HL Deb 08 July 1998 vol 591 cc1310-23

8 p.m.

Lord Inglewood rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to ensure that the North West of England is not disadvantaged by their proposals for the rail links to the Channel Tunnel.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, for some hours your Lordships have been considering the affairs of North Britain. I now invite those noble Lords who find the attractions of this House greater than those of the dining room or television set to turn their attentions to the North of England, in particular the North West.

Before outlining the substance of my case, I invite the House to cast its mind back to the beginning of the last century. In that century, one of the greatest British contributions to the historic process of the industrial revolution was the development of the railways. We were a pioneer. While individual railway developments began in the North of England, the rail system in this country has been London centred. One has only to look at a pictogram of the existing rail system in this country to note that every spoke in the wheel centres on London and comes to the great termini of Paddington, Euston, St. Pancras, King's Cross, Waterloo and Victoria. That pattern suited our country in the 19th and 20th centuries, but it is a structure which is inherently unsuited for the next century.

We are moving into a world of vastly improved communications and mobility, with direct access to the Continent via the Channel Tunnel. We are part of the European Union single market. No longer is a railway system modelled on the hub and wheel appropriate for a rail or road system for the next millennium.

The European Commission's diagram of its identified trans-European road and rail networks demonstrates a different pattern. Instead of the hub and wheel model, there are intricate spider's webs of routes. Instead of being at the centre, the termini are at the extremities of the system. In the context of the single market, that development has serious implications for this country, and in particular the regions, not least the North West of England.

If one considers, for example, the road network for London and the North West of England, it is possible to travel south. But it is also possible to go round the capital on the M.25. Those who travel on the M.25 know that on occasions it can be singularly congested. But it is a vast improvement on the North and South Circular roads. The problem is that we have not constructed an M.25 for the trains. Those who wish to travel round London on a railway have to use the rail equivalent of the North and South Circular roads, with all that that entails.

I wish now to look specifically at the North West of England. Those in business, with relatively deep pockets, will use the aeroplane. I gather that it is a rule of thumb that for any journey of more than about four hours the businessman will use the aeroplane because time is valuable to him. In the North West at Manchester we have the seventh busiest airport in Europe, and the premier airport in this country after London.

I have already touched on road transport. There is good access to the South of England down the M.6. It is possible to go round the metropolis on the M.25 and down to the Channel Tunnel on the M.20. The real problem relates to the rail system. The West Coast Main Line takes one down to London, but while it is possible either to go round or through London, for the ordinary passenger the experience is unsatisfactory. It will either be slow or the traveller from the North who wishes to go to the Eurostar terminal at Waterloo will have to take an expensive taxi. Alternatively—it is difficult for the old, the very young or the infirm—travellers have to struggle with their baggage through the London Underground system. Those of us who use that system know that it is one of the least attractive characteristics of our city.

That is not good enough for the next millennium. What should we be aiming for? As I have indicated, I do not believe that the business traveller will be the principal beneficiary of improved rail links between the North West, the Channel Tunnel, and beyond. It is more important for those whom I might describe as being less pressured by time. I refer to pensioners who wish to travel, students who wish to go abroad, and tourists. The argument applies not only to people from the North West who wish to travel to the South, but to those coming from the Continent. The system is not helpful to those who wish to come and spend their money and to enjoy the many attractions which tourism offers in this part of England.

Only two nights ago, in a debate instigated by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, the point was made that tourism is one of the most important industries in the North West of England. It is an industry which offers some of the best prospects for jobs. In addition, where "just in time" delivery is increasingly important for commerce, it is of the greatest importance that the rail freight network is able to deliver goods in a timely and speedy manner.

Against that background, the arrangements for rail traffic to travel round London from the North are vastly inadequate. The system poses not only the physical problems but a psychological problem. Noble Lords know—none better than the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington—of the efforts being made in the North West of England to attract inward investment. That inward investment is important to the economy of that part of the country. Some of the best examples of American investment in this country were triggered because we in Britain are part of the single market. Yet efforts to encourage inward investment are hampered by the fact that the rail and road links are not as good as they should be. It may be merely a psychological point; but such a psychological point is significant in the minds of those who spend large sums of other people's money encouraging businesses into those parts of the country where they are badly needed.

