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Travel Facilities, Bexley

Volume 436: debated on Friday 2 May 1947

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4.0 p.m.

I am very pleased to be able to raise, in the short time at my disposal, a question which, I think that I can say without exaggeration, concerns my constituency more particularly than any other—that is the railway travelling facilities which serve my constituency, the borough of Bexley. The inhabitants of Bexley are a great race of travellers. They are not light-hearted globe trotters like the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, whom I was so pleased to see on the Front Bench this afternoon. They are people who have to travel, perforce, every day, morning and night, in search of their daily bread. Bexley has very little industry within the borough. Its inhabitants have to travel to Erith, Crayford, Woolwich and, above all, to London to earn their living. They do so under conditions which make their working days a positive nightmare.

It is no exaggeration to say that many of my constituents dread every working day of their lives because of the conditions under which they have to travel to and from work. In the trains, during the rush hours, at morning and night, a normal state of affairs is for 15 people to be standing in a compartment, as well as 10 or 12 people sitting. It is no uncommon thing for the windows to be broken by the internal pressure, and it is impossible for the passengers in the compartments to shut the doors themselves; they have to be shut from the outside. Until recently, sometimes 50 people or so travelled in the guard's van, until a woman fell out of the van, and since that time that has been prohibited, thereby further increasing the crush in the carriages. The cause of all this is quite clear, and no one is to blame basically for these very difficult conditions.

I have made a rough approximation of the growth of population over the last few years on the Bexleyheath and Bexley lines. Taking the areas of Bexley, Sidcup, Crayford, Dartford, and Erith, the local government area served by these lines, in 1931 the population was 132,000, and the present population is 242,000, an increase of nearly a 100 per cent. in effect in less than 10 years, because the population has not increased materially since the beginning of the war. The railway facilities, built at a time of far smaller populations, are quite inadequate to cope with this problem. The fact that they are inadequate is further borne out by the fact that it is not only at the normal rush hours that this very unsatisfactory state of affairs occurs, although it is more marked then; the position is bad throughout the travelling day. One can travel from London to Bexley at 7.30 p.m., 9 p.m. or 11.30 at night and still have to stand the whole way from London.

The railway companies are always suggesting that the solution of the present travelling difficulties for the travelling public in London is to stagger working hours. I do not want to be behind anyone in urging on the working public the need for staggered hours, and in pressing the Government to encourage these voluntary schemes for staggering hours, but in this particular case, although it will be a palliative, it will not be any solution. I have seen diagrams prepared by the Southern Railway and the position at their main line termini under the present conditions of working hours as it would be under a system of staggering during the evening rush hours from 4.30 to 6.30. At Waterloo, Victoria and Cannon Street this would in fact provide a solution of the problem, and if the working hours were staggered it would be possible for every passenger travelling to find a seat, but when we look at Charing Cross and to a lesser extent at London Bridge, which are the two stations which serve the area of which I am speaking, the situation is entirely different. At every period throughout that rush hour there would still be a considerable number of people standing in those trains. Therefore, I think we must dispose of the idea that the staggering of working hours is in any way a solution of the problem in this area.

There are minor problems and extra annoyances to which the people on this line are subject and which do not appear to occur on other lines. I live on a suburban line, the Thames valley loop line, and I am able to compare the conditions there and the conditions on the line serving my constituency. On the line serving my constituency conditions are immeasurably worse in the sense of the trains running anything up to half an hour late and in that trains are not infrequently cancelled altogether without any warning. Within the last few months this has twice happened to me. I have been waiting in a station within my constituency for a train which did not run and no one knew any reason why it did not run.

