.

I agree with the hon. Member for High Peak about the increasing market for wagon load traffic, not just the rôle assigned to rail in the consultative document, that of carrying the bulk traffic—the oil, steel and coal. I shall not pursue that matter, but I shall get on one of my favourite hobby horses—co-operation in the public sector and the way in which it can assist British Rail. I have seen from a number of examples that various nationalised undertakings—the Central Electricity Generating Board, the British Steel Corporation and the National Coal Board—often adopt policies to the disadvantage of rail, which is also in the public sector. Steel can be taken by rail, but a great deal of the steel for export from my local works is still taken by road. A new drift mine is being planned in my part of the country. It is still intended that the coal shall be taken to the washeries by lorry, with an adverse environmental impact on local communities.

The new investment of £835 million at the Port Talbot steelworks has been planned with little if any thought to the way in which British Rail might be used to service the expansion. In all the public sector there should be a presumption in favour of the use of rail, to have a cross-subsidisation within the public sector. The onus should always be in favour of rail, within agreed tolerances. Little, if anything, appears yet to have been done to encourage such use of rail within the public sector. I know of examples in my own locality where it is not done, and it should be encouraged.

I turn rapidly to the passenger side and the search for new business. The hon. Member for High Peak has already made some of the points that need to be made about this matter—the additional suburban and cross-country stations, for example. In those areas which suffered particularly acutely from the Beeching surgery in the early 1960s, there may even be a case for reopening some lines or opening to passengers lines which are restricted to freight.

It is a sad commentary on the thinking of the current British Rail management that one of its answers to the new challenges was to have a transfer, albeit with some concessions from the National Bus Company, to buses from part of the rail network. That has been vigorously opposed by the Welsh Consumer Council on the basis of our own experience—we have also been given examples from the High Peak area—of just how few of the bus services which were meant to replace rail in the 1960s still exist. I think that the statutory obligation is to continue those bus services for only two years, and many have died after that, leaving communities isolated.

It is clear that that policy will just not work, for topographical and a number of other reasons. There is still not enough drive behind bus and rail co-ordination. For example, it is scandalous that in my constituency of Swansea a bus station is being planned a mile and a half from the rail station, when there is, or was, ample space near the rail station to have a combined bus and rail station.