HC Deb 24 May 1990 vol 173 cc406-18

10.7 am

Sir Fergus Montgomery (Altrincham and Sale)

I am grateful for the opportunity to initiate this Adjournment debate. I suppose that it involves what might be called the northern factor. I was born in north-east England and I represent a north-west constituency. Therefore, the problems of the north are important to me and to my constituents.

I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister of State, who has not long been at his new Department, but who, as Under-Secretary of State for Health, was a kind and courteous Minister. Whenever I took problems to him, he listened sympathetically and always seemed to do something to help. I hope that he will be just as helpful in his new office as he was previously at the Department of Health.

The purpose of the debate is to emphasise the importance to the north-west and to the whole of the north of the channel tunnel. Time is critical. The United Kingdom is already far behind Europe in the realignment of both road and rail links to the channel tunnel. Further delay will be harmful not only to the United Kingdom but the north-west. I hope that the Government will resist all appeals to delay matters and instead will permit Eurorail to go ahead with preparing the private Bill under which Britain's high-speed rail link can be built.

The north-west of England is the second highest regional contributor to gross domestic product. It is a great industrial area and heavily dependent on the old basic industries, and so suffered greatly during the recession. I am delighted that the north-west is recovering extremely well. Some 70 per cent. of our overseas trade is with mainland Europe, which is why the channel tunnel is of such importance to us. With the single market coming into effect in 1992, and the channel tunnel due to open in 1993, we understand its enormous importance to the economic well-being of the north-west.

Last Friday, my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden) initiated a debate—he is always very diligent in putting forward the views of his constituents—to urge British Rail to consider Stratford as the terminal for the channel tunnel rail link. That was supported by several hon. Members with constituencies in south London, and I understand their reasons. They believe that such a development at Stratford would be of enormous economic advantage to south London.

A number of my hon. Friends representing constituencies in Kent also supported my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich because they are worried about the effects that the rail link will have on the environment, and I understand their worries. When my hon. Friend the Minister replied to the debate last week he said that, whether King's Cross or Stratford is used, the link will still have to go through Kent. It is important that as little environmental damage as possible is done—hon. Members representing northern constituencies are only too aware of such damage, because the scars from the industrial revolution remained for a long time in the north—and I am sure that that will be borne in mind by British Rail and the Government.

In the north, especially the north-west, we want to grasp opportunities offered by the tunnel. Therefore, improvements to the transport infrastructure are needed. The north-west is the largest single market area for international rail freight and passenger services outside the south-east of England. We stand to gain increased export and tourist opportunities.

You may be interested to know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that a couple of weeks ago it was warmer and sunnier in Blackpool than on Spain's Costa del Sol. We must also remember that, although the north-west is a great industrial area, it also contains some of the most beautiful areas in the United Kingdom. Transferring more freight from road to rail would have tremendous benefits for the environment and would boost the attractiveness of the region and competitiveness in Europe for existing firms and for inward investment. Taken together, those things offer an enormous plus for the north-west, but people in the region are worried about the delay in reaching decisions on siting tracks to and from the tunnel and about the location of the new rail terminal in London.

I make no bones about it: I believe that King's Cross is the ideal choice, for a number of reasons. First, it would provide direct links to the east coast and midlands main lines and would ensure connections with the west coast main lines. Secondly, King's Cross would provide a good quality interchange for passengers, especially those from the north. Thirdly, it already has a relatively fast link—the Thameslink—to the tunnel. That will be essential until the high-speed passenger link is completed, which is not expected to happen until 1998–99. King's Cross could provide services with or without the high speed passenger link. Fourthly, the King's Cross Railways Bill was deposited by British Rail in November 1989, and any further delay should be avoided.

