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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 9 June 2010

[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

High Speed Rail

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Angela Watkinson.)

9.30 am

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): May I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Betts, and express my pleasure at having secured an Adjournment debate on such an important matter? Colleagues who were here before the election will know that this is not the first time I have spoken about high speed rail in Westminster Hall-indeed, it is not the first time I have secured a debate on the subject. High speed rail is a matter of particular importance to my constituency and my city, as it is to many other parts of the UK, which is why I am a long-standing campaigner for it.

As the years have gone by, the case for high speed rail in the UK has become stronger. In the past five years, the number of passengers travelling on the rail lines has risen by about 40% and freight has risen by 60%. Given the urgent need to tackle climate change by encouraging travellers to shift from air and road transport to rail, the case for investment in high speed rail becomes even stronger. The case for high speed rail relates not only to the new lines that it would create, but to the capacity that it would free up on existing lines.

I was greatly encouraged by the previous Government's announcement in March of a new line from London to Birmingham as the first phase of a network that would lead to Manchester and Leeds, and thereafter to Glasgow and Edinburgh. Members will recall that that was based on a report by High Speed 2 Ltd, which the Government established a year earlier. It was envisaged that construction would start in 2017, following the completion of Crossrail, and that the network would be opened in phases from 2026. The estimated cost of taking the line as far as Manchester and Leeds was £30 billion.

We seem to have reached a considerable degree of political consensus on the development of high speed rail in Great Britain. That will obviously be necessary because of the long time scale over which any such network will be developed. It will take many decades to build a complete network, which will obviously involve many Governments and, no doubt, many political parties. I welcome the fact that, along with the commitment from my party, there now appears to be a general political consensus on the need to develop a high speed rail network in the UK.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and commend him for his support for high speed rail. Will he acknowledge that, even in the present circumstances, he and his constituents can travel from Edinburgh to London in about four hours, whereas the shortest journey time from Aberdeen to London, only a further 110 miles, is seven and a half hours? Does he therefore agree that a
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high speed rail link must also ensure that there are fast links to connect to any high speed network that is developed?

Mark Lazarowicz: The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I do not want to intrude on matters that are the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, but one of the important aspects of the debate on high speed rail is the need for discussions and co-operation between the UK Government and the Scottish Government, to ensure that the network will benefit not only the cities that it serves directly, but places further along the line, even if those places are not part of the network from the start. I will return to that point later. In due course the network should extend to not only the UK's largest cities, but most major cities. I am sure that Aberdeen would qualify as such.

Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): Edinburgh is terribly important, but so are the English regions. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a real risk, rumours of which the previous trains Minister did nothing to dispel, that money will be leached from regional and provincial rail networks to fund high speed rail? High speed rail should be welcomed, of course, but we must also remember the needs of many of our constituents who depend on lesser rail networks.

Mark Lazarowicz: I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's comments. I certainly did not hear those rumours, but his colleague the Minister will no doubt reassure him that she will be able to combine her commitment to high speed rail with the interests of his constituents.

I welcomed the fact that the Conservatives declared in their manifesto that

That was an unqualified commitment to start work immediately, not just as soon as possible. I welcome the Minister to the debate and congratulate her on her appointment. I know of her commitment to high speed rail. Indeed, so unqualified was her manifesto's promise that I am almost surprised to see her here today, as she might have been out on the building sites with a hard hat and a bulldozer, starting work on the line immediately.

The Liberal Democrats were, somewhat out of character, a little more cautious about their spending commitments on this issue. Nevertheless, they vowed to set up

In the coalition agreement, the two parties stated:

However, the agreement then stated:

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The prospect of work beginning on high speed rail is not so immediate now, it would appear. By the time of the Queen's Speech, we were promised a hybrid Bill in due course.

To be blunt, one of my purposes in securing this debate was to test the strength of the coalition Government's commitment to high speed rail. I have no doubts about the Minister's commitment, but we need to know whether the coalition agreement means what it says. Did the coalition parties mean what they said in their pre-election manifestos, or was it just pre-election bluster? Will they really push it with the determination and leadership needed, or will they find excuses to delay it until some long-distant date? If the Minister gives the type of commitment that she gave before the election, she will certainly have support across the House for the development of proposals to introduce such a scheme, although the details may of course lead to debate.

