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11 Mar 2008 : Column 63WH—continued

Ms Smith: My hon. Friend is right. The whole point of reopening the Woodhead line would be to enable passengers, as well as freight, to travel more quickly. In relation to travel to work, the economic benefits of easier access to workplaces are obvious. The Northern Way has demonstrated the wider economic benefits of a national high-speed rail network linking London
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with the north-west and with Scotland and the north-east, and of a trans-Pennine link. Crucially, that integrated network would offer a means of addressing the locational disadvantage of the north in terms of access to markets, to the world financial centre that is tantalisingly close—of course, I am speaking about London—and to the key international gateways, which are our ports and airports.

The benefits could be as much as £10 billion nationally, £3.5 billion of which would be in the north. Apparently, £3.5 billion of the benefit would also be to London itself, which does not tap into the economic potential of the north as well as it might. Inclusion of a trans-Pennine link adds a remarkable 40 per cent. to the economic benefit to the north from such an investment.

The proposal for a Crossrail for the north would not only add significant value to the north’s economy but could change the perception that investors, business and graduates have of the north’s potential as a career and investment destination.

Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making an unanswerable case for reserving the Woodhead tunnel for future use and, indeed, reopening it. She is also pointing out the fact that the timetables and schedules for trains in the north of England would have embarrassed Gladstone. Is it not time not simply to consider demand on the trains but to invest in new faster routes to support the economy of the north of England?

Ms Smith: Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a very important point. There is a great deal of sense in establishing high-speed networks on the east and west coast main lines, but to maximise the impact of that we need to make the trans-Pennine link. That is critical to the case that I am making.

Agglomeration benefits could also accrue if we went ahead with the scheme. Agglomeration benefits arise through firms becoming more productive as a result of being closer or more accessible to other firms, workers and markets. Labour markets and business catchments overlap in the north—we have eight city regions—and offer an opportunity to create a critical mass as a counterweight to the London and south-east economy, but only if there is the reality of a coherent transport system that enables businesses to flourish beyond their city boundaries.

The environmental benefits of a Crossrail for the north are significant.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): As my hon. Friend is aware, the west side of the tunnel is in my constituency. One of the groups that supports the re-opening of the route is Barnsley council, which fully supports it. Her economic argument is tremendously strong—the area between Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds requires the freight route. Does she agree that there is also potential for a grander scheme using the freight route, by which I mean linking the east and west Pennines to the Scottish economies and, through the midlands, to the channel tunnel? That would link the economic vitality of the area that she is talking about to the European market.

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Ms Smith: My hon. Friend makes the key point again that the issue is not only the trans-Pennine link but the link between the north, via an east-west link, to the east and west Scottish economies, London, and the channel tunnel and Europe. That is a critical part of the case and I am glad that it has been emphasised. Of course, Barnsley, which is part of the Sheffield city region, would benefit substantially from such a scheme. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the benefits that would accrue to Barnsley—the town’s economic potential, as well as its football team, is often underestimated.

The environmental benefits of a Crossrail for the north would be significant. Rightly, there is cross-party consensus in the House on the Climate Change Bill. We need to set targets for the medium and long term to reduce carbon emissions, but in focusing our attention on that legislation, we must not lose sight of the practical measures necessary to deliver a significant reduction in carbon emissions. Investment in high-speed rail links and rail-freight capacity is one of the key measures to success in our mission.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): The hon. Lady is making a powerful case, which I support. Obviously, there is an environmental benefit from laying electrical cables under ground rather than on pylons. Is the hon. Lady aware—she is more familiar with the case than me—whether National Grid has given any consideration to enlarging the tunnel, thereby taking the cable through it without closing it for future rail use? Does she agree that such a possibility is worth exploring?

Ms Smith: National Grid’s considered view, which has been tested by a number of hon. Members, is that even if the cables go through one or two of the three tunnels, it will not be possible to run rail capacity through them. The key issue is whether National Grid is prepared to maintain the two Victorian tunnels so that we can return cabling to them in future. That is accepted as the way forward by all concerned, including the Department for Transport and National Grid. Most hon. Members recognise that the outage constraints of simply chopping off the supply to Manchester to recable the Victorian tunnels would be enormous. We have Ofgem to thank for that.

