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Crystal Palace—Nunhead Railway (Closing)

Volume 531: debated on Wednesday 28 July 1954

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. Wills.]

11.35 p.m.

In about six or seven weeks, unless something unforeseen occurs, the branch line from Crystal Palace to Nunhead, which serves my constituency, will be closed. Objections have been lodged to the proposals. They were heard by the appropriate body, the Transport Users Consultative Council for London, and turned down. They have been reviewed by the Central Consultative Council, and, according to my latest information, have again been turned down.

I first raised the matter with the Minister of Transport at the end of May, and had a reply dated 10th June. In that letter he said:
"In my experience, the examination of proposals by the consultative committees is very thorough and well balanced and these committees serve a most useful forum for the consideration of the views of the local user interests before any decision is confirmed to withdraw a service."
In support of that contention the Parliamentary Secretary pointed out that the Transport Commission had had proposals to withdraw passenger services on 118 branch lines involving the closure of 272 railway stations. He quotes two examples of the Consultative Committee rejecting proposals of the Commission as evidence of the usefulness of the Committee. He will forgive me if I find it difficult to accept two rejections out of 118 proposals as being convincing evidence of the usefulness of this body. I am severely critical of the proposal in which I am particularly interested, first, because of the proposal itself and secondly, because of the procedure adopted, and which I imagine is typical, for dealing with it.

The history of this particular case makes nonsense of that procedure, demonstrates it as farcial and, in my view, shows that it is merely a façade to impress the gullible that the interests of the consumers are protected. The interests of the consumers have no chance whatever. When the railways were nationalised one of the arguments strenuously advanced in favour of it was that the element of profitability would be removed and the most important principle would be that of service to the public. It is clear that in the case of the Crystal Palace to Nun-head branch line the reverse has been adopted. It is the element of profitability that matters and the element of public service has been ignored. According to the case prepared by the Commission, and with which I cannot quarrel, a net annual saving of £65,000 would result from closing the line, the net annual receipts for which were £14,000.

Neither I nor anybody who knows the line is at all surprised at those figures, since there has been no attempt since the war to make this line a commercial proposition. On the contrary, all the evidence appears to prove that there has been a deliberate attempt on the part of those responsible to depress the value of this line, and to make it as unattractive as possible to the public. I have in my possession, and will make them available to the Minister, photographs of two of the stations involved. One, the Crystal Palace High Level Station is in the same condition as it was after the war, with a glass roof open to the elements, and showing many other signs of dereliction. The station is typical of the line in that it has been allowed almost to rot.

No attempt has been made to advertise facilities which this line offers. Perhaps I ought to apologise for a slight exaggeration there. There is one advertisement. Outside one station there is a notice in, I think, these words, "This station is closed on Sundays." As far as I have been able to discover, that is the only advertisement on any of these stations.

Indeed, this is not denied by those who represented the railway at the hearing before the Transport Users' Consultative Committee. Mr. Walter, who represented the Branch Lines Committee, Southern Region, British Railways, said that
"it had never been the practice of the railways to advertise in the ways suggested by Mr. Eames. In fact, the cost of advertising regular train services throughout the country had been prohibitive. There were always time-tables available, and information as to excursions, etc. could be obtained from leaflets at the stations."
Here is a gentleman who obviously does not believe that advertising pays.

In private life, I am a paper merchant, and the parallel position would be that I should stay in my office and make no attempt to advise potential customers that I have paper to offer, and adopt the attitude that if they want paper let them come to me and find out what I have got. I know what would happen to my business or, indeed, to any business which followed such a policy. It is hardly surprising that an unhappy fate has befallen this branch line financially.

I suggest that the policy which should be followed, at any rate in London, with its very pressing and special traffic problems, should not be the policy which has been followed here, which is, "The line does not pay; let us close it," but, "This line is not fully used; let us see what we can do to popularise it and thus relieve the load on the overburdened road transport system of London."

Especially should that be so where, as in this case, there is substantial housing development being carried out by the borough council and the county council, which will have the effect of increasing very substantially the number of potential customers for this railway within within the next year or two. But instead, this is the time, when this development is taking place, that the line is to be closed, thus thrusting on to the already overburdened road transport system not only those who use the line at present but those who, when they move into the new housing development, would use the line if it was still there. The road transport system is already strained to the utmost and is now to be subjected to this additional burden.

May I also draw the attention of the Minister to the fact that the additional road service to be provided is by the extension of the No. 63 bus route from its present terminus along a road known as Wood Vale, up Sydenham Hill and along the top of Sydenham Hill to Crystal Palace. I do not know whether the residents of Wood Vale and Sydenham Hill have been consulted in this matter, and whether they are pleased or otherwise at the prospect, but I do know that everybody who lives locally realises two things —first, that the turning out of Wood Vale into London Road is extremely awkward and dangerous even for a private motor car, and, secondly, that the first part of Sydenham Hill is very steep, and at the top it is narrow and tortuous.

