HL Deb 16 March 1998 vol 587 cc551-66

8.6 p.m.

Lord Cadman rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether plans for an integrated transport policy are being forestalled by the continuing disposal of railway land.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the subject of my Question has arisen as a direct consequence of the privatisation of the railways, resulting in the new rail freight companies' success in attracting new business. Is this success to be frustrated by parts of the railway estate disappearing before their very eyes?

Following the passage of the Railways Act 1993, decisions were taken by British Rail as to which parts of its estate were to be regarded as operational or not. All operational land was, at the appropriate time, vested in the infrastructure provider, Railtrack Plc. Non-operational land remained in the hands of British Rail and is administered by its subsidiary company, Rail Property Limited. Much of this non-operational land consists of parts of long-closed routes and structures, some of which carry substantial liabilities. One can cite here as an example the architecturally elegant stone-built viaduct that dominates the village of Pensford, just south of Bristol, which was part of a route that served the once quite important Somerset coalfield.

Since British Rail had found itself unable to operate an economic freight service, much of that non-operational land also consisted of old station goods yards, marshalling yards, redundant junctions and sidings, much of which lies adjacent to existing operational routes. Unbelievably included were a flyover at Nuneaton and an underpass at Reading, both of which had to be withdrawn from potential disposal due to their strategic importance.

It was recognised some time ago that some sites which were being disposed of could well have a future role to play. Sites as far apart as Yatton in Somerset, Hereford and Workington in Cumbria have been offered for sale by RPL, despite their being identified as having freight use potential.

Much of the problem lies in the fact that in many cases the redevelopment value of a site for housing, a supermarket or whatever exceeds that for rail freight purposes. The recent episode at Battersea illustrates this point well. It seems strange, does it not, that the industry is being invited to bid for sites—albeit assisted perhaps by a freight facilities grant—that have been put up for sale by a government company so that they can be retained within the railway estate despite the Government's stated aim that they wish to encourage the transfer of freight from road to rail?

It would appear that Department of Transport Ministers and officials still do not seem to realise that the potential for increased rail freight business is real and impending. There will be a need in the future for loading and storage facilities to be provided adjacent to existing railway routes and close enough to prospective customers for this potential to be realised. Here we have a government agency putting many sites that could be suitable up for sale.

With regard to redundant routes, some of these could well be considered for eventual reuse, especially in the vicinity of densely trafficked lines near known pinch points or to provide a diversionary route while serious work is undertaken to a main line, for example the west coast main line. As a topical example, in France abandoned lines are literally left to rot, with hardly any redevelopment taking place. This Easter in eastern France a pretty busy junction is to be closed down to enable a river bridge to be replaced. The SNCF has been able to set up a diversionary route to enable some traffic to avoid the area by reopening a route that was closed down some years ago. The fact that some track relaying has been involved on this route demonstrates the importance attached here to providing some continuity of service and the relative ease with which such a route can be put back into service.

It has been suggested that the department is constrained by the provisions of the Transport Acts of 1962 and 1968 which, it seems, required BR to act commercially and obliged it to obtain the best possible price for surplus assets. That may be so, but Section 27(1) of the 1962 Act states, The Minister may, after consultation with any Board, give to that Board directions of a general character as to the exercise and performance by the Board of their functions in relation to matters which appear to him to affect the national interest". Section 28(4) of the same Act appears to allow the Minister to direct that under certain circumstances directions may so be given, notwithstanding that they may make it necessary for the board of British Rail to dispose of assets at a loss. Therefore perhaps there is some scope here.

It has also been stated that the Government have committed themselves to the public expenditure programme of the previous administration. Amazingly, these sales are deemed to be part of this programme and therefore all kinds of excuses are made to ensure that they take place. Obviously someone, somewhere needs the money. Of course all this is bad news for the industry and integrated transport generally and could possibly be regarded as a shambles. I hope that the Government will set up some kind of strategic rail authority. It is a pity that that is not up and running now because it should have the power to sort out situations like this.

The trouble is that once these sites are disposed of it will be well nigh impossible to get them back or even to replace them. Local authorities have a vital role to play here. It is imperative that they identify quickly within their planning programmes the need to provide for rail freight facilities. Strategic railway sites, whether for freight or passenger use, must be safeguarded so that rail can play its full part in any integrated policy. I wonder what guidance the Government can give to local authorities here because this is important.

