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11.26 am

Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. We are in another fine mess, as Laurel and Hardy would say. That is the best way to describe the state of the railways bequeathed to the nation by successive Governments. Hardly a day goes by without reports of increases in trains failures and cancellations. Today's free paper, Metro London, contains details about a report from the Office for Passenger Rail Franchising. It states:

Where does responsibility for the chaos lie? It is partly down to decades of under-investment in rail, and that was the responsibility of previous Administrations, and it is also down to the absence of a level playing field between road and rail freight. The failure so far of regional Eurostar services to emerge is another example of the UK's inability to provide train services of a quality that travellers on the continent take for granted. Their services are fast, frequent and, when I make use of them, they seem to be fairly crowded.

It is true that in France and other European countries much higher subsidies are given to rail services. However, they have other advantages that we should not discount and which may offset the additional subsidies. Why do French towns fight so hard to get the TGV to stop there? It is because they expect economic development to result from a train station being built in or close to the town. It is good for business and for tourism in the area. We should not underestimate that potential.

Rail services carry other advantages that should be taken into account. They bring clear environmental benefits, for example. Transport is a major growth area for CO 2 emissions. Eurostar compares itself with the aviation sector in which CO 2 emissions are increasing quickly and significantly. They tend to have an impact in the higher atmosphere, so it is perhaps even more damaging.

Mr. Gray: We are not talking about the advantages of air over rail in general but about regional Eurostar services. Why should any business man consider spending six hours on a regional Eurostar service from Manchester when he could travel for an hour and 20 minutes by air? Even if it is environmentally better to go by rail, why would he wish to do so, particularly if the service is more expensive?

Mr. Brake: I shall come to that point. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel later that it has been adequately addressed.

Rail can provide the potential for shifting passengers from short-haul flights to rail services. Rail is less noisy when the impact of airports on communities is taken into account. Rail generates less congestion. I have no evidence to support that proposition; it is merely a hunch, but I suspect that the congestion associated with airports, which are placed outside cities, is much greater than that

19 May 1999 : Column 1007

created by rail stations, which tend to be in the centre of cities. People more often use public transport to get to and from the rail stations.

The Government must also consider the costs of CO 2 . If they identify the cost of each tonne of CO 2 emissions, they will be able more clearly to compare the impact of train and air services.

Let me return to the point made by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray). Even if rail has benefits for wider society rather than Eurostar or its passengers, they will not be achieved if Eurostar decides that services cannot be commercially justified because they cannot compete with air travel times. However, Eurostar's time comparisons for journeys to Glasgow by train and by air fail to take a significant factor into account--the time taken travelling from the centre of a city to an airport, to another airport and on to the centre of another city. Many journeys are from city centre to city centre rather than from, say, Gatwick airport to Charles de Gaulle, and a more accurate comparison would take that into account.

The business man or business woman may consider only the time factor, but other people travel by train. My family frequently travels by train to the south of France. Our two-year-old is much more manageable on a train than she would be if cooped up in a plane for two hours. We have made that choice not only on how long it takes to get there. It would be much quicker if we flew to Avignon, although I do not know whether there are any scheduled flights from Gatwick, so we might have to resort to a charter flight, which would cost considerably more.

Cost is important if people decide to travel at the last moment because air fares are significantly higher. Eurostar should consider the time and cost factors in their deliberations on regional services. Other matters on the horizon may affect the relative competitiveness of rail and air. Only an hour ago, the Minister for the Environment said that supported the introduction of an aircraft fuel duty. Although he did not substantiate it with hard evidence, he took the view that there was widespread support for such a measure in Europe. If such a tax were introduced in Europe, it would affect the balance between rail and air services.

Eurostar should not underestimate the commercial benefits that could be derived from regional services. Nor should the Government underestimate the other benefits. The review that will be conducted should consider socioeconomic benefits. If the benefits are shown to be enormous, the Government will have to consider finding imaginative funding for the schemes.

