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30 Mar 2010 : Column 185WH—continued

30 Mar 2010 : Column 186WH

Mr. Martlew: There is another point about building the line. I notice that my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe), an hon. Member from Scotland, is in Westminster Hall today. Whose responsibility is it to fund the high speed line in Scotland? Transport is a devolved matter. It might be difficult for the Scots to find the full amount of money required, but would it be possible for them to start building their part of the line before the rest comes from the south? Such issues are probably not for today, but they must be discussed.

I am going to make the case that the train should stop in Cumbria, at Carlisle. Hon. Members will say, "Well, he would say that anyhow, as he's the MP for Carlisle," but there is a lot of logic in the suggestion. Network Rail's proposals said that the train would not stop in Cumbria. The Government are silent on the matter; their proposals say that intermediate station stops will be decided later. Not stopping does not seem sensible.

I know very well what the Conservative policy is. It is not an issue in Cumbria, because it involves taking the high-speed line to Manchester, turning right, going to Leeds and continuing up the east coast. Stopping at Carlisle would not be an issue because the line would not go through Cumbria at all. It is not a case that I would like to defend to the Cumbrian electorate, but that is a matter for the Opposition.

We are building a line-or, to be emotional, putting a scar-through 90 miles of Cumbria that will run through parts of the Lake district and the Eden valley, some of the most beautiful countryside in England, without stopping. The Cumbrian west coast is a centre for the nuclear industry; it is an issue that I know well. It has Sellafield, and there are plans for three or four new nuclear power stations. If there is to be a deep nuclear repository, it is likely to be in Cumbria. Because the people of Cumbria are used to working in the nuclear industry and understand it, they are likely to be the only people in this country who will accept it. We are saying to them, "By the way, we're going to build a line through 90 miles of Cumbria, but we're not going to stop." That is not a good argument.

The county is united on the matter. I wrote to the six district councils, and they all agreed; it is the first time that they have ever agreed. The county council agreed with them. I wrote to all the MPs for Cumbria-four Labour, one Conservative and one Liberal Democrat-and they all agreed. I wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown), who is sorry that he could not be here today. He is totally supportive. I wrote to the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), and he is supportive. I wrote to the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), whose constituency will be affected, but he did not reply; I suspect that he is a bit embarrassed by his party's policy.

The politics of not stopping in Cumbria are daft, and the economic case is even dafter. It is proposed to run a train 200 miles from Manchester to Glasgow, through an area that has traditionally been a railway centre, without picking people up, dropping them off or collecting a fare. At the moment, only one train a day goes through Carlisle without stopping. It is a major transport centre, because of the geography of the area. Ignoring the south of the county, which will not use the Carlisle
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train, there are probably 350,000 people in the north, west Cumbria, Penrith and Carlisle who would be served. In the east, there are probably another 40,000 for Northumberland. In Scotland, there are probably another 150,000. Although Carlisle is the last city in England, it is the first main line stop in Scotland, because people get off there to go to Scotland. There is an economic case for stopping in Carlisle; I am sure that the people in south-west Scotland are in favour of it.

The other thing that people forget is that the shortest route from Northern Ireland is via Carlisle. People coming across either catch the train from Stranraer or drive to Carlisle and get on the main line. Carlisle serves more than 500,000 people and three countries. It is nonsense not to stop there. However, I am pleased that the Government have not said that they will not.

In conclusion, for many years, we will have a classic line down to Birmingham and Manchester. During that time, the trains will stop at Carlisle. After the high-speed line is in place, it will not make sense not to stop there. It is politically unacceptable and economically daft. I look forward to seeing the high-speed train stop at Carlisle, as it will mean that I am 86.

I suspect that this will be my last speech in Parliament. I hope that the Minister hears it. I suspect that he will not be in the same job by the time the train stops in Carlisle, but I am sure that he can speed it on its way.

11.26 am

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) put his case well, highlighting the point that although everyone wants a high-speed rail station, no one is particularly keen on the track. It is a classic example of the conflict between local concerns and the national interest. That is not unusual in infrastructure projects.

