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There are issues of climate change, congestion, pollution and economic diversity in the UK. My constituents and I consider ourselves to be major contributors to the British economy in terms of the goods that we supply, particularly food, to the home counties market. We are heavily engaged in oil and gas, paper and other industries. A high proportion of our customers are in the south of England, and communication with people and goods to the south is of mutual benefit, yet one has the impression that the south of England is quite happy, despite our balance of payments deficit, to import competitive products from the near continent rather than from the UK’s hinterland. Part of the reason for that is that the near continent has invested in high-speed rail links that are not available to the further parts of the United Kingdom.

That economic disadvantage hampers not only the parts of the UK that have the capacity to serve domestic markets, but our own economy, because it means that instead of using domestically produced goods, we are importing them. That is partly due to the lack of infrastructure investment. A fast rail link between Edinburgh and London would help to redress the north-south economic divide, and I am sure the Minister acknowledges that.

We should consider journey times in France, and what a high-speed rail link would do for the United Kingdom. Journey times to the central belt of Scotland could be only two and a half hours, which would have a huge impact on domestic capacity at airports, allow more international flights from domestic airports and reduce the number of journey connections. There would be benefits in reducing aviation, reducing pollution and increasing efficiency.

When I spoke to Virgin, the company said that there is substantial capacity to switch people from planes to trains on, for example, the Glasgow route. It obviously has an obligation to run its services, but it needs upgrades and improvements on the lines to do so. Its plea is for both parts of my submission: first, that we keep investing in existing services to cut down journey times and increase efficiency and reliability, or enable rail companies to do so and, secondly, that we have the vision in the long term to connect to a high-speed link as and when that investment is made.

It is easy to ask where £30 billion or more will come from, but that is where the political will comes in. It is a lot of money, but it can be spread over many years. Governments have a way with figures. When they want to show how much they have spent, they total a huge number of years and say that they are spending billions, and when they want to say how unaffordable something is, they do the same. When they want us to believe that identity cards are a great idea, they say that the cost is just a small amount each year and absorbable within the overall cost. It is a matter of will.

The chief executive of Network Rail favours such an investment—as he would. He talks about London to Glasgow, via Birmingham and Manchester, London to Edinburgh via Leeds and Newcastle, and London to Cardiff via Bristol. There is talk of a possible route linking London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow, perhaps with a branch to Liverpool—[Interruption.]

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David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. That is the third occasion on which the debate has been interrupted by an electronic device. Will all hon. Members and observers please ensure that such devices are switched off?

Malcolm Bruce: I apologise, Mr. Taylor. I assure you that my phone is now firmly off.

The argument is that we can invest in rail if we want to. Such investment would have a huge transformational effect on the sense of unity of the United Kingdom and its land area. As a Scottish MP who believes in the Union, I say to the Minister that a strategic focus of that kind is a classic example of what the Union can achieve. It will bind us together in a common interest rather than drive us apart.

I make no complaint about the fact that a significant amount of the funding for the railway network in Scotland has been devolved to the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament. I do not quarrel with that because clearly they have more local knowledge. However, I hope that the Government will acknowledge that devolution does not absolve them of strategic consideration for rail services that affect Scotland and England. I do not mean just those that straddle the border, but linking services, too. It is not commonly recognised that, if one is in the central belt of Scotland, there is more than 300 miles of Scotland to the north. My home village of Torphins is 220 miles from the English border, but it is also 220 miles by road from Orkney. Such distances are really important, and railways contribute hugely to shortening those journeys.

I am not arguing for a high-speed link all the way to the north of Scotland, but for real investment in services across the central belt. We need a real commitment to invest in high-speed trains for journeys that include the central belt and we need investment in efficient connecting links. There would be little point in building a high-speed line that cuts the journey time from London to Edinburgh to two and a half hours, which would be comparable to what the French have achieved, if it then takes two and a half hours or more to get from Aberdeen to Edinburgh—a journey of little more than 100 miles—to connect with that service. There needs to be a comparable upgrade in all the services to enable such a high-speed line to work.

I want to make two small local points. One of them is within the remit of the Scottish authorities and the other is not, so I shall speak to the Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) about it. Network Rail made a commitment to upgrade the Aberdeen to Inverness service and to provide for the possibility of a commuter rail link between Inverurie, the main town in my constituency, and Aberdeen, which would have huge benefits for consumers, at a cost of between £60 million and £70 million. Network Rail handed over that responsibility to the Scottish Executive who, so far, have shown no real will to pull together the money. They have argued that the project needs to be phased, showing a complete lack of understanding. The project does not lend itself to phasing, because the track, passing spaces and signalling have to be provided before the rolling stock can be introduced. Once those things are in place, the rolling stock is immediately required. I hope that Network Rail has not handed us a duff transfer.