Again, the provision of tickets is quite inadequate. Like an ordinary suburban station, the stations have one ticket office. In an area like Bexley, which has grown up to a large town in the space of a few years, at the rush hours and particularly when people are rushing to catch the workmen's train, it is quite hopeless to expect just one office to deal with the sale of tickets. It is quite common for people to miss the last workmen's train in the morning because they are unable to get to the ticket office in time. All these conditions at normal times are bad enough. Recently, we had the transport cuts in order to save fuel and this really was a bitter blow to my constituents. I think they were entitled to consider that as an exceptional area in the matter of transport even for Greater London, they should receive special consideration when measures of fuel economy had to be taken —which everyone agrees should be taken —and that these measures should not have been applied to them in the same way as they were applied to other areas; in particular they should not have had some of their rush hour trains taken off as they were. One of the most used workmen's trains in the morning was taken off and from seven o'clock in the evening onwards all trains were reduced to three coaches. I am glad that partly as a result of the representations I made to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and partly perhaps to the observation of the railway companies, one of the most hard hit trains in that period has been subsequently increased in size, and I am glad to note that fact. For a considerable period at 7.20 in the evening, which one could not call a rush hour, 12 have been standing in a carriage on the line running to my constituency.

I should like to say something constructive on what I think should be done to meet this situation. I quite recognise that the situation cannot be met in full until we can get operating the new suburban lines which are to be constructed under the Inglis plan. That, obviously must take a long time. We can, however, have palliatives. As I have said, staggering hours is a far less significant palliative in this area than for many others in Greater London. Too much stress is, I think, placed at the moment on the provision of trains from this area to the City. Services have been instituted on the Bexleyheath line to Holborn and Blackfriars, but what is the good of trains to those places to people most of whom are working in the West End of London and are left a considerable way away from their work. These trains are still comparatively empty, and the railway company refers to the fact complainingly that the people do not use them. Of course, they do not use them, because they run to a part of London where they do not work. No one will travel hall way across London in the rush hour in order to get a train to go to his home. That really is not the solution. As I say, there may be some palliatives. In the first place, we might find ourselves once again needing to have cuts in railway services at some time or other owing to exceptional difficulties, and I would entreat my hon. Friend to represent to the railway company that if and when this occurs the line to which I am referring should be regarded as an exceptional case, and close consideration should be given to the question of exempting it from these cuts.

The next point is that people in my constituency spend a considerable time on Charing Cross Station because very often they are unable to get, perhaps, on to the 5.30 train and have to wait for the 5.45. In the interval they have time to observe other trains going in and out and they have noticed, for instance, that there is a line to Mid-Kent—that which serves Hayes, Addiscombe and Sanderstead. I have nothing against the inhabitants of Hayes, Addiscombe and Sanderstead, and they are undoubtedly extremely worthy people who are in need of a good railway service, but my constituents in their vigil on the platform do observe that the trains which go there are incomparably less crowded than those serving my constituency. It has been put to me that they go out from Charing Cross with only four or five people sitting in a compartment. That has been denied but perhaps. even, the compartment is filled with sitting passengers. Nevertheless they do not go out with 15 people standing in a compartment, and that is the difference between those trains and the ones that serve my constituency. Yet in the real rush hour period between five and six o'clock this Mid-Kent line has nine trains from Charing Cross—and I do stress that we must take the line from Charing Cross and not bring into the calculations the Holborn and Blackfriars service because that is a separate problem—whereas the Bexleyheath line has only six trains. It is perfectly true, as I am sure my hon. Friend will point out, that some of these Mid-Kent line trains go to Addiscombe and some to Hayes, but they do serve all stations as far as Elmers End, and my constituents feel that consideration should be given to taking some of the rolling stock from those trains and using it on the Bexleyheath line.

The other point concerns the question of new rolling stock. I frequently travel in new carriages in my various journeys in the suburbs of London, but the line where I travel least frequently in new rolling stock is the Bexleyheath line. I would urge that very special consideration should be given to the economic use of this new rolling stock. At 'the moment it is in short supply, and while that is so I suggest that it should be used only on those lines where it is absolutely essential to relieve the pressure of traffic, and I maintain that the line to which I am referring is one. My final point is to suggest what is, in a sense, a middle term plan, which is a solution that I and some of my hon. Friends who are also concerned with this area have pressed. We think that there should be an extension of the Bakerloo line which would go to Hither Green. This would act as a middle term palliative and would take some of the traffic from part of this area. It would not take it all but it would help, and I assure my hon. Friend that anything that can be done to help these hard pressed travellers would be appreciated.

