HC Deb 22 March 1993 vol 221 cc609-26 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. John MacGregor)

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the proposed new railway line between the channel tunnel and London, and about the Ashford international passenger station.

I have today given the go-ahead for the Ashford international passenger station. I have given British Rail both a full approval and the funding it needs to carry out immediately all the track, signalling and platform works, totalling £30 million. In parallel, my Department and British Rail will explore urgently with the private sector ways of involving its expertise and capital in the construction of the station buildings. The Government are fully committed to having the station completed as soon as possible, so that Kent and other parts of the south-east can gain the full benefits from the channel tunnel.

Turning to the channel tunnel rail link, the House will recall that my predecessor announced in October 1991 the route corridor preferred by the Government, which approaches London from the east via Stratford and terminates at King's Cross; and he invited British Rail to refine the route. For this work, British Rail formed a subsidiary, Union Railways, which draws on the skills of both the public and private sectors. Its work has been thorough and professional.

Great effort has gone into achieving a route with proper environmental standards which largely follows existing transport corridors and at the same time reduces the costs substantially. As a result of this work, the line is now estimated to cost between £2 billion and £3 billion—considerably less than before, without any loss in the overall benefits, environmental or otherwise, of the route, and with some gain.

The Union Railways report offers a series of options on the precise route, and does not make recommendations between them. The Government have concluded that the route which should now be put to public consultation is as follows.

Between the channel tunnel and Detling, north of Maidstone, the route would largely follow the previously safeguarded route. However, at Ashford the route would run to the north of the town, with a tunnel under the M20 and then running parallel to the motorway. This route is environmentally superior to the former safeguarded route. It is also £86 million less expensive, and it would have less impact on existing and potential development within the town.

For the section of the route crossing the Medway valley, we prefer an option in the report which, from the east, would diverge from the M20 corridor, passing through a 4 km tunnel under Blue Bell hill, before crossing the Medway alongside the existing M2 bridge and following the corridor of the M2 and A2 on the surface. This is not the cheapest option, but it has substantial environmental advantages, at a modest additional cost.

South of Gravesend, there is provision for a connection to Waterloo. The main route would run along the Ebbsfleet valley then tunnel under the Thames, to run alongside the existing London, Tilbury and Southend railway from north of Purfleet to east of Barking. From there it would enter a tunnel to Stratford, where there remains an option for a station. This route overcomes a number of engineering and environmental difficulties associated with the more southerly route published in 1991.

West of Stratford, there are two options. One option is for a tunnel all the way to the proposed King's Cross low-level station. The alternative is for a tunnel from Stratford to a point on the north London line railway west of Dalston Kingsland station, then continuing alongside the north London line by reinstating the original four-track alignment within the existing railway boundaries, before finally swinging south over railway lands into St. Pancras station.

The tunnel route to King's Cross has significantly more impact on property settlement and noise levels than the route via the north London line, which is an important consideration from the environmental point of view. The St. Pancras option also appears to be less expensive than the King's Cross low-level proposal, and that is important in terms of practical feasibility, in relation both to public expenditure and private capital.

As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in his Budget speech, the Government's preference is for the St. Pancras option. We recognise that, before we come to the final view, futher work will be needed on the environmental, planning, regeneration, safety and engineering aspects of the proposal, and on exploring the options for developing the Thameslink services. I have asked Union Railways to carry this forward as a matter of urgency.

The new railway will bring great benefits. It will reduce journey times for international passengers, compared to what will be available in the early years following the opening of the channel tunnel, by at least 33 minutes, and by more in the commuter peaks, to 2 hours 27 minutes from London to Paris and 2 hours 7 minutes to Brussels.

The railway will transform commuting from many parts of Kent, with a large increase in capacity, enhanced reliability and dramatic reductions in journey times. Construction of the railway will create about 15,000 jobs. The railway will also contribute substantially to the regeneration of the east Thames corridor and more widely. The Union Railways report also sets out ideas for related rail projects which could stimulate further regeneration.

The Government consider that the benefits of this project are such that it should now go forward as a joint venture between the public and private sectors. The Government are prepared in principle to provide substantial public sector support in recognition of the domestic transport benefits from the new line.

The next stage is to consult on the proposals. I want the consultation to be thorough and well informed. It will be led by Union Railways, and I should like it to be completed by mid-October. Only then will we take the final decisions on the route, and I shall then safeguard it. In the meantime, I am releasing the safeguarding from the two sections of route which have been superseded by that which I have just announced. The Union Railways report and the independent review of Union Railways' work undertaken by my advisers Samuel Montagu and W. S. Atkins are available in the Vote Office.

In parallel with the public consultation, my Department, with Samuel Montagu and Union Railways, will be discussing with the private sector its participation in a joint venture. Our aim is to find a way of taking the project forward which offers the private sector a proper return on its investment and secures value for money to the taxpayer. Union Railways will be made into a separate, initially Government-owned, company once the relevant powers have been granted under the Railways Bill now before the House and we intend that in due course the project will be transferred to the private sector.

