Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): It is good to see my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Transport, who will respond to the debate. I hope that she will forgive me, and that hon. and right hon. Members will do so too, if I am unable to stay for the winding-up speeches. I am standing for the chairmanship of an all-party group, the annual general meeting of which is being convened this morning at a time to suit colleagues in another place.
The comments made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) and my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart) demonstrate and reinforce a point about high speed rail that Lord Adonis made to me before the general election, which was that everyone wants the stations but no one wants the track. We will all have to manage that in bringing about a commitment made by both Government parties in their manifestos at the general election and in the coalition agreement, which is in the Queen's Speech and is expected to be delivered.
I shall not repeat any of the sensible questions asked by the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith, which I am sure my right hon. Friend the Minister will be able to answer. I wish to ask three specific questions on various points.
First, may I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Minister that it would help if, at some point in the near future, she wrote a "Dear colleague" letter to every colleague in the House, setting out in straightforward terms the legislative process and the timetable that the Government intend to pursue, so that we can share them with our constituents? It is a pity that the previous Government brought the project forward just before the general election. We all understand why: the previous Prime Minister wanted to make what he thought was a decent press announcement-he went to Birmingham to make it-but that meant that the process got rather confused. It would help if hon. and right hon. Members were able to share the relevant information with our constituents.
Secondly, on speed, Eurostar goes at 300 kph-186 mph -and those of us who have been on it know that that is pretty fast. High Speed 2 is due to go at 400 kph, which is 250 mph and considerably faster than Eurostar. More straight track is needed for a very fast train, which means less opportunity for mitigation or variation of the route to accommodate settlements, towns or important topographical features. I hope that, at some stage, there will be an opportunity to have an informed debate about what are the cost-benefits of a very fast train as opposed to a fast train, and what is the real benefit of 250 mph over 186 mph, so that we can consider the options between them.
Thirdly, on community engagement, my right hon. Friend the Minister will not be surprised that my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), Mr Speaker, whose constituency adjoins our constituencies, and I will be working together with our local communities, which are concerned about the possible impact of the route on them. The route runs close to the sizeable town of Brackley in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire. Will the Government consider complete alternatives to the routes in the consultation, to what extent are they willing to consider mitigation or variation of the existing route, how will they engage with the communities and how can that debate be informed?
"We welcome the vision of HS2 as a low carbon backbone of a sustainable transport system. By removing fast trains from the overcrowded lines north of London, space will be created for local passenger and freight services too."
Even campaigning groups such as the CPRE recognise that there are considerable benefits to be had from HS2. However, such organisations have long experience in engaging with Government on issues of this kind. It would help if Ministers said how they intend to engage with our constituents and communities on the impact of the track on individual communities and constituencies.
I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport proposes to walk the route later in the summer, which seems sensible. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister give an undertaking that, when that happens, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will engage with colleagues so that we can ensure that, in respect of each constituency or groups of constituencies, there can be positive, constructive engagement between him and local communities on comments people have to make about mitigation or variation of the route?
I would like to emphasise a point made forcefully by the CPRE. It is evident that people are keen on the stations, because those will make linkage between parts of the United Kingdom much quicker and obviate the need for a third runway at Heathrow. There are all sorts of self-evident benefits. However, the benefits are not so self-evident for those who have the track going through their parishes or back gardens.
The benefit to people of a motorway going through their county or area is that it is part of the local infrastructure, and they can join and leave it. There will not be a station between London and Birmingham, so those living in that area will have limited direct benefit from HS2. However, there may be other ways in which communities can be compensated so that damage might be mitigated-for example, undergrounding existing electricity transmission lines on the HS2 route, creating new local rail services and reducing noise from existing roads.
"Some of the spare capacity freed up on rail lines could be used to create new cross-country passenger services",
such as a High Wycombe-Aylesbury-Northampton route. It is important that when my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Minister of State engage with local communities on the route of HS2 across England they consider the benefits that the initiative and project may have for local communities, so that we see not just
clear mitigation, but a clear and immediate local benefit, rather than just a contribution to an initiative for the betterment of the country as a whole.
If we engage constructively and sensibly in dialogue during the coming months and if we all have a clear understanding of what we are trying to achieve, that will assist the Government and substantially reduce the risk of numerous judicial reviews. As my right hon. Friend knows, nothing is more frustrating when timing a Government project than various parties feeling frustrated by the process and that they need to go to judicial review.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to her post and hope that, following our questioning today, she will write to us all in the not-too-distant future with a clear explanation that we can share with our constituents, who are, understandably, worried about the process.
Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester South) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on obtaining this timely debate on an undoubtedly important issue. Those of us who use the midland main line-I know that you do, Mr Betts-are well aware of the enormous success of High Speed 1, not least because when we arrive at St Pancras we must fight our way through the crowds disgorged from trains from Paris and Brussels.