It is slightly ironic that we are debating high-speed rail at a time when the first major rail strike and disruption for a considerable time is about to start. I am sure that I am not alone in hoping that even at this stage, through the good services of ACAS or in some other way, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers will call off its strike, because it will be disruptive to huge numbers of people. It is very unfair that such things always happen on bank holidays, when many people go to see their families by rail. Every time it happens, it undermines confidence in rail as a means of travel. It is extremely frustrating.

Will the Minister flesh out the exceptional hardship scheme? Perfectly understandably, Ministers arranged for the publication of only one preferred route. That obviously makes some sense. Clearly, if a number of alternative routes were published, it would simply increase the number of properties blighted along the various routes. However, I am sure that he will understand that for the householders and landowners who woke the other day to discover that the high-speed route would go through their property, it is a matter of concern. It is also of concern for those whose properties are next door to the route. Such circumstances occur. One property in my constituency is a disused railway station that has been next to a disused railway line for a long time. The prospect of a high-speed rail link going immediately past the house will blight such properties.

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The Government have clearly assessed how many properties will be blighted in that way, because the White Paper uses the number 600. I suspect that a significant number of those are in London, where a new path will have to be created for the high-speed rail link to leave the city. The number of properties likely to come within the ambit of the exceptional hardship scheme elsewhere along the proposed route cannot be very great. I put that point to the Minister of State at Transport Question Time the other day.

It cannot be beyond the wit of man and woman for officials in the Department to get in touch directly with each household on the route and ensure that they know about the exceptional hardship scheme. It must be known which properties will be affected. I find it strange that details of the scheme have been advertised in local newspapers in Buckinghamshire, but not, as far as I can see, in Oxfordshire, even though a chunk of the route goes through my constituency, which definitely is and always has been in Oxfordshire. It must be possible to explain to the householders exactly what is being proposed, especially as construction on the high speed link is unlikely to start until 2017. Between now and then, many people may understandably want to sell their properties at the proper market value under the exceptional hardship or statutory blight schemes.

It would be extremely helpful if the Minister and the Government set out the proposed timetable and the various mechanisms that will be used. There will clearly be a lengthy consultation process, which is sensible. The Government have learned that it is sensible to make such processes as judicial review-proof as possible. On the comments of the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson), when the railways were built originally, lawyers were not so quick to rush to the courts for judicial review. Ministers in the Department will have realised only last week that if they cut corners, as they sought to do with the third runway at Heathrow, judges will tell them to go back and start again. There must be more haste and less speed. It is sensible to ensure that there is plenty of time for the consultation process.

I suspect that two things are likely to emerge from the consultation. First, there will be a number of suggestions about how the existing preferred route might be mitigated to avoid certain towns and properties through tunnelling or other mitigating features. Secondly, there will be suggestions for different lines of route, perhaps going towards Milton Keynes. As we are coming up to an election and are likely to be asked about these matters on the doorstep, perhaps the Minister could explain how the Department envisages such matters being dealt with. Will the final preferred route be decided on by Ministers or by a planning inquiry? What statutory procedures will ultimately be used to take the project forward? A balance must be struck between protecting the legitimate interests of people whose properties and communities might be affected and ensuring that Britain gets the high speed rail link that it needs in a timely fashion.

It is well known that the Opposition believe that the high speed rail link should be extended. It should run not just between London and Birmingham, but should link up to other major cities such as Manchester and Leeds, and to Heathrow. One of the most important benefits that the high speed rail link could bring people
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in the west midlands would be a link to the UK's main airport hub. Without that, they do not feel that it will be of the same value because it will just go between Birmingham and London.

It would be extremely helpful if Ministers did two things this side of the election. First, they could ensure that officials or the company concerned get in touch with householders who might be directly affected by the exceptional hardship scheme and discuss with them how it will operate. I understand that there has to be a consultation on the exceptional hardship scheme to make sure that it is judicial review-proof as well. However, it would be helpful to give householders an indication of the likely timetable for the exceptional hardship scheme so they know when it will kick in. Inevitably, some families would have been in the process of selling their homes when they found themselves caught up in this scheme. I know of one such family in my constituency, who are now finding it difficult to sell their home. Such households are anxious to know when they will be able to sell their homes and benefit from the exceptional hardship scheme. It cannot be beyond the wit of the Department to carry out the straightforward exercise of telling those who will be most directly affected how their interests can be protected.

