§ 3.26 p.m.
§ Lord Crickhowell rose to call attention to the planned closure of the Severn Tunnel this summer and the consequences for users and the Welsh economy; and to move for Papers.
§ Tie noble Lord said: My Lords, I am not raising this mater this afternoon in order to attack Railtrack or the railway companies, but because a great deal of information has reached me that causes me serious anxiety about the condition of the tunnel, and the threat that therefore exists to what is one of the most vital communication links in the country.
§ Over the past two years there has been a serious deterioration in the rail services using the tunnel in and out of South Wales. So frequent and lengthy are the delays that many people with business engagements at either end are now forced to travel the previous day and use hotel accommodation in order to guarantee their presence at morning meetings, or have to leave on a much earlier train than has been the practice in the past. The impact on business costs and efficiency, on tourism, and on the lives of large numbers of travellers is severe.
§ Not all the delays are due to problems in the tunnel; electrical and track failures elsewhere, and flooding in the tunnel west of Didcot are far too frequent. But the tunnel has been, and continues to be, a major cause of delay. Worse, its condition now poses a significant threat to passenger and freight traffic, and therefore to the economies of South Wales and the Bristol area. The tunnel serves Britain's two great steel strip mills, six ports in South Wales—I declare an interest in four of them as a director of ABP—and a huge range of other industries. Frequent delays over a long period, or prolonged closure, would have damaging consequences indeed.
In January I put down five detailed Questions to which I received a blanket response which failed to answer the Questions, and in which I was told that,
The maintenance and renewal of the Severn Tunnel is the responsibility of Railtrack".
That I understand. However, I was slightly more surprised that the Answer went on to say,
No assessment is made on the impact of such closures on the local economy".—[0fficial Report, 1/2/99; WA 182.]
It is surely government policy to encourage rail transport and it is surprising that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions seems so little concerned about the integrity of this vital link. I cannot believe that the Welsh Office has made no assessment of the impact of closure on the Welsh economy. If it has not, the operation of the department must have changed a great deal for the worse since I and my noble friend Lord Roberts of Convey were in it.
The Welsh Assembly will undoubtedly take an interest, as, I suspect, will the Secretary of State as he journeys to and fro between Westminster and the Assembly. What is the threat? On 20th May 1998 in a Written Answer, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, informed the House that the Severn Tunnel was likely to be closed for three weeks in July this year for necessary
engineering work to be carried out. Last month I received information that a six-week closure might be necessary this year. The DETR Answer refers only to a series of weekend closures from 3rd April to 30th May. But I shall quote from a letter I have received from the CBI Wales. A senior manager at Great Western has provided the following information:
Significant work needs to be carried out in the tunnel in terms of re-laying track, drainage and installing new signals; the rail industry and government have recognised that a long-term shut-down of the tunnel may be necessary; at present, all sides have accepted regular 52 hour closures as a solution although it may well not be adequate to complete the work; whilst the need for a shut-down may become unavoidable it will not happen this year as the rail companies would have been informed in plenty of time to arrange timetables.
It would appear that fears of a shut-down this year are unfounded but that the general principle of a shut-down sometime in the future is not in doubt. Sunday is the second busiest day of the week for rail operators so to regularly lose a full service on this day, as part of the 52 hour shut-down over a weekend, is not a popular prospect. The bullet may have to be bitten and a one-off long-term closure may be more appealing to the operators".
My own sources believe that the situation is even more serious and that the integrity of the structures is in doubt; that a much longer closure might be required; that there are safety aspects which give rise to justifiable concern; and that, finally, the cost impact of the necessary work will have a damaging effect on the railway companies and their customers. I understand that already freight is being diverted via the Midlands to avoid the charges made for use of the tunnel. That there is a problem to be solved is not the fault of Railtrack—although I shall return later to justifiable criticisms of its conduct.