The prospect of another high-speed line in the United Kingdom is exciting, and I join my hon. Friend in welcoming that prospect and the fact that the new Government have picked up the previous Government's commitment to construct such a line. However, as the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said, it will have an environmental price, and he was right to remind us that there will be a trade-off between speed and the environmental damage that that might cause. I urge the Government to examine that trade-off carefully, and to consider whether there are prospects for using existing transport corridors to achieve the same results at a lower environmental cost.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith referred to the difference between this Government's proposals and those of the previous one for the service to Heathrow. There are serious doubts about whether it is sensible to use Heathrow as a terminus for the high-speed line instead of somewhere that is well served with a link to the high-speed line. It is unlikely that someone travelling from London to Birmingham or Manchester would want their journey to be diverted via Heathrow. That would not make much sense to them. The benefits of serving Heathrow may be achieved in another way by ensuring an adequate link to the airport instead of diverting the line.
I want to take this opportunity, when welcoming the Government's commitment to high-speed rail, to press them for an assurance that construction of such a line in phases at some time in the future-who knows when it will be constructed?-should not be at the expense of continuing investment in the existing classic or conventional network. Parts of that network are undoubtedly under desperate strain and people who travel on it-often those who commute daily-must stand for much of their journey. Much could be done to relieve their suffering with continued investment in rolling stock, on
which the previous Government had made a commitment, and in longer platforms and a generally better service.
Graham Stringer: My hon. Friend is going to the nub of the debate on future investment in the rail service. Given the time required for the development of high-speed rail, I do not believe that it is a threat to regional services. Does he agree that the real choice before the Government and the country is whether to continue with Crossrail or with regional services, and that we simply cannot afford Crossrail at the moment?
Sir Peter Soulsby: Having served for some 18 months on the Select Committee that considered the Crossrail Bill, I have a personal commitment to its completion. My hon. Friend argued earlier that investment in rail has been skewed towards London and the south-east at the expense of other parts of the country, but that is not an argument for ditching what is an important part of the transport infrastructure in our capital city.
There is concern that high-speed rail may be seen as a panacea. It should not be built at the expense of the investment that the Association of Train Operating Companies argued for to open lines that are unused or used for goods, and the opportunities that would be generated thereby for reconnecting to the rail network communities that are currently unconnected. Above all, it should not be used as a pretext for not continuing the investment in electrification of the main line network.
Like you, Mr Betts, I am keen that electrification of the midland main line should be completed as soon as possible. It is already electrified as far as Bedford, and completion of electrification through to my city of Leicester and to Derby, Nottingham and your city of Sheffield, Mr Betts, will provide considerable positive cost benefits to rail users, and to the economies of the east midlands and your area of south Yorkshire, with a boost to the economy and general environment of those areas. I am worried that even if the second high-speed link is ultimately achieved and goes to somewhere in the east midlands, it will be of little benefit to those who are currently served by the midland main line if electrification of that line has not taken place and there is no link to St Pancras International and High Speed 1.
I doubt whether anyone would oppose investment in further high-speed rail in the UK. There are doubts about whether its fares will be affordable and attract a significant proportion of air passengers who would otherwise pass through Heathrow. My real concern is that it should not draw funding that would otherwise go to the conventional network. It must not lead to postponement of electrification of the existing mainline network, it must not leave rail commuters standing in unacceptable conditions on their daily commute to work, it must not leave unconnected communities that could be connected to the network, and it must not leave passengers and the environment with the prospect of old and smelly diesel traction for many years to come when relatively environmentally friendly electrification is a real possibility.
In brief, users of the existing network are unlikely to be impressed by half-promises of high-speed rail in phases, perhaps a decade and a half away, while they continue to struggle to use an existing network that is overstretched, overused and in desperate need of continued investment.
Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on an informative speech, particularly about the benefits of high-speed rail. I shall look up some of his statistics in Hansard for my own use. My constituency is in the west midlands and includes Birmingham International airport and the national exhibition centre. I shall take account of the comments made this morning, but I shall confine my remarks to the first phase of High Speed 2, for which I am a strong advocate.
Passenger numbers have risen by 40%, and freight has increased by 60% over the last five years. Clearly, there is a big appetite in this country for high-speed rail and the benefits that it can bring, which were so ably outlined by the hon. Gentleman. We need a dedicated high-speed rail line that is independent of the creaking Victorian network, although that network has served us well in the past and continues to do so. I take on board the point made by the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) that any improvements or new rail services must not be made at the expense of the existing network. We must ensure that the service improves for those who currently use our creaking commuter network, which should not be neglected in favour of high-speed rail.
