Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, I am strongly in favour of high speed 2, the new railway line which starts in London, goes to Heathrow Airport, up to Birmingham and on to Scotland with branches to Manchester and Leeds. That would produce journey times of 40 minutes from London to Birmingham, one hour 25 minutes to Manchester, one hour 20 minutes to Leeds and two and three-quarter hours to Edinburgh and Glasgow.

I sense that there is a growing political consensus in favour of this, which must be linked to a decision to abandon airport expansion in the south-east of England, particularly the third runway at Heathrow. My noble friend will recall that at Oral Questions on 10 November I welcomed the Conservative Party’s conversion to this way of thinking. In reply to me he said that the number of internal flights that could be saved was,

He said that because the Conservatives’ plan appeared to be only for a high-speed line to Manchester and Leeds.

That is a fair point, but I want to see a new line to Scotland that reduces journey times to less than there hours. With that in place, it would not just be the Manchester and Leeds/Bradford journeys that would be made by train rather than plane, but those to Glasgow and Edinburgh as well. If you add to those the trips to destinations in continental Europe that could be reached easily by high-speed train—Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Cologne, for example, as well as Paris and Brussels—you could have a future where most short-haul journeys of up to, say, 500 miles were undertaken by train.

Well over one-third of the flights currently using Heathrow, around 200,000, are to short-haul destinations in the UK and Europe. Paris remains Heathrow’s top destination, with more than 50 flights on a typical day. It is those flights that are clogging up the airport’s runways, and most of those journeys could be made more easily and in a more environmentally friendly way by high-speed railway. The Conservatives are right to abandon the third runway, and I shall say so next week if the government announcement is made on the subject. I hope it is possible that we can achieve some sort of cross-party consensus on the need for the high-speed line as well, provided that they will look at the requirement for it to go on beyond Leeds and Manchester.

The ability of high-speed rail to capture these markets from air is not in doubt. Eurostar now has more than 70 per cent of the market between London and Paris and more than 60 per cent of the market between London and Brussels. The air service between Paris

20 Nov 2008 : Column 1220

and Brussels has ceased since the train journey was reduced to about an hour. Rail used to hold only 22 per cent of the combined Paris-Marseilles air/rail traffic before TGV Mediterranean went into service in 2001, but in five years the market share for rail has risen to 69 per cent and easyJet has abandoned its Paris-Marseilles flights altogether. In the UK the improvement on the west coast route, without a new line, has led to rail taking 20 per cent of passengers from the airlines and increasing its share of the market to 60 per cent.

The tipping point, traditionally, has been a journey of three hours, but that threshold has recently been increased to around four and a half hours for business travel. The French railway SNCF has found that on journeys shorter than that, where its trains compete with airlines, its share of the market rises rapidly to more than 50 per cent. That is backed up by other European rail companies, which are capturing more than 60 per cent of the business market from airlines on four-hour journeys. Comparative figures about the time a journey takes, however, paint only a partial picture. What is more important than the journey time, particularly to business travellers, is how productively the time can be used, and it is here that rail can have a big advantage. I suspect that is why I see many more of your Lordships and Members of another place on the trains from Edinburgh and Glasgow—and even Dundee—to London than I used to.

Finally, I shall refer to some other railways that have not yet featured in this debate—the heritage sector. It is responsible for 13 million passenger journeys a year, has a turnover of £60 million a year and contributes £150 million directly and indirectly to the nation’s economy. I have three points to make. First, I thank officials at the Department for Transport for the support they give to my colleagues and me on the Railway Heritage Committee. We take seriously the responsibilities that have been given to us by Parliament to,

The department has recently concluded a major programme of consultation on how the RHC’s scope can be updated and expanded to take account of recent changes in the structure of the industry. An order is now likely to come before the House early in the new year. There is no need for me to say more about this now, other than to say thank you.

Secondly, I thank my noble friend for the interest he has taken in the threat facing one of the oldest and most special industrial light railways in the south of England, the Sittingbourne and Kemsley. I would not want at this stage unnecessarily to antagonise the Finnish owners of the land on which the railway sits as negotiations are continuing but I hope that, from the avalanche of representations that it has received, the company called M-real now appreciates that we in Britain are deeply attached to our railways and we will not sit by and let their rails be ripped up just to satisfy the profit hunger of property companies.

The third matter will be the subject of a further letter that my noble friend will receive from me next week. It concerns the Birmingham Railway Museum

20 Nov 2008 : Column 1221

Trust, which is based at the old GWR depot at Tyseley. It is an educational charity that provides a main-line vintage train experience and an equipped workshop serving the heritage railway movement. It has particular problems with its landlord and with rent. The work that the trust does in teaching young people engineering skills is very valuable.