§ If it were above ground, the Severn Tunnel would be a Grade I listed historic monument, no longer used but preserved as an example of Victorian engineering enterprise and skill. It is four miles and 624 yards from mouth to mouth, the longest tunnel on the mainland rail system. The first work was undertaken over a period of seven years in the 1860s by Charles Richardson, a pupil of the great Brunel. An Act for the construction of the tunnel was obtained in 1872 by the Great Western Railway Company and work was begun in 1873, using the ring method of construction favoured by the consulting engineer, Sir John Hawkshaw, rather than the vertical bond technique favoured by Richardson. Sir John was another of the great Victorian engineers—for example, he built the Charing Cross and Cannon Street terminals and bridges and did pioneering work on the Suez Canal. I might add that he was a little less successful as a parliamentary Liberal candidate. Construction took 14 years and was completed in 1887.
§ During the construction period, the contractor hit coal seams—some of which he may have used to provide coal for his steam engines—and much worse: the Great Spring. Within hours the tunnel was filled with millions of gallons of spring water. The Victorians then sunk shafts, built underground sumps and installed pumps on a scale never seen before. A system of subterranean passages was installed below the railway tunnel to drain water to the sumps.689
§ The aqueduct built to carry water from the Great Spring to the shaft and pumphouse is still used—indeed all those bits of apparatus are used—to raise water to the surface. The water pumped out of the tunnel is sold to Welsh Water, and substantial quantities of it are used under contract by Whitbread's brewery, a few miles west of the tunnel, and by a paper mill.
§ Between 1929 and 1931, two contracts were carried out to fill all the cavities immediately behind the tunnel lining with cement, to fill and seal off any fissures having direct connection to the cavities, and to render the lining of the tunnel as waterproof as possible. The work was only partially successful. The pressures were such that some cement has been forced up to the surface and appears in farmers' fields. In the 1980s, two jets of water appeared through the shaft wall, and this water still has to be piped away. Engineers believe that water may well force its way through the shaft and tunnel walls in the future, and on a much larger scale than the steady seepage which occurs in any event. In 1957, the decision was taken to replace the old Victorian steam-driven pumps with an equal number of electric motors, and the new system was inaugurated in November 1961.
§ Railtrack states that during the past few years it has spent more than £10 million on replacing the 1950s pumps and control systems, on installing state-of-the-art control and data analysis equipment, and on replacing the old centrifugal ventilation fan with four new axial fans. That is good news. I congratulate Railtrack on those achievements and on the fact that great care was taken during the construction of the second Severn Bridge—which crosses the tunnel near the English shore—in order to monitor conditions and avoid structural damage. I took the decision with Nick Ridley to build that bridge. I am delighted to see that the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, is in his place; he is the chairman of the company which had the responsibility for seeing that the bridge caused no damage, and I know that it took the greatest possible care.
However, that is not by any means the end of the story. Railtrack refers to,
an on-going programme of refurbishment and maintenance to both the tunnel structure and railway structure";
there is, what it describes as, "an on-going feasibility study" to investigate opportunities to undertake a major overhaul of the entire tunnel; there are the Government indications last year that at least a three-week closure would be required; there is the statement by Great Western to the CBI that a shut-down may become unavoidable and that the rail industry and the Government have recognised that a long-term shut-down of the tunnel may be required; and there is the information that I have received that, although the central drain was cleared of ballast last year and the inspection chambers reconstructed, ballast continues to fall into the central drain, which has also suffered significant damage. Those much more expert than I believe that major repairs will be required in addition to the work of re-laying track and ballast to which Railtrack has referred in recent statements. There is the view of experienced engineers who have worked on the
tunnel that a closure of at least six weeks may well be required, and that current investigations may reveal that much more extensive work is needed on the whole structure.
§ In a recent letter to my noble friend Lord Rooert of Conwy Railtrack's public affairs manager refers to "further phases of work" beyond that being undertaken this spring—which will take place in 2000 and 2001—which will include further track renewal, drainage work and general refurbishment of the tunnel. The total project cost is given as £6.5 million.
