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Transport, Rural Essex

Volume 486: debated on Monday 16 April 1951

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Delargy.]

11.27 p.m.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport knows, Essex can be described as the least spoiled of the Home Counties. Once you get away from the arterial roads and the shanty towns—the worst defilement of England since the heyday of the industrial revolution—you find a peaceful countryside, within 30 or 40 miles of London, almost entirely free from the inter-war speculative jerry-building and the "stockbroker's Tudor" which have largely ruined the once-beautiful counties of Surrey and Sussex and even Buckinghamshire.

This agreeable phenomenon has a much less agreeable cause. Rural Essex is largely unspoiled because rural Essex has always had the worst communications, certainly the worst train service, of any comparable area near London. I say "always." This is not a new problem. Nobody could have expected the British Transport Commission already to have provided services like the electric railways to Sussex, or to have replaced the hell-hole of Liverpool Street by a terminus as relatively genteel as Victoria or Marylebone. Even there some improvements have been made; and the Shenfield electrification is welcome, so far as it goes—though, in passing, I may say that I wish some way could be found of reducing the violent oscillation or vibration of those electric trains: at speed, they shake us like dice.

None the less, the problem is serious and urgent—urgent, I suggest, most of all because there is a considerable current decline in agricultural manpower. I need not labour the point that good transport—a decent bus service to the shops and the movies for the farmworker's wife, decent train services, on branch lines as well as main lines—does help to check any drift from the countryside that there may be. It is perhaps second only to good housing and everything that goes with that.

One of the immediate causes of this short debate tonight was an exchange of letters that I had some little time ago with the Railway Executive on a subject that had caused some concern locally—a rumour that it was intended to close the station at Kelvedon, on the main line between Witham and Colchester. Kelvedon is a small station which, however, serves a considerable rural area, including places of substantial size such as Coggeshall, Tollesbury, Halstead, Tiptree and Earls Colne. Halstead is in the constituency and is the home of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. R. A. Butler), who wrote to me at the time:
"I see that changes are already being made in our branch line here which connects with Marks Tey, so Kelvedon becomes still more important."
I am glad to say that the rumour which had disturbed the Kelvedon Parish Council proved false. This station is not to be closed. But I was almost as deeply disturbed by the general attitude implied in a letter sent to me on 29th December last by Mr. A. J. Pearson, the Chief Officer (Administration) of the Railway Executive, who wrote:
"We do not contemplate the closing of Kelvedon Station, but we have under consideration the introduction of improved services to and from Ipswich, Norwich and branches next summer. The planning of the services will necessitate the withdrawal of certain local trains, including a number serving Kelvedon."
In other words, the service to Kelvedon and the large number of countryfolk in that area is deliberately to be worsened in order to provide a better service for two large places which are already pretty well served.

I took the trouble to check this point with my right hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. J. Paton), knowing from my own experience that one's constituents are, quite rightly, never slow in bringing complaints about the railway service to one's attention. No doubt in due course they will learn to take them to the area transport consultative committees instead, but those are not working properly yet, as my right hon. Friend will be only too well aware.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich has had only one complaint in the last year about railway services. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich is good enough to write to me to say that he has "never had a single complaint at all," and that he thinks the service to Norwich "good except on Sundays." Now, obviously I do not object at all to the provision of a better service for the people of Ipswich and Norwich, so long as it is provided as part of a general improvement. But I object very strongly to its being provided at the expense of my constituents living in rural parishes which are all too lacking, anyway, in many of the facilities and amenities generally considered necessary nowadays.

Kelvedon, I may add, is not only a main-line station. It is also one end of a line famous among enthusiasts for the kind of rural railway line depicted so endearingly by Mr. Emett—the Kelvedon and Tollesbury Light Railway, popularly known locally as the "Crab and Winkle." I learned with great regret this weekend that this line is to be closed for ever on the afternoon of Saturday, 5th May, when a mournful ceremony will no doubt be enacted as the gallant little engine puffs out of Kelvedon for the last time, pulling its load of one or, it may be, even two coaches. I wonder if I might make a modest plea tonight for the "Crab and Winkle." Could my right hon. Friend see whether it is possible to reprieve it, even for a few months? I have an idea that, purely as an authentic Edwardian curiosity, it might attract quite a few summer visitors.

