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Rail Freight

5. Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): What plans she has to encourage the transport of freight by rail; and if she will make a statement. [180539]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Ruth Kelly): We provide grants to encourage the transfer of freight from road to rail, and more than £44 million has been awarded for the next three years. In addition, we are providing more than £150 million from the transport innovation fund for rail infrastructure improvements that particularly benefit rail freight by improving services to and from the major ports, and a further £200 million for the development of a strategic freight network to provide a core network of trunk freight routes.

Dr. Whitehead: I thank my right hon. Friend for that encouraging answer. She will be aware of the impending upgrading of the railway track between Southampton and the midlands, which will enable Southampton to develop much greater freight services from the port, but is she also aware that freight services on rail, upgraded or not, generally stop at weekends? Might she seek to talk to the freight transport companies and Network Rail to find out whether methods could be employed that would enable seven-day working, subject to the maintenance of the railway track?

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Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is important for the region and the nation’s economy that we have rail services that can work for freight not only during the week but at weekends, but it is also important for passengers that freight services can be accommodated outside the ordinary working day. That is why the strategic freight network is so important. We have allocated £200 million to unlock pinch points for freight services, some of which will help to alleviate the specific problem to which my hon. Friend refers. It is extremely important that over time we try to encourage freight services at weekends as well as during the week.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Why did the nationalised Post Office transfer so much of its activity from rail freight to the roads? Does the Secretary of State have any plans that might encourage the railways to win that business back?

Ruth Kelly: The answer is a very simple one: it was a commercial decision for the Post Office. The fact of the matter is that rail freight is growing incredibly quickly; it has increased by about 49.5 per cent. over the past 10 years. We can do more—I would like more goods to be shifted by rail freight over the coming years—but ultimately these are decisions that commercial companies have to take for themselves.

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): I am glad to hear that my right hon. Friend is committed to developing the use of rail for freight. She will be aware that many Members of this House share the ambition of the Northern Way to reopen the Woodhead line, not least because doing so would offer us the opportunity to carry more freight by rail in the north. Will she therefore commit to ensuring that the National Grid Company does not use the 1953 Woodhead tunnel for its recabling work, because doing so would dash completely any hope that we have of reopening that line for freight?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend makes her point in her own way, but it is important that we keep as many options open as possible. I have had contact with the National Grid Company about this, and I think that two points are true. First, it owns the tunnel and can invest in its own cabling in the tunnel. Secondly, it has assured us that even if it did that, it would not preclude reopening the tunnel for freight traffic were the growth of freight traffic to warrant it. I am committed to ensuring that we work with the National Grid Company to keep all options on the table.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): The east of England had accepted the need for one strategic rail freight interchange. Since that decision was taken, the Bexley and Shellhaven developments—two in the east of England—have been approved. Will the Secretary of State bear that in mind when the Planning Inspectorate’s decision comes before her in respect of granting or not granting such a development in Radlett in my constituency? We do not need it accessed from our busy roads. We have more than sufficient capacity, given the two decisions that have been made since the application was made.

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Ruth Kelly: The hon. Lady is one of the few Members in this House who speaks out against the desirability of increasing rail freight in the future. Rail freight has much potential—it is good for the environment and the economy. It is important that we invest in such a way as to unlock potential pinch points on the network and enable more goods to be delivered by freight. Clearly the Planning Inspectorate needs to examine some issues, and if her claims are right the matter will come before me in due course. It would not be right for me to comment on any possible outcome of that process.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): My right hon. Friend realises that an important part of the development of the rail freight system is the four-tracking of the west coast main line north of Tamworth, and her Department is aware that a bridge across a road in Tamworth, which was due for completion in July 2007, is yet to be completed. Without greater control over these projects, does she have plans for the development or merely hopes?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend will know that this is Network Rail’s responsibility, so I urge him to take the matter up with Network Rail and encourage it to make faster progress on that part of the route. I will of course mention the issue when I next meet Network Rail.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): The Secretary of State will know that one of the conditions for approving Felixstowe docks’ plans for expansion was that they invest some £50 million in improvements to the rail network, some of the locations being as much as 100 miles away from the docks. Will she explain why it is impossible for Railtrack to give them any long-term guarantees of access for rail freight for their purposes? How does that square with joined-up government?