Against that background, what do I believe should be done? As noble Lords know, Virgin relatively recently took over services on the West Coast Main Line. I am a regular user of that line. I have experienced both good and bad aspects of it. I do not hold any brief for Virgin. However, as your Lordships may know, Virgin proposed that it should be allowed to run certain Eurostar services linking in with the West Coast Main Line. It is no part of my case today specifically to promote the Virgin proposal—partly because I believe that there are serious shortcomings in the proposed coverage as regards the North West. Noble Lords may think that I am bound to say that because that is where I live. Equally, the arrangement of having to change at Watford, which I gather is inherent within it, is itself unsatisfactory.

However, what I should like to hear from the Minister in her remarks later this evening is that she supports the idea that there should be proper Eurostar services from the North to the Continent and that they should serve the whole of the North and there should be no discrimination in the form that they take. Whoever was to run the service, it would be both an actual and a psychological benefit for the North West of England.

I do not believe that there can be many in this House who feel that this country has covered itself in glory in the way in which it has dealt with the problems posed by the Channel Tunnel London link. Too often we see that link simply in terms of London, the Channel and Europe. But as I hope I have explained already, that is a crucial artery serving the whole of the rail communications network for the rest of the country.

I am extremely concerned that that further aspect of the link is not being given the proper priority that it should in the Government's thinking. I merely point out that I raised that point on 3rd June when the noble Baroness repeated the Statement made by the Deputy Prime Minister in another place. In particular, a crucial aspect of the proposals for the infrastructure necessary to get the Channel Tunnel rail link to Stratford is that insufficient attention has been paid to what in my view is the overriding need for the creation of a proper link between the track in and around St. Pancras to that running from Euston, serving the West Midlands and the North West of England.

It should be an integral part of the proposals for the Stratford to St. Pancras link that a proper spur is put in place to become available for use simultaneously with the very link itself. That should be incorporated as an integral part of phase 2. That would send out a clear message to all concerned and interested in this matter that when that link is built in the year 2007, that spur will be included.

This matter unites people from all political persuasions right across the North West of England. There is an impression that the Government in London do not fully understand and appreciate the concerns of the North West. The reason that I have tabled the Question this evening is to draw it to the Government's attention and to urge them to come out saying emphatically that indeed it is desirable that there should be direct Eurostar services for the North West and that when the Stratford-St. Pancras link is built, that will include a proper spur onto the West Coast Main Line.

8.12 p.m.

Lord Cadman

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Inglewood and congratulate him on asking this Question this evening. As a former member of the Select Committee on the CTRL Bill, now enacted, I share his concern that the recent financial problems experienced by London and Continental Railways should result in some delay or even lack of a commitment to complete the link as provided in the Act and the subsequent inability of the North West to benefit from the enhanced transport possibilities that will surely follow.

One of the key features of the CTRL Act was that services from Europe via the Channel Tunnel would be able to serve all parts of the United Kingdom and not just London. Indeed, subsequent to the passing of the Act, London and Continental Railways promoted a transport and works order to provide powers for an international station at Stratford in East London and a connection across the King's Cross railway lines to enable services to access the West Coast Main Line and proceed north without having to enter St. Pancras on their journey to the North West and Scotland. The North East of England would be served via St. Pancras and the connection thence to the East Coast Main Line, already provided for in the Act.

The trains for those services are built and their safety cases are well on the way to being achieved. There is no reason why those north of London services cannot start quite shortly, and I should like to say a few words about the regime under which they will operate.

We seem to be rather frightened of international trains. However, they have been rambling about Europe now for many years and passengers are used to them, and indeed are encouraged, to make use of services that pass through several countries before they reach their final destination. In many cases, customs and immigration procedures, where necessary, are carried out on the trains themselves and passengers are put to the minimum of inconvenience.

I hope that that procedure will be adopted for those north of London Eurostar services. After all, there will be plenty of time for customs and immigration to carry out their procedures between, let us say, Lille and London. Anyone found without the right papers can be taken off the train at its first stop in the UK, which will most probably be somewhere in or near London. Let us remember that UK departing passengers are a matter for the French authorities, and they seem to have no problem with on-board immigration procedures. I am quite sure that a suitable scheme along those lines can be implemented to enable the service to be attractive to intending passengers and for our immigration procedures to be catered for adequately.

