HC Deb 22 April 1991 vol 189 cc757-60
5. Mr. Geralld Bowden

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he plans to meet the chairman of British Rail to discuss the channel tunnel rail link.

7. Mr. Tony Banks

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects to be able to make an announcement on the route for the channel tunnel high-speed link.

Mr. Rifkind

I expect to receive British Rail's proposals for the channel tunnel rail link soon and will want to discuss them with Sir Bob Reid. The Government will reach their conclusions on the project as speedily as possible, but it is too early to say when announcements may be made.

Mr. Bowden

In his discussions with Sir Bob Reid, will my right hon. and learned Friend impress upon him the benefits which will come from a route that is aligned on a junction at Stratford, as that will offer not only direct through trains from Stratford through King's Cross to the west country, but the opportunity for through trains, freight and passenger, to the whole of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Rifkind

Yes, I am certainly aware of the advantages that it is often suggested the Stratford connection would bring. I certainly expect British Rail fully to have considered that option with the other options in its current survey.

Mr. Speaker

I call Mr. Chris Smith.

Mr. Tony Banks

No, Mr. Speaker. I tabled Question 7, which was linked with this one.

Mr. Speaker

Yes, it should be Mr. Anthony Banks first.

Mr. Banks

Thank you, Sir. You obviously had a good weekend.

It would be more helpful if the Secretary of State could give us a more precise date instead of "soon" for receiving British Rail's decisions. As he will know, all of London is waiting for this decision, not least his colleagues who have marginal constituencies and who have more than a passing interest in the line that will come through London. Will the Secretary of State bear it in mind that there are strategic implications and that the whole future prosperity and economic welfare of the east end is bound up in his decision? Will he give an undertaking to the House that he will consider the decision in terms of its strategic significance and importance?

Mr. Rifkind

Some time ago British Rail made it clear that it expected to make its recommendations to the Government this month. That may still be the case, but, obviously, that is a matter for British Rail. I fully appreciate the hon. Gentleman's points in the latter part of his question. Indeed, I would go further and say that British Rail's recommendations and the Government's decision on the high-speed link have potential national significance. It has implications not only for London and the south-east, but for the country as a whole. Therefore, I assure the hon. Gentleman that not only British Rail but the Government will address these matters with all the seriousness that they deserve.

Mr. Dunn

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that many hundreds of people and many institutions and firms are awaiting anxiously the announcement of the final route? When he considers the route will he bear in mind the fact that we have been waiting for many, many months? Will he confirm that when he has made his decision on the route it will be reported to the House in the first instance and will not be announced during the summer recess?

Mr. Rifkind

I have indicated the seriousness with which I view these matters and, clearly, it is important not only to reach a decision but to do so as expeditiously as possible. I cannot anticipate when a conclusion will be possible, but I certainly appreciate the desirability of the House's being given an opportunity fully to consider any conclusion that the Government may reach in due course.

Mr. Rees

To follow the Secretary of State's comment about national implications—this is a matter for us in Leeds, Yorkshire and the north in general—is not one of the problems to do with signalling arrangements? At the weekend I was informed of a serious problem arising from cheap, shoddy, signalling arrangements in Leeds. Will the Secretary of State consider that carefully? It is no good talking about a high-speed link, if the existing basic signalling is not up to standard.

Mr. Rifkind

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that signalling is crucial to the smooth and acceptable operation of a railway service and I shall be happy to consider his points. I again emphasise the importance of the channel tunnel to areas north of London as well as to the south-east. Many would convincingly argue that the benefits of rail freight are all the more substantial the further north one goes, because of the longer journeys involved.

Mr. Wolfson

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that proper consideration needs to be given to the strategic implications of a high-speed link to the channel tunnel? Does he agree that good rail links, comparable with those of the TGV in France, are generators of economic growth and prosperity? Will he give due weight to that in his deliberations?

Mr. Rifkind

Yes, I agree that good rail links are highly desirable. The public debate on these matters is somewhat different in north-west France, where there is great enthusiasm for any such proposed rail connections, from that in the south-east of England, which has a quite different economy and much more congestion because of the burden of population and where such matters are conducted differently. However, the basic principle remains the same; rail links are crucial to the benefits of the channel tunnel on both sides of the channel.

Mr. Chris Smith

When the Secretary of State meets the chairman of British Rail will he make two essential points to him? First, it is important to ensure that there are fast and direct links from the channel tunnel to all parts of the country, not just to London. Secondly, in order to achieve that, it is not necessary to place an intolerable burden of extra congestion on King's Cross and its immediate area. Will he ensure that British Rail looks seriously and carefully at alternatives to King's Cross and does not dismiss them out of hand?

Mr. Rifkind

I expect the survey being undertaken by British Rail to consider the points that the hon. Gentleman has made. The implications for King's Cross and the alternative option of Stratford have been suggested by a number of quarters. British Rail's conclusions will carry additional weight if it can be seen to have considered all options fairly, objectively and responsibly.

Sir Robert McCrindle

Whereas my hon. Friends who represent constituencies in Kent and south-east London have varying degrees of apprehension about the fast link, is not it at least as important to remember that the people of east London, north London and Essex, by and large, support the Stratford option? Will my right hon. and learned Friend bear that in mind in his consideration of the matter?

Mr. Rifkind

The points made today by my hon. Friend and by other hon. Members will emphasise to British Rail, if it needed reminding, that the House and the country expect that the study should look at all the options in a credible and objective fashion if British Rail's conclusions are to command the level of national support for which it hopes?

Mr. Prescott

Does the Secretary of State accept that this is not a matter entirely for British Rail and that the Government have the overriding responsibility to see that there is a high-speed rail link from the tunnel not only to London but to areas beyond—the midlands, the north, Wales and Scotland? When he makes his decision, on receiving the report from British Rail, will he consider making a statement before the summer recess, or will his judgment be based on electoral considerations?

Mr. Rifkind

I must await British Rail's recommendations. On the routes north of London, I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that, thanks to Government approval and support for British Rail, the electrification of the east coast line will be completed in the very near future. That will make a dramatic difference to rail services on the east coast. It will enable British Rail to continue to say that, apart from the networks of France and Japan, its railway network, especially inter-city, is one of the fastest in the world. That requires on-going investment of the sort that I have outlined and it is right to emphasise that British Rail today has one of the fastest rail networks in the world, other than those in France and Japan.