Once that is done, everyone else can sensibly engage in the consultation process about whether the existing preferred route or possible alternative routes would be best. It would also be helpful if the Minister set out clearly for the House the timetable he envisages for between now and when it is hoped work will start in 2017, including the various steps of consultations, inquiries and statutory measures such as legislation.

11.36 am

Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab): I will start by being extremely parochial. I believe that Britain needs a high speed train network, if only to bring about a massive reduction in the harmful number of short-haul flights. I am pleased that High Speed 1, the channel tunnel rail link, comes into St. Pancras. It is greatly to the credit of this Government that they spotted that it made no sense to have the channel tunnel with no rail link and built that link. I welcome the Government's grasp of the need for a high speed network. However, to be parochial, I cannot support the scale of the work proposed at Euston.

That area, which I represent, is densely built-up and populated. The railway engineers are treating it like a greenfield site. The proposals will involve massive demolition that will affect various office blocks, a couple of hotels, a couple of warehouses and, more importantly, the homes of about 350 people. They will also involve concreting over about two thirds of a local park. It is clear from looking at a map of Euston station or from going there that there is a huge amount of wasted space in its curtilage. The railway engineers therefore need to take a much more imaginative approach and not think that they can just draw a line on the map and decide that they will get the necessary land.

There is a wider concern. A group of railway engineers believes that Euston is the wrong station and that it would be better to bring the proposed link into Paddington.
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That would involve far less tunnelling, which is an expensive item, would remove the need to build a new station at Old Oak and would automatically connect the high speed link with Heathrow via the Heathrow Express and Crossrail, neither of which run through Euston.

I believe that the Government should take a wider look. It is not reasonable for them to say that they have looked at the matter secretly and that the idea they have come up with is the only thing anybody can consider. The first thoughts are not always the best. I remember when probably the self same engineers proposed that the channel tunnel rail link should come into a huge cavern to be excavated under King's Cross station. Local people denounced that as barmy, which was eventually accepted. I can reasonably claim to be the first person who suggested that High Speed 1 should be brought into St. Pancras station instead, which has been a great success.

However, there is an even wider consideration. Personally, the more I consider the concept, the more dubious I am about a Y-shaped network, with a single stem or leg proceeding from one station in London up to Birmingham, before rightly branching out and dividing, with one arm of the Y going to the north-west and the other through the east midlands to the north-east. Is having just one leg coming into London-only one route in and out-sensible? If anything were to block that route, the whole high speed network would, in effect, cease to exist. That could be the result of a major accident or, sadly, of terrorist activity blowing up part of the stem. If that were to happen, the network would cease to function.

I accept that connections between east and west are a good idea, so that people coming from the north-east can get to the west midlands and, similarly, people coming from the north-west can get to the east midlands. That is a sound idea. However, the letter X has a lot more merit than Y-two connections into London stations, rather than a singular, monopoly connection into Euston. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) mentioned, facilitating a direct connection with High Speed 1 would then be possible, which would be another merit of the system.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): On the shape, would my right hon. Friend agree that the difficulty with a Y-shaped link is the potential for downgrading the midland main line to little more than a commuter line? Such a case would significantly disadvantage people in the east midlands.

Frank Dobson: I accept my hon. Friend's point. However, a new high speed link could have that effect on various parts of the existing system-which my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle mentioned-particularly if there were not the investment.

I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that the proposals for Euston are not satisfactory, but are grotesquely in excess of what is necessary. The Government should at least give us the case for rejecting the Paddington idea, which I believe was considered. More fundamentally, they need to take a serious look at whether the concept of having the only connection to the high speed network coming into one station in London is sound, safe and secure. The Victorians were bad at some things, but they were good at building railways-although they always went broke afterwards.

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11.44 am

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) on securing the debate, which is on an important subject. I agree with a great deal of what he said and, somewhat disturbingly, with quite a lot of what the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) said.

