HC Deb 07 March 2000 vol 345 cc860-1
14. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

Under what circumstances he would make available public subsidy to support Eurostar services north of London. [112186]

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

The British Railways Board has a statutory duty to prepare a plan for international through-services. It can consider whether such services should receive subsidy. The board is reviewing its plan for international through-services, which I understand it expects to complete in the summer. Subject to the passage of the Transport Bill, the Strategic Rail Authority will have a duty to produce a strategy for rail services from various parts of Great Britain using the channel tunnel. It will also have powers to subsidise any such service if it decides that is appropriate.

Mr. Kidney

I thank my hon. Friend for that rather subdued answer.

North of London, many strong views are expressed about the positive contribution that Eurostar services would make to economic activity and new jobs. How firm is the Government's commitment to the establishment of Eurostar services north of London?

Mr. Hill

We have made clear our belief that those living beyond London should have convenient and effective access to channel tunnel rail services. As the matter is subject to a BRB review, however, it would be wrong for Ministers to prejudice that review and its outcome at this stage.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

Is not the Minister really just trying to disguise a rowing back of what the Government have previously said? It was apparent that the plan was for Eurostar services to run out of a newly redeveloped terminal at King's Cross and St. Pancras. Does the Minister accept that, if such services are not introduced in due course, people in the north and the midlands will rightly blame the Government?

Mr. Hill

We are fully aware of the strength of feeling about this matter. That is why we commissioned the A.D. Little review, which has reported. The BRB is reviewing that report, and we anxiously await the results of its review, which is to be published in the summer.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

Has Richard Branson's Virgin Trains made any offer to run Eurostar north of London? I have no objection to that, but I think that many people throughout the country would object if the company were given the east coast franchise. That would mean no competition from north to south; fares would go sky-high, and we would receive a much poorer service in Cumbria.

Mr. Hill

My hon. Friend, who is a great expert on all matters relating to the west coast main line, will know that we asked A.D. Little to consider the Virgin group's proposals as part of its review. He also knows that Virgin subsequently withdrew its proposals. All the rail franchises are clearly due to be considered in the near future, and again I think it would be inappropriate at this point for the Government to make any public pronouncement on the desirability or otherwise of potential bidders and operators of those franchises.