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): The hon. Lady is making a strong case—it would appear that there is a trans-Pennine alliance of hon. Members from all parties in support of her comments. Further to what the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) said, does she agree that the key thing to establish is that we are not opposed to the principle of National Grid using the tunnel if—it is perhaps a big “if”—there were some way for it to route cables through the tunnel that allowed train services to commence at some future date? I do not know how realistic the hon. Gentleman’s proposition is, but we ought to establish firmly the principle that if there is a way around the problem so that National Grid was able to run its cables and retain the potential for future use, we are not against it in principle. We should ensure that the route remains a viable proposition for the future.

Ms Smith: If that were a realistic option, it would be the most acceptable one for all sides. We are talking about 440,000 V cables, so it would be a major technological challenge. It would be wise for hon.
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Members to test the case further with National Grid. However, so far, National Grid has been absolutely firm that it cannot put the cables through the tunnel and run rail capacity through them at the same time.

On environmental benefits, our children and grandchildren will never forgive us for losing important opportunities to invest in a lower-carbon future. The Woodhead rail route is one means by which to secure such a future. Any projection of the case for a new trans-Pennine link must take into account the need for extra capacity economically and to proactively engage in the process of incentivising greater use of rail networks by passengers and freight alike. We are talking not only about the possible extra demand but about the modal shift from road to rail, which is important to that lower-carbon future. We can do it by developing the high-speed integrated network that we are discussing.

I must make a plea to the Minister to display foresight on the issue and apply the precautionary principle. National Grid’s use of the 1953 tunnel must not in any way be allowed for the economic and environmental reasons that I have outlined because it would close down the option of reopening the line in future. However, the omens are not good. Despite the Secretary of State for Transport’s intervention in the matter, a rail magazine at the weekend reported:

In the same article, National Grid says:

We cannot risk stalemate—we cannot risk losing the potential use of the Woodhead route for rail and compromising the national interest because National Grid and Network Rail cannot agree who should maintain the tunnels. Will the Minister commit the Government to sorting out the impasse for the sake of the long-term vision that I have outlined? Will she also commit to looking seriously at the case for a Crossrail for the north? A project that would draw on a wide range of support, including from all three northern regional development agencies, must be worth investigating.

The Minister is a good listener and likes to respond—I know that from the work that she has done on flooding in Sheffield. Will she today give us the hope that we can realise our ambition to compete effectively with the London and south-east economy, and that our transport infrastructure will be appropriately modernised in the medium to long term? Will she give us a Crossrail for the north?

1.48 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Ms Rosie Winterton): It is nice to be back in Westminster Hall under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow, after only a short interval. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) on securing the debate. She has demonstrated passionately how strongly she feels about the issue. Obviously, my hon. Friends the Members for High Peak (Tom Levitt), for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer), and for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan)
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have demonstrated that passion, as did the hon. Members for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) and for Cheadle (Mark Hunter). Not least because of my role as Minister for Yorkshire and the Humber, I know that maintaining adequate rail capacity on trans-Pennine routes now and in future is vital to the economy of northern England.

I should like to reassure hon. Members that National Grid’s plans will not jeopardise the possibility that the Woodhead tunnel route will reopen to rail traffic at some future date. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough outlined, National Grid owns the two Victorian tunnels and the more modern tunnel that was purchased from the British Rail Property Board in the early 1990s following the closure of the route in 1981. The company holds permitted development rights for placing cables in the newer tunnel. The cost to National Grid of replacing cables in the Victorian tunnels and of not using the more modern tunnels would be substantially higher than putting cables in the more modern tunnels and moving them back into the Victorian tunnels in future, as my hon. Friend mentioned. Replacing cables in the Victorian tunnels would require the transmission of electricity between the efficient power stations to the east of the Pennines and Manchester and the north-west to be suspended while the work was carried out. Less efficient power stations elsewhere would have to provide electricity, and that would be considerably more expensive—tens of millions of pounds according to National Grid.

Those outage charges would not be incurred if new cables were laid while the older ones were still transmitting; consequently, the charges would not be incurred if the process was reversed and new cables were put back into the Victorian tunnels while the cables in the more modern tunnels were still transmitting electricity. Reversing the process remains a possibility if growth in demand requires a fourth rail route across the Pennines.

My hon. Friend made a powerful speech, but I am sure that she realises that no Government or rail industry strategy or planning document has identified a need for additional rail capacity across the Pennines that would require the reopening of the Woodhead route. The Government’s strategy for the railways is set out in the White Paper, “Delivering a Sustainable Railway”, which identified the need for additional passenger capacity, and proposed that it should be met by longer trains to accompany reduced journey time on the Manchester-Leeds route via Huddersfield. On the south trans-Pennine route between Sheffield and Manchester, the East Midlands Trains franchise will deliver longer trains on the route between Liverpool and Nottingham via Sheffield.