Indeed, there really is no reason why those trains cannot carry domestic passengers for appropriate parts of their journeys within the UK. That would considerably increase the economic viability of the service, especially as their comfort and superior image could well attract a premium fare.

That practice is very common in Europe where high-quality international services in many countries carry domestic passengers, often at a supplementary fare. Indeed, in France, passengers for Brussels and Paris are regularly booked onto Eurostar at Lille, both originating on and changing from regional TGV services. SNCF regards Eurostar as simply an addition to its TGV network, as it does the recently introduced PKBA Thalys trains which connect Paris with Köln and Amsterdam via Brussels. Reservations on those services are all handled by the same system.

I hope that the Minister can provide some assurance that any scheme which is envisaged will not be so expensive that the north of London service is made unviable. From a practical point of view, the proposed exclusion of passengers from the platforms at which Eurostars will call at provincial stations here is bound to cause operating problems in itself. What happens if the Eurostar is delayed for some reason and a domestic service has to precede it? Are domestic passengers to be herded about the station just to make sure that they are not around when the Eurostar appears?

I very much hope that those north of London services can be started as soon as possible. It is most encouraging that Virgin Trains has made an offer to operate those services without public subsidy and under whatever regime Her Majesty's Government might deem to be necessary, although I trust that some thought may be given to my earlier remarks.

It is a start and should go a long way to ensure that the CTRL is completed in its entirety. Without that commitment, the project which we all worked so hard to achieve a couple of years ago will surely not deliver its intended benefits, among which are better communications with the North West of England and the freeing up of capacity on the already overcrowded railways of Kent, to say nothing of its intended regenerative aims for the Thames gateway area.

8.17 p.m.

Lord Mountevans

My Lords, it is ironic that during the winter sports season recently finished, Eurostars run to Bourg-St. Maurice, deep in the French Alps. This summer there were plans to run them to the venues where England and Scotland played their World Cup games, although those plans came to nought.

The irony in that lies in the fact that so far, Eurostars have never, on this side of the Channel, taken passengers beyond Waterloo. My noble friend Lord Inglewood has addressed that irony by raising his Question and I am grateful for that. I should like to leave it to the noble Baroness who is to reply to confirm that a proposal exists to link Stratford to the West Coast Main Line, subject to a transport and works order.

In wider terms, we know that demand for high-speed long-distance rail travel is growing on the Continent. The French TGV began by running from Paris to Lyons and it fairly quickly drove Air Inter more or less off the route. The TGV now goes to the Mediterranean coast, the Alps, Switzerland and Turin. Its cousin Thalys links Paris with Amsterdam and Cologne and perhaps, in two years time, it will reach Berlin.

Demand exists on the Continent. I am absolutely certain that that demand exists just as strongly north of London, be it East or West Coast. One must be concerned that earlier efforts to link the regions with Eurostar via Waterloo were virtually unsuccessful, with some of the very few trains that ran each day carrying perhaps only ten passengers. I wonder whether that reflected lack of demand, lack of convenience—because, perhaps, there was only one train a day—or lack of choice, again because there was only one train a day; or, indeed, lack of opportunities, also because there was only one train a day.

I hope that it was the latter three, and that the review commissioned by the right honourable Deputy Prime Minister, and due to be available by December, will establish both demand in the regions and the viability of meeting that demand. If that cannot be done, the seven train sets concerned should be released for other projects, provided that they satisfy the relevant safety cases. Perhaps the Minister can update us on those safety cases.

Given demand and safety, for me the issues come down to two—or really only one and a half because the first leads to the other. First, we must decide how best to proceed as of, say, 1999, using existing infrastructure which is almost all in place thanks—believe it or not—to a previous generation of privatised railways. Secondly, we must decide how to proceed when the Ashford to St. Pancras works are completed. I am sure that we all assume rather than just hope that they will be completed. The first of these, if it can be solved, would, I suggest, solve the second because the latter would inherit—and, indeed, improve upon—a going concern.

