Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Complete list of 8,000+ Thatcher statements & texts of many of them

1968 Nov 29 Fr
Margaret Thatcher

HC S [Commuters]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [774/946-56]
Editorial comments: 1345-1410.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 3244
Themes: Privatized & state industries, Public spending & borrowing, Family, Transport
[column 946]

1.45 p.m.

Mrs. Margaret Thatcher (Finchley)

I am very glad once again to be shadowing the right hon. Gentleman Richard Marshthe Minister of Transport. It is not the first time that I have shadowed him, for, as he knows, I shadowed him at Fuel and Power. He then moved to the Ministry [column 947]of Transport, and it was not long before I moved to the shadowing position there. I look forward to the time when he shadows me.

I join in the congratulations which have been expressed to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Carshalton (Capt. W. Elliot) on having raised this subject, which is a subject which we debate all too rarely in the House, and on the way in which he dealt with it in his opening speech. Inevitably, many of us in the London area and other congested areas have a large number of personal and constituency complaints on this issue, but I do not think it advisable to detail them today, nor would it necessarily get us very far if I did so. I think it better to try to draw certain principles and conclusions from these complaints and to see how best they can be dealt with to give a better system of public transport.

I agree with those hon. Members who have said that, no matter how much we spend on roads, we shall never relieve the congestion of private cars at peak hours. This means that much will depend on rail traffic to carry a large number of people from their homes in order to do their jobs. Inevitably, much of the debate has centred around the Southern Region services and London Transport services. In my time I have used most of them. For a long time I lived south of the river, and as I have a constituency north of the river, I have also frequently commuted from north London to Westminster. I admit that I do not travel at peak hours, an experience which I try to avoid.

The main influx of commuters into London is through these two railway routes, Southern Region and London Transport. It is not always blame which we have for these services. When they run well they are extremely good. They are quick. People appreciate their swiftness. The problem is that there are all too many occasions on which they run late—so many that it may severely affect people's future prospects in their jobs, and they may have to move their houses nearer to their jobs to be certain of getting to work on time.

Most of the complaints can be traced to two causes—lack of capital resources, [column 948]and lack of management efficiency. May I deal with them in turn? It seems to me that at the moment the capital resources are inadequate for the calls made upon the services. The capital expenditure for the whole of British Railways in a year is £100 million, which is not very much, of which only £10 million is found from the National Loans Fund. A sum of £90 million comes from internal resources, which I appreciate increases the deficit. For British Railways as a whole, that is not a very large amount of capital expenditure, and the amount met from the National Loan Fund—is very small indeed.

The amount for Southern Region obviously is even less. I am told that it is only about £12 million to £15 million a year and that it has not been enough to maintain or replace old equipment properly. May I deal first with rolling stock and later with track? I am told that there are 800 pre-war carriages being used and that a scheme put up to replace 200 each year for four years was turned down by the Treasury. One would not have considered it a demanding scheme, particularly when it was designed to replace a great deal of very old stock, but, though modest, it was turned down.

Even more important is the question of track, because it is directly concerned with safety. It is only just over a year since the Hither Green disaster. The recommendation in paragraph 167 of the summary to the Report into that matter said:

“I recommend that in main lines and heavily trafficked commuter lines the premature replacement of jointed track by continuous welded rail should be speeded-up to the maximum practical extent.”

Nobody would skimp on expenditure if safety were involved. Far too many factors are at stake. I seek an assurance that any demands for capital allocation for track on safety grounds will continue to be met without question. This demand is not only for track but for the necessary skills to lay it, and this might mean making arrangements for the necessary training facilities. In other words, we need an assurance that any demand for capital for this purpose will be met without question.

One hon. Member suggested that capital expenditure should not be sought [column 949]in these matters. I suggest that it is not that capital or expenditure has been short in recent years—spending by the Government has been extremely high—but that, over the years, the Government have chosen to allocate capital to different causes. The Minister will be aware of the point I have in mind when I say that it seems mad that we should allocate a large amount of capital to, for example, rendering modern equipment in the gas industry prematurely obsolete when the Government are refusing to replace very old equipment on the railways, and particularly on Southern Region.

We are having to spend £400 million over a period of about 10 years converting gas cookers and equipment to take natural gas. This is being done when it is vital to bring up to date old equipment for essential services being operated by British Rail, and particularly by Southern Region. Capital expenditure on these various other items show that the capital is available, is being freely spent, even to render modern equipment obsolete. It would be better to spend the money on bringing up to date equipment which is very old.

One reason why the capital resources have not been allocated to this region or to British Rail generally is because, for some time, we have not had chairmen and general managers who have been vociferous enough in their demands. There must come a time when every general manager and chairman is entitled to ventilate his grievances if he finds that he is not getting the tools to do the job so that he does not take blame which should no be apportioned to him. Some of them might learn a lesson from Lord Robens who, if he had anything to complain about, would not be slow to do so, and it would not be in sotto voce tones.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Richard Marsh)

I suggest that both the hon. Lady and I should weigh our words carefully in this matter. There are limits as to how far we want to encourage nationalised industry chairmen to go. We do not want them to get over-excited about some of these matters.