§ A few years ago the canvas survey rolls of the original design were still at Swindon, as were the reports of the 1929–31 cementation process. I hope that Railtrack will confirm that information in those surveys and reports, and the effectiveness of the cementation work, are being fully reviewed by those carrying out the current feasibility study. If the feasibility study has been completed, and is the foundation for the public affairs manager's recent statement to my noble friend, I very much hope that the nature of the conclusions will be made public. If I am wrong about damage having occurred to the central drain and the further ingress of ballast, that matter needs to be dealt with as well.
§ I also hope that in an early statement Railtrack will cover fully the safety issues and the effectiveness of the emergency arrangements. It is true that there have been earlier reports on safety, but I am told that the multi-track vehicle on standby on the Bristol side would be unable to help in an emergency on the more vulnerable Welsh side if the bottom of the tunnel was flooded, and that it would probably take well over an hour at best to get the emergency engine manned and moved from its branch line on the Welsh side into action in the tunnel.
I refer to the need to provide information to the public. At present there is an unhappy tendency for Railtrack, the rail companies and the Government to clam up when questions are asked. Responses and statements are inconsistent, misleadingly reassuring or non-existent. A prime object of this debate is to ensure that in future there is adequate information, adequate warning of closure and adequate consultation. The whole matter is so important that it needs to be kept under close review by the relevant Parliamentary Select Committees and, in due course, by the Welsh Assembly. The CBI view is that,
Railtrack must see the customers of the operators as their customers not just Great Western et[...] al. Moreover, freight may lose out in the battle to please passengers, which would have a devastating impact on Welsh business prospects",
and, I would add, on business prospects on the other side of the channel around Bristol as well.
§ In my judgment, there is an urgent need for Railtrack and the Government to face up to their respective responsibilities. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
§ 3.40 p.m.
§ Lord Hooson
My Lords, I express my regret, and I am sure the regret of the House, that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, cannot take part in the debate because he would be unable to conform to the conventions of the House. We are very sorry to miss his contribution.
691 I very much appreciate the fact that noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, has brought this matter to the attention of the House. I have an interest to declare which the noble Lord has already declared for me. I am the chairman of Severn River Crossing plc, which controls and operates the two bridges across the Severn—the Severn Bridge and the second Severn crossing.
The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, has outlined a serious problem. When we were building the second Severn River crossing I was well aware of the problems with regard to the tunnel. It was a masterpiece of Victorian engineering, providing an enormously important artery to South Wales. The economy of South Wales depends particularly on the tunnel and the two bridges across the Seve[...]ns is an obvious disadvantage that the Welsh econo[...]npared to the economy on the other side of the Severn, has to negotiate in one way or another the obstacle formed by the estuary.
It may interest noble Lords to hear some figures. I have access to the monthly figures of traffic crossing the two Severn bridges. The noble Lord, Lord Islwyn, indicated in a question yesterday or the day before that the venture of the Severn River crossing has gone very well. If present trends continue we will be in a position to hand the two bridges back to the Government in pristine condition years before that event was expected. It will then be open to government, of whatever complexion, to make them toll free if they so wish.
The amount of traffic has increased every year but has never reached the size that was estimated when the tender was made. The tender was made at a time of high inflation and a great deal of economic activity. The growth in economic activity has not matched the expectations that were then expressed. Having said that, I quote the figures for the year 1997–98. For cars, the increase was 5.3 per cent.; for light goods vehicles, 6.9 per cent.; and for heavy goods vehicles, 4 per cent. That is the lowest increase in heavy goods vehicle traffic in recent years. In December there was an increase in heavy goods vehicle traffic of only 0.7 per cent. Heavy goods vehicles are a good indicator of economic activity on both sides of the Severn estuary.
The obvious alternative for transporting heavy goods, if not by another road route, is by rail. I should perhaps make clear that I am speaking not on behalf of my party but as an individual who happens to have some knowledge of the problems involved. It is obviously in the interests of everyone that this important rail artery is maintained in as good a condition as possible. However, a great problem arises. At a social event I attended last evening it transpired that some Railtrack engineers were present and one of the design engineers of the Severn River crossing. He had had particular responsibility for designing the cantilever system that covers the tunnel where the bridge crosses it on the English side. It is well known in engineering circles that the tunnel has had drainage problems. It is a great Victorian construction but much of it needs to be repaired and restored. If I recollect correctly. we were unable to have a terminal for heavy goods on the Welsh 692 side of the tunnel because the tunnel was unable to accommodate goods vehicles brought across by continental railways.