It is encouraging that Rail Property Limited has agreed to circulate to all interested parties in future details of any sales as particulars become available. This will perhaps enable potential rail interests to get together with local authorities and convince them that this or that area has rail potential and so perhaps can be prevented from being redeveloped via the planning process and thus not lost to the rail industry.

I hope that the noble Baroness on the Front Bench can give us some encouragement this evening. I take this opportunity of thanking all those noble Lords who will take part in this debate.

8.13 p.m.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, I start by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Cadman, on initiating this interesting debate. It is interesting to me. I declare an interest as chairman of the Rail Freight Group. It is therefore appropriate that I concentrate my remarks on rail freight and debate how rail freight may or may not be affected by the land issue that the noble Lord, Lord Cadman, so eloquently discussed. He has obviously spent much time reading sales prospectuses of various sites which the property board still has on offer. Those prospectuses are glossy but one does not have much time to act in that regard.

I believe that rail freight is central to delivering the Government's transport policy. On the Government's own estimates, road congestion on many routes from, say, Preston to Maidstone will probably be gridlocked for many hours of the day within 15 years. However, freight will still have to be moved around. Much of it will still go by road as there is no practical alternative—certainly, no one would wish to change that—and road travel has a major role to play. However, much long distance freight can be carried by rail. That process has already started. After years of decline, rail freight traffic grew by 15 per cent. last year, excluding coal. Although the tonnage of coal has decreased, the tonnage carried per kilometre has increased as for some reason it is imported into Hunterston to be burnt in Didcot power station which is quite a long journey by rail. Of course that is good for the railways.

Last year, as part of the roads review, we made a suggestion to the Minister of Transport as regards lorries travelling over 200 kilometres. That is about the break-even distance between road and rail. Some 50 per cent. of the lorry freight in this country is carried on journeys of over 200 kilometres. We suggested that a proportion of those longer journeys could use the railways. We asked whether that would be possible and what effect it would have. We calculated that if half of those longer journeys were made by rail that would require an extra thousand freight trains a day. That is roughly the same number as EWS runs at the moment. Connex South Eastern runs 2,000 trains a day. Railtrack has said that that goal is perfectly achievable given investment in the rolling stock and in the infrastructure. It would obviously have an enormously beneficial effect on road traffic congestion.

What is this new traffic we are discussing? I have mentioned coal. Aggregates and other bulk traffic take up an enormous share of rail freight. Rail freight's growth or decline is dependent on the economy and many outside influences, not the least of which is the price of gas relative to coal. The new traffic is traffic that was probably lost to the railways many decades ago. It is growing in partnership with the highly efficient logistics service providers who now mainly use road traffic. However, they are all keen to try rail. I give the House a few examples. There is waste disposal by rail from city centres. At the end of last year I had the privilege of launching a project to take Edinburgh's waste to Dunbar by train. Even on a 40 mile journey with a road stretch at each end, the scheme beat the competition. I refer to concrete batching plants in city centres and elsewhere supplied by rail. The noble Lord, Lord Cadman, mentioned Battersea which is a potential site for a concrete aggregates plant. Before Christmas we discovered that the rail property board preferred to sell the site in question to Battersea Dogs Home which does a wonderful job looking after stray dogs. However, it is my submission that whereas aggregates concrete plants should be connected by rail, dogs do not need to be connected by rail. There is a priority problem here.

The food and drink industry is starting to transport goods by rail, either for primary distribution or between distribution centres from supermarkets and manufacturers to other retail outlets. Chemicals and dangerous goods can be transferred by rail far more safely than by road. I refer in this connection to both domestic and cross-Channel routes.

What does it need to make what I term a "rail freight revolution" happen? There are many factors which noble Lords have mentioned on previous occasions. I refer to customer service, competitive price, investment in new rolling stock, traction and train paths through the rail network. All those factors must be brought into play and I believe that that will occur. However, the one thing rail cannot do without is terminals for loading and unloading. Otherwise we shall have a scenario, as in the case of the flying Dutchman, going round and round the world. Terminals cover anything from major international intermodal terminals, of which there are a welcome few, through special waste disposal, concrete aggregates plants, rail connected ports, terminals for general merchandise or food and drink, private terminals at factories, urban distribution centres and just flat land in parts of Scotland where timber is loaded on the main line.