Mrs. Thatcher

If the chairmen and general managers of the nationalised industries are not getting the requisite capital to do the job and provide the [column 950]services which the public and the Government wish them to undertake, they should say so so that we may know where to apportion the blame. It has always seemed to me that the person who hollers the loudest is likely to get the greatest capital allocation. Capital has been available and it has been spent. It has been a matter of choice by the Government, and they have not allocated sufficient for this purpose.

Matters concerning lack of efficiency are, perhaps, smaller, although complaints on this score are made daily. I refer to things like lack of booking office facilities at peak periods. One is bound to become exasperated arriving at a station to find only one man in the ticket office and an enormous queue. There are too few automatic ticket vending machines and some of those which exist are often out of action, particularly at peak times. It should not be beyond the wit of man to contrive a system to allow people to obtain their tickets automatically, and to ensure that the machines are working. Nothing is more irritating than to miss a train because the queue is too long and there are vending machines out of order.

On many occasions signs relating to the destination of trains are not put up. There are innumerable instances of silly little irritating defects causing frustration, particularly when everybody knows that they could easily be put right. Many of those who travel on commuter services are familiar with the problems of management efficiency and how to put things right. They would probably be reprimanded if they showed the sort of slackness which they sometimes meet on London Transport on their way to work. It seems nonsense that, after one makes a complaint one receives a nice letter of apology and explanation but little is done to remedy the position. Indeed, the number of complaints appears to go on rising.

An hon. Member will be aware, fares will rise again comparatively shortly in the London Transport region as part of the arrangement to make the undertaking viable before it is handed over to the G.L.C. When that happens, people will rightly demand a service which is efficient. They will not pay ever-increasing fares if adequate services are not provided. I urge the Minister to consult [column 951]with those responsible in the nationalised boards to see that some of these management defects are swept away before any increase in fares takes place.

Although comparatively new to this subject, I understand that it is general practice for fares on the Southern Region to go up in step with rises in London Transport fares. This means that all commuters will probably be facing increased fares in the comparatively near future. It is vital, therefore, that the services provided are as efficient as possible—and certainly far more efficient than they are now.

A number of hon. Members have spoken of bus services. In some respects, this is an even more difficult problem than railway services, because it does not matter how much we spend on the roads, they will remain congested and the buses will continue to run comparatively slowly. If we built bigger and better roads, they would soon be saturated with more vehicles and we would be no nearer solving this problem. Nevertheless, it is still cheaper to travel by bus than by car in peak-hour traffic.

Mr. Norman Atkinson (Tottenham)


Mrs. Thatcher

I would have thought, particularly in view of the recent petrol increase, that it must be cheaper, particularly in peak-hour traffic.

Mr. Lubbock

It depends on how one costs it.

Mr. Atkinson

To travel by bus in London now costs about 6d. an hour—[Hon. Members: “An hour?” ] I should have said 6d. a mile. To travel by bus for an hour one must be a millionaire. It is marginally cheaper to travel by car, assuming that one has a car of reasonable size.

Mrs. Thatcher

That might be so if one's car is full of passengers, but many vehicles travelling through London, particularly at peak periods, contain only one passenger. The latest assessment contained in the P.E.P. pamphlet, “Journeys to Work” , which was made before the last petrol increase, was that it is cheaper to travel by bus than to run a car in congested conditions carrying on average 1.5 passengers. It is, there[column 952]fore, cheaper for one person to travel by bus than by car. However, let us not get too bogged down in detail.

We want more people to travel by bus and fewer people to travel by car, and the only way is to make the bus service quicker. This is not easy, but some experiments are being made. In, I think, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, they are providing bus priority lanes on the roads and bus priority signalling. We should like to know how that is working. On those roads in London where it could be operated it would make for very much quicker services. For instance, coming down from North London through Baker Street, there are parking meters on one side; one would think that it would be possible to abolish these and to give a priority lane to buses. In theory, this seems to be one way of getting the buses to run more quickly, in which case a number of people would undoubtedly transfer to the bus.

A tremendous amount of traffic engineering was stated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples) when he was Minister of Transport, but it has not always been beneficial to bus travellers. For example, some of the one-way systems mean that a person may have to go a long distance out of her way in order to get a bus. If one has been shopping at Simpson's in Piccadilly and wants to go to High Street Kensington, one cannot get a bus going in the right direction without walking quite a long way. That is one of the inevitable consequences of traffic engineering, but it does not help the person who all the time has to travel by bus.

It is also inevitable that schemes for improving the speed of buses may result in increased congestion for the motorist, as would happen if we were to reserve part of the roadway at peak hours for the bus. We would have to accept that the benefits in getting more people to travel by bus would be so great that we would have to accept that particular consequence on the motorist.

