Skip to main content

Railway Services (North East Kent)

Volume 892: debated on Friday 23 May 1975

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

1.27 p.m.

I am very glad to have this opportunity to represent in Parliament the serious problems facing rail commuters to London from North-East Kent. A great many of my constituents travel daily from Canterbury, Whitstable, Herne Bay and other places along the North-East Kent coast to London. There are many more commuters from other constituencies along the line, all the way to Margate.

It so happens that I am also president of the North-East Kent Railways Travellers' Association, which seeks to represent the travellers in their complaints and in any negotiations they seek with British Rail. It is a useful relationship. The officers of the south-east division of the Southern Region of British Rail recognise the problem that exists and have always been ready to talk to and to meet the association and the commuters themselves. They have not been slow to come into the constituency to hold public meetings and to hear the grievances of those commuters.

A number of other hon. Members who represent constituencies in the area would have liked to be here today but, as I have already told you and the Minister, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have been able to find a slot for only one of them—my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate), whom I am very glad to see in his place and who I know will be seeking to catch your eye when I sit down.

It is a difficult problem for me to raise, because I recognise the very grave economic situation facing the country. I recognise, too, the problem of the nationalised industries and the burden that they are on the British taxpayer. Nevertheless rail commuters throughout the country have been having a very difficult time in the last few years, and none more so than rail commuters on the Southern Region of British Rail and in Essex, as my hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine) has so often told the House.

Rail commuters have had to endure the awful dislocation, delays and cancellations due to the recent unofficial action by the signalmen. I have sought, on a number of occasions, with the Secretary of State for Employment to help with a solution for that situation rather than to hinder it. I have done this by having personal discussions with the right hon. Gentleman and also by seeking publicity outside this place, on the radio and elsewhere, to implore the railwaymen to obey their union and not to take unofficial action.

I am glad to say that that problem seems to have resolved itself, largely because of the care and responsibility with which it has been approached by Members of the House and by the rail travellers themselves. We in North-East Kent were particularly badly hit.

Another problem that commuters from North-East Kent face is punctuality. It almost seems as though it is a permanent one. I receive regular complaints from my constituency listing the late arrivals of trains both to London and back home at night again, all of which I pass on to British Rail. Very often I find it necessary to write to the Chairman of British failure of this section of British Rail that failure of this section of British Rail that is not delivering a good service.

The question of time-keeping—not by the railwaymen, nor by the trains, but by the people who travel on the trains and who arrive late at their offices in London—is now so uncertain that a number of employers in London have told me that they are beginning to think twice before they employ a person living in and coming from North-East Kent.

The divisional manager of the southeast division of British Rail has certainly tried his best to answer the criticisms of these employers and to apologise to his customers, but all that he could say was that whereas the introduction of temporary speed restrictions necessary for the maintenance and renewal of the track should normally never exceed three half-mile stretches in the distance from London to my area and to Ramsgate, beyond where I am, since September 1974 there have never been fewer than 10 such restrictions on the line, and often this figure has been exceeded and has been as high as 16 or 17—six times higher than the expected and calculated figure by British Rail engineers.

The divisional manager has said that he is working on this problem. I am glad to hear it, because the commuters are getting very angry. They are not getting good service.

The real purpose of my seeking to raise this matter in the House today, before we go away for the recess, is to point out that although the commuters are not getting a good service—I maintain that they are getting a very bad service—they are certainly paying through the nose for it, They are paying through the nose for the privilege of being regular customers of British Rail.

These commuters do not get special treatment and relative luxury such as is meted out on the prestigious inter-city services of British Rail. They do not get the Pullman-like comfort that British Rail likes to advertise so often these days, of the inter-city services with the half-empty coaches purring along at 100 mph with a white-coated waiter serving drinks and a lunch. That is not life on the commuter services from North-East Kent.

I draw the Minister's attention to something else that is happening. These commuters are paying through the nose. Exactly a year ago—in May 1974—the cost of an annual season ticket from Herne Bay, in my constituency, to London was £232. Today, in May 1975, it has risen by £127, to £359—an increase of 55 per cent. in 12 months.

We know that price inflation in Britain is running at the dreadfully high figure of between 20 per cent. and 25 per cent. We know that wage inflation is running at the high figure of between 30 per cent. and 35 per cent., but it is nothing like 55 per cent. Why should rail commuters—the regular, steady customers—be singled out for such punishing price increases?

I shall tell the House why. It is because they are the prisoners of British Rail. Rail commuters cannot go away. They cannot even have an "Away-Day" from British Rail. There is no other way for them to get to work and to get home at night—certainly not for the majority. They cannot afford to "See a Friend this Weekend". They are spending all their money on seeing their employers in London and getting home to their wives and families at night.