On the other hand, Stratford has no direct link with the three main lines to the north, it has poor interchange facilities, and no direct link to the tunnel. Therefore, it is a non-starter. King's Cross should be chosen. I understand that it has been suggested that there should be three London terminals—Victoria, King's Cross and Stratford—and that borders on the ridiculous. King's Cross, with its central position and its close proximity to Euston and St. Pancras, is the ideal location. Nowhere else in London can one find three important rail terminals in such a small area as that bounded by King's Cross, St. Pancras and Euston. Also, 66 per cent. of London underground stations on five underground lines are connected directly with King's Cross. The proposed travolator to link King's Cross with Euston will make it the hub of transport in the metropolis.

A further advantage for King's Cross is that it could use the existing route through west Hampstead and so could easily be linked to the west coast main lines. I am firmly of the opinion that British Rail's plan to use King's Cross as the London international terminal is right, and that we should proceed with it as soon as possible.

We should consider the national interest in the House today. No one disputes that the south-east is overcrowded and frustrated and that decentralisation of activities should be encouraged. No one disputes that the motorway system is already under intense pressure. If my hon. Friend the Minister cares to drive from Westminster to the north-west one Friday afternoon, he will discover how terrible the situation is as he drives up the M1 and on to the M6. It would take him a great deal of time, not because of accidents or road works, but because of the number of vehicles on the road. It is extremely frustrating for drivers and must be costly to the nation.

It makes good economic sense to move more traffic from road to rail. We are constantly being told to think about the environment and environmental issues. I understand that the Prime Minister will make a great speech on environmental issues tomorrow. The use of the railway system to haul freight whenever it is practicable has considerable advantages compared with the available alternatives.

I want the economy of the north-west to benefit as much as possible from investment in the channel tunnel. Therefore, investment in infrastructure is essential. At the moment, there is an enormous amount of investment in the Lille region in France because, rightly or wrongly, and not by accident but by design, Lille will be the junction for the London-Paris and London-Brussels rail links. Lille will be important and the French are pouring enormous amounts of money into the area. The rewards for the future growth of the economy in the Lille area are encouraging.

In the north-west, we have an efficient group called the North West Channel Tunnel Group, comprising the North West Local Authority Rail Forum, Greater Manchester Economic Development Ltd., the development corporations of Central Manchester, Merseyside and Trafford Park, Inward, English Estates (North West), all the chambers of commerce in the north-west, and the north-west Confederation of British Industry. That is a formidable team. The group has produced a booklet which I am sure the Minister has seen, called "Capitalising on the Channel Tunnel: Action for North West England". In its foreword it says: The North West of England is a region of great economic importance to the UK economy as a whole, and to secure future growth it must be able to compete effectively in the European Community when the Single European Market is completed by 1993. Transport infrastructure is a key to the North West being able to achieve this, and the Channel Tunnel promises to make international rail freight and passenger services a major element of transport in the Europe of the 1990s. The North West is the region of the UK with potentially the most to gain and the most to lose from the Channel Tunnel, as the largest single market area for freight and passenger services outside the South East. It is essential that the North West has effective international rail freight and passenger services, so that the region can take full advantage of the Single Market and the transport benefits offered by the Channel Tunnel. It is important to establish business plans from the outset which will promote economic opportunities as fully as possible. The North West Channel Tunnel Group has considered both road and rail options for gaining access to the Channel Tunnel from the North West. In spite of road improvements planned in the Government Report 'Trunk Roads-England: Into the 1990s', road congestion is unlikely to be substantially eased. The Group's view is that the focus needs to be on rail to provide fast and reliable movement of passengers and freight to and from mainland Europe, because of advantages in cost, time and convenience. For this reason, the North West Channel Tunnel Group has been formed from a wide range of business, economic and public sector interests in the region. Our aim is to co-ordinate North West efforts to secure fast and reliable rail access to mainland Europe, and promote the economic opportunities this will bring. British Rail has recently published its Plan for international rail services and facilities for UK regions, but the proposals for the North West fall far short of what the region needs. Time is a critical factor. There are less than three years to go before the Single Market is fully enacted in 1992, and only just over three years before the Channel Tunnel is planned to open in 1993. There is little time available to achieve even the most basic improvements to international rail infrastructure for the North West. The North West Channel Tunnel Group is determined to ensure that the region's transport infrastructure aspirations for 1993 and beyond are understood and achieved as soon as possible. In not too many words, those are the basic aims that I am trying to put forward.