There is great diversity. It cannot all take place in one place. One does not wish to have food and drink terminals next to a major chemical plant. It does not work. However, what they all have in common is the need for land, with good road and rail connections and suitable planning zoning. Already, with the small growth to date, there is the problem of congestion in some existing terminals. That means delays. Customers do not like that. We hope that they do not take their trade away.

It is worth pointing out that virtually all factories and distribution and retail centres are connected to roads. It goes without saying that they have to have a road connection. Local authorities often take a great interest in those terminals. But not many now are rail connected; and not many now have the economic potential to be so connected. It is therefore important to preserve sites which exist at present even if they are not in use. The costs of taking freight by rail become more competitive with road freight if the factories or warehouses at one or both ends are rail connected. If they are not, it is important that the road legs of journeys are as short as possible. But the key is to be rail connected. It makes an enormous difference to the economics of competing with road freight. If rail freight is to increase by three to four times in the next 10 to 15 years, the provision of terminals is vital.

The noble Lord, Lord Cadman, mentioned the sale of its land by the British Railways Board. It is no great surprise to me. I never looked upon the board as a great friend of rail freight. The allocation of land took place in 1994. When Railtrack was given the operational land it was not over-endowed with land. The board probably kept most of the land for itself with a view to selling off the 2,000 sites, which the noble Lord mentioned, by, I believe, the end of this year. I find it surprising that the Government appear to be following the policy of the last government and encouraging the sales. The Government have changed. The transport policy—thank goodness—has changed. I hope that the Government can instruct the British Railways Board to slow down or pause a little.

First, the Government should consult widely with industry and those involved. After much prodding they are consulting with Railtrack. The examples given by the noble Lord, Lord Cadman, arose only because Railtrack said, "Hang on, we want these sites". Otherwise the flyover at Nuneaton would have become a municipal car park. EWS and Freightline were consulted. But, quite rightly, they have their own commercial agenda; and they do not always have the long term vision of others or the detailed knowledge of local authorities. Is it possible for the Government to instruct the board to delay sales until consultation has taken place? If a piece of land could be useful for future rail freight, can the board be instructed to hold off from selling a piece of land perhaps for three years until the strategic rail authority is set up, or other arrangements explored? It would not be right to instruct the board to sell land below market price; that might contravene the Transport Acts of 1962 and 1968. However, perhaps the board could hold off on the sale of the few parcels of land considered to be crucial for the rail freight industry.

We have been told by the Minister of Transport for London, Glenda Jackson, that this would risk breaching the financial duties imposed on British Rail by the two Acts. But who told the board suddenly to sell everything off, at sometimes knock down prices, apparently with the intention of clearing the books by the end of this year, when it had not cleared its books for 30 years? What has changed? There must be an element of a government instruction here.

The land is potentially vital for the development and growth of the railways. The land—it is probably only 10 per cent. of the total area—is being sold as a tidying up process at the end of privatisation. If the sale goes ahead, it will inhibit growth, increase costs and reduce rail traffic. That means more traffic on the roads. I believe that those objectives are totally contrary to the present Government's transport strategy. I welcome the debate and look forward to hearing what the Minister says.

8.24 p.m.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, I join in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Cadman, for introducing the debate. He and the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, both speak with great expertise on the general issue of the contribution that railway land can make to an integrated national transport system.

I wish to concentrate on a particular aspect of the disposal of railway land: its use as a contribution to creating a national cycle network—part of a sustainable transport system for the future. I should declare an interest as one of the patrons of the cycle charity, Sustrans. With the help of a substantial millennium grant from the National Lottery, Sustrans is well on its way to its target of 2,500 miles of national cycle network by June 2000. Indeed, it now hopes to complete 3,000 miles by then and to go to a national network of 8,000 miles by the year 2005.

Disused railway lines have an important role to play in this remarkable project. Sustrans commenced building railway paths in 1979 with the 16 kilometre long Bristol and Bath path, which now carries over a million trips annually, both cyclists and ramblers. Old railway corridors are ideal for walkers and cyclists in that they give an easily graded and generally traffic free route.

