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Public Transport

Volume 885: debated on Thursday 6 February 1975

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11.42 p.m.

Three months ago I had the opportunity of raising in the House the question of public transport facilities in South-West Hertfordshire. I am glad to have this opportunity of raising the wider question of public transport.

I very much regret the fact that the occasion is celebrated by another 24-hour unofficial strike on British Rail, which is a source of great concern, inconvenience and considerable irritation to members of the public. However, it might be helpful if I address myself to the changes or events since the last debate and in particular refer to some of the comments of the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment at that time.

A shift from private cars to public transport is taking place. I referred to that in the original debate. If we refer to page 10 of the First Report of the Expenditure Committee, which dealt with public expenditure on transport, we see it stated that 80 per cent. of all passenger travel is by car, 12 per cent. is by bus and 8 per cent. is by rail. Using the same proportions, the effect of a 10 per cent. reduction in passenger travel by car would be that 18 per cent. will travel by bus and 12 per cent. by rail. That means that on the original proportions a 10 per cent. reduction in the car travelling public represents a 50 per cent. increase in bus and rail travel. This indicates a very serious change indeed, and all the signs we have concerning the increasing costs of fuel suggest that such a transfer is likely.

This is happening at a time when our transport services are very much under question. It is time that we had a fundamental review of the system. For example, the means of control and operation of the National Bus Company must now be open to question in the light of its achievements in the public interest. As I said, I also believe that the licensing system should be reviewed.

We are living in times when the most stringent economies are required and it would be wrong to press for further expenditures, but the operations of the NBC are already in a critical state. Losses of between £10 million and £15 million are anticipated for 1974, and the only way that this can be rectified is by a substantial increase in fares. Operating costs appear to be running at a level which would require a 30 to 35 per cent. increase.

In the group there are 54 operating companies, employing over 68,000 people and operating over 20,000 vehicles. The theory was that the establishment of the group would provide more rational and co-ordinated bus services. We have had the schedules but not the buses. We have not had the economies of scale. I understand that the NBC needs an injection of £20 million and is likely to increase fares by 30 per cent. in order to meet its day-to-day operating costs.

I can find no provision in the Public Expenditure White Paper for the period up to 1978–79, Cmnd. 5879, for Government subsidies for the NBC. The amount recorded for 1975–76 is nil and it does not seem from the comments on page 57 that there is any provision in that regard at all. So where is that £20 million to come from? Where is it provided for in the Estimates?

Another suggestion is that we should rely on the benevolence of local authorities to contribute to the operations of the National Bus Company. All the evidence in my constituency and the reports from other constituencies suggest that local authorities cannot be benevolent or make a substantial contribution. I understand it has been said that the increased costs, which may be 30 to 35 per cent., will mean increased wages and salaries in particular and that as a result we can rely on having an improved service. Indeed, I have seen reports emanating from the National Bus Company suggesting that there had been such an improvement. I therefore undertook a test to see what improvement there had been.

I am very grateful to St. Joan of Arc School in my constituency in Rickmansworth, which has carried out an informative travel survey, based on the detailed journeys of 301 pupils by bus, covering 13 different departure points. I shall not give all the details at this late hour, but I should like to quote briefly from the survey:
"If the 15.50 bus is not caught due to connection difficulties, pupil does not arrive home until 18.00 hours.
All pupils complain of considerable delays, especially in the morning. Waits of 50 minutes are not uncommon.
Double-decker buses taken out of service have been replaced by single-deckers, resulting in overcrowding.
Timetable says one bus every 10 minutes. In reality there is one every half-hour.
Complaints that 100 girls board buses to Watford causing great overcrowding and complaints because the girls are boarding the buses at all,
90 per cent. of the girls complain about the bus services.
On another service, there is only one bus an hour and sometimes it does not turn up at all.
Another disrupted bus service; buses often drive past with passengers waiting."
On another bus service there is only one service an hour. A disrupted bus service means that passengers are left waiting without the chance of a bus. I could go on, but I shall not do so.

Some of these matters have been reported to London Country Bus Services. I must put on record the extreme courtesy with which I have been treated by the managing director, the general manager and the area manager, but what my constituents require is not simply courtesy from the management but an improved bus service.

I have also had the opportunity to raise some of these matters with the chairman of the transport committee of the Greater London Council. Indeed, I was urged to refer complaints to the London Transport Passenger Committee. I can only regard it as a most elegant cul-de-sac for my complaints, but it does not help to solve the problems of my constituents since it means that complaints take even longer to be answered.

I could go a stage further and say that the chairman of the GLC's transport committee even suggested that a survey showed that because the services were so inadequate they were not being used, and that if they were not required they might be withdrawn altogether. Surely that would merely compound incompetence.