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The other issue is rail freight. A very worthwhile effort to provide subsidy to encourage traffic from road to rail had led to the development of services into and out of Aberdeen. Asda, in particular, was bringing in food for its stores in the north-east and a consortium of local transport organisations was putting together an initiative, too. The rules of the franchise were that there had to be a stopover point in Scotland. As a result, the southward part of the service does not attract subsidy, which means that the service will become non-viable. I hope that Ministers will readdress that point. As I have said before, if we are supplying our goods to the home counties, it seems illogical to enforce a stopover point in Scotland to qualify for the subsidy. I hope that it will be possible for the matter to be concluded.

I have indulged myself, Mr. Taylor, on the grounds that I have not had a huge number of interventions. It has given me the opportunity to range more widely over the course than might otherwise have been the case. I hope that hon. Members will recognise the existence of some very serious issues. I do not suggest for one minute that the Government have no interest and no commitment and have done nothing. Such a comment would be unreasonable and unfair, and I wholly accept that a significant amount of taxpayers’ money is involved. Those of us who were sceptical about privatisation always acknowledged that would be the case anyway, and that achieving a balance was the issue.

I have avoided going into the whole argument about the structure of the railways because that is for another time, another place and another debate. To those who say that we cannot control everything, I point out that all we are concerned about are two issues. Can we have more reliable services, which run more quickly and are more competitively priced, and can we have an aspiration to provide rail investment that will put us on a par with the substantial investment that is taking place across the country?

I hope that the Minister will give us some answers, certainly on some of the detailed points that I have raised, although I am not sure that he will be able to answer my second question. However, that is the kind of vision that our country needs. I submit to the Minister that there is a very strong case for the United Kingdom to recognise that strategic investment of the kind I described benefits the UK economy and all its parts, reduces our balance of payments deficit, increases the efficiency of the distribution of people, goods and services within the United Kingdom and is probably one of the biggest single infrastructure developments that would put us in a competitive position with our continental counterparts. I urge the Government to look for that kind of vision. I am disappointed that so far they seem unwilling to do so.

10.6 am

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Taylor. It is a pleasure to see you in the chair this morning. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) on securing this important debate. It is slightly disappointing that there are not more colleagues from both sides of the House with us this morning. Perhaps they are still stuck on a slow train from Scotland. My right hon. Friend was typically eloquent in sharing his concerns about rail services between Scotland and England and made a
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strong case for improving services. He pointed out that the east coast main line is not just London to Edinburgh. If we are serious about having good rail services, the east coast main line is providing services all the way up the east side to my right hon. Friend’s constituency and to Aberdeen.

The second point that my right hon. Friend made was in relation to the competition that rail services have from the airline industry. Certainly, Aberdeen airport has seen some significant investment and expansion of services that provide very stiff competition to the rail industry. I have to confess that I rarely use cross-border rail services to Scotland, representing as I do the constituency of Manchester, Withington. I am a regular passenger on the west coast main line, but only on the section between Manchester and London. Manchester benefits from a good service to London, which is to be expected given the massive investment in the west coast main line. That has reduced our journey time from Manchester to just over two hours for the quickest service. I have to confess that when I use the late service at night, I am very frustrated that it takes three hours. However, in comparison with what some of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members from other constituencies further north experience, I should be pleased that the journey is only up to three hours.

I am amazed that anyone from Manchester would still choose to fly to London, unless they are on a connecting flight out of the country. When it comes to speed and convenience, the train offers the best choice. However, the situation for services beginning and ending in Scotland is somewhat different. My right hon. Friend mentioned the mammoth seven-and-a-half hour train journey from Aberdeen to London. Yesterday, while preparing for the debate, I checked the journey times of train services from Edinburgh and Glasgow to London. I was amazed that, if I had wanted to take a train from Glasgow or Edinburgh to London this morning, the quickest trains from Edinburgh would have taken four hours and 20 minutes, the time from Glasgow would have been four hours and 25 minutes and the journey times for the vast majority of services from Glasgow and Edinburgh were more like five hours.

My right hon. Friend went on to compare those journey times with the journey times for high-speed rail in France. It takes just over three hours to travel the 400-odd miles between Paris and Marseilles, compared with seven hours to travel the 400-odd miles from Aberdeen to London. People can see the big difference.

If journey times are not enough of a disincentive to choose rail over air services, the increased cost of rail travel is a real and understandable concern for passengers. We can add to that the complicated ticketing structure, which often makes it difficult for passengers to get the cheapest deal. I accept that, if people do their homework, they can get cheap deals on rail services, but that is often quite a lengthy process and, despite the media attention and the report from the Transport Committee to which my right hon. Friend referred, many people are still unaware of the cheaper tickets that they can get hold of.

The relatively cheap cost of flights is a major attraction for passengers. One advantage of flying is that, when someone books a flight, they are guaranteed to be getting the cheapest flight available at the time when
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they book the ticket, whereas if someone tries to book a train ticket, there is no guarantee that they will get the cheapest ticket.

