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Session 2007 - 08
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European Standing Committee Debates

Freight Transport

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Frank Cook
Baron, Mr. John (Billericay) (Con)
Caborn, Mr. Richard (Sheffield, Central) (Lab)
Clarke, Mr. Tom (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab)
Crabb, Mr. Stephen (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con)
Cunningham, Tony (Workington) (Lab)
Fitzpatrick, Jim (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport)
Gardiner, Barry (Brent, North) (Lab)
Hammond, Stephen (Wimbledon) (Con)
Hunter, Mark (Cheadle) (LD)
Jones, Mr. Kevan (North Durham) (Lab)
Leech, Mr. John (Manchester, Withington) (LD)
Luff, Peter (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con)
Snelgrove, Anne (South Swindon) (Lab)
Hannah Weston, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(5):
Hopkins, Kelvin (Luton, North) (Lab)

European Standing Committee

Monday 4 February 2008

[Mr. Frank Cook in the Chair]

Freight Transport

4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr. Cook.
The five explanatory memorandums relevant to this debate are contained in the bundle of papers that have been sent to the Committee. The origin of the freight transport agenda lies with the Commission’s 2001 transport White Paper and, more specifically, its 2006 mid-term review of the White Paper. In that, the Commission identified the challenges facing Europe caused by what it predicts will be a 50 per cent. growth in freight traffic in the European Union due to economic growth and enlargement of the EU from 2000-20.
Europe’s priority is to ensure continued economic growth, but to do that freight transport in the EU must be both efficient and sustainable. The key issues that the Commission is seeking to address in this package are increasing congestion, climate change and the freight sector’s dependency on fossil fuels. Those objectives are consistent with the Government’s aims and our emerging response to the reports by Sir Rod Eddington on productivity issues and Sir Nicholas Stern on climate change.
To tackle these issues, the Commission is promoting the idea of co-modality, which describes the effective use of more than one mode to carry freight, rather than promote a simplistic modal shift from road. That reflects the UK’s approach—for example, our sustainable distribution fund supports both modal shift and the promotion of more efficient road freight operations.
The freight transport agenda draws together five initiatives in relation to freight, some of which have been established for some time, but others are new proposals. They are: the freight transport logistics action plan communication, the freight-oriented rail network communication, the EU ports policy communication, the European maritime transport space without borders initiative, and the motorways of the sea initiative. Those initiatives share common approaches. There is a focus on transport corridors with promotion of innovative technologies and practices in infrastructure, transport and freight management, simplification and facilitation of freight transport chains and related administrative procedures, and the reinforcement of quality.
The Commission is considering both legislative and non-legislative measures in developing detailed proposals in their communications under the freight transport agenda. In general, the Government support the use of non-legislative measures, where practicable, to enhance overall logistics efficiency. We wholeheartedly welcome the fact that all initiatives under the freight transport agenda are being developed by the Commission following extensive consultation with stakeholders, including member states, social partners and industry. We hope that that will continue, because we believe that the lead responsibility for freight and management of supply chains lies with industry. However, as highlighted in the explanatory memorandum, we have some reservations in relation to particular initiatives, which we will no doubt explore during the debate.
One reservation concerns the Commission’s plan for a freight-oriented rail network. The Government support the objective of encouraging the development of a sustainable, efficient and well-integrated rail freight system, but we believe that a number of solutions are already in place to address the problems of rail freight in Europe. Those solutions are provided by the first, second and third railway packages, which focused on open access, rail liberalisation and competition. We therefore believe that before reaching conclusions on the need for new legislation, the priority should be to ensure that those rail packages are fully and consistently implemented and rigorously enforced throughout EU member states. However, the Committee may wish to be aware that new legislation may be required—for example, to lay down specific criteria that are essential to enhance co-operation between member states. We must ensure that the Commission’s proposals correspond with the balance that has been successfully established in the UK between passenger and freight interests.
The Government have two reservations in relation to the freight transport logistics action plan. First, the Commission proposes to consider the potential for modifying standards on the size of vehicles used for transporting freight by road. Member states have some discretion in their own countries, but the Commission is of the view that that might create inconsistencies for operators. Although the Government accept that some small changes might be appropriate, we would not support any significant increase and certainly are not convinced of the need for super lorries, about which there has been speculation in the media.
Our second reservation is about the Commission’s intention to update its previous proposal on intermodal loading units, the rejection of which, in 2004, was owed to the fact that the standardisation of units appeared to be taking place already, on the industry’s own initiative. In our view, the current practice of market-driven standards remains sufficient. The Committee’s scrutiny report invited me to provide an update on the Transport Council’s conclusions in its November freight transport logistics action plan. The conclusions were in line with UK views: they made no specific reference to the size of road vehicles or to intermodal loading units and agreed that efficient transport logistics should be primarily industry led.
Apart from the reservations that I have outlined, the Government support the overall freight transport agenda and intend to work with the Commission to influence the areas of concern and to ensure that the overall package promotes long-term sustainable growth. I am happy to try to respond to hon. Members’ questions—with the emphasis on “try”.
Several hon. Members rose
The Chairman: Order. We now have the remainder of the hour—until half-past 5—for questions to the Minister. I remind the Committee that questions should be brief, pertinent and asked one at a time. There is likely to be ample opportunity for all hon. Members to ask several questions, if we are sensible.
Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): Like the Minister, I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cook. I look forward to the Minister “trying” to respond to a number of questions.
The document before us is extremely large, and I understand the Chairman’s strictures. With your permission, Mr. Cook, and that of the Committee, I shall deal with each of the five bundles separately. The first deals with the EU’s freight transport agenda, which the Government have broadly welcomed in the explanatory memorandum. Where do the Government think that the limits to transnational corridors should lie? He said that some legislative measures might be necessary. Is that the case with the first document?
Jim Fitzpatrick: We believe that the restrictions lie in the expense of creating separate freight corridors and networks and, therefore, we want to strike the right balance between freight and transport, which we think that we have done in the UK roughly. However, that might not be the case across the continent. The legislative measures that we are suggesting would enhance and reinforce measures passed in the first rail package of directives and regulations, which are not being implemented quite as robustly in some other European member states as they are in the UK.
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook, and I shall try to keep to your rules.
I very much welcome the documents and the new enthusiasm for rail freight on the continent of Europe. Does the Minister think that we can match what is happening over there without serious new investment in dedicated freight capacity, particularly in gauge sufficient to carry lorries on trains and full-size containers possibly double-stacked?