The Government have injected more money into the north-west than any other Government. Enormous sums have been poured into the three development corporations at Trafford Park, Manchester Central and Merseyside, to say nothing of the enormous amount of money that has gone into inner-city funding. Those initiatives are paying off. Anybody can see the benefits that have accrued in the north-west since the Government took office. It would be extremely sad if those advantages were allowed to wither away because of our failure to attend to the transport infrastructure.

10.20 am
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

Thank you for allowing me to contribute to this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. I endorse the powerful remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery). I underline my concern about our friends and colleagues in Kent. It would be churlish and selfish of us in the north-west to continue to endorse the benefits of the channel tunnel rail link without remembering the problems that they and their constituents face.

Clearly, much of our discussion about the benefits of the channel tunnel in the north-west would be academic without a high-quality rail link between London and the channel. I understand the pressures that my colleagues are under and I hope that, even at this late stage, the Government will recognise the environmental impact of the line in Kent and perhaps find some mechanism to resolve the problem. Without the symbol of commitment—the link between London and Kent—much of the excitement of and possibilities for the channel tunnel will be lost.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) and I recently attended a meeting with local authorities in the Fylde coast area and we discussed inward investment. That meeting was held with the assistance of an organisation called Inward, which has had much success in recent years in bringing Japanese and American investment to the north-west. A powerful message came from the discussions. Representatives at the meeting said, "In your discussions on the channel tunnel, don't let the impression be created that the north-west of England is cut off from that vital transport link to Europe." They pointed out that companies in Japan, America and elsewhere invest in this country because of our attitude to 1992 and the creation of the single market.

This country has much to offer, but the key to taking advantage of it is a good transport link with Europe. The tunnel is an important feature of that. Another key to taking advantage of the channel tunnel is our rail links with centres such as Manchester. There may be a debate about the correctness of the capacity of freight and passenger transport. That is something that the market will have to prove, but, in this age of the railway, we need to do all we can to encourage people to use rail as an alternative mode of transport.

I emphasise the strength of feeling in our part of Lancashire about the electrification of the line from Blackpool to Manchester. It took some time for me to prise from British Rail the actual costs involved in the project—about £30 million—but it said that, as part of its infill electrification programme, the Blackpool to Manchester line is viable and at the top of the list. The advent of direct links with the channel tunnel means that that infill project is another attractive way of persuading people to use railways to journey to Europe. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister, when considering the development of the domestic rail network, to look at that perspective.

Also on passenger services, I emphasise the need for my hon. Friend, in his discussions with British Rail, to try to get it to think even more about the commercial opportunities that the channel tunnel rail link will have. British Rail seems reluctant to recognise that passengers boarding trains in the north-west will want the same baggage facilities as are provided by airlines. It is reassuring to know that if, one is flying from Manchester to London and then to Strasbourg, one's luggage will end up at the final destination. British Rail seems reluctant to move into that new era.

My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale talked about the advantages of King's Cross—I endorse what he said—and he underlined the importance of a travolator link. A travolator would cater for the passenger and be a powerful inducement. As one can walk to terminals 1, 2 or 3 at London airport, so would one be able to go from Euston to King's Cross and then travel to the channel tunnel. The thought of having to carry their bags could put people off. Such a facility would make all the difference to exploiting the enormous benefits of travelling by rail to continental Europe.

There appears to be indecision about where the various freightyards and co-ordinating points will be. It is important that British Rail does whatever it can to remove that indecision. I must sound a political note to my hon. Friend the Minister. There is little use in bodies such as Lancashire county council continually writing to Members of Parliament berating them on this subject. When I write to them and ask, "Where is your strategy and plan? Where would you like the freightyards?" they reply, "We are concerned about it, but we do not have any specific ideas."

