Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

I see in his place the distinguished former chairman of the Railways Board. I shall come to the question of the financing of the railways and Network Rail in a moment but, while I have the noble Lord’s attention, I suspect that if he had been told in his time of the funding he could have for the next five years it would have been a cause for celebration. The great problem in the nationalised railways era was that it was done on a year-to-year basis. Indeed, depending on the economic crisis to strike whichever Chancellor was in No. 11 at that time, it was sometimes on a month-to-month basis. Capital projects were started and then halted—I am thinking particularly of the 1960s and the modernisation of what is now Manchester Piccadilly station, which was a virtual ruin for five years largely because the Government apparently ran out of money and certainly ran out of will. Although there have been some problems about financing over the past five years, certainly the noble Lord and, I suspect, one of his distinguished successors, the late Sir Peter Parker, would have danced with joy—their dancing days may well be over—in those days at the prospect of a proper laid-down five-year plan.

I shall come in a moment to whether the money is sufficient, but we should acknowledge that the Government have done a fair job in producing the White Paper and the associated documents. I return to a point made by my noble friend Lord Berkeley about rail freight. Again, those of us who remember the nationalised railways—and I promise not to bore your Lordships with yet more stories about the signal box windows that I have peered through in the past—will be aware that rail freight, whatever it was called, was always the poor relation of the railways industry. Many of us saw freight virtually melting away before our eyes and disappearing onto the road network. The creation of competition within rail freight, particularly through the efforts of Freightliner Heavy Haul and EWS, now under German ownership, has meant a dramatic increase in the amount of freight carried on our railways.

Again, there is a different attitude among railway managers. Many of the managers I met during my time in the railway industry were very good at their jobs but they were resigned to managing an orderly decline, as it was described to me, of the railway industry. Orderly decline will not do now, and that is not the objective that is being pursued; rather, it is orderly expansion, which for years many of us have called for. I wish that those who profess to love the railways the most could occasionally praise them a little more than they do, particularly the three trade union general secretaries. Railway accidents happen very rarely, but every time one happens one of the general secretaries appears on television speaking as though the railway industry was like the wall of death, and saying that because there has been an accident something is terribly wrong. Of course things go wrong, but the fact that the railways are as safe as they are is a direct result of safety matters being taken so seriously.

All three secretaries are united in demanding the renationalisation of the railways. I speak as a former member of the National Union of Railwaymen. I look at their own membership. At the time of nationalisation

29 Nov 2007 : Column 1359

in 1948, the NUR had 1 million members. When I retired officially from BR, membership was down to 60,000. I think it is about 80,000 now; the NUR has increased its membership, as have the other two rail unions. Do we as a nation seriously want to go back to the days when senior civil servants acquiesced—or, more often than not, refused permission—to railway managers borrowing money to improve the railway system? Do we really want to go back to when a request for three extra high-speed trains for the then east coast main line could be refused by the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Transport, or whatever it is called these days? Such a policy would not be sensible, and I am glad that we are not doing that.

I turn to the question of financing and to what extent the railways are to be financed in the next control period—number four. There has been considerable debate in the railway publications, two of which I have in front of me. In the editorial column, entitled “Railtalk”, of Modern Railways magazine, the question of the funding gap is addressed:

I apologise for the acronyms. The SBP is Network Rail’s strategic business plan, and the SoFA is not what it might appear: it is the statement of funds available. There is undoubtedly a gap there. Will the Minister address that problem? It is widely acknowledged throughout the rail industry, despite the kind things I have said about a five-year period. The problem is summed up a bit more bluntly in the current issue of Rail magazine:

says Network Rail. There is undoubtedly a funding gap. What do the Government propose to do about it?

There is another big gap in the White Paper and the associated documents that the Government issued this year. Where is the mention of any further electrification? There is none. Maybe we know something the rest of the world does not. I go to Spain occasionally, and I notice the Spanish are electrifying the line down as far as Malaga. I cannot see a great business case for doing so, but who am I to comment on what someone else is doing? Yet we are apparently unable even to consider the electrification of one of our many main lines. I hear, although I do not know if it is true—perhaps the Minister could comment—that there is a belief at the department of energy that we will return at some unspecified time in the future to $20 a barrel for fuel so we should stick with diesel trains. If that is the case, I have heard some optimistic forecasts from governments of both political hues over the years but that is probably the most optimistic I have ever heard.

