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19 May 1999 : Column 1000

Eurostar Services

10.59 am

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): When the Channel Tunnel Act 1987 was going through the House of Commons, we were told that, because it was a national project with considerable impact on all the regions of the United Kingdom, extremely good services would be provided outside the London area and there would be no concentration on what used to be called the golden triangle of the south-east. That was the basis on which the legislation was accepted and on which Members of Parliament were prepared to support the expenditure of very considerable sums. So far, the taxpayer has paid well in excess of £320 million.

The original company put in a bid that many of us believe, in the light of subsequent circumstances, may have been pitched deliberately too low. The company was subsequently replaced, and none of the regional services are now running. That seems to many of us to be a subject for considerable worry and regret.

The Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee produced a report that examined in detail both the history of the matter and what the House has a right to expect now. We began by saying that we believed that we had been cheated. There have been few signs that the trials and tribulations of the rail service have produced new thinking, imaginative plans or even the suggestion of some services north of Watford that would begin to provide decent regional access.

We said that the Government should make it very clear that they believe not only that the regions have a right to equal access but that that access should be smooth, with a high level of service. We said that we did not think that there were now any significant technical barriers to operating regional Eurostar services on the west coast main line or even on the east coast main line by early 2000.

The regional train sets were almost the ultimate toy for the taxpayer. We now own large numbers of train sets that have never been used; they have been mothballed and it seems to me that they have been treated in such a manner that the taxpayer does not even have an acceptable asset in them.

We believed that the present Government, who took over this mess, were prepared to take urgent and targeted action, but the reality is that there has been no firm decision about regional Eurostar services. We want an immediate response. The Government have said that they will not only ask for plans but use the effective new consultancy to produce some facts and figures for the House.

Some companies have said that they do not accept that regional Eurostar services could not be run efficiently. Virgin has produced a business plan that at least merits careful examination. It may be workable, because of Virgin's marketing skills, which have been shown in other fields, but it should at least be considered. We want to know whether Virgin's proposals are sensible.

What is the attitude to Olympia as a stop? Do the Government accept that one way in which regional services could have been developed would have been to allow access for domestic passengers? The Committee made it clear that we do not underestimate the security

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problems that would be produced if domestic passengers were able to use a service intended for international use, but other countries have demonstrated that the problems are surmountable, and I see no reason why the ingenuity of the British should not be applied here.

The Committee said that it thought that Watford was very well placed to become an integrated transport hub.

Ms Claire Ward (Watford): Hear, hear.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I am glad to have my hon. Friend's totally unbiased support.

We suggested that the Government's review should consider what benefits and costs would be associated with direct services from Watford and with through services on the west coast main line calling at Watford. However, we said that we thought it unlikely that the plan for development and change to Eurostar services at Heathrow would meet universal support from the passengers. We did not believe that people who had flown in to a very large airport would automatically be prepared to join a rail service at that point for the next stage of their journey to Paris or elsewhere.

The review should consider what additional benefits might be gained by British Airways, which is after all one of the partners in Inter-Capital and Regional Rail Ltd., from the introduction of a Heathrow to Paris service. We do not in any way underestimate the advantages of having other transport companies involved in the planning of rail services, but we would expect the Government to examine the matter in detail and with an honesty that will perhaps make it clear where the real commercial benefits lie and what the effects will be on passenger traffic.

We recommend that the Government consider the possibility of regional Eurostar services having regard to the impact of the second phase of the channel tunnel rail link. The last phase of the link will be difficult and involve considerable costs, as it will be built through parts of London that are extremely congested. It will have to be considered as part of the overall service. One cannot suggest that the channel tunnel rail link should end at a point south of the most important and congested parts of the capital city and still expect it to produce the high quality of rail services that we require.

We also said that we think that the promise of regional services implicit in section 40 of the Channel TunnelAct 1987 should be the concern of Her Majesty's Government. The House of Commons was given clear and sensible undertakings that we expected to be honoured. It is clear that, without ease of access for the regions, the economic benefits of such a service, which will be largely funded by the taxpayer, will be lost to large sections of the United Kingdom.

It is clear that transport has a direct and immediate impact on economic development, and if the regions are to be deprived of the benefit of something that they have been asked to fund, frankly, the Committee will have been right to say that we have been cheated.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East): I served in Committee on the Channel Tunnel Bill, and we thought that the pledge to run regional Eurostar services was based

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on the completion of the channel tunnel rail link. Who did my hon. Friend and the Select Committee feel would travel on the trains under the current circumstances?

Mrs. Dunwoody: That is precisely why the careful work done by my hon. Friend and by that Standing Committee needs to be treated seriously by the Government. It was precisely because we were concerned that domestic passengers would not have access but would still have to bear the costs, and that if we were not careful the only region to benefit would be the south-east, that we made our feelings so clear in the report.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): I represent a constituency not far from the hon. Lady's, and I am all in favour of greater choice and greater access to facilities for the north-west. My concern is about her suggestion that the region is losing out. No doubt the south-east is benefiting, but surely the north-west is not losing out, because the journey times by air are shorter.

Mrs. Dunwoody: The Committee considered that idea carefully, and history shows us that areas that do not keep up with modern transport, or allow people to move freely in and out, lose out on economic development. We all ask about airport development because we know that without good access by air, rail and road, a region's economic development is stunted. It is not totally shut off, but it does not go ahead at the rate or in the way that it should.

I know that many hon. Members want to speak, so I shall finish when I have made one more point. When the Department's representatives were being questioned by the Committee on the annual report last week, they said that they would give us information about what was happening to those train sets that cost us so much.

We were especially concerned because there had been a suggestion that the company intended to let the drivers of the train sets go, and, in view of the real worth of the assets and of what such a move would mean for the future development of an efficient service, we wanted to know how much that would cost.

I have now received from the Department information that the House of Commons has a right to know:

That sum must be added to the cost of the original arrangements.

What I find really depressing is what the Department says about depreciation:

However, they have now depreciated so that their book value went down by £100 million in 1997, and by £45 million in 1998. The letter continues:

    "The current book value of the regional train sets",

which cost the taxpayer so much,

    "is £45.9 million".

That is a disgrace. The House of Commons was given undertakings, spent the money and demanded the service, yet finished with nothing to show for it. That should not be allowed to continue.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): Is the hon. Lady not aware that the value of the train sets themselves has

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not fallen at all? All that has happened is that, by standard accountancy procedures, their book value has been decreased. Because they have not yet been used, they are of precisely the same real value as they were when we bought them.

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