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Lord Whitty: My Lords, I believe that I have made my point. Whether the Green Paper will be published before or after a putative election, of which the noble Earl seems to know more than I do, is not for me tonight.
We must address the strategic problems of the future of the rail industry. The noble Lord rightly referred to the shambolic structure of the rail industry that we inherited and to the need to tighten it. The Strategic Rail Authority is central to that role. As part of its objectives, it must focus on the achievement of sustainable development. Having said that, it is not a necessary consequence that it should adopt a doctrinaire position on electrification in the way suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, and my noble friend Lord Faulkner.
Electric traction has some clear benefits, such as cleanliness, acceleration and maximum speed. It also has downsides, such as visual intrusion, the environmental impacts of the sources of electricity generation and, of course, cost-effectiveness, which feeds back into fuel efficiency. Ultimately, our concern is that we have the right mix of fuels all the way down the production line.
In regard to environmental issues, if we look, as of now, at the relative benefits of diesel traction as against electric traction, there is relatively little to choose between the most up-to-date and latest diesel trains and the electricity traction's share of power station emissions in terms of the current mixer fuels and the potential mixer fuels over the next 20 years. Improved technology and design mean that the new generation of diesel engines is significantly cleaner and quieter than the stock being replaced. Diesel traction does not face the huge fixed costs of gantries and electrical power supply.
Nevertheless, the Government recognise that there are environmental issues to be addressed in the same way as for other modes of transport. How we move to a low carbon economy in the long term will involve serious decisions on our transport system. Later this year we will issue a consultation paper, Powering Future Vehicles. This will focus on advanced battery technologies, hybrid vehicles and fuel cells. It will be mainly concerned with road transport, but these technologies will have a broader applicability across the transport sector in terms of rail and beyond. The Chancellor's statement yesterday on the green fuels challenge will provide the context for encouraging pilot projects to develop future fuels.
In this context, the environmental balance between electric traction and diesel traction is not self-evidently in favour of electricity in all circumstances. It is not the case, as my noble friend Lord Faulkner suggested, that we should always opt for electricity wherever we can. That does not mean that we are adopting a short-termism approach. The creation of the SRA, longer franchises and the 10-year plan for transport are designed to avoid short-term decisions. However, electrification proposals would need to be assessed in a way which reflected the long-term life of the assets and would need to take into account long-term environmental sustainability issues. The framework is
Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, does the Minister accept that issues such as residual value have to be taken into account? That would require the Government giving consent, as they have to, for the SRA to allow residual values to be taken into account in letting franchises. As demonstrated in Switzerland, the benefit of electric assets lasts for about 60 years. That is much, much longer than diesel.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, without necessarily accepting those figures, clearly, as I said earlier, we should consider whole life value, whole life carbon content and whole life sustainability in the approach we adopt. I accept that.
My noble friend Lord Faulkner also referred to particular places--Penzance, North Wales and so on--which would have benefited from BR's electrification plans had they gone forward in the 1980s and beyond. I accept some of that, but we must not overlook the improvements which are shortly to be delivered, for example, on Virgin's cross-country routes, where new diesel trains will improve journey times substantially.
Of course there is concern about the reliability of some new trains, both diesel and electric. The disruption which can be caused in a particular place--whether by a tragic accident or anything else--is a real problem. However, electrifying lines does not increase the flexibility for dealing with such disruptions because electric stock can be used only on electrified lines. There is a difficulty caused by having a half and half situation, which is bound to prevail for at least a substantial period ahead even were we to adopt the noble Lord's preference for electrification over the longer term.
The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, referred to access to Felixstowe. We are committed to improving access to Felixstowe. The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, referred to electrification more generally by stealth. It is quite difficult to do anything by stealth in the railway industry. He referred to the lines from Manchester to Liverpool and from Leeds to York. My noble friend Lady Farrington was particularly interested in the Preston to Blackpool line, for which she expressed some enthusiasm. I agree that access to Blackpool should definitely be improved. Whether electrification in those circumstances is appropriate would need to be considered on a case-by-case basis. It is important that some of those lines are upgraded, both for their own traffic and as alternatives to other main line routes.
The Government--and this is also reflected in Scotland--believe that passengers are more concerned about punctual, reliable, clean and comfortable trains than about the form of traction that is actually pulling
Tonight's debate has shown that, although there is some enthusiasm for electrification--electrification, even in my position, will undoubtedly represent value for money in particular cases--the case for large-scale, general electrification is not self-evidently clear. I accept that the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, is right in that had we gone forward with electrification in 1980, we would be reaping the benefits now. However, as my noble friend Lord Berkeley said, "We are where we are". I cannot argue with that.
If we take a look ahead from this point, it is not necessarily the case that in all circumstances electrification is a sensible measure. In many cases, in any assessment regarding the environment and costs, diesel traction with the improved environmental effects of diesel trains and improved fuel efficiency will continue to be better. We need to consider these cases on their merits. I welcome the interest shown by noble Lords in this debate, which will undoubtedly be conveyed one way or another to the SRA for its consideration.
Earl Attlee: My Lords, using that well-developed art called "hindsight", can the noble Lord say whether the previous government were, therefore, correct not to spend all the money required to electrify the western region?
Lord Whitty: No, my Lords. As I said, had we gone forward with electrification in 1980, as advocated by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, we would undoubtedly be reaping the benefits now. The stock and the infrastructure would be in place, and further forward investment in electrification would, therefore, be achieved at relatively marginal cost. At that point, the environmental benefit of electricity was dramatically better than the environmental impact of diesel. The situation is much more marginal now. The decisions to be taken now are different in cost terms, because the relativity has improved in favour of diesel by about 25 per cent over those 20 years. If we had that infrastructure in place, we would not have to engage in a substantial infrastructure investment to produce an electric railway, and we would clearly be benefiting from it now.
Therefore, the Strategic Rail Authority has to take a view on what is the most beneficial form of investment as from now, given the infrastructure and the rolling stock that we inherited. Those decisions are now more finely balanced between diesel and electric. In many cases, the immediate decision will be in favour of diesel. However, we need to look at these matters on a case-by-case basis, especially for short stretches of
Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for giving way. If we are to adopt a piecemeal line-by-line approach, can he explain to us why other European railways have decided that a network approach, and a strategic decision to electrify large parts of their network, is the right way forward? For example, all the main lines in France are now almost entirely electrified, and more electrification is planned. Is it a case of them getting it wrong, while we are getting it right? Alternatively, are they getting it right and we are getting it wrong?
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