Since that time Sustrans has worked closely with the local authorities and I think it is true to say that between them they have managed to keep intact all the length of railways which have been sold by British Rail. This includes nearly 150 miles of popular paths built by Sustrans. To some extent Sustrans is doing what some Members of your Lordships' House and another place called for in the great 1966 Beeching debates; namely, that the routes of railways pieced together at such great cost by the Victorians should be kept as a network of greenways for the nation.

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, spoke with great authority about the problems of valuation of railway land. It is worth noting that by and large the value of the linear railways corridors is very small because what land values they might have are counterbalanced by the considerable liability of the viaducts, bridges and fencing. In selling the linear lines, British Rail is shedding itself of those very real costs, and I suppose that Sustrans is one of the very few organisations which sees those liabilities as assets because they give it the continuous route, free of traffic.

The larger areas comprising stations and former goods yards, about which the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, spoke, have a much greater value. It is those that in many ways are more of a loss today. As the noble Lord emphasised, those areas are seen as crucial for future freight termini in any resurgent railway system. I strongly support him in saying that those should be maintained and exploited in the national interest.

Sustrans is at present completing the acquisition of a list of largely fragmented pieces of railway line, each of which is an essential component of the longer routes that are being put together. It is most anxious to ensure that the fragmentation of the railways following the last government's privatisation should not lead to that residue being lost to public use.

If for some reason the transfer of the fragments of railway land in Sustrans' current list were to be delayed or halted, it would cause a real problem to the completion of the national cycle network. I hope to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Cadman, slightly on this particular point. Sustrans has reconfirmed on many occasions its willingness and determination to hold these fragments for possible railway use at some time in the future if so required. It will be resolving the difficult problem faced by Rail Property: namely, the proper care and maintenance of over 500 structures—bridges, viaducts and the like. It will aim to refurbish most of those during the construction of public paths over the next three or four years. It has good reason for doing so. While for Rail Property any such repair work is a drain on its now almost non-existent resources, for Sustrans it is the very purpose of the whole operation.

Sustrans is working closely with Railtrack on the development of the national network. It, in turn, has been working with the rail operating companies to check which sections of land might be required by them. So far as I know, the only pieces that they require have all been removed from the list being transferred to Sustrans. In the case of one, the route from Dumfries to Maxwelltown, provision has been made for the public path to run beside a single railway.

On all those projects, Sustrans is working closely with local authorities. It will not proceed with any works unless the local authority is satisfied that that is the best option for the railway land in question. That means that, to some extent, it is acting as a safe holding body while the Government make their policy decisions on the future retention of land and the wider issues raised by the debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Cadman. I might make the presumptuous remark that Sustrans may be a safer body to hold such land than either the local authorities, which are subject to many pressures and demands, or even—if I may say so with respect to the Minister who will reply—central government, who have not been notable in preventing the fragmentation of railway land over many years.

I simply wanted to plead with the Government that, in dealing with the more general issues raised by the noble Lords, Lord Cadman and Lord Berkeley, they will give a fair wind to the remarkable and imaginative concept of using disused railway lines in the way that I have described. It is both ecologically and financially sound. It is a concept that should be of great benefit to the health of future generations.

8.32 p.m.

Lord Mountevans

My Lords, 1, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lord Cadman for raising this issue. We all believe, or hope, that Britain is not alone in being close to the dawn of a new golden era for rail freight. We must do all we can to advance that particular cause. In this country, as abroad, the reasons speak for themselves. There are environmental reasons: the railway is green transport. There are the economic ones. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, mentioned some, but I always tend to think that one man moving perhaps 600 tonnes of tare is very much more productive than 10 or 20 men with tractor-trailer rigs. There are the negative costs of congestion. There is a safety dimension—when there is a major road accident, it tends to be overlooked; when there is a small railway accident, everyone is shouting, because we take the safety or our railways so much for granted. And of course there is privatisation—new money, new ideas. All those seem to be good reasons for anticipating and looking forward to a golden era.

