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 Ronald Atkins Mr Ronald Atkins , Preston North 12:00 am, 27th May 1977

I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Le Marchant) on his speech. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Nantwich (Mr. Cockcroft) and my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) on their contributions. The hon. Member for High Peak introduced a very important matter—the future of British Railways.

As two hon. Members have referred to the question of unity between the railway unions—I am a representative of ASLEF—perhaps it would be in order for me to deal briefly with that matter. Over the years various attempts have been made to get one railway union. Such a suggestion is not favoured by any of the three unions representing different grades of railwaymen. The size of a union does not necessarily bring harmony or stop bad industrial relations. It will be recalled that there was a serious dispute between lorry drivers and dockers who belonged to the same union. The solution of industrial disputes is more difficult than merely joining together the different unions into one large union.

Much as I enjoyed the speech made by the hon. Member for High Peak, I must take issue with him on his remarks about rail freight subsidies. I expect that the hon. Gentleman knows that these subsidies have rapidly dwindled. As the hon. Member for Nantwich said, it is difficult to quantify costs. Bearing in mind the dwindling of the subsidies, it might be argued that there may be other costs for which rail freight does not pay. That argument could be used against road freight. It would be unfair to reduce the rail freight subsidy in too much haste as long as the competitive form of traffic—the juggernaut—still falls short of meeting its resource costs of £5,000 a year. It would seem fair not to abolish the rail freight subsidy until the juggernaut is taxed to its full resource costs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East referred to the position of freight in Wales. A large proportion of coal in South Wales is now being carried by road. That is a most unsatisfactory form of transport for such material, but no effort is apparently being made by the two publicly-owned industries concerned to put the matter right.

A large proportion of steel traffic is also carried by road. The only significant rail transport within the iron and steel industry is the carrying of iron ore from Port Talbot to Llanwern. I think that more could be done by way of transferring some of this traffic to rail.

My hon. Friend also touched on the question of oil conservation, and I want to devote most of my speech to that problem. It has become increasingly significant in the last few years, and particularly in the last few weeks. At the beginning of last week a report appeared from the "Workshop on Alternative Energy Strategies". That is the work of a private group of 35 business, Government and academic leaders from 15 leading industrial countries. It stated that the West could face a new energy crisis within the next decade, and that industrialised countries could run short of oil supplies as early as 1981 —that is a far more serious situation than we have so far imagined— if Saudi Arabia decides to hold its production at 9 million barrels a day. If a ceiling of 20 million barrels a day were imposed, a world shortage might be postponed until about 1990 but, even on the most optimistic assumptions, oil would be running out within the next 25 years. It is unlikely that it will be possible to get Saudi Arabia to increase supplies significantly in the next few years. In fact, I think that the Middle East is likely to go on conserving its oil supplies and possibly restricting them. Therefore, the oil situation is very serious.

This disturbing report confirms recent warnings by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Central Intelligence Agency…the basic danger is that the world energy situation could become critical. Most Governments and businesses plan for only five to 10 years ahead. The energy gaps which opened up beyond 1985 either were invisible or, if perceived, ignored. Even if governments adopted vigorous conservation policies, energy demand would continue to grow. It is important to consider the future of British Rail beyond the next five years. Unfortunately, most of the studies on the planning of transport seem to end in the early 1980s. That is true of the Consultative Document, which is inadequate from that point of view. The projection of transport needs after 1981 is almost ignored. A similar study by Prike and Dodgson also ignores that situation.

A study in the Socialist Commentary falls short in the same way. When considering the more distant future of British Rail we should remember not to use the costings of the next few years. We should remember that until 1981 oil will still be plentiful and prices low compared with what they will become later, with dwindling supplies and increasing demand.

I shall refer to an article which is not generally known. I shall quote extensively from it, although I shall do so freely in the interests of brevity. The article is based on a lecture by Sir Peter Masefield at the Sir Seymour Biscoe Tritton Memorial Lecture, called "Energy for Traction," and was printed in the Railway Engineering Journal in March 1975.

Sir Peter said that he was concerned about the future energy problem. He said that in March 1975; and since then the situation has become worse. He said: One feature has come to dominate all transport operations since the end of 1973. It is the leap upwards in fuel costs as a result of inflation and, even more, from the upwards jacking of oil prices by the OPEC Cartel from 17th October 1973. In the five-and-a-half years since July 1969 —the House should remember that Sir Peter is speaking in early 1975— the average price of fuel oils for transport in the United Kingdom has increased by five times—from around 3·5p a gallon to more than 16p a gallon leaving taxation out of account.… There have been significant increases since then.

Sir Peter went on so say: transport everywhere is currently dependent upon oil. The modern world is, indeed, oil dominated….In transport, oil now supplies about 91 per cent. of all the energy consumed. This is, clearly a situation which must be viewed with concern, notwithstanding the promise of North Sea oil….Unfortunately, from an energy point of view, the railways provide only a relatively small proportion of the world's transport effort—about 17 per cent. of the revenue load-t-km operated in the western world. Because modern railways use energy relatively efficiently for the work they do—railways consume only some 3 per cent. of the total energy used in transport. By contrast, road transport (which uses about 78 per cent. of the energy consumed in transport as a whole for the production of 16 per cent. of the load-t-km and air transport (which uses about 12½ per cent. of the total energy for 03 per cent. of the load-t-km) are wholly dependent on oil, as is shipping to complete the total…the day will come when these fossil fuels are no longer available. In the meantime, there can be no doubt that much effort is required to achieve a maximum of efficiency in the use of energy for transport—as for other aspects of modern life. Sir Peter went on to deal with price escalation. Again I remind the House that he was speaking in 1975. He said: British Airways"— and he knows a good deal about that— turbine fuel costs have increased almost fourfold since 1972…between 1972 and 1975, despite the use of a higher proportion of larger and more efficient aircraft, the fuel element in British Airways' total expenditure has gone up from 10·1 per cent. of total costs…to 26 4 per cent. of total costs.Everything possible must be done in all forms of transport to gain the maximum of output…from both the fuels and manpower employed. We must remember that in railways, too, the use of manpower is relatively efficient.

