Previous Section Index Home Page

19 Nov 2008 : Column 110WH—continued

19 Nov 2008 : Column 111WH

Eurostar is trying to highlight the fact that the potential environmental advantage is significant, but that at the moment the UK is failing to capitalise on a growing market for high-speed rail. In other European countries, because of the connectivity provided by the channel tunnel, there is potential to grow that market, but the UK is not really participating at present. A specific point that I would like to put to the Minister is whether his Department will carry out an assessment of how passengers shift from air to rail services when high-speed rail lines are introduced. From a parliamentary answer supplied to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), I know that no specific assessment has been made of the shift in relation to French train services. It would be useful, and it would inform this debate, to see what happens when a large network is installed and how the shift from air to rail happens. I hope that that is something that the Government are willing to undertake.

Open-access railways for international passenger travel should start from 2010 onwards, and they offer the potential for much greater competition, with Eurostar having to compete on the present lines with other providers of high-speed rail services. I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify what the safety standards will be when the open-access railway is introduced in 2010. Whoever is going to compete in the market needs to know what those standards will be, otherwise they will not be in a position to compete effectively from 2010. There is a specific safety requirement for the channel tunnel with which they must comply.

As an aside, I would like the Minister to comment on whether the safety standards that apply in the channel tunnel are entirely necessary. I hesitate to say so, but on the Swiss railways, in mountain tunnels, which are longer than the channel tunnel, different safety standards are used. The Swiss do not have the same safety standards as those that apply in the channel tunnel, but they consider their railway to be safe. I do not know, but they may have achieved a less onerous way of ensuring safety. Will the Minister either comment on that or undertake to conduct research on whether the Swiss have found a more cost-effective system while maintaining safety standards.

Something else that the Government need to clarify, if we are to have open-access railways after 2010 and see a greater degree of competition in the provision of international rail services, is precisely what will happen to services that are using the channel tunnel. The fire took place a few months ago, and it is presumably too early to say what will come out of that, but will the Minister comment on whether is a case for stopping the open design of the HGV shuttles? Is that appropriate? Will he also comment on whether there is a need to consider some of the products and chemicals that go through the channel tunnel, and whether some of them should be sent via designated ferries, as a safer way of transporting them?

A number of hon. Members have commented on the integration issue in relation to Eurostar: how to integrate a train service coming from further north with the Eurostar going on to the continent. The Minister will be aware that there were plans to ensure that there was a single ticketing system to enable someone here in the UK—perhaps at the local station of the hon. Member for Stafford—to make a through booking; a ticket that
19 Nov 2008 : Column 112WH
took him from Stafford station right through to Moscow or Cologne, if he wanted to travel that way. I understand that that has fallen through. The complexity of creating a single ticketing system when, for instance, the age at which someone is a child on the German train system is different from the age under the rules that apply in the UK, has made it impossible. I hope that he can make some suggestions about how to encourage inter-country train travel; not just from the UK to France, but from the UK to beyond France and on to other destinations. How can one encourage that kind of travel when, unfortunately, a single ticketing system does not seem to be on the cards? There may be other things that can be done, such as making people aware of the connections that exist between, for example, Lille and other stations, between Brussels and Paris, and so on.

My final point is perhaps a parochial one. I know that hon. Members from further north will object to complaints about train services going to the south of the country. In the summer, my family and I used to take the train service from Waterloo straight through to Avignon, and we now take the service from St. Pancras to Avignon. For many people in the south-east, that has been a negative change, as time has been added to their journeys. We need to examine whether something can be done to speed up train services in London.

Stephen Hammond: On that parochial point, the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and mine are on the same loop, which goes to St. Pancras. However, as a result of the Thameslink programme in 2015, our constituents will be forced to stop at Blackfriars. I hope that the Minister will take the point that of the 32 or so paths that go through Blackfriars and onwards and upwards, the only four that terminate at Blackfriars are from south-west London. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will join me in urging the Minister to consider that. I know that his colleague, Lord Adonis, is considering it, and I have a meeting with him in the near future, but I hope that the Minister will be persuaded by the force of our arguments on that point for the people of south-west London.

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that very helpful intervention, and I echo entirely what he says. In fact, I am due to meet representatives of Network Rail—next week, I think—to discuss the issue, because a number of constituents have raised concerns about it.

