HC Deb 14 June 1990 vol 174 cc482-500 4.14 pm
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Cecil Parkinson)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the proposals for a new high-speed rail link to the channel tunnel.

The opening of the tunnel in 1993 will provide a major new business opportunity for Britain and for British Rail. Let me first dispel any doubts that we intend to invest in the infrastructure required to service the tunnel fully from the day that it opens. For British Rail, investment in tunnel services will be the largest that it has undertaken this century—more than £1 billion on passenger and freight services. Orders have already been placed for a common fleet of high-speed passenger trains, owned jointly by the British, French and Belgium railway companies, that will link London to Paris in three hours and to Brussels in two and three quarter hours. In addition to the half-hourly services between those three capitals, BR plans through trains from the regions offering 3 million seats a year.

Work has started on improving the track between London and Folkestone and on the new passenger terminal at Waterloo. Last month I announced approval for new electric freight locomotives that will haul channel tunnel freight at speeds just as high as those on the continent. More than two thirds of rail freight to the tunnel will come from outside the south-east and BR is planning through services and freight depots throughout the country. We plan to spend more than £600 million on tunnel-related road schemes, which is about the same amount as the French Government. When the channel tunnel treaty was signed, we undertook that BR would meet the demand for passenger and freight services when the tunnel opened, and those commitments are being fulfilled.

The railway investments will cater for demand in 1993 and for several years thereafter. In the case of freight, there is ample capacity in the south-east outside the commuter peaks. However, all the traffic forecasts show that growth in demand for international rail passenger services and domestic commuter services will eventually outgrow the capacity of the present system. That is why we asked British Rail to examine how best to increase that capacity when the time came. We made it clear that the investment in international services would have to be commercially justified, just as it would be in ferry, in air or in other competing services.

Last November, British Rail selected Eurorail from a field of eight private consortia, and announced its intention to pursue the possibility of forming a joint venture to operate the international services and to construct a new line. Since then, it has identified measures that substantially improve the commercial prospects of the international passenger business. Despite those improvements, the forecasts submitted by the joint venture showed that its costs were likely to exceed its income by a wide margin. To meet that gap, the joint venture first required a capital grant of £500 million towards the use of the line by commuter services. Secondly, British Rail would need to invest up to £400 million, mainly in commuter terminals. Thirdly, it proposed a low-interest deferred loan of £1 billion, which in the case of default would rank below all other creditors.

I have given careful consideration to the case for a capital grant. We have never ruled out capital grants for improvements in commuter services where they are justified on cost-benefit grounds. I made that clear in the new objectives that I published for British Rail last year. The new line would indeed bring significant benefits to commuter services, but unfortunately the benefits to commuters were not sufficient to justify both the investment by Network SouthEast of £400 million in its own facilities and grant of £500 million towards the use of the new line.

The loan of £1 billion represents public investment already made in international rail services up to 1993, and taken over by the joint venture. The joint venture would get the benefit of that expenditure, but would not make any repayments or pay any interest until 2010. The House will now recognise that the total sums of public expenditure involved are far greater than the £350 million that has been widely but erroneously reported. In the event of cost overruns, the political reality would be that there would be great pressure on the Government to increase their already substantial contributions. I have therefore informed the parties that the proposals that they have made are unacceptable.

In the light of that, British Rail and Eurorail have agreed that there is not a basis for carrying forward the project in the private sector at this stage. The Government remain very grateful to Eurorail for the considerable effort it has put into the development of the proposals, and for the expertise it has shown. BR has informed me that it will continue to work with Eurorail in the development of international services.

The financial case for a new line will improve as demand for travel grows. I have discussed this with BR's new chairman, and British Rail remains eager to proceed as soon as the project is viable. How soon this will be depends, among other things, on the benefits the new line can bring to commuters.

I have already approved investment of more than £400 million on new rolling stock and improved infrastructure for services on the north Kent lines. British Rail has plans for further rolling stock investments of £300 million to £400 million for the rest of the Kent commuter services. That will radically improve the services from Kent.

If demand continues to grow, even more capacity may eventually be needed and British Rail and Eurorail have shown that a new line could transform the slow commuter services from north and mid-Kent by halving journey times. I am not yet satisfied, however, that they have found the best solution and I am therefore asking British Rail to complete its studies with the aim of maximising the benefits to international passengers and commuters alike.

This further work will concentrate on the options for the route from the North Downs to Waterloo and King's Cross, with its efficient connections to the rest of the country. I have considered carefully the views expressed in the House and elsewhere about alternative routes. On the face of it, they are unlikely to be better financially than the Eurorail proposal or to offer a better deal for commuters.

But the new chairman of British Rail is determined to satisfy himself on that and has commissioned a report by consultants on the proposals for routes to King's Cross via Stratford. There seems to be general agreement that any service will need to terminate at King's Cross. In our view, nothing in this statement invalidates the benefits to British Rail of the House proceeding with the King's Cross Bill.

A major civil engineering project of this kind, through this densely populated part of England, is bound to cause great concern to the people who live there. We owe it to them to minimise the uncertainty and to see that, where they suffer financial loss, there is proper compensation. Between the North Downs and the channel tunnel there is now broad agreement on the right corridor for the new line and considerable effort has been put into designing an environmentally acceptable route.

There will need to be further consultations on the engineering details and a full environmental report will be published. But I am satisfied that it would now be right to safeguard that section of the route by planning directions. I therefore propose to consult British Rail and the local authorities about that. British Rail's compensation scheme will continue to apply to the whole of the route published in September 1989.

