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Bicycles (Carriage By Rail)

Volume 979: debated on Monday 25 February 1980

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

10.15 pm

In approaching the British Rail ban on bicycles on commuter trains that was arbitrarily introduced in an unprecedented way on 2 January after three weeks' notice, I should make it plain that the Minister of Transport and his Department are absolved from any blame.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, whom I am glad to see on the Front Bench this evening, has told me that he supports cycling and the interests of cycling and hopes that British Rail will find a way to making more flexible arrangements. However, I must tell the Minister that by all accounts British Rail's new proposals are even more untenable than its previous proposals and that having made one bad mistake it seems intent on making matters worse.

I know that the Minister does not wish to sidestep the issues raised in this debate by reminding the House that the running of British Rail is not for him but for Sir Peter Parker. In a letter written by the Minister to the British Cycling Bureau, he explained his position. He said that it was his firm policy
"not to intervene in the day-to-day management of the railway. However as you may know I wrote to Sir Peter Parker last week"—
the letter was dated 6 February—
"to draw his attention to the many representations which we have received and to ask him to consider whether scope exists for a more flexible or staggered application of the plan."
I am not sure what the Minister means by "staggered application", but that is what he said.

What then happened was that negotiations started. The Minister will be mindful that he has a transport programme and policy and that he makes substantial funds available to British Rail as part of the overall transport programme. I would ask the Minister to consider leaning more than just a little on the chairman of British Rail to inspire him and his management colleagues to look at things in a slightly different light.

The Minister will wish to remain satisfied that the country is being properly serviced by the railways and that the board is efficiently run. Of course, the Minister will not forget that he retains the ultimate sanction of appointing and dismissing the chairman and the board of British Rail.

The issues can be summarised thus. Until 1977 bikes were carried on all trains in the guard's van at half fare. This proved such a deterrent that the number of cyclists using this facility dwindled. After persistent lobbying from cycling organisations and from my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) and myself, British Rail agreed to an experiment that would allow the carriage of cycles free for three months. That was a commercial, not a charitable, decision and was based on the fact that carrying bikes free would encourage more people to use the railways. Within a few months British Rail admitted that the scheme was an unqualified success. It was made a permanent feature that has run since that time.

The arrangement ran fairly smoothly until January this year. There was a problem with high-speed trains, and I gather that there was a threatened move by Southern region last June to ban the carriage of cycles on its commuter trains However, that was scotched before British Rail could put the plan into operation.

Suddenly, at only three weeks' notice—and it got away with it this time—British Rail arbitrarily banned bikes on all commuter trains arriving at or leaving central London at up to 10 am and on trains leaving or coming into the capital between 4 pm and 7 pm. One can imagine that that had a far wider effect that a ban of two or three hours. That prohibition affected all trains coming into or leaving the capital. In effect, this has ended the activities of those who wish to travel from home to work by bike and discriminated against those who moved out to the suburbs knowing that they could use a bicycle to commute.

British Rail has lost income. At a time of criticism of the nationalised industries and public expenditure, it is strange to reduce income in this way. Can one think of a more absurd decision than to discontinue something which, on British Rail's own admission, was too successful? Is anything more short-sighted than to drive commuters back on to the road to waste energy and increase traffic congestion?

Earlier today, we debated the future energy needs of this country. This morning, I received in the post a letter dated 21 February from the Under-Secretary of State for Energy, who has been running a crusade to conserve energy. He wrote:
"In a world which is still heavily dependent on oil to meet its energy needs this means that conservation, the more efficient use of oil and the development of alternative energy sources are essential if we are not to suffer progressive and serious environmental damage (with falling standards of living and increasing unemployment) in the future."
That was a view, independent of this railway issue, from a Minister who was complaining that we should be ever vigilant about the need to conserve energy. This has clearly not been heeded by British Rail.

What was British Rail's response to the energy crisis? It immediately discriminated against the very people who are prepared to use their own energy to get to and from work, using unused space in the public transport system. That discrimination has been extended far beyond the powers of British Rail. This evening the cycling lobby, many of whose members are in the Strangers' Gallery, were told that they could not come here with their safety straps or badges but that they had to take them off. Some cyclists were told that they had to move their bikes away from parking spaces near the Palace of Westminster because it lowered the tone of the area. So discrimination is not practised only by British Rail.

British Rail's argument is that its new train, the 508, has no room for bikes and that with 17 per cent. less accommodation the van in the centre of the train must remain available for overflow capacity. It is a condemnation of British Rail that those who are to pay the full fare in future if they do not get a seat will have to travel like cattle in the guard's van.