The changes that I was talking about mean that at Waterloo some platforms are now available. Liberal Democrats want those platforms to be used for train services. We do not want them to be used to build shops on. With the credit crunch, it is possible that there will be less demand to build shops, so we may be able to invest for the long term in using the platforms for a combination of services, including local train services provided by South West Trains. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) has been pushing hard for that. Who knows? Perhaps in the future there will be the potential to run some Eurostar services back into Waterloo.

Stephen Hammond: The need to increase capacity has been identified by a number of Members as the major issue across all parts of our network. The previous Rail Minister, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris),
19 Nov 2008 : Column 113WH
said that it would cost about £5 million to do the works outside Waterloo, yet it is costing us £500,000 a year to mothball those facilities. Does the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) share my surprise at what is happening?

Tom Brake: Again, that is a telling point, and no doubt the Minister will provide an explanation—or he may struggle, but we will watch with interest to see what his response is. At Waterloo, there are platforms that could and should be used to provide train services—potentially a mix of local services provided by South West Trains and Eurostar services coming into the south, as they used to; that was their original destination. I hope that the Minister will provide some certainty on that point and say that platforms 21 to 25 will be used for train services, and they will not be lost and become the next major retail development in London, as that would be extremely regrettable.

There is now a degree of political consensus on the need for high-speed rail, but there is some uncertainty about how it will be funded, which is why I threw into the pot the idea of a surcharge on domestic flights to put money into a transport infrastructure fund that could be used to invest in high-speed rail. I shall listen carefully to the Minister and, depending on what he says, I may or may not support a campaign to erect a statue of him at St. Pancras station.

3.33 pm

Stephen Hammond: This has been a fascinating debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on securing it and on introducing it in an all-inclusive way. I am referring both to his style and the points that he covered. Other contributions that we have heard have been interesting in terms of some of the omissions as well as some of the things that were included. The Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), intervened on the hon. Member for Stafford to talk about economic plans announced by my party yesterday, then questioned the support for high-speed rail. However, the Government consistently tell us that his party wants to cut £20 billion from public expenditure, and, intriguingly, he did not announce how he would provide funding or continue to make that commitment.

I was also intrigued by the contribution from the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz), who made a number of good points, but he did not say whether he expects the Scottish Executive, of any political hue, to commit to building high-speed rail in Scotland. I am interested to know whether he thinks that that will be a policy of an Executive formed of his party or of any other hue.

Mark Lazarowicz: I will respond to that invitation. Clearly, the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to make any commitments on behalf of the current and no doubt short-lived Scottish National party Government, but he should be aware that inter-city rail is still a reserved matter and therefore the responsibility of a UK Government in any respect.

Stephen Hammond: That may be the stated position. Whether the current Administration in Scotland are short-lived or not, I know that they are holding a
19 Nov 2008 : Column 114WH
conference on high-speed rail in the near future and are inviting a number of UK experts. They are talking about delivering that package out of their own resources. As I said, the Administration may or may not be short-lived, but I am interested to see what happens.

Today’s debate is welcome, as the hon. Member for Stafford stated his support for the cause of high-speed rail and linking the UK to the continent. That may even be, in the near future, the policy of his Front-Bench team, who are currently the only Front-Bench team who have not been converted to that policy. When I was listening to the hon. Gentleman, I was somewhat surprised by his comments about the investigative nature of what the Government are doing at the moment. I was not sure whether the onus of what he was saying was that the bulk of the investigation was being done by Network Rail which, supposedly, is not an arm of the Department for Transport. I shall be interested to see whether the Minister chooses to clarify that point.

The reason why many of us suggest that the cross-party consensus to which the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington referred does not exist lies in some of the comments that we have heard from the Government. The previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly), confirmed at column 739W of Hansard on 1 April 2008 that not one civil servant in the DFT was working on high-speed rail. She also dismissed the arguments for the environmental benefits of high-speed rail on 2 April; I refer hon. Members to column 852 of Hansard. Last year’s White Paper, “Delivering a Sustainable Railway”, which was her 30-year strategy for the railways—we all know that infrastructure planning is a long-term business—refused to consider any high-speed lines for 30 years, so although we have heard from various hon. Members about a potential consensus, at the moment we are waiting for the Government to join it.