Mr. Snape: The hon. Gentleman is making a very Liberal speech. If the owners of existing train sets are correct in thinking that the loss on regional Eurostar services is about £95 million, does the hon. Gentleman think that the Government should produce that money, or could it come out of the ever-expanding penny that the Liberal Democrats would put on income tax?

Mr. Brake: I am not sure that I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. That is a question for the Government, not for me.

Mr. Snape: Decisions always are.

Mr. Brake: Of course they are. I have stated clearly that if clear socioeconomic benefits could be derived from

19 May 1999 : Column 1008

regional Eurostar services, the Government would have to consider how they should be funded. Eurostar will not fund the services as a social initiative, but only if they are competitive and profitable.

I want the Government to act quickly on the train sets that sit in sidings. I suffer from overcrowding every day as I travel into London. If rolling stock can be released--

Mr. Gray: In Carshalton?

Mr. Brake: Yes, in Carshalton. If rolling stock can be released, we can have Eurostar regional services and a significant improvement in services across the whole country.

11.37 am

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South): I shall be brief. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) said that the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs had used strong language in its conclusions. By contrast, I would say that our language was moderate under the circumstances. To say that we were badly let down is to be extremely moderate. Scotland has been totally conned given what Eurostar now proposes.

Charlie Gordon, chairman of Strathclyde passenger transport authority, is jumping up and down with rage about what the company has done, and is threatening legal action. It is nonsense to suggest that Strathclyde should accept what is proposed under section 40 of the Channel Tunnel Act 1987 when one considers the investment that the authority made when the services were first introduced. They did not invest directly in the rolling stock, but indirectly by creating travel centres dedicated for Eurostar services at Glasgow central station and other service centres.

All that was funded by Strathclyde PTA, but for what? The authority has been completely conned. Compensation is to be offered to drivers, which is ridiculous. The Government must deal with that as a priority. I understand that Charlie wrote to the Department as far back as December and is still waiting for a reply.

As we say in our conclusions to the report, why have the Government or the company not conducted any research into the usage of Eurostar services through the tunnel? During the Select Committee investigation, we asked where passengers were coming from. We were given no information. The Government did not seem to know the facts. The brief that I received from Eurostar does not mention where clients come from. It is a priority to find that out so that we can make conclusions about the value of continuing to argue for a regional Eurostar service.

I said that I would be brief so I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to take note of what I have said and to give us answers to our questions.

11.41 am

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I, too, shall be brief. The Whip has permission to give me the nod if I go beyond five minutes. I welcome the report and congratulate the Committee. The Chairman is right. We have been cheated. There is no doubt about it. We have not got the services and we have spent more than £300 million of taxpayers' money not to get them.

19 May 1999 : Column 1009

I am joint chair of the west coast main line all-party group. We take a particular interest in regional Eurostar services. We are disappointed by what is happening, or not happening. The group is used to being disappointed. We have existed for six or seven years now and all that we have seen is services getting worse on the west coast main line. I understand that today's results from the Rail Regulator show that services are getting poorer, although in Scotland, in which Carlisle is counted for this purpose, we have a better service--only one in five trains are now late. That is an improvement on last year.

We have a poor service in Cumbria, and we expect better. Two proposals have supposedly been made by the companies, but in reality only one has been made, because Eurostar UK's is not a proposal. It is not even an apology, which it should be. The only proposal on the table is from Virgin. Harsh things have been said about Virgin in the past, especially by me and by the Chairman of the Select Committee, and rightly so, but it has made a proposal. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) said that it had not, but I have it here. It was a supplementary proposal that went to the Select Committee. It gives details of pricing, the number of sets a day, where the trains would call and the cost. I am disappointed that it does not say that the trains would come from Glasgow via Carlisle and down the west coast, but I accept that that will not be an option in the near future. There is a vital link to be made with the station at Watford.

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