I therefore have several questions for the Minister, which I hope she will be able to answer today. There are quite a few, but there are none that she should be surprised to be asked, so I hope that she will have answers today or at least some time soon. When do the new Government envisage bringing forward the necessary legislation for High Speed 2? I am not suggesting that the Minister should give an exact date, but a hybrid Bill could take years to go through Parliament so we need some idea of how it will fit into the Government's programme. Does she agree with the previous Government's assessment, as set out in their document on High Speed 2, produced earlier this year, that

Does the Minister agree that HS2 Ltd should now begin similar detailed planning work on the routes from Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds, to be completed by summer 2011 with a view to consulting the public early in 2012? What steps do the Government intend to take to establish a company or other mechanism to deliver the project? What is their target date, in broad terms, for work to start on a new line?

Are the Government still committed to a high speed network that will serve the whole UK, including Edinburgh and Glasgow? I certainly hope that they are. If they are committed to that, do they have any views on the route that such a line should take, and when do they envisage that the line will reach Edinburgh and Glasgow? It will be unacceptable if there is not a commitment from the start that the line will reach Scotland, because high speed rail will bring real economic benefits to the cities and regions along the route, and those cities that are either not directly linked or that have indirect links with the network would certainly lose out.

Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He suggested the need for a commitment that the high speed network would run to Edinburgh, but I do not recall ever hearing that commitment from the previous Labour Administration before the general election.

Mark Lazarowicz: The previous Government made it clear from the outset that high speed train services would reach Edinburgh and Glasgow in due course. As the hon. Gentleman should know, I have been pushing
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for high speed rail for some time. I pushed the previous Government, and I intend to push this Government as hard as I pushed the previous one. If he wants high speed rail to go to places north of Manchester, I hope that he will put the same kind of pressure on his Government as I used to put on mine. I believe that we all want high speed rail to serve the nations and regions of the UK, so let us try to keep up the consensus and the pressure.

As I said, there are real economic benefits for all the communities and cities along the route of a high speed line. Research shows that cutting the journey time between Birmingham and London from 84 to 49 minutes would increase Birmingham's annual economic output by £1.4 billion, or about 6%. The economic benefits of high speed rail would be more than £10 billion a year for the north-west and about £19 billion for Scotland. In total, 64,000 additional jobs would be created as a consequence.

There is an overwhelming case for extending the line to Scotland, to increase the number of business and tourist passengers travelling not just to and from London, but from the north of England to Scotland. Prosperity would spread much more than if the line were restricted to the south and south-east of England, and the UK as a whole would benefit as a result.

Mike Crockart (Edinburgh West) (LD): I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important subject. He will know that my predecessor John Barrett also worked tirelessly on this matter, and I intend to continue his support for it in this Parliament. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the greatest argument for extending the high speed rail line is an environmental one? For example, if we manage to drive London to Edinburgh journey times down to two hours 40 minutes, which is eminently possible, there would be a similar switch from air to rail, as happened when the Madrid to Barcelona line opened. That resulted in a 50% reduction in the number of flights between the two cities. If the same happened with Edinburgh and London, there would be 700,000 fewer air journeys between them.

Mark Lazarowicz: The hon. Gentleman is correct. Indeed, there has been increased use of the Manchester to London service as a result of the upgrade to the west coast main line, and we have seen the same with the London to Paris and Brussels services as well.

The point that the hon. Gentleman made about the benefits from reducing journey times particularly applies in respect of cities that are further away from London. The greatest journey time reductions will allow the greatest benefits in environmental and economic terms-and, indeed, in terms of convenience to passengers. That is why I hope that the Government will give a definite commitment to extend high speed rail to the north of England and to Scotland.

As the hon. Gentleman said, environmental benefits will be particularly important. Transport currently accounts for more than 20% of UK carbon emissions, so high speed rail has a role to play in that respect as well. Reducing journey times from London to Edinburgh to just over two hours could result in 80% of the current travel market between Scotland and London being captured by high speed rail. Even at three hours, with a partial high speed rail network, 67% of the travel between
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Scotland and London could be captured by high speed rail, so there are certainly environmental and transport benefits as well as economic ones.

In that respect, I have two other questions that I hope the Minister will address today or at another time. First, what is the Government's view on whether the line should run to Heathrow or a connector station at Heathrow, or simply offer a connecting service, as the previous Government advocated? I am aware that there were criticisms of that decision, and I believe that she shared them. Certainly she made such criticisms before she was a Minister, so I would be interested to hear her current view on whether the line should serve Heathrow directly.

I would also like to hear the Minister's views on whether there should be a link from a new high speed line north of London to the existing line from London to the south-east, France, Belgium and beyond. If there were no link-I hope there will be one-passengers from Scotland and the north would be less likely to use the high speed rail line for journeys to the continent, and travellers from the continent would be less likely to use it to travel north. Clearly, if there were no direct link, there would be less use of those services as well.