There is a great danger that bodies such as Lancashire county council are trying to exploit difficult decisions simply for narrow political gain, and I object to that. Conservative Members have shown their dedication and commitment to the channel link and will fight hard for it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale has pointed out, no Opposition Member from the north-west is present.

It is important that British Rail does all that it can to induce a railway culture for those who, until now, have transported freight by road. There is a generation of freight managers who might say, "Yes, we will use the channel tunnel rail link," but, at the moment, their thoughts are road-bound. Fully to exploit the potential, industry must demonstrate its positive commitment to using the rail link. That would encourage British Rail to take an even more positive attitude to this important development.

10.27 am
Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)

I am grateful for the opportunity to say a few words. I thoroughly endorse the comments by my hon. Friends the Members for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) and for Fylde (Mr. Jack) on this important topic. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on his new role, and I urge him to persuade British Rail—I know that it has made considerable progress over the past decade—to make a new effort to improve its passenger and freight facilities to the level that we now regard as the norm in air transport. I should like the great improvements that have been made in consumer comfort and the operating procedures of air transport networks—more specifically through the privatisation of British Airways—to be applied to our ground transportation system, and to British Rail in particular, so that the customer is put at the head of the queue and is provided with the best possible transport service. That is vital for people in the north-west and for others in this country.

Great Britain is on the edge of Europe. The channel tunnel will make certain that, in terms of travel time, this country is much closer to many continental centres not only in western Europe but increasingly in eastern Europe as that part of the continent, under the light of free enterprise, moves towards a much more sophisticated and prosperous economy in the years ahead. That is even more true of the north-west. Great Britain is on the edge of Europe; clearly, we in the north-west feel that we are even further from the centres of Europe than the south-east is. In many ways, the channel tunnel is even more important to the north than it is to the south-east.

Let us consider the distances and times it takes to reach places in Europe, and the distance and time it takes to reach London. It takes the same time to travel from Newcastle to London as it does from Preston to London, although the distance from Newcastle to London is considerably greater. In terms of travel to London, let alone to the continent, the north-west is the poor relation of the north-east. For one reason or another, our rail link has been neglected in the past. It is important that it is improved, especially with the completion of the channel tunnel only two or three years away.

There are two areas for which it is important that action is taken quickly on the rail link. First, the port of Liverpool could benefit tremendously from the channel tunnel as an entrepot to Europe and as a one-stop facility for cargo coming across the Atlantic or from elsewhere. Cargo could come to Liverpool rather than to Rotterdam and containers could be taken through the channel tunnel. Liverpool can be revived provided that there is a decent rail link between that great city and the continent. It is important that British Rail appreciates that fact.

Secondly, and a little closer to home, in the Fylde we have our own little silicon valley which is rapidly building up. Its core is British Aerospace and around it are the high-tech facilities that such a core activity tends to draw together. If we are to develop that area, it is vital that the communications are there so that people who want to work and live in the Fylde area, but who need to correspond, to travel and to meet people on the continent who are involved in similar activities are given the facilities to do so. That would draw the area closer to the centre of Europe. The channel tunnel link and a faster rail link to the north-west would help to achieve that.

Nineteen ninety-two will be with us in a few years. We must take advantage of that common market and we can do so with the construction of the channel tunnel. However, in the north-west, it is increasingly being seen that the direct rail link with the tunnel will be vital for the port of Liverpool and for the area around British Aerospace, and for the whole economy of the north-west to take the best advantage of the opportunities provided by the unitary market in the coming decade.

10.32 am
Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)

I want to begin my remarks at the point where my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) finished his. Clearly, the major danger for the north-west is that we shall be on the periphery of the main activity in the economy unless we have connections to the main artery of the future and to the biggest British trade market, which is Europe. It is essential that, when the tunnel is in full operation, the north-west is not left out.