It has long been accepted that commuter rail services cannot be commercially viable. It has also been long accepted that the commuters should not be driven away from using the railways. The commuter service today is an essential social service in Britain. The pattern of our life in this overcrowded island requires that millions of people have to travel long distances to work. That is a fact of life. It is nothing to be proud of, but we must make the best of a bad situation.

We cannot change that overnight without changing many other factors in ourlives—producing the jobs where people live, perhaps—but we cannot change this for millions of people in the pattern of our social, economic, industrial society as it is already. People have to spend several hours a day traveling to get to their jobs, and in the case of my constituents that traveling sometimes takes up to four hours a day from door to door—this is an experience I have had myself—and sometimes more than four hours when punctuality is not as it should be.

The jobs are not there in my constituency; they are in London. The homes are outside London, in my area. I am talking of Whitstable, Herne Bay, Canterbury and places along the North-East Kent coast. There are no jobs in this part of the world. As I have often said in the House, down there we have a small pocket of relatively high unemployment.

The only prospect today for the school leaver in my constituency is to get a job in London and join the commuter crowd—and pay £400 a year for it. What a prospect, on leaving school! When one gets a job in London one thinks it is terrific. The pay is £1,200 a year, but it will cost the school leaver £400 a year straight away for the privilege of getting to work at all.

There must be no question of forcing commuters to take to the roads, certainly not the Kentish roads. The Minister knows full well that I have become somewhat of an expert on the question of the inadequacy of our road services to London from East Kent.

Beeching, that great slasher of unprofitable lines, knew that the commuter had to be catered for as a social obligation. He said, on page 20 of his report, referring to the main cities and the commuter rail travellers to those cities:
"the pattern of life in all these areas is dependent upon continued operation of the suburban rail services, and to the life of London they are essential. Is is therefore unthinkable to most people that these services might be closed."
Dr. Beeching went on, because it was his job, to think in terms of commercial operations:
"But that is no reason why they should be provided below cost."
I have included those words deliberately so that my quotation is not out of context.

Dr. Beeching, as he then was, continued on page 22 of the report, referring to the commuter service:
"There is no possibility of a solution being found, however, merely by increasing or reducing fares. Increases in fares on rail services alone would drive traffic to available alternative modes of travel and yield little increase in revenue if any."
He went on to say that essential commuter services must be subsidised.

It is my contention that the commuter should be encouraged rather than discouraged in our complex economic, industrial and social environment—and "environment" is the word that I want to stress, because the Minister comes from the Department of the Environment.

I believe there is a complete failure by British Rail to face its economic and environmental tasks today. Its thinking is completely muddled. A remarkable book by the former chief economist of British Rail, Mr. Stewart Joy, with the intriguing title, "The Train that Ran Away" contains this comment:
"Much of the railways losses are not really losses at all, but amounts which should have been paid by the Government for social services."
We cannot tolerate increases of 55 per cent. on commuter fares. It is irresponsible, negligent and bad management. I would go so far as to say that it is criminally bad management. British Rail would not dare to treat its commercial customers in this way, and it knows what I mean by" commercial customers"—the customers on inter-city trains who travel on expenses paid for by their companies, and freight customers. British Rail would not dare to treat its freight customers in this way, imposing 55 per cent. increases.

British Rail, as so many of us are now aware, has consistently undercharged these commercial customers—inter-city and freight customers—for fear of losing them on to the roads. Consider the investment which British Rail has made in the last 10 years in this so-called commercial service—£1,000 million. It is a history of over-production and underpricing. British Rail is suffering today from self-inflicted wounds. It is feeling the pain now and it is turning, in its anger, on the commuters. British Rail has made swingeing increases in fares paid by these good customers, and it has the cool nerve to say that there are more to come this year. We know that British Rail is facing a possible wage demand, and a possible acceptance, of 35 per cent. this year from the railwaymen.

The attitude of British Rail towards its regular captive customers—the commuters—is nothing short of disgusting. British Rail may be bankrupt financially, but it has no excuse for bankruptcy in its social obligations. I maintain that it has a duty to provide a service to commuters at a fair price—a price in line with the movement of the rest of the economy and with the real social contract. But at 55 per cent. it is trying to lead the way—and to lead the way in the wrong direction.

British Rail must put its house in order. Labour costs have risen by more than 30 per cent. in the past 12 months, and it looks as though there will be a similar increase this year. British Rail must now begin to reduce the labour force, stop overmanning and increase productivity. It must stop subsidising the commercial services—the inter-city and freight services. These are the areas which must stand on their own feet.

My commuter constituents are angry. They are at breaking point. British Rail is under pressure to cut its losses. The Government are under pressure to cut their subsidies to British Rail and other nationalised industries. But the commuters should not be asked to carry this excessive burden, because they cannot pay the price and they should not be asked to do so. The Government must think again while they still have time.

