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13 Mar 2007 : Column 7WH—continued

Even with his scepticism, Eddington allows some openings for high-speed rail. Certainly the Government should give make it clear that they are prepared to consider a role for new high-speed rail developments. I accept that we do not want to adopt grands projets simply because they look good on paper—on the transport map of the UK—but neither should we be too modest in our ambitions.

To some extent, Eddington has an element of predict and provide in his thinking. He predicts where the increase in the rail demand will be, and then suggests that we provide in the areas where that increase is to be seen. In doing so, he does not take full account of some of the wider economic consequences. It is worth bearing it in mind that the consequence of taking Eddington’s approach to its conclusion is that we would invest in those areas where we are already investing heavily—particularly in the south of England—precisely because that is where the short-journey congestion identified by Eddington is concentrated.

If we are to meet future transport needs, we need more capacity—and not only high-speed capacity, but capacity for existing passenger and commuter services—which could be assisted by the proper development of high-speed links. An incremental approach might be best for Britain, with stretches of new line providing first phase improvements in the context of a larger strategic framework. For example, on the east coast main line we might have improved high-speed links between Newcastle and Yorkshire, which would also benefit the cities to the north of Newcastle and to the south of Yorkshire. That would provide a high-speed link for the network as a whole, but it would obviously provide immediate economic benefits to the core cities in central and north-eastern England.

That is a possibility, but I am certainly not going to draw my own ideal railway map. I only ask the Government to consider the possibility of taking an incremental approach to high-speed rail in the UK and not to fall into the trap of assuming that the only way forward for high-speed rail is to go immediately for the investment of £50 billion or £60 billion in some form of unproven technology.

We want to see faster services on the key inter-city routes. If we could bring the London to Edinburgh times down to three and a half hours or even three hours, and if we could bring the London to Newcastle time down to under two and a half hours or even two hours, competition with air would become much keener and rail travel more attractive not only for
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business passengers but for private passengers. We have seen such benefits on the west coast main line, where massive investment has resulted in a major shift from air to rail in the London to Manchester corridor; and we have seen some changes in the London to Glasgow services and elsewhere. There are clear environmental advantages in switching from air to rail when possible—and when good alternative services are provided on the rail network.

I had not planned to spend so much time on the matter, but it is important to many parts of the country. I recognise that the Government have made a massive investment in the rail network, and in the west coast main line in particular. We should take full advantage of that investment, for instance by allowing the tilting train technology to be used not only for the Glasgow, Birmingham and London services but also for the Edinburgh to Manchester services and others.

The west coast main line is another reason why it is best for Scotland and England not to separate but to stay together within the Union. For example, it is hard to believe that providing rail improvements up to the Scottish border would have been a priority for a Government whose responsibilities only reached as far as Carlisle. That is another example of how the links between Scotland and England are beneficial to both sides of the border and why those links must be maintained.

Let us learn from the success of west coast main line investment, the process of which, to put it mildly, caused difficulties along the way. Now it has been completed, we can appreciate the benefits of such investment and of having a strategic approach to our rail network. On the theme of developing the links between England and Scotland, what better year than 2007—the 300th anniversary of the Union—for the Government to announce that they are examining ways of developing new high-speed rail links between England and Scotland? That could be considered a new “Union railway” to underpin the links between England and Scotland. I hope that the Minister will give us, if not a commitment, an opening to such a longer term perspective and vision when he concludes the debate.

10 am

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on securing the debate. I praise him for his speech; he has been on his feet for half an hour and has been very thorough. I thought that there would be more hon. Members here so I have prepared a speech that should only take a few minutes. While listening to my hon. Friend, I was reminded of the contributions that he made during our Labour Students days when he made long and exciting speeches. It is the first time that I have ever followed him in a debate in the House and it is a pleasure to do so some 25 or 30 years later in this Chamber. I am sure that he is happy to be reminded of the great socialist debates that used to take place in our party.

I wish to highlight some concerns that I have about inter-city rail links between the Tees valley and major cities in the UK. I shall concentrate on the east coast
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main line, which my hon. Friend mentioned and which at present serves Tees valley through Darlington station. I say “at present” because in a few months’ time open access train services directly to and from Sunderland, Hartlepool, Stockton and London will be introduced. That service will be operated by Grand Central Train Services and will be Teesside's first direct link with the capital for nearly two decades. If that service is as good as the other open access service on the east coast main line, which is now operated by Hull Trains, it will be a quality service easily accessible to travellers who may not otherwise travel by train.

I intend to focus on the totality of services on the east coast main line, which, after the west coast route, is the second busiest main line in the UK. I am aware that the Minister cannot comment directly on franchise matters that he will be called on to determine later, but there are concerns about the future of east coast services in relation to the forthcoming franchise round. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith voiced concern about the future quality of the service, which I share. I think that there is genuine fear about that issue. GNER currently provides an excellent service and has excellent staff—I travel regularly on the service between Darlington and London—but staff employed by GNER are worried about what will happen when the present franchise comes to end. I praise GNER staff for their professionalism and dedication; they provide an excellent service, but they are worried about their future. They are also concerned about whether the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 will apply to them. I hope that the Minister can respond to that important concern, because since the debate on the new franchise started those staff have raised their concerns with me every week and asked me to draw the issue to the Minister’s attention. I am here to make the Minister aware of their concerns and I hope that he will say something in relation to that.