It may be that today the Minister, who has a number of responsibilities, particularly on local networks, will alter the policy on national networks and that tomorrow his fellow Minister in another place will also alter that, but at the moment the Government’s position is clear. They have rubbished high-speed rail. When my party’s firm commitment was made at the end of September this year, the then Secretary of State described the proposals as “economically illiterate” and “hugely damaging” to the national interest. I cannot see how the Government can claim that they are part of a broad consensus to build high-speed rail and at the same time make such comments on the record.

The history of high-speed rail was set out with more eloquence than I can provide by the hon. Member for Stafford. I hoped that would start with the Orient Express boat trains of the 1930s, but none the less, his history was accurate. The opening of the magnificent new station at St. Pancras has brought an increasing demand for rail links to Europe. Last year, 9 million passengers travelled by rail to Europe. The first nine months of this year saw an increase of approximately 14 per cent. in travellers and, as has been mentioned, the number of travellers from Derbyshire has increased by 150 per cent. The number of travellers from Yorkshire—even if not everyone would agree with the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) that it is God’s own county—has increased by 100 per cent. this year. That highlights the fact that, when rail journeys can be completed within
19 Nov 2008 : Column 115WH
four and a half hours, they compete favourably—if not extraordinarily well—with air travel. It is no surprise to see the demand from those areas rising, and that supports the argument that, if we had a more extensive high-speed rail network, demand would continue to rise.

The UK has 68 miles of high-speed rail linking London to the continent. If the Government’s current policy persists, there will be no advance on that and no plans to expand on the UK’s 0.007 per cent. share of the European high-speed rail network. Italy opened its first line in 1978 and France’s first TGV service began in 1981. Germany’s first high-speed intercity express opened in 1992, as did Spain’s. Sweden opened a high-speed link between the airport and central Stockholm in 1999. Turkey began building its high-speed network in 2003, and Portugal opened its first high-speed line in 2004. The UK lags significantly behind in the expansion of high-speed rail, even more so because—as many of us know—Europe lags behind the rest of the world. Japan had its first bullet train 35 years ago, and the regenerative impact of high-speed rail on the economy is well established.

The constituency of the hon. Member for Stafford is linked to the continent by rail, either down the west coast main line to Euston, St. Pancras and onwards, or via connections to Heathrow, where people can catch a flight. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the west coast main line is already overcrowded and will be full to capacity and able to take no more passengers by 2015. The benefits of new lines and a high-speed rail network across the United Kingdom, linking the hon. Gentleman’s constituency with Lille, through France into Spain or out to Milan are clear, not only because of the economic and environmental benefits, but because that would relieve capacity on the west coast main line. The hon. Gentleman eulogised the route from London to Birmingham and Manchester—I am not sure whether I heard him say Leeds, but that does not matter. There is a firm commitment from the Conservative party to build on that line.

Tom Brake: Given the change of policy by the official Opposition yesterday, will the hon. Gentleman say whether he has since had a discussion with the leader of the Opposition, his right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), confirming that those plans are still watertight?

Stephen Hammond: I do not know whether or not the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) is an economic genius. However, at the moment, no economist can tell us exactly the shape of the recession or what the public finances will be like in 2015, when we propose that the railway be built. I have not had such a conversation with my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), but I do not need to. The Conservative party has made a firm commitment to start the process. That will be in our first term of government, which hopefully will be sooner rather than later. The process will involve a hybrid Bill, as outlined in our proposals. By 2015, after the first parliamentary term, we hope that we will be in a position to build that line. We estimate the build time to be between 2015 and 2027. That firm, unequivocal commitment remains, and is sustained. I hope that that clears up the matter for the hon. Gentleman. Yet again, he failed to reaffirm his commitment, but we shall not worry too much about that.

19 Nov 2008 : Column 116WH

I am conscious of the time, as I know that the Minister wants to respond. The proposals by the Conservative party and by Greengauge 21, as well as the comments from a number of hon. Members about the benefits of high-speed rail, are broadly the first step. A high-speed rail network around the UK is advantageous, and it will enable people to travel around the UK and link it to the continent. It will provide shorter journey times, faster trains, improved reliability on dedicated lines and extra capacity, both on high-speed lines and by releasing capacity on conventional lines.