At present, the estimate for future north-west freight to Europe is 2 million tonnes a year. That means that, along with north Wales, the north-west is the biggest freight region in the country. It is bigger than the Home Counties or the south-east, so it is a market that should be considered. As my hon. Friends have said, we cannot underestimate the importance of the channel tunnel to the export markets for north-west companies. The proximity to the tunnel will determine the location of new factories and jobs, and inward investment. If we do not have those connections, we are likely to be left out.

As my hon. Friends have said, we need two essential factors in our favour. First, we must have good freight links to the tunnel; secondly, we must have good passenger links. At present, there are no final decisions on the main terminal and the fast link from London to the tunnel. The only option available to us in the north-west is King's Cross and the fast link through Kent.

The other option, of Ove Arup and Stratford, is irrelevant to us, as Stratford is too remote from the north-west main line and will slow down the passage of freight from the north-west to the tunnel. The Ove Arup proposal has not been properly costed, especially in relation to tunnelling under the Thames. Ove Arup proposes a Berne gauge from Europe which will reach us in the north-west in 2003, which is far too long to wait. The whole north-west economy could have been destroyed by the time it arrived.

There is a need for an imminent decision by British Rail about the freight terminals so that planning can go ahead. There are only three options. The first is to develop a sea port for Merseyside, at Garston or Seaforth, which is container-based; secondly, there could be a similar one at Trafford Park, which my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) has already mentioned; thirdly, there could probably be one in the centre of Lancashire at Haydock, joining up at Crewe for onward passage to the tunnel. It is important to note that freight is viable when the distance travelled is more than 200 miles, so it is a viable option for us to send freight through the tunnel from the north-west to the European markets.

British Rail's estimates for passengers are far too conservative. It proposes to order 18 trains for passenger use, of which only seven will be capable of going north of London because they will need to be divided. British Rail envisages only one train a day going beyond London, compared with the 15 trains it envisages will come from Paris and stop at London. That is not adequate. We believe that we shall be able to develop the necessary traffic that will go on to the north-west. If one is keen on skiing, for example, it would be possible to go all the way to Moutiers. We shall be able to pack those trains with north-west skiing enthusiasts through the winter months.

British Rail must start making decisions. We are three years from the opening of the channel tunnel and two years from the implementation of the single market. Not a yard of track has been laid, and final decisions have not been made on essential structural matters which are important to the north-west. If it is not to be left behind in industrial development, decisions must be made soon. I know from experience that my hon. Friend the Minister is a man of action. I look to him to speed up the process and to see that the north-west is properly catered for.

10.37 am
The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Roger Freeman)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) for his kind remarks at the beginning of this brief debate. I note with interest that there is strong Conservative representation from the north-west. The debate was initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale and we have had excellent contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Fylde (Mr. Jack), for Wyre (Mr. Mans) and for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind). I notice also here my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington, South (Mr. Butler), for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham), and for Bolton, West (Mr. Sackville) and, not least, my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. Goodlad). That is a truly magnificent sign that Conservative Members strongly support the best interests of business and industry in the north-west and that they want to ensure that, when the channel tunnel opens, the north-west makes immediate, active and thorough use of the enormous opportunities that it will present.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

As the Minister seems to be taking a roll call, I am intervening simply to make the point that I am here. The Minister referred to the paucity of Liberal Democrat Members for the north of England. I suppose that I could be regarded as one of the Liberal Democrats with a seat nearest to the north-west, so I hope that the Minister will accept that Liberal Democrats are interested enough to listen to and participate in these debates.

Mr. Freeman

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman reminded me of the paucity of Liberal Democrats representing the north-west.

One of the most important responsibilities from now on is to ensure that, when the channel tunnel opens in 1993, we and British Rail have taken the necessary steps in terms of our public infrastructure—not only for passengers but for freight—to ensure that we exploit the channel tunnel and the great advantages that it offers in 1993, let alone at the turn of the century. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Lancashire, West that I shall concentrate not only on the grand design, but on the detail of our plans.

