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Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I also understand that it was 26 miles until the London Olympics in 1908 when the 385 yards were added so that the finish could be in front of the Royal Box. That illustrates the importance of taking accurate advice; otherwise personal statements are required to correct any misleading of the House, which would be quite inappropriate.
In Railtrack's view, the existing network could accommodate an extra two trains a day in each direction, and there is almost certainly scope, if necessary, to operate more trains at weekends. Indeed, my eye was caught by a recent article in Lloyd's List, the shipping paper, which reported that, in the first two months of 1997, rail traffic via the port has increased by 30 per cent. compared to the same period last year. This clearly shows that there is capacity in the railway network for growth, and that the port, Railtrack and Freightliners are co-operating effectively to maximise the potential of rail freight. Nonetheless, to answer the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, Freightliners would clearly have difficulty in the longer term if the port of Felixstowe's forecasts for ever-increasing numbers of containers are accurate.
Freightliners, Railtrack, the port and the local authority have been discussing this issue for some time, and when my noble friend Lord Marlesford first asked a Starred Question with regard to this issue, discussions had been underway for some time. Towards the end of February, Railtrack decided that a commercial case existed for a programme of improvements to the Felixstowe branch line. The company announced towards the end of February that it is to upgrade the line, investing around £6 million in a modern signalling system and a track extension. I welcome the sentiments expressed by my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever in a very concise speech about the rail freight industry when he said that that investment will be of considerable importance and will produce considerable benefits for the track and for the amount of container traffic that will be able to utilise it.
Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove: My Lords, the Minister may not come to this, but I referred to a number of complaints from Railtrack's users about high prices, inefficiency and delays due to "improvements". I wonder whether the Minister had heard any such complaints; or have I been misinformed?
Viscount Goschen: My Lords, it is of great importance to get the balance of the charging structure right. We want to ensure that we have a framework whereby Railtrack makes a return. Track access charges are clearly a major part of that. The independent regulator has a strong role to play in this and I firmly believe that in a privatised monopoly, such as Railtrack,
The new signalling system will use the latest fibre-optic technology and will be designed greatly to improve service reliability. This work will be carried out in conjunction with an extension to a passing loop on the route which will enable freight trains to pass each other on the branch.
Lord Marlesford: My Lords, before my noble friend, in his most helpful and encouraging speech, leaves the point, I mentioned one matter with which he has not yet dealt, although perhaps he was about to come to it. I refer to the question of the 44-tonne lorries. There is a danger that, if the Government gave permission for 44-tonne lorries, that would totally unbalance the equation between rail freight and road freight.
Frankly, I cannot envisage that any government, whether this Government--this Government having been re-elected as obviously I hope will happen--or another government (should there be a change) will find it possible to provide the expenditure on roads that will be necessary to accommodate 44-tonne lorries. I know that the Government still have the matter under consideration, so it may well be premature and unreasonable to ask my noble friend to reveal the Government's thinking on this, but I believe that this is a serious point which is very relevant to the equation between road freight and rail freight.
Viscount Goschen: My Lords, my noble friend was quite right to raise the issue of 44-tonne lorries, to which I will turn. There has been a consultation exercise but no decision has yet been reached. I understand the point that he makes. My noble friend will be aware that in the consultation document the various arguments for and against any such move are carefully weighed. We have no doubt that his comments are relevant to this important issue, particularly when we have an interest in getting the balance right.
Earl Attlee: My Lords, it appears that the argument for the adoption of 44-tonne lorries is unsurmountable in environmental terms. If it is assumed that eventually 44-tonners will be adopted, is it not a good idea to maintain the differential in aid of intermodal operation so that there is always an advantage to rail freight in having an even higher gross train weight for such operations?
Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I certainly recognise my noble friend's experience in the field of heavy transport. I believe that his words carry considerable weight in your Lordships' House. I recognise that there are environmental arguments both for and against such a move. I do not believe that it is appropriate for me to comment further on that issue.
On the wider question of investment in rail infrastructure, Railtrack has recently published its network management statement outlining its spending plans over the next 10 years. Railtrack plans to spend some £10 billion on the maintenance, renewal and development of the rail network between 1995 and 2001, which I understand represents a very considerable investment.
Looking forward, Railtrack's spending on the rail network, excluding day-to-day maintenance, is expected to average some £1 billion a year over the next 10 years. This includes more than £1.5 billion on renewing and upgrading the West Coast Main Line, allowing the introduction of high speed tilting trains and £600 million on Thameslink 2000.
The Government have consistently provided carefully targeted support for the rail freight industry through the freight grants regime. The scheme was introduced in 1974. Since then the Government have continually renewed its effectiveness and have introduced enhancements to the regime on several occasions since 1979, as my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever correctly noted. In particular, recent changes have made the scheme more accessible for intermodal freight, culminating in a track access grant to Freightliners that may be worth up to £75 million over five years.
Since 1979 over 150 grants have helped to secure the movement of freight by rail which would otherwise have moved by road. It is estimated that freight carried using facilities funded by grants amounts to about 12 per cent. by volume of all rail freight in Britain. All told, we believe that the freight grants scheme is responsible for removing about three million lorry movements from our roads every year.
It is important to provide the necessary conditions to allow the rail freight business to flourish. However, in the case of Felixstowe rail links, it is particularly pleasing to see that Railtrack is taking appropriate steps to improve the infrastructure.
A particular point was raised in relation to EWS and Railtrack. I understand that they are talking about negotiating a new track access charging deal which may attract freight to rail. However, any new deal would have to be approved by the rail regulator, as I said in response to a question from the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove. So I cannot comment in definitive detail in advance about such an arrangement, save to say that any such arrangement would have to be agreed by the independent regulator.
During the course of this Parliament we have had the most vigorous political debate on the issue of rail privatisation. The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove, and his noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis and I have clashed swords on a number of occasions since the introduction of the Railways Bill in l993. Those debates engendered considerable heat, but I believe that we have seen considerable progress. That