Tom Levitt: My right hon. Friend has moved on from the tunnel itself, but I remind her that the question is whose responsibility it is to maintain the Victorian tunnels so that there is a tunnel to move back into.

Ms Winterton: I am coming to that point.

Neither the White Paper nor the Yorkshire and Humber regional planning assessment identified a long-term need for substantial increases in freight capacity across the Pennines. Consequently, it has not been suggested that the Woodhead route was needed for the purpose.

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Network Rail published its freight route utilisation strategy in 2007. The only trans-Pennine issue that it identified was a possible need for additional capacity on the south trans-Pennine route through the Hope valley between Sheffield and Manchester. Again, that strategy did not identify a need for a new trans-Pennine route for freight. Network Rail’s Yorkshire and Humber route utilisation strategy is work in progress. Network Rail is also considering capacity needs on the three rail routes across the Pennines—the Hope valley line, the Manchester-Leeds route via Huddersfield, and the Calder valley line via Halifax.

I am aware of the Northern Way study, “The Market Demand for Gauge Enhancements”, but it does not refer specifically to the need for a new route across the Pennines or the reopening of the Woodhead route as the best way of achieving it. However, I am aware, as are other hon. Members, of previous expressions of interest from the private sector in using the Woodhead route. The Government set out their approach for developing a longer-term strategy in the document entitled “Towards a Sustainable Transport System”. At its heart is a process of engagement with stakeholders—that has already begun—on the goals and challenges for transport. Should robust evidence be produced that one of the key challenges is meeting significant growth for movements across the Pennines, the next stage will be to consider options across all transport modes that could meet the challenges identified.

As far as rail options are concerned, capacity enhancements on the three existing routes would be considered first. However, if an analysis of capacity on those routes concludes that the option of an additional route ought to be investigated, the Woodhead route for rail use can still be considered. The time to consider whether or not the Victorian tunnels need to be protected from long-term deterioration, so that they could be used again for rail or cable, is when the long-term capacity analysis has been completed but before National Grid finally seals the tunnels after the removal of the life-expired cables. That is expected to be in 2010 or 2011. At that time, a decision can be made on whether the Victorian tunnels should be sealed in a way that allows the process of inspection and maintenance to continue, should it prove necessary. Meanwhile, National Grid will continue to carry out regular inspections of the tunnels.

Following the meeting between my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and many of the Members in Westminster Hall today—led by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough—and following the letter that the Secretary of State subsequently wrote to my hon. Friend, I propose to meet National Grid in the next few weeks to confirm that the Government wish to explore further the option of continuing the inspection and maintenance regime for the Victorian tunnels once National Grid has vacated them.

We will need to confirm the date by which a decision has to be made. As I said, that is expected to be in 2010 or 2011. By that point, much of the evidence gathered under the “Towards a Sustainable Transport System” process will be available, which will enable us to make the right decision. Following that meeting, I would like to meet key stakeholders. I want to discover the transport industry’s view and the northern economic perspectives on the challenges that face freight transport across the
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Pennines, and how that will tie in with the development of a longer-term strategy—in particular, the process of engagement with stakeholders on the goals and challenges for transport, which has already begun.

I want to build on that. I will encourage stakeholders to produce robust evidence on the expected growth in demand for passenger and freight movements across the Pennines. Should a significant challenge be identified, the next stage is to consider options for meeting those challenges through all transport modes. As far as the rail options are concerned, as I mentioned earlier, it will doubtless include capacity enhancements on the three existing routes as well as the reopening of the Woodhead route. The outcome of that work will provide us with the evidence needed to take a view on the long-term strategy for trans-Pennine transport links.

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In conclusion, I reinforce the view that nothing should be done to jeopardise the economic future of the north of England, and I emphasise that National Grid’s proposals will not do so. During the period 2009-14, the Government plan to spend £15 billion on the rail network, supporting a network of services in the north of England and elsewhere, improving performance and reliability, increasing capacity by providing 1,300 new carriages, and making better use of the existing network. I hope that my response to the points raised during the debate reassures hon. Members that the steps that I propose will keep open the option of using the Woodhead route in the long term.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Two o’clock.

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