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26 Jun 2002 : Column 282WH

East Coast Main Line

12.30 pm

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East): I am glad to have the chance to raise the issue of the electrification of the east coast main line rail link north of Edinburgh. As a member of the all-party rail group, I am aware that electrification is an investment priority across the United Kingdom rail network. I hope to show why the north-east of Scotland north of Edinburgh should be given serious consideration for the earliest possible upgrading.

One of the most liberating features of the modern world is the opportunity to travel—to transport oneself, either for business or leisure purposes, from the ordinary, humdrum realities of domestic existence to fantastic and mind-expanding distant destinations. As someone from a far distant part of the UK—Dundee—I know that it is good to travel and see the world.

The key that opened the lock of limitation on movement was the expansion of the railways in the 19th century, an era often referred to as the age of steam. The building of the famous Tay rail bridge crossing the silvery Tay caught the nation's attention, following the initial botched efforts and the rail disaster of 1879. The construction of that bridge, which spans the two-mile breadth of Scotland's longest river, was part of a dynamic process—the revolutionary industrial communications and transport transformation that changed the world.

The building of that immense structure, which predated the Forth rail bridge, was specifically promoted by Dundee's city fathers and business men, who wanted to reduce rail travel times from Dundee to the south and link Dundee and its hinterland to the rest of Britain. The bridge also excited the passions and poetry of a famous Dundonian, William McGonagall, the 100th anniversary of whose death we are currently commemorating. A poem will be placed by the Tay rail bridge addressed to the

That is clear testimony to the excitement of rail travel in McGonagall's day.

The epoch of steam was encroached upon first by the motor car and then by the aeroplane, but rail still has great relevance today, with the railways continuing to provide an important and popular mode of travel in the 21st century. Railways give direct, frequent and usually trouble-free access to major centres of population, business and leisure destinations across the UK and—with the advent of the channel tunnel, in which I have had the pleasure of travelling several times—to destinations further afield in continental Europe.

The competitiveness of the railways, despite pressure from 20th-century transportation innovations, is a lasting tribute to the appeal of rail travel and the benefits it offers. The relative comfort, safety and cheapness of rail compared to the aeroplane, and the extent of the network—despite the cuts of the 1960s—have ensured the railways a niche in the travel market that allowed the network to carry 958,000 million passenger journeys in the UK last year. My colleagues from Scotland and I travel by plane weekly, and our journeys to the House

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from other Scottish airports cannot be completed without catching a train, whether it be the Paddington or Gatwick express or, in my case, the Jubilee tube line.

I cannot fail to acknowledge the troubles that rail travel has experienced lately. The spate of tragic derailments, signal failures and collisions has contributed to general public concern about the safety of that mode of transport. That concern has only partly been assuaged by the plans of the Government and the Strategic Rail Authority to make long-term improvements to the track, which will improve safety aspects and, hopefully, enable the railway system to regain its standing as a viable and reliable transport network.

Whatever the proposals, we have a long way to go before we fulfil the famous slogan "Let the train take the strain", which was coined in a marketing effort to encourage motorists to abandon their cars and switch to rail in the 1980s. A side effect of disenchantment with rail travel has been to force more people on to the roads, which has created a chaotic and frustrating situation on Britain's motorway system, further impeding the ability of road users safely and freely to reach their destinations. I shall return to that point in connection with the north-east of Scotland.

I welcome the Government's 10-year transport plan and the SRA's proposal for improvements to the rail network. They will create a balance in the travel options open to us and reduce the problems currently being encountered by users of the road and rail network. The plans, along with the Government's White Paper on aviation and regional airports that is to be issued later in the year, will go a long way to set the context in which the needs of travel in the United Kingdom will be met for the next 50 years. My fervent hope as an MP for a distant constituency is that all the Government's policies will be given a priority that puts investment and accessibility at the heart of the solutions that are needed to satisfy the transport needs of all Britain's regions and communities in the years ahead.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to focus on the electrification of the east coast main line. I want to bring to the Government's attention issues of investment in the railway infrastructure that need to be addressed. The goal of electrification has been shared by all communities north of Edinburgh for some time. It is a goal that has transcended the political divide and brought the often diverse and sometimes conflicting urban and rural communities that make up the north-east of Scotland together in a joint campaign. I am happy to acknowledge the work done by Create, the promoter of the campaign. I have been a long-standing member of the organisation since being involved in local government in the area. I hope that the campaign will be successful and that the benefits that flow from electrification of the rail line south of Edinburgh will be extended north from Edinburgh up the east coast main line.