One may take one's pick of the growth projections; there are many. But it seems to me that growth will be assured. However, to secure that growth, we must take steps to ensure, as other noble Lords said, that potential infrastructure is not prematurely disposed of. For a while at least we must go easy on the disposal of land which has or may have potential for terminal use. That is important whether we talk of a modest little terminal where swap bodies may be unloaded; whether we talk about a single siding, and not disconnecting or locking it out of use; or whether we talk of a major freight terminal.

I am somewhat reluctant to see a three-year blight on such sites, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. That period may be slightly too long. We must make up our minds much more quickly than that, if we can. However, I do feel that short-term blight is a necessary evil which must be accepted while we develop an integrated freight transport policy.

In fact, if I had one wish in this context, it would be that the forthcoming transport White Paper accepts that necessary evil. If the paper does nothing else but give us some breathing space, I for one shall welcome it.

8.35 p.m.

Lord Methuen

My Lords, I, too, welcome this debate, initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Cadman—coming, as it does, so soon after the debate introduced by my noble friend Lady Thomas of Walliswood. The close proximity of the two debates indicates the degree of interest in this House in an integrated transport policy with particular reference to railways. That was also borne out in the highly supportive attitude of the previous speakers.

I should first declare an interest as a sometime member of the railway signal engineering profession and a companion member of the Institution of Railway Signal Engineers. I was active in the early 1960s, when there was a huge investment programme in the electrification of a number of lines, including the west coast mainline, and in the mechanisation of freight handling in automated marshalling yards. To the best of my knowledge, all the latter have been swept away with the concentration of freight traffic into train load operations.

I was pleased to see the optimistic forecasts by EWS, the Rail Freight Group and others for a significant growth in rail freight traffic volumes, although I fear that their most optimistic figures may result in rail freight traffic only a small percentage of that currently carried by HGVs. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten the House as to the respective tonne-kilometres that the DETR is forecasting for those two transport modes.

I also notice from the briefing given to us by the Rail Freight Group of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, that there is at last a change in thinking away from the sole use of train load freight, and the re-introduction of wagonload and parcel traffic, and more encouragement for the use of private sidings, from which so much freight used to originate. However, does that mean that we now have once again a requirement for marshalling yards? Or how is it envisaged that wagonload traffic will be processed? Shall we also at last see the introduction of automatic coupling to a European standard for all freight traffic?

Like previous speakers, I am aghast at the wholesale disposal of central facilities for the handling of freight. I think we forget how numerous those facilities used to be. I can remember freight operations at High Street Kensington and Farringdon stations on the Underground, and steam freight trains on the Circle Line between Paddington and Smithfield in the early 1950s. That may have been overkill, given the position these days; however, it indicates the degree to which rail freight penetrated right into the heart of our cities. I am not expecting the revival of rail freight to result in such a spread of freight facilities as were available in those pre-Beeching days, but the point is that in many towns all land suitable for freight handling has been redeveloped.

But the disposals and closures of rail facilities have other repercussions. Last week, the Oakley viaduct on the Midland main line north of Bedford was closed for emergency repairs and the two tracks were removed to facilitate that work. Luckily, the four-track section which used to extend from St. Pancras to Trent Junction near Nottingham (with only limited two-track sections) was still in situ at Oakley, and hence the trains were able to be diverted onto the freight lines. Elsewhere on that line such an emergency would have had serious repercussions as much of the four-track permanent way has been reduced to three or only two tracks, and there are many bridges on that route and elsewhere where Railtrack could face similar problems with the Victorian engineering.

That example shows how the railways are existing by the skin of their teeth. In the old, pre-Beeching days there was a vast over-duplication of rail facilities resulting from the competitive rail environment that British Rail inherited and which required rationalisation. That resulted in it being possible to re-route trains in the way mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Cadman, which is now largely impossible. It also provided additional paths for both passenger and freight traffic—a facility that we do not now have. If we wish to recover the lost freight traffic, it is essential that we preserve such mothballed and unsold railway lands with any potential for reuse and reinstate much of the four-track sections which enabled freight and passenger traffic to coexist on the same routes. It is all very well to say that freight will travel at 70 miles an hour, but surely our passenger traffic will travel at over 100 miles an hour? We need these additional tracks for safe, efficient and flexible operation.