I endorse what other speakers have said, including my noble friend. These are great times for the railway. There are some huge challenges ahead and some great opportunities, particularly for him as the most enthusiastic Transport Minister we have ever had in this House who clearly wants to leave his mark on the railway. Public opinion will be very much on his side if he can use his time in office to grow the railway and enhance its popularity. I wish him well in that, particularly in his role as chair of the network strategy group, because that could produce a new railway for the new century.

12.36 pm

The Earl of Glasgow: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to be following the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, for once; normally in these railway debates he follows me. I agree with a lot of what he says, although I am not quite so optimistic as he is on the state of the railways. In fact, when considering the present and future state of the railways in Britain, some of us feel close to despair.

Successive Governments have allowed our network to get into an undeveloped state, mainly through lack of investment. This is particularly shaming when the network is compared with the standard of most other European countries. Why have successive Ministers of Transport not given us hope that things really are going to get better in the future? After his introduction to this debate I am hoping that the Minister today will be the one to do so, but we must still await results.

Surely it is evident to everyone by now that the railways are the only possible solution to our transport problems. Trains are the only relatively carbon-free means of transport, unless you count the bicycle. They are not subject to congestion, except sometimes when trying to enter one of London’s termini during the rush hour. They are the safest method of travel, for short distances anyway. They are the fastest way of getting from A to B for any journey of 200 miles or so, and if we had high-speed trains they would be the fastest over 500 miles. More important to those of us who value quality of life, however, they are, or should be, the most civilised and stress-free form of travel. Congestion on the roads and at airports have forced more people to travel by rail—not, I suspect, because like me they are seeking a better quality of life, but because the frustration and aggravation of finding places to park their car have proved too much for them.

We are told that in the past 10 years train travel has increased by 50 per cent. To most passengers, and I believe the majority of these are daily commuters, the journey is still an ordeal. Although some improvements have been made by the train operators in the past few years, rail journeys are still unreliable and usually uncomfortable. Overcrowding on some train services is still a disgrace. Worst of all, they are getting more

20 Nov 2008 : Column 1222

and more expensive. The fares here are considerably higher than those for comparable journeys on the Continent. Those adverts telling you that you can get a return fare from London to Scotland for something like £45 are particularly irritating and misleading. What must you do for such a cheap fare? Take a particularly slow train at a time when no one else wants to travel and book a year in advance? Travel by train should be a convenience, not a complicated item of advance planning.

The Government assure us that they are in the process of improving the existing network, and to a limited extent I believe that they are. Better signalling is being installed to allow more trains to travel on any one line. Longer carriages and longer platforms should help ease overcrowding, although I am still rather shocked by how long it will be before we get these new carriages. There will be a mile or so of extra track here and there to relieve bottlenecks, and improvements to stations such as Reading and Birmingham New Street. God, Birmingham New Street is a dreary station. Can we not get Richard Rogers or Norman Foster or someone like that to look into it?

All this is good news in itself, but it is nothing like enough. Even in the immediate short term, there is a lot more to do. We need a more regular and frequent service in many rural areas, whose people must otherwise rely on usually unreliable privatised bus services. We need safer rural stations, which the Minister has alluded to, where, for instance, women returning from the city on dark nights can feel assured that they will not get mugged. We need safer car parks at these stations and enough parking spaces. But even if they were to be acted upon, these short-term improvements, although welcome, are mere window dressing in comparison with the fast-approaching future threat to the railways. Something must be done urgently; the problem is that we are running out of capacity.

With passenger numbers increasing, we are told, by more than 8 per cent a year—it could be more—we need more railways, and that means more railway lines. Various bodies, as well as Network Rail, have identified the most pressing routes for new lines but as I understand it, as yet there are no plans for any new lines, let alone a high-speed rail line from London to Scotland, the one that the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, and I are so keen on. The Government are not even going to consider that idea until 2014, although the Minister suggested that there may be a decision before then. I do hope so.

A high-speed train going at 185 mph or more would not only help to solve the capacity problems on the existing lines but make polluting internal plane travel unnecessary. The fastest train I can get from Glasgow to London takes four and three-quarter hours. If there were a train that took three hours, I would no longer need to take the aeroplane which, including checking in and out of airports, takes about three hours.

Nearly every other European country has high-speed trains. Spain, for instance, has a train from Madrid to Malaga and from Madrid to Barcelona that takes two and a half hours, and both are longer distances than from London to Glasgow. All we have in this country is the 80 miles from St Pancras to the tunnel, and if it

20 Nov 2008 : Column 1223

were not for the French and the tunnel, we would probably not even have that. For goodness’ sake, we were the country that invented the railways.