As far as I understand it, as of now the solution lies in the hands of the British Airways/National Bus/French and Belgian Railway consortium, which has been offered the contract to run the "beyond London trains", if we can call them that; this always depending on the various regulatory bodies allowing that consortium to go ahead as the train operating company.

There is also a proposal from Virgin on the table, which has already been mentioned. However, as far as I can gather, it is only a proposal. There has been no discussion between the consortium and Virgin at present on the offer. Virgin's proposal, with its strong emphasis on freedom from public subsidy, is very welcome as indeed are the service proposals—certainly, I should have thought, to my noble friend Lord Inglewood: daily from Edinburgh and Glasgow, twice daily from Manchester and Birmingham and five times daily from Watford. I realise that there is a Manchester to Glasgow gap, but I am sure that it will sort itself out.

However, there would be some very serious problems despite this proposed running without public funding. I say that because if one looks at Glasgow Central and at one of its more remote platforms, one will see a beautiful glass building that has been there for four or five years. I got to know it when I was the chairman of a British Rail station judging panel. It is obviously the Eurostar facility. That would have to be repeated at all points where Eurostar services from the regions stopped. It would include security and checking and, understandably, Customs and immigration control. All of these are costs which will initially be paid by Eurostar, but which will eventually flow through to the passenger. I assume that every station would have to have all these facilities, because we already know that passenger loadings on Paris services presently justify on-board immigration and Customs controls, but Brussels loadings do not. But, after all, Brussels is now receiving up to 12 trains a day from Waterloo, whereas here we are only talking about five or six.

I feel, therefore, that the latter situation must prevail on the regional services. To eliminate the problem, would it not be better—and here I disagree with my noble friend—to focus on Watford where all Virgin West Coast services will eventually call, and concentrate all security and frontier matters there? A change of train would still be required, but the volume of travel choices—the sheer volume of Virgin's West Coast mainline services converging on Watford and the opportunities to run more trains from Watford round London through the tunnel—and the number of opportunities would still be much greater than that offered by Virgin's proposals in terms of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester and Birmingham.

I appreciate that Watford International would penalise the East Coast main line, but I believe that the East Coast is pro tem until we get St. Pancras better served via Kings Cross and London Transport to Waterloo, which is surely quicker than Peterborough and then a meander around northern London. Whatever approach one were to adopt, I hope that we would not allow ourselves to be diverted in this instance by projects involving Heathrow.

To sum up, I must say that I welcome my noble friend's Question and his wish to see the North West enjoy its share of the benefits of the Channel Tunnel rail link. If demand is there, and it can be viably met, we should set out, and set out quickly, to meet it. My own proposal to do this I shall call a variant of Virgin's proposal—matching the best of its West Coast Main Line project with the simplest of interchanges: Watford International.

8.24 p.m.

Lord Newby

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, for tabling this Question. Clearly the question of international rail services north of London is an important one. I hope the noble Lord will not mind if, in considering the matter, I link with the North West, Yorkshire and Humberside, and the North East because it seems to me that many of the same arguments apply. Clearly the establishment of such links north of London starts off with a very strong transport policy justification, both in terms of passengers and freight to the extent that such links can be established and successfully reduce pressure on other parts of the transport network.

However, it seems to me that there are two other principal reasons for wishing to see quick progress being made on such links—one is economic and the other is political. The economic argument relates to the regeneration of the North West and equally Yorkshire, Humberside and the North. We have seen a tremendous economic change there over the past 30 years. Many of the industries which made their names in those areas have in effect gone into reverse. Whether it is textiles and engineering in the North West, or steel and coal in the North East, the industries on which the populations of those regions have depended for their wealth have simply shrivelled to a fraction of their former size and, in some cases, have disappeared altogether.

As the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, said, there has been a significant amount of success in new industry in those regions, especially in service industries. The noble Lord mentioned tourism which has indeed been a great success story. However, if they are to compete as successful regions within Europe, it seems to me that they must have and be seen to have the very best of transport links. Rail must play a part in that improved transport mix.

If we look, for example, to the North West, it will be seen that its regeneration plans assume better rail services than currently exist. Indeed, when one looks at the growth points that have been established in somewhere like Trafford Park, such developments only make sense as growth points if they have first-class rail services—in that case, principally freight services. As the noble Lord said, the current service from the North West to Europe via the north and south circulars of the British Rail system are simply not adequate for the future.