The other plea I would make is for the retention of urban track beds for future light-rail usage. We have seen this in the Manchester area. Reading the Railway Gazette (which is available in the Salisbury Room), one sees how poor is our take-up of light rail compared with that of the rest of the world and in particular of Europe. I encourage the Minister to look favourably on such projects as a major pollution-free contributor to our integrated transport policy in this country.

I support the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, with regard to organisations such as Sustrans. In the Peak District we have several old railway lines which have been made into cycle tracks. I saw the lack of such a policy when I lived in Oxfordshire. The line from Banbury through Chipping Norton towards Cheltenham would have made an ideal cycle track, hut it has been sold off in bits, which makes that now totally impractical. One hopes that the proposed strategic rail authority will look at some of these matters.

Finally, can the Minister tell us why it is possible to safeguard land for road building but not existing railway lands for reuse? Does she not agree that the approach which the Government are taking sacrifices long-term interests for short-term financial gain?

8.41 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Cadman for asking this Question, which follows on naturally from our debate on 25th February on the state of the railways in general.

Everyone is agreed that it is desirable to put more freight on to rail and off the roads, even those, and perhaps particularly those, such as myself who count themselves fully paid-up members of the motoring lobby—and I suspect, after tomorrow, even more fully paid-up! Not only would a reduction in freight journeys on the road reduce congestion, it would also save the Government money on road maintenance as it is the heavy lorry that causes by far the most wear and tear to the roads. In the debate last month and today we have heard very encouraging forecasts of growth in rail freight, particularly from the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, ranging from 50 per cent. to 200 per cent. in 10 years and even more over the longer term. Nevertheless, as freight overall is also forecast to grow, so the actual percentage of freight by rail will still be relatively small compared to freight by road, often for obvious practical reasons, such as the inability to have a railway siding at every factory or supermarket. In the overall debate it is therefore important not to neglect roads altogether. Most freight carried by rail will still require a road journey at either end or both ends.

The problem of disposal of surplus railway land is, I admit, a difficult one. I intend to confine my remarks to freight use. Much as I enjoyed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, about the track, I believe the main problem is with land which was previously used for freight. The Minister said on 25th February (Hansard, col. 762) that planning guidance might be strengthened to protect land for future rail use. I suspect that many of the sites in question are so-called brownfield sites and so might also be suitable for new housing development if the Government are to meet their targets for new houses on such brownfield sites. There is a possible conflict here. It would be interesting if the Minister could say more about the use of the planning system in this context.

There is also the problem, such as with the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, where disposal of land for development forms an integral part of the financial package to build the link. If that land is not to be sold for development to the highest bidder, which may not be for railways use, the money will have to be found from somewhere else. I have seen a copy of a letter from the Deputy Prime Minister's Office to the managing director of EWS that reaffirms the Government's decision to stick to the previous government's public expenditure programme. The money is obviously not going to come from public funds, so where will it come from?

Returning to the planning issue, any new rail freight terminal on existing rail land, or an expansion of existing facilities, is bound to lead to an increase in road traffic in the immediate vicinity. This may well be unpopular with local residents and is a point that needs to be taken into consideration.

The planning process could work positively, and perhaps achieve the happy combination of a boost for rail freight and the best value from the sale of surplus land, if, where a site is to be sold for commercial development, such as a supermarket, planning permission could require a railway siding to be included. Perhaps it could go even further and require a certain proportion of deliveries to be made by rail to the site as a condition of planning approval.

The main difficulty in reserving railway land for future use for freight facilities appears to be the requirement of British Rail to sell surplus land at market value—in other words, to the best buyer. As has been said, once such land has gone for another type of development, it has almost certainly gone for ever. How does one weigh up the competing claims, one for actual commercial development now and the other for some hypothetical future need for rail freight development? What is in the best overall interests of the locality and the nation as a whole and will have the greatest impact on jobs and on the local economy? These questions are not easily solved and there is sometimes an alternative view.

I have no doubt that the Minister will say that we must await the conclusions of the White Paper on an integrated transport policy. I hope that the outcome might at least identify the main sites in question and perhaps put a hold on their sale, while letting other, less important sites go on the market. But it must be for the industry itself to decide whether the existing sites are necessarily the best ones or whether there might not be better sites elsewhere which have not yet been considered for development. I believe that the best solution of all would be for the railway industry to use its new-found access to private capital and its ability to look longer term than in pre-privatisation days and, where possible, to buy the sites for themselves. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

8.47 p.m.