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): Does my hon. Friend agree that if electrification of the east coast main line north of Edinburgh and any improvements to the route north of Edinburgh are to be utilised to the full, it will be necessary to clear some of

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the bottlenecks on the network? I am thinking particularly of the need to transfer freight to the Alloa and Stirling line to take passenger services off the Forth rail bridge and to improve the tunnel capacity east of Edinburgh. Does he agree that such matters need to be part of the package of electrification or any other improvement, and that it would be helpful if the Minister looked into such matters?

Mr. Luke : I bow to my hon. Friend's detailed knowledge of the railway system in Scotland and his constant advocacy of improvements to that system. He is right. The SRA's current policy is, as a first step, to smooth out bottlenecks and tackle problems on the line. He is right about that first step, but to achieve the end result and ensure faster journey times involves electrification.

The part of Scotland to which my hon. Friend refers—the central belt into Fife and the north-east—has long suffered from its peripheral position and relatively low population density compared with other centres of population in Scotland and the UK. Many who, like me, hail from that area, whether they are involved in politics or business or must travel frequently for other reasons, feel that they have been at a transport disadvantage for some time. That is what we want tackled.

Although the recently published SRA rail investment strategy will tackle that to some extent, it falls short of satisfying what, in terms of railway development, is the ideal solution. It does not go far enough in the medium and long terms to create parity of opportunity in relation to rail haulage and rail travel accessibility. The proposals to improve and straighten the line where possible will make rail travel marginally quicker and improve travel times in the long term, but such improvements should be only the first step towards allowing electrification to proceed eventually. It is therefore essential that we elected Members of Parliament, the Government and consumers are not fobbed off by the halfway house proffered by the SRA's investment plan.

The proposed improvements are short-term solutions. However acceptable they are as a means of improving travel times, they do not secure the improvement in travel time required to ensure the heightening of business competitiveness that is necessary to counter cut-throat competition in producing goods and promoting sales in far-off markets; nor will the proposals achieve the travel times required to encourage business travellers and other commuters who are unable to meet the higher cost of air fares to abandon the roads and take to a more environmentally friendly form of travel.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the chair of the UK passenger transport forum that the SRA's plan is a plan for London and the south-east of England? Does he agree with the growing consensus in Scotland that the best solution for the investment required in Scotland would probably be the full devolution of railway powers to the Scottish Parliament?

Mr. Luke : I am aware of comments made and a recent debate in the Scottish Parliament sponsored by the

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Scottish National party. The national rail network is a national issue, and I think that, given its connections to the UK, its integrity should remain the responsibility of the UK Parliament, especially as I am keen to ensure that Dundee, Scotland and the UK remain closely linked to Europe. Issues raised in that debate deserve attention. They include possible new branch lines and the lines north of Aberdeen to Fraserburgh and Peterhead. We Members of Parliament need to continue to put the case. I hope that we shall have time at the end of the debate to make the case for what to do next.

The SRA's improvement plans for north-east Scotland are based on the presumption that diesel-powered engines will remain the main form of traction, debarring that part of Scotland from the benefits that will accrue to Edinburgh and its passengers going south. By any comparison, electric trains would provide improved passenger environments and more pleasant journeys, and they are less polluting, cheaper to run and faster. Electrification is the only option that deserves to be considered.

I am reading Lord Jenkins' recently published and excellent biography of Sir Winston Churchill, who was for 14 years a Member of Parliament for Dundee. In that account I was interested to read that, after Churchill's electoral success as a Liberal candidate in 1908, he settled down for the 10-and-a-half-hour journey between London and Dundee to take up his seat in Parliament. One hundred years later, the journey time for the 460 miles between Dundee and London has been cut to about six hours; however, it takes an hour and a half to get from Dundee to Edinburgh—a quarter of the time that it takes to get from Dundee to London even though the distance is much less than a quarter of the distance between Dundee and London. One of the major bottlenecks on the line is between the Forth and Tay rail bridges. The severity of the delay is amplified if one travels south from Aberdeen.

We need only look at the French network to see the real improvements that could be achieved. For example, a train left the Gare du Lyon at 12 o'clock today. It will cover the 228 miles between Paris and Lyon in a staggering 1 hour 55 minutes. If we had the same system in Scotland and the United Kingdom as a whole, we could hope for a travel time between Dundee and London of far less than four hours. That would be a difference that we could really applaud.