The debate has been most useful and has aired the north-west's wish to participate in the benefits that the channel tunnel will bring to the United Kingdom as a whole. My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale will be pleased to know that a major objective of Government policy is to ensure that the regions beyond the south-east can benefit as much as possible from the new direct rail link between the United Kingdom and the continental rail networks that the tunnel will provide. One of the most important benefits that the tunnel will bring to the more distant regions is the opportunity of the provision of through rail freight services. Such services will assist economic development throughout the United Kingdom and, by encouraging the transfer of freight from road to rail, will bring environmental benefits throughout the United Kingdom.

Prompted by the debate, it would be a good idea if I were to put something on my desk that would serve as a reminder that, when looking at public transport infrastructure expenditure proposals, we in the Department of Transport must always remember the need to think about the whole of Great Britain, and not just about London and the south-east, where there are great and pressing problems. I assure my hon. Friends that, when I return to the Department of Transport later this morning, I shall take steps to ensure that the first thing that I shall see on my desk when I return after the Whitsun recess is a notice to remind myself to "Think Britain". It will remind me to think about the implications for the whole of Britain when considering not only British Rail's investment, but investments in light rail schemes, buses and road programmes. I use those words advisedly.

I well understand the attitude of some—although I think that it is misguided—who fear that the north-west might be cut off from the economic developments on the mainland of Europe unless there are proper investments in the infrastructure to link us, by rail, with the rest of Europe through the tunnel. I shall explain briefly why I think those fears are misplaced. When reviewing investment propositions from British Rail, we should constantly remind ourselves of the importance of linking the regions and provinces of Britain into the tunnel and onwards into Europe.

It is important that we do not get the importance of the tunnel out of context. Although it will be extremely significant to Britain's economy, it is estimated that, when it opens in 1993, it will rank 12th or 13th in importance when set against Britain's ports. It will take only a relatively small proportion of our freight traffic. Although, as I have said, I do not underestimate its significance, we must not forget Britain's great ports, which will continue to contribute to our economic prosperity and growth.

Last December, British Rail published its plan for international services. This followed an extensive consultation exercise and the proposals represent British Rail's current view of commercially viable services using the tunnel. It has been said that these proposals are inadequate. We must remember, however, that British Rail is required by the Government—and by Parliament—to run its international services on a proper commercial basis. Section 42 of the Channel Tunnel Act 1987, which prohibits subsidy to British Rail for its international services, was widely supported at the time, despite the current claims by the Opposition that it should be repealed.

It is interesting that the Labour party's current official policy is to consider repealing section 42, and hence permit a subsidy from the taxpayer for the international services —I draw a distinction between international and provincial services, such as Network SouthEast—which would therefore permit unfair competition with the ferries and the airlines, which are not subsidised. The Labour party is going back on its previous clear commitment and clear support for section 42 of the Channel Tunnel Act. The Government will not repeal or suggest the repeal of that section. It was introduced to ensure that ferries, ports and other international transport operators would not face unfair competition from a subsidised rail service. We do not believe that the situation has changed. British Rail already runs its freight and InterCity operations successfully on a commercial basis and there is no reason why its international services should not enjoy similar success.

It is perhaps worth reminding the House that British Rail's so-called "section 40" plan sets out its current view of commercially viable services. I pay tribute to those in the north-west who, in a large measure, were instrumental in encouraging the adoption of section 40 of the Channel Tunnel Act and for the document that was published in December 1989, which is headed "International Rail Services for the United Kingdom", a copy of which is in the Library. I hope that all hon. Members will have the chance to study it. I know that all my hon. Friends, with their great interest in the economic prosperity of the north-west, have already done so.