Jim Fitzpatrick: My hon. Friend is a well-known European and has spoken strongly in favour of the European Union in the Chamber on many occasions. He asked about gauge. Since 1996-97, investment in UK rail freight traffic has increased by about 40 per cent. Clearly different member states make different levels of investment. We are confident that the element of UK rail traffic devoted to freight is working well and think that UK operations are well placed to make a bigger contribution in Europe. We see the measures as being consistent with that. We shall continue to make progress in the same way on the investment that we plan between now and 2014, and hopefully beyond.
Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to contribute to the proceedings under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook. I follow the hon. Member for Wimbledon with a question on the EU freight transport agenda documents. They state that
“efforts must be undertaken to minimise energy consumption and the emission of noise, pollutants and greenhouse gases caused by the carriage of goods.”
Apart from the programmes encouraging the use of forms of freight transport other than road, specifically the introduction of green corridors, is the Minister aware of any specific action proposed by the EU Commission to tackle the issue? Do the Government have any view about such additional initiatives?
Jim Fitzpatrick: The UK Government’s record on tackling environmental issues relating to transport was emphasised by the publication late last year of our document “Towards a sustainable transport system”, in which we outlined the progress that we had been making across all modes of transport, and the continued progress that we hoped to make by ensuring that transport contributes to the challenge of climate change.
The European emissions trading scheme covers much of what we have already undertaken to do. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are arguing for the inclusion of aviation in the scheme by 2012, and we have won that argument with European friends. We are arguing at the International Maritime Organisation for a similar global solution to the environmental problems of shipping. We are working closely with the Commission to ensure that, where there is harmony, we can advance matters as collectively as possible, both within Europe and internationally.
Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): I wish to ask the Minister about safety on our roads and the transit of freight, particularly European freight. There have recently been a number of instances local to me of foreign freight trucks causing accidents because they have a blind spot in their wing mirror, as they drive on the other side of the road. It is nothing intentional; it is an accident, but concern is growing that not enough is being done from a safety point of view. There have been a number of bad accidents, particularly on the M25. I have written to the Government about the matter, and I understand that they have examined it and are talking to the Commission. I believe that they are even handing out special mirrors at ports of embarkation and debarkation. Can the Minister update us on the progress that is being made on that important matter? It will cost lives if we do not sort it out.
Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman raises a matter of serious concern. We want to improve logistics for freight and the efficiency and productivity of Europe in the global market. He is talking about saving lives and the role that freight plays in endangering people. He is correct that we are piloting and trialling what are known as Fresnel lenses. We trialled 40,000 two or three years ago, and they proved a success. They are plastic lenses that are put on the inside of the offside mirror of a left-hand drive truck and address the blind spot right in front of it, where a lot of sideswipes take place.
There is also a recent European directive on improved mirrors for trucks, which will improve visibility in the years ahead. The trial of the 40,000 Fresnel lenses was so good that we followed it up with free distribution of an initial 90,000 lenses from November last year, which are proving both popular with truckers and effective in safety and addressing vehicles’ blind spots. We have also tasked the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, which inspects vehicles at the roadside, to pay particular attention to foreign vehicles. It has been given additional resources, and the police are considering the matter carefully. It is under scrutiny in the Department because we know that the public are concerned about left-hand drive vehicles generally. HGVs frighten people, left-hand drive HGVs frighten people even more, and there is evidence of a higher proportion of accidents among that group, so we must do what we can to ensure that they are reduced.
Mr. Baron: May I follow up on that, Mr. Cook?
The Chairman: There will be an opportunity for everyone to ask questions, but they must be asked one at a time.
Kelvin Hopkins: Recently, my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues announced that £200 million would be allocated to rail freight investment, which contrasts with the possible £16 billion that is being committed simply to Crossrail. I support Crossrail—indeed, I support other railways—but that figure is 80 times more than the figure for the entire rail freight network. Is there not something disproportionate about it? Does it not indicate that the Government have some way to go before they are persuaded that rail freight is a serious option that requires much more investment?
Jim Fitzpatrick: I do not believe that it demonstrates any lack of support for the rail freight industry. It has already been mentioned that the increase in rail freight from 1997 to 2006-07 was about 49.5 per cent., which in anybody’s terms is considerable. Our support for the industry, and indeed for rail freight logistics in order to ensure that we use the most efficient, environmentally sustainable and productive methods, is well documented. The Crossrail investment is larger because we want to ensure that London, our capital city, which generates so much for the UK economy, continues to function after 2015. It is one of the biggest infrastructure projects in the world, and certainly the biggest in Europe of its kind, so such investment is a clear demonstration from the Government—supported by all parties, even the Liberal Democrats—that the project is fundamental to the future of the UK economy.
Mark Hunter: I shall ask a question about the section of the document which deals with a consultation on a European maritime transport space without barriers. I do so with some trepidation, because I do not want to take the Minister down a legal cul-de-sac, and I am not an expert in the area. However, on reading the documents, I should be interested to know how the idea of simplifying administrative and documentation procedures relating to ships leaving EU ports will work legally, because when a ship leaves shore now, it leaves the host country’s national waters, and by implication moves into international waters where international rules and treaties already regulate such behaviour. Does the Minister think that the new policy has any legal implications, given that it might allow ships in international waters, which have come from EU ports, not to go through the same customs procedures as other shipping?
Stephen Hammond: May I take the Minister back to the document on rail freight? The Government have said—and the Minister has reiterated today—that the first, second and third railway packages should be fully and consistently implemented across EU member states and that they are rigorously enforced. However, in March 2005, when the European Standing Committee discussed the third railway package, the then Minister, now the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing, said:
“we do not support the element of the package that concentrates on freight. It is not cost-effective, nor will it work. It will not achieve the results that it wants.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee European Standing Committee A, 9 March 2005; c. 4.]
The third railway package was approved by the European Parliament on 23 October 2007. Why have the Government now changed their mind?
Jim Fitzpatrick: The Government change their mind because things move—I hope that the hon. Gentleman will excuse the pun—in politics as they do in transport. As I said in my opening remarks, we are unconvinced that further legislation is needed, because packages 1 and 2 outlined the way forward. However, there was some acknowledgement at the time that the wording in the directives and regulations was not as robust as it might have been. The Commission is now considering freight transport and we are arguing within Europe that if packages 1 and 2 were more appropriately enforced, we would not need additional legislation. However, we are not opposed to some additional legislation if it reinforces the independence of regulators, for example, which is not clear in other countries, or if it clarifies the ability of different countries to access each other’s networks. There are clear problems with the way in which packages 1 and 2 operate in practice, but if they were operating as expected, we would not see the need for further legislation. We are engaged in discussions with Europe on the issue. There was clear movement in the transport policy that came out in November, and we were happy that it was moving in our direction.