As regards the North, I suspect that the biggest economic gains from improved international rail links are likely to be derived from freight rather than passengers, although I would not underestimate the scope for successful passenger services. I do not believe that the previous experiments with passenger trains coming into Waterloo from Scotland or from the West country really told us anything; indeed, the trains were slow, they were not advertised and they did not have the benefit of the marketing that one would wish for.

If one takes a longer view, it seems to me that there is scope in considering providing sleeper carriages and putting cars on trains so that people travelling to southern Europe from the North can do so overnight without spending a tremendous amount of time driving. There is scope for passengers, but I suspect that there is even more scope for freight. I also believe that there is an odd psychological benefit in having good quality international passenger links. As regards London, it is interesting to note that there has clearly been a great improvement in its image among many young French people. They have decided that coming to London and living and working here is more viable because they can have an easy rail journey. Of course, they could otherwise take a relatively easy flight, although I must admit that it would not be as comfortable. I am not suggesting that Manchester is going to spawn a whole new French community, but the fact that it does have absolutely first rate passenger services will be of some benefit.

My second argument for having such links is a political one. As I know only too well, northeners do not need a great excuse to feel aggrieved by decision makers down south. That is particularly so when they feel the decision makers down south, as they will see it, sometimes spend a huge amount of time worrying about second order issues which would not benefit them in any event. The Dome is probably the classic example of that, but it is not the only example. I refer to the lottery money spent on arts establishments and the amount of Cabinet time spent worrying about the Royal Opera House. If you live in Manchester or Leeds those appear not to be proper priorities for government.

It seems to me that the question of the rail links north of London has assumed a political importance which almost goes beyond the economic benefit that such links would provide. Such feelings clearly are bad for a sense of national unity. In my view, there is no better way for the Government to be seen to be batting for the northern regions than if they were seen to be taking these issues rather more seriously than has been the case in the past.

As other noble Lords have mentioned, the history of the CTRL is absolutely dire. I suspect that when the textbooks are written on great failures of British public policy making from 1950 to 2000, after the poll tax the story of the CTRL will be one of the greatest failures and one of the most popular examples chosen to instruct students on how not to do it. I spent three years attempting to get off the ground plans to revive railway land at King's Cross. As your Lordships will remember, there was a King's Cross railways Bill that took literally years to get through another place and this House. It was eventually withdrawn at Third Reading in this House because the government decided they did not have the funding to undertake that provision.

Lord Mountevans

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. The Bill was not withdrawn in this House. I was one of the two people who took it through this House. It was not given Royal Assent, but the original King's Cross Bill passed through both Houses.

Lord Newby

My Lords, in a sense that strengthens the point I made. The Bill reached the final point in the legislative procedure but was then withdrawn. Years were wasted and by that stage hundreds of millions of pounds had been spent on bringing forward the plans. We were left with a total hiatus of policy making. Clearly, the position today is much more satisfactory in that at least we have a plan for getting the CTRL built, albeit in a slightly fractured way. Anyone who has followed the history of the decision making on that will want to pay tribute to the Deputy Prime Minister and other Ministers for working hard to make that part of the link a reality.

However, I am aware of no plan that looks 10 or 20 years ahead which has any firmness to it—and to which the Government have put their name—and which addresses how we shall get beyond London. That seems to me to be a critical problem. I believe that when making the announcement in another place on 3rd June, the Deputy Prime Minister became slightly exasperated when people asked him what he intended to do about links north of London. He replied, in effect, "For goodness' sake. I have nearly killed myself getting links to London. Don't try my patience and ask me to do the impossible". Although that is an understandable reaction, it is not satisfactory. Having reached this point, I hope that the Government will soon be able to produce at least a vision—if not detailed plans—as to how international rail services might be developed. It is possible, of course, that that will appear in the transport White Paper, but I somehow suspect that it will not.