I began by confirming our commitment to invest in the infrastructure needed to make sure that we reap the benefits of the channel tunnel when it opens in 1993. I have also explained how we propose to carry forward the work needed to plan for increases in capacity. Some argue for vast and premature expenditure that would not be economically justified. International rail services are certainly of growing importance, but there are many other needs for improvements in transport infrastructure, including better public transport services within Britain, improved motorways, better access to airports and ports and better air traffic control.

The Government's aim is a balanced transport policy which allocates investment where it will bring the greatest benefit. Within that framework, we have approved the largest railway investment programme for over 25 years, the largest underground programme for over 20 years, an increase in the road programme and approaching £2 billion worth of investment in the infrastructure to serve the channel tunnel. I commend these policies to the House.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

Today is a sad and bad day for Britain, for it is the culmination of months of indecision caused by the Government's lack of strategic planning, which means that Britain will enter the 21st century with an inadequate 19th-century railway link. We are to spend about £1 billion of British Rail money over four years, compared with the French, who will spend £1 billion every year for the next 20 years to extend their far superior high-speed rail network. That is the result of the Government's anti-rail, anti-passenger attitude. It will condemn Britain to the economic periphery of Europe and ensure that Britain suffers serious disadvantages in the single market after 1992.

Britain's prestige has been damaged. It will not join Europe's fast developing high-speed rail system this century. The decision represents the worst of all worlds. It perpetuates the continuing worries of planning problems, environmental blight and wasteful congestion in the south-east, while denying the economic advantages for Scotland, Wales and the northern and midland industrial regions. That emphasises the Government's isolation in failing to grasp the strategic importance of high-speed, 200 mph plus, railway systems.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, despite his and the Prime Minister's fancy fiddling with figures on the public cost, contested by Eurorail, the Government are expected to provide approximately £400 million out of the total project cost of £3 billion? Is that not in line with the Government's policy of using small amounts of public money to generate far larger private finance and provide transport infrastructure, which is precisely the way the European high-speed rail networks in Europe have been financed?

Does the Secretary of State accept that there has been unnecessary and intolerable delay in the decision to construct the channel tunnel rail link due to the Government's interference—forcing British Rail to seek a private partner, without insisting that the matter be open to tender? Why was it not put to competitive tender, which is exactly what British Rail must now do three years later?

Is it not true that the Prime Minister, because of her fears of the residents of Kent before the 1989 Kent county council elections, rightly promised extensive tunnelling to limit the environmental damage? However, she did not say where the money would come from, thus turning a profitable project into an unprofitable one. By putting her party's electoral concerns before the long-term interests of Britain, the Prime Minister has condemned the people of Kent to another decade of uncertainty and blight.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the extra £1 billion will not increase the line capacity in the south-east network, where some trains will be restricted to 50 mph in some places, and be paid for by the passengers? Does he believe that an extra 16 million channel tunnel passengers can travel on the existing, most congested, Network SouthEast, and not effect commuter lines?

Will the Secretary of State establish—he should seriously consider this—a committee of experts to examine all the available route options, as I suggested eight months ago? He rejected that then because it would cause delay. Such a committee could review all the technical details and report in about six months, allowing the Government to make a political decision about the route of a future high-speed line.

While such a review was under way, would the Secretary of State reconsider his objection to my proposal to abolish section 42 of the Channel Tunnel Act 1987, and take into account the aviation and shipping concerns that were considered at that time—especially as the Government have given nearly £50 million in section 8 grants since 1980 to the rail freight industry, including to its international services, and a subsidy, on the ground of environmental protection. That is exactly the same reason that now demands that public money be provided for the channel tunnel rail link.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the European Commissioner's statement on Monday 4 June that, once there was a demand from the British authorities, the Commission would look "favourably and positively" at a request for financial assistance, such as that given to other countries to help construct channel tunnel rail links? I hope that the Secretary of State will not continue to block the European infrastructure fund, which could assist us in that development.

Does not the Secretary of State accept that the failure to break the ideological logjam preventing the use of public money will mean that the Tory Government will go down in history as the Luddites of Europe for failing to join the technological revolution in high-speed rail travel and for failing to be aware of the need for a transport policy that actively requires Government involvement?

Labour is committed to a high-speed dedicated rail route from the channel tunnel to London, and beyond to Scotland, to relieve congestion on our overburdened roads and in our overcrowded skies, guarantee environmental protection, and give maximum economic advantage and support to British industry to enable it to compete successfully in the European markets of the 21st century.

Mr. Parkinson

I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's points in the order in which he raised them. He spoke with amazement about the fact that the French Government are planning to invest £1 billion a year in their rail system.

Mr. Prescott

In each of the next 20 years.

Mr. Parkinson

We are planning to spend more than that—£3.7 billion in the next three years, with a continuing programme to follow.

Mr. Prescott

Of what size?

Mr. Parkinson

We are spending more than the French.

The hon. Gentleman keeps repeating the ridiculous canard that the regions will be denied access to freight. If he had listened to the statement instead of repeating, parrot fashion, his prejudices, he would have heard me answer that point. I said that the freight trains are ordered, the depots are being decided, and that there will be through freight services from the regions to meet 70 per cent. of the demand—70 per cent. of the freight capacity of the tunnel. The regions will have the most modern electric freight trains, running at the same speeds as continental trains. Will the hon. Gentleman please stop repeating the nonsense about the regions in some way being at a disadvantage?