Mr. Baron: May I go back to my earlier inquiry about safety? I am not trying to put the Minister on the spot and I am happy to receive a written answer later, but I want to press him on the issue. I have listened to what he has said: he has made it clear that the experiment of handing out Fresnel mirrors has been successful and that an extra 90,000 are being issued. However, their use is still voluntary and there are still accidents on our roads because there is no facility or special mirror to help drivers of left-hand drive vehicles to see in that blind spot. What action are the Government taking to make it obligatory to have some sort of safety feature such as the special lens to eradicate that blind spot? If they cannot make it obligatory—perhaps because it is being routed through the Commission—what action are they taking in Brussels, through the Commission, to ensure that it becomes obligatory in this country? Accidents are still happening because of the blind spot on vehicles for which no driver has taken up the offer of a Fresnel mirror or lens. Apparently, the Commission is doing nothing about that.
Jim Fitzpatrick: Let me offer some additional reassurance to the hon. Gentleman. First, a directive was passed recently requiring better provision of mirrors on all new vehicles. I believe that the directive is now in effect, but I shall write to him with details of its implementation. So, the general issue of providing drivers with better visibility has already been addressed by Europe.
The Fresnel lenses are an additional measure that we have identified as being useful. We are sharing that information with our European partners and are considering how to take the matter forward. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we are currently in a voluntary mode. However, the mirrors have proved popular not only with the drivers of foreign trucks arriving in the UK to whom we have given them; British drivers have also been taking them and fitting them to the other side of their vehicles, because they are extremely useful. There is strong evidence that the freight and trucking industry is interested in this, and we would be looking to share information with other European member states and with the Commission. One would hope that when we share the evidence, if it stands up—from the preliminary trials that we carried out two years ago, we believe that it will—the Commission will be interested in taking the matter forward.
Kelvin Hopkins: My hon. Friend will be aware that many large investments in rail freight infrastructure are being made on the continent of Europe. The route from Rotterdam to the Ruhr and the tunnels through the Alps from Switzerland to Italy are funded by the state, and are capable of handling double-step containers and lorries on trains. Will he accept that the continent is taking investment in rail freight networks seriously, and that we have a lot more to do to catch up?
Jim Fitzpatrick: I accept that great developments are taking place on the continent, and they are to be welcomed, because the essence of the agenda from 2001 and the interim report, as we have discussed, is that we all want the most efficient and sustainable transport routes adopted for freight. Therefore, such developments cannot but improve the opportunities for companies to be able to move their goods in that manner.
However, I go back to my original point and say that many European member states are catching up with the UK in several different ways. We have a fast-growing rail transport sector, which we are encouraging to grow even further. We hope that through those measures in Europe, and through our rail freight operators, we will be able to improve and grow even more.
Mark Hunter: A section of the document deals with the report on the motorways of the sea—an interesting concept, and one which I believe we would broadly agree deserves further consideration.
The Chairman: Order. I just point out to the Committee that moving on to another section at this stage does not mean that the previous section is closed.
Mark Hunter: Thank you, Mr. Cook. I am grateful for the guidance.
In the section of the report on the motorways of the sea, there is a reference to short sea shipping lanes—that is difficult to say—and whether they might fulfil the criteria to gain the proposed quality mark of motorway of the sea. Can the Minister confirm whether it would be possible for such areas, should they be designated as such, to gain extra funding to improve the port and logistics services contained within them, which, as we know, are under considerable pressure in many cases? Does he know whether any further consideration is being given to the matter?
Jim Fitzpatrick: I thought that the hon. Gentleman was doing his Sean Connery impersonation, with “short she shipping”. He raises a question about European funding sources for motorways of the seas projects. The trans-European network will provide funding of €310 million over the period 2007-12 for such projects, but only for long-term and large-scale infrastructure development. The Marco Polo II scheme, which is designed to encourage modal shift projects, provides start-up subsidies to short and medium-term, demand-driven commercial operations. It brings forward another €400 million. I am advised that some motorways of the sea projects may be eligible for EU structural and cohesion funding, so, clearly, the Commission recognises their value and is prepared to put money up front to support them.
Stephen Hammond: May I take the Minister back to rail freight networks and go on to the slightly complex issue of rail freight-oriented transport corridors? The document is unclear about the role of the European Union in managing corridors. The creation of transport corridors is one thing, but the day-to-day operational management of them is something else.
I am looking for guidance from the Minister on a couple of issues. Can he reassure us that, although the EU may have a role in facilitating the creation of corridors, it will not have a role, nor will it seek one, and nor would the Government approve one in which it would micro-manage the operations of private businesses that use the corridors? The Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies has argued that it would be best to wait and see and to assess the results of the structure that has been put in place for corridors A and C before deciding what action will be necessary elsewhere. Does the Minister agree?
Several hon. Members rose—
The Chairman: Order. This is a substantial set of documents, and it will be difficult for the Minister to refer sensibly to his crib. It might therefore make sense to go through the documents section by section, and I ask members of the Committee to confine their questions to the rail section for the moment. We shall then move on. That will make things easier for the Minister and quicker for us all.
Kelvin Hopkins: My hon. Friend will know that the channel tunnel—a wonderful infrastructure asset—uses only a tiny fraction of its capacity because there are just not enough passengers to fill it. The only way in which it can be filled is by putting vast amounts of freight through it, but the system for delivering freight trains to the British side of the tunnel is wholly inadequate in terms of both track capacity and gauge. Does he accept that we should make much more use of the channel tunnel and that it could become viable if only we had the delivery systems on the British side?
Jim Fitzpatrick: My hon. Friend makes a strong point for the channel tunnel and for additional use of its capacity. We would certainly identify it as an example of a real corridor in terms of the framework that the Commission suggests. The Commission is asking member states to identify pieces of infrastructure that could be used additionally as corridors to increase the flow of freight transport. His point is very much in line with what the Department has been thinking of.
Stephen Hammond: May I follow on from where the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) has taken us in terms of the interaction between freight and passengers? There is clearly a consensus about the need to utilise our networks more successfully and to have more rail freight. However, the Government’s response to the section on rail freight in the documents suggests that implementing some of the things that the Commission has suggested would lead to a 10 per cent. increase in passenger journey times. Will the Minister elaborate on how the Government reached that conclusion? If that really is their view, what would they do to minimise disruption to passengers? Some passengers already think that their journey times are too long, and some of them could be considerably unhappier if journey times increased by up to 10 per cent.
