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11.59 am

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): I sorry that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) did not give way, having referred to me in his contribution. I understood that that was a normal courtesy in the House. As a point of correction, I ought to make it clear at the outset that it was his hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) who referred to empty trains. I do not see anything wrong in that--the hon. Gentleman made a sensible and intelligent contribution to the debate.

Like the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East, I feel that the important question about regional Eurostar services is not whether there is outrage and anger on one side or another, or whether it is fundamentally right that there should be rail services from the regions to Europe, but simply whether there is a demand for those services.

I speak with some care and caution on the matter, as I am aware that my constituents are fortunate in numerous respects, but particularly fortunate with regard to transport. They are well connected for motorway transport, reasonably well connected by rail, and extremely close to Manchester airport, which is a major regional hub airport. In terms of time taken to travel from one place to another, they are therefore on the other side of the debate from the constituents of some of the other hon. Members who have spoken.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that residents of the north-west living in Liverpool, Lancashire, Cumbria and elsewhere are many miles away from a suitable airport, and that, in any case, the existence of an airport in no way obviates the need for rail links to the channel tunnel--a need which was identified by the north-west chamber of commerce and manufacturing industry in the north-west?

Mr. Brady: The hon. Lady makes a valid point. Of course, she has an airport in Liverpool, and it would be nice if it were used more than it is at present, perhaps with a greater variety of services. She makes a sensible point, and one that I was trying to develop.

There are parts of the regions where there may be demand, which may lead to full, rather than empty, trains. However, in most circumstances, my constituents would

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recognise that it would be a more sensible choice for them to fly, rather than to take a regional train service, were it available.

The matter must be addressed in a commercial sense. By that I mean not that the profit element should be put first, but from the perspective of demand for the service. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) referred to the environmental benefits of train travel over aviation travel. That may well be true if the train is full, but not if the train is empty or nearly empty.

I shall not detain the House for long, as I know that there is little time. I want simply to bring the House back to the sensible contribution from the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East, who sought to focus the debate on whether demand exists. There may well be demand in West Yorkshire, Stoke-on-Trent, Carlisle and Liverpool. I have no difficulty with that possibility, but the debate should focus on the real question of whether there is demand and whether the services will be used, not whether people feel angry or let down. That may be a legitimate feeling, but it should not be the motivation for creating a new rail service.

12.3 pm

Ms Jenny Jones (Wolverhampton, South-West): I am pleased to have been called to speak in the debate. I am not a member of the Select Committee, but Eurostar regional services are a matter of great interest to my constituency and my region.

I have a copy of the front page of the Wolverhampton Express and Star on 9 December last year, the day after the announcement about the feasibility or otherwise of Eurostar services. The headline states:

The article goes on to reflect accurately the frustration and disappointment with which people in Wolverhampton and the surrounding region greeted the news that the long-expected services might not take off.

The other reason why I pointed out the article is that there is great interest in the regions. People are following the debate, and we should not underestimate that.

The key recommendation in the report is that the Government should carry out a review of the economic and social impact of a regional Eurostar service on the regions. The report acknowledges the alternative of upgrading Watford and running passenger links to Watford. I believe that that would be a good alternative.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) was spot-on when she said that the issue was the economic development of some of the regions. It is not just a matter of how profitably or otherwise passengers can be shunted round the rail service to Europe. It is a matter of economic development. I shall use Wolverhampton as an example.

Wolverhampton is the rail gateway to Staffordshire, Shropshire and Wales. In the 1980s, its economy collapsed. It has worked hard to restructure its local economy, but there is no doubt that a decent transport infrastructure is vital to its future growth. People who want to travel to Paris and Brussels have the choice of Birmingham airport or a complex and time-consuming

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journey involving several other modes of transport. The midland motorway system is so congested in parts that it is a liability, rather than an asset.

The business community of Wolverhampton wants the rail link. More than half of the new firms moving into Wolverhampton since the 1980s recession are from the European Union. They form the economic base of the town, and European trade is vital. The business community is asking for a direct rail link into mainland Europe.

Wolverhampton is a visitor centre. It has 3.5 million visitors a year, which may come to some people as a surprise. Wolverhampton has a growing tourist industry, but it needs a rail link into mainland Europe to realise the full potential of attracting visitors to the town.

A Eurostar link or a link through Watford would be a major asset in attracting inward investment. New companies that want to relocate to the area have pointed out that the congestion on the M6 north of Birmingham is a major barrier to economic development in Wolverhampton and the surrounding region. An alternative direct link to mainland Europe would be a significant factor in the economic regeneration of Wolverhampton and the region.

Finally, the report states that the regions have been cheated. They most certainly have. They are being cheated out of realising their full economic potential. As a matter of some urgency, the Government must carry out a review of the economic impact of regional Eurostar services. I point out to my hon. Friend the Minister that the majority of people living in this country who are likely to use those services live south of Scotland, east of Wales and north of the Watford gap.

12.7 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): First, I apologise to the House for arriving a little late for the debate.

The Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning (Mr. Richard Caborn): Rail problems?

Mr. Jenkin: I cannot blame the train. The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) fairly had a dig at my slightly late arrival, so perhaps I may reciprocate and wonder where he has gone, as he does not seem to be in the Chamber to hear--

Mr. Caborn: I shall say why.

Mr. Jenkin: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman's apologies will be conveyed by the Minister.

I congratulate the Select Committee, under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), on the report, which raised issues of concern to all parts of the House. When her Committee, which was unanimous, says that it feels cheated, we should all feel that.

It is not just a matter of the important emblematic issues involved. The fact that the promise was made to the regions and to Scotland but not delivered rather reinforces the unfortunate impression that the south-east does not care about the rest of the country. That is a sad indictment of the accretion of economic forces in the south-east.

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There are important strategic issues for areas such as Wolverhampton, which were described by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones). It is not the great volume of people who will use the service, but the key decision-makers who need access to the continent for their business. They need to be attractedto places such as Wolverhampton, Manchester and ultimately to Glasgow and other parts of the United Kingdom. They attract the business, so they are crucial for economic development. We share those concerns.

I shall keep my remarks as short as possible, as the House deserves a comprehensive reply from the Minister--[Interruption.] I shall do my best. I take the House back to the statement about the channel tunnel rail link on 3 June last year, when the Deputy Prime Minister said:

The Deputy Prime Minister did not promise to make an announcement before the end of the year, but there was a clear impression that the matter was urgent. However, those trains have been lying idle during the two years in which the Government have been in office. No decisions have been made and, understandably, people are becoming frustrated.

The first point that I ask the Minister to address is why, in the 1997 bidding process for the Eurostar services that included the regional services, did the Government accept the consortium bid when it was subsequently announced that that bid did not include an obligation to run the regional services? The alternative--the original Virgin bid--seemed to be--

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