The hon. Gentleman clearly was not listening when I spoke about the costs involved. I have seen the directors of Eurorail, and these figures are entirely agreed by them. There is a demand not for £400 million overall, but for a grant of £500 million, a deferred loan that would rank below any other creditors of more than £1 billion, and investment by British Rail of another £400 million. To support the project, Eurorail is asking for £1,900 million. Will the hon. Gentleman please take an arithmetic lesson and start revealing the facts?

The hon. Gentleman's second point was that the Government are delaying the channel tunnel. As he knows, we are getting on with the job of being able to service the tunnel from the day on which is is opened, and huge sums are being invested. There is no shortatge of capacity for freight. The blockage is not due to problems in getting freight to the tunnel; the capacity of the tunnel itself is limited.

I expect the tunnel to be fully used. If it were a port now, its capacity would make it our 12th biggest port. Clearly we cannot direct all our plans towards servicing the tunnel; most freight will not go anywhere near it, but will leave the country by the traditional routes.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East talked about £1 billion of capacity. In his own muddled fashion—I observed that he confused the Leader of the Opposition as well; that is a more difficult job, by which I intend no compliment to the Leader of the Opposition—again mixed up fares with investment. The £1 billion that is being invested in capacity in the south-east comes from British Rail, not the customers.

I have no interest in the hon. Gentleman's committee of available experts——

Mr. Prescott


Mr. Parkinson

The hon. Gentleman should stop talking about himself: it is a very bad habit.

I have no interest in the hon. Gentleman's committee of available experts, and nor has the House. These decisions are for Government, who are answerable to Parliament.

The hon. Gentleman referred to section 42. I hope that he has told his friend Sam McCluskie that subsidies will be given to the competitors—to the union that sponsors him. The hon. Gentleman used to argue forcefully for section 42; now he denies it.

The other night we saw the hon. Gentleman's piece de resistance on television. He was explaining to a bemused world that if only Britain sanctioned the European infrastructure fund the freight could be paid for—[Interruption.] I have read the transcript. It is there—all £15 billion of it. The infrastructure fund is likely to be £80 million for all the 12 members of the Community. The hon. Gentleman's plans would involve pre-empting that for 175 years, assuming that our Community colleagues were happy to see us subsidising our rail. Like the rest of his ideas, this is half baked, ill thought out and economically illiterate.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. So that I can call as many right hon. and hon. Members as possible, I ask for single questions today. If by chance a double question is asked, it would help me greatly if the Secretary of State would answer only one part of it.

Mr. Terence L. Higgins (Worthing)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that participation in any joint venture must depend on the terms? To those who listened carefully to what he said this afternoon, it is clear that those terms are far less favourable than has been suggested in the press, and would be unfavourable to the Government in relation to private investors. That being so, does he agree that it is right to examine alternatives—as this plan is obviously not a starter—and, meanwhile, to protect the interests of those affected by possible blight along the route?

Mr. Parkinson

That is precisely what the Government are seeking to do.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East dismisses the £2 billion of taxpayers' investment—which would not get any return until the year 2010, if then—as if it is something that is easily dished out. I happened to talk to his right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith)—the shadow Chancellor—who told me that he has only two commitments: on pensions, and on child benefit. We can only assume that the hon. Gentleman's plans are pie in the sky.

Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)

Is the Secretary of State aware that many people in the north-west are under the impression that the channel tunnel is something for the south-east, and that the south-east will benefit? Is he further aware that, if freight is to use the channel tunnel, we must ensure that there are proper facilities in the Greater Manchester area, part of which I have the privilege to represent? We have been waiting for a decision for nearly a year about the depot in Guide Bridge, in my constituency.

Mr. Parkinson

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. Yes, I recognise the importance of through services to the regions. As I said in my statement, we plan to have 3 million seats a year from the regions going through the tunnel. In addition, we plan that 70 per cent. of the freight which goes through the tunnel will come from the regions. The trains are ordered, and the equipment is ordered. They will be fast electric trains—one of the most modern type of freight train in the world. I recognise the need for British Rail to make a decision about the location of its cargo depots, and I shall press it again on that matter.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid Kent)

Given that my right hon. Friend has warmly welcomed concern for the densely populated parts of Kent, which will be affected by the British Rail route, will he accept how grateful we are to learn that alternatives, such as that which would affect six houses only between Ashford and the Kent boundary, are to be properly and fully assessed? Can he set our minds at rest by stating that, when he says that the existing route in Kent is to be safeguarded, that is not pre-empting the chairman's study of the alternatives?

Mr. Parkinson

I can confirm that it is not pre-empting that study, but is a means of ensuring that compensation is available to help the people who are directly threatened, or who feel threatened. It does not rule out consideration of the alternatives.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Will the Secretary of State now tell us the Government's policy on when there will be a high-speed rail link to reach all over the country from the entrance to the channel tunnel, and when people in London and the south-east will be relieved of the congestion, which will increasingly choke roads and railways, as a result of the announcement that he has made this afternoon?

Mr. Parkinson

Peak periods are the problem for Network SouthEast. There is plenty of capacity off-peak, which is why freight does not represent a problem, and why the search is for extra passenger capacity. Another misunderstanding is that people feel that, because we are not going ahead immediately with the link, they will have to change trains and come to London to get to the tunnel. Services from the regions will go direct, bypassing London. If one wants to go to France and go through Paris to somewhere else, one will have to change trains there. There will be direct links from the tunnel to all the regions of Britain, and that will not be the case in France, which disappoints people.