On behalf of all the residents of South-East London and the suburbs I should like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bexley (Mr. Bramall) for raising this matter on the Adjournment. I can also speak as a member of that exclusive— or not so exclusive—band the Southern Railway harriers. The Southern Railway harriers, for the information of the House, are a body of people composed of middleclass office workers and a few others who, through economic or other circumstances, have to run like blazes to the railway station in order to catch the last workman's train in the morning. The ensuing struggle up to town distorts the human frame into all sorts of fantastic shapes. For my part, I solve the problem as a rule by adopting the attitude of a stork. Since I have not had to use the railway service so much, especially in the late evenings, I think my figure has improved.

This is a very sore subject, and it is a subject we want to pursue as strongly as we can. The problem does not affect Bexley, Chislehurst and Sidcup alone, but the whole of the South-Eastern area. The extension of the tube is imperative. I should like to know why this tube was not extended before. Is it because the vested interests of the Southern Railway have been standing in the way? It gives us food for thought. The Southern Railway has not been helpful, because I remember, as a member of a local authority, trying to get a bridge put over the station for the convenience of passengers, as well as for safety reasons. They had the sauce to tell us that they would provide the bridge, provided the council paid half the cost. That is one way of studying the interests of the shareholders.

The Blackfriars line deserves greater attention. I tried to give publicity to it by arranging to catch the first train up when the line was re-opened after the war. That service, unfortunately, is not being used as it should be. I think that we should cut out the intermediate stops. I asked a Question some time ago, in which I suggested that straps and luggage racks should be provided similar to those in the trams and in tube trains. I ask that this should be done in the interests of decency to the female population, and also in the interests of those people who have to stand simply because there are no seats available for them to sit down. So far, I have no information whether the Minister of Transport is doing anything about this particular point about which I felt rather proudly.

I want to say a word about staggering of hours. As one who has had, through force of circumstances, to catch trains early in the morning to get to my office at nine o'clock as I could not afford a season ticket, I am not in favour of staggered hours if it means that people will rush still more for workmen's trains. I am one of those who have asked for an extension of workmen's tickets and trains until 8.30. Many people congregate in stations like Cannon Street and elsewhere, hanging around until it is time to go to their offices. Some churches have provided facilities for these people, but it is-wrong that young people should have to hang around railway stations which cannot be called decent and which have no amenities. Then there is the fantastic position in regard to workmen's tickets, which are confined to artisans. This law is being broken. I ask the Minister to consider all these matters, because if one looks at the transport of South-East London, one can see clearly that this area has been completely neglected.

I represent one of the districts which lies in between the Bexley and Chislehurst areas and London—the Lewisham area. I should like to associate myself emphatically with the remarks which have been made in regard to the passenger services in South East London. The hon. Member for Bexley (Mr. Brama11) has spoken of the conditions so far as the passengers in his area are concerned, but they, at any rate, are at the beginning of the journey. It is not difficult, therefore, to imagine what chances my constituents have to get on trains at intermediate stations. I am very glad to see on the opposite benches a distinguished Member of this House, the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mr. Beverley Baxter), who has an interest in the theatrical experiences as a dramatic critic. If he wants a fresh theme upon which to write he might try the experience of travelling in South-East London. Travel conditions there have to be tried before they can be believed. Conditions are intolerable. My constituents, and others, dread their daily journey to work. When we talk about the production drive, and getting everybody enthusiastic about it, we should remember that these people arrive at their offices and workplaces utterly depressed and tired. When they get home in the evening they are completely exhausted. Something must be done quickly. I know that these conditions are due to years of neglect, but that is no reason why we should continue to submit to them, and not try to press for their speedy improvement.