Following safeguarding, the project will proceed by hybrid Bill. Provided that we press ahead quickly, it should be possible for the railway to be completed by around the turn of the decade—[HON. MEMBERS: "Next century."] Equally, it should be completed by the end of the decade, which is only seven years away.

The time has come to end the uncertainty. Our decision to give the go-ahead to the new railway will enable us to secure the benefits which it will bring for international travellers, for Kent and Essex commuters, and for regeneration in the east Thames corridor. This will be a massive undertaking. The preferred route I have proposed today is environmentally sensitive, realistic and financially feasible as a joint venture.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

It is almost five years since the decision was taken to build a dedicated channel tunnel high-speed rail route from London. The Secretary of State's announcement today confirms further delay, uncertainty and planning blight, with the completion of the line pushed into the next century—not to the end of the decade. The use of the line has been delayed until 10 years after the opening of the channel tunnel.

While Britain will enter the 21st century on the back of a 19th-century railway system, our French partners, who started at the same time, have built their modern system ready for the opening of the tunnel and 10 years ahead of Britain. Last week they announced a further 200-mile extension of their tunnel rail link to Strasbourg, at a price of £2 billion.

The delay can be fairly laid at the Government's door. It has been caused by their lack of strategic thinking and their ideological requirement that the rail link should be private finance-led, receive no public financial support, and be privately owned. That has maximised delay, planning blight and uncertainty, and damaged Britain's economic future in Europe.

The handling of the issue was typically illustrated by the way in which the Government botched even the delayed announcement of the route and the leak by the Meridian television company. They are a Government of blunder and blight. They lack vision, commitment and common sense. They will severely damage our economic processes in Europe and cause a decade of misery and uncertainty in large areas of Kent and London.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the high-speed rail link to the channel tunnel cannot be financed by the private sector alone? His statement today seemed to suggest that Government money and guarantees will be required if proper environmental safeguards were to be met. Does the Secretary of State accept that the southern route was effectively cancelled by his predecessor Lord Parkinson in June 1989 because the Government were not prepared to find the £500 million capital grant guarantee required by the private sector? Does his statement today mean that there has been a change in the Government's policy to ensure that the priorities of least cost and maximum profit do not overrule the major environmental priorities, especially in the Kent and London area?

Is it still the Government's policy that the environmental damage in Kent should be reduced by tunnelling, as in the London section? Will he reaffirm the assurance given in October 1991 by the previous Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) that the southern route, which involved 25 km of tunnelling, would be replaced by the east London route, which involved 38 km of tunnelling, including tunnelling under the beautiful area of the Boxley valley? Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Union Railways route which he has just announced represents less than one third of the original tunnelling proposal, and that yet again the Government are reneging on one of their past commitments?

Will the Secretary of State consider a more generous compensation scheme, along the lines proposed by the French in their channel tunnel rail project, in view of the tremendous disruption along any proposed route in the Kent and London areas? Is it still the Government's view that choosing the eastern route was justified because the eastern corridor provided tremendous regeneration opportunities for north Kent and east London? When can we expect him, or, indeed, the Department of the Environment, to make a statement on that?

Can the Secretary of State tell us anything about the station strategy on the route, especially as he appears to have decided that St. Pancras should be the London terminus and has announced the Ashford centre? What studies have been done to justify the selection of St. Pancras? What compensation has been paid by British Rail to the developers of the King's Cross site? What are the consequences for Thameslink, crossrail and the Jubilee line, all of which are dependent on private finance and all of which have been considerably delayed?

Does the Secretary of State accept that the channel tunnel is of utmost importance to areas outside London and Kent, and especially parts of the north? Will the choice of St. Pancras over King's Cross delay passenger through journeys to the north in any way? What plans does the Secretary of State have to modernise the west coast main line?

Does the Secretary of State accept that other areas need a Euro-gauge standard route for freight? Will he agree that it is necessary to review the present freight transport route, which is based at Willesden and requires London rail freight traffic to travel across London rather than around it, forcing thousands of lorries to use roads from the north through Kent, rather than the rail alternative?

If the Government had adopted Labour's proposals for the route, which were published three years ago, and if they had accepted public and private financing, it would now have been well on the way to completion. Britain will once again pay a heavy price for the Government's sheer incompetence.

Mr. MacGregor

I noticed that the hon. Gentleman accused me of incompetence last week because I did not make the statement then, but that was typical of him. I shall explain that incompetence to the House. It was outrageous of the hon. Gentleman, because I wished to make a statement last Wednesday, following the Chancellor's announcement, but did not do so and agreed to make a statement today to accommodate the Opposition, through the usual channels.

Then what happened? The hon. Gentleman got hold of a leak on Thursday and provoked unjustified worries and fears among many people in Kent, through widespread coverage of the leak. It is typical of the hon. Gentleman to accuse me of incompetence when I was trying to accommodate the Opposition, and when he himself led to the problem.

I find it amusing to discover that one of the hon. Gentleman's main opening attacks was to accuse me of saying that the channel tunnel would be completed next century, rather than at the end of the decade. Does the hon. Gentleman not know that they are both the same? It was a rather pathetic attack.