I will not fall into the trap of comparing the cost of the cheapest flight from Aberdeen to London with the most expensive open single first-class train ticket for the journey from Aberdeen. Having read the record of a previous Westminster Hall debate in which this Minister represented the Government, I do not want to give him the opportunity this morning to dismiss legitimate concerns about the disparity between rail and air fares. However, I have done my homework for the debate and the cheapest rail fare for a return journey between Aberdeen and London is £73.50 and the cheapest return flight costs £60.96. When we take into consideration the very limited scope of the cheapest rail tickets and how difficult it is to purchase them, it is probably reasonable to compare that cheapest flight price with the adult saver price of £117 return, which is almost double the cost and almost double the journey time.

Over the Christmas period, rail passengers suffered a double whammy. They suffered massive delays and disruption to services, and in January that was followed by big price increases, including inflation-busting increases, as my right hon. Friend said, of 6.6 per cent. for National Express services on the east coast and 7 per cent. for the Arriva-run cross-country franchise. It is to be hoped that those fare increases will result in improved services for passengers. My right hon. Friend made the very pertinent point that customers would like to see improvements in rail services before the prices are hiked up.

Following the announcement that Arriva had won the franchise, the Minister argued that the reason for the decision was Arriva’s commitment to increasing capacity on rush-hour trains—an increase of up to 30 per cent. in the number of passenger seats by 2009.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I just want to clarify that point. The hon. Gentleman is referring to the invitation to tender and the requirement in the franchising process for that increase in peak services. It was not part of one particular bid; it was a requirement of all bidders that they come up with solutions that would significantly increase capacity. I think that that should be put on the record.

Mr. Leech: I thank the Minister for clarifying the point, but certainly one advantage of the Arriva bid was that it intended to increase the number of seats available for passengers. However, that increased capacity comes at a price, because buffet cars and toilets have to be removed, and the changes to the timetable mean that a number of direct services to the south coast and the south-west of England from Scotland have been cut. That will lead to further increases in journey times and some disruption at Birmingham New Street.

I do not believe that anyone will disagree that the future of rail services depends on the investment that the industry receives, whether the money comes from the Government, the train operators or the fare-paying passengers. The cross-border rail industry faces a big challenge to be able to compete with domestic flights.
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At the moment, it cannot compete on journey times and it struggles to compete on price. The Minister may disagree about prices, but even when rail prices are competitive, there is a general perception that as a passenger it is cheaper to fly.

By 1997, there had been massive under-investment in our railways at the hands of the previous, Conservative Governments. I am willing to accept, and I think that my right hon. Friend accepted, that since 1997 there has been some progress, but so much of the investment in the railways—

Stephen Hammond: Would the hon. Gentleman like to tell us when he thinks that the under-investment in the railways started? Did it start in 1979, 1945 or before then? If he is going to start his railway history by saying that the under-investment was from 1979 onwards, he ought to go and read some railway history, because that is not when the under-investment in our railway services started.

Mr. Leech: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I accept that under-investment in the railways did not start in 1979. I can be forgiven for making that accusation about the previous, Conservative Government, as I was only eight years old when Margaret Thatcher came to power.

Stephen Hammond: You can expect to be corrected every time you make it.

David Taylor (in the Chair): Order.

Mr. Leech: However, I argue that successive Conservative Governments from 1979 to 1997 made little attempt to reverse the decline in investment in the railways. Since 1997, there has been some progress. I am willing to accept that, but so much of the investment in the railways has been spent on catching up as a result of years of neglect and on investing in vital safety work. We would all agree that that is vital, but unfortunately it has often been at the expense of expansion of services.

The Government have promised £10 billion of extra investment over the next five-year period, but that will go only so far. The Liberal Democrats propose to more than double that investment through the introduction of a lorry road user charging scheme and an additional tax on domestic flights, except on lifeline routes. Those additional charges are expected to raise up to £12 billion of up-front investment from the revenue that would be generated over 30 years. That policy would have the added bonus of levelling the playing field between the airline and rail industries and would make it easier for the rail industry to compete on price.

We would also maximise investment from train operating companies by increasing the length of franchises to encourage investment. The Minister may disagree, but there is strong evidence that the certainty of longer franchises would boost investment. Most recently, Virgin proposed to acquire 100 more Pendolino carriages. For a £200 million investment in the west coast mainline, it wanted an extension of its franchise. Will the Minister say something about why the Department chose to block that proposal?

The Liberal Democrats are committed to a revolution in the rail industry. We are looking at detailed plans for network expansion with quick wins and longer-term goals, and we are committed to high-speed services to
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the north of England and Scotland. Rail will compete with air on a level playing field only when quick services to Scotland compete on journey times and price. Unless we invest further in improved services from north of the border, the danger is that excess demand will be taken up not by rail, but by airlines.

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