HL Deb 04 February 1997 vol 577 cc1525-8

Lord Marlesford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied that the present rail links with the Port of Felixstowe are adequate to move the growing container traffic between the port and main-line rail network and, if not, what steps they propose to modernise this part of Britain's transport system.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen)

My Lords, I understand that there is sufficient capacity within the existing railway network to accommodate up to four further trains a day via Felixstowe. In the first instance, it will be for Railtrack, in discussion with the port and freight operators, to determine whether a commercial case exists for infrastructure improvements on that section of the rail network.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, may I coax my noble friend to show a little more interest on behalf of the Government in that crucial part of Britain's transport system? Does he recognise that not only the Port of Felixstowe but also an important part of the nation's economy, as well as small matters like the countryside, are facing a crisis due to the fact that only 17 per cent. of the 1 million containers that go to and from Felixstowe by land are carried by rail? The users would like to have an increase of over 70 per cent. between now and the year 2001, from 176,000 containers to 300,000, and by the year 2005 to 500,000 containers—nearly triple. The Government's White Paper published in April last year indicated a desire to see more goods being transferred from road to rail. Does not the Minister recognise therefore that the Government have a responsibility and he cannot merely say that it is all about privatisation?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I agree with a great deal of what my noble friend said. The Government are interested in that area—witness our rail privatisation programme. That has produced more investment and allowed more opportunities for that to occur. In the first instance it is for the parties involved—Railtrack and the operators, in discussion with the port operators—to determine whether there is a commercial case for improving the line and for additional investment. If the operators and Railtrack wish to pursue further investment in the line but there is not a commercial case, it is open to them to apply to the Government for a freight facilities grant.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, will the Minister for once stop wallowing in self-complacency? Did he listen carefully to what his noble friend said? He said that there is a prudent case for a substantial increase in facilities in that area which is supported by business both in the private and what is left of the public sector and by ordinary citizens in the area. When will the Minister come to the Dispatch Box and start talking serious sense for once?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I am talking serious facts. In the short time that Railtrack has been in the private sector it has delivered record levels of investment. It must be for the parties to work closely with those involved to determine whether or not there is a commercial case for upgrading the line. If there is not a commercial case, it will be open to them to apply for a freight facilities grant. No such application has been made.

Lord Cochrane of Cults

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that Railtrack has plans in quite an advanced state for improving the access to the Port of Felixstowe, which was originally owned by the Felixstowe Dock, Harbour and Railway Company Limited? It therefore has better possibilities for railway traffic than many other sites.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, considerable work has been done on examining plans and proposals as to how, technically, the line may be upgraded. We must not pre-empt that process. The parties are still in discussions and we look forward to the results.

Lord Balfour of Inchrye

My Lords, as an expatriate Scot now resident in East Anglia, I should declare an interest in this matter, even though it is environmental rather than pecuniary, and for the well-being of the Port of Felixstowe. Does the noble Viscount know whether any consideration has been given to tunnelling under the Orwell for the line to connect with the Great Eastern Line south of Ipswich?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I shall have to write to the noble Lord on the question of tunnelling and provide him with any information that I have.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, the noble Viscount suggested that he is satisfied with the investment by Railtrack. That is not the view of the regulator of the industry. Also, can the Minister influence Railtrack on its charges for use of the track, from which it is making substantial profits? That would reduce the cost of access to the track for freight traffic and encourage freight traffic on to rail?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, there are two important points to make in relation to the noble Lord's final question. First, the charges are already regulated by the independent regulator to which he referred. Proper returns need to be able to be obtained in order to generate further investment in the line. One must be careful how one pursues the argument advanced by the noble Lord.

In relation to investment by Railtrack, I said that in the short time that the company has been in the private sector it has made record levels of investment. There are no two ways about that. The regulator examined the proposals that Railtrack put forward and its performance towards them and concluded that it had not met its targets. Railtrack said that it will try harder and is setting up the machinery to spend the money that it has promised to spend.

Lord Derwent

My Lords, I declare an interest as a director of the Port of Felixstowe. Is my noble friend aware that the port for its part has expressed great willingness, both to Railtrack and to the Government, to make the necessary investment inside the port in order to put more traffic on to the railway? Those talks are ongoing. Is my noble friend willing to use his influence on all concerned with the railway industry to stress the importance on environmental grounds of putting as much traffic as is practicable on to the railway, which means providing the necessary track facilities?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, first, I welcome the partnership between the port operator, the operator of the freight services—Freightliners—and Railtrack in addressing this issue and in deciding what the best way of improving the capacity, which everyone wants to do, might be. Secondly, the fact that the Government wish to encourage more freight onto the railway is already very well known indeed. It is the stated policy of the Government. That is, for instance, why we have the freight facilities grant to which I referred earlier.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, are we to understand that the Government are standing aside on this issue and that the answer of the noble Viscount to the second part of his noble friend's Question; namely, what steps they propose to modernise this part of Britain's transport system", is "no steps"? Is the answer that the Government will just stand aside and let other parties deal with this matter?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, as the noble Lord will know, Parliament passed the Railways Act which privatised the railways, therefore putting these matters directly in the hands of privatised companies. However, the Government also set up a structure by way of which we can influence the process. We have the freight facilities grant, which 1 have detailed, which is in place for instances where there is no commercial case for an improvement—an additional investment to a line or the infrastructure—yet there are significant environmental benefits. In that way the Government are still significantly involved. We stand ready to examine applications for such a grant when they are received.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, is the Minister not being a little complacent? Is it true that the EW&S and other freight companies are thinking of either using Felixstowe, which would greatly increase the demand on the existing railway track, or using the roads, which is something we surely do not want to see happen? If that company starts up in competition, we want it to use rail and not the roads. I understand that only minor works would be needed to increase the capacity of the railway track into the port, involving merely lengthening the overtaking places and changing the signalling. Could not the Government for once anticipate that and be ready for it when the expansion comes?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, discussions are in place between commercial companies on how best to improve this infrastructure. There are a number of different ways in which it could be done. I understand that Railtrack is looking very closely at this process. It is not for us to pre-empt that.

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