Are our modern commuter trains so inadequately designed that British Rail can do no better than push people into the guard's van? Why has not British Rail responded to the suggestion by the cycling organisations that, with very little expense, it could modify the 508 and that in particular it could remove the seats from behind each driver's compartment and substitute a pressed metal floor which allows access for motor and controls and also forms a flexible space for cycles, luggage and prams, as well as several wooden seats attached to the wall, as on Continental trains? That space would be used by sitting or standing passengers and in peak hours would be available for a limited number of cycles.

If there is a case for restricting the use of the 508, why has the ban been extended to all commuter trains when only a small percentage are of the new design? The correspondence from British Rail is inconclusive and unconvincing. In a letter written to the British Cycling Bureau on 25 January, a Mr. Gallagher says:
"I am afraid it has been necessary for a ban to be placed on the carriage of bicycles during peak periods, because of the problems we have been experiencing on various lines and services involving the loading and off-loading of bicycles. Our main purpose is to convey as many passengers as possible into and out of London with the least possible delay and inconvenience. Experience has indicated that bicycle carriage has tended to detract from this purpose and therefore we decided that a ban was necessary."

Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that in many instances bicycles can be got on and off trains far easier than passengers can get their luggage on and off and that some items of luggage take up almost as much space as bicycles? In fact, British Rail has not so far restricted people carrying luggage on those trains.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I was coming on to say that the strange thing about British Rail is that it has not discriminated against prams, which take up more space than bicycles and are carried free, and it still allows the carriage at half fare of motor cycles, which take up an enormous amount of room. Clearly, there is little logic in its thinking.

The real problem is the basis of the complaints to British Rail. British Rail has persistently refused to disclose details of the complaints that have been made of it. It has not told us how many complaints it has received or the nature of those complaints. It has dealt with this matter only in the most general terms. This morning, at a meeting attended by cycling organisations, British Rail at last confessed that the Southern Region had received 66 letters. However, when pressed it had to confess that 60 letters were in favour of bicycles and only six were against.

There are allegations that cyclists pedal along platforms in the rush hour. Can one imagine anyone doing that and surviving? Perhaps it is a kind of new feat. Perhaps one does not actually see a person doing it. Perhaps it is a new phenomenon, just like the streakers were a few years ago.

British Rail says that there are complaints of trains being delayed while cyclists load their bikes into the guard's van. Investigations carried out by such responsible bodies as Friends of the Earth and the London Cycling Campaign seem to suggest that the only complaints received are not about trains delayed by bikes but about trains that do not run at all and which are cancelled day after day without any prior warning.

There are purported complaints that bikes cause congestion at the barriers, yet we can get no information about that. We do not know how many cyclists there were and who complained. British Rail has produced no evidence or statistics to support its views. It has not explained any arguments. Perhaps the Minister will undertake to get that information and to publish it in the Official Report in answer to questions that I shall be tabling tomorrow on that point.

There is no point in having a Bill, which is passing through the House at present, compelling local authorities to practise more open government and to release information if nationalised industries continue to operate behind a veil of secrecy.

In response to all this disquiet, British Rail has now come up with a series of half-baked proposals which I believe will make matters 10 times worse. I should like to deal with them briefly. Instead of a total ban on commuter trains, it is now proposing that the ban will apply only to trains arriving at the London terminals, during two two-hour periods, namely, between 7.45 a.m. and 9.45 a.m. and in the evening from 4.30 to 6.30. Whether the ban should apply will be left to the regional managers, who are given a complete discretion. On the other hand, while British Rail says that it will shorten the banned hours, it is widening the areas in which the discretion applies, and the ban will go far further than the present ban has applied up to now. There is nothing to stop regional managers extending it far beyond Reading or Horsham in the south, Gravesend or Chelmsford in the east or Bedford and Hitchin in the north. Surely, a cyclist taking his bike against the flow will cause far more obstruction than a bike travelling with the flow.

In the London Midland region and the Western region, the ban is to be lifted. Cyclists can use all commuter trains, but will be charged £2·50 a week for the privilege. The argument for that charge is that it will discourage a frivolous approach to the facility. But who in his right mind would wish frivolously to bring a bicycle into London during the rush hour?

To make matters even more confusing and even less explicable, British Rail has made one concession, and that is with regard to cross-boundary journeys. If a cyclist buys a ticket from Guildford to Watford, he is allowed to take his bicycle with him on a commuter train into London—although his neighbour is not allowed to do so if he is stopping in London—and then go out from another station to Watford, because he is travelling between regions. The Minister must agree that there can be little logic in that.

There is little logic in any of the proposals. They have been dreamt up by a bureaucracy committed to creating the maximum muddle. If they are implemented, they must result in frayed tempers and heated arguments as to what is applicable and where, on which train, and for whom. People will buy tickets to get them out of one region and into another. Cyclists will struggle against the flow of rush-hour passengers and they will be discriminated against on the Eastern region. British Rail has achieved in these proposals a guarantee for total confusion at some time and general confusion for the rest of the time.