I saw the amusing cartoon by Jak yesterday, showing the TGV pulling up and a tram waiting for it. The trains are in an identical pool, which will be owned jointly by all the railway companies. The trains which leave Paris will be the trains which arrive in Edinburgh, and vice versa.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his announcement today has profound implications for those people with homes close to existing routes to London from the channel tunnel? Is he also aware that those people face totally inadequate provisions in the noise insulation and compensation arrangements? Will he carry out a fresh examination of their position, because as a result of this announcement, for the foreseeable future, they will have the full weight of freight and passenger rail traffic going past their homes?

Mr. Parkinson

I recognise that that is a problem, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend recognises that what he is suggesting has huge implications, because it is a long-established principle that if traffic increases on existing roads and railways there is no entitlement to compensation. If a road is widened—as we are proposing to do to many motorways—it is effectively a new road and it is treated as such. I realise that what my hon. Friend says poses a real problem, and, without making promises, I will consider it carefully.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

Is the Secretary of State aware that his announcement today will be greeted with great dismay in the east midlands and many other regions of England, Wales and Scotland? In Nottingham, Leicester, Derby, Loughborough and all the other towns and cities along the east midlands main line, people are waiting desperately for electrification of the line. Does it not show the Government's lack of ambition, when the Spanish are tearing up their lines and replacing the whole gauge, the Germans are putting in two more north-south lines and the French are electrifying every last chicken shack in France? However, we are not prepared to invest in a high-speed rail link through London which would benefit the regions. Is not the reason that he is doing that to save money for the general election kitty rather than ensuring that we are all in a position to contribute to ending our trade problems with our continental competitors?

Mr. Parkinson

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was asking a serious question, and I am tempted not to give him an answer. There is no reason for dismay. The regions will be well served to the tunnel from the day that it opens. We are talking about creating capacity that will be needed at the turn of the century and later, so the announcement today should do nothing to dismay those people who take a real interest, unless they are like the hon. Gentleman, who is professionally dismayed.

Mr. Gerald Bowden (Dulwich)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, for two reasons. First, it closes the door on British Rail's ill-conceived and extravagant proposals; and, secondly, it opens the door for consideration of alternatives which offer an economically viable, operationally effective and environmentally acceptable route. Will my right hon. Friend therefore urge all concerned to proceed with all speed to consider the alternatives, because until a firm route is defined blight and anxiety will hang over many communities?

Mr. Parkinson

As far as we have been able to do so, we have attempted to minimise those problems, and that is why I announced that the compensation scheme will remain in existence for the 1989 declared line. I have little to add to what I said in my statement. I thank my hon. Friend for what he said. Alternative routes are being seriously considered.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

Will the Secretary of State accept that this is a very important matter, not only for the south-east but for the north of England as a whole? Does he appreciate that a high-speed passenger line across Kent will improve journey times to the north and provide increased capacity for fast through international trains, thus reducing congestion on passenger and freight trains alike? Will he now urgently meet the North of England Regional Consortium to discuss the question of the channel tunnel and the needs of the north?

Mr. Parkinson

I am a northerner myself, and I am aware of what the hon. Gentleman has said. I repeat what I said earlier in my statement. There will be scope for 3 million passengers to travel from the regions to the tunnel, which is the capacity which will be created when the tunnel is opened. The freight service will be second to none. Freight trains are ordered. I think that I broke some news to the hon. Gentleman the other day when I told him that the TGV was not a freight train, as he has visions of 10,000 tonnes of steel hurtling round France at 300 mph, which would be not a train but a missile at that speed. There is a speed limit on freight train speeds, but in this country they move faster and the limit is higher than in most other countries. We will have modern equipment travelling at comparable speeds, and there is plenty of capacity.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the mercy killing of British Rail's white elephant, and for rejecting the bull-at-a-gate approach of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott). As my right hon. Friend has assured me that services for passengers and freight by rail from the channel tunnel will cope with demand for many years ahead, I commend the consultants' study, which considers the alternatives in detail. Can he assure us in Kent that protection of our environment will be given the highest priority? Will he ensure that the access across the north downs to the west will not be fixed so that there will be flexibility about the point where any route, if it were necessary, should pass across the downs?

Mr. Parkinson

The Eurorail proposal suggested that there should be some modifications at that point. That, together with the other alternatives, will be considered. Our determination to protect the environment has led to an enormous increase in the cost of the line. I discussed the relative costs a couple of weeks ago with my French colleague. The French drive their railway lines through open country. There is not a single tunnel or cutting on the whole of the line from Lyons to Paris. We, however, have to take the vast proportion of the line in tunnel from Folkestone to London. We have difficult problems to overcome. We recognise that there are special problems in Kent, and we must protect the environment.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

The Secretary of State said that there is general agreement that the line should terminate at King's Cross. That is not the case. Those of us who live in the north-west expect to be able to move our freight around London at speed, but there is no evidence that that will happen. We also expect the Secretary of State to encourage British Rail to establish a minimum of two freight depots in the north-west; otherwise, the region will find it difficult to compete with European firms.