Stephen Hammond: If it helps you, Mr. Cook, may I indicate that this is the last question that I want to ask on this section?
The Chairman: That is fine, and I am happy to hear it, but I do not know about other hon. Members.
Stephen Hammond: I understand. On freight, the Minister knows about the competition between rail and road. There has been much discussion about longer and heavier road vehicles, but have the Government considered any future for longer and heavier trains? If rail infrastructure and gauge were built to accommodate heavier axle weights, might there not be even more transfer to rail freight?
Jim Fitzpatrick: We are always prepared to consider improvements and opportunities to transfer more freight off the roads and on to other modes, and the question of gauge and the railway industry’s ability to carry more capacity is under constant review. The industry wants to maximise its attractiveness and the Government would be keen to see what it came up with. That would suit the industry’s purpose, and it would certainly suit ours.
Kelvin Hopkins: Is it not true that serious investment in rail, such as the channel tunnel or west coast modernisation, has been heavily underwritten—indeed, a lot has been paid for—by the Government? If there is to be serious investment in new track capacity, and if we are to be successful, does my hon. Friend accept that simply leaving it to market mechanisms will not be sufficient, and that some Government underpinning, backing or commitment will be vital?
Jim Fitzpatrick: My hon. Friend again outlines his credentials as a champion of rail freight, and we certainly do not disagree with the objective that he wants to see achieved. We want to do so, too, and we believe that we are making a significant financial contribution. Obviously, there is always the demand for something greater, but, as he outlined, we are investing fully in our railways generally, and we will continually review the situation to ensure that we have the most efficient network.
Stephen Hammond: On ports policy, the documents suggest that a European maritime space without borders should be created, so the idea is being put out to consultation. Will the Minister explain what he thinks the policy means? I ask that question, because there are several significant issues about sovereignty. For instance, who would police that single maritime space, who would act as coastguards and who would have authority over a ship that was sinking in that space?
Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman again raises some—not surprisingly—serious issues. The point was made that it would be beneficial if administrative burdens were eased and logistics efficiency improved, but the creation of a new maritime transport space without barriers, as he says, raises certain issues, including not least the alignment of any new trade facilitation measures with the provisions of the Community customs codes and frontiers protocols. The removal or simplification of administrative or customs procedures as a result of a maritime space without barriers could reduce the availability of statistical data on short sea shipping. Before any proposed changes were adopted, their implications would need to be considered to ensure that they were proportionate and effective. The hon. Gentleman raises several points that would need to be seriously considered before the measure could be taken forward.
The Chairman: I may have been the victim of a cross-court passing stroke. I understood from the previous question by the hon. Member for Cheadle that he had moved on to section two, but now he wants to return to section one, am I right?
Mark Hunter: You are right, Mr. Cook, and I apologise. I was trying to follow your earlier guidance, but I have indicated that I want to ask a further question about the rail freight network.
The option of a dedicated rail freight network is mentioned in the document, which states that it is too expensive and
“too much of a long-term prospect.”
However, is it not true that dedicated freight lines are needed now, and will be needed much more in future? If we are serious about the plan to move freight off roads and on to rail, should we be afraid of something that is part of the most effective solution because it is too much a long-term prospect? Does the Minister not feel that there is something to be said for dedicated freight lines remaining part of our long-term objectives?
Jim Fitzpatrick: The creation of a dedicated freight network, such as the hon. Gentleman outlines, would be likely to require substantial investment in new infrastructure in not just the UK but other member states, and would therefore naturally be a long-term project. The Commission does not rule out the possibility that its proposals could lead in the longer term to the formation of a rail network that is partially or even entirely dedicated to freight. We are not there yet, but improving the freight network and building it up over the years may eventually lead to that. At this point, it is not realistic for the Commission to say, “We are going to have a dedicated freight network, and it will be accomplished by 2020” or whenever.
Several hon. Members rose
The Chairman: Order. I assume that I can now relax safe in the knowledge that we have effectively dealt with section 1.
Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman outlines our previous position on the matter. On the common European maritime space, were the Commission to seek to extend its competence to areas previously reserved for member states, we argue that member states would retain competence over the maritime zones pertaining to them under international law. That would include the declaring of such zones and their delimitation. As such, individual member states would continue to exert their sovereignty in territorial waters and enjoy sovereign rights in their exclusive economic zones and over their continental shelves. The UK believes that the concept of a common European maritime space should remain of administrative convenience only. I hope that that reassures that hon. Gentleman. It should help the EU to create a common area to assist in the development of intra-Community shipping.
Stephen Hammond: Page 119 of our bundle notes that to enhance the image of the maritime sector, the Commission proposes a European maritime day and a ports open day among other things. Page 122 states that the Government’s response was that although
“the Commission was sympathetic to the general consensus”,
such things would be unlikely to have much impact on the UK. Does the Minister agree that the idea is nonsense, and that the UK already has a good balance and does not need such things?
Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman outlines clearly that our position is entirely different from that of every other member state, if my geography serves me right—no, of course there is Malta. Being an island nation, we have a much larger coastline, which is open to shipping. Some member states are either land-locked, such as Austria, which has inland waterways but not the sea, or have short coastlines.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned two suggestions made in the paper: ports open days and a European maritime day. Last year, I attended the international maritime day with the general secretary of the IMO. It was a great celebration. Our officials are discussing with their European counterparts whether we need another maritime day. If we decide that we need a European one, we should ensure that it is six months apart from the IMO day, because it would be silly to have two within, say, two weeks. Having said that, however, it would surely be great to have two days a year on which to promote shipping
Open days are a common feature of modern society: we have open days for all manner of things from fire stations to public buildings. I would guess that open days for promoting shipping and ports would receive cross-party support. It is the UK’s invisible mode of transport, and its contribution to the UK economy should be better appreciated by people in this country. Port open days might very well be a way for it to raise its profile.
Stephen Hammond: I seek guidance from you, Mr. Cook, on whether I may move on to the next section of the report.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that the only means that the Chair has of knowing that someone wants to ask a question or to make a contribution is for me to see them rise in their place.
Stephen Hammond: Lesson number one: stand up. I am quite happy to do that.
With the Minister’s consent, I shall move on to the freight logistics action plan. In his explanatory memorandum, on 15 November 2007, he said that the Government had not yet formed a view on the idea of green corridors. Have they formed a view on green corridors or examined them in more detail? If they have, what is their view and what evidence have they taken? If he cannot provide that information today, will he write to the Committee?
Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman generously offered me the opportunity to write to him with the Department’s latest thinking on green corridors and to bring him up to date with research that we have undertaken. I am very happy to take him up on his offer and to write to him in due course.
Stephen Hammond: In the same vein, what discussions has the Minister had with representatives from the transport logistics industry? Would they welcome the EU Commission as their co-ordinator?
Jim Fitzpatrick: I shall take the opportunity again to write the hon. Gentleman on that matter. However, I would be very surprised if the freight industry wanted to deal directly with the Commission as its governing body. We have a very good relationship with trade associations representing logistics in the UK. To bring him up to speed, I, the Secretary of State and officials have regular meetings with representatives of the industry on a number of aspects in order to assist it, and to ensure that it is as efficient and sustainable as possible and that companies operating within a UK sector function efficiently and profitably.
Stephen Hammond: I suspect that the Minister is right to be sceptical that that is what the transport logistics industry would want. However, I look forward to hearing from him.
In the Minister’s opening remarks, he said—I paraphrase —that the Government now oppose super lorries. Will he clarify whether, by “super lorries”, he means the conventional definition of longer, heavier lorries, about which we have spoken previously, or something else? Furthermore, what assessment have the Government done of the impact of such vehicles on congestion and carbon emissions?
Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman is correct in his assumption; we are talking about longer and heavier lorries. My apologies for not being clear and for using the media definition of super lorries as shorthand.
The Department is undertaking a table-top exercise partly organised by Heriot-Watt university and is due to publish its review at the end of the month, I believe, although I will stand corrected, if necessary, by the hon. Gentleman. We are not convinced and the Secretary of State has announced that she is yet to be persuaded that those lorries have a role in the UK. A number of other member states are equally sceptical, and the latest pronouncement from the Commission did not mention moving on this, so we feel that we have made good progress in demonstrating that there is no appetite for the introduction of super lorries in the UK or throughout the European Union.
I shall let the hon. Gentleman have the definitive date on which we believe that we will publish the results of the exercise that we have undertaken, and which will help us in future discussions with the Commission and in formulating UK policy on those vehicles.
Mark Hunter: On green corridors, which the hon. Member for Wimbledon mentioned, I agree that the proposals lack clarity, to put it generously. Will the Minister share his reply with all Committee members? Will he also address specifically the issue of incentives for green corridors? I am particularly interested to know whether incentives are being explored to ensure that green corridors would be used effectively and efficiently, and whether they could be used for their construction in the first place.
Jim Fitzpatrick: I am happy to send my explanation of green corridors for freight to other Committee members. The freight logistics action plan identified 35 short and medium-term actions to be completed between 2008-13 to examine measures to improve the logistics chain and co-modality, and to establish a framework to support generic good practice under six general headings. Green corridors for freight is one of those headings. As the hon. Gentleman outlined, we are talking about a whole number of issues concerning green corridors, and I will write to Opposition Members and bring them up to speed with some more detail. However, as I said, no legislation is proposed at this stage.
Stephen Hammond: May I move the Minister on to the final section of the report, which covers monitoring of the rail market? In 2001, the first, second and third rail packages were adopted to facilitate the progressive opening up of national and international competition in the European rail market, but the report acknowledges that implementation of the new regulatory framework varies greatly between member states. What are the Government doing to ensure that the regulatory framework matches throughout the EU?
Stephen Hammond: We are delighted to hear that the Government will place strictures on our European partners to deregulate their markets faster. The UK is already one of the most—if not the most—liberalised rail market in Europe. Does the Minister agree that it is for the European Union merely to take a strategic view and that it is not the role of Whitehall or Brussels to micromanage the railway system?
Jim Fitzpatrick: I made it clear in my opening remarks that we saw the industry leading in determining the future of the logistics network and the Commission having a place in setting the regulatory framework in laying out the directives. We have made progress on rail in the UK; that approach works for us and it could work much more effectively in a number of partner states. We hope that the Commission will introduce that framework, and it is the direction that we are trying to encourage it to take. We have strong support from some European partners and less from others, but the industry has a leading role to play in ensuring that it can operate in a climate where it can be efficient and sustainable.
Stephen Hammond: I will take the Minister’s answer to mean that he, like me, thinks that the Government should not micromanage the railways. There is a lot in the document and it is hard to pick things out, but I draw his attention to one matter that I and outside observers find difficult to accept as right. The document states that Network Rail is classified as a legally, organisationally and institutionally independent infrastructure. Does the Minister concede that that is some way from the truth, especially after the problems at Christmas? Network Rail does not seem to be accountable to its customers within the strictures that the Government have placed on it, and it is a public body in all but name.
Jim Fitzpatrick: The shortcomings over the Christmas period have been addressed in the Chamber and an inquiry is being held on the matter. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and the Minister with responsibility for rail have given commitments that the outcome of those inquiries will be published in due course. What happened left a lot to be desired. It was unacceptable and we are determined to try to ensure that it is not repeated.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
5.28 pm
Stephen Hammond: I genuinely want to thank the Minister for his detailed answers on the 500 pages before us. I thank him, too, for the promise of written responses. The four European Commission communications on the various transport and freight transport aspects of the European Union are extremely important documents. The first is an umbrella, setting out the broad objectives of freight transport and setting the context for the following three communications. None the less, there are still about 490 pages for us to take in. Such volumes are never easy to digest, and documents from Brussels are even harder than those from anywhere else.
The overriding question is the extent to which it is appropriate for Brussels and national Governments to concern themselves with these matters and what issues are left for the industry to regulate, which we have already touched on. I look sceptically on communications that seek to direct the freight industry in such a way that it would jeopardise the tangible benefits there are now from the industry.
Kelvin Hopkins: Is it not sensible, however, to seek to ensure that the rail network across the whole European Union and, indeed, other European countries is interoperable so that eventually trains from any country will be able to go to any other country using the Europe-wide network?
Stephen Hammond: I must have left my speech on the photocopier because I was about to say that having said that, I recognise that there is merit in co-operation with our continental neighbours. However, continental co-operation can often be achieved without European diktat and just with light-touch regulation, which is what we seek. Co-operation is particularly important for the promotion of intercontinental and intra-continental trade. The fast and efficient movement of freight around Europe is central to our economic competitiveness. The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point that the ability to move more freight around Europe by rail is increasingly important. That benefits us in terms of speed over long distances and in environmental terms.