The situation that arises now is due partly to non-disclosure. Engineers have known of the problems for a long time. I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell. It is impossible to believe that the Welsh Office has not made some estimate of the effect of closure of the rail tunnel on the economy of South Wales and indeed on the economy of the other side of the estuary. It would have been better to have had a carefully worded announcement by the Government of a study of everything that is entailed. Obviously, one can carry out a certain amount of repair work to make the track more accessible to passenger traffic. However, the problem with regard to freight is rather different. More substantial work is needed to make the tunnel suitable for increased freight[...]ffic. I subscribe to the view that heavy freight should, where possible, go by rail and that rail should at least be in a competitive position with road traffic. But if the tunnel is not available, Wales and indeed the other side of the Severn will be deprived of the only alternative to road use.
I support the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, in saying that a statement is needed from the Government. I have in my hand a cutting I received today from the Severn River Crossing plc. It is a newspaper article of last evening and is taken from a newspaper published on the Bristol side of the channel. It is headed:Rail chaos ahead as tunnel is closed".That kind of news will not do the economy or the prospects for the economy much good. The article states that holiday and week-end rail traffic is on the verge of chaos and details the six week-ends from 2nd April and into May during which the tunnel will be closed.
If this is a patch-up job, the country should know. If, on the other hand, it is the precursor to a more serious shutdown of the tunnel because there are serious problems in the tunnel the sooner they are tackled the better. If that means closure of the tunnel, we must face up to it and find out the cost and how long it will take to put matters right. The long-term interests of Wales and Severn side generally depend on the tunnel being restored as a proper alternative artery for crossing the Severn.
I am therefore extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, for bringing the matter to the attention of the House. I hope that it engenders an enlightened and constructive debate on the best course that can now be taken in the interests of the economy as a whole.
§ 3.51 p.m.
§ Lord Morris of Castle Morris
My Lords, in the year of grace 1966, shortly after the opening of the first Severn bridge, which eased the growing strain on Brunel's tunnel and gave joy and hope to commerce and industry in Wales, the Welsh Nationalist poet 693 Harri Webb wrote his fin "Ode on the Severn Bridge" which I beg leave to recite to your Lordships now, in full and unabridged. He wrote:
Much water has flowed under that bridge and over that tunnel in the 33 intervening years. The second bridge has been built, and the tolls are now collected on both sides, though any profits do not accrue to the Welsh Office. Yet the tunnel is still indisputably a vital conduit for traffic, and we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, a former and distinguished Secretary of State for Wales, for this opportunity to discuss its importance. It is part of a key route to and from Wales with effects on the Welsh economy. Railtrack is the steward of that network and surely has a duty—it is its meet, right and bounden duty—to enhance the network as it stands in whatever way it sees fit.
- "Two lands at last connected
- Across the waters wide,
- And all the tolls collected
- On the English side".
There may well be some "disbenefits" which may arise to the economy of Wales from the renewal of some 4.3 kilometres of track, which Railtrack deems to be essential and for which it says it must close the tunnel for six weekends between 2nd April and 24th May. Your Lordships will decide for yourselves how serious this disruption will be and what price will be paid for it by the industries, commerce and businesses of Wales, especially in the run-up to the birth of the Welsh Assembly.
Yet it may be relevant to consider briefly what the consequences of such closure might be for the state of the Welsh economy as it was inherited by the present Government at the last general election. We have often been told, and some have been led to believe, that massive inward investment under the previous administration brought happiness and prosperity to the Principality on a scale never before achieved. There was indeed considerable and continuous inward investment, and the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, played a distinguished and heroic part in achieving and sustaining it. But that is not the whole picture.
