HC Deb 03 February 1998 vol 305 cc841-2
35. Mr. Llwyd

What initiatives his Department is pursuing to increase the current level of freight being transported by rail; and if he will make a statement. [24922]

Dr. Strang

We have already revitalised the freight grants scheme and secured a better deal for channel tunnel rail freight. We are considering further measures to encourage rail freight in the development of our integrated transport policy, on which we shall issue a White Paper in the spring.

Mr. Llwyd

I am sure that everyone agrees that moving freight from road to rail is a good, sound policy. What is being done to encourage Railtrack to modernise the gauge and move freight to the railways? Surely Railtrack should now consider using the international size of loading gauge. Is it not high time for us to ensure greater equality between road and rail? Should not road transport pay for the cost of the infrastructure and the damage that it does to the environment?

Dr. Strang

The hon. Gentleman is right to want an increase in the amount of freight moved by rail. The Government are putting their money where their mouth is. Some £15 million was spent on rail freight grants last year, this year we will spend £30 million, of which two thirds has already been spent, and next year the budgeted figure is £40 million. We are determined to increase the amount of freight that goes by rail.

Mrs. Dunwoody

My right hon. Friend will be aware that it will be difficult greatly to increase the percentages, given the fragmentation of the existing railway system. Will he consider carefully ways in which the companies can be encouraged to allow some expansion of freight paths within the existing system?

Dr. Strang

My hon. Friend is right. For far too long, freight has played the Cinderella to passengers on the railways. We are determined to improve the situation and, as part of that policy, we intend to set up a new railway authority, one of whose key objectives will be to examine ways to encourage more freight on to the railways.