I shall deal with as many of the hon. Gentleman's questions as possible, although it would require a speech to answer them all. Obviously, I wish to diminish the delay, uncertainty and planning blight; that is why, the moment that I became Secretary of State, I focused on the channel tunnel rail link, and why I am pleased to announce the decision today. I am anxious to minimise the uncertainty, which the statement does to a great extent, including de-safeguarding some of the routes. I am anxious to get rid of planning blight as quickly as possible, and that is why we have removed quite a number of areas from it through the announcement.

I am keen to get on with consultation—I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not think that I am avoiding it—so that we can come to a decision finally on the route and its safeguarding.

On the comparison with the French, the hon. Gentleman will know that the Waterloo terminal is nearly completed and that there will be full connections until the end of the decade. The problem is that, after the end of the decade, there will be congestion on those lines, which is why we are going ahead with the channel tunnel high-speed link now. The hon. Gentleman does not seem to recognise that it is easier to carry through a route more quickly in the north of France, which is flat and less congested, and which has fewer of the many difficult areas and issues that we have had to tackle on the whole route through Kent, which is one of the loveliest but most geologically difficult parts of the country, as well as one of the most congested. The hon. Gentleman does not understand the difference between the two.

The hon. Gentleman referred to no public financial support. He clearly was not listening, because I made it clear today—in a specific, clear and new announcement—that the Government will give public financial support. The hon. Gentleman describes that as changing policy, but it comes as a result of a thorough investigation of the whole issue. I should have thought that he would welcome the announcement today. In recognition of the many benefits to domestic passenger services, particularly in Kent but also in Essex, it is right to make that public contribution, and we have made that clear for the first time.

Next, the hon. Gentleman asked whether we were going for the least-cost option. In some cases we are not. I have made it clear that, where environmental benefits justify it, we have gone for a more expensive option. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would have given credit to Union Railways and to the many people who assisted the company to produce a solution—as a result of defining more clearly all the aspects of the original Ove Arup route—that is environmentally more beneficial and costs less. I should have thought that he would have given them some credit for doing so, but it is typical of the hon. Gentleman to justify everything by the amount of public money that he wishes to throw at it, and not to consider whether we are getting value for money.

I shall be unable to deal with all the points raised by the hon. Gentleman, but, on tunnelling, the options are set out in the Union Railways report. In all but one case, the environmental impact of going for tunnelling would be worse or no better than not going for tunnelling. Let me be clear about that. In the one case where it would be better, which is the long tunnel at the Medway, the additional cost would be between £150 million and £200 million. We did not think that that was justified. At least three quarters of the route, as now defined, will be in tunnel or will make use of or be alongside existing transport corridors. The report has been extremely skilfully worked out, and has provided environmental benefits and less cost.

The hon. Gentleman asked me whether the choice of the east route was justified. I have already made it clear that I fully supported the route that was decided by my predecessor. It is justified not least because of the regeneration effects along the east Thames corridor. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will make a statement about that shortly.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether studies had been made to justify the option of St. Pancras. Yes, they have. Once we had decided to go for the route from Stratford and east of London, a key element was the fact that it became possible to consider the St. Pancras option. It would have been difficult to do that from the southern route. I asked Union Railways and British Rail to look again at that option. They gave me a report last month, and I thought it right to come to the House quickly to say that it is the preferred option. I have asked Union Railways to do more work on it.

We can agree about the utmost importance of the channel tunnel high-speed link to areas outside London, particularly the north and Scotland. I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman that, if we go for the option of St. Pancras, it will have no detrimental effect on the speed with which we can get direct services through to the north and Scotland. I recognise the importance of that.

Several Hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I shall not hesitate to intervene if Members make statements or long comments. This is question time, so brisk questions and answers, please.

Sir Keith Speed (Ashford)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I very much welcome his statement about Ashford international station? Will he give an undertaking that the work will start as quickly as possible, because time is now of the essence? My constituents do not share his optimism about the route itself. Will the consultation process be a real one, so that people in my area can argue for the original safeguarded route if they so wish?

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know how hard and strongly he has pressed for the Ashford international passenger station. I am therefore extremely glad to have been able to make a statement about it today. I know that he has worked closely with the chairman of planning and transportation of Kent county council, Mr. Bruce Lockhart, and I recognise the strength of their case in respect of that station and the benefits that it will bring to Kent commuters. We have taken those benefits into account. I hope that the work will proceed very quickly.

As to consultation, I can assure my hon. Friend that it will be possible for those who still prefer the existing route to make their case. I think that there are many advantages in the new route, because the environmental assessment is superior, fewer properties are affected, and, of course, it is less expensive. We concentrated as much on the property and environmental aspects as on the cost, and they led me to believe that that was the preferred route.

Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon)

Is it not true that the United Kingdom has wasted the six years since the Channel Tunnel Act 1987 was enacted—in stark contrast, whatever the Minister may say, to the French? Have we not wasted taxpayers' money on the south London route and the King's Cross option? Is not this statement about cutting costs? Is the Minister's timetable credible if public consultation must be followed by a hybrid Bill and a five-year engineering project? Whatever The Sun may have said about the Budget, is the Minister sure that it is wise for the route to go through the editor's golf club?