One immediate solution is a tube extension to Hither Green. This matter was raised by a deputation, of which both my hon. Friends and myself were members, to the Ministry of Transport a few weeks ago, and was sympathetically considered. It would provide relief for the intermediate areas and, with other new rail facilities, would bring relief to areas further away. In view of the generally acute travel conditions in this area, I was amazed and indignant to find that a committee of the London Passenger Transport Board airily dismissed this suggestion, and said that it must wait for some years. We cannot afford and will not wait for years. As we gave notice to the Ministry then, so we give notice now that we shall continue to press, by every means at our disposal, for direct new facilities between the London and South-East London and areas beyond. I therefore hope that the Minister will ask the London Passenger Transport Board urgently to reconsider this matter.

4.23 p.m.

My hon. Friends who have raised this matter this afternoon have done a worthwhile public service, as it is highly desirable that the grievances of their constituents should be ventilated in this House, and that those people who have to suffer as a result of present travel arrangements should have the views of the Government on the situation, briefly expressed though those views must be today. I am only sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for West Woolwich (Mr. Berry) was not able to add his voice to the others, because as one who lives on this line, he knows the situation very well. The difficulty arises largely because the Southern Railway was particularly farsighted and energetic in their electrification of their lines before the war. It was that electrification which was responsible, to some extent, for the great growth of traffic in this part of London.

Is my hon. Friend aware that this situation prevailed before electrification. and that a promise was given by Sir Herbert Walker in 1924, that it would be remedied after electrification? Is he further aware that an inter-Departmental Committee in 1928 found in favour of a tube extension in South-East London?

That may be, but the growth of the population in this area during the last 10 years has been immense; it almost doubled. Moreover, technical changes were made a year or two before the war, which increased the capacity of this line by 25 to 50 per cent. by the building of a loop line. The population has grown so enormously, that it has become greater than the line can carry. My hon. Friends are quite right in saying that people living in this area have to travel to and fro in conditions of acute discomfort. Everything that can be done must be done as quickly as possible to remedy the situation. The question is what can be done? It is the problem of remedies that we have to consider. I am advised that it is impossible to run more trains during the peak hours than are being run at the moment and that the "bottleneck," if I may use that term— the limiting factor—is that no more than eight trains can run through London Bridge to Bexley Heath and other stations on that line during the peak hours. Of those eight trains, which is the same number as operated before the war, six go to Charing Cross and Cannon Street. It is impossible to increase the number of trains, or the number of carriages.

Because the stations and the signalling system are only capable of carrying trains with eight carriages One of the proposals which the Southern Railway are now considering, and which doubtless will be considered later by the Railway Executive which will be responsible, is that of increasing the size of the stations and altering the signalling arrangements, so that it will be possible to have trains of 10 instead of eight carriages, thus increasing the carrying capacity by 25 per cent. But that will be expensive, and will take a long time. That is not the immediate solution. My hon. Friend has pointed out that there will be some amelioration as a result of extensive staggering. One of the difficulties is that traffic is now concentrated into a short period. One-third of the traffic coming into London every day, comes in in one hour. The in- crease in new rolling stock may help to some extent, but not very much I am afraid. That new rolling stock cannot be confined to one special line, however serious the situation is there. It has to be used all over the system; otherwise it will be quite uneconomic. But, as far as possible, it is being used in the areas where it is most needed.

I doubt whether that would be possible under conditions here. I can assure my hon. Friend that there will be no cuts certainly during the peak hours in the summer, and I am hoping there will be no cuts in other trains, even in the non-peak hours. Apart from that, the only hope lies in the long-term plans, the lengthening of platforms, the Inglis Plan and the construction of new lines in this area. But that will cost a great deal of money and will depend on the materials and labour available. At the moment, pending the introduction of this big railway reorganisation, I assure my hon. Friends that we are acutely aware of the situation. So also is the Southern Railway Company. We will do all we can to help and will take account of the minor inconveniences such as the difficulty of getting tickets, to which reference has been made. We will look into those matters, and meanwhile I will consider with my hon. Friend the Member for Bexley, and any other hon. Members, suggestions they have to make as to immediate improvements which could be made. We are anxious to carry out such early improvements as are possible, but I am afraid that nothing much can be done for the time being, and we will have to wait for the big improvements in the coming years before a satisfactory solution is found.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Four o'Clock.