I very much hope that it is never my fate to be in a heavily laden 63 bus turning that corner and descending that hill under unsatisfactory conditions. It is to the credit of the police and the local authorities that they have both objected very strongly to this suggestion. Yet it is the suggestion which the Transport Commission have advanced as a supplementation of the existing road services in order to cater for the traffic which will be turned away from this railway when it is closed.

It would be possible for me to go into greater detail on the merits or demerits of the proposals, but I wish to criticise the procedure which seems to be of wider significance and greater importance. I would suggest that in London it is wrong for such proposals to be considered in isolation. I suggest that their consideration should be subject to their being in accordance with an overall policy for London. I have already indicated What I think that policy should be, namely, to popularise the use of branch lines to relieve the load on road transport and not the reverse. The Transport Users' Consultative Committee were unable to consider this aspect of the matter because they were not advised of the capacity of the roads to take the additional traffic. Surely that is a point which they should have before them.

My third criticism is perhaps a personal one, though I am not criticising the gentleman in question. The Consultative Committee is dominated by its secretary, who is a very able man with a very powerful personality. He has a long history of close association with railway management. How is it possible for such a man to be objective in his consideration of the proposals lodged by transport users? It is inevitable that, with the best will in the world, he will have a bias. I shall be interested to know, if the Minister can tell me, who appoints the secretary and who is responsible for his salary. To whom does this man owe his loyalty?

My next criticism is of the particular Consultative Committee. Long before the inquiry was completed more than half of the members of the Committee had left. By whom was the decision to overrule the objections taken? Was it by the whole of the Committee before the inquiry was finished, or by the few who were left at the end? When the deputation had finished presenting their case they were asked to withdraw, but the representatives of British Railways and London Transport were allowed to remain. Surely that is a peculiar way of giving unbiased and objective consideration, as they should have done to this case. I understand that the Committee are there to protect the transport users, but one might be forgiven for imagining that in this case they were there to serve the interests of British Railways and London Transport.

My next criticism is, in my view, the most serious of all. The Transport Users' Consultative Committee were clearly told by the secretary to whom I have already referred and by Mr. Walter, to whom I have referred once before, that the local authorities had been consulted and did not object. In fairness to Mr. Walter, who was not so categorical, I think I should quote from his words. He said that
"the interested local authorities had been consulted, but, as the correspondence disclosed"—
I draw particular attention to those words—
"whilst they regretted the possibility of losing the rail facilities, they appreciated the uneconomic condition of the line and did not wish to take part in these proceedings."
The correspondence referred to consisted of letters from the boroughs of Camberwell and Lewisham and the Urban District Council of Penge, of which I have copies. I do not propose to read them all, but I will gladly make them available to the Minister.

I would, however, like to read what I consider is the most significant paragraph in each. First, from Camberwell Borough Council, which, in a letter signed by the Town Clerk, states:
"My Council feel, therefore, that they are justified in protesting most strongly at the manner in which this matter has been dealt with as, in the circumstances, it is obviously impossible for their observations to have been properly considered."
From the Town Clerk of Lewisham Borough Council, there is a part of the letter which states:
"I am now directed to inform you that this Council views the proposal with disfavour particularly in view of the already inadequate travelling facilities in the Forest Hill district."
The views of the Urban District Council of Penge may be summarised from the conclusion to a letter signed by their Clerk:
"The Council respectfully submit that with all the development proposals in hand for housing, sports grounds, cultural amenities, and the like, coupled with existing uses and the need of travellers for a direct service to the City, every effort should be made to keep the branch open for the benefit of the general public."
That is the correspondence referred to by Mr. Walter and the secretary.

I submit that the T.U.C.C. was misled by Mr. Walter and by its secretary; and I think that I should take this opportunity of lodging the strongest possible protest about the behaviour of these two gentlemen, and to say that to have misled the Committee in the manner in which it was misled is extremely reprehensible.

My last criticism is this. The T.U.C.C. rejected the objections, and the matter has since been reviewed by the Central Transport Consultative Committee; who confirmed the decision, but it is not difficult to understand this result, since the secretary of the Central Transport Consultative Committee is one and the same gentleman as the secretary of the T.U.C.C. I do not see how it is possible to condone a position where an appeal against a decision by a body which is dominated by its secretary, as is the T.U.C.C., should be heard by another body which is probably dominated by the same gentleman. Surely, anyone must admit that it would seem impossible to expect an unbiased and objective opinion, and this is, I think, an argument worthy of the most serious consideration.

My concluding remarks must be that I hope that the evidence which I have put to the House, and which I can substantiate with the documents I have here, will satisfy the Minister that this inquiry was not based on all the evidence available; that the Committee was misled and that, if it had been properly advised, it might well have come to another decision; and that the policy underlying this closure of branch lines needs most serious consideration at the highest possible level. I suggest that these matters should not be considered as individual matters, but as part of a policy for London transport and I hope that the Minister, who has been very generous in his treatment of me so far, will be able to give me satisfactory assurances along those lines.