Mr. Parkinson

I recognise that the hon. Lady's concern is genuine, but it is ill founded. The proposals are not pipedreams of the kind we heard about from her hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott). Orders have been placed and trains and rolling stock have been designed to allow for the fact that our tunnels are smaller than theirs, which means that we need lower bogies. All that work is in hand to ensure that the regions, from which we expect 70 per cent. of the freight to come, have a good service with modern trains running at comparable speeds to those on the continent.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Bearing in mind that Bristol is nearer to Dover than it is to Penzance, does my right hon. Friend's welcome assurance that there will be electrified through services from the regions mean that they will operate to the centre of the south-west region, which is between Exeter and Plymouth? By not going to Bristol, which is only spuriously considered to be in the south-west, I hope that my right hon. Friend does not imagine that that will satisfy people?

Mr. Parkinson

My hon. Friend knows that there are special problems in the south-west. Arrangements, however, are being made for both passengers and freight, from the south-west and also from Wales, which I hope will prove satisfactory.

Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East)

The Secretary of State is hardly covering himself with glory in the way that he is arranging for a high-speed link. We are not surprised that the first set of proposals has fallen down. It provides the Secretary of State with a wonderful opportunity to look at the other better and cheaper proposals that are available which go through Stratford. Can the Secretary of State assure us that he will give careful consideration to those proposals? Instead of getting complaints from his Back Benchers, if he comes to Stratford the local authority will welcome him with open arms.

Mr. Parkinson

I made it clear in my statement that those alternatives are being considered. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has noticed that even the Ove Arup proposal is being modified to go through from Stratford to King's Cross, since most people recognise that King's Cross is a vital hub.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend, who seems to have got it absolutely right from the point of view of the Dover constituency. Will he confirm my understanding that the improvements to the A2 and A20 that have been announced will take place, that the commuter services to Dover and other parts of Kent will be improved as a result of the announcement, and that the money will continue to be spent on them? Will he also confirm my understanding that section 42 of the Channel Tunnel Act 1987 will be preserved and that the jobs of ferry workers in Dover will therefore be safe and secure? Can my right hon. Friend explain why the Opposition want to do away with——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has already asked three questions.

Mr. Parkinson

Yes, we are going ahead with the improvements to the roads to which he referred and which we have announced. We shall be investing substantial sums in roads. Half the capacity of the tunnel is designed to carry vehicles. The shuttles that will carry vehicles will take half the capacity; the other half will be shared between passengers and freight. That is why there is a limit on the amount of freight that can go through the tunnel. I certainly hope and expect that the tunnel will be fully used, but the limitation is the size of the tunnel—not the problem of getting freight to the tunnel.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Bluster and abuse will not cover the Secretary of State's acute embarrassment this afternoon. I warned the then Secretary of State for Transport at a meeting in his room on 19 December 1988 that, unless the Government took political action and a hand in the way the whole matter was being considered, they would eventually be put in an embarrassing position. Will the Secretary of State give an absolute assurance that, when British Rail looks at the options, it will consider not only the Ove Arup route but also the Bechtel route? I hope that it will not do what it did on the last occasion and just take a cursory glance at the options. I hope that it will carry out a proper examination of the options and that it will not carry out any developments at Stratford that would shut out any of the other options.

Mr. Parkinson

During the course of his remarks the hon. Gentleman was rather more agitated than I am. I made it clear in my statement that we think that the other routes are likely to be even less viable, but the new chairman wants to be totally satisfied. That is why he has commissioned independent consultants to look at all the proposals, so on this occasion I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks.

Mr. Keith Speed (Ashford)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement poses more questions than it provides answers? I refer to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) that there will be a massive intensification of passenger and freight traffic Folkestone-Ashford-Maidstone-London and Folkestone-Ashford-Tonbridge-London. Unless we change the primary legislation, the Land Compensation Act 1973, there will be no compensation and no environmental protection for the millions of people who live alongside those two routes. If there were to be such a change, massive public expenditure would be involved to protect them. My right hon. Friend is condemning many of my constituents, and others, on the routes between Kent and London to great disturbance over the next 10 or more years.

Mr. Parkinson

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Sir J. Stanley) and my hon. Friend know that the proposal that we are discussing today is about passengers; the Eurorail proposal was about passengers. The freight arrangements are unchanged as a result of my announcement. I know that the Network SouthEast lines will be more busy. Freight capacity is there, but there will be a shortage of passenger capacity. I note what my hon. Friend said about blight. We have done our best to minimise blight. I shall take note of the need to consider compensation, but I make no promise.

Miss Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

The Secretary of State has created even more concern and confusion about what was already a muddled situation. Where does he propose the railway line should go around London? Just where exactly are these tracks around London? If there are alternatives, why is there any need for the huge monstrosity of a terminal that is being built at Waterloo which the people of Waterloo do not want and which is unnecessary if the new route is to serve all regions?

Mr. Parkinson

The hon. Lady is adopting a very blinkered view. The channel tunnel is to open in 1993. A fast link would not be available before 1998 at the earliest—probably not before the turn of the century. Waterloo will therefore be the main London terminal for the foreseeable future. That is why the redevelopment of Waterloo is under way.

Sir David Mitchell (Hampshire, North-West)

Will my right hon. Friend undertake regularly to re-evaluate the position as more concrete evidence becomes available as to the potential revenue to be earned by British Rail from the operation of the high-speed link?

Mr. Parkinson

Yes, we shall. British Rail expects the case for the line to become stronger as demand develops. It will be kept under constant review.