Mark Lazarowicz: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for emphasising the concerns of staff. I am sure that he knows that, because of how the service is operated, many staff are based at the Edinburgh depots. They certainly share those concerns and I agree with my hon. Friend that they need reassurance. I too hope that the Minister can provide that reassurance today.

Dr. Kumar: I endorse that comment. I think that I saw the Minster nod and that he will comment on that issue.

I wonder whether robust human resource policies on the part of the companies applying to run the east coast main line will be seen as an important scoring factor when the franchise is awarded. If they are, GNER staff will be greatly reassured that they will be able to carry on serving the public in their present role. If the Minister is in a position to take those matters into account, it is important that he provides a positive response.

I will move on to the upgrading and improvement of the main stations on the east coast main line, including my local station, Darlington. Before withdrawing from the franchise, GNER announced that it had begun a programme of station enhancement. However, I understand that the Department for Transport tendering document
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states only that it is “recommended” that bidders be encouraged to invest in stations, with a mechanism to ensure that they get a return over the long term, which could be beyond the term of the franchise. That seems to be a disincentive to potential tenderers, and I would be interested to hear the Minister's comments on the subject.

Such issues relate to the choice of the railway operating company, but that is only one aspect of the operation of the east coast main line. The line allows not only for current GNER operations, but for services run by other important rail operators, such as Virgin Cross-Country, First TransPennine and Northern Rail, serving the east and west midlands and the south- east. The line is also a key freight route. As I mentioned only a couple of weeks ago in this Chamber, as the Minister may recall, the line is crucial for the continued aspirations of the port of Tees and Hartlepool to become one of the UK’s premier container ports. It is also an important route for other bulk commodities that are important to Teesside, such as steel and chemicals, and for the conveyance of coal and post-related freight from the Humber to the big Trent power stations and inland container terminals.

As the Minister knows, there are problems of capacity on the east coast main line. I am aware that work is under way on route utilisation strategies for the east coast main line and, in a national setting, for freight. It is crucial that the findings of both rail utilisation studies are brought together so that the maximum benefits of future investment programmes can be dovetailed effectively.

Another, broader issue that I shall raise in this context focuses on the need to look afresh at possible new build for UK rail for the coming century. As I mentioned in the exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith about the Eddington report, I felt that the report rejected the concept of establishing a dedicated north-south link. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s view on that matter. Even in that context, other schemes could be examined that would ease the bottleneck on the east coast main line. The east coast main line has a number of handy routes that broadly run parallel to the main line, some of which are well known and are already part of the national network, such as the alignment between Doncaster and Peterborough via Lincoln. In my area, where the majority of the east coast main line is mainly or exclusively simple two-line running, there are important lines running from Northallerton to Stockton and from there to Ferryhill. Just further north of that last junction is a totally unused rail alignment—the Leamside route. If that were utilised, it would take pressure off the east coast main line all the way to Newcastle.

I hope that the revitalisation of such key, but under-resourced, links will be taken into account when the east coast rail utilisation study and the investment that will flow from it are examined. Work on such strategies would help to free up the east coast main line. One possible proposal involves the reopening of the old grand central line from west Yorkshire to the channel tunnel terminals. That line could run to full European gauge limits from day one. As well as easing congestion, it would provide more slots for regional
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services and would allow far more continuous high-speed running for the inheritors of the old GNER and Virgin Cross-Country services.

Mark Lazarowicz: My hon. Friend kindly reminded hon. Members that I first met him some 25 to 30 years ago. Perhaps he might confirm that it is also some 25 to 30 years or more since the first suggestion was made in relation to the grand central railway. That indicates that clear decisions need to be made now, or in the near future, if we are to see long-term strategic benefits even 20 to 30 years from today. If we do not take the decisions now, our successors will be having the same debate 25 to 30 years hence.

Dr. Kumar: I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment expressed by my hon. Friend. We do not want others to be debating the subject in 25 to 30 years’ time, which is why we need some action from Government and some vision. It seems rational on the basis of cost and speed to utilise the existing capacity fully to meet the needs of the region.

The concerns about the east coast main line that I have raised with the Minister are genuine concerns that have been expressed by many. We should ensure that we retain the excellent premier league service that we already have. A lot lies in the Minister’s hands, and I hope that he will take seriously the issues that I have flagged up and ensure that we indeed continue to have a first-class service.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith once again on initiating the debate. I am disappointed that more hon. Members were not present. Nevertheless, those of us who have spoken have between us taken 45 minutes and we have contributed to keeping the debate live.

10.13 am

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on having secured the debate, and I welcome the contribution of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar). The debate is important and timely, coming as it does on the day when the Government have published their draft Climate Change Bill. In developing inter-city services we need to ensure that many of the issues that are raised by the Bill are addressed.