It is disappointing that the amount of freight transported by road inside the EU has increased over the past seven years. Sea and air transportation have remained constant, but rail freight has fallen by 2 per cent.—exactly the opposite trend to that which most hon. Members would like to see. The documents provide a framework for us to address that trend. The policy of the European Commission regarding freight involves the promotion of transport corridors, as we have discussed, the development of innovative technologies, the simplification of transport chains and administrative burdens, the reinforcement and monitoring of quality, and interoperability between different modes of transport. It is hard to argue with any of those as objectives. However, the plan to see them through to fruition is raising questions, a number of which we heard today.
The first issue is rail. It is undeniable—it is a cross-party truism—that we all support any efforts to encourage rail freight. A typical freight train can remove 50 heavy goods vehicles from our roads and every tonne of freight carried by rail produces at least 80 per cent. less carbon dioxide than that carried by road. I think that we are reasonably clear about those statistics, although one is bound to say that the science in this matter is usually contestable.
Kelvin Hopkins: Statistics from the Department have suggested that the advantage in terms of CO2 is even more than that, certainly for heavy freight. Per tonne mile, road freight produces 12 times more CO2 than rail freight. The advantage is even greater than the 80 per cent.
Stephen Hammond: I am grateful for that intervention. It is exactly the point that I was trying to make, which is that there is an awful lot of science about this issue and leading scientists quite often disagree about the extent of emissions savings. None the less, if we can settle on a figure of around 80 per cent., we can see the great benefit of freight travelling by rail rather than by road.
However, problems are evident inside the United Kingdom, which we need to deal with. Tight loading gauge restrictions limit the rolling stock that can operate. As was alluded to in questions, most of the network cannot support taller containers, which are becoming increasingly popular. In a number of cases, freight terminals have not been developed fast enough to accommodate the longer trains that we are now seeing and the longer loads that we need to put on them. There are a number of highly restrictive weight and speed limitations. Night-time engineering work by Network Rail clearly has a huge impact on the movement of freight. Freight is a 24-hour industry on most of the continent; it is not in the United Kingdom. Delays to freight traffic are at a record level. Very little in this document will help to solve those key problems for the UK freight industry; they will not be solved by the measures that it sets out.
The key to the freight industry is open competition. We are seeing that the opening up of the railways to a much freer market in freight can be of great benefit. Some £1.5 billion of investment has been attracted to it over the past 12 years. In the past 10 years, rail freight has grown by about 50 per cent., although its relative percentage remains the same in the context of freight movements. None the less, that growth in freight is encouraging. It is equally encouraging that the two largest rail freight operators in the United Kingdom have increased their work load by 50 per cent. in the past 10 years.
Therefore, I am reassured by some of the things that the Minister has said to us today. It is reassuring that the response to this paper is, in some ways, rather cautious. Any attempt to put restrictions on the open market, or to restrict interference, which has occurred in a number of cases, with the UK Government’s ability to decide what is best for rail freight, would also be welcome from this side of the Committee. As a country, we should treat any restrictions on open market forces with great scepticism.
A number of EU initiatives are already under way with the objective of opening up the European rail freight network. They include the development, as we have discussed today, of technical inter-operability and common safety rules. If those initiatives are not having the desired effect, as we are being led to believe, the solution should be to ask why they are not doing so. I would contend that the solution is not to start introducing more and more regulation. I urge the Minister to maintain that sceptical line with regard to the need for the imposition of more regulation on the UK freight industry.
The communication on the European ports policy is broadly to be welcomed. The contrast between that policy and its two failed predecessors is marked. The strict Brussels-knows-best directives have managed to unite a host of factions against them. It is interesting to see that the Transport and General Workers Union are working with the UK Major Ports Group; the European Transport Workers Federation is working with the Port of London; and the Dutch socialists are combining with the UK Independence party against some of those initiatives. There are some very interesting coalitions against those two previous documents. It is also interesting to note that the European Union is rowing back in this document.
The proposals in the communication on ports seem to be the product of a long, hard think by the Commission, and are immeasurably better for being immeasurably more deregulatory. A number of people will have been pleased to read that the Commission has decided to respond to perceived problems with a soft-law approach, whatever that might be, or by taking no action at all, which I expect that most people would think was even better. None the less, it is a welcome change of direction on ports.
I and my party regard as extremely significant the two questions that I raised with the Minister on maritime proposals, particularly on the matter of maritime transport space without borders, and I look forward to his longer response to them.
The fourth paper in the bundle relates to logistics, and specifically to the freight logistics action plan. I shall continue to use the full title rather than the acronym, which perhaps indicates the direction in which one or two people think that the plan may be going. I have already stressed the importance of freight transport to the competitiveness of the economy. Behind a good freight industry is a good logistics industry. Managing and deregulating that supply chain and controlling the flow of goods is extremely important.
Again, we have touched on what the EU’s role in the logistics industry should be. At the moment it seems, and I think that the Minister was also indicating, that that industry is doing quite well by itself, without any EU help, whatever that might be. It is a fast-growing industry, as a direct result of the trade facilitated by the European free market. It is clear that the logistics sector does not need European standards, benchmarks, regulations and so on. It seems that the estimated proportion of European freight that crosses national borders will rise to about 80 per cent. by 2020. National industries know that to survive and to prosper, they will need to co-ordinate and co-operate. Co-ordinating and co-operating within industry is one thing; the imposition of standards is another.
A clear argument is set out in the document that the patchwork of national standards leads to a fragmentation of the market and deters innovation and raises costs. However, I note that the industry, as the Minister said in his answer, does not seem to agree with that. It feels that it is in an industry that is performing well, and is facilitating the European trade. Therefore, the key question for all of us today is, how is the UK going to benefit from the 490 pages that bounced on to our desks last week?
I am happy to see that the Government’s response to a large number of these issues is right, which is to treat some of the suggestions with caution. I remain unconvinced that the topics that we have discussed today will benefit from the Commission doing much more, rather than taking a light touch and de-regulatory approach. Where the Government continue to introduce light touch and deregulatory approaches, they will have the support of my party.
It seems that the bundle of documents before us has made an entertaining read for most of us over the weekend, and it is entertaining to be here for three hours on my birthday. None the less, I do not intend to divide the Committee and I thank the Minister for his answers.
5.41 pm
Kelvin Hopkins: I wish the hon. Gentleman many happy returns. First of all, with a profound interest in rail freight, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I am not a member of the Committee, but I wish to say a few words and to promote the concept of rail freight to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, and other hon. Members too. I welcome the serious interest that the European Union is taking on this. I am critical of it in many ways, but it is actually taking rail freight seriously and that is to be applauded. It is vital for the UK’s future transport needs and for the economy that we take rail freight seriously.
