HL Deb 25 November 1986 vol 482 cc434-7

2.46 p.m.

Lord Gainford

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what action they are taking to prevent environmental damage by promoting freight travel by rail rather than by road.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Lord Brabazon of Tara)

My Lords, it has been the policy of successive governments that industry should be free to choose the most suitable and cost-effective freight transport. At the same time we recognise that heavy flows of lorry traffic on unsuitable roads can damage communities and this Government have made full use of their grant powers under the freight facilities scheme to encourage the use of rail where it makes good environmental sense. So far 177 grants totalling £61 million have been approved, removing 34 million tonnes of freight a year from unsuitable roads.

Lord Gainford

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Has he any information as to what Her Majesty's Government may be able to do for companies which have a factory where there is no easy access to railway sidings, which have to use a lorry to get their freight to the railway and which then perhaps face the prospect of having to use a lorry at the other end? Those companies may think "Well, why not let us go the whole hog and take it by road anyway".

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, this scheme is primarily for those companies that have reasonable access to the railway system and therefore can either build a siding from the main line to their factory or perhaps build some form of conveyor belt system. If the factory is too far away from the railway and it requires road transport to and fro, it would not be suitable for this scheme.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, would the Government be prepared to review the rate of grants for the freight facilities to which the Minister referred in his main Answer? Secondly, as transport by rail is profitable over 200 miles, will the Government take a look at the possibility of having transhipment centres outside the main conurbations, bearing in mind that at least in Paris two have been established which are a great success commercially? Would that not relieve the situation and enable the speedy transfer of goods from rail to road in the conurbations?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, on the noble Lord's first question, we keep the criteria for the grants under consideration. The main criteria are that there should be worthwhile environmental benefits and that the traffic would otherwise go by road in the absence of a grant. But we must not forget value for money and the fact that the grant is for capital expenditure only. On the noble Lord's point about transhipment centres, that is something I shall have to look into. I do not have details of that with me at the moment.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, the Minister said in his reply that it is a matter of freedom of choice for those who wish to convey goods, but is he aware that the position is now absolutely chaotic? Rail and road have been mentioned, but what about river transport? The River Thames is empty today. Noble Lords can go out to have a look. It is absolutely empty, and yet all our bridges and roads are choked up. Does the noble Lord agree that at some stage, somewhere, some Minister has to have the courage to say to those who deal with freight, "Look, that sort of freight is either going by rail or by river"? No other country in the world would stand for this situation.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, as I said in my original Answer, it has been the policy of successive governments that freight should be moved by the most suitable and cost-effective means. The noble Lord may have his views on that. I would point out, however, that there is another type of grant available for inland waterways transport under Section 36 of the Transport Act 1981. A number of schemes have been approved for grant under it, but not a great many.

Lord Somers

My Lords, has not this subject been raised countless times in the last two years? Since it has been proved that heavy road traffic does considerable damage to many buildings, some of them very valuable, when will the Government do something about this? Are they going to wait until all these buildings have tumbled down and are completely irreparable?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

The noble Lord asks what we are doing about the situation, my Lords. First, we have this grant, and since it came into operation over 34 million tonnes of freight a year have been removed from unsuitable roads. I should have thought we were doing something about it.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, my noble friend referred to unsuitable roads, but it is not only that. Is he aware that the situation is absurd? Bulk cargoes such as iron and timber travelling over 100 miles ought to go by rail. Does he also agree that to a certain extent it is a question of life and limb? If one travels on some of these motorways in the pouring rain, in the dark, with these vast lorries weighing 40 tonnes and doing 70 miles an hour, it is a question of life and limb. I have nearly been killed two or three times.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am sorry that my noble friend has had these experiences. I trust that he will therefore draw attention to the possibility of these grants to any shipper who is involved in this sort of business and make sure that everyone knows they are available.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the transport of coal is the biggest contributor to British Rail revenue so far as freight is concerned, and that that revenue was lost to some extent during the miners' strike when traffic was transferred to road transport, which is environmentally damaging? What steps are being taken to ensure that coal is now transported substantially, or overwhelmingly, by rail, which is less offensive to the environment?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not have the figures for what proportion of coal transport moved to the roads during the miners' strike has since returned to British Rail. British Rail can compete successfully with road transport for the movement of coal and the more that goes back to rail the better. On the other hand, we know very well why the freight was transferred from railways to road, and from that point of view the railways, or their employees, have only themselves to blame.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, does the Minister have figures for the damage done to the environment by the accidental spillage of dangerous and poisonous cargoes from road vehicles compared with comparable dangers from spillage from road or water transport? Are there figures that he can give the House on this subject?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

Not without notice, my Lords, but I shall look into the matter and see whether I can find such figures.