Mr. MacGregor

On the hon. Gentleman's last point, it is inevitable that such a controversial and difficult issue will adversely affect some areas. I hope that it would be prefectly possible to move that clubhouse were it to be affected by the route.

The hon. Gentleman must recognise, as I have certainly recognised during my time as Secretary of State for Transport, that this is one of the most controversial and difficult projects to be undertaken. I entirely reject the hon. Gentleman's accusations about cheapness. Not only is the project massively expensive, but it affects very large numbers of people and businesses, and will have a big environmental impact. We could scarcely have chosen a part of the country that would present more difficulties, but we had no other choice. It was inevitable that it would take time to resolve such problems, and that the process would be controversial. It was important to get the best answer, which is what we have ultimately achieved.

On procedure, I think that the hybrid Bill is the quickest way to proceed with the legislation, and I hope that we shall have the hon. Gentleman's co-operation in getting it through as quickly as possible.

Dame Peggy Fenner (Medway)

My constituents will be pleased that my right hon. Friend took to heart the Ove Arup route over the Medway. Has the European Community done its environmental assessment? Will we receive any money from the EC for the important Euro-link, which will serve the rest of the country and, in doing so, present great environmental difficulties for Kent?

Mr. MacGregor

I recognise the environmental affects, to which we paid particular attention. I stress to my hon. Friend—to whom I am grateful for her remarks—that great attention was paid to environmental aspects in the report of the Union Railways, which was assisted by 12 environmental consultancies. Very shortly—early next month—they will publish their environmental report as an appendix to the Union Railways report that I am placing in the Vote Office today. There will be an opportunity to conduct the full environmental impact assessment as we move beyond the consultation stage. I assure my hon. Friend that we shall give as much attention as possible to—and meet all our European commitments on—tackling the environmental assessments.

Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East)

Will the Secretary of State assure us that there will be an international passenger station at Stratford? He will know that he has the full-hearted support of the London borough of Newham for the eastern route. Would it not be a betrayal of that support if there were to be no international station at Stratford?

Mr. MacGregor

When the hon. Gentleman looks at the Union Railways report he will see that it lists a number of options, both for international stations and domestic stations to serve commuter lines. We have decided that at this stage it would not be right for us to declare preferred stations. We shall listen carefully to the responses to the public consultation on stations and to those from possible promoters and developers before taking final decisions. Clearly, Stratford is one option.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

I do not think that I heard my right hon. Friend mention the word "freight". Is he aware how very keen Kent county council and all the people in Kent are for a severely diminution in the number of lorry movements through Kent? Will he assure us that Union Railways, which is to become a private company, is sufficiently objective in its proposals to give independent advice to the Government, or will the Government ensure that it takes charge of the consultation process?

Mr. MacGregor

Clearly, we shall be heavily involved in the consultation process. The Government will introduce the hybrid Bill, so they will clearly be in the lead. It was entirely right that Union Railways, with the aid of its consultants, should conduct the study which I asked it to carry out. One of the benefits of the high-speed rail link is that it will enable additional freight to use it. As I asked, the report covers the two loops in the line. The main benefit will come from the fact that the high-speed rail link will release existing railways so that they can take more freight traffic, and the potential will exist for much more freight to go by rail.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

As the only Opposition Member of Parliament for Kent or Essex, can I ask the Secretary of State whether he is aware that his announcement will be greeted with great anger and dismay among people in those counties? How on earth can people have confidence in the consultation that he proposes if, as he has said, it is led by Union Railways? Will not Union Railways be judge and advocate in its own court?

Were we not reassured by the Secretary of State's predecessor, the right hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind), that there had been widespread consultation when he made the historic announcement about the route at the Conservative party conference in October 1991? What has gone wrong since then? What confidence can anyone in Kent or Essex have in a Government choosing a route that suits them politically instead of maximising the opportunities offered by the channel tunnel in the best transport interests of the United Kingdom?

Mr. MacGregor

If the hon. Gentleman is the only Opposition Member from Kent or Essex to be affected by the route, I must tell him that he has not made a good fist of it today: he is wrong on every point. The fact is that I will ultimately take the decisions on the route, just as I have made the announcement about the preferred route today. Union Railways studied all the options, and on that basis we made the decision about the preferred route.

Kent commuters will benefit greatly from the reductions in times—some of them are dramatic. In parts of Kent suffering from high unemployment, there will also be benefits in the form of regeneration. My announcement of the international passenger station at Ashford ensures that Kent benefits from the link. In Essex and east London there can be no doubt that the route that we have chosen, which the hon. Gentleman seemed to criticise, will greatly help the regeneration of the east Thames corridor.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his announcement today is warmly welcomed by my constituents and by me, especially in view of his decision to introduce a tunnel under Blue Bell hill, which represents a substantial environmental improvement on the previous scheme? Can he give me an assurance, however, that there will be no return to a mid-Kent parkway station in the northern part of the parish of Aylesford, as previously proposed? Can he give me a further assurance that the gradient of the new line will be such as to permit the heaviest and longest international freight trains to travel on it?