The hon. Member for Wimbledon is concerned about regulation, but however strictly we regulate trains, if there is no track for them to run on or they cannot run on the tracks because the gauge is too small, there is a serious problem. My remarks are addressed to the need to promote greater development of track capacity and to do something seriously about the gauge, particularly in Britain.
The new drive for rail freight in the European Union was initiated by Lord Kinnock when he was Transport Commissioner, and he is to be congratulated for making that leap into the future. I think that it is the future; until recently railways, particularly in Britain, have been regarded as the transport mode of the past, but it is clear now that they will be the transport mode of the future, as our roads are becoming increasingly congested and incapable of providing the transport we need.
The scheme is to promote a railway line from the channel tunnel to Glasgow, a dedicated freight line linking all the major population centres of Britain to the continent of Europe through the channel tunnel and capable of taking 5 million lorry journeys off the roads every year—at least 5 million. It would also, importantly, be capable of taking full-sized lorry trailers on trains, and double-stacked containers. Initially, it would take single-stacked, 9 ft 6 containers, but most of our network is incapable of taking those containers. I think that on the west coast main line they can only get to Scotland with 9 ft 6 containers, but not elsewhere.
Mr. Richard Caborn (Sheffield, Central) (Lab): Can my hon. Friend explain how the double-stacked containers get through the tunnel?
Kelvin Hopkins: At the moment, the catenary is just too low for double-stacked containers to go through the tunnel, but we have done the engineering work and know that an adjustment to the catenary—the wire that goes across the top—would just allow double-stacked containers to go through the channel tunnel with some modifications. In the short term, single-stacked containers and lorries on trains are fine, but the important thing is capacity, because double-stacked containers represent almost two train loads in one, although they need to be slightly longer. However, it is possible to put double-stacked, full-size containers through the channel tunnel, and I am happy to give the PowerPoint presentation to hon. Members who are interested.
Stephen Hammond: The point is not only that that could happen, but that it would happen. EWS, which is one of the major freight movers in the country, has indicated that it would potentially run up to 20 trains in the first year if that were available to them.
Kelvin Hopkins: The market is absolutely enormous. The major supermarkets are talking about putting a lot of their domestic traffic onto rail, provided that there is the capacity. Even that would be perhaps a million lorry loads a year from the supermarkets alone, and that is without considering other areas. The reality is that Britain is geographically peripheral to the continent of Europe and, therefore, also economically peripheral in a sense, and it is vital for our future that we have strong and reliable overnight transport links between our population centres to ensure, both for our producers and consumers, that traffic can be transported reliably.
With road congestion increasing all the time, that is not possible. We need a new freight artery capable of taking vast amounts of freight off the roads and other, more congested railway lines and dedicated to rail freight moving all the way down from Glasgow to south Lancashire, south Yorkshire, the east and west midlands, the north east and through the channel tunnel.
With regard to what is happening on the continent of Europe, I mentioned during questions that the Betuweroute is already up and running between Rotterdam and the Ruhr. In the maps provided in the documents on pages 70 and 82, one can see a line running from the tip of Italy, eventually reaching Stockholm with other links. The whole of Europe will be criss-crossed by rail freight routes capable of taking large-gauge lorries and double-stacked containers on trains. If we are not careful, we will be left out and will be like a withering arm of the European economy because we do not have sufficient transport links to match them, and that is one of the reasons why this route is so important.
I am trying to shorten my speech because I realise that time is moving on. I have mentioned climate change and the CO2 advantages. At the moment, we have two major routes going northward, and the maps show that the east coast main line and the west coast main line would be the routes for freight, but they are also used by passengers. Passenger traffic in Britain in increasing rapidly, and last week the rail regulator suggested that it will rise by 41 per cent. over the next few years. Passenger traffic is required on those lines, so taking freight off those lines and putting it onto a dedicated freight line going from the north to the south will free up capacity for more frequent and faster passenger trains. I have some details on how fast those lines could be used: 140 mph on the east coast main line and 135 mph on the west coast mail line. The faster the trains can go, the more can be put through and the more passengers can be carried, so there would be a benefit for passengers as well.
As for the roads, it is heavy lorry axles that cause road damage. The problem costs the Exchequer vast sums every year; and when the motorway lanes have to coned off, it causes congestion. The more traffic that is shifted to rail, the less road damage there will be.
The “fourth power” law of road damage is that when axle rates are doubled, the damage increases by 16 times; if the axle weight is trebled, it increases by 81 times. It is lorries that cause road damage, not cars; the latter are so light that they cause no damage. It is lorries that cause damage, cost money and cause congestion. We have to have lorries, and there will always be some lorries, but the more we can get onto rail the better it will be in every possible way.
We have talked about green corridors, and it is important to protect those corridors that still exist. Unused track beds, particularly those going north-south, are major routes. If we can protect them from further development, they will be available for freight traffic and for new green lines.
Parliamentary questions were recently asked about the Woodhead tunnel. I emphasise to my hon. Friend the continuing concern about National Grid’s plan to put electricity cables though that wonderful, large tunnel. It could take double-stacked containers on a single track along the centre, and it would be a crucial link between south Yorkshire and south Lancashire and part of our route to Glasgow.
Many others are concerned about using that route for passengers, or even a cross-Pennine freight link for roll-on/roll-off lorries, so that they do not have to go over the Pennines. Many other hon. Members are concerned about this, and it has been raised with the Minister and the Secretary of State.
I have only touched the surface of the scheme and what we ought to be doing, but it will provide the essential link, the essential arm, to the growing rail-freight network on the continent of Europe. If we do not build something like that, we will not be part of the scheme. First, our existing routes are not sufficient; secondly, the gauge is insufficient to take full-sized freight traffic.
The scheme is vital and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to continue giving it serious consideration. I have spoken to other Ministers and departmental officials about it, and they are well aware of our ideas. I shall continue to press the scheme, and I hope that Members will become interested and supportive.
5.52 pm
Mark Hunter: It is self-evident not only from the contribution of the last speaker but from those of all hon. Members that there is a considerable measure of support and agreement for the bulk of what is contained in the document that we are debating. That was reflected in the consensual nature of the comments made on both sides of the House.
We are certainly agreed that we need concerted and co-ordinated action to improve freight transport, and if the single market is to work effectively we need to be able to move goods between member states smoothly and effectively. Intra-Europe and international freight transport is extremely important to putting the European Union on a strong economic footing so that it can compete with other trading blocs. As the single market develops, an increasing share of that freight transport will be cross-border. The very nature of such trans-national movements make it appropriate for it to be dealt with by the European Union as well as by Governments.