Are we really going to be dependent on expensive fossil fuels rather than having a proper long-term programme of electrification? The latter has virtually been ruled out. The same issue of Rail magazine, under the headline, “Minister rejects more electrification”, says:

29 Nov 2007 : Column 1360

it is not much of a vision if there are no sparks there, but that is another matter—

That is another example of Scottish Ministers irritating the rest of us madly: the Minister tells the English we cannot have the benefits of electrification, yet almost in the same week the Scottish Parliament announces the further electrification of the Edinburgh-Glasgow line. He will be fine in his home country riding up and down on an electrified railway, but he will not let the English enjoy such benefits. That is the sort of irritating anomaly that those of us who care about the railway industry are anxious to do something about.

I return to rail freight. The Road Haulage Association, greedy as ever, is now demanding 84-tonne lorries on the nation’s roads. I understand that the department is considering a trial of these juggernauts on our roads. They are road trains, and would do even more damage than the current crop of heavy goods vehicles do at present. The Germans, despite having thousands of miles of autobahn compared with our relatively few miles of motorway, have already refused such a trial in their country. The Department for Transport has done some daft things over the years, but I cannot believe that it is really going to allow 84-tonne lorries on to our roads. As well as the damage that would be caused to our road network, long-distance rail freight would immediately be undermined because someone else would pay the true track cost, as someone else does now. Despite the bully-boys of the Road Haulage Association threatening yet another blockade of our fuel stations, the two major inquiries into heavy goods vehicles during my political lifetime have both concluded that such vehicles do not pay their full track cost. Indeed, they have an 11 per cent price advantage after 10 years of a Labour Government compared to that which applied in 1997. I hope that the Minister will reject such a trial out of hand and that he will look again at the funding gap to which I referred earlier.

3.24 pm

The Earl of Glasgow: My Lords, it is surely self-evident by now that the railways are the only long-term solution to our transport problems. According to all forecasts, we can expect an ever-increasing demand for rail travel and a rise in the population in Britain.

Surely we do no want further to ruin the British landscape by building more motorways or dual carriageways, except in exceptional circumstances. If we are serious about the threat of global warming, we must cut down the number of cars and lorries on our roads. For the same reason, we must limit air travel, particularly within the United Kingdom.

What other means of travel are we left with? Buses have to compete with the rest of the traffic on our overcrowded roads, so they can never be reliable, and are unlikely ever to be comfortable unless they are half-empty. Moreover, they are hardly carbon-emission free.

Bicycling makes sense in towns and cities if you are prepared to take your life in your own hands and if it is not raining, but is not much use if you are planning

29 Nov 2007 : Column 1361

to travel from London to Manchester for a business meeting. You could perhaps do that on a motorbike, but motorbikes, like buses, can hardly claim to be a clean and environmentally friendly mode of travel. Unless someone comes up with a completely new method of travelling in the next 10 years, railways are the only answer.

Network Rail already claims the railways to be the most reliable form of travel. It is only recently that that can be said. It claims them also to be the safest, though aeroplane operators might contest that. It claims them to be the most efficient. That is certainly controversial. They should be the most comfortable and civilised form of travel, but they cannot claim to be that unless every passenger can be certain of a seat.

However, as many noble Lords have already said, passenger travel has grown by 40 per cent in the past few years and rail freight by 60 per cent. Do not let the Conservatives tell you that that is a result of privatisation; it is because the roads have become intolerably congested and parking is nearly impossible. It appears that the Government are committed to spending hundreds of millions of pounds during the next few years on upgrading the existing network. Network Rail, we hear, is going improve security at stations, lengthen platforms and release pressure on bottleneck stations such as Reading and Birmingham New Street, and train operators are going to introduce longer trains and provide improved facilities. All this sounds like good news, and it is welcome, but I would like the Minister’s assurance that it is really going to happen. Even if it is, the Government and Network Rail are doing no more than attempting to keep up with demands as they perceive them. They are not attempting to get ahead of demand. With the exception of improvements to Thameslink and the belated go-ahead for Crossrail, there are no plans to build any more railway lines, high-speed or otherwise, or, as far as I know, to reopen old ones.