Mr. MacGregor

Yes, the line will be able to take the heaviest and longest international freight trains, although long trains of more than 1,000 tonnes may sometimes need two locomotives—but that is not a great bar. I can give my right hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks about the station at Kit's Coty. I am also most grateful for my right hon. Friend's first remarks. It seemed to us important in taking the decision about the Medway valley that the original proposal would have involved substantial environmental disbenefits, which is why we have gone for these proposals.

Ms Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

Will the Secretary of State accept that the people of south London, in my constituency particularly, will welcome his announcement that the southerly route is dead and buried? They will be far less happy, however, with his subsequent statement that there will be an increase in freight traffic along south London lines. Will he publish the changes that he expects in freight traffic? Will he look at the environmental impact and then do something about it? Furthermore, will he tell us exactly when he will be able to announce what will happen to the Thameslink services, which are crucial to transport movements in south London, and which are needed to compensate for the difficulties in our road network?

Mr. MacGregor

I have noted what the hon. Lady says about the freight impact on south London. It is rather early to be able to conduct any proper study of that, but I take note of what she said. We are, after all, talking about events into the next decade.

As for Thameslink, today's announcement was about the channel tunnel high speed rail link. It will remain possible, in the study that I am asking Union Railways to do of the St. Pancras and King's Cross options, if so desired, to take forward Thameslink 2000—in its currently planned or in a revised form—but that will depend on decisions to be taken later involving all sorts of implications. Meanwhile, I am asking Union Railways to take that into account in its further work.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that one of the reasons why a statement was not made last Wednesday was that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) was busy filming for the popular television programme "Through the Keyhole"?

As for the link itself, can my right hon. Friend confirm that as the route moves through the Ebbsfleet valley between Northfleet and Swanscombe, there will be a distinct possibility of the construction of an international station there?

Secondly, part of the proposal involves the movement of some passenger trains from the new route to the Chatham line, via the disused Gravesend, West line. Will my right hon. Friend confirm the status of that line? Is it a new line? If so, will it qualify for environmental protection? If not, will it qualify for it anyway?

Mr. MacGregor

I am not sure of all the reasons for the Opposition not wanting me to make a statement on Wednesday, but I was endeavouring to be as helpful as I could—so it was an extraordinary way to behave to give as much publicity as possible to a leak, and hence a great deal of provocation the next day. Then, to accuse me of uncertainty and of not coming forward quickly enough just compounded the error.

On my hon. Friend's two points, yes, it would be possible for the location that he mentioned to be a station. I have already said that we have taken no decisions about stations and that we will wait for the responses. On the question of reinstating the Gravesend, West branch line to find a means of making a connection between the high-speed channel tunnel link and Waterloo, so that international trains could continue to use Waterloo if they were coming up that link—which has considerable advantage—I can tell my hon. Friend that it would be the disused line. I have no reason to believe that the environmental and other impacts cannot be dealt with successfully.

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, East)

The Secretary of State has referred to the effects of the proposal on the north and the north-west of England. Can he develop that a little further? We are extremely concerned about the lack of investment in and the deterioration of the north-west line. If nothing is done and if there is no investment, it will not be able to match the sort of development to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.

Mr. MacGregor

That is a separate issue from today's statement. However, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that without question, and from both the passenger and freight points of view, I am keen to ensure that the north of England and Scotland gain as much benefit as possible from the channel tunnel and from the high-speed link. Therefore, an important consideration in looking at the stations was to ensure that those areas were not disadvantaged in any way.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the commuters of north-east Kent will welcome his announcement today for the benefits that, as he has rightly pointed out, it will bring to them by alleviating the congestion in south London. Can he confirm that any investment in the fast link will not be allowed to detract from the immediate investment in the necessary improvements to the Kent coast line?

Mr. MacGregor

I am well aware of my hon. Friend's views on this matter. We have already said that that line is one possibility—I cannot say any more until I get BR's recommendations—for the £150 million leasing proposals announced in the autumn statement. However, I cannot be certain at this stage. I assure him that British Rail—and, in due course, Railtrack—will be very much aware of the pressures to which he referred.

My hon. Friend will recognise that commuters from Kent will benefit very substantially indeed from this investment. I shall give a couple of illustrations to make my point. The time from Ashford to central London will be reduced from 70 to 42 minutes, and from Gravesend from 50 to 20 minutes.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Why is the Secretary of State perpetuating the uncertainty and blight that affects King's Cross by not ruling out, once and for all, the over-expensive, low-level station at King's Cross, and instead going for the St. Pancras option? Is it not time that BR was instructed to withdraw the King's Cross Railways Bill from Parliament?

On the question of the north London line, will the right hon. Gentleman give a guarantee that the strictest environmental standards will apply to the stretch of line from Dalston to St. Pancras as well as to the stretch of the line east of Dalston?

Mr. MacGregor

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, we will apply the same strict environmental standards to all parts of the line. On his first, I am anxious to get on and to reach a decision. I could not do so today, because further work must be done on a number of aspects mentioned in my statement before we can reach a final view.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the route that he announced today passes a densely populated area in Northfleet and Gravesend in my constituency, within half a mile of 5,000 of my constituents. Will he ensure that all possible engineering and environmental expertise is brought to bear in the consultation process, to ensure that our environment is properly protected?