If we build a dedicated high-speed line linking London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, that will clearly have an impact on the west coast main line which, as I have described, will be full to capacity by 2015. There will be huge benefits for a number of people, particularly the constituents of the hon. Member for Stafford. One could postulate the same thing for constituents in Milton Keynes, Macclesfield and so on.

The high-speed rail link will benefit capacity on the rest of the network, and it will also generate extra rail freight capacity. It is not insignificant that the Rail Freight Group has announced its support for high-speed rail. We need to improve the freight paths around the country, and a high-speed rail link would do so by allowing freight to travel on the high-speed rail link at non-busy times or through the night, and simply be creating extra capacity.

High-speed rail would provide a dramatic benefit for the economy. Any proposal of the sort put forward by Greengauge 21 or by the Conservative party would show the potential for a new central business centre in the north of England. Such a link would increase the prospects of Manchester and the north of coming into what has been recognised as the south-east growth zone of the economy. Better infrastructure would enhance the case for inward investment, and areas around high-speed rail constructions gain huge economic regenerative benefits. We can see that by looking at any number of the stations built in Japan.

Other contributors have dealt with the environmental benefits in more detail. However, Eurostar tells us that it emits a tenth of the carbon emissions of aircraft travelling between London and Paris. That is not by using the newer generation trains, but by using an existing energy mix and the available technology. Undoubtedly, part of that energy mix will be nuclear, but if we had a different energy mix and the new generation of trains, those carbon emissions might be even less. The hon. Member for Stafford concluded the announcement on 29 October that the national network strategy group was going to look at this matter. There are some people who, while welcoming that announcement, will wonder whether it is not another example of pushing policy into the long grass or to the right. All I want to hear from the Minister today is confirmation that the Government will join the cross-party consensus and agree to build a high-speed rail network in this country.

3.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): This wide-ranging debate has been excellently led by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), and I congratulate him on securing it.

19 Nov 2008 : Column 117WH

It might be helpful if I set out the background to some of the changes that we have made, which were not recognised by the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond). It has been said that we are not committed to high-speed rail, but we have seen the introduction of the new High Speed 1 route and have invested £8.8 billion in the west coast main line, which has substantially changed travelling for many hundreds of thousands of people across the country. Promises made by former Secretaries of State in 1994 have to be supported by investment, as do any of our commitments. That investment was not there at the time, but is now—that has been the substantial difference under our tenure.

Since 1996, rail passenger kilometres and journeys have grown by more than 50 per cent. People are now travelling further by train than in any year since 1946. For the first time since 1961, more than 1 billion rail journeys were made in 2003-04, and, in each of the next three years, that number increased further. Not only passenger rail transport is growing: since 1996-97, the amount of freight moved has increased by 40 per cent.

One of the reasons why people are willing to use trains today is that rail performance has improved steadily over the past several years, against that background of investment, and punctuality and reliability are now at 90 per cent. However, if rail is to continue its revival, the Government must continue to invest in the industry’s needs. With the rail White Paper, published in July last year, we committed ourselves to making that investment, including the high-level output specification. Historically, the railways have lurched from funding crisis to funding crisis, to the detriment of passengers and our wider economy. With the White Paper, we have put it on a stable footing, under the scrutiny of the independent regulator, while delivering major, much-needed investment.

In setting out a clear and sustainable long-term strategy, the White Paper is the most positive statement on the growth and development of Britain’s railways in 50 years. It sets out our priorities in tackling capacity pinchpoints on the busiest sections and services in our urban areas and their supporting regions, and on inter-urban corridors and freight links to international gateways—the strategic economic priorities that Eddington identified. In the medium term, the focus is on measures that will enhance and make better use of our existing railway infrastructure and deliver visible benefits to users—for example, train and platform lengthening—rather than on committing to speculative step-change measures using unproven technologies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) mentioned overcrowding, which has been one of our priorities in delivering capacity improvements that will improve the travelling experience for that substantially increased number of passengers. We want the railway to have the capacity to handle double today’s freight and passenger traffic, to be even safer, more reliable and more efficient, to cater for a more diverse, affluent and demanding population and to meet its environmental potential by reducing its carbon footprint.

Next Section Index Home Page