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Ministerial Visits

Q6. Mr. Wilkinson: To ask the Prime Minister when he last visited the Ruislip-Northwood parliamentary constituency. [15522]

The Prime Minister: I refer my hon. Friend to the reply I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Wilkinson: May I assume from that reply that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is referring to his last visit to Royal Air Force Northolt in my constituency?

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On that occasion, he may have climbed out to the south-west over pleasant, open countryside and green belt. Will he ensure that his Government stick to the excellent sentiments expressed by him and the leaders of the Labour and Liberal parties in their letter to The Times on 9 February, in which they called for the preservation of the countryside?

The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend knows, we have recently produced a White Paper on rural affairs as well and our concern for the countryside has not lately arrived, but has been a party concern for many years. That remains the case.

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Thameslink 2000

3.30 pm

The Secretary of State for Transport (Sir George Young): With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the Thameslink 2000 project.

Thameslink services, introduced in 1988, currently provide rail links between north and south London through the City. Capacity is limited by the nature of the infrastructure, especially bottlenecks around London Bridge, which means that, at present, no more than six trains per hour in each direction can be accommodated. The Thameslink 2000 project will provide additional track and station capacity for those cross-London services.

The centrepiece will be a new low-level station atSt. Pancras adjoining the channel tunnel rail link terminal.In addition, there will be two new rail flyovers at New Cross Gate and Bermondsey, an extra platform and track at London Bridge, additional tracks through Borough Market, rebuilding works at Blackfriars and Farringdon, and a new connection to the east coast main line north of King's Cross.

The project will quadruple capacity on the existing route from six to 24 trains per hour in each direction.By strengthening the link between the rail network north and south of London, it will provide significant new opportunities for services from points as far afield as Brighton, Eastbourne and Bognor Regis in the south, to Bedford, Cambridge and Peterborough in the north. It will enhance access links to both Gatwick and Stansted airports.

The project will make it easier for passengers to travel by rail to and from the channel tunnel rail link terminal at St. Pancras, and it will relieve road congestion in London. The project's estimated total cost is about£650 million, and the analysis of its costs and benefits shows that it offers excellent value for money, with a benefit-cost ratio of nearly 3:1.

The construction of the channel tunnel rail link terminal at St. Pancras provides a unique opportunity to take forward Thameslink 2000 in parallel. The Government have therefore decided that the successful bidder for the CTRL project should provide the main station structure for Thameslink 2000 and the link to the Great Northern line. We will make available sufficient funding to cover the cost of those works. Railtrack--once in the private sector--will undertake the remaining infrastructure works, including the fitting out of the station.

In addition, the franchising director has negotiated terms with Railtrack that provide Railtrack with the necessary assurance of funding for the additional services provided by Thameslink 2000. Because of the additional revenue generated by the services, it is expected that the effects on franchise operators of the additional services will be broadly neutral.

The cost of the Government's contribution towards the capital costs of the project will depend on the outcome of the CTRL competition, but I expect it to be around£100 million out of the total capital cost of £650 million. With joint funding, and Railtrack and the CTRL promoter taking construction risk, this will be an excellent example of the private and public sectors combining to take forward a major investment project.

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The Government will also take Railtrack's need to fund Thameslink 2000 into account in decisions on Railtrack's capital structure for flotation. I am in no doubt that prospective investors in Railtrack will welcome this commitment to Thameslink 2000.

On current plans, Thameslink 2000 services can be expected to start within six years. The precise timing will depend on progress on the CTRL--on which I hope to make a statement shortly--and on the time taken for Railtrack to secure the necessary authorisation for the works under the Transport and Works Act 1992.

The Government remain committed to the progressive, strategic enhancement of the capital's transport infrastructure. Work on the Jubilee line extension is in full swing. Today's announcement provides a green light for Thameslink 2000. Because of the timing considerations resulting from the interaction with the CTRL, Thameslink will now precede work on the crossrail project for enhancing capacity on east-west, cross-London routes. Thameslink 2000 will be a valuable addition to London's infrastructure--complementing the channel tunnel rail link, providing new service opportunities for train operators, and providing additional capacity for commuters into London.

The Government's support for Thameslink is good news for London, but not for London alone; rail users across the south-east will benefit from the increased capacity that it provides. The project is clear evidence of the capacity of a railway firmly rooted in the private sector to take forward major investment projects. Far from fragmenting the railway, we are adding extra capacity and providing a better integrated network. Today's announcement demonstrates our commitment to a dynamic, expanding railway for the next century.

Ms Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood): The Labour party greatly welcomes the Secretary of State's long-overdue announcement of the further development of Thameslink--which will, among other things, significantly enhance train capacity north-south across London and improve capacity at Charing Cross, which currently suffers many hold-ups. As the right hon. Gentleman said, Thameslink 2000 will also provide capacity at St. Pancras to deal with passengers arriving on the channel tunnel rail link. That, of course, explains the timing of the announcement, because the Secretary of State will shortly announce the award of the drastically delayed channel tunnel rail link project.

Given that motivation, will the Secretary of State tell the House clearly and exactly when work will start on this project? Does the Secretary of State agree that it is deeply regrettable that the project has been so badly delayed as a result of rail privatisation?

The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris): Nonsense.

Ms Short: That is not nonsense--it is absolutely true. The Minister should not intervene in that way.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is even more regrettable that the project will cost the taxpayer a massively increased amount of money as a result of rail privatisation? [Laughter.] Hon. Members should not laugh--that is true. That is their Government's policy.

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Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the old Greater London council funded the original British Rail feasibility study, which brought back into use a small section of railway south of Farringdon that had not been used for passenger services since the first world war, allowing the north-south connection to be made? Conservative Members might wish to know that was achieved by the GLC and British Rail.

Is the Secretary of State aware that British Rail established the Bedford-Brighton service, which runs every 15 minutes, in 1988--and that British Rail had plans to expand the system, in the way that the right hon. Gentleman has announced today, from 1990? British Rail had a Bill ready in 1991, but the Department of Transport would not allow the Bill to be deposited. Is the Secretary of State also aware that, following the 1992 election, everything was subsumed in the preparation for privatisation, and this valuable project was further delayed?

Is the Secretary of State aware that, even more tragically, if the project had gone forward in 1991,it would not only be up and running now, but would be largely paid for, since it is a project that would have been self-financing under the old British Rail system?I understand that, under the privatisation structure, it has been more difficult and expensive for the Secretary of State to carry the project forward, because he has had to arrange further funding for the franchising director to pay extra leasing charges to the rolling stock companies and extra track access charges to Railtrack. I also understand that the Secretary of State must have faced difficulties in persuading the Treasury to release much larger amounts of taxpayers' money than would have been necessary to take the project forward in 1991.

Will the Secretary of State admit that the project clearly demonstrates the folly of rail privatisation? The Thameslink project has been delayed by at least five years, and will cost the taxpayer much more because of privatisation. Even at this late stage, will the Secretary of State learn the folly of his ways and agree to halt the process of rail privatisation? It is holding back investment and costing the taxpayer more, as the Thameslink project clearly demonstrates.

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