Quite a lot of the constituency that I represent-even more after the boundary changes, I hope-would be cut through by the proposed route for High Speed 2, so I have a direct interest in the subject. None the less, I support the principle of a high speed rail link between London and Birmingham for the reasons given by the hon. Gentleman. We will have capacity problems on our existing railway lines, whether the west coast main line or the Chiltern line, by 2026 when we hope the new line will be operational. I also agree with him that it is sensible, therefore, to plan for a railway line for the future, rather than one for the past, with a high speed railway line.

Support for the principle of a high speed rail line, however, must be conditional on certain things. First, having a line simply between London and Birmingham is not adequate-it must go further north than Birmingham, whether as a Y-shaped or an X-shaped structure. The new line must connect to Heathrow, although as my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) has already made clear, it would not be a choice of either central London or Heathrow but would include both. In the same way, current plans make no choice between Birmingham city centre and Birmingham international airport, but include both.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the High Speed 2 line must connect directly to the High Speed 1 line because-again as I think the right hon. Gentleman said-one of the primary arguments that I find persuasive in favour of a high speed rail link in principle is the opportunity for us to use that railway line instead of getting on a plane for a short-haul flight. It seems unlikely that we would succeed in persuading potential short-haul air passengers to use a high speed rail link instead unless they can travel directly from Manchester or Birmingham through London and the channel tunnel to Paris, Brussels or wherever their eventual destination might be. The link between the points at which High Speed 2 enters London and High Speed 1 leaves London would be crucial in persuading potential air passengers to use the train instead. For me, and for most Members of the House and indeed most of the Government, that is one of the best arguments for a high speed rail link. I note from the document and the Government's Command Paper that they have asked High Speed 2 to look at the possibility of linking the two directly. I hope that the Government will go further than that or, if they will not, that the next Government will go further than that, and make it clear that the project does not stack up or give us all the benefits it ought to unless we make that direct link.

My second point is about the route. I am interested in the route laid out by the Government, for the reasons I set out at the beginning. The first question of my constituents, certainly those directly affected by the Government's proposed route, is why on earth the high speed rail line cannot go along an existing transport
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corridor. It has already been said that there will be considerable damage done to open areas of the British countryside, through Buckinghamshire, through Oxfordshire, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said, and through Warwickshire-most importantly from my perspective. If such a case can be made, part of the case must be to explain clearly why the railway line cannot follow either a motorway corridor-for example, the M1, which would be the Milton Keynes link mentioned, or the M4 corridor-or follow an existing railway line such as the Chiltern line. A number of existing transport corridors could be followed predominantly. The advantages are obvious: we would not be cutting through virgin territory, as it were, but through areas already affected by a major transport link and, therefore, the environmental damage would be less.

The answer to why an existing corridor cannot be used may very well be that, from a technical perspective, we cannot get a straight enough railway line to carry trains at the required speed unless we build a brand-new railway line across a completely different part of the country. I am in favour of a separate set of tracks, for the reasons of future congestion given by the hon. Gentleman. However, we shall have to explain clearly to my constituents and others why we cannot use an existing transport corridor.

If the Minister's answer is, "Ah, yes, but you cannot run a train at 250 mph along a very winding piece of track and, if you put it alongside an existing transport corridor, that's what would happen," the next question would have to be why 250 mph was the magic number. Exactly how do we work out what time savings are involved in a train going at 250 mph? However, I note from the Command Paper that a train travelling at 225 mph is far more likely, even though the capacity of the line is for 250 mph. If that is the argument, I hope that the Minister can assure me about the technical information required to match up the straightness of the line with the speed at which a train can travel along it, and whether time savings would be inadequate if the trains did not travel quite as fast.

I hope all that information can be made available to us, so that we can understand exactly what the argument is. Many of my constituents accept the logic of a high speed rail line in principle, but do not follow why we are cutting a scar through a great deal of virgin countryside to achieve it, as the hon. Member for Carlisle said. How do we persuade those people-I have to say that, at this stage, I am one of them-that although we might slightly reduce the speed by having a few more curves, we could not still gain a significant time saving, which I accept is important? If we cannot do that, we need to know why. I hope that the technical information to support the Government's argument, if that is what it is, will be made available to us.

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