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

Does the Secretary of State accept that there will be widespread anger in Newcastle tonight because our hopes for King's Cross will have been smashed for the foreseeable future? Have the special passenger trains that will be necessary to take trains from the channel tunnel round London and up the east coast main line been ordered? When will they have something better to use than a chain of Victorian branch lines round London not fit for Thomas the Tank Engine?

Mr. Parkinson

I shall leave on the board for the hon. Gentleman this book about the trains which have been developed—and are ordered—by Belgium, France and Britain. There will be a pool of jointly owned rolling stock, and identical trains will run between Brussels, Paris and the regions of Britain—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) sits there wittering away with her ill-informed colleagues, but it is a fact that there will be a pool of commonly owned trains that will be used for the through services.

Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his confirmation that the Kings Cross Railways Bill, of which I am the sponsor, is still needed and is unaffected by his statement. Does he understand that some Conservative Members are disappointed by his statement this afternoon because an opportunity to get the full benefit of our membership of the EC may not be lost? My right hon. Friend said in his statement that the railway investments that are going ahead will cater for demand in 1993 and for several years thereafter. Just how long will the existing capacity be able to cope?

Mr. Parkinson

I am sorry that my hon. Friend is disappointed. The existing freight capacity can cope indefinitely, but the passenger capacity will run out at about the turn of the century and additional capacity will be needed. I do not see that anything that I have said today will deny anybody the full benefit of anything. Channel tunnel rail services will be available for freight and will be fully utilised. All the regions will have access to the tunnel, with the most modern freight trains moving at comparable speeds. I do not see where the loss of benefit will occur.

Mr. John P. Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Welsh CBI has expressed total dismay at his decision? It is participating in a European business initiative this very week in Cardiff. In light of the disastrous consequences of his statement for the British transport network, does the Secretary of State intend to resign?

Mr. Parkinson

No; but I would not mind spending five minutes with the hon. Gentleman explaining why he is wrong.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that evaluation of the options leading to Stratford will be carried out in a way that is both realistic and proper and not in a way that suggests tokenism? Will he further confirm that those who live in north-west Kent near the route announced in September 1989 will continue to qualify for support under the compensation arrangements announced at that time?

Mr. Parkinson

Yes, I am happy to confirm that my hon. Friend's constituents will remain fully entitled to compensation. The new chairman of British Rail is extremely anxious to settle the right route. He is taking seriously the report of his independent consultants.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

The Secretary of State has made numerous references to the regions. Presumably he was referring to the regions of England. Why is he so contemptuously indifferent to the needs and interests of Scotland? When will he show some concern and commitment to an electrified high-speed link between Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and points south of the border?

Mr. Parkinson

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the electrification will continue to Edinburgh, and after that there is a discussion as to whether is would be justified to electrify as far as Aberdeen. That consultation is continuing. Many people consider that it would not be economically justified, but, as I have made clear on a number of occasions, if British Rail came to me with proposals, I would consider them very carefully.

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

My right hon. Friend has taken a decision that was incredibly difficult but courageous and correct. Does he accept that one of the principal arguments in favour of the high-speed link was the need to get freight off the roads, but the high-speed link did nothing of the sort, even at the proposed cost of £2 billion in public funds? Does he also accept that some Conservative Members would gladly accept more public financial support for rail investment so long as it formed part of a proper national rail freight and passenger strategy? That is why we welcome the commitment to study the alternatives available to British Rail.

Mr. Parkinson

I thank my hon. Friend for his support.

Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside)

If I heard the Secretary of State aright, he said that he was born in the north. I assure him that after this afternoon his credentials have been withdrawn. It seems to me that there is no other city in Europe of equivalent size to Sheffield which has so little rail investment, so little planning for the single European market and so few prospects for getting a decent integrated service with Europe. Will the Secretary of State comment on that?

Mr. Parkinson

I never had any credentials as a Yorkshireman. I am a Lancastrian and proud of it, so it does not worry me at all that the hon. Gentleman has withdrawn my northern credentials. A number of us think that Sheffield has suffered for quite a long time for reasons which have nothing to do with the national Government and everything to do with its appalling local government.

Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)

Will my right hon. Friend undertake to convey directly to the chairman of British Rail the very strong views expressed in the House this afternoon welcoming the commitment to investigate the alternatives to the Stratford-King's Cross entry? Despite his rather unenthusiastic view of those alternatives, does he agree that they could offer a positive approach to taking freight round London rather than through it?

Mr. Parkinson

It could be the launch pad for the development of a hugely expensive national freight network, but I consider that the pressure is on passenger capacity. That is British Rail's overriding consideration. As I have said already, British Rail is examining carefully all the proposals. The new chairman wants to be satisfied that what has been put to him is the best route, but he is totally open-minded and is considering the alternatives.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that in his statement today he has extended even further the feeling of uncertainty among people in my constituency and throughout south-east London as to whether, when and where extra lines are likely to be placed? Meanwhile, if he assures us that the existing lines have the capacity to deal with freight and passenger traffic, does that not mean that those existing lines will be very much more heavily used and our constituents will suffer greatly from that heavy use? The fact that there may be no legal obligation for them to be compensated or for environmental protection to be provided does not mean that there is no moral duty on British Rail. Will he emphasise that point as strongly as possible?