I conclude with a couple of questions for the Minister. I believe that on 3rd June the Deputy Prime Minister said that he had asked the consortium to consider bringing forward plans for international rail services north of London by the end of the year. Has the Minister any news on the timetable for that? Might something emerge a little earlier than the end of the year? I would also welcome anything the Minister can tell us about the proposals for an international service from Heathrow by 2001. From the point of view of the northern regions, that is an interesting suggestion. But in a sense it is rather a threat because if everyone suddenly becomes terribly enthused about having international rail services going that little bit further to Heathrow rather than further north, all attention will be focused on that. In thinking of that proposal—if one is going that far—has any thought been given to linking up with the North West and thus benefiting that region? We need a fast service with the minimum number of stops to get people from the North West across the Channel. Going via Heathrow really is a case of going somewhere via Slough. I cannot believe that going via Heathrow would be the solution.

I refer to the Virgin proposals which have been raised by other noble Lords. Do the Government have a view on these proposals? Are they feasible? Instinctively, I feel that a plan which has at its heart a station called Watford International has something missing. It does not have the brio even of Lille, but perhaps that is pure northern prejudice. Do those proposals cut across the ideas and plans that the consortium is currently developing? If Virgin can do that,- why cannot the consortium?

Railways clearly have a tremendous potential to bind together countries and regions both economically and politically. The Government still have the opportunity to ensure that despite all the delays and confusion to date the Channel Tunnel eventually fulfils its potential for the North West and the other northern regions. I hope that the Minister can give us some reassurance this evening that that opportunity will at last be seized.

8.36 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, for his introduction to this debate and—if I may say so—for the context in which he set us thinking about the issues before us tonight. As he suggested, it is important that we consider the Channel Tunnel Rail Link in the context of transport links within the European Union.

It is interesting to note that the West Coast Main Line, the East Coast Main Line and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link all form part of the EU's plans for the trans-european network. It is important to view the problems that we are approaching in that context as well as to view them in the economic and regenerative context that the noble Lord, Lord Newby, referred to, and indeed the political context. I can assure the noble Lord that if I had any doubts about the strong feelings of those in the regions of the North of England my noble friend Lady Farrington, sitting beside me, would make sure that I was well aware of those concerns.

We recognise the frustration that has been expressed by I believe everyone who has spoken tonight that the services to the regions for which they have argued not just on this occasion but also on many occasions in the past are not yet in place. It is important to recap briefly the background to the current situation, to which the noble Lord, Lord Newby, referred.

The deal put in place by the previous government with London and Continental Railways to build the CTRL and operate Eurostar was flawed from the start. In January it almost collapsed. The company could not fulfil its contract and requested an additional £1.2 billion of taxpayers' money, on top of £1.8 billion already committed. That was unacceptable.

We were faced with a clear choice. We could have abandoned the contract with LCR and invited new tenders or we could have asked LCR to reconsider the financing of the project and come forward with proposals to meet all of its original obligations. We chose the latter option because abandonment of the contract and a further delay of two years or more, would have led to further uncertainty and blight and would have resulted in two-thirds of government grant being spent on Eurostar's debts and continuing losses with nothing in return. The deal we secured will provide a high-speed Channel Tunnel Rail Link. I am grateful for the acknowledgement of the role played by my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister that the noble Lord, Lord Newby, mentioned.

The CTRL project can now proceed without delay. The solution we have negotiated ends the uncertainty about the continuance of the project. I should make the following issue clear as it has been raised specifically by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, and by other noble Lords who have spoken. There is a commitment to build the entire railway from the Channel Tunnel to St. Pancras. LCR will remain under a contractual commitment to deliver the whole project. It plans to commence work later this year. The first section of construction should be completed by 2003, with the full CTRL, including the vital connection to the West Coast Main Line, planned for completion in 2007.

I reassure the noble Lords, Lord Mountevans and Lord Inglewood, and others who raised the matter, that once the CTRL is opened the infrastructure will be in place for seamless journeys between the regions and the Continent for which noble Lords have argued. The Government, LCR and Railtrack are working hard to take the proposals forward so that construction can start later this year.