Mr. MacGregor

Yes, I assure my hon. Friend that all that will be carefully examined. There is a proposal for a tunnel in Pepper hill in my hon. Friend's constituency, but whether it will be a tunnel or a bridge-cum-viaduct can be explored in the public consultation.

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

Is the Secretary of State aware that I hope to present a petition tomorrow from the people of Hackney, against the easterly route—which goes through the heart of the borough? Is the right hon. Gentleman's promise that the line from Strateford and through Hackney will be in a tunnel—real and unconditional—or is it a politician's promise, which could be broken as part of a future cost-cutting exercise?

Mr. MacGregor

No, it is clear from my statement today that in so far as the link affects the hon. Gentleman's constituency, it will be tunnelled. We made that commitment clear in today's statement. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not find it necessary now to present his petition tomorrow.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

I welcome this major investment in our railways, and I am particularly glad that my right hon. Friend has chosen a route that I first recommended nearly five years ago in my Conservative Political Centre book, "Tunnel Vision". Is my right hon. Friend certain that he will not find himself challenged in any way under section 42 of the Channel Tunnel Act 1987? Will environmental expenditure on the railway, which all right hon. and hon. Members welcome, be no less fundable from public sources than environmental protection in the case of road schemes such as the Winchester bypass? Also, will my right hon. Friend seriously consider the upgrading and full electrification of the Tonbridge-Redhill-Reading route, which would help so much in moving freight traffic around London and to the north?

Mr. MacGregor

I assure my hon. Friend that we will meet our obligations under section 42 of the 1987 Act, and that we will apply the same environmental standards and assessments to the channel tunnel high-speed rail link as we do to the road programme. I have no further comment on my hon. Friend's final point.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Does the Secretary of State recall that, on 14 October 1991, his predecessor, the right hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind), at col. 37 of Hansard, gave me an undertaking that the route from Stratford to King's Cross would be wholly in tunnel? Why is the Secretary of State now proposing an overland route as one option? What will be the effect on local north London line services and on the environment of people living alongside that line both east and west of the proposed station, given the great increase in traffic on the link to the western region as well?

Mr. MacGregor

The route to King's Cross would have to have been in tunnel, but we are now talking about a route to St. Pancras, because that seems to offer considerable advantages. Quite a large part of it will be tunnelled, but not all of it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will carefully study today's report and the later report from Union Railways.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

My right hon. Friend stressed the benefit to Kent commuters of the new line. My constituents will be impressed if there will definitely be a station on the new line in the Medway area. In any case, like my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale), those of my constituents who are commuters will be much less impressed if that takes money from the Kent coast line, which is long overdue for upgrading in terms of both the line and rolling stock.

Mr. MacGregor

I note my hon. Friend's comments, and I know that he has often pressed that case. I cannot add today to my earlier comments about stations. There will be opportunities, and clearly we are anxious to secure benefits for commuters of the huge new investment. That is a main reason why the Government are prepared to make a substantial public sector contribution to stations as well as for other purposes. As to exactly where the stations will be, it will be wise to wait until we have received the full response to the public consultation.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

Does the Secretary of State appreciate that, until the end of the century, virtually all the channel tunnel passenger trains—and freight trains as well—will travel through my constituency, from Herne Hill to Brixton? Does he realise that, if his earlier answer is correct, even after the turn of the century a good many freight trains up to 1,000 yd long will be travelling along the route—throughout the night in most cases—hauled, initially, by diesel locomotives? Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that people whose property adjoins existing railways that will be forced to suffer environmental damage will receive the same environmental protection as was announced this afternoon for those living on new rail routes?

Mr. MacGregor

The normal rules relating to environmental protection and compensation will apply, but we are working with local authorities on arrangements for the type of line that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. I am sure that, if he is anxious to mitigate the problem caused by the amount of traffic from the channel tunnel that travels along the lines between now and the end of the century, he will give all his support to the Government's attempts to secure the Bill's passage.

Sir Roger Moate (Faversham)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, although Kent Members and many others will fight for environmental improvements, today's statement and the decision that he has announced will receive a broad welcome, contrasting sharply with the whingeing, carping, negative and destructive attitude of the Labour party? Will he take every opportunity to remind the country that, from the moment that the channel tunnel is opened, it will be possible to catch a train from the new Waterloo terminal and to be in Paris within three hours? I hope that he will deny all the denigrating, knocking stuff that we have heard from Labour.

Will my right hon. Friend explain why he has chosen to use the hybrid Bill procedure rather than the new order-making procedure, which was available to him and which would have provided greater opportunities for public inquiries, including local public inquiries? Does he understand that it is desperately important for Kent's support to know where the new stations will be? That is what will make the railway viable in terms of attracting Kent commuter traffic.

