HC Deb 13 February 1989 vol 147 cc5-6
3. Mr. Macdonald

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what proposals he has to improve communications between Scotland and the south-east, in preparation for the opening of the Channel tunnel.

Mr. Portillo

British Rail is required by section 40 of the Channel Tunnel Act 1987 to publish a plan by the end of this year setting out its proposals for the dispersal of passenger and freight trains within the United Kingdom. The impact of the Channel tunnel is one of the many factors taken into account in planning the forward trunk road programme.

Mr. Macdonald

Will the Minister confirm a report in the "Politics Today" column of the Financial Times on Friday that a study that was prepared for the Prime Minister shows clearly that unless there is a major improvement in the road and rail network between Scotland and the south-east, Scotland will not benefit in any degree from the opening of the Channel tunnel? If that is so, why is the Minister cutting investment to British Rail by £300 million in the latest public expenditure White Paper and why are there no plans in the White Paper to improve the road and rail networks between Scotland and the south-east to enable Scotland to benefit from the economic activity of the Channel tunnel?

Mr. Portillo

There has been no cut in the investment of British Rail. Indeed, it has been rising sharply and will be £3.5 billion in coming years. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is becoming confused with subsidies, which is a quite different matter and has nothing to do with how much is being invested.

I know of no evidence in any report to suggest that the links to the north are inadequate. On the whole, the inadequacies seem to be in the south-east. That is why there is a £600 million programme of investment in the south-east to improve the links. The north of England and Scotland stand to gain especially from the Channel tunnel because rail freight comes into its own over longer distances.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

I heard the Minister's reply with delight. Does he agree that since Liverpool has excellent port facilities it makes admirable sense to improve the links between there and the Channel tunnel as it would prove an ideal through-port for goods from America to the continent?

Mr. Portillo

My hon. Friend refers to a most interesting idea. When we last had questions on this subject I referred to a study being conducted into that very matter. We are happy to co-operate with that study in any way.

Mr. George Howarth

Will the Minister therefore confirm that when the study for the landbridge concept for the port of Liverpool is completed and suggests that it is a feasible option the Government will look favourably on that proposal?

Mr. Portillo

We shall always look favourably at any commercial proposition put to us by British Rail. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) implied a moment ago, the port and road facilities at Liverpool already look as though they have plenty of capacity for that plan.

Mr. Hind

When my lion. Friend discusses these matters with the chairman of British Rail, will he bear in mind that there is still an important link from the whole of the west of country to the tunnel without going through London? All that my hon. Friend needs to do is to put some investment into the flyover at Redhill. That will then provide long routes and freight links all the way to the tunnel from the north-west, the south-west, Wales and Scotland and will definitely benefit the country as a whole.

Mr. Portillo

The important thing is that there should be through freight links between the regions and the Channel tunnel. That is British Rail's ambition and that is why it is working on its plan now. The exact route is a matter for British Rail. I am happy to mention the point to the chairman when I next see him but I am bound to tell my hon. Friend that he has made his case effectively on a number of occasions already.

Mr. Kennedy

The Minister will appreciate that the rail links between the highlands of Scotland and the south and from there to the Channel tunnel suffered a severe setback last week when the rail bridge in the town of Inverness was washed away in the flooding that occurred. Will the Minister give an undertaking that all available finance will be made available to British Rail and ScotRail to ensure that that bridge is reconstructed as fast as possible because the great worry in the north now is that if it takes up to a year—

Mr. Speaker

Order. This question is about the Channel tunnel, but the hon. Gentleman's question is wide of it.

Mr. Kennedy

Without the bridge, there is no rail link to the Channel tunnel from Inverness.

Will the Minister ensure that the finance is available and that British Rail checks bridges of the same age at regular intervals to ensure that there is not a similar setback again?

Mr. Portillo

The safety point is well made and. I shall bring it to British Rail's attention. I know that my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Transport and for Scotland have been in touch with each other about the bridge. We do not yet know anything about the costs that would be involved, but we shall stay closely in touch with the hon. Gentleman on this matter.