Section 40 requires British Rail to bring forward its current assessment of the passenger and freight opportunities that are presented by the channel tunnel. I repeat that the Act requires British Rail to publish the document now. It is current. We should not fall into the trap of believing that this is British Rail's last word, especially on freight traffic. British Rail must naturally be realistic, cautious and pragmatic about its present assessment of the passenger and freight opportunities that are presented by the tunnel. However, the position will change and I hope that, during the months and years before the opening of the services in 1993, my hon. Friends will not be reluctant to draw to the attention of British Rail and the Department of Transport any opportunities for passenger and freight business that they believe that British Rail is missing.

British Rail will keep its section 40 responsibilities and report under review both up to the opening of the tunnel and thereafter, as it is required to do under the Channel Tunnel Act. The plan will be modified as the developing pattern of demand and the associated commercial opportunities become clearer. I am sure that British Rail would welcome some input from local businesses and business organisations, so that it can formulate an accurate assessment of the demand for its services.

I should like to come to the north-west at an early date, not only to meet my hon. Friends again, but also to meet businesses and other organisations there to discuss their views of the opportunities that will be presented by the channel tunnel. If my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale would be kind enough to chair such a meeting, I should be delighted to attend. If they can, I hope that my other hon. Friends will participate in such a meeting so that we can demonstrate yet again both the Government's and my hon. Friends' commitment to the prosperity of the north-west.

British Rail's initial proposals for the north-west provide capacity for some 540,000 passengers per annum on the daily services to Paris and Brussels. That is about two and a half times the number of passengers who chose to fly between Manchester and those destinations in 1988. In addition, a night service from Glasgow will also call at Manchester, offering further passenger capacity. So it is not fair to castigate British Rail for providing insufficient places from the regions. One difference between the rail and air facilities is of course that, whilst one can catch a flight at various times throughout the day, one will be able to catch a train only twice a day—once during the morning and once at night—in order to reach one's destination, whether Paris or Brussels, through the tunnel.

However, each train, represents a huge investment by British Rail—it plans to invest over £1 billion to enable a full passenger and freight service to London and beyond to commence on the day that the channel tunnel opens—and British Rail must be satisfied that any further services would be commercially viable. It is not open to British Rail simply to accept statements that a market might grow up if the extra train is run; the market must be clearly demonstrable. In any event, British Rail could not match the frequency of the current high-quality InterCity services from the north-west to London that run throughout the day.

There will always be passengers who find it more convenient to use the InterCity services and change in London for services from Waterloo through the channel tunnel. The alternative would be to use the through-train services, but, as I said, they will, unavoidably and inevitably, be relatively infrequent. It is important that we should not place on British Rail any obligation to run subsidised services. My hon. Friends would not thank me for placing a burden on British Rail that worsened its financial results. British Rail must respond in a forward-looking way to commercial opportunities that are available, not only for passengers and freight. That is its best judgment at present, but undoubtedly that judgment will change as we obtain a clearer picture of the opportunities for freight and passenger traffic through the tunnel.

Some passengers will always opt for air travel because of time considerations. It is important to remember that the travelling time by rail from Manchester to the continent is likely to be between five and six hours, whereas flying time is only about one hour. I am now dealing with 1993—I shall come on to 1998, the turn of the century and the rail link in a moment. However, rail journeys will have the advantage of offering the passenger travel from city centre to city centre without having to change. I know that that is an important consideration for some people, particularly when they are on holiday. That time difference may be an important consideration for those travelling on business, although perhaps of less significance to tourists and leisure travellers.

As I said earlier, one of the major benefits to the regions of the tunnel will be the opportunity to provide through rail freight services between the United Kingdom and the Continent. British Rail has said that it expects 70 per cent. of channel tunnel freight to come from the regions. It is important, however, that the ability of rail to supplant road transport should not be exaggerated—a 50 per cent. increase in rail transport would reduce road transport by less than 5 per cent.