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is entirely right about the attitude of the Opposition, who can hardly bring themselves even to welcome a massive investment in Britain's transport infrastructure that will do a great deal for many generations to come. He is also entirely right to make it clear that, when the tunnel opens, it will take just over three hours to travel from London to Paris, and even less to travel from London to Brussels. That is already a substantial benefit, and I think that many people who currently travel to Brussels by air will quickly see the attraction of going by train.

My hon. Friend made two other points. I recognise the force of his comment about stations; that is why I am anxious to provide a comparatively short but reasonable time for public consultation. I hope that six months will be adequate, and will allow us to reach a view on stations.

As for my hon. Friend's other point, I think it right to use the hybrid Bill procedure to deal with a project of such magnitude and scale, which is receiving Government backing. The procedure will still involve a substantial process of investigation as the Bill goes through both Houses.

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

Does the Secretary of State admit that hon. Members whose constituencies are served by the east coast main line in Yorkshire, the north-east and Scotland consider that the proposal for the preferred route to St. Pancras would be better called "Disunion Railways"? Although the point is never addressed in the document, it is clear that there will be no direct link from the east coast main line to the channel tunnel except by means of shunting through St. Pancras mainline station. Will the Secretary of State deal with that point? Why has it not been considered in any of the documents?

Mr. MacGregor

Because it does not amount to a row of beans. There will be a direct line, and there will be no shunting. The train will have to come into the station and then go out, but that happens on high-speed links all over Europe; there is nothing very significant about it. The train will also have to stop at London, so that crews can change and border control personnel can alight. I do not believe that the system will have any impact on the speed with which passengers from Scotland and the north of England can go straight through the channel tunnel.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that maintaining section 42 of the Channel Tunnel Act 1987—which will be of great interest, and give great pleasure, to those who work in Dover's ferry industry in the years ahead—will involve no back-door subsidy through the commuter mechanism, which would contravene that section and the principles behind it? Will he also confirm that money will not be spent on the construction of the rail link until, at long last, my constituents who use the railways to get from Dover to London have some decent rolling stock on which to travel?

Mr. MacGregor

Yes, I can confirm my hon. Friend's first point: that any Government support will be used entirely to provide internal, domestic benefits for commuters and that international passengers and international services will not be affected by it. Therefore, we shall be meeting our obligations under section 42. As for my hon. Friend's second point, I cannot make a clear correlation between the two, but I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that it is right—because of the benefits to so many people in Kent as well as to the rest of the country—that we ought to proceed with the high-speed rail link as quickly as we reasonably can.

Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), can the Secretary of State tell the House why the promise that was given in 1991 by his predecessor has been broken—that the line which runs parallel with the north London line should be via tunnels, given that King's Cross and St. Pancras are virtually next door to each other? Once the trains have reached St. Pancras, will the north London line to the west of the station be used to join the west coast mainline, and will tunnelling be excluded there, too?

Mr. MacGregor

On the first part of the hon. Lady's question, from the studies that I have seen so far—clearly, this is something that I have asked Union Railways to look into in more detail—there will be considerable environmental benefits, on balance, from using the existing north London line. Noise mitigation and so on, would all be carried out when the two lines that are not being used at the moment come into use. As for the hon. Lady's second question, the east coast mainline services——

Mr. Prescott

We are talking about the west coast mainline services.

Mr. MacGregor

Yes, I know, but I want to make a point about the east coast mainline services. The east coast and the west coast mainline services are all important to the north and to Scotland. The east coast mainline services that currently use St. Pancras can be accommodated in a new part of the station, west of the existing King's Cross station. Most west coast mainline services go from Euston. One possibility there is the use of a travelator between St. Pancras and Euston to speed up the connections.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

Is it not a bit insulting to the people of Southend-on-Sea to put part of this glamorous and costly new line alongside the London, Tilbury and Southend line, which, as my right hon. Friend is well aware, is one of the most shamefully neglected of all British Rail's services in terms of investment and performance? Can he provide me with a clear answer as to why he now says that a great deal of taxpayers' money will go towards these rail links when a clear, specific assurance was given on 5 June 1986, in column 1187, that these rail links would not cost the taxpayer one penny, and when we were led to believe that these assurances were legally binding and could not be changed?

Mr. MacGregor

On my hon. Friend's first point, I do not see that it is at all insulting. My hon. Friend knows—I share his view—that it is very important that the London, Tilbury and Southend line infrastructure should be improved. He will also know that very recently, as a result of the public expenditure settlement that I agreed last autumn, British Rail has been able to go ahead with the announcement of a £40 million investment in the signalling on the London, Tilbury and Southend line.

As for my hon. Friend's second point, I can give him an assurance, which I repeat, that there will be no taxpayers' subsidy for the international aspects of this line and that therefore we shall be meeting our obligations under section 42 of the Channel Tunnel Act.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunningham, North)

Can I place it on record that the comments made by the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) in respect of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) were inaccurate, as I believe the hon. Member for Dartford now recognises? The question is why the Secetary of State could not have made a statement on this subject last Thursday instead of wasting his time in Scotland trying to enthuse people about privatisation, which nobody wants.