We are due to hear from the Minister later this year when the Government publish their 30-year rail strategy, and the present debate is important in helping to frame what my party believes are some of the key issues that we hope will be addressed in the strategic White Paper. Network Rail is currently negotiating with the Office of Rail Regulation on the setting of funding for the period from 2009 until March 2014, and those discussions frame the debate, as well. If we do not fund services, we will not get anything from them. I hope that the Minister’s response will put our debate on inter-city rail services in the context of those matters that I have mentioned.

We know that we face a 30 per cent. growth in passengers and freight over the next 10 years. That is a phenomenal increase that testifies to the investment
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that has been put into rail services, and to the fact that rail is now perceived to be a much more viable option and a better means of travelling. If one undertook a survey of most hon. Members, one would find that the majority travel here weekly by train.

Hon. Members have mentioned a number of short and longer-term issues on which I should like to set out the Liberal Democrat position. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith mentioned fares. Earlier this year, the Evening Standard carried out a survey that showed that it is cheaper to travel by plane than by rail on most of the main inter-city routes. It cannot be right that plane travel should be so cheap, nor can that be acceptable in terms of encouraging environmental “goods” as opposed to “bads”—a debate in which we are all now getting involved. In the context of the proposals published by my party earlier this year and the debate that has been started by the Conservatives and by the Labour Government, I hope that we shall see taxation being used to encourage more people to take the train rather than the plane.

Having said that, rail fares have increased hugely in the past few years, and compared with those for other European countries the figures do not bode well. The cost of a return ticket from Madrid to Barcelona or from Berlin to Bonn—distances of 387 miles and 365 miles respectively—is some £63, whereas a first class return on the Manchester to London route costs £337, and even if one buys a standard ticket the cost is £119 at peak time. Those are not acceptable figures, so one of my questions to the Minister is: what is the Government’s policy on rail fares? I accept that investment has to be funded, but I hope that there will be a switch in the source of money, so that more people are encouraged to use rail rather than plane travel. We should be rationing slots on routes that can be served by fast trains.

There are currently two franchises out to tender—GNER and the cross-country service. The case of GNER raises some important questions about Government policy on letting franchises. My party’s view is that the current franchise period is too short. The investment figure of £1.2 billion that was expected from the original franchisee was far too punitive. I hope that when the franchise is let there will be a proper debate on the situation that led to the current operator pulling out, despite having contributed greatly to the service, as hon. Members have said.

Mark Lazarowicz: As the hon. Gentleman says, there are a number of factors relevant to why the current franchise ended, and that is something that we need to examine. However, does he agree with me—perhaps differing from the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar)—that one difficulty was perhaps the open access possibilities, which will inhibit long-term investment by franchisees in substantial infrastructure improvements?

Paul Rowen: The hon. Gentleman anticipates my next remarks. Clearly, one of the issues at the root of the withdrawal was the open access agreement that Hull Trains secured. I know that that went through the High Court, but if an operator is expected to deliver a premium as high as GNER was and it then faces
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competition through the development of other services that was not anticipated when the franchise was let—that is the key point—clearly that has a huge effect on the financial return that it can expect. The Minister is nodding his head.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I would not usually intervene at this stage, but the hon. Gentleman said that I was nodding my head. For the record, I was shaking my head.

Paul Rowen: We shall await the Minister’s comments with interest.

Once the franchise has settled down, with the seven and a half years that are left on the contract, there needs to be a serious investigation of what happened. I am sure that other hon. Members expect that when the franchise is re-let, it will cost more than the original franchise provided for. I return to the point that if we want investment in inter-city services and to get the desired returns, we need longer franchises than are currently being let.

Hon. Members have mentioned the cross-country franchise. The east-west cross-cutting link is a vital service, but there are concerns about the loss of through trains. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith was right to say that if there has to be a change at Birmingham, we need to ensure that the fares are interconnected and that some of the cheap fares are not lost. If that is to happen, Network Rail’s provision in its next control period to redevelop Birmingham New Street to make it far more accessible is vital. I hope that when the franchise is let, that will be one of the projects that go ahead.

The Minister recently announced the inter-city express programme. That will be the largest single investment in rolling stock for a long time. Between 500 and 2,000 trains will be provided to replace the old high-speed trains from 2014. The HST has been the workhorse of much of our inter-city network. In procuring the new trains, why have we gone for diesel-electric? Such trains will be more expensive and, although they will be far more efficient than existing rolling stock, they will not necessarily be more efficient than electric-only trains. What work has been done to examine whether the rest of the inter-city network could be electrified? That could prove to be a much better investment than providing dual-fuel trains, which are heavier and more costly to run. That question needs to be answered.

I know that the Office of Fair Trading is investigating the role of train leasing companies. Who will own the new trains? Have we considered Network Rail being the provider of the trains, or will that be done through the train operating companies if they are given longer franchises? Many of us currently have serious concerns about the cost of trains and carriages provided by train leasing companies. I look at the rolling stock that serves much of Greater Manchester, which is 30 years old and has long been paid for. It is nonsense that we are having to pay £300,000 a carriage for trains that have long since been paid for and have seen better days. I hope that the Minister can give us some information on that point, because it is not mentioned in the documents provided.

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