Even if we did get the go-ahead in 2014, the earliest we could expect to see high-speed rail from London to Glasgow in operation would be 2025, and I think that that date is optimistic. By then, God knows what the state of our existing railway network will be. Anarchy may have broken out on the roads and Ryanair might be flying passengers from Stansted to Bristol.

Time is running out. Let us hope it is not already too late. The Government must show some vision. A larger as well as an improved network is essential for the future. It is not an option. And the money for it has to be found somewhere.

12.43 pm

Lord Rosser: My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for providing the opportunity to discuss the current and future prospects of the railway industry. I declare some interests: an involvement in Rail Freight Group visits, as set out in the register, and as a member of the All-Party Group on Rail.

We have had, as has been said, more than a decade of unprecedented growth in passenger and freight traffic. Passenger kilometres, as the Minister reminded us, are greater than at any time since 1946, on a network that is nearly half the size that it was then. Ninety per cent of passenger trains reach their destination on time. Rail is the safest mode of travel in Britain measured in terms of passenger kilometres. Over the past five years, Network Rail has improved the efficiency of operating, maintaining and renewing the network by nearly 30 per cent.

According to the Office of Rail Regulation in its latest report, when Network Rail took ownership of the rail infrastructure from Railtrack in 2002, it faced a network where costs had spiralled and delays were far above the levels of a few years before, when the railways were publicly owned—hardly an advert for the benefits it was claimed that privatisation would bring to the railway industry. Since 2002, Network Rail has achieved a great deal in rectifying the problems it inherited. However, the Office of Rail Regulation will be expecting Network Rail to achieve a further 21 per cent improvement in operating, maintenance and renewals efficiency by 2013-14. Even that 21 per cent is only two-thirds of what the Office of Rail Regulation considers to be a reasonable view of the current efficiency gap between Network Rail and other infrastructure managers, including those in other countries with highly developed railway networks.

As we know, passenger and freight traffic is expected to continue to increase significantly, with Network Rail needing to deliver projects across the network to handle passenger demand growth of some 22 per cent and a 30 per cent growth in freight over the next few years.

Considerable investment has, of course, already been made in the industry, not least by the Government, and further major projects have been given the go-ahead, such as Crossrail, Thameslink and major improvements at Reading and Birmingham New Street. There will

20 Nov 2008 : Column 1224

also be many smaller scale schemes, including 500 longer platforms to accommodate longer trains. The scale of the enhancement programme in the five-year control period commencing 1 April next year will be more than twice the level in the current control period. But since it takes some time to develop and give the go-ahead for major projects, I hope that active consideration is being given to further major investment, not least to the electrification of existing routes and the construction of more new high-speed lines following the full opening of the new line to the Channel Tunnel. High-speed lines should not just be for people trying to flee the country or get into the country.

With the present economic downturn, it is quite likely that the recent growth in passenger and freight traffic will slow down or even go into reverse. I want to raise a few points about that later. However, such a development is likely to be relatively short-lived and ought not to colour judgments over future long-term investment in the rail industry, since all the indications are that current growth trends will continue and the capacity problems which we already have on some routes and in some locations will intensify and become more widespread if major investment does not continue. The population of our nation is, after all, expected to continue to grow, and with it the demand for travel for leisure and non-leisure purposes. That demand will have to be met in part by rail travel in view of the justified hostility to building more and more roads; the costs, particularly to business, of road traffic congestion; the enhanced contribution that rail can make compared with road and air travel in reducing emissions; and the contribution that rail, particularly electrified lines, makes in reducing our dependency on fuel from countries of, shall we say, uncertain friendliness.

The relatively recent reduction in journey times and associated increase in train frequencies on the west coast main line, which is not a high-speed line as such, has resulted in a significant increase in passenger traffic, once again illustrating the point that reducing journey times increases rail patronage. The Minister has said that service frequencies on the principal routes on the west coast main line are shortly to be further enhanced.

The approach that we have taken up to now has been to increase the speed of conventional trains on the InterCity routes to 125 mph using conventional signalling. This has produced significant improvements and has no doubt been influenced by considerations of costs and a feeling that since most of our major centres of population are within 200 miles of each other, 125 mph trains provide good enough journey times.

While high-speed electric lines use more electricity than lower-speed lines, the cost of building a new high-speed line is not that much more than building a conventional line. The reality is that continuing growth in demand for rail will need new lines to relieve the most congested routes or expensive and potentially disruptive programmes to increase capacity on existing congested routes or, most likely, a mixture of both. However, if we want to maximise the number of people who switch from travel by car, we need high-speed lines with significantly reduced journey times for our principal trunk routes. Such lines, provided there is a

20 Nov 2008 : Column 1225

sensible fares policy, would also increase the amount of leisure travel by those who would not have travelled at all.