In 1996 per capita GDP in Wales was only 83 per cent. of the UK average, the worst performance of any UK region except Northern Ireland. Although unemployment was relatively low by 1997, participation rates were far lower than in the rest of the UK—around 6 per cent. below the UK average. Welsh earnings were the lowest in Great Britain—89 per cent. of average. In 1979, when a Labour government were in control, the figure was 98 per cent. Even in the most prosperous parts of Wales (for example, South Glamorgan), earnings are less than the average for the rest of Britain. In 1996, Wales had the lowest rate of business formation in Great Britain. Spending in Wales on research and development was lower than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Less than £100 per worker was spent on R&D in Wales compared with more than £800 in the Eastern region and £250 even in the hard-hit north-east of England. Workers in Wales had lower levels of qualifications than elsewhere in the UK. More than 694 40 per cent. of the Welsh workforce were fourd to have poor numeracy skills and a shameful 1,600 16 year-olds left school with no qualifications at all.
These are long-term problems which it will tale more than a couple of years to solve, but the Government have made a good start. New Deal has started to give hope and real jobs to young people and the long-term unemployed. Already 3,700 18 to 24 year-olds have real jobs and by the end of November 1998, 13,000 18 to 24 year-olds and 4,300 long-term unemployed had joined New Deal. This is good news and has nothing to do with the Severn Tunnel and its particular problem.
There has been a net increase of 15,000 jobs in the Welsh economy in the year to September 1998—even though Wales, of course, was affected by the economic downturn. We have almost certainly secured EU Objective 1 status for West Wales and the Valleys. That will bring a £2 billion boost in investment to the Welsh economy. We are increasing spending on lifelong learning to enhance skills. Spending on further education will increase by 13 per cent. next year, to a total of over £200 million. We are increasing spending on enterprise to stimulate Welsh businesses. We have merged the Welsh Development Agency, the Development Board for Rural Wales and the Land Authority for Wales to create a powerful all-Wales economic development agency, capable of addressing the needs of the whole of Wales. Some people have wondered whether it will be too powerful, but time will tell.
And, of course, the National Assembly for Wales—one of Labour's key pledges in the General Election, and delivered in just two years—will give Wales the chance to define distinctive Welsh solutions to Welsh problems within a co-ordinated UK strategy. There is already much of which this Government have no need to feel ashamed. The Welsh economy is large and it is strong.
The closure of the Severn tunnel for a few weekends—allowing passengers to enjoy the landscape of the Severn estuary and the charms of Chepstow—will not derail the economic benefits which this Government are already bringing to the Principality. But there is one commercial enterprise in Wales, and a very important one, which will certainly not suffer from the tunnel closures. I refer to the publishers of the Principality, on whom so much of our cultural pride and prosperity depend. They will be unaffected because so much of their output never sees the light at the English end of the tunnel at all. They export next to nothing.
Welsh book publishers are a skilled and devoted segment of the Welsh economy. They produce hundreds of titles every year in English and Welsh to a standard which none could excel and few could rival anywhere in Europe. They cover a wide range, from history to topography, folklore to folkdance, politics to poetry. And here I must declare an interest, since Gomer Press, in the pleasing little town of Llandysul, has published four volumes of my poetry, and printed them superbly, the last no more than a few months ago—order your copies now and avoid disappointment! But my last volume was sponsored entirely by Dwr Cymru/Welsh 695 Water, and most of Welsh publishing rests on some part of the old rock of subsidy in one form or another. There [...]s serious concern about the continuing fall in the sale of books published in Wales, despite some £1 million of government money distributed in grant aid. If a poet sells 300 copies of a book in Wales he throw a party.
The writers are as good as they ever were. "Gwlad beidd a chantorion"—a land of poets and singers, as our national anthem puts it—we still are. Equally good day the designers and printers. The failure lies in marketing. The publishers do hardly any marketing because they leave it to the distributors, the Welsh Books Council. The Welsh Books Council distributes books with great efficiency, but it fails to market its products. The proof lies in the sales figures.
