HC Deb 11 January 2000 vol 342 cc128-30
2. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

If he will make a statement on the latest proposals from Central Railway plc. [103252]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill)

I am aware that Central Railway plc has been consulting about its proposal for a freight and passenger railway between Liverpool and Lille. I have received copies of the company's consultation documents, but have not taken a view on the scheme.

Mr. Robathan

I well recall that, before he was elevated to his current position, the Minister was concerned about the Central Railway scheme and its effect on his constituency. My constituents remain deeply concerned about several routes that are blighting houses not only in Leicestershire but throughout the rest of the country, from Kent all the way to Liverpool. Will he state categorically whether any public money will be devoted to that grandiose scheme, which, although superficially attractive, seems unviable to most people? Are the Government minded to give it their support, which will be critical in bringing the scheme to the House? The company wishes to have parliamentary approval by the end of the year.

Mr. Hill

I recognise the concerns that the hon. Gentleman expresses on behalf of his constituents. He is right to observe that I have a certain hinterland on the issue. I understand that the company intends to submit a new application for an order before the summer, after which it will be obliged to consult on any applications and affected parties will have the right to put forward their views. No public money will be entailed in the scheme. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate, however, that the Secretary of State will have a quasi-judicial role in considering the application.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North)

I welcome my hon. Friend's reply—he will know of my interest in and support for the scheme. Does he agree that such a scheme could fit in very well with the Government's transport policy, by transferring large amounts of road freight to rail; that it would save public money by reducing roads expenditure; and that it could contribute significantly to the financial viability of the channel tunnel?

Mr. Hill

I am certainly aware of the outspoken support that my hon. Friend has offered to the scheme, and recognise the passenger and freight implications of the proposal. I should, however, remind him that the Government are already taking effective action to secure the transfer of freight from road to rail.

In conjunction with the British Railways Board, the shadow Strategic Rail Authority has recently announced a competition for a model project for transferring freight from road to rail. Moreover, the new Strategic Rail Authority, to be set up by the Transport Bill, will—unlike Opraf—have a new and specific duty to develop a rail freight strategy. Finally, Government grants for rail freight facilities are at record levels. Expenditure on grants, in the three years since 1997, will soon top £80 million. It is also estimated that, in that time, grants will have diverted close to 30 million tonnes of freight from Britain's roads.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

If the Minister is not to support large projects for transferring freight from road to rail, as the Central project would do, which projects will he support? Does he agree that that project is one of many to increase capacity on the rail network but demanding billions of pounds—more than the £27 billion that Railtrack has identified, and possibly even more than the £40 billion said in one survey to be necessary? Where will the money come from? Will the Minister confirm that the much vaunted so-called relaunch of the Government's 10-year plan and £80 billion investment programme is nothing more than the repackaging of money that has already been committed by the private sector and the Government?

Mr. Hill

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that Railtrack itself has committed to a massive programme of new investment—amounting to £27 billion—in rail infrastructure across the country. Extra rail services are in place, 44 new rail freight terminals have been established since the Government came to power, and, in this period, rail freight movements are up by 15 per cent.

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