HL Deb 14 July 1998 vol 592 cc105-8

2.48 p.m.

Lord Berkeley asked Her Majesty's Government:

What technical, commercial and frontier control reasons still prevent Eurostar services from operating north of London.

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

My Lords, the technical issues which prevent the operation of regional Eurostar rolling stock on parts of the existing network relate to electrical interference associated with track circuits. Those matters have prevented the issue of safety clearances which are required before passenger services can be operated. Commercial decisions on the provision of regional Eurostar services are a matter for London & Continental Railways. The Government have, however, asked the consortium chosen by LCR to operate Eurostar to report urgently on the feasibility of such services. There are no frontier control reasons why Eurostar services north of London should not be operated.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Minister for that very full reply. As the Minister mentioned, the Government have asked the consortium running Eurostar to study the commercial viability of services north of London. That is the same consortium which proposed new services to Heathrow Airport; namely, British Airways and National Express. Does the Minister believe that that consortium will produce an objective report when it may be that the same trains are required for either north of London or Heathrow?

Baroness Hayman

Yes, my Lords, I believe that the consortium will produce an objective report. The Deputy Prime Minister made very clear the Government's view that they wish to see Eurostar operating regional services and made very clear, both to LCR and to the consortium, that they wanted an objective report by the end of the year on the viability of such services. It is absolutely correct that the consortium has proposed services from Heathrow, but we do not believe that that should in any way act against the possibility of an objective assessment of the possibility of regional services.

Lord Cadman

My Lords, given that Eurostar trains cannot at present physically gain access to Heathrow station and that any future connections of that facility with the Channel Tunnel rail link when constructed will be somewhat convoluted, how can the establishment of an international rail transport hub at Heathrow Airport be described as "innovative" and be of benefit to rail passengers from other parts of the United Kingdom?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, if one looks in detail at the suggestions which are being put forward by the consortium which represents the national railways of France and Belgium, British Airways and National Express, which all have a great deal of experience in that field, one sees that the possibilities of an inter-modal hub service from Heathrow, both serving other parts of the United Kingdom and promoting interchange between different modes of transport onto Eurostar services, are extremely exciting. We believe that they should be explored. However, as I said earlier, we recognise also the very strong desire for through services to the regions. That is why we have asked for a report on the viability of such services.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the problem of a lack of regional Eurostar services, certainly to the West Midlands, is intensified because of the poor quality of the ordinary London to Birmingham Virgin rail services? Is she aware of genuine concern in the region that the "double whammy" effect is causing a real problem in terms of attracting inward investment into the area?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am aware of the concern that there should be good regional access because of its important economic potential benefits. As my noble friend is aware, the investment in the West Coast main line by Railtrack will be an extremely important aspect of that. But I recognise also that a desire for the extension of the Eurostar services to Birmingham and, indeed, beyond would be a valuable component.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, bearing in mind the importance which is placed by noble Lords on all sides of the House on the early introduction of services north of London, will the Minister confirm that any such services operated through Heathrow could hardly operate before a time at some distance from now because the lines are simply not available? Will she tell us whether or not there is any view as to whether the Virgin rail proposals offer an opportunity for an earlier introduction of such services?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, it is obvious to us all that there is no early answer on the question of Eurostar regional services. That is a matter of regret for many people because of the delay to the original CTRL project and the fact that we have had to renegotiate the extremely flawed arrangements which we inherited.

As the noble Baroness is aware, proposals have been made by Virgin in relation to the possibility of regional services. The Deputy Prime Minister has asked that those proposals be assessed, together with the consortium's assessment of regional services, so that we can look closely at all the options which might be available in order to bring in regional services as soon as possible.

Lord Bowness

My Lords, the noble Baroness told the House on 8th July that the Government would have to consider whether the Virgin proposal would divert revenue from the existing Eurostar service, undermining its viability and the viability of the deal with CTRL. But the Virgin proposal is to run regional services without subsidy, without changing trains, using the seven units currently available. Does the Minister not agree that it is surely the case that regional services will create new passengers, whether business or leisure, and that services originating north of Watford will not divert revenue from existing Eurostar services?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the issues are slightly more complicated than the noble Lord suggests. There is seldom anything such as a free lunch and seldom anything such as completely free regional services. We must look objectively at what is being offered by Virgin to see whether there are possibilities there. There are implications for the core services which Eurostar would be offering under the agreement made with London & Continental Railways. The House would expect that the proposals should be assessed in the round rather than simply leapt at because, on the surface, they look very attractive. That is not to pass judgment upon them, but they must be considered properly in the context of the review for which my right honourable friend has asked.

Lord Randall of St. Budeaux

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that I have interpreted her answers correctly; namely, that the impediments to the provision of those additional services are really caused by the companies and the market and not in any way by the Government?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, under the Channel Tunnel Rail Act, the Government's responsibilities are to provide the infrastructure which is available for direct regional services. Those obligations will be honoured under the deal which I announced to the House when repeating the Statement of my right honourable friend. Those obligations are in relation to infrastructure. Services have always been a matter of commercial concern for Eurostar. It is absolutely true that we must look—it would be wrong for any of us to deceive ourselves—at the market which exists. The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, talked about creating passengers for the services. We must look at how real that market is; at what the journeys would cost; and at the length of journey time. That is all part of the assessment which is being undertaken at present.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that while the proposals by Virgin and Railtrack to reduce the journey times between London, the West Midlands and the North West on the West Coast main line by introducing tilting trains will reduce journey times to London, they will result in Eurostar-type trains going from the North West and the West Midlands across into Europe effectively being consigned to the slow lane? Will that not inhibit the development of commercial passenger traffic from the North West and the West Midlands across into Europe?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, my noble friend is being unduly pessimistic about the effects of investment in the West Coast main line. However, I suggest that it is another example of the ramifications and implications which must be taken into account in the review which is taking place at present.