HC Deb 21 November 1994 vol 250 cc329-30
7. Mr. Hain

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what percentage of freight traffic goes on the railways in (a) the United Kingdom and (b) the European Union.

Dr. Mawhinney

The United Kingdom percentage figure of tonnage handled in 1992 was 7 per cent. as compared with a European Union average of 6 per cent.

Mr. Hain

The fact is, as the Secretary of State will surely agree, that the proportion of traffic carried on roads has increased persistently since the Government came to power in 1979. Does not that abysmal picture show that the Government have failed to invest sufficiently in our railway system, which has turned it from the envy of Europe to the joke of Europe and ensured that our roads increasingly resemble mobile car parks? What action will he take to reverse that trend and to invest in our public transport system?

Dr. Mawhinney

I would not have expected anything else from the hon. Gentleman. The fact is that we have made huge investments in the railways in the past 15 years. The decrease in the use of railways for freight started in the 1920s. We are going to privatise the arrangement precisely so as to make it more sensitive to the customer and thus to reverse that trend. The hon. Gentleman is against that process. He does not appear to be aware that, over the past 15 years or so, we have put some £100 million of grants into shifting 3 million lorry journeys a year from road to rail. The biggest single grant went to a company in his constituency. I am sorry that he did not bother to mention that.

Mr. Waterson

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is the height of hypocrisy for Labour Members to raise that issue, when they supported a series of damaging strikes by the signal workers, which have been a major setback to the cause of switching freight from road to rail?

Dr. Mawhinney

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It will take British Rail, and perhaps the privatised companies that will succeed it, some time to reverse the damage that was done with the support of the Labour party.

Mr. Meacher

Is not it a serious criticism of the right hon. Gentleman's transport policy that, in this country, three times more freight per tonne kilometre, especially long-distance freight, goes by road, compared with either France or Germany? Is not that because there has been sustained investment in rail freight services in those countries, plus greater controls over lorry traffic, especially a ban on most big lorries using motorways at weekends? What action does the Secretary of State propose to take to double rail freight over long distances of more than 200 km, which would reduce the use of roads by heavy goods vehicles by nearly half?

Dr. Mawhinney

Both the hon. Gentleman and I have been going along a learning curve since we were appointed to our posts. He has further to go than me, because he does not appear to understand that the figures for France and Germany include through traffic. For example, a train now goes every day from this country to Italy. It travels through France and that counts in the French statistics. The hon. Gentleman should also be aware that a fundamental of railway freight finance relates to distance travelled, and that therefore, by definition, as an island we have more difficulties in meetings those judgments. The truth is that British Rail and the Government are determined to move in that direction with all speed.