The Government do not seem to have any co-ordinated transport plan for the future. How are we going to travel from one part of the country to the other in, let us say, 2020? The Government say that they do not want to commit themselves to any long-term investment, because circumstances may have changed by 2014, when they propose next to consider it. However, you do not have to be Nostradamus or the Delphic oracle to foresee that, in times of greater restraints on carbon-emitting forms of transport, the relatively clean option of the railways is the only way forward.

The Government must start to plan new railways now, the most obvious being the high-speed line from Scotland to London that links into the existing line to the Channel Tunnel. More than any other project, that would greatly reduce the necessity for so many polluting internal flights.

I imagine that the Government’s reluctance to commit to a larger rail network for the future is due primarily to cost, yet surely the planning and budgeting for proposed new lines do not cost too much. However, as far as I know, they are not planning to go ahead even with that.

29 Nov 2007 : Column 1362

It seems likely that much of the money for funding future railways will have to come from green taxes on road users and plane operators. That does not seem to be a vote-winner for any Government. All Governments suffer from short-termism. They will get no credit now, and certainly no extra votes, for providing the country with an excellent rail service in 2025. Perhaps future planning for transport should be taken out of the Government’s hands altogether and made the responsibility of some all-party executive whose members will be young enough still to be sitting there in 25 years’ time. But that is just a thought.

In another sense, cost is a very real concern to those of us who believe in the future of the railways. Travelling by train is already too expensive and if newspaper reports are anything to go by the price is about to go up again. How can we hope to wean motorists away from their cars and businesses away from their lorries if the alternative mode of transport is actually more expensive? I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, although I thank him for allowing us to speak on this subject; I have always been opposed to the privatisation of the railways, partly because higher costs for travel is one of the inevitable consequences. How on earth anybody could believe that privatisation could make rail travel cheaper is a mystery to me. The only way in which to keep prices under control is by government subsidy, and there will never be a chance of that under a Conservative Government. My only hope is that this Government might use the regulator to control this danger. I should like to know whether the Minister is seriously considering that.

I have always believed that the railways should primarily be a service managed by a competent businessman, not a business that only incidentally provides a service. As time goes by, this distinction will seem more and more important.

3.31 pm

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Berkeley on securing this debate. It would be churlish of me not to commend the Liberal Democrats on the ingenious way in which they have carved the debate up into bite-sized chunks. We look forward to the later contributions from those Benches in the afternoon.

I have no financial interests to declare although, as the House may be aware, I chair the Railway Heritage Committee, I am a vice president of the Campaign for Better Transport, which your Lordships may know better by its old title of Transport 2000, and president of the Cotswold Line Promotion Group. Like my noble friend Lord Snape, I have spent the whole of my adult life campaigning for a better understanding and a fairer deal for our country's railways and, like him, there were times in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s when I almost despaired, under successive Governments, for their future. The emphasis always seemed to be on contraction, cost-cutting, and closures. Indeed, I remember that when a senior official from the Department of Transport arrived as a new board member on the British Railways Board, he announced that he was

29 Nov 2007 : Column 1363

there at the Minister’s behest to preside over the orderly rundown of the railways. That was the mood of the time.

Most of today's problems of overcrowding and lack of capacity stem directly from the short-sighted decisions taken by successive Governments in the past 40 years, including many closures following the Beeching report and the singling of long sections of double-track main line railway, such as that from Salisbury to Exeter and the Cotswold line between Oxford and Worcester. However, at least we were able to prevent the implementation of the lunacy contained in the Serpell report, which would have left the nation's railway network looking a bit like that of Argentina, with closed routes and rusted lines more or less everywhere.

How different it all looks today. For the first time that I can remember, we have a White Paper that explicitly rules out all passenger line closures, and the discussion has moved on to how we provide for growth and not look at ways in which we choke it off by cutting services. As we have heard from my noble friends, the railway's problems now are problems of success. We now run 19,700 trains each day, which is 20 per cent more than 10 years ago, and more than any other European country except Germany. Those trains carry more than 3 million people each day, which is more than at any time since 1946, when the network was almost twice as large. Demand is growing at over 6 per cent a year, which is the fastest growing demand in Europe. The latest interim report from Network Rail shows that punctuality is getting better. There was a long way to go there, but improvements have occurred. The punctuality figure of 90.87 per cent for the past six months is the highest for nine years.