1.45 p.m.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) on his success in securing this Adjournment debate, and I should like to thank him for allowing me to make this brief intervention. I shall keep it brief, first because my hon. Friend has already spoken so eloquently on behalf of all the people in North Kent, including my constituents—for which I thank him—and also because we want to hear the Minister's reply.

I have consistently complained about the lack of opportunities to question Ministers in connection with the operation of British Rail. Increasingly whenever these few opportunities occur I begin to think that it is like bashing one's head against a brick wall, because the situation, instead of improving, has got much worse.

All commuters into London must share the same sense of shock at the massive increase in rail fares. On the North Kent line the sense of outrage is that much greater because of the poor quality of train services which we have experienced in recent years—poor train services in terms of frequency, punctuality, quality of the rolling stock and reliability.

For my constituents and many others it is a case of paying more and more money for consistently poor train services. Commuters know that they cannot alone be insulated against inflation. They know that subsidies cannot continue to be poured out into the nationalised industries, but I ask the Minister to consider the facts of the situation and particularly the situation of the long-distance season ticket holder. He has been singled out for the harshest treatment. British Rail's best customers are now getting the worst deal. The latest increase represented a 15 per cent. increase on the daily ticket fare. It is a 24 per cent. increase for the annual season ticket holder. Fares have increased by well over twice the increase in the cost of living in the past year—55 per cent. so far, with the terrifying prospect of even more to come.

For my constituents and for the rail traveller in particular the social contract is a sick joke. I ask the Under-Secretary to bear in mind that the cost of the season ticket for the long-distance commuter and for many families represents the largest single item in the family budget. They are paying £30 a month, which for many people is more than their mortgage repayment and more than their rent. A further heavy increase will represent a heavy blow to the resources of any family.

It seems that the Government have now decided, as a matter of policy, that the failures of management, of industrial relations and of Government to deal with inflation, particularly on the railways, can be heaped on the head of the captive commuter in the form of ever higher fares. The commuter is, indeed, a captive of British Rail. There are too few jobs locally for him to enable him to give up travelling to the City. Generally speaking, it is too far to travel by car. But there comes a breaking point. There comes a point of diminishing returns. If fares continue to escalate at this rate, commuters will be prepared to put up with the great inconvenience of travel ling on ever more congested roads. It will become sensible for them to travel by road and put up with the inconvenience.

I hope that the Minister will take on board the fact that we are nearing that breaking point now. I hope that he will take a rough and tough look at the whole management of British Rail and will, as one member of the Government at least, champion the cause of the commuter.

1.50 p.m.

I have listened with great interest to the speeches by the hon. Members for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) and Faversham (Mr. Moate). I think that they know that I have been closely associated with this matter in the form of Questions and in correspondence as well as in Adjournment debates with other hon. Members.

I want to begin by assuring both hon. Gentlemen that I fully recognise the importance of the matters we are discussing this afternoon. For those of their constituents who are commuters, the train journey to and from work is part of the fabric of their lives. Anything that affects their journeys must, therefore, affect the quality of their lives. All of us know from personal experience that a bad journey can mean that we arrive at work feeling ill-tempered and tired. And a bad journey home can make us snappish and irritable with our families and friends.

I recognise that fares increases such as those we have seen this year cause a genuine anxiety for some families about their continued ability to balance the family budget. The concern the hon. Gentlemen expressed about this today on behalf of their constituents is reflected in many letters I have received from other parts of the South-East and elsewhere.

I hope that I have indicated my understanding and sympathy for commuters and the impact on them and other rail users of the recent fares increases. My aim this afternoon, therefore, is to answer the points made by the hon. Gentlemen as fully and frankly as I can.

First, I should like to deal with fares. I am grateful to the hon. Gentlemen for giving me this opportunity to explain why the recent increases were necessary. On 18th May fares rose overall by about 15 per cent. But the annual season ticket rate increased on average by 24 per cent., while quarterly tickets went up by about 21 per cent. and monthly tickets by around 18 per cent. As a result of the May increases, the cost of a second class annual season from, for example, London to Canterbury has risen from £293 to £359. The hon. Member for Canterbury also quoted the example of the fare from Herne Bay.

There is no denying that these are substantial increases. Naturally, people ask why rises of this order were necessary and whether they could have been mitigated. They were necessary because inflation has hit the railways just as it has hit the rest of the economy. Rail costs have risen steeply over the last few years. I can illustrate this with figures from the grant statistics.

In 1972 the Railways Board received a total of £72 million in grants for unremunerative rail passenger services. Just two years later, the amount of grant required had doubled to £146 million. Price restaint was partly responsible for this doubling and the support had to come from general taxation. But increases in the price of fuel, materials, bought-in services and manpower were also among the main causes of the increases.