Mr. Parkinson

Although the lines will be more heavily used, we have, in Network SouthEast, a network that is designed to deal with massive flows of people for relatively short periods each day. Between those peaks, there is quite substantial capacity available. The real problem for passengers is in the rush hours and freight does not need to use the rails at that time, as I explained. The lines will be more heavily used, but there is a great deal of scope for them to be more heavily used without them becoming overloaded.

In the meantime, I note what my hon. Friend has said. He knows the difficulties. Every road in this country is now carrying more traffic than it was 10 years ago because we have 5 million more cars. My hon. Friend is asking me to breach an enormous principle, which would affect not only railways, but all our roads—all of which are busier. It is not an easy subject on which to come to a quick decision. However, I note what my hon. Friend says.

Ms. Hilary Armstrong (Durham, North-West)

Will the Secretary of State clarify one of his earlier—and confusing—answers? When does he expect through trains from Paris to Newcastle to be operating and at what speeds? How can he tell us that he is looking forward to an examination of all the options when the Bill was passed by his Government in their previous term of office, before I was a Member of Parliament? Are the Government trying to tell us today that not all the options were considered before the Secretary of State talked to Eurorail?

Mr. Parkinson

Section 42 was included in the Channel Tunnel Act to ensure that no subsidised line would be built. What is more, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), the then Secretary of State for Transport, did not work and Eurotunnel did not issue its prospectus on the basis that there would be a fast link. The fast link began to be discussed after the Channel Tunnel Bill was passed. I have already mentioned in my statement that eight consortia came forward with different proposals last year.

After careful consideration, British Rail settled on Eurorail and investigated the route about which I have talked today. As that route needs far greater Government support than originally expected—and the consortium originally said that it expected to come forward with a viable proposition—we have been forced to turn down that proposal. There is no question of incompetence and the House has been kept informed at all stages. Perhaps the hon. Lady should read some of the past debates.

Sir Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

As my right hon. Friend has already recognised that most freight from the channel tunnel will be going to the midlands, to the north and to Scotland, will he also recognise that it is daft to try to move all that freight over already congested rail lines running through south and west London? Will he require British Rail to produce plans for improving the Ashford-Redhill link to move that freight round London?

Mr. Parkinson

Yes, British Rail will look at the question of improving that link.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)

How much has this embarrassing muddle cost British Rail so far? What is my right hon. Friend doing to tap European financial resources that have been offered? Is not the reality that, when the dust settles, the problem will go on stewing and that the United Kingdom European region will be at a disadvantage for even longer?

Mr. Parkinson

I hope that my hon. Friend will read my statement. We shall be offering a through service from the regions to Paris when the French will not be able to offer a through service from their regions to London. All passengers to the French regions will need to change in Paris initially. We shall have through services from the time that the tunnel opens. There will be 3 million seats a year—a substantial number.

I did not answer one of the questions of the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong). There will be a through service on the east coast main line from 1993.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

May I reiterate the views of hon. Members who have stressed that what will disappoint Kent people most about my right hon. Friend's announcement this afternoon is the fact that it prolongs the uncertainty? If the chairman of British Rail is to do a thorough job of looking at the alternative routes, he must also do a speedy job so that, once and for all, we can have a protected route which is the only route and so that there will be no further uncertainty. Will the chairman of British Rail be looking only at the options that have come up so far—that is, the Ove Arup route and the Thames alternative link international system or TALIS route—or are there further routes at which the consultants will look?

Mr. Parkinson

To avoid uncertainty, I have confirmed today that the compensation arrangements on the September 1989 proposals will be maintained. That means that the only people who are threatened by any decision have the right to compensation. That applies from Folkestone to Kings Cross. The chairman of British Rail wants, of course, to end the uncertainty as quickly as possible. Equally, he wants to take a good look at the options before he comes to a decision.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the speed of freight travelling from the midlands, from the north and from Scotland to the tunnel mouth will be comparable to that on the continent? Does he agree that it is at best bizarre for the Opposition to suggest that today's announcement is to the disadvantage of the rest of the country? Does he agree that the Opposition's attitude is more likely to be downright dishonest?

Mr. Parkinson

I do not know what the Opposition's motives are, although I have my own opinions. I can confirm, as I have done already, that British freight will be drawn by the most modern rolling stock, from modern depots and at comparable speeds to those on the continent to the mouth of the tunnel.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton)

My right hon. Friend has made several comments, which sounded slightly worrying to me, about the passenger capacity of the services. Will he give an absolute guarantee that my constituents and other commuters will be able to find a seat on the services that are running and will not be travelling on overcrowded trains?

Mr. Parkinson

My hon. Friend has underlined an important point—that too much of our discussion about transport is centred around the channel tunnel and the channel tunnel link—[Interruption.] Many people who will never use either want a decent service in their own areas and that is why, unlike the Opposition, we are not obsessed with the tunnel. We recognise its significance and the need to improve other parts of the network. That is why Network SouthEast alone will invest £1,200 million over the next three years in improving the lot of the commuter.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

My right hon. Friend has said that he is aware of the vital importance of the channel tunnel to the regions, especially the north-west, and of the necessity for further rail investment not only for passenger travel, but for freight to enable the fast, efficient export of manufactured goods from the north of England to their continental destinations. Does he agree that such investment would be economically and environmentally justified?