Ruth Kelly: It is clearly important that any commitments are fulfilled. In future, we intend to look right across modes to ensure that when we think about investment in ports we think about the need to carry goods by rail as well as by road, where it makes sense to do so. That is why we commissioned the Eddington study, which will allow us to look right across the network to see what can be delivered in different ways. I shall examine the specific points that the hon. Gentleman raised and get back to him.

Inter-city Express Programme

6. Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): Whether the next generation of inter-city express rolling stock will be available for services on the midland main line from St. Pancras to Nottingham; and if she will make a statement. [180540]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): Trains for the new inter-city express programme have been developed to be capable of operating on all of the UK’s main inter-city routes, including, potentially, the midland main line.

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Dr. Palmer: I am grateful to the Minister for that response. There is concern in my constituency that the midland main line area was excluded in the tender for applications for the current tranche of inter-city rolling stock. While I appreciate the need to look for a sensible business case in every tender, it is important that we also have a fair and equitable distribution across the regions. In the same way as we find ourselves at the back of the queue for electrification, we are concerned that we will find ourselves at the back of the queue for rolling stock for the inter-city express programme.

Mr. Harris: The Department is leading the programme to specify and procure the next generation of inter-city trains, providing greater capacity, performance, flexibility, environmental credentials, passenger facilities and value for money. My hon. Friend will be interested to know that the Department has been working on a business case for the use of the new trains on the midland main line. That could not happen during their first phase of deployment owing to the infrastructure changes that would be necessary, and it would be subject to securing best value for the taxpayer. I can reassure him, however, that his case will be treated with absolute fairness.

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): Does the Minister accept that, given the rise in energy prices, it makes sense to consider ensuring that the midland main line, along with other lines, is electrified? The cost of the capital investment will be more than recouped by the savings in energy costs.

Mr. Harris: The prospect of further electrification has to be considered on a case-by-case basis. It is naive to assume that electrification of the whole network is a good thing, while not to electrify it is a bad thing. In our statement of July last year, we made it clear we had decided that our priority would be to increase capacity. In the next control period, between 2009 and 2014, £10 billion will be spent on increasing capacity. I understand and accept that there will occasionally be strong cases for the electrification of certain lines and of certain segments of lines. However, to claim that money should be diverted from the creation of capacity to electrification would be a mistake.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): May I put the question slightly differently? My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware of Network Rail’s view that £80 million needs to be spent on the midland main line to try to bring about some time savings in the future. In the longer term, Network Rail says that the only way to improve the service, because of the complications posed by the track, is to bring in the new generation of light-weight electrified trains. Obviously, that is a longer-term decision, but will my hon. Friend keep open the possibility that his officials will sit down with Network Rail and consider the potential for electrification to try to bring about the long-term significant improvements that the line needs?

Mr. Harris: My hon. Friend makes some valid points, but I remind him that the inter-city express programme will result in trains that are run by electric energy or by diesel. They will be flexible enough to run throughout the rail network, whether it is electrified or not. The use of the new IEP trains will not depend on whether a line has been electrified.

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Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): We have heard a little about green credentials this afternoon. Of course, we know that the Department for Transport’s main green initiative is recycling announcements.

When the Government announced the provision of 1,300 new carriages in July, most commentators assumed that they were part of the IEP. For the sake of clarity, will the Minister confirm whether they were delivered? When and where will we see the IEP finally introduced?

Mr. Harris: I know that the announcement about those 1,300 carriages led to quite a lot of confusion on the Conservative Front Bench, but there is no confusion on this side of the House that those 1,300 carriages represented a commitment and that they will be delivered to the rail network during the next control period. As for the allocation of the IEP, those trains will be employed, as a priority, on the great western and the east coast main lines.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): The allocation of rolling stock is very important. The expansion and the move forward into a new era is to be welcomed, but the distribution of carriages in some parts of the rail system needs to be looked at. I hope that the Minister will bear in mind the fact that the congested areas in the south are not the only ones that need more carriages.

Mr. Harris: My hon. Friend makes an absolutely valid point. It is for the industry, and not the Department, to identify the areas where the new carriages will be best used. I know she accepts that 70 per cent. of all train journeys begin and end in London and the south-east, but she is right to say that a significant number of the carriages will go to routes and companies operating outside the capital.


7. Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): If she will take steps to reduce the gap between the per capita spend on transport in London and the rest of the English regions. [180541]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Ms Rosie Winterton): Transport spending per person for the English regions outside London increased by 78 per cent. between 2001-02 and 2006-07. Spending for London is higher per resident but that is because it is generally more expensive to provide services in London, and millions of people throughout the country benefit from investment in projects such as the new St. Pancras station.