Let us take a further step north on the east coast main line. Any improvements that we could make would be of great significance to many rail stops north of Aberdeen that often recede into the very real mists of rail improvement policy. Such rail stops are Inverurie, Huntly, Keith and Elgin. They have rail links to Aberdeen, but no direct link to London. They need speedier access to Aberdeen as a staging post to the south and south-east of the UK. Electrifying the line all the way to Inverness would be of immense benefit to us all, and especially to those rail stops.

It is sad that some people in the north-east of Scotland have no rail link at all. Towns such as Peterhead and Fraserburgh suffer a double dose of distancing, from vital access to rail services, and consequently from vital access to markets and visitor destinations. Those places might not be familiar to the Minister. On a map they might look fairly accessible to the nodal point of the east coast main line in Aberdeen, but in reality, the distances

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are great. I have travelled occasionally by car up there and I know that many of the roads are of a secondary nature.

The reinstatement of a rail service to these areas, which were deprived of access to the east coast main line due to the infamous Beeching cuts of the 1960s, is the responsibility of the Scottish Executive under the devolved powers of the Scotland Act 1998. However, I believe that the UK Government have reserved powers and the requirement and duty to ensure that the Strategic Rail Authority does all it can to improve that major trans-Britain railway line. That is doubly true given the very difficult journey that one can have when travelling by road for either business or for the pleasure of gaining access to the delights of our capital city.

On two occasions since my election last year, I have had the dubious pleasure of making a 12-hour car journey from Dundee to London. That is a course of action that I would not recommend to my worst enemy. The journey can be embarked upon with minimum disruption, but travel times can be considerably lengthened if one encounters the worst of the hold-ups—luckily, I avoided them—that can be experienced on what is without doubt the worst stretch of road in the UK: the M6 around Birmingham. That major west coast highway is the most heavily used motorway in the country, due to lack of investment in the A1/M1 corridor, which would be the shorter east coast trip.

I believe that if a quicker east coast rail alternative were available, many people who currently use the road might reassess their travel arrangements and switch to rail. Better still—given improvements south of Edinburgh and electrification north of Edinburgh—would be the reintroduction of the train services on which one can put one's car, as can be done in Europe. The journey to London and abroad could then be made causing less pollution.

I know that electrification is expensive, but I firmly believe that we must pursue it strongly. I am conscious that Members of Parliament use Adjournment debates to ask for attention to be given to problems that affect their constituencies, but this topic extends wider than the boundaries of Dundee, East. I am sorry that no Conservative or Liberal Democrat Member is present to take note of my concerns, although I note the presence of the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart), a constituency neighbour of mine.

The east coast main line impacts on a wide geographical area that is home to urban and rural communities. As I said, the north-east of Scotland is at a disadvantage in relation to transport because of its peripheral location in the UK and the wider European Union. I was once the chair of economic development on Dundee city council, and I know how much a company's decision to locate to a particular area can be affected by transport costs and the accessibility of towns such as Dundee to major markets and financial decision-making centres of the UK.

Recently discussions have taken place between the Scotland Office and the SRA on the proposals for improvements in the north-east of Scotland, and I wrote to the new Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), asking her to let me know what progress was made. On behalf of all MPs for the area, I am also writing to

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Richard Bowker, chairman of the SRA, to ask for an early meeting to discuss the current proposals for the north-east of Scotland, and to seek to review with him and his officials the details of those improvements and the priority that the SRA is giving to electrification.

As an MP, I am committed to continuing to campaign for Dundee, East and the north-east of Scotland, and I work with the support of my fellow MPs for that area, whatever their political persuasion. With the assistance of the Minister and his colleagues at the Scotland Office, we will succeed in our worthwhile endeavour to ensure that electrification stretches northward from Edinburgh as far as Inverness, or at least to Aberdeen as our first option.

12.51 pm

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke) on securing the debate and providing an opportunity for the House to discuss the possible electrification of the east coast main line north of Edinburgh. He rightly raised related issues that are of importance to his constituency and to Scotland as a whole, and asked whether some of the names of the stations to which he drew attention were familiar to me. As I recall, many of those stations had branches of the old EETPU—the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union—with which I used to deal.

I was interested to hear about my hon. Friend's road journey to London. He will welcome my announcement yesterday of £263 million that will provide motorway-standard roads through Yorkshire and improve links between the south and the midlands to Scotland. That is of interest to Scotland, especially to the north-east.