I hope that today the Minister can give some indication of how the Government will take the plans forward, and to answer the questions in their entirety, or at least to a great extent. I would like to hear a reiteration of the commitments that were given before the general election. I hope that today we will not hear from the Government any excuses that, because of the financial situation they claim to have inherited-we had all those excuses yesterday in the debate on the Queen's Speech-they cannot make any further commitment to high speed rail at this stage.

I hope that we will not get that line later this morning. It would be unacceptable for several reasons. First, it should hardly surprise the Government parties that a high speed line would require major expense. If they did not realise that, they should not have made such sweeping promises in their manifestos. Secondly, the spending on high speed rail would, of course, be some time in the future. There will be many years of preparation involving planning, legal and parliamentary approval and so on. We are talking about commitments that will last for 10, 20 or 30 years, and I do not believe that anyone-not even those in the Government parties who make the most pessimistic forecasts-would suggest that the current economic circumstances will last for 10, 20 or 30 years.

Thirdly, the commitments, although large in their totality, are not actually as substantial as many other Government commitments. The cost of a line from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds is estimated at £30 billion spread over 10 years. Compared with many other Government commitments, that is not as expensive as might be thought at first. And, of course, there are the wider economic benefits that I have already set out and the fact that the costs of high speed rail do not all have to come from public subsidy. Some of the public subsidy would be recouped from commercial income from passenger and goods traffic if the traffic projections and estimates are reflected in reality.

On the extension to Scotland, there are issues around the role in linking up services and the financial commitment from the Scottish Government as part of the devolution arrangements. I would be interested in hearing from the Minister about what discussions the coalition and her
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Department are having with the Scottish Government on how high speed rail could be funded in Scotland, and on how it would link up with existing rail services in Scotland.

Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): My hon. Friend makes a powerful case, and I look forward to the Minister's reply. The economic, transport and environmental benefits of a working high speed system are well known, but the gap between transport investment in the south-east and London and that in the rest of the country has been growing. It is not just that there is a gap but that it has been growing. Does he think that there is a case for starting to invest in the system not in London but much farther north, and then building south, rather than building north from the south?

Mark Lazarowicz: My hon. Friend makes a good case and raises valid points. He is right to point out that there has been a concentration of transport investment in the south-east of England. The Scottish Government have a role to play in developing services beyond Edinburgh and Glasgow, but, bluntly, it would be wrong for Scotland to pay for the bit from the border northward because, after all, it is part of the same UK-wide service. The same would apply to Manchester and the regions of England as well.

In this debate, I have avoided getting too involved in the exact details of routes, apart from the important exception of Heathrow, and exactly when and where they will start, because the case for high speed rail as a whole is in danger of being undermined by discussion of some of the detail. However, I accept my hon. Friend's fundamental point: there is no reason why work should start from London and move northward, or why it cannot start from some other city at the same time. Clearly, phasing would allow benefits to be brought to other places en route, and I would be interested to hear the Minister's views on that in due course.

The method of securing funding for a new line also has a bearing on another important issue in this debate, which is the environmental case to which the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart) referred. By itself, high speed rail does not guarantee substantial carbon reductions. Certain arguments and research make that clear. Carbon reductions depend partly on the energy source providing the electricity, how the route is to be constructed and, to a great extent, on the degree to which there is a modal shift from air and road to rail as a result of high speed rail services being developed.

A modal shift can be encouraged by shifting expenditure from new roads to high speed rail, which I support, and by using transport taxation to encourage that shift and raise the funds for public investment in high speed rail. The Liberal Democrat wing of the coalition suggested in its election manifesto that it would raise an extra £9 billion a year from airline and passenger taxation, and if that is taken forward in the agreement between the coalition parties it could provide substantial funds for high speed rail. I am interested in hearing the Minister, or any Liberal Democrat colleagues, respond to that point.

I am sure that the Minister is not surprised that I have asked a lot of questions. I hope that she will respond as far as she can. I pay tribute to her commitment to high
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speed rail before the election. Like all Ministers, she will no doubt have battles to fight in her Department and beyond to keep high speed rail firmly at the top of the Government's agenda, and I am sure that she expects me and other colleagues to pursue these matters vigorously if she does not. I hope that she gives us good news today-reaffirms the Government's commitment to high speed rail and tells right hon. and hon. Members how she will bring it about.

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