I now turn to the Eurostar service. LCR has chosen a consortium to run Eurostar comprising British Airways, National Express and the national railways of France and Belgium. The consortium members have a strong track record in delivering high-quality passenger services across Europe. I understand that they have plans to maximise growth in Eurostar's existing inter-capital business, to increase frequency of services, to reduce check-in time and to improve on-board service standards. They have already announced their intention to establish a service from Heathrow airport to Paris which, it is hoped, in due course will enable Heathrow to develop as a hub for services across the country and as a gateway to Europe. The Government are committed to a fully integrated transport system. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, that the plans proposed by the consortium for a hub at Heathrow are innovative and we hope that they will provide greater choice to those travelling for business or for pleasure.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked specifically about progress. We understand that the consortium is developing those plans urgently for the Heathrow to Paris services. The noble Lord also raised concerns about whether, in the long term, such plans would foster the direct links about which he was concerned. The issue of Watford as a hub rather than Heathrow was mentioned, although not exactly the same view was taken by noble Lords who spoke.

We were asked to give a commitment that the provision of Eurostar services to the north of England would start as soon as possible. The Government understand the desire for that commitment and share the desire for direct services to the regions. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, put that question directly. However, he acknowledged, as did other noble Lords, that the viability of those services—the length of time they will take; the number of people who would wish to use them; and how attractive a service from Glasgow to Paris which could take around 10 hours would be—has to be considered and an analysis made. Even a service from Manchester to Paris taking around five hours compared with the four hours the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, mentioned, is considered the crucial journey time in relation to whether business travellers decide to travel by air.

It was because we shared the desire to see those services in place that my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister asked the consortium, as part of the deal arranged to ensure the future of the Channel Tunnel rail link, to review urgently the feasibility of regional services and to put proposals to the Government before the end of the year. The timing remains the end of the year. We cannot prejudge the outcome of the review that has been commissioned.

As several noble Lords mentioned, including the noble Lords, Lord Cadman and Lord Inglewood, a proposal has been put forward by Virgin to run regional Eurostar services. It was acknowledged, certainly in the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, that these matters are sometimes not as simple as they can be made to appear. We have to consider whether the Virgin proposal would in itself divert revenue from the existing Eurostar service, undermining its viability and the viability of the deal that has been struck around CTRL. These matters deserve closer scrutiny. I understand that Virgin made the proposals direct to London and Continental Railways, a company in which, noble Lords will recall, Virgin is a shareholder. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, that London and Continental Railways has asked the consortium to consider Virgin's proposals.

I now turn to the issue of frontier controls raised by the noble Lords, Lord Cadman and Lord Mountevans. The Government recognise that the addition of domestic passengers on regional Eurostar services might make those services more commercially attractive. But, clearly, we have to ensure passenger security. Passengers on international train services must be subject to the same controls used at ports and airports. Provided proper procedures are in place, there are no frontier control reasons why regional Eurostar services which carry both domestic and international passengers should not be operated. The Government would be happy to receive proposals as part of the review that is being undertaken. Whether those controls take place on board the train or at stations is a commercial operating decision for Eurostar. I understand that the original Eurostar plans included on-board Customs and immigration controls.

Noble Lords also asked why it is not possible to begin some services on the West Coast Main Line now, using rolling stock which is not currently being utilised. As was recognised by the noble Lords, Lord Cadman and Lord Mountevans, there are some technical problems which currently prevent the operation of regional Eurostar rolling stock on parts of the existing network. Those problems are mainly related to electrical interference associated with track circuits which have prevented the issue of safety clearances required before passenger services can be operated. I understand that Railtrack and Eurostar are working together to ensure that the necessary safety cases can be issued for those trains. The Government have made clear their commitment to the operation of a safe railway network and the need to solve these problems. Until we can guarantee their safe operation it would not be right for the trains to come into use.

The noble Lords, Lord Inglewood and Lord Newby, referred to the issue of rail freight. The Government are determined to put rail freight back at the heart of Britain's rail industry. There has already been considerable traffic growth in freight carried through the Tunnel and, as noble Lords will recall, last year, in return for extension of the Eurotunnel concession, the Government negotiated a valuable package of benefits for rail freight. The opening of the CTRL should also permit an increase in freight on the existing network by freeing up capacity.

In conclusion, the Government recognise the importance to the regions of good international rail links. We believe that the deal that has been agreed around the Channel Tunnel rail link will provide real regenerative and economic opportunities. We look forward eagerly to receiving the review from the consortium later this year on regional services, and I shall inform the House at that time of the outcome of the review.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until nine o'clock.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.48 to 9 p.m.]

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