As my hon. Friend said, the east coast main line is the high-speed link carrying Britain's fastest train service between London, Yorkshire, the north-east and Edinburgh. It also links into Scotland's prime routes to Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness. It handles cross-country, commuter and local passenger services and carries considerable freight and mail traffic. The route is primarily a two-track railway, with four tracks in certain sections, mainly at the southern end of the route. Line speeds on part of the route between Newcastle and Edinburgh range between 80 mph and 125 mph, and between Edinburgh and Aberdeen speeds are about 90 mph. On an average day, 1,900 passenger trains carry 200,000 passengers and there are 250 freight services with a loading of approximately 200,000 tonnes.

By any measure, the route is vital to the economic health of many regions of Great Britain. All parties have long accepted that upgrading the east coast main line is a priority. It would provide additional capacity for both passenger and freight demand, and improve the network to enable train operators to deliver significant improvements in the quality and reliability of their services that customers rightly expect. A substantial Railtrack design team has worked on the scheme for nearly three years to enable the route to carry more passenger trains, faster trains and more freight services. A fundamental part of the scheme is the use of parallel routes to provide extra capacity and, in effect, a four-track railway from London to Newcastle.

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Railtrack informed the SRA of an increase in its cost estimates for the upgrade, and the SRA recently examined the details of the cost increases with Railtrack. As a result, a two-year extension was agreed with GNER to secure some early benefits for passengers. The extension will give the SRA more time to formulate the requirements for this important section of the railway before going out to tender for a long-term replacement franchise.

That gives the general picture on the line, so let me deal with the case for electrification. Our concern is much more with outputs than with inputs. We intend to ensure that passengers get an appropriate level of service, but we are less concerned about how train operators achieve that. In the 1970s, electrification brought undoubted and numerous advantages, such as reduced fuel and maintenance costs, rail vehicles with better acceleration, higher top speeds and quieter operation, but in the current climate that is no longer true. Diesel fuel is now much cheaper, so the fuel cost differences have been largely eliminated. The performance characteristics of modern diesel trains have improved considerably and they are now at least as good as equivalent electric units. Although the maintenance costs of electric trains are slightly less than those of diesel trains, when the cost of maintaining overhead line equipment is included, the balance shifts in favour of diesel.

The so-called "sparks effect" was well known in the 70s. It was the name given to the tendency of electrification to increase patronage on train routes compared with when they were operated by other forms of motive power. The effect is less prevalent now—indeed, recent studies detect a "nose cone effect", whereby if trains have an aerodynamic front and appearance, there seems to be an increase in the number of passengers. Interestingly enough, a similar phenomenon is found in connection with light rail and buses.

Mr. Luke : Does my right hon. Friend accept that for those trains that stop more frequently, electric-powered engines have a quicker start-up time and gain swifter speeds earlier?

Mr. Spellar : I am happy to write to my hon. Friend about that. There has been a considerable closing of the performance gap between modern diesel trains and electric trains.

The Edinburgh to Aberdeen line is in need of some improvement. We are anxious to secure greater capacity, better signalling and increased line speeds, but electrification is not required to provide that. It is extremely expensive and would not eliminate the problems caused by lack of track capacity, the winding nature of the line as it hugs the shoreline and various other factors associated with the physical shape of various sections of the line, together with the single track section at Usan, which restricts capacity.

We already have plans for improvements on that route. An extra signalling section is proposed on the Forth bridge to increase track capacity. The Waverley station scheme, as well as enhancing that station, will increase track capacity. A scheme to re-open the route from Stirling to Longannet, which was mentioned by

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my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz), will increase track capacity by diverting freight trains to avoid the Forth bridge. We are anxious to improve the route from Edinburgh to Aberdeen, but do not regard electrification as the most effective solution in the short to medium term. We have a number of projects in hand to assist with that, and the SRA and the Scottish Executive are commissioning a study to investigate the most effective ways of improving capacity in the Aberdeen area.

New trains have already been introduced on the route. Scotrail's new Turbostar trains and Virgin's new Voyager trains are part of the dramatic change that is taking place in the cross-country system. They both have characteristics similar to those of electric trains. The recent two-year extension of the GNER franchise, which I mentioned earlier, included a commitment by the company completely to refurbish the high-speed trains that operate to Aberdeen and Inverness. Incidentally, all those types of diesel trains are already exceedingly popular with passengers and have created a step change in travel and in perceptions.

The Strategic Rail Authority is working with the Scottish Executive—

Mr. John Cummings (in the Chair): Order. We have to move on.

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