As chairman of the all-party Friends of Cycling, an organisation with which I am privileged to be involved, I should like to remind the House that there are now some 50 cycling Members, all of whom expressed concern when they met representatives of British Rail that some improvements should take place. All that British Rail has done since our meeting is to dream up a cock-eyed, unworkable scheme for no apparent reason.

Will the Minister, therefore, help to relieve the misery of commuter travellers by ensuring that the simple arrangements which worked so well for so long are restored? The Government give British Rail £500 million of public subsidy in the form of a public service obligation grant, which is specifically designed to operate services that are not otherwise viable. Surely, with some of that money British Rail can improve its present rolling stock and allow for the improvement of the 508.

Bike travelling is becoming more and more a normal way of getting about in heavily congested urban areas. One cannot disregard the fact that in 1970 only 500,000 bikes were sold, while last year 1·5 million bicycles were sold. The Minister cannot deny that the number of bicycles in London between 1977 and 1979 increased by 42 per cent. No one can disregard the need to conserve fuel or the cost of it.

For those and many other reasons, British Rail must be leant on heavily by the Minister, because its proposals are increasingly untenable. They are not good for British Rail, they are not good for its customers, they are not good for the Government, and, above all, they are not good for the cycling public.

10.32 pm

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) on having the good fortune to be able to initiate the Adjournment debate on this subject. I am not surprised that he has raised the subject. I expected that he would do so at the earliest possible opportunity, because of his well-known interest in cycling. I share his concern, as do a number of other right hon. and hon. Members. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport has been present throughout the debate. My hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) and City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) are also present. We have the unusual spectacle of there being four Ministers present for an Adjournment debate, which indicates that it has aroused great interest.

I stress that the Government have no responsibility for the day-to-day management of the railways. We have to leave management decisions in the last resort to the board and to line management. Nevertheless, we obviously take a close interest in matters of this kind. It has brought a large number of representations to the Ministry of Transport. My right hon. Friend the Minister has written to Sir Peter Parker expressing his concern and asking whether arrangements can be made to make the proposals for bicycles more flexible and suitable to the needs of commuters.

The board has produced, I hope in response to my right hon. Friend's letter, some new proposals which are intended to be concessionary. They are for consultation and are an attempt to agree with the cycling interests arrangements that are consistent with the interests of commuters as a whole.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waver-tree is correct when he says that the free carriage of bicycles was first introduced in 1977. I agree and the board agrees that that has been a great success. It has helped to contribute to the growth in revenue from off-peak travel in recent years. The board's guess—it is only a guess—is that free carriage of bicycles over the network is now generating about £1 million per annum extra passenger revenue.

For this reason, the board remains firmly committed to continuing this concession for most of its travellers. On 90 per cent. of the trains outside the commuter areas concerned, there is no threat to the present arrangements and the free concessions will be available, come what may, on over 14,000 of the 16,000 trains that the board runs daily.

The problem has arisen in the London and South-Eastern area and on commuter services, where the board had not anticipated the rapid increase in the number of commuters using their bicycles to get to and from work.

In the Department of Transport and the Department of Energy, the increased use of bicycles for travel to and from work is by no means an unwelcome development. But British Rail has looked at this and has formed the opinion that it is giving rise to some difficulties in the operating of its trains. It says that complaints have been received about the loading and unloading of bicycles on trains, relays at ticket barriers, and so on.

Matters were brought to a head by the design of the new rolling stock which has come into service on Southern region routes, where there is no accommodation that is suitable, in the board's opinion, to accommodate bicycles.

The House is aware that there are considerable problems of all kinds with the commuter services in London and the South-East. The board has to strive to improve the service to the passengers and to meet the needs of the passengers as a whole, including varying groups. It was, the board assures us, a desire on its part to make sure that other commuters were not being inconvenienced by cycles that led it to contemplate changes.

That was the board's opinion, and it made the announcement which has so incensed my hon. Friend the Member for Wavertree and a number of other people. The board took the view that, in order to avoid confusion, a single set of regulations should apply to the busiest part of the London commuter area. In retrospect, the board would probably agree that the emphasis on having a single set of regulations for the entire commuter area, regardless of the form of rolling stock in use, was a mistake. After representations, the board has reconsidered the matter.

The board has now put forward new proposals. Once more, I have to emphasise that these are the board's proposals; they are not the Government's proposals, although the Government welcome the fact that the board has put forward some new suggestions and is open to consultation about them. The board is indeed consulting about them. I am told that the board consulted cycling interests today and had a preliminary discussion. I am told that a further meeting is arranged for 10 March in order to discuss the final form of the new scheme.

Perhaps I should put on record the details of the new proposals put forward today, as given to me by the board. First, the ban will be lifted completely on the London, Midland and Western regions and on Eastern region services into King's Cross. However, to smooth out demand and to encourage cyclists who do not need to travel by train during the rush hour to travel at other, less busy times, the board feels that it will probably be necessary to introduce a charge for the carriage of bicycles during the peak period.