Mr. Parkinson

Yes, I do. It is important that the north-west, including the area that my hon. Friend represents, has fair access to the tunnel. It is also important that it has a good road network, good access to the ports, good access to the airports and better airports. In other words, we need to improve our whole infrastructure, and that is what is happening under this Government, with record programmes in every area—in rail, in the underground, in roads and in air traffic control. I am glad that my hon. Friend has given me the opportunity to confirm that that the Government are determined that the north-west will have access to a full range of good transport facilities.

Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud)

Notwithstanding the high-speed ranting of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), can my right hon. Friend confirm that we are talking about the postponement, rather than the cancellation, of the fast rail link and that it is now for British Rail to go away, do a great deal more thinking, and come up with a more acceptable scheme?

Mr. Parkinson

That is absolutely right. Unlike the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who studies nothing and knows everything, British. Rail recognises that this is a complicated problem and deserves careful consideration, which is precisely what British Rail is giving it.

Mr. Tim Janman (Thurrock)

My right hon. Friend is, of course, aware that two of the alternatives, which will no doubt be looked at in the report to be commissioned by the chairman of British Rail, would involve routes through my constituency. May I ask my right hon. Friend two questions?

Mr. Speaker

No—one question, please.

Mr. Janman

Does my right hon. Friend feel that either the Ove Arup or the TALIS alternative would provide better through links to the north than the Eurorail proposal? Can he assure the House——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I asked for one question, and the time is getting on.

Mr. Parkinson

The Ove Arup scheme is completely different in concept. As my hon. Friend knows, it deals with both freight and passengers. If we were to benefit from it, it would need to act as a launching pad for a very expensive nationwide scheme costing about £10 billion to £15 billion—hardly the sort of money that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East would get from that £80 million a year European infrastructure fund.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

So far, our questions have been dominated by hon. Members representing constituencies in London and Kent, who are rightly concerned about the local environment. Does my right hon. Friend agree that taxpayers in general would conclude that it would be at best most unwise to favour one part of the transport infrastructure by throwing £2 billion into what could prove, literally, to be a bottomless pit, by tunnelling through some of the most difficult geological conditions in the world, just to cut half an hour off the journey time between London and Paris?

Mr. Parkinson

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing a note of common sense and realism into the discussion and pointing out that we cannot lay all Britain's future transport needs at the door of the tunnel. We need to improve the whole of our infrastructure, and the Government are getting on with doing just that.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

Does the Secretary of State accept that Opposition Members believe that what is needed is a new rail link that will benefit the whole of the United Kingdom, and that, to that end, we shall continue to consult the civil engineering industry and other railway technical experts? [Interruption.] The Secretary of State may snigger, but I am being serious. Despite the right hon. Gentleman's earlier cavalier dismissal of what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), will he undertake to consider any proposals that we relay to him about the feasibility of such a rail link?

What, in his opinion, will be the impact of today's decision on road traffic in Kent and particularly in constituencies such as Dover, Dulwich and Dartford? Will he take it from me that the bluster that typified his statement this afternoon will not alter the fact that the announcement is a grievous blow to Britain's economy and that it will condemn British Rail, and particularly commuters in the south of England, to a crowded and uncertain future?

Will he accept that we will give him every assistance in repealing section 42 of the Channel Tunnel Act 1987 if that is what he thinks is holding up proper investment in rail links to and from the Channel ports?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his statement today has united the CBI, the Institute of Directors, chambers of commerce throughout the United Kingdom, local and regional authorities of all political persuasions, the technical and rail press, The Guardian, The Independent, The Times and The Daily Telegraph, all of which have condemned his latest defeat as a dream that has come off the rails Will he take it from me that the decision today is not only a blow for Britain but could prove to be the end of his already faltering career?

Mr. Parkinson

It is better to be a has-been than a never-was.

The hon. Gentleman talked about road traffic. I am sure that he is aware that the tunnel is designed so that half the capacity can be used by the shuttle to move road traffic. That is why this Government and the French Government are spending approximately the same amount—£600 million—in providing road access. My announcement today will make no difference at all to congestion. Freight will travel as I have explained and by the routes that I have outlined, and it will travel in the quantities in which it would have travelled had I not made my announcement today. The limitation on the movement of freight will be the capacity not of railway lines but of the tunnel. There will be road traffic. That is why we are spending a lot of money, and that is why Eurotunnel is to allocate half the capacity of the tunnel to road. It is a surprise only to the hon. Gentleman—it is not a surprise to anyone else—that there will be an increase in traffic and that roads will be improved.

I do not accept that what I have announced today is a grievous blow to anybody. When the CBI reads my statement, instead of listening——

Mr. Prescott

Listening to me?

Mr. Parkinson

No. The CBI was probably listening to those who were pushing out stuff saying that, for only £400 million, we could have an amazing all-singing, all-dancing all-purpose link. The sum was never going to be £400 million. When the CBI reads my statement and sees the facts, it may want to modify its views.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned commuters. I have pointed out to him that, in addition to the fast link, in Kent alone we shall be investing nearly £800 million in improving commuter services. To give an example, the north Kent line will have its entire rolling stock replaced and 63 stations lengthened to take 12-coach trains, and new signalling and maintenance systems will be installed. The south Kent lines will get a further £300 million to £400 million to be invested in new rolling stock. While the hon. Gentleman squeals about his concern for commuters, the Government are as usual getting on with making arrangements to make their lives better.

I am answerable to the bodies that the hon. Gentleman mentioned; I am answerable to the House. The Government's transport policies are sensible and balanced and will give Britain a modern infrastructure in the 1990s.