I do not lay the entire responsibility for the present losses of the railways at the door of inflation. We all know that if we want a railway system of any thing like the present size we must be prepared to give the board substantial annual compensation for providing it. This is the policy underlying Section 3 of the Railways Act 1974. Through it we are currently giving Exchequer support to the whole of the railway passenger system.

However, there is no question but that inflation, combined with the price restraint that applied until this year in the public sector, has forced up, and is continuing to force up, costs. And it is inflation which makes unavoidable fares increases such as those we have had in January and now, again, in May. Ordinary commuters from areas such as the constituencies of the two hon. Members are the victims. That is why the top priority for the Government and everyone else must be to combat inflation.

There are some who say that we should have increased the amount of Government grant and not the fares. I was not quite sure of precisely the point the hon. Member was seeking to make on this score. I know that he tried to contrast the inter-city service with the commuter services. He wanted inter-city fares to be greatly increased, but I am not sure that that would have a substantial effect for commuter services unless the increases were punitive.

The grant for the passenger system this year is likely to be about £340 million. In part, the cost increases are covered by the grant, and fares would, therefore, have had to go up by even more had we not made this subsidy. However, we could not meet the whole of the cost increases from taxation. The hon. Gentleman is, I know, aware of the need to restrain public expenditure at the present time. We always seem to have complaints from Conservative Members about rising public expenditure until we touch on a subject in which they are particularly interested. Suddenly that becomes an aspect of public expenditure which is quite permissible. With 200 or 300 Conservative Members all wanting expenditure to increase on their particular interests, it would be impossible to make the overall cuts in public expenditure which they say they want.

I recognise that commuters will be particularly affected by the increase in season ticket rates. On 18th May they went up on average by more than most ordinary fares. I am not attempting to minimise that fact, but it has to be recognised that commuters who buy season tickets are the main users of the networks round London and the other big cities.

Even though the annual rate has gone up by an average 24 per cent., the commuter with a second-class annual ticket is still getting a very big discount on ordinary fares. Similar discounts are available on the quarterly and monthly season tickets. These are substantial savings and well worth having. They have to be borne in mind when comparing the increases in ordinary fares and season ticket rates.

Perhaps I could just sum up what I have said about fares before going on to deal with the quality of rail services in North-East Kent. Railway costs have risen steeply. Inflation and price restraint have played a large part in this. The grant to the passenger system this year will be about £340 million. In part, the cost increases can be met from grant, thus to some extent reducing the need for fares to rise. But the entire increase in costs cannot possibly be met only from taxation. Some increases in fares are therefore inevitable if services are to be maintained. Moreover, we should remember that between 1971 and 1974 rail fares did not keep pace with inflation. They rose 2 per cent. less than the retail price index, and 12 per cent. less than average national earnings.

I want to deal briefly now with the quality of the rail services for commuters from North-East Kent. The main complaints concern reliability. Reliability and punctuality are probably the prime worries of any transport system. Added to that in this area is the fact that some passengers have to stand during the peak travelling hours. Another concern is the inadequacy of some of the rolling stock.

I have every sympathy with commuters who find that the scheduled train services are not running. The reason for the great majority of cancellations has been the shortage of staff, particularly drivers and guards although I believe there has been improvement since the pay restructuring negotiations last summer and I am glad to say that, as a result, British Rail has recently been able to operate a full service in North-East Kent except for occasional withdrawals.

Another cause of distress has been the unpunctuality of the services to this area. I know that the divisional management of British Rail has discussed this problem with hon. Members who represent the area and the board has issued several leaflets to passengers, notably one last March called "The Punctuality Problem", and I am sure that the hon. Member fox Canterbury has a copy of it. The resignalling scheme at London Bridge, which should be operating fully by next Easter and will cost about £18 million, will help to some extent, but it cannot provide a complete solution to the problems of punctuality, although it might help to reduce them. It will not of itself stop the overcrowding during the rush hours.

At present, over 1 million people travel into London during the three peak hours. Three quarters of these come by surface and underground trains. It is estimated that 30 per cent. of all peak period commuters to Central London use the South-Eastern Division of British Rail. As a result, trains are, of course, over-crowded during the rush hour while there are plenty of seats at most other times. There is no simple solution to the problem of the crush at peak travelling times, either in North-East Kent or elsewhere.

I am sorry that I have had to cut my speech short, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will realise that he and his hon. Friend spoke for rather longer than we expected. The hon. Gentleman knows that we are always willing to have private discussions or correspondence on the problem that he has raised in the past and that he has raised again today so well on behalf of his constituents. I shall read his remarks in the Official Report and he in touch with him about any of his points that I have not covered.