With passenger demand for weekend travel continuing to grow there is an increasing need for the railways to be open for business longer, with a consequential need to find more efficient ways of managing the infrastructure to avoid lengthy and extended line closures or delays which add considerably to journey times, to the detriment of both passenger and freight traffic.

Other transport modes are continuing to reduce their emissions through the use of new technology, and rail also will need to address the issue of improving its environmental performance if it is to maintain its environmental advantage. Is the Minister satisfied that there is sufficient investment in research and development by and for the railway industry, both now and projected for the future? In 2006, the then chief executive of the Association of Train Operating Companies said:

“Technology, which has come to the aid of productivity in many industries, has done little for the railway”.

Does the Minister agree with that point of view? If the industry wants to take full advantage of the opportunities that it now has, a comprehensive research and development programme will be vital to address rather more than just the two issues that I have just mentioned related to better management of the infrastructure to avoid closures and delays and the need to maintain the environmental advantage of rail.

Does the Minister believe that the current arrangements for the provision of rolling stock through the rolling stock leasing companies are sufficiently flexible in terms of availability of rolling stock and charging to enable quick responses to increased passenger traffic on particular routes, or specific services on particular routes, by the provision of additional coaches and better-quality rolling stock to meet that demand? As has already been said, we seem to have issues with overcrowded trains on some routes or some specific services which seem to continue for a long time and to be incapable of quick or early resolution even when the constraining factor is not platform lengths that preclude an additional carriage on a train.

Many of my comments have been related to Network Rail. However, it is obvious that the train operators, too, have a key role to play in securing increased patronage at a time when customer expectations for reliability, safety, comfort, standards of service and value for money are also increasing. According to the most recent survey by the railway watchdog, Passenger Focus, the percentage of passengers nationally satisfied with their journey overall was 80 per cent, which reflects on the performance of both Network Rail and the train operators. However, the specific satisfaction rates which scored least well were those over which the train operators would appear to have had the most control. These related to toilet facilities, availability of staff on trains, how well the train company dealt with delays, and the value for money of your ticket. The national satisfaction rates for those four items were 35 per cent, 38 per cent, 34 per cent and 40 per cent respectively. There would seem to be some scope for the train operators to raise their game in certain areas, which will be essential if the industry is to maximise the opportunities that it now has.

20 Nov 2008 : Column 1226

I should like to raise one or two points about the current position of the railway industry and the impact of an economic downturn. If there is a significant economic downturn, as seems to be widely predicted, it will be the first occasion since the railway industry has been in the private sector, and to that extent we could be entering unknown territory. One of the Government’s objectives is to achieve a further reduction in the level of taxpayer subsidy after the substantial increase in taxpayer support that followed the decision to move the industry into the private sector. The Office of Rail Regulation has made it clear to Network Rail that it must achieve more with the financial resources at its disposal. Likewise, the terms on which train operators have decided to bid for and have secured franchises have been based on financial projections based on assumptions that they will either sustain or increase passenger numbers. In some cases the company running the franchise will have agreed to pay money to the Department for Transport over a period of years in return for the right to run services over what will be deemed the more lucrative routes. In others, the amount that the company said that it required from the department to run services will have reflected a projection in its bid about future passenger levels and thus income.

What will be the position if the train operating companies say that they cannot achieve the anticipated level of passengers because of a downturn in the economy and as a result either cannot pay the Department for Transport the amounts required under the franchise or, for the same reason, need a higher level of subsidy? If he was satisfied that it was all attributable to the effects of a downturn in the economy, would the Minister accept either a reduction in payment from the train operator concerned or pay a higher subsidy to the train operator as appropriate? Or would he say that that was a risk for the train operator to bear and that if the train operator subsequently went bankrupt or withdrew from the franchise, the Government would take over the operation of the services until another operator could be found? Or do the franchise agreements already stipulate that the department will have to accept a reduced payment from the operator or increase the level of subsidy where it is deemed that the reasons why the projected increases in passenger growth and income could not be achieved were outside the operator’s control? Alternatively, will a train operator be told that any financial shortfall will have to be made up by further fare increases and reductions in services, with the burden thus falling on rail users? I hope that my noble friend will give some indication of the department’s likely approach, since it is inconceivable that contingency plans for dealing with such problems are not already in place.

I conclude by again welcoming the Government’s continuing active support which has resulted in a growing and thriving railway industry. The approach by this Government is in marked contrast to the negative, defeatist attitude of the previous Administration, who had no time for the railways.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page