No doubt there is not a very strong practical case for retaining this particular picturesque relic permanently, though I am not sure that some steps might not have been taken to run it more profitably. But the main special point which I want to make to-night is that many of these branch rural railway lines which are now threatened could, in fact, be run far more economically than they are if there were a thorough overhaul everywhere—not only in this one area—of timing and co-ordination. I would suggest, indeed, that no branch line should ever be closed until the Executive has been able to convince the local interests concerned—the local authority, the coal merchants, or whoever they may be—that at least as good an alternative service can be provided by road. It must be remembered that buses usually cannot carry passengers' heavy luggage, and that they provide much less accommodation than trains can on market days and other occasions on which large numbers of village people want to travel to special events. But I would go further, and suggest that these branch lines could be run, if not at a great profit, then at least much less un-economically than they are today. I want to challenge the almost universal and, as it seems to me, defeatist assumption that they are inevitably uneconomic and doomed. I do not want to weary the House with timetable details, but I can supply the Minister with a host of examples of thoroughly bad timing and connections which must drive away potential passengers. I am referring to connections both at main-line junctions and with road services.

I will quote just one or two instances. By running more through trains on the Witham-Bishop's Stortford line, a useful link would be provided between two East Coast main lines. At present, a train leaving Braintree at 2 p.m. reaches Bishop's Stortford 34 minutes before the departure of the next train for Cambridge. (My hon. Friend will appreciate that it is important for people from Essex to go to Cambridge sometimes. It is extraordinarily difficult for them to do so by rail.) A train from Witham reaches Braintree half-an-hour after the 2 p.m. train for Bishop's Stortford has left. One would suppose that it would be possible to run the train from Witham through to Bishop's Stortford just in time to make the Cambridge connection. Again, the Cambridge-Marks Tey branch line is one of the most important cross-country links in the Eastern Counties. It could attract valuable traffic if the service were built up. I must confess to a special interest in the branch line which runs to Southminster, because I happen to live near it. I may mention, in passing, that on a recent not untypical journey it took me just on three hours to travel by public transport from my house, little more than 50 miles from London, to Westminster. On this Southminster branch line, as my right hon. Friend will be aware, the Executive recently and, I maintain, thoughtlessly, cut out all Sunday services. It is true that they are now restored. Those Sunday services were cut as part of the general fuel-saving cut in railway services. It was, in fact, a uniform, routine application of what, I suppose, was a percentage cut—and as grossly unfair to a rural branch line like this, whose people are ill-served on Sundays by bus services, as it would be to levy an equal tax on a millionaire and on an old-age pensioner.

Can the Minister tell us what has been done so far—if anything has been done—by way of modernising these branch lines and running them more economically, apart from the purely defeatist action of closing them? Is it possible, for instance, to expect any Diesel cars, such as are in use in the Western Region, in our area? They certainly, among other advantages, save staff. Then, have there been consultations with the trade unions to consider possible staff savings even without Diesel cars? I believe that there are many such savings which could be made.

In speaking on Essex rural transport, I must at least touch on the question of bus services, and particularly those running from Maldon through that part of Essex known as the Dengie Hundred. These compare most unfavourably with those of comparable rural areas elsewhere. Take, for instance, the Maldon—Burnham-on-Crouch route, serving Southminster, with a population of 1,500, and Burnham, with a population of about 4,000, as well as smaller places. That, one would suppose, would warrant an hourly service, but there are gaps of as much as three hours when no bus goes at all. On such routes, of course, many relief vehicles have to be run: this is surely, in the long run, more extravagant and unsatisfactory than the provision of a better-balanced regular service. Even so, many passengers are still left stranded by the wayside as the buses race past them, full up.

So far as timing is concerned, as with the trains I have mentioned, many of the services are ill-co-ordinated. The last bus out from Braintree and Witham, on the road between these two fairly big towns, is at about 8.50 p.m.; so that people living in the villages near this route can never go to an evening cinema or meeting in the town. I am not one of those who favour the complete urbanisation and mechanisation of the countryside—far from it; but we have to face the fact that people do want these amenities and transport services, and if we want agricultural workers to stay in the country, we shall have to provide more of them.

Whether it is road or rail services that we are considering, there is this lamentable inadequacy, and even, as it seems, some discrimination against the rural areas. A gentleman from Crouch End, I gather, wants to bring an outing to Maldon in the summer—20 adults and 200 children: a laudable ambition. But Maldon is on one of these branch lines, and British Railways have refused his proposal, saying that there is not the rolling-stock available. Next year I suppose we shall be told that this line is to be closed because there is not enough traffic to warrant keeping it open.

After the recent correspondence which I have described, I had a letter from the Minister in which he impeccably disclaimed responsibility, saying that "the decision as to what service shall be provided in particular areas" is "entirely a matter for the British Transport Commission," and that it was not his policy to intervene. But it is a question of general principle which I have ventured to put to him tonight. I realise that any public service must be based on the principle of the greatest good of the greatest number; but that principle can be pressed too far and is, perhaps, being pressed too far now, to the disadvantage of the rural areas.

There must be some special consideration for people in these smaller and more scattered communities; and in the particular district of which I speak, the people are worse off both in comparison with the more urban areas and in comparison with comparable rural areas. In any case, deliberately to diminish the services available, as is threatened at Kelvedon, is a retrograde step and a false economy. I hope that my right hon. Friend will agree that this is not merely a matter of day-to-day administration but a problem with major policy implications in which he ought to interest himself actively.

