HC Deb 29 June 1999 vol 334 cc121-3
3. Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West)

What plans he has to encourage the increased carriage of freight by rail in Scotland. [87516]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Dr. John Reid)

The Government have committed £18.3 million for the freight facilities grant scheme in Scotland over the next three years. That scheme provides capital grants to assist companies to take freight off the roads and on to rail.

From 1 July, Scottish Ministers will assume responsibility for that scheme and also for the related track access grant scheme, which provides revenue support.

Ms Squire

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the previous Conservative Government failed miserably to develop rail freight, despite its clear advantages for the environment, for employment and for industry? Will he tell us a little more about the progress that has been made on the freight facilities grant? Will he consider the future use of that grant to develop combined rail and sea freight facilities on short sea routes from an area such as Rosyth?

Dr. Reid

I agree with my hon. Friend that the previous Government's record on freight was shameful. We saw 40 years of decline in the rail freight industry. The House will welcome the news that not only have we reversed that decline with a 12 per cent. increase in rail freight last year, but that this year we are heading for a 16 per cent. increase. That is good for the environment, good for the economy, good for the reduction of congestion and good for transport in general.

As for the freight facilities grant scheme, I confirm that we intend to extend the facilities and the financial support not only to rail freight but to short sea, coastal shipping. That will be done as soon as there is a legislative opportunity.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government are now reviewing their integrated policies—all of them, including the dreadful bus lanes that are respected by every motorist in the country apart from the Prime Minister? On freight, will he confirm that the Government will not be using the stick to clobber freight carriers, who have already been heavily penalised by the Government with the most expensive diesel almost anywhere in the world, or certainly in Europe? Will the Government encourage people to use the railways, but not by using the stick? Does the Secretary of State realise that a higher diesel price does not necessarily mean that people will transfer from road to rail? It will simply put British freight operators out of business in this country.

Dr. Reid

I think that the hon. Gentleman has a bit of a cheek. If 85 per cent. of the current cost of diesel is taxation, 79 per cent. of that amount was inherited from the Conservative Government, whom he supported year after year. The Conservatives introduced the fuel duty escalator on diesel, and maintained and increased it. The Conservative party's green manifesto, published just before the last election, stated that the escalator should be increased and extended even further than the Labour Government want to do. To try to make cheap, populist points by reversing everything introduced by the Conservatives during the past 10 years does no credit to the hon. Gentleman or his party.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)

The Secretary of State lives in Scotland and, unlike Members sitting on the Opposition Front Bench, knows what goes on there. He will be aware that there is a major rail freight terminal at Grangemouth. Does he share the dismay of the rest of Scotland that companies such as Shell, BP and others have stopped using the Bishopriggs terminal and the Fort William transport depot for rail transport for oil? They are now unnecessarily running lorries throughout Scotland.

Will the Secretary of State give a commitment to the House that he will work with the Scottish Parliament so that companies such as BP, whose aspiration is to make more use of rail freight to ship petrochemical products, and Mitchells of Grangemouth, which wants to set up a major road to rail terminal at Grangemouth, can get heavy freight traffic off the roads? That will make the roads less congested; and rail can be used, which is most efficient for bulk movement.

Dr. Reid

Yes, I can confirm to my hon. Friend that I will work in partnership with the Scottish Parliament in the devolution settlement. I believe that that will be good for Scotland and for the Scottish people. Equally important, it will be good for England; it will strengthen our unity through the recognition of the diversity of this United Kingdom.

I also confirm that I shall be willing to encourage and to work with any major company that wants to reduce congestion on the roads by taking advantage of the generous rail freight schemes that we have introduced. For instance, only yesterday, Safeway introduced a scheme to carry its freight between Inverness and Glasgow that will take about 5,000 lorries off the roads this year—largely assisted by £580,000 from the Government.

Mr. Michael Moore (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

The Secretary of State will be aware of the Scottish Office working party report on the future of the borders economy, especially the strong recommendations regarding the reopening of the Waverley line and the issue of rail freight raised therein. Will he confirm that he is, in principle, in favour of reopening that line through the Scottish borders and into England? Will he also confirm his commitment to work with United Kingdom Ministers to ensure that the reopening of the line is a priority for the whole Government?

Dr. Reid

As the hon. Gentleman might know, not only have we given support to an alternative study of that case but we have actually financed it. That we have given such financial support shows that we have an open mind on that question. It would be wrong to prejudge the outcome of the study that we are financing, but the fact that we support it demonstrates that our mind is not closed on the subject.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries)

If Scotland's railways are to expand and thrive, they will require investment and effective regulation. Will my right hon. Friend assure the people of Scotland that he, in his capacity as Secretary of State, will put pressure on the United Kingdom Government and the railway regulators to ensure that we do all in our power from this place to put our transport system on the right track?

Dr. Reid

There is common agreement across the country that we need to concentrate minds, especially that of Railtrack, on ensuring that there is adequate and commensurate investment in rail infrastructure, not only in the Scottish rail system but throughout the United Kingdom rail system. However, it would be churlish not to acknowledge that we in Scotland are comparatively well served in terms of our railway system. In addition, ScotRail consistently comes at the head of the league in terms of performance and other criteria by which we judge the railways, and it is right to put that on the record.

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