Does this statement not represent another example of one story before the election and a different one after it? Is it not true that after all this time there is to be yet another consultation period and yet another decade before there is a high-speed link, even between the channel tunnel and London? Can the Secretary of State confirm that, for purely cost reasons, less than one third of the distance which his predecessor earmarked for tunnelling will now be subject to tunnelling, which will be at the expense of the evironment? Can he also confirm that the distance earmarked for tunnelling will not include Boxley valley?

Does the Secretary of State agree that the real tragedy of the statement is that there is still no national vision for fast rail links north of London? Does he understand that it is not merely a domestic Kent issue—important though such considerations are—but that the rest of the country now awaits a strategy for fast direct links, as opposed to the dog's breakfast and fragmentation which privatisation offer?

Mr. MacGregor

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I wanted to make the statement on Wednesday so that the House was informed as quickly as possible. On Thursday, I was fulfilling substantial engagements in Scotland with ScotRail, the Scottish pensioners—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman would have been the first to criticise me if I had not been able to discuss with editors the whole issue of privatisation in Scotland, with Strathclyde PTE and SPEED, an organisation which, as he will know, is concerned with freight movement from Scotland. I was carrying out that extensive programme. He would have been the first to criticise me and would have described it as an insult to the Scots if I had not fulfilled that engagement. I thought that it was extremely important to complete those serious and prolonged discussions with people in Scotland, which I found extremely useful. I also found considerable enthusiasm for privatisation among ScotRail managers.

On delays, Union Railways has produced an excellent, thorough report, and very quickly. I pay substantial tribute to Union Railways for the way in which it carried it out. Once the route was decided—I confirmed it very soon after I became Secretary of State—we asked Union Railways to carry out this work which was essential before we proceeded any further. I presume that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that we should ignore all public consultation and should not have the usual processes of getting parliamentary approval for the project. He will therefore recognise that what we have been doing in the past year is to reach the present stage very quickly, and I intend to continue as fast as we possibly can.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman, as I have already said, that there is a substantial amount of tunnelling. In only one case could there have been environmental advantages from additional tunnelling, which would have meant substantial additional expenditure of between £150 million and £200 million. We decided that the short tunnel route, which is not the cheapest option but which is more expensive than one possibility, was the right one to take.

This is a massive investment of £2.5 billion on track and infrastructure alone. People travelling to the rest of the country will benefit just as much as people from London and the south-east because journeys through the channel tunnel will be cut by 33 minutes. Exactly the same amount of time will be saved.

Several Hon. Members

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

Order. I have not finished. Sir Edward Heath.

Sir Edward Heath (Old Bexley and Sidcup)

May I thank my right hon. Friend for the statement, for the grasp that he has shown of the intricacies of this long-running project and for his obvious determination in pushing it ahead? I assure him that the people of Old Bexley and Sidcup will welcome the statement because, although passionately pro-European, they have always preferred that the fast link should run outside their borders.

Nothing, historically, can alter the fact that when the channel tunnel was suggested, British Rail said that no link would be necessary, but in 1985 it said that a link would be necessary. It is now eight years since that statement was made and we are still only in the process of making progress, which, I am afraid, is all too characteristic of the way in which this country tries to move into the modern world.

Will my right hon. Friend kindly enlarge on his statement that section 42 of the Channel Tunnel Act 1987 will be observed but will not inhibit him? Section 42 was included deliberately to prevent British Rail or other public money from being used for the purposes of looking after the environment on this scheme. As he has emphasised, a great deal is required for the environment and he is sure that it will be covered. Is it to be dealt with by public money?

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his opening comments. It has been my intention to move ahead on the matter as fast as we can. I am sure that my right hon. Friend recognises that today's announcement is a very important step forward in the whole process, not least in making clear the Government's determination and in clearing up the blight issues which have affected many people. That is why I was anxious to make my announcement as quickly as possible.

On section 42, the public sector contribution will come through the benefits to domestic commuters and through the services that are provided there. The precise split between the two will have to be decided in due course. I have said that we shall now engage in discussions with the private sector to work out all the arrangements for the joint venture. That will happen in parallel with the public consultation. The important thing today is to get ahead with the public consultation so that we can finally settle the route.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. What does "Erskine May" have to say about "a row of beans" as a parliamentary expression? Would that not give the Secretary of State the opportunity to clarify exactly what he meant when he replied to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins)? Those of us who are concerned about the northern link want the Secretary of State to clarify why it should take no more time than was previously promised.

Madam Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is attempting to continue the exchange. I must tell him that "time's up" means "time's up".

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I do not want to continue questions on the statement, but I must point out that the Secretary of State failed to mention the country outside London. As a result of pressures on time, only two speakers from north of London were called. What opportunities will those of us who represent those areas, for which the link is crucial, have to put points and to have them answered by the Secretary of State?

Madam Speaker

I recognise that the matter is crucial to hon. Members, including myself, who represent constituencies outside London. As the Secretary of State said, there is to be an intensive consultation process. I hope that hon. Members can have an input there. It is true that I was not able to call the number of hon. Members who represent constituencies outside London whom I wished to call. I am afraid that questions on statements must sometimes be curtailed. I have to draw a distinction between the statement and today's other important business, with which we shall now proceed.

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