11.55 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation
(Mr. Hugh Molson)

In replying to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. H. Price) I must make it quite plain that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport has no responsibility in this matter. A procedure has been laid down in the nationalisation Act which is well-established and, I think, is working satisfactorily.

The only circumstances in which the Minister is authorised to intervene in the day-to-day administration of the railways is if the Transport Users Consultative Committee dissent from some action which has been taken by the Transport Commission. We consider that the closing down of branch lines is a matter of the day to day administration for which the British Transport Commission is responsible. In every case—and there have been very few—where the proposals of the Commission have been criticised by the Transport Users Consultative Committee the Commission has deferred to its view.

We think it is useful and proper that the Transport Commission and the London Transport Executive should both be represented on the London Committee and should participate in it. I quite follow the argument of my hon. Friend who suggested that these committees should be completely independent and aloof. They have certainly shown themselves to be extremely independent in the scrutiny to which they subject the proposals of the British Transport Commission, but it is of the utmost importance that these committees should be informed by the experience of the Commission and they should work cordially together. We therefore take the view that it is greatly to the advantage of the Consultative Committee that it should contain representatives of the Transport Commission and, in the case of the London Transport Users Consultative Committee, that it should contain representatives of the London Transport Executive.

I was sorry that my hon. Friend spoke in the way he did of the secretary of these two committees. That gentleman is responsible to the Committees he serves. I have every reason to believe that he enjoys their confidence. It really is no reflection on him, but it is a very serious and quite unjustified reflection upon these two Committees, consisting, as they do, of public men, to suggest that they are dominated by their secretary. I can think of nothing more wounding to any body than to suggest that it has not a mind of its own but is dominated by its secretary.

This gentleman has had a distinguished career in transport. He was secretary of the Railway Clearing House, he has legal training, he is the only one of the secretaries who has a whole-time appointment and, I understand, he has been of the greatest value to both the Committees he serves. To suggest that men prominent in industry, in the trade union movement, in the Co-operative movement, men selected by my hon. Friend as representative of the transport users in general, are going to be dominated by their secretariat, is both unwarranted and offensive to them. It is much more a criticism of them than of their secretary.

My hon. Friend has suggested that London should be granted more favourable treatment than other parts of the country in the matter of closing down branch lines. I think there would be a strong case for suggesting that London should be accorded less favourable treatment than other parts of the country. I am much more influenced when it is the representative of some rural area where there is very little in the way of transport who complains that it is proposed to close down an old-established line.

In the case of these unremunerative lines in London where there are so many other forms of transport, it is those residents of London who have not used the lines while they were available who are to blame if they now find that they are being closed down. I would remind my hon. Friend when he talks about profitability that one of the principles of the nationalisation Act was that the British Transport Commission is expected to ensure that, taking one year with another, it covers its expenses, and it is the view of my right hon. Friend that one of the essential methods of efficient and up-to-date administration is to close down lines which are no longer remunerative.

It has been suggested that the Transport Commission neglects branch lines. The Commission assures us that it does what it can to make these branch lines remunerative. Certainly, I can think of no reason why it should act otherwise in view of the fact that there is a substantial sum of capital sunk in them.

Generally speaking, therefore, although my right hon. Friend has no responsibility in this matter, we take the view that the machinery is working satisfactorily and that the Transport Commission is acting wisely and prudently in making proposals to the Transport Users' Consultative Committees for the closing down of lines which are unremunerative.

This matter was considered by the London Transport Users' Consultative Committee on 10th June, 1954. At that inquiry the case was put for those users of the railway who opposed the closing down of the line. My hon. Friend wrote to the Committee and was associated with the deputation of users which attended, but did not himself go. The protesters thought that with more publicity, lower fares and diesel trains, the line might be set on its feet, but the Consultative Committee, having heard their arguments, came to the conclusion that the closing of the line was justified.

It is expected that that will make a minimum saving of £65,000 a year. After the closure of the unremunerative line, it is intended that additional trains shall be run on the Catford loop line where housing developments have led to the need for additional services at peak periods. That will be introduced as soon as the branch line closes. The local authorities affected regretted the proposal to close the line, but considered that the economic case for its closing was overwhelming; and the figures which have been produced all tend to show that. It has been estimated that in a representative week the maximum number of passengers recorded in any one train on any portion of the branch was 152, whereas most trains made up of four coaches have seats for 386 passengers.

For these reasons, it seems to me that the Consultative Committee could scarcely have arrived at any other conclusion than it did, and, therefore, in my view, there is no justification for the protest that my hon. Friend has made against the closing of the line.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Five Minutes past Twelve o'Clock a.m.