Secondly, on Southern region and Eastern region services into Liverpool Street, the board feels that travelling conditions are already too poor and the services too unsatisfactory for it to permit the carriage of bicycles without restriction. The ban on the carriage of bicycles on these services during the peak hours will therefore remain, although the definition of exactly what constitutes the peak hours will be drawn more tightly to ensure that the ban applies only when absolutely necessary. Cycles will continue to be carried free of charge on these services at off-peak periods and at weekends.

Thirdly, the board also feels that it must retain the ban on the carriage of bicycles on new rolling stock without a guard's van during the peak hours, because to do otherwise would cause a great deal of inconvenience, in its opinion, to its other passengers. But again the peak hours will be kept to the minimum possible and the free carriage of bicycles will continue at off-peak times.

Fourthly, the board will also be examining with the cycling associations the designs of the various folding bicycles on the market to see which of them it can allow to be carried in the passenger compartment as hand luggage, thereby exempting them from the restrictions. The board very much hopes that it will prove possible to extend this to a wider range of folding bicycles than at present.

In future, British Railways will also consider how best to exempt from these regulations long-distance travellers with bicycles who have to cross London during the peak period. The free carriage of bicycles was originally introduced to stimulate leisure travel and the board naturally does not wish the regulations which apply to commuter services to deter long-distance travellers from taking full advantage of this concession. Finally, British Rail is providing more cycle storage space free of charge at stations where this is possible or necessary.

Those are the proposals that the board has put forward today to the cycling associations for discussion. I am assured that they are for discussion and consultation. I therefore trust that the board will take into account what the associations have put to it today and the points that my hon. Friend made in his initial reaction to the proposals.

I urge my hon. Friend and others to give the proposals a fair chance and not to rush to complete condemnation. I do not believe that they can be said to be making matters worse. Imperfect they may be in my hon. Friend's judgment, but they are in response to pressure and are an attempt to introduce more flexibility into the system and shorten the hours during which there are restrictions.

As my hon. Friend said, the new proposals are complicated. That is inevitable. It was, with hindsight, probably a mistake that British Rail went for one simple regulation to cover the whole commuter area. However, it is probably right to try to find some way of matching up the needs of cyclists with a particular form of stock and the special needs of a service.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) pressed the Minister hard to have published the information that British Railways received about the nuisance. Will the Minister give us an undertaking that the correspondence that British Rail received complaining about this matter will be published, because I do not think that anyone is yet convinced that British Rail has any evidence that a nuisance has been caused?

We cannot produce British Rail documents and correspondence or force it to publish. The role of Ministers vis-a-vis British Railways on this and other issues is not like that. It is for British Rail to answer the representations and to produce what evidence it thinks is appropriate to answer allegations.

I have had some correspondence with Southern region on this matter, and my hon. and learned Friend has replied to letters from me regarding complaints from my cyclist commuters into London. Over the months when I have complained to British Rail about long delays to the Medway area, not once has it put forward the excuse that those delays were occasioned by cyclists holding up trains at different stations.

To be fair to British Rail, I do not think that it blames the poor performance of services in Kent on cyclists. However, the delays to services are being referred by my right hon. Friend to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and we look forward to a full investigation of all the difficulties and sometimes inadequacies of commuter services.

The argument of British Rail, as I understand it, is that on occasion an additional cause of late departure is the delay in loading bicycles. Hon. Members who wish to press British Rail for more evidence must direct their inquiries to the board.

The Minister will be aware that, as the former Member of Parliament for Acton with the present Member, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, I spent some time pressing the board for information on this matter. Does he agree that the Government have a locus in relation to energy saving and the cost of transport? As I indicated to Sir Peter Parker, it may well be that future modifications and designs of stock will specifically allow for cycle space, especially hooks in the ceiling such as there used to be on the original Mk I stock.

As I suggested, in general terms the Government look favourably on the increased use of bicycles. It is a healthy form of exercise as well as being considered more seriously as an energy-saving form of transport. I see nothing wrong with the increased use of bicycles for commuting to London and other large cities. However, the role of the Government vis-a-vis British Rail is clear. We are not involved in the day-to-day management of British Rail and we must not seek to usurp that day-to-day management role, even in response to strong political pressure of the kind we currently face.

We are aware of the concern and we share it. My right hon. Friend has been in touch with the chairman of the board and we welcome the fresh proposals that have come forward. They are still subject to consultation and have not been finalised. The fact that these proposals have almost immediately produced a debate and some unfavourable reaction in the Chamber will, I am sure, lead British Rail to consider what has been said and to look again at the proposals. If it can produce anything that further facilitates the carriage of bicycles on trains, I assure the House that my right hon. Friend and I will welcome anything that can be done to accommodate this traffic.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.