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

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cadman, for raising this important issue. It is soon after our previous debate on the railways, but I believe that that reflects the wish, which the Government share with many noble Lords who have spoken tonight, to see an improvement in our rail services and to see more passengers and freight attracted to our railways.

We are committed to creating a truly integrated transport system, to strike a better balance between the various transport modes and to give people a real choice. Before we can do that, there are fundamental problems in our railway industry that we propose to address. The noble Lord, Lord Cadman, referred to the need for a strategic rail authority, and other more general issues have been raised by noble Lords tonight, but we have focused most on the specific areas raised in the noble Lord's Question about the continuing disposal of railway land and the uses to which it might be put.

The proposition has been put this evening that the Government should intervene to stop the British Railways Board, through its property arm, Rail Property Limited, from disposing of its remaining surplus sites. The Government's policy here, as with other areas of railway policy, has to be based on the situation we inherited, the situation that we found rather than the situation that we would have wished to find. We also inherited—and are committed to—the expenditure programme of the previous administration.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, the Government did not inherit the public expenditure programme from the previous government. This Government decided to commit themselves to it. That is not the same thing as inheriting it; they had no obligation to do so.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I thought I had made clear by what I said that we inherited a set of figures. We are committed to, and made clear our commitment to, those figures. As the noble Lord is well aware, the receipts from the disposal of British rail land are part of that expenditure programme. We and British rail are bound by legislation.

The noble Lord, Lord Cadman, and my noble friend Lord Berkeley, cited the legislation by which BR could be directed in its management of property. However, that legislation was amended in part by the Railways Act 1993, which limited some of the actions we can take to those connected with railway privatisation, which is not an aim of this Government. Given that legislative position, BR has a duty to dispose of its assets at the best possible price. However, in relation to the site at Battersea, which I know is of concern to my noble friend, I understand that the company involved made an application for planning permission at an adjoining site. It may be that the interests of both rail freight and the dogs may be met within existing policies.

The other position we inherited—I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, will accept this—is that few significant sites now remain within BR ownership. BR's programme for disposing of surplus land has been ongoing for many years. Furthermore, when the previous government created Railtrack in 1994, Railtrack took not only the operational line, stations and land, but also those closed sites and lines which were thought to have a realistic prospect of reopening. I am pleased to say that, of those, traffic has returned to 25 routes since April 1994 and Railtrack believes that there is further potential for 41 other routes at some time in the future.

The Government recognise that some of the sites which did not appear to the previous administration to have a future for transport, may now have more potential. That does not mean that a site which served a railway purpose many years ago, will necessarily serve the different demands of railways or other modes of transport in the future. But, where a site has real potential for future rail use, we have sought to ensure that appropriate procedures are in place to identify it. The noble Lord, Lord Methuen, asked us to look favourably on light rail use, for example, on urban track beds. We recognise that light rail can be an effective means of transport in certain circumstances, such as the Manchester example to which he referred. We will be considering what role light rail will have in the context of the White Paper on integrated transport.

To return to the procedures which are in place to identify railway sites, BR gives Railtrack, other railway businesses and local authorities advance warning of sales so that they can bid if they choose. RPL has drawn to the attention of Railtrack around 450 sites which adjoin or are close to operational railways. RPL welcomes Railtrack's sharing of that information with other rail industry interests and also welcomes inquiries from the rail industry about sites, either specifically or general. RPL send auction catalogues to Freightliner as well as to Railtrack and AWS. Railtrack is now in negotiation with Rail Property Limited with a view to buying a number of sites, including lines at Acton. Colnbrook, Dumfries, Limehouse, Menstrie and Nuneaton. Railtrack also bid for sites at auction and has been successful in a number of cases. It recently purchased a 13-acre site on the east coast main line.