In addition, as the economy and population of Europe increases, we need to deal with the real problem of congestion and its negative impact on costs, time and increasing fuel consumption. We also need to tackle the problems caused by climate change and the impact of freight transport. We cannot ignore the fact that transport must be more environmentally friendly, and I am pleased that so much of the document seems to focus on improving the more environmentally friendly forms of transport. Only by making them as effective as possible will we see businesses choosing to move away from road transport to sea and rail.
The European freight transport agenda also mentions the need to simplify the administration of freight transport, with a single interface for administrative requirements. That is a good thing. We need to simplify the movement of freight across the continent to encourage the use of more environmentally friendly forms of transport, and to allow the smooth movement of goods across the EU. However, a number of concerns exist. All of us need to be reassured that no corners will be cut regarding safety and security—I hope that the Minister will address that point in his reply—and that a proper examination will be made of the burden of changing administrative procedures so that freight transport will not become prohibitively expensive in the future.
I turn now to the consultation on European maritime transport. While I agree with the theory behind the maritime transport space without barriers premise that we should encourage freight to travel by sea in preference to road because of environmental considerations, I have a number of safety and security concerns. To ensure that goods are not tampered with between ports, the documents state that there are technologies to check positioning and communication to verify that. However, the explanation given in the document about the status of such technology does not convince me that it is sufficiently ready for the authorities to be certain that the goods on board remain in their initial conditions. For example, the communication states only that rapid progress is being made on those matters, and that systems with wider coverage—more than 40 miles—are becoming available, so we are not there yet.
I would like the Commission to give more information about the effectiveness of such technologies. If we are left unconvinced about the efficacy of those systems, perhaps it might be better to postpone this particular development until we can be certain that the technologies are sufficiently developed to guarantee the security and safety of the EU border, especially in the context of heightened concerns over international security.
All in all, more evidence needs to be collected on the long-term effects of this policy before a final decision can be made. If the above concerns can be allayed, new regulation in this area will help to move freight from the road and on to the sea. On the section of the report that deals with the motorways of the sea, we need to absorb a significant part of the expected increase in road freight traffic in different forms—in more environmentally friendly transport—in order to reduce congestion. Any programme, such as motorways of the sea, to improve freight travel by sea has, therefore, got to be welcomed. That section of the report mentions benchmarking different forms of transport against each other. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on that. It seems to me that benchmarking is a particularly good idea, especially if those indicators include environmental factors as well as quality factors such as reliability, frequency, efficiency and so on. Benchmarking could encourage more companies to use environmental forms of freight transport, especially if they make the grade in efficiency and reliability.
In the earlier part of the debate, we talked about the need for a dedicated rail freight network to remain a long-term objective, but a point has to be made about the effect on rail passengers and giving priority to rail freight transport, as set out in the document. The communication speculates that it would result in a 10 per cent. increase in passenger journey time, thereby increasing costs both in terms of time lost and ticket prices. I am also concerned that some of the previous policies have either not yet been fully implemented or been given enough time to see whether they are working. Perhaps the Minister will reassure me that the Commission is not acting for the sake of acting because earlier initiatives have not produced the results that have been hoped for.
On the European ports policy, if the predictions about the 50 per cent. increase in traffic through ports by 2010 are correct, improving European ports is an important priority. They need to work efficiently for freight shipping proposals, otherwise the cost of time lost will make road travel more appealing to businesses. I am pleased that the Commission is putting considerable energy into this area and is considering further options for action. Many ports currently face problems with overcrowding and long waiting times. I hope that the proposals that the Commission decides on in the next few years will help to improve the situation.
I am pleased that the environmental issues connected with ports, such as emissions from ships, are being discussed, but I hope that something stronger than guidance is considered. I shall certainly follow with interest the actions that the Commission proposes to take on this.
I am also pleased that the Commission is looking to the future with its document on e-freight that is to be published. We need to use all available technology to give the EU an economic advantage over our competitors by making freight as fast-moving and smooth-running as possible. I welcome the Commission’s comments about the fact that it will help with best practice on transparent port charges. We need to work on making it as simple as possible for businesses to use EU ports and to make ports attractive for new business use.
Finally, the Commission’s idea of co-modal transport corridors seems to miss the inherent advantage that certain forms of transport have over others. It is no secret that the Liberal Democrats believe that as little freight as possible should be moved by road. We understand, of course, that that is not always possible, especially near to its final destination.
Kelvin Hopkins: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about appropriate modes, but does he accept that having dedicated, main freight routes and local terminals that can be serviced by road is the way forward rather than trying to have a massive network of sidings going direct to final destinations? Such terminals could be quite small because freight would simply be lifted on and off and driven away. There would not be any need for warehousing or anything of that kind.
Mark Hunter: Yes. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. When he spoke earlier, he displayed his great knowledge of this area, and I enjoyed listening to him. I certainly agree with his point about the way in which the move to encourage more freight to be moved around by rail might happen. I think that that will be the way forward and I agree with him entirely.
We understand that it is not always possible for goods not to be transported by road, especially at the end of their journeys. However, we believe that companies should be encouraged to use greener forms of transport, such as rail and water, wherever possible. It seems eminently sensible to simplify administrative procedures and to have a single transport document, as set out in the action plan on freight transport logistics, and I am pleased that the Commission is, with the backing of the Government, considering that as a real possibility.
6.3 pm
The hon. Member for Cheadle asked about benchmarking, which is the only item that we did not cover in our discussions and the question and answer session. We recognise that inter-modal terminals are important for multi-modal logistics. We believe that benchmarking and standards should be industry-led, and see the merit of the Commission consulting with the industry to consider a generic benchmark for inter-modal terminals. However, we want to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy and administrative burdens for businesses. In addition to the impact assessments that the Commission has to produce for each proposal, the Government will undertake a domestic impact assessment to consider the full social, economic and environmental costs and benefits of each proposal.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee takes note of European Union Documents No. 14277/07 and Addenda 1 and 2, Commission Communication, The EU’s freight transport agenda - Boosting the efficiency, integration and sustainability of freight transport in Europe, 14165/07 and Addendum 3, Commission Communication, Towards a rail network giving priority to freight, 14175/07 and Addenda 1 and 2, Commission Communication on a European ports policy, and 14266/07 and Addenda 1 and 2, Commission Communication, Freight transport logistics action plan; and endorses the Government's approach to discussions on these documents.
Committee rose at five minutes past Six o’clock.

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