Anthony Meyer – 1985 Speech on Rail Services in North Wales

Below is the text of the speech made by Anthony Meyer, the then Conservative MP for Clwyd North West, in the House of Commons on 1 July 1985.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport for coming here at this late hour to listen to the debate. I wish to make it plain that I am not setting out to denigrate British Rail. I enjoy travelling with it. The intercity service which I have used for many years has been, on the whole, clean, fast, comfortable, and remarkably punctual. Much of the tourist trade which is so vital to north Wales continues to arrive by rail, as it has for many generations, and in what is now the second consecutive bad year for the tourist industry we desperately need our trains.

In north Wales, there has, however, been a steady—I do not wish to say dramatic — deterioration in service over the years, not so much in speed, comfort and punctuality as in the convenience of the timetable and the facilities available.

I accept that where trains are not full the railway cannot go on running them indefinitely. Services must be cut to reduce losses. The problem with that process is that it feeds on itself. As services are reduced, fewer and fewer people use them and further cuts are required to reduce the loss and so on. However, it is no necessary part of this dismal downward spiral that facilities also be reduced. My first complaint against British Rail—it is the least that I shall voice tonight — is the extreme reluctance and dilatoriness that it has shown in allowing private caterers to take food and drink trolleys on trains on which it no longer operates an acceptable buffet service. Some headway is at last being made thanks to the efforts and persistence of enterprising individuals, among whom my constituent, Mr. Osbiston of Dyserth was one of the first, if not the first, in the area to offer a most attractive trolley service to British Rail travellers in the region.

I shall not renew my plea that decent rolling stock should be allocated to the north Wales line, although that is a sore point in north Wales. The new Sprinter units are coming in slowly, oh so slowly, to replace the bone rattling diesel multiple units in which it is impossible to read, let alone write and still less to drink a cup of coffee. They are being well received and represent a huge improvement. Nor shall I press for the electrification of the Crewe-Holyhead line, although there is a powerful lobby in north Wales arguing for it. I am not at all sure that it would be a justifiable investment, and the effect on the landscape where the train skirts the coastline would be deplorable.

The essence of a railway service is that it should be reasonably predictable. Hold-ups are, or should be, less frequent than on even the best roads, and journey times are shorter — or were when the trains ran direct from London to north Wales. In the past few years, an increasing number of trains have been routed to north Wales via Birmingham, thus adding three quarters of an hour to the journey time. Instead of running direct to and from north Wales, more and more trains now require a change at Crewe. I have no strong objection to either of those things, provided that there is a reasonable connection at Crewe and no excessive wait.​

The main burden of my complaint concerns the effect on services to north Wales of the railway works being carried out at Crewe. I fully accept their necessity. I spent one night a few years ago with British Rail being taken round the signal boxes and junctions at Crewe station. All of my colleagues were as shattered as me at the primitiveness and inadequacy of the equipment, which has to handle the hundreds of trains that pass every day through this immensely complicated station layout. It is clear that the work has to be done, and I do not quarrel with the decision to do it all in one go. I have a serious complaint to make, however, about the period chosen—2 June to 21 July. It is just about the busiest holiday period of the year. Had it been possible to start the work two months earlier, the effect on train passengers — north Wales is still heavily dependent on the railway to bring in tourists—would have been much less.

Once the work started, the trains had to be diverted round Crewe, which has clearly resulted in longer journey times. That is a pity, and might lose us some day trippers, but we have to accept it. The real burden of my complaint is that we in north Wales, and a good many others who are served by Crewe and stations beyond it, do not know what we have to accept. A great deal of time and effort is required to find out, and the answer is quite likely to be wrong.
The remodelling of Crewe station started on 2 June, and had been planned several years ahead. On 13 May, and quite independently of the Crewe operation, British Rail introduced new timetables for the area. They are radically different from the old timetables to which travellers to and from north Wales had become accustomed and for which the convenient pocket timetables, which can readily be found in the Travel Office, were available at all stations along the route.

The new timetables are radically different, but as no new pocket timetables have been issued, it is not too easy to find out about trains. Why on earth have they not been issued? How are intending travellers expected to find out the new times of their trains? British Rail has two suggestions to offer. One is that one should buy its complete timetable, price £3, and far too big to go into an already bulging briefcase, let alone the most capacious of pockets. The other is that one should ring up British Rail inquiries and find out. Has anyone at British Rail ever tried doing that from a pay phone box—if one can find one that is not out of order—with no doors?

British Rail admits that the plan to produce pocket timetables “ran into difficulties” — nothing like the difficulties that passengers are now running into without them. But I suppose that BR would now argue that it would not have been much use printing the new timetables because the Crewe remodelling, which began only three weeks after the new timetables came into force, would have made them inapplicable anyway. In desperation I wrote on 12 June to the manager of the midland region in Birmingham and asked him how I could now get to my constituency by rail. So far I have not had so much as an acknowledgement, let alone a substantive reply.

I have managed to procure a document that purports to be a temporary timetable. It is called a “reissued” timetable, whatever that may mean. It gives the timing of the trains to north Wales during this period. It is illegible to the naked eye of anyone over 40. It has now been supplemented by a batch of scarcely more legible leaflets, each one covering a section of the journey. One is entitled ​ “Crewe-Chester-North Wales”. It is the only one that covers the north Wales stations. It also shows the connecting trains to and from London.
According to that timetable, there are only five trains a day from Rhyl to London, whereas until 12 May there were 14, and there are to be 13 when the remodelling at Crewe is finished. According to the timetable, there is no way to reach Chester from Euston before 12.30 pm or Rhyl before 2 pm. The position for the return journey is very slightly better with six trains, including two morning ones.

As a matter of fact, I do not believe that the situation is as bad as that. Travellers have been spotted on Rhyl station at 11 in the morning who claim to have come from London that same morning. It may be that there are morning trains, but it is just not possible to find out and, as I said, the midland region of British Rail does not answer letters.

I do not criticise British Rail for doing the work at Crewe—it had to be done. I could have wished that it had chosen a time of year less vital to our already hard-pressed tourist trade, a period during which, incidentally, anyone hoping to travel from London by coach to north Wales instead of by train will encounter the horrendous problems on the M1 near Hemel Hempstead during the first fortnight of July.

However, I understand that the work at Crewe must produce extensive changes to the schedule and a lengthening of journey times, but why, oh why does not British Rail take the trouble to get proper timetables printed and have intelligible notices put out well in advance at the railway stations concerned? Travelling by rail from London to north Wales at present is more akin to hitchhiking than travel by any scheduled service.