Graham Stringer: Five years ago, spending in London was 80 per cent. higher than in the English regions, but that gap has widened to 150 per cent. How can England’s great regional cities compete and contribute to the UK economy if they are relatively starved of investment?

Ms Winterton: Funding for local transport in the north-west has increased from £95 million in 2001 to £213 million in 2007. I would not call that starvation. Moreover, the Department has plans for 36 major road
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and transport schemes by 2015-16, at a total cost of £1.27 billion. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned the feasibility study that has been commissioned on increasing rail capacity in the wider Manchester area, and more than £8 billion has been invested in the west coast main line between London and the north-west in the past eight years. I do not call that starving the north-west of funds; it is good investment that is leading to real improvements for the north-west.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Will the Minister accept that the per capita investment in London’s rail network must ensure value for money for passengers? Will she look at the disgraceful muck-up that happened the day after new year’s day, when Liverpool Street station failed to open despite the commitments that had been given? That caused massive disruption for constituents of mine who were trying to get to work in the capital.

Ms Winterton: I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, and I appreciate how incredibly irritating the problem must have been for people trying to use the station and the lines into it. The matter is being investigated by the rail regulator, and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), will take note of the findings and report back to the House.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): I appreciate that per capita spending is not the only measure of what is going on, but serious problems of overcrowding on the rail system into Manchester affects the whole of the Greater Manchester region, and the economy of the entire north-west. It is therefore imperative that parts of the country other than London get their fair share when the new rolling stock becomes available. May I take it that the answer that my right hon. Friend gave earlier was a green light on this matter, and that there will be equity in how the rolling stock is distributed?

Ms Winterton: I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. Further announcements about the allocation of rolling stock will be made later this year, and I am sure that what he has said will be taken into account.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Some £3 million was wasted when the Government binned the Leeds super tram. The Yorkshire Post’s “Road to Ruin” campaign has highlighted the chaos that is this Government’s regional transport policy. What meetings has the Minister had with the new regional Ministers to discuss infrastructure issues—or have they been too busy in marginal seats to engage with that important matter?

Ms Winterton: The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South, recently met the regional Ministers to discuss rail issues. The hon. Gentleman needs to take on board the fact that we believe a lot of these schemes can help but, obviously, not at any price. It is vital that we get value for money. When the prices of such schemes escalate, there sometimes comes a point at which a decision must be
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made on whether they are still the best thing for the people in the local area. If he does not understand that point, he will find it difficult to say what he thinks the priorities for his region are.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): When the north-east remains cut off from the nation’s motorway system; when it is more than 22 years since the last major improvement to the Gateshead western bypass, which is our region’s most congested road; and when the Department continues to pour cold water on the idea of a high-speed rail link, does the Minister understand why there is more than just a raising of eyebrows when we see billions of pounds being invested in transport infrastructure in London?

Ms Winterton: I am well aware of the strength of feeling in the north-east. When I met my hon. Friend and colleagues up there, they put their points very well. However, I think my hon. Friend also recognises that the system for deciding priorities in the region through the regional funding allocations, which have been vastly increased in recent years, is the right way to go. Overall, departmental spending in the north-east has increased by more than 80 per cent. in the past six years. Some £457 million has been provisionally allocated to fund major schemes in the north-east. We recently announced £245 million of funding over the next three years for local authorities throughout the north-east region. We are illustrating a commitment to the people of the north-east through increased investment and modernisation.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Is the Minister aware of the absurd revisions that were recently published to the so-called regional spatial strategy for the south-west? They remove entirely any reference to what we have known as the second strategic route, which most people refer to as the A303, in favour of amorphous improvements in city areas. If the south-west had the same sort of investment as the London area, would we have at least some improvements to our infrastructure?

Ms Winterton: The hon. Gentleman will be meeting my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary fairly shortly to discuss that specific issue. Through things such as the spatial strategy, it is important that regions themselves decide how they want to plan for the future and what schemes they wish to include in it. Spending on road and rail in the south-west has more than doubled over the past six years. Some 35 major road and public transport schemes are planned to be funded, and £951 million has been provisionally allocated to the region from 2005 to 2015. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that there has been massive investment in the area.

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