I take the point made by my hon. Friends about the environmental benefits of moving freight by rail as opposed to road. I am a frequent commuter on the M1 to my constituency and on up the M6 to Manchester and the north-west, where my family roots and those of my wife are. I am a frequent user of the motorways and I understand the strength of my hon. Friends' point. However, it is important to realise that the reduction of road congestion by moving a significant proportion of freight by rail is relatively limited, simply because so much greater a proportion of the movement of freight is already by road.

Nevertheless, British Rail estimates that its services will take 400,000 lorry journeys off the roads, with the environmental benefits that that will bring. BR is negotiating with the private sector for a network of regional freight terminal sites, at least one of which will serve the north-west region, and it will announce the chosen sites during this year.

I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde and other hon. Friends that the sooner that British Rail can announce the location of the freight depot the better. That will enable industry in the north-west to plan its affairs in a more logical and coherent way. I accept the strength of the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde and I shall encourage British Rail to reach a sensible and commercial decision as quickly as possible.

There have been calls to provide further terminals in the north-west. I stress again that all British Rail's investments must be commercially viable. British Rail is currently negotiating with the road haulage operators and industry to find out what locations and facilities would meet their needs so that it can ensure that businesses have the best possible access to the rail network. British Rail is anxious to compete effectively in the international freight transport market. It intends to use new wagon technology which can provide the same loading capabilities as those in mainland Europe. It is considering the possibility of developing a fleet of "swap-body" wagons so that containers can be more easily transferred between rail and road transport.

The part played by both the proposed second international passenger station at King's Cross and the proposed dedicated rail link between the tunnel and London in relation to regional services is sometimes misunderstood. I should emphasise that neither of these initiatives is essential for commencing the running of through services in 1993 when the tunnel opens. British Rail plans to operate the services on existing lines as soon as the tunnel opens. That is not to say that the two projects would not, in due course, lead to reduced journey times and, in the case of King's Cross, provide an easier interchange to the inter-capital services for those passengers who choose to take the inter-city connections to London from the north. I should also stress that neither development would affect freight traffic, which British Rail intends to run on existing lines.

My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale mentioned the Hampstead curve. I attach some importance to that. I understand that British Rail has a Bill before Parliament to give it power to construct that curve—the link between the west coast main line and the terminal at King's Cross. My hon. Friend and others who spoke on the subject raised the importance of further investment in the west coast main line, which was electrified 15 to 20 years ago. It needs further infrastructure investment to straighten the line and improve the speed of services from the north-west.

The Hampstead curve is important. It will enable passengers travelling down the west coast main line—an improved line in the later 1990s—to come straight into the King's Cross terminal, either for through services or for connecting services, if that is more convenient. British Rail attaches great importance to that, and so do I.

I have so far concentrated on the rail links from the north-west to the channel tunnel. The Department is also undertaking a major programme of trunk road expansion as announced in the White Paper "Roads for Prosperity" last May. Schemes which will improve links from the region to London and the tunnel include widening of the M6, M1 and M25, as well as substantial provision for trunk road improvements in Kent, which will naturally bear the brunt of the additional traffic—although, even here, the additional traffic arising from completion of the tunnel will be small compared with the overall growth of traffic.

To sum up, both the Government and British Rail fully appreciate the important opportunities that the tunnel will open up for the more distant regions of the United Kingdom as well as for the south-east. We support British Rail's strategy of providing commercially attractive services to its customers. British Rail's proposed services for the north-west form the first step in assessing the market for tunnel traffic. They will be revised if the emerging pattern of demand shows an opening for further commercial services so that the tunnel's opportunities for all regions are exploited to the full.

I look forward to coming to the north-west, as I have promised my hon. Friends. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale will set up and chair a seminar or conference and that he will invite to lit commercial organisations that are interested in the future prosperity of the north-west, which has been ably represented by the ample number of hon. Members from the north-west present this morning. I look forward to discussing with him and his colleagues their views on further steps that British Rail could take to improve services, not just between now and the opening of the tunnel, but for the next decade.

It being Eleven o'clock, MR. SPEAKER interrupted the proceedings, pursuant to the Order [11 May].