I fully understand the GLC's problems and I appreciate that there is a deficit of over £2 million on the bus operations of London Transport provided outside the GLC area. I sympathise with that aspect of the matter, but in the present economic climate we can understand the lack of desire on the part of the people of London to support, through the local authorities, the work of the National Bus Company. However, we must appreciate that there is a more fundamental consideration, namely, that we should have a full review of the system.

I believe that the House should have an opportunity to have a full debate on public transport in all its aspects. Surely we have had enough evidence to tell us that we need to have an overall, full-scale review. One of the best ways for the House to apply itself to this problem is to have not a short debate, such as a half-hour debate, but a full day's debate on this subject. This surely must happen in a situation in which the Government are forcing people to use a public transport service which is inadequate and in some cases non-existent.

The criteria for issuing licences—the present system is based on the Road Traffic Act 1930—were, first, the desirability of the service, secondly suitability of route, thirdly the existing provisions for the public, and fourthly the needs of the area as a whole in relation to traffic, including appropriate co-ordination of all forms of passenger transport.

I believe that it is the policy of the National Bus Company, and certainly of London Country Bus Services, to oppose applications for new licences on the ground that they already are providing service in the area or, alternatively, that there is no need. The evidence on that point can be clearly demonstrated. Therefore, it would be helpful if the Minister were to advise or direct that licences should be granted without opposition from nationalised concerns in order to make the fullest possible use of private enterprise concerns. It would still be open to local authorities to represent the public and social view, but the automatic objection should be removed.

What concerns me at present is that with the development of new road systems, and in view of the London outer orbital route expenditure, we need to have an improved public transport ser- vice Therefore, I am most grateful for this opportunity to air this important subject.

11.54 p.m.

I must first apologise to the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Dodsworth) for missing the first few moments of his speech. I was available in the House but was taken slightly by surprise by the sudden change of subject. I probably knocked down a few of our policemen in trying to get here in time. This is the fourth Adjournment debate I have had in the last five days, and, as they say in another place, we really cannot go on meeting like this.

The hon. Member has raised a very large subject and has suggested a full day's debate. That can be arranged only through the usual channels and the hon. Member has as much influence on them as I have, particularly in view of the pressure on the parliamentary timetable. We have heard a great deal about transport in the last few months in connection not only with my Department but with the Department of Energy, and debates involving the Treasury have also touched the edges of the subject.

The hon. Member must be congratulated on his great persistence over the past few months in airing the difficulties which beset public transport. Indeed, faced with the catalogue of misfortunes which have been produced at this and earlier debates I sometimes marvel that public transport operators still keep going at all and doing the best they can against considerable odds. But of course we never hear about the millions of journeys which are made every day by public transport which are perfectly satisfactory. I think we should pay tribute to the people in the industry, at all levels, in what is only too often a thankless task.

The hon. Member is right to highlight the importance which is attached to reliability both by the travelling public and by the transport operators. The factors affecting the choice between using public transport or the private car are complex. Price, convenience, comfort, reliability and speed are all-important ingredients. But reliability certainly scores highly in studies which have been made of passenger attitudes, and bus operators for their part have found that they have suffered worse passenger loss after a period of unreliable and irregular service.

There can be no doubt that a bus service has a very short shelf life. If buses do not arrive, they are quickly forgotten about and alternative means of transport are found. Nothing is more frustrating for a prospective passenger than to wait in the cold and rain without any immediate alternative means of transport, uncertain whether the next bus will come in five minutes or in an hour. This sometimes happens, and if it has happened once, the prospective passenger thinks twice about risking it again if there is any other possible choice.

Unfortunately reliability is also the factor in bus services which is least under the direct control of the bus company. The situation is all too familiar—shortage of spare parts and late deliveries of new vehicles from the manufacturers and suppliers. On that, the Departments of the Environment and of Industry are in close touch with operators and manufacturers to ensure that particular bottlenecks and trouble spots are identified; and the operators and manufacturers by their nature have a close working relationship—which is not to deny that things clearly go wrong in particular cases. Again, staff shortages mean that vehicles cannot always be maintained properly or, if fit for the road, that they lack drivers and crews. The position here is patchy and varies a lot over the country as a whole and from time to time.

On top of that, traffic congestion can disrupt schedules and leave huge gaps in the timetable. The key here lies in the response of local authorities and the extent to which they are ready to adopt policies that would transfer more passengers from private transport. There is a lot of scope for more vigorous bus priority traffic management and for spreading the peak.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows the figures well enough. In 1950 there were 16,000 million passenger bus journeys, and the number of cars licensed was 2 million. By 1960 the number of passenger bus journeys had dropped to 13,000 million and the number of cars licensed had risen to 5·6 million. By 1970 the picture was serious—9,000 million passenger bus journeys and 11·6 million cars licensed. The number of journeys was down by nearly half in 20 years, and the number of cars on the road was up fivefold. All operators have been hit, but rural operators and operators on the periphery of the big cities have been hit worst of all.