May I commend to your Lordships an article shortly to appear in the magazine Planet, which circulates widely in Wales, by Mr. Meic Stephens, one of Wales's most experienced and distinguished literary figures, which will document this desert of achievement.
Radio and television in Wales virtually ignore literature. There is no serious books programme on the air, and sales figures for literature of all kinds continue to decline. Publishers and distributors must market their products far more vigorously if Welsh books are not to dwindle into becoming an expensive cultural indulgence, funded by the UK taxpayer.
§ Lord Morris of Castle Morris
My Lords, my point in reply to my noble friend is that they ought to be going through the Severn tunnel and they are not. So there will be very little difference—if he had listened carefully to what I said at the beginning of my remarks—to the Welsh publishing trade whether the tunnel is closed or not, though the Welsh publishing trade is a large part of the Welsh economy, certainly in its cultural areas.
Welsh books have to be exported through the Severn tunnel and over the Severn bridge, and marketed skilfully in England and beyond. It is significant that Irish novelists and poets are infinitely better known. They have, to use a slightly vulgar but vigorous phrase, "got their act together". Perhaps the significance of this was realised long ago by Harri Webb in another of his short, shrewd poems. entitled "Our Scientists are Working On It", when he wrote:
- "What Wales needs, and has always lacked most
- Is, instead of an eastern boundary, an east coast".
§ 4.2 p.m.
§ Lord Rees
My Lords, I add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Crickhowell for introducing this short but stimulating debate. I also congratulate him on his very detailed analysis of the problem and indeed, to a degree, the history of this great 19th century railway project, the Severn Tunnel.
I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, will forgive me if I do not range quite as widely as him and embark on a rather partisan exchange of 696 misleading statistics about the Welsh economy, or indeed go into the depths of the economy of publishing in Wales. Fascinating questions though they may be, I find them to be but tenuously linked with the subject of this debate—except perhaps on one particular point. I am not prepared to debate the need for the work that is to be undertaken on the tunnel; others may be better qualified to discourse on that rather technical subject. I recognise that the primary responsibility for the work will rest with Railtrack. The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, however, emphasises that we must debate this question against a slightly wider background: in particular, against the assertion of the present Government that the Welsh economy deserves special treatment, special care, and that there is a need, not limited to the Principality, to shift more traffic, more freight, more persons, from road to rail. It is right that we should consider this project against those two particular questions.
It may well be that the Minister will be tempted to take the easy course and say that most of the questions which I and other noble Lords may direct to the Government Benches are properly to be asked of and answered by Railtrack; but I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, and perhaps other noble Lords will join with me when I say that I doubt whether that is an adequate answer. Knowing the thoroughness with which the noble Lord the Minister reads his brief, I am sure that he will give a rather wider view and a governmental approach to this particular question.
Perhaps I may leave with him a few questions, which I hope he will be able to answer. First, is it realistic that people should be asked to plan on the basis that this work will be completed in six successive weekends during the course of this year? Even Railtrack, in the document which I am sure other noble Lords have received, have suggested that the current plan is to renew 4.3 kilometres of track in the tunnel, but further work will take place in the year 2000–2001 and then,… there will be no need for further work for at least five years".That is a rather sinister addendum, because most of us, and certainly most businesses, have to make plans over a rather longer timescale than that. Will the Minister be able to reassure us? I am sure that the Welsh Office and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions must have sought some kind of reassurance on this point. I hope he will be able to pass that on to us and indeed indicate which department will be in the lead on this question.
The next question is: what consultation process has there been so far? What consultation process do the Government feel is needed and will be undertaken, and by whom, in regard to the bodies, the people, the businesses, which will inevitably be affected? What chance have they had to voice their legitimate concerns, maybe directly to Railtrack, but what about to the Government themselves? What are the likely consequences to the economy, if it can be identified in quite such terms, of South Wales and, for example, the Bristol area?
697 Has any thought been given to the need to improve the railway line and probably the signalling round Gloucester? I understand that over those six weekends, and whatever further period is needed, trains will be diverted round Gloucester. It is idle to say, "Oh, but it is only over the weekends", because as I understand it—and it came as an interesting piece of information to me—Sunday is one of the busiest days of the week for rail traffic. Perhaps the Minister could enlighten us on that.