Sir Peter gave a number of other figures which strengthen the case for the maintenance of railways in public transport. He said that In 1975 road transport will use about 78 per cent. of all transport energy. The motorcar uses half of the total energy consumed in the United Kingdom. The motorcar is a relatively inefficient user of fuel in terms of load-t-km produced. Private cars consume 50 per cent. of the energy used in transport to produce 2 per cent. of the load. Trucks and vans on the road consume 23 per cent. of the energy to produce 14 per cent. of the load. Aviation consumes 12½ per cent. of the energy to produce 0·3 per cent. of the load. Buses and coaches on the roads consume 5 per cent. of the energy to produce 0·5 per cent. of the load. Sea transport consumes 4½ per cent. of the energy to produce 62 per cent. of the load. Rail transport, which is another efficient form of transport from the energy point of view, consumes 3 per cent. of the energy to produce 17 per cent. of the load. A similarly good figure for inland waterways is given. That consumes 2 per cent. of the energy to produce 5·8 per cent. of the load.

Sir Peter said: From this we can draw up a comparative league table of revenue load-tonne-kilometres operated, per unit of energy consumed. Sea transport comes at the top of the league, when we take into account both the energy used and the load-factors achieved. In relative terms: sea transport (chiefly goods) 1,000; railways. 411; inland waterways, 175: road trucks and vans, 44; private cars, 3; aviation, 2. For passenger transport the order is this, in terms of energy consumed in relation to load: railways, 100—this is leaving out sea transport—buses and coaches, 65; private cars, 25; aviation, 7·5.

This article, which deserves to be better known, makes clear not only the urgency of conservation but also the need to maintain our railway track and, indeed, to extend the services and possibly the track in the future, when fuel shortages will become very serious. I do not think that there is a sufficient awareness of this. I can remember a time in the late 1960's when publicists and fuel experts were talking about closing coal mines and depending entirely on oil. Their projections were overtaken by the events of 1973. Then they began to realise that fuel shortage was not just a political question but one of conservation. So it is that now we have debates in this Chamber that ignore the seriousness of a petroleum shortage in the future.

For example, the Prime Minister said recently that during the next four years investment in the railways will be kept as it is now. I do not know whether he meant in figures or in real terms. However, in four years' time we shall reach the year 1981, which is regarded as the first critical year by the international report to which I have referred. It seems to me that we should now be investing in our public transport, particularly in railways, and not cutting down investment. Once the oil shortage begins to bite, I think that railways will come into their own. I am certain that if railways continue for a little longer in the next few years, they will then be able to look after themselves. But it is all the more essential now that we should equip them for the tasks ahead.

British Rail seems now to be grappling with this problem successfully. What it needs now is encouragement in the way of investment. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) has shown me the current issue, for June, of Modern Railways, which refers to the view that many of us are taking, which is that there is a good deal to be said for turning back to the classic railway operation, with modern equipment, of course, which we did not have previously, in the form of the air-braked wagonload freight network.

We have been greatly assisted by TOPS, which is ideal for this. Unfortunately, TOPS is not being used as it should be. It can tell us where every wagon is. As one of my friends in ASLEF told me, for instance, TOPS told one divisional officer that there were 200 wagons in sidings somewhere in North Wales two weeks ago, and TOPS told him last week that there were still 200 wagons in North Wales in the sidings. He knew exactly where they were, but they were not being used. We are waiting for them to be used. The wagon-load network is one way out of this problem.

Also, in the June issue of Modern Railways there is an article on the Stag crane, which is described as a new approach to handling containers. The article says, Now a low-cost lorry-mounted system has been developed which turns any rail siding into a contained terminal. With rising road transport costs forecast, its inventor believes it could bring a freight bonanza for British Rail. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South has tabled a Question for Written Answer asking the Secretary of State for his opinion on this system. I am not anti-road; I believe in integration for road and rail traffic both in the passenger and freight sections. I acknowledge that the great bulk of our traffic will always have to be carried on the roads and that the traffic will expand generally in our increasingly industrialised society.

But our problem as politicians is what to do about British Railways. That is what we are concerned about in this debate. We know that British Railways must be retained, and we also know that the economics of rail transport is concerned with "volume hunger" and with using capacity to as great a percentage as possible in order for British Railways to become viable. In line with increasing costs on the roads I believe that many road hauliers, as some have already decided, will go in for trunk hauling by rail for the longer journey and distribution at both ends, by road.

I also think that the whole future of British Railways would have been improved had the Channel Tunnel been built. As a matter of fact, the article by Sir Peter mentions that the journey to Paris by means of the Channel Tunnel is just about the optimum distance for profitable traffic with passengers. Perhaps even more importantly he should have said that the Channel Tunnel, permitting long haul traffic, would have brought the best returns for freight traffic, because I believe that is the reason why Continental countries are running their rail services more profitably.

I repeat that we are not anti-road. I know there would be a great future for both modes of transport and a great future for this country if both modes were more closely knit and used for the traffic that they are best able to carry.