HL Deb 29 October 1998 vol 593 cc2078-80

3.18 p.m.

Lord Berkeley asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they will announce whether the north of London Eurostar trains will be used for services north of London or, suitably shortened, for services between Paris, Brussels and Heathrow.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister made clear in his statement of 3rd June, the train operator consortium has been asked urgently to review the feasibility of regional Eurostar services, and to report before the end of the year.

We understand that the train operator consortium is simultaneously considering the feasibility of a Heathrow service. It is intended that a statement regarding the reviews will be made to Parliament before the end of the year.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that extremely interesting Answer. Is he aware that part of the consortium carrying out that study is British Airways which naturally wants the set of trains to go to Heathrow? The same set of trains are required to go north of London. Would it surprise the Minister if it were demonstrated in that study that north of London services would not be viable without a subsidy? He is probably aware that Virgin trains, the Labour Party's special friend at Blackpool, has offered to operate a service north of London without subsidy. Will the company be given an opportunity to operate that service if the subsidy request is zero as opposed to the other request which may be higher?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am aware that British Airways, along with National Express Group, SNCF and SNCB—the French and Belgian railways—are party to this consortium. However, I welcome the involvement in an integrated transport sense of British Airways in surface transport. The feasibility studies will be objective and they will reach a conclusion which I should not like to pre-empt or predict today.

Virgin has run a campaign saying that it will run regional services north of London without public subsidy. Quite what that means when it says that it will have to have the regional Eurostar trains, which are the same trains that the consortium is considering, I am not sure. It is not the only option for running a service to Heathrow. Clearly, if the north of London service proves feasible, we shall move on from there to consider the operators of that service.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, would not certain railway companies be better advised to make a good job of running the services they have at present rather than thinking of running new ones?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the Deputy Prime Minister made his view clear on that matter with regard to Virgin and other operators. Clearly we wish to see some improvement of the current operators, but we want also to look at options for improving and extending the Eurostar service. That is what the consortium is considering and I hope to make a Statement before the end of the year.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there will be grave discontent in the north of England and in Scotland if regional services are delayed in order to let the Heathrow services go ahead first? Is he also aware that considerable track improvements need to be put in place before the Heathrow service to Paris and Brussels—however desirable it may be and I agree that it is desirable—can be put in place? Is it not therefore a matter of timing, with the regional services coming first and the Heathrow link second?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, there are track aspects and track difficulties in both the north-south route and the Heathrow route which Railtrack needs to address and which need to be involved in the feasibility study. The first question is not timing, but whether either of those services is feasible. That is what the current study is designed to find out.