To turn to the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, most former track beds are in private or local authority ownership. However, it is proposed to transfer a number of BR's remaining track beds—they have around 75 lengths mostly in short and isolated stretches—to Sustrans, the cycling charity. I can assure the noble Lord that we support those proposals. In that way, not only will provision be made for safe walking and cycling, but the integrity of the transport corridor will be maintained. As the noble Lord pointed out, it will be in safe hands. Though realistically we believe that few, if any, of the stretches of line going to Sustrans will have the potential to reopen as commercial railways, Sustrans will be under a covenant not to undertake work that would preclude the reinstatement of railway lines. It is therefore an extremely advantageous scheme and one that the Government are pleased to support.

The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, raised the issue of planning guidance. Current guidance already makes it clear that local authorities should consider the potential of disused track beds and routes for future transport schemes. As I said the other day, we are looking closely, in the context of integrated transport policy, at whether planning guidance might be strengthened to protect suitable land for future rail use. A fully revised draft of PPG12, which governs the issues, will be issued for public consultation later this year.

The Government believe that the procedures now in place are the right way to proceed. We are not prepared to distort competition or offer additional subsidies to Railtrack or other privatised members of the rail industry in the form of cheap land sold at the taxpayers' expense at less than market value. Nor are we prepared to risk distorting the property market or depressing prices for other RPL sites. I might add that EWS told us that it accepts the principle that British Rail land and property should be offered on the open market. Halting sales would mean sterilising and blighting land—a point recognised by the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans—even though we understand the anxieties that we should not lose out. But there are potentially different high priority uses, a point referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara. Blight leads to misuse such as fly-tipping, which imposes costs on the public purse.

In tonight's debate, as has been expected, emphasis was given to freight. The Government wish—as does my noble friend Lord Berkeley, and the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans—to see rail freight back at the heart of Britain's rail industry. An increase in rail's share of the freight market will be a key part to integrated transport policy for all the reasons outlined tonight. The new freight companies are winning new traffic on to rail. English, Welsh and Scottish Railways aims to triple traffic in 10 years; Freightliner aims to increase the volume of container traffic by 50 per cent. in five years.

I am not sure whether the detailed data asked for by the noble Lord, Lord Methuen, in relation to comparisons between different modes are available. Perhaps I may make inquiries and write to him on that point.

Railtrack is keen to meet the needs of the expanding rail freight market and protect land that has a realistic possibility of future freight demand. Its code of practice for freight, published last year, states that it will discuss in advance with the rail freight industry, local authorities and other interested parties any proposed significant changes to its existing portfolio of land holdings that have realistic freight potential. Where that is the case, Railtrack will aim to preserve existing facilities or provide a suitable equivalent as well as considering new locations for investment to anticipate expected demand.

We already provide grants to industry towards the capital cost of rail freight equipment in cases where the traffic would otherwise be moved by road. We have taken measures to improve the freight facilities grant, not only in financial terms, but also by cutting the red tape associated with it. We have also secured commitments from the French Government and Eurotunnel to obtain a better deal for rail freight carried through the Channel Tunnel and beyond, not only by EWS, but also by potential new entrants to the market. In the context of the development of the integrated transport policy, we are considering what other measures might be introduced to encourage rail freight.

I noted the comments made by several noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Methuen, in relation to the value of smaller freight sites. But it is worth pointing out that nowadays freight operators seeking rail-based terminals usually need substantial parcels of land. Bulk materials require space for loading, unloading and storage. In some circumstances processing plant must also be provided on site. In the intermodal sectors, space is needed for loading, unloading, lorry access and parking, and the provision of storage and warehouse facilities on site or nearby may be critical to the overall viability of the development. BR has few such sites. That is not to suggest that small sites are never of any interest, for instance, for single company terminals. But their potential for future rail freight depots is bound to be relatively constrained.

To sum up, we have taken action to boost the take-up of rail freight grants to transfer freight from road to rail, and we have beefed up next year's budget by £10 million to £40 million. We have ensured that BR routinely tells railway businesses of the sites coming up for auction and we are satisfied that in the context of the disposal of land Railtrack observes a strict code of practice.

I hope that what I have said tonight will reassure noble Lords that the Government are fully committed to the improvement of our freight and passenger railway services as part of our integrated transport strategy, and that the disposal of BR's surplus land does not jeopardise that policy, a policy that the Government fully intend to implement.

House adjourned at nine o'clock.