We have the prospect of being able to travel from Euston to Curzon Street in Birmingham in 49 minutes. According to my figures, the train speed is 225 mph, although the hon. Member for Banbury mentioned 250 mph; either way, it is fast. We hope there will be a Crossrail interchange at Old Oak Common and we support the idea that Crossrail must go ahead; it is hugely important. Funding for Crossrail and High Speed 2 can be imaginatively secured, with a large proportion of investment coming from private industry or from some form of national infrastructure bank, as recommended by the Liberal Democrats before the general election. I am sure that it can be done and that the benefits can be proved.
We expect this phase of HS2 to start in 2017, and to have passengers on the trains in 2026. That is a long time, and I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), who intervened earlier to ask where we should start. If we can get the funding, perhaps we should start at both ends of the line so that it does not take such a long time to complete the network. I am sure the Government will look at that.
It is not all good news. There are many planning considerations and much of the investment in the first phase of HS2 will go on existing railway lines such as the Chiltern line, which will track the A413. I have a particular concern for parts of the Warwickshire countryside in the west midlands. People must be consulted properly, which, for me, means that there is no foregone conclusion-otherwise, it is not a consultation. There must be proper compensation for anyone who suffers as a result of these plans. When a second runway at Birmingham International airport was proposed, a terrible blight was created which in some cases still hangs over residents in the local area. It is important to avoid that blight, as it puts people's lives on hold and creates more misery than is necessary. On the bright side, according to research by the Department for Transport, which I read this morning, every reduction of one minute to a
commuter journey adds £1,000 to the value of a house in the relevant area. Somebody will benefit, although I am not sure who that will be in the west midlands.
The justification for HS2 must be that it is part of a wider strategy. Like the previous Government, this Government are committed to a strong carbon reduction programme. We must show that we will shift people away from the roads and the air and on to rail. The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith mentioned the Liberal Democrat plans, and part of the coalition agreement was that we will move from passenger charges on planes to a charge per plane. That will help in the reduction of carbon.
Mark Lazarowicz: I am grateful for the hon. Lady's kind comments about my opening speech. I am aware of the Liberal Democrat and Conservative policy of moving away from individual taxation. However, I think that the Liberal Democrat manifesto also suggested a potential increase in duty, which I welcome. Is that part of the coalition policy?
Increasing people's ability to travel is a bit like Boyle's law-demand expands in relation to the existing capacity. We have seen that with the motorway network. Every time new roads are built or a motorway is enlarged, traffic increases more than would be expected under normal predictions. We must be careful about that. During the three weeks the Minister has spent in her job, I do not know whether she has given any thought to how we can make it easier for people to travel less. That must obviously be an aspiration.
I will conclude by considering some of the economic benefits that HS2 would bring to the west midlands. In terms of employment, we have probably been the hardest hit of any region. We have a strong manufacturing base, but that has also been hit hard by the recession. On behalf of people in the west midlands, I am looking forward hugely to the airport link. The extension of the single runway at Birmingham International airport will mean huge inward investment, and along with the high-speed rail link to London and the north, that will make the west midlands a central economic hub, which I welcome.
The national exhibition centre will benefit hugely from the fact that High Speed 2 will stop there before moving on to Curzon Street in Birmingham. It is important to get on with this scheme. I am sure that we can use our imagination and ability so as not to damage the existing rail network, which we must work on and improve. High Speed 2 is a wonderful thing, but it is not everything. We must look at the whole picture and ensure that the experience of the rail traveller-whether on High Speed 2 or on local railways-is a good one.
Mr Clive Betts (in the Chair):
The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) is the last speaker who wishes to be called in the debate. Let me advise him that I intend to start with the contributions of the Front-Bench speakers at 10.30 am.
Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on securing this debate on the important subject of high speed rail. It is an issue that affects both his constituents and mine due to likelihood that under the current proposals, it will have no impact on them whatever. Historically, UK Governments have failed Wales on rail, and the refusal to provide a timetable for the development of a high speed rail link has put us on the backburner once again.
The last UK Government agreed to electrify the Great Western line to Swansea because of the hard work of the Transport Minister in the Welsh Government. When the previous UK Government announced the scheme, it was supposed to go only as far as Bristol, and only after the intervention of the Welsh Government did they agree to electrify the line as far as Swansea. I understand that the Conservatives have always been coy about sticking to that agreement. Will the new UK Government confirm that that electrification will take place?
Will the Government also confirm that the electrification will go further in Wales, as part of their commitment to support further electrification of the rail network? That would include, for example, the north Wales coast line, the valleys lines and the Severn tunnel diversionary line, as recommended by Railfuture Wales. In Europe, Wales is alongside Albania and Moldova in not having more than a mile of electrified rail track. What more proof do we need that the UK Government are leaving us behind?
More than just electrification of the railway lines, we need a concrete timetable for high speed rail in Wales. The proposal for a Wales high speed rail connection was first put forward by First Great Western in 2005, as part of the package of suggestions that it was making for improved rail services, linked to its bid for the new Great Western franchise. However, we are no closer to having such a connection now than we were then.