11.44 p.m.

I am much obliged for the very clear and explicit way in which my hon. Friend has put his case tonight, and I want at once to assure him that I have every consideration and sympathy for his general case of the need for maintaining adequate transport facilities for the rural areas.

Like the hon. Member, I fortunately know a good deal about the County of Essex. I was born in Essex and have lived in Essex all my life, so I am not unfamiliar with many of the problems that he has raised. I certainly agree with him that Essex is the most unspoiled of all the Home Counties, and I can remember, with him, the discussion that has taken place over many years whenever we were considering the railway facilities, because my mind goes back even to the period of the old Great Eastern. Probably we have to decide between efficient transport facilities and maintaining the rural amenities of Essex. I fully admit the final point that he has put to me—that it is not a question of deciding here between two extremes of policy, but that this is a matter of getting the right balance.

I must confess that, in looking at the problem which the Railway Executive has to face in many of these districts, it is not an easy problem to solve. There seems to be an inherent conflict between satisfying the demands of the great urban areas with the larger populations and their demand for improved facilities and more rapid train services and meeting the interest of the more scattered communities. If it were possible for the Railway Executive at the present moment to modernise their transport system—and I fully agree with my hon. Friend that probably that is at the root of the difficulty—and although the Diesel car is much more expensive initially than the steam locomotive, I recognise with him that in many of these areas we must look to a new form of motive power for the purpose of contributing towards a solution of this problem.

While dealing in a general way with these questions, I think I should point out that the restrictions that have been imposed on the Railway Executive by the general policy of restricting the investment of capital in this immediate post-war period have not enabled the Railway Executive even to replace and to maintain the pre-war standards of their railway stock, quite apart from any new reconstruction proposals, such as the introduction of Diesel cars in scattered areas or the electrification of lines in our large urban areas.

My hon. Friend knows that the only part of our system that has been electrified in the post-war period is the Liverpool Street—Shenfield line in Essex. I agree that it does not meet the rural problem, but it certainly has been of great benefit to the people in that area. So far as Kelvedon is concerned, it is quite true, as he has pointed out, that the number of trains has, I am informed, been reduced from 19 to 14 a day in both directions serving that particular station. Although it is to be regretted that in certain directions these services are to be restricted, nevertheless I feel that, taking the circumstances of that line as a whole, that adjustment possibly is necessary.

With regard to the closing of branch lines, if one takes the Tollesbury—Kelvedon branch line there was an average of 67 passengers daily in the five trains that were run. I quite admit the case of my hon. Friend that if it were possible to modernise and introduce new form of locomotion, that might be effective; but that is not possible at the present moment, and the Railway Executive are faced all over the country with the need to overtake arrears of maintenance. In many instances this means an expenditure of a considerable sum of capital to bring these branch lines up to modern conditions. The public have more or less deserted these lines for the road services, and it is not an economical proposition.

I want now to refer to the road services, and as far as Essex is concerned, the licensing authority for Essex informs me that the bus mileage for Essex as a whole is now 31 per cent. over what it was in 1939.

That is for Essex as a county. I have a further supporting figure which I think demonstrates that the increase is largely in rural Essex. If one takes the Maldon area, which the hon. Gentleman represents, and which he stressed particularly, the increase of bus mileage over 1939 is 40 per cent. I should be the last person to underestimate the value of my hon. Friend's case because I have lived for a period in an Essex village served by one private bus operator in which we had a service to the market town only on two days a week. I know very well the inconvenience it represents. But that percentage of 31 over the whole county, and 40 in the Maldon area does not tell the full story, because there has been a steady increase in the double-decker buses replacing the old single-deckers, so that carrying capacity is even greater.

I recognise that my hon. Friend has given a good deal of thought and consideration to the case he has presented, and while it is not possible for me to give a reply on every detailed point, I give him the undertaking that I will read carefully all that he has said and will take it up with the British Transport Commission.

I want to take this opportunity of emphasising that I have now established the area consultative committees which, in my view, are the bodies that can best get down to an examination of these detailed services, particularly in the rural and scattered districts. I have endeavoured, in building up the personnel of these committees, to see that the less populated areas are fully and adequately represented. No one recognises more than I do the peculiar problems of the rural areas, and it is only people who live in these districts and have experience of the difficulties who can adequately and forcibly put their case.

I take this opportunity of inviting all bodies that are concerned in using the services to take advantage of these committees, because their powers are so framed that they can have full access to all the information required to form a proper judgment. I look to this kind of machinery to bring steadily to the British Transport Commission, the Railway Executive and the regional officers the importance of the issues my hon. Friend has submitted to me tonight.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Five Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.