HC Deb 24 January 1994 vol 236 cc5-8
4. Mr. Grocott

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what plans he has to encourage the transfer of passengers and freight from road to rail transport.

Mr. MacGregor

Government policies are designed to encourage passengers and freight to transfer from road to rail where that makes economic and environmental sense. Some 90 per cent. of passengers and inland freight traffic goes by road, but next year 40 per cent. of total transport expenditure will be used to improve public transport, so my Department's expenditure is positively skewed to public transport. The existing freight facilities grant scheme is also to be extended by the Railways Act 1993 and our new track access grant for freight services will start in April.

Mr. Grocott

Is the Secretary of State aware that it would take some believing to accept that the Government have skewed their transport policy towards the railways? Let me catalogue for the right hon. Gentleman three simple examples from my constituency of the rundown in services in recent years. First, we have lost the rail link to Donnington for freight. Secondly, we have lost the InterCity service to London and, thirdly, Wellington station has been subject to a serious rundown. Those important issues are of particular concern to many people.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to take rail transport much more seriously and, more specifically, to agree to meet a delegation from my constituency?

Mr. MacGregor

It is very noticeable that the hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] I am just trying to remember all the points that he raised, so that I can answer them in order.

It is noticeable that the hon. Gentleman simply ignores the facts and makes a general statement that is far, far from the facts. Public transport accounts for 40 per cent. of my Department's expenditure and that affects about 10 per cent. of overall traffic. If that is not skewing expenditure towards public transport, I do not know what is. The hon. Gentleman likes to believe a myth and not the facts.

As to the hon. Gentleman's constituency, there has been a problem not only in this country but in all countries concerning the transport of freight on rail, because rail is not so well suited to provide the service required by modern freight transport. That issue must be tackled. I believe that the combination of measures that we have introduced, including open access under our privatisation proposals, the new grants that I have announced and the opening of the channel tunnel, offers the best prospect of getting more freight onto rail.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that Wellington Telford West station faces no threat of closure. I understand that from next May the number of trains from that station will be increased—both the stopping service to Wolverhampton and the semi-fast service to Birmingham will be more frequent. It is therefore not necessary for me to receive a delegation.

Mr. Lidington

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the completion of the crossrail project would encourage many more passengers, including my constituents in Aylesbury, Wendover and Great Missenden, to switch from road to rail? Can he confirm, furthermore, that the project will now go ahead as originally planned?

Mr. MacGregor

It is certainly true that, in London and the south-east, where commuters predominate, public transport is more important. That is why our ratio of expenditure is 3:1 in favour of public transport.

As for crossrail, we have made the position clear. That means that the Bill will be able to go ahead tomorrow. It will be for the Committee to receive all the petitions, and for the Bill to make its progress through Parliament in the usual way. Earlier, we made it clear that crossrail will be a joint finance initiative.

Mr. Harvey

Given the Secretary of State's recent conversion to the idea that road passenger traffic cannot grow unchecked, will he rethink his motorway policy, which his right hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton (Sir G. Pattie) says is so startling that it forces one to stand back and ask whether it makes sense, while his hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) believes that there is a policy for cars but not a transport policy? Or is the right hon. Gentleman more interested in cutting embarrassing words out of the Government's Rio strategy paper than in cutting motorway building?

Mr. MacGregor

It will be essential for environmental reasons, as well as for reasons of economic efficiency and competitiveness, that we continue to deploy considerable sums of public—and eventually, if motorway tolling is successful—motorists' money on improving our motorways. That is just as vital for environmental reasons. If we do not, with the growth of traffic there will be a great deal more diversion back to local roads, and there will be environmental pollution, owing to congestion, and so on. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and I are at one on the sustainable development policy, and we have worked together to produce it.

There is no doubt that motorways will have an important part to play for many decades to come in ensuring that we have a competitive transport system—that is why we have a transport policy.

Mr. Quentin Davies

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the very existence of the channel tunnel and of the proposed fast rail link—to which, thank God, we can at last look forward—will constitute a major factor in encouraging passengers and freight to switch from road to rail? Businesses throughout south Lincolnshire are of the view that if we are to enjoy the full benefit of these major infrastructural investments, we shall need a container terminal much closer than what is currently planned. Will my right hon. Friend therefore do everything he can to facilitate and encourage the construction of a container terminal at Peterborough to serve south Lincolnshire and large parts of East Anglia?

Mr. MacGregor

It will be for Railtrack after April to consider that matter. But my hon. Friend will know that about £450 million of public expenditure has already been deployed in providing freight terminals throughout the country and improving infrastructure to serve them. That is a large amount of money.

It is important to bear in mind that it is not only the channel tunnel high-speed link which is relevant to the channel tunnel. When it opens this year, the tunnel will be very competitive for both passengers and freight. This year, the journey from London to Paris and to Brussels will be competitive with air travel—about three hours and three and a quarter hours respectively.

There will be a dramatic improvement in the amount of time spent by freight traffic on rail once the channel tunnel is opened. It takes 60 hours by road from Manchester to Milan, but more than double that by rail at present. After the channel tunnel opens, rail freight will take only half the time that road takes—that makes it very competitive.

Ms. Walley

But why will not the Secretary of State tell us where the money is going to come from for crossrail? Is not all we have heard this afternoon mere hypocrisy? Why are not the Government prepared to tell the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) that the railways and public transport are not having the necessary money spent on them—

Mr. MacGregor

I have answered that.

Ms Walley

No, the right hon. Gentleman has not answered it. All we have heard from him is that public transport is safe in his hands. The men and women on the Clapham omnibus are beginning to rumble his policy. They know only too well that unless there is some sort of review of the decision to go ahead with the M25 widening, the Prime Minister will be unable to claim later this week that he has a sustainable transport policy in the aftermath of Rio.

Mr. MacGregor

I have made it clear that the Government support the crossrail project. It is being promoted by British Rail and London Transport and it will be in Committee tomorrow. As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), we have also made it clear that it will be a joint finance initiative and we expect a substantial contribution from the private sector. It is certain that it will go ahead.

The hon. Lady asked about public transport. Investment in the railways is way above what it was under the last Labour Government. It is currently at near record levels and will be about £3 billion in the next three years in the existing railway system. That is a substantial amount. If the hon. Lady is suggesting that Labour would spend more of taxpayers' money on the railways, where would she make the cuts, or is all this double talk about tax and the Labour party sheer hypocrisy?

Mr. Ottaway

Will my right hon. Friend accept that while investment in motorways is welcome, people travel by road because they want to? Will he ensure that the road programme is not diminished? In particular, will he ensure that the Coulsdon bypass is not taken out of the programme?

Mr. MacGregor

I cannot comment on any particular bypass project. I agree with my hon. Friend's general point that we believe in choice. The way in which the vast majority of our citizens exercise that choice when they reach the age of 17 is clear. They wish to be able to buy cars and to travel freely in them. It is necessary for any Government and any Secretary of State for Transport to ensure substantial investment in the roads system to enable that to happen and to avoid the disbenefits, environmental and otherwise, of congestion.