In recent days, the most stunning success in the railway has been the opening of the new St Pancras Eurostar station and the completion of High Speed One, the Channel Tunnel rail link; all of it on time and on budget. I was particularly pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, and John Prescott MP belatedly got the recognition that they deserve for their part in delivering that project.

Less publicised and less recognised has been what has been happening on the west coast main line—a source of much irritation to your Lordships, certainly in the years that I have been in this House. The west coast main line modernisation is not yet complete. It will have cost far more than originally envisaged, but at least Virgin Trains is now able to demonstrate improvements in punctuality and service quality, with the promise of three trains off-peak an hour to Manchester and Birmingham. Picking up a point made by my noble friend Lord Berkeley, there is also a possibility that we may get close at last to a seven-day-a-week railway and an end to lengthy diversions and bus substitutions at weekends.

Virgin will just about be able to cope with that within the new Virgin high-frequency timetable, but there will be no spare capacity after 2012 unless the Government are prepared to allow Virgin to add two extra coaches to each train. To have those coaches in

29 Nov 2007 : Column 1364

place by 2012, the order will have to be placed now and I hope that when my noble friend replies to this debate he will be able to offer some words of encouragement on that score.

Looking further ahead, I see that the Department for Transport already appears to accept that the London-Birmingham-Manchester corridor will be completely saturated by 2024. I am delighted that a number of speakers have referred to plans for a new high-speed line from London to the North of England and on to Scotland. I sit on an advisory board called Greengauge 21 as an honorary member. Until recently, one of our members was my noble friend Lord Jones of Birmingham, but he sadly had to depart when he joined the Government. It is a worthwhile project and I am pleased that it is getting support from your Lordships in this debate, because it will take the opportunity to take all long-distance travel off the existing network, which will be freed up for local traffic, commuting and freight. We are talking about a new railway built to a specification similar to that of the Channel Tunnel high-speed line, with all the advantages of links and interchanges to the conventional railway that can be achieved.

In the short term, a lot can be done to improve services, increase capacity and satisfy rising demand. One is to give Network Rail every encouragement to reinstate some double track on lines that were singled 30 years ago—the sort of routes that I mentioned a moment ago, particularly on the old western region and in the south. Another is to embark on a programme of reopenings in England such as the east-west line from Cambridge to Oxford and that down to the south coast from Uckfield to Lewes. Much more is happening in Scotland and Wales in terms of line reinstatement and reopening than in England and we should give full marks to the devolved Administrations in those two countries for recognising the potential of rail.

I warmly welcome the commitment contained in the gracious Speech to proceed with Crossrail. It is an excellent scheme and it is a pity that it has taken so long to come to fruition. I hope that when noble Lords come to examine the Bill in Committee they will look very carefully at the proposed western terminus. Maidenhead is not the logical location for that. The obvious solution is to ensure that, when Network Rail spends its promised £455 million on enhancements at Reading, Crossrail platforms are incorporated into that station as part of that scheme.

Then there is the case for electrification referred to by my noble friend. I hope that the Government take seriously a letter that was sent to them recently by Iain Coucher of Network Rail and Adrian Shooter, the ATOC chairman. I do not have time today to restate all the arguments that they use, but they are absolutely right to question the assumptions contained in the energy White Paper. I quote one section from the letter:

I would like to see a commitment to electrify all our main lines eventually but I appreciate that that is likely to be some way off. In the first instance we should be starting on a programme of infill electrification to link existing electrified routes and to provide extra capacity through the high acceleration electrification gives us. This should include lines such as Leeds to York, Liverpool to Manchester and from Bedford to Kettering and on to Leicester.

I cannot conclude my speech without saying a word about air travel. This is not an occasion for a debate about the wisdom of airport expansion in the south-east of England, although my noble friend will know that I intend to continue to oppose the third runway at Heathrow as strongly as I can, up to the point where I hope that the decision can be reversed. I would, though, like to draw your Lordships' attention to a ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority on a complaint made by me about misleading advertising by Flybe, one of the low-cost airlines which seems to delight in knocking the railways. I complained about three statements made by Flybe, which included a claim that rail fares were,

and that its air fares were cheaper than the train. My complaint was upheld by the ASA in every respect. It said that Flybe's ads breached the ASA code in six different ways, covering truthfulness, substantiation and comparison. I hope that it has taken notice of that.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page