Finally, has any consideration been given to the environmental consequences of the work? It is very important to know how it is likely to affect the Severn itself or the riparian communities. I do not wish to take up more time of the debate on this because I have nothing in particular in the way of information to contribute. However, I hope that the Minister will not give us a bland reply, passing responsibility to Railtrack, but will tell us what serious thinking has been given by the Government, and from which department, to this undoubtedly very important question.
§ 4.9 p.m.
§ Lord Islwyn
My Lords, our grateful thanks are due to the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, for initiating the debate on this important transport facility. The noble Lord has rightly drawn attention to the inconvenience that will be caused to the travelling public and to the commercial considerations, which may not be negligible, as a result of the proposed closure of the tunnel for limited periods while new track and other work are carried out. Nevertheless, I believe that the prime consideration must be public safety and in that regard I wish to illustrate what has happened in past years.
To use what I would call "Hoddle-esque" language, in a previous incarnation I represented Newport for many years in another place. The Welsh side of the Severn Tunnel was in my constituency and I took a certain amount of interest in its functioning. It is a fascinating construction. The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, has mentioned that each day many thousands of gallons of pure water are pumped out of it and that large quantities of that water are supplied to the nearby modern Whitbread brewery. Before the construction of the second crossing, the Whitbread management suffered something approaching apoplexy because it envisaged that when the foundations were dug for the new bridge, sea water could be let in which could contaminate its hitherto pure supplies. It hired top QCs to appear before the appropriate committee. There was quite a lot of concern at the time. In the event its fears proved unjustified and its supply of pure water continued unabated. There has been a seepage problem inside the tunnel in recent months but, to the best of my knowledge, that has now been corrected. The point I wish to make is that with regard to the Severn Tunnel safety is the predominant issue.
698 With respect to the worries and anxieties of local people at the time, on 6th December 1990 I put down an Early Day Motion in the other place, which was supported by 39 honourable members. It read as follows:Modernisation of Severn TunnelThat this House considers the Severn Tunnel to be an excellent construction which has facilitated the conveyance of people and freight across the Severn estuary for over a century, avoiding the much longer journey around Gloucester: believes that unless it is moderised there is now a danger of it becoming a relic o[...] the Victorian era; therefore calls for permanent lighting to be installed throughout the length of the tunnel with emergency lighting as an interim measure, and for a system of cameras inside the tunnel which could be linked to British Rail's local headquarters or he local police headquarters; believes that these measures could be of benefit in case of any hold-up or accident; and calls upon British Rail to carry out these measures to bring this important facility up to date".Lo and behold, 12 months later almost to the day, on 7th December 1991, there was a serious accident in the tunnel. A major tragedy was narrowly averted. It was reported at the time that two trains which crashed in the tunnel were lost for half an hour, that passengers were trapped in the dark and that it was 75 minutes before rescuers could reach them. It seems that the original rescue team was sent in the wrong direction and that a general state of chaos and muddle prevailed at the time. Of the 280 passengers no less than 102 were injured.
I repeat that with regard to the Severn Tunnel we cannot toy with safety. If the company is saying that new track and other work have to be carried out, so be it; let us get on with it. We have been told that the work will be carried out at week-ends and, I understand, during the Easter break. Trains will be diverted around Gloucester and the journey will be much slower. There will be inconvenience to the public and there is bound to be a certain amount of damage to the Welsh economy. Fortunately, as the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, pointed out, we have an excellent road network linking both sides of the Severn estuary. I make no apology for having campaigned year in, year out, for the second crossing. It has proved a huge success, and the Welsh economy would certainly be in dire straits today without it.
That does not in any way mitigate the fact that heavy toll charges are an awesome burden on the Welsh economy, large sections of which are still in a parlous condition. The fact that Objective 1 status is to be sought for West Wales and the Valleys bears out what I say.