The question to which none of us knows the answer is how many extra commuters we shall have to deal with on transport services in future years. A number of false assessments have been made. That is inevitable when making assessments of numbers of population [column 953]and of population movements. The South-Eastern Plan thought that in the ten years to 1971 we would have to expect some 200,000 more commuters into Central London. Apparently, that has not come about, but we know that at the moment more and more people are moving further and further out of London, and are thereby having to travel further to their jobs.

This is a policy which, to some extent, has been encouraged by Governments. For example, the whole overspill policy is based on moving people out of the city centres. The whole overspill policy has a very considerable effect on the number of commuters travelling in, and unless the degree of service is put up and the capital made available this policy of itself will lead to a worse service for our commuters than they have at present.

What I should like to ask the Minister—and I am sure that he knows what I am about to ask—is whether the Southern Region was consulted over the decision to build Thamesmead for 50,000 people, which will probably add some 5,000 to the number of commuters coming in daily? My guess is, and I believe it to be a pretty well informed guess, that the region was not consulted. Unless the capital is to be allocated to the commuter services, it will be the duty of the Government to stop overspill, and tell people, “If you go further out of London, the services may not be available.” Perhaps we may have the right hon. Gentleman's comments.

Mr. Onslow

Have we not to recognise in this context that control of office and industrial development, by denying local communities the opportunity to provide employment locally in places in the Metropolitan and Home Counties area where population increase is going on, is forcing more commuters to go to work in London because they are not able to get work locally?

Mrs. Thatcher

My hon. Friend has a very valid point there, but I understand from The Times today that there may be a complete change in the policy for office development in London itself. My point is that we do not at the moment have enough information to assess the effect on commuters, and it would appear that a number of contradictory policies are being followed by different Government Departments. [column 954]

We know that London will continue to be a magnet for people, because of the salary differentials at all levels, both for the professional worker and for the artisan. Further, there are a number of skills which people can only use in London, where there is a fairly sophisticated production of goods. Therefore, even though the London population itself does not go up, there may well be an increasing number of people travelling into central London. One remedy often suggested, and mentioned today by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. George H. Perry) is that of staggered hours. Only a very limited amount can be done in this connection. It is no good getting to work and then discovering that another organisation which one wants to contact does not start until an hour later. That would be an absurd system to adopt.

Staggered hours would also have some very difficult effects on anyone with a family. A working wife would have to get her husband off to work, at one time, with children going to different schools at different revised times—and we are being asked by E. Shortthe present Minister of Education to look at the hours at which schools should start—and also get off to work herself. That would make it virtually impossible to run a household at all on any reasonable basis. The kind of staggering which may be done within the hours of 7 and 10 is already done by people themselves according to their individual needs to try to ease the problems of travelling as far as they can, and enable them to travel with greater comfort—

Mr. Lubbock

Does the hon. Lady realise that the “peak of the peak” , to use the railway expression, is a very narrow time band? Would she further agree that if some people, like the typists in typing pools, who do not have to be tied to employers' hours, could be shifted from the peak, this would make a very real contribution to the problem of numbers?

Mrs. Thatcher

I ask the hon. Gentleman to look at this from the point of view of the family. The typist in the typing pool may well be a working mother who has had to see her husband off to the City and take children to two or three different schools. The problem is increased for her by staggered hours [column 955]because she may have to go to work before her family have gone. We have to remember that a large number of married women go out to work as teachers, nurses, and so on. Indeed, the economy could not go on without them. The increase in staggered hours would increase their problems in very many ways, because they could not choose the time which suited them. In any case, only a limited amount of staggering could be done.

I know about the peak within the peak, but the peak lasts for such a long time. As a result, people are doing their own staggered hours to suit their own personal circumstances as far as they can. For instance, if I am down in the country in Kent, I now travel far earlier to work than I otherwise would because I know that the earlier trains are less crowded. A number of other people are doing the same thing.

Committees are often set up to co-ordinate transport or to look into the problems of how best to get commuters into London. I understand that there was one such committee or unofficial group under the hon. Gentleman the Member for Newcastle under Lyme (Mr. Swingler) when he was in the right hon. Gentleman's Department, whose terms of reference related to the best way to transport people to Central London. I am not sure whether that body is still in existence, but could we know what recommendations it made—and will it ever report?

There is a danger in starting off with grandiose new schemes. What happens is that all the minor improvements which could be made are often forced to wait upon the new scheme which is supposed to come. The new scheme never arrives, and this often prevents a goodly number of minor works being carried through, and prevents sufficient improvement in the services. The services, we are concerned to improve are those which we have now. We cannot wait for the very long-term solutions. We must start with the problem as it is and to do our best to get the best possible service for our commuters.

My hon. and gallant Friend asks in this Motion that the right hon. Gentleman will. [column 956]

“…relate capital resources available for transport to the demands of the present and new populations…”

and make a new appraisal of the problem so that we may know how far we have to make capital available to provide the services required.