Bus operators have shown a readiness to experiment, and the Government have sponsored a number of bus demonstration projects illustrating ways in which bus operators and local authorities can help each other to improve bus services. There are all sorts of possibilities—bus lanes in comprehensive traffic management schemes, such as that at Reading; the use of minibuses in pedestrianised shopping areas, as in Leeds, Norwich and one or two other places; experiments with radio and television control, as in Leicester; the super-bus experiment in Stevenage, in which I have taken part; and, in my opinion the most exciting, the dial-a-ride service in Harlow. That is a two-year experiment being conducted by the local authority and the county council with help from the Department and from the Transport and Road Research Laboratory. I know that Hertfordshire County Council has been forward-looking in encouraging experiments.

Overall, I must stress that responsibility for co-ordinating public transport provision to meet the needs of the area rests with the county councils under Section 203 of the Local Government Act 1972. This reinforces the point that transport cannot be looked at in isolation. The planning of transport must be intimately linked with plans for the provision of housing, jobs, schools, shops and recreation. These are not topics that can be dealt with by a single enormous blueprint. The problems and their solutions and the pattern of demand vary from place to place, and can be dealt with only in the context of each place and in response to the needs of the community as a whole.

That is why the Government attach such importance to the preparation of transport policies and programmes prepared by the new county authorities. This gives an opportunity for local choice, unbiased by such considerations as whether particular activities attract high or lower rates of grant, on the strategy for the whole range of local transport activities —roads, buses and traffic. The new system should set the right framework for decisions about the proper level of public transport in any particular area. It would be rash, however, to assume that within this framework it is possible to press a switch and achieve a magical transformation scene. There is a tremendous uphill battle ahead if public transport is to play its full and proper rôle. We must carefully consider the lessons we have already learnt. I agree with what my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport told the hon. Gentleman in reply to a Question. I would welcome a full day's debate on transport—if nothing else, it might clear up some of the problems we are tending to get in Adjournment debates—but there is no doubt that we know enough about transport, apart from the problems of the sudden fivefold increase in the price of crude oil. The difficulty is to get the machinery and the resources to get rid of some of the problems that we know about.

One point that the hon. Gentleman raised—

On the question of an overall integrated transport system, may we have some indication that the Government are seriously considering something like a two-tier pricing system for private motorists who are not able to take advantage of public transport? On the question of pushing a button or things happening quickly, may we have an undertaking from the Minister that the Hodges Report on school buses will be implemented much more speedily than appears likely at present?

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I am not trying to hide behind the old formula but that is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. One of the Treasury Ministers some weeks ago took an Adjournment debate on the cost of petrol and the implications in rural areas. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy has also dealt with that matter. The Government are very concerned about the recent increases in petrol costs. Many examples are being given to the Government, and they are being urged to accept many different propositions. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy is considering them all together with the Chancellor and the other Departments which will be involved. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be concerned with the situation in rural areas.

In a recent Adjournment debate I said we must always remember that this is a matter that concerns not only the rural areas. For example, shift workers in cities where there is no all-night transport are in exactly the same position. It may seem easier to travel 10 miles across a city, but the problem is just the same as travelling 10 miles along a country lane if there is no transport available.

I was about to deal with school buses. I think the House will be aware that proposals for a relaxation of licensing were contained in the Bill introduced by the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) when he was Minister of Transport. When my right hon. Friend the present Minister for Transport brought forward his Bill, that was omitted. It was not that we felt that such a change was not necessary. We appreciated the problem and we received representations from both sides of industry. We had to be extremely careful.

It is correct to say that licensing was introduced in 1930 because of the great dangers to the public presented by the "pirate" buses and the risks taken by private operators. No one is anxious nowadays to run a bus service. That is where I differ from those who try to suggest that private enterprise could do a better job than the nationalised buses. I do not think that the National Bus Company would object if private enterprise came along to take over a bus service.

Unfortunately, most people who come along want to take only the cream and to leave the rest. That is part of the problem. Further, there would be no obligation to provide continuity. There must always be some form of responsibility. That applies to services such as school buses. I am making an investigation into the question of how we can use the available resources in the country areas, including an extension of the postal bus service. I understand from my colleagues in the Scottish Office that there is to be a large extension of the postal bus service over the next few years.

There is also the question of whether school buses should be allowed to pick up other passengers. When I began looking at this problem I thought that it was something which could be dealt with within 10 minutes. I have met representatives from the West Country and from London, and next week I shall be seeing representatives from the North of England. I assure hon. Members that people who have had experience of this issue—this has nothing to do with politics—have cautioned me about it. Everyone wants to do something, but to find the right formula is difficult. We realise that something must be done.

I commend the hon. Member for his enterprise in getting the girls of St. Joan of Arc School to do the survey. I should be interested to see it, because we like to keep up to date in the Department. At the end of the day the responsibility for public transport—delegated by the Government through grants and all the rest—lies with the local authorities. They must organise transport in their areas in the way best suited to local people.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes past Twelve o'clock.