The privatised rail operators have a lot of catching up to do. They are in receipt of massive public subsidies but up to the present time they have shown themselves to be thoroughly inefficient. Day by day the complaints escalate. I quote from today's Daily Telegraph:Passenger complaints reported by the 25 privatised train companies have continued to rise at an alarming rate, according to the latest figures from the Office of the Rail Regulator. A total of 540,000 complaints were registered by the operators between April 1 and Oct 17 last year, an increase of nearly 25 per cent. on the same period the previous year".That is an indictment in itself. It is no good the rail companies complaining about competition from the roads. They need to be reminded that they live in a 699 competitve world. The situation as regards rail was recently summed up by the Deputy Prime Minister when he told Mr. Richard Branson that his rail service was as deficient as his balloons. I believe that the public deserves better.
§ 4.18 p.m.
§ Lord Harlech
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Crickhowell for raising this important matter. I shall not dwell in depth on the politics or issues in relation to public transport or freight. I declare an interest in that I am involved in both those areas.
We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, a litany of all kinds of political beliefs about the week-end closure of the tunnel. Would it not be more appropriate if the Government were to address themselves more to the economy of, and inward investment to, Wales, and to South Wales in particular, and to encouraging overseas investors and our European allies?
There are inadequate and inappropriately-made decisions. There could be single-track working, for example. This is an example of inaccurate politics, underlined by inappropriate examination of the required equality between the trading nations of Wales and England. One needs to be careful. It is important that we do not put on the altar of politics the closure of a vital economic link that can be carefully asserted and adjudicated upon by correct administration. This is an example of an administration that currently in this Chamber and in the other place are ignorant of the public examination of the implications of their decisions.
Make no mistake about it. Noble Lords on the other side may grizzle. But make no mistake about it. Examination of what happens on the ground is more important than a simple agreement between Ministers in an office that bears no resemblance to people's feelings and the effect on their workplaces and their lives.
§ 4.21 p.m.
§ Lords Prys-Davies
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, for introducing this short but important debate. I agree with much that the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, said. I am sure that by now your Lordships are anxious to hear what my noble friend on the Front Bench has to say in response. Therefore, I shall be brief. I have no interest to declare except that I travel from my home to your Lordships' House through the Severn Tunnel and that currently it is impossible to rely on the operators' timetable, which may imply an inadequate standard of performance or what others may describe as incompetence on somebody's part.
I believe that we all associate any tunnel, let alone a tunnel under an estuary, with danger. Therefore, the need for the highest standard of safety in a tunnel does not need to be discussed because it is so obvious. Safety in a tunnel is not to be negotiated or compromised. We have heard about the history of the tunnel. I very much agree that it is one of the great engineering 700 achievements of the past. I also agree that in the past the tunnel has served the people of Wales and the economy of South Wales. Today it remains vital to the economy of South Wales as the mainline route between that area and Paddington. I am sure that my noble friend the Minister appreciates its importance.
Against that background I should like to ask my noble friend three questions. First, particularly in view of what has been said today, can my noble friend confirm that the Severn Tunnel complies with the highest standards of safety—that is a critical matter—and that it is regularly and frequently inspected by the regulator or the appropriate safety authority? It would be helpful if in answering that question the Minister could explain the precise nature and extent of the works to be carried out during the temporary closure in the coming summer months. For example, is it intended to carry out essential repair work, to instal new technology in the tunnel, or what?
Secondly, we are told that the closure is a purely temporary arrangement. Can my noble friend inform the House of the precise timescale of these works? When will they commence and when will they be completed? Has a firm timetable been agreed between Railtrack and the Welsh Office or the Minister's department? Perhaps my noble friend can tell the House what is to happen if the works are not completed on time. Will Railtrack suffer a penalty? What is the sanction? The fear is that without an effective sanction the work may go on and on for a very long time to come.
I turn to my third and last question. Does the planned closure signal that there will be further closures of the tunnel or the track in the vicinity of the tunnel during the next few years which require trains to be diverted? In other words, is the planned closure of the tunnel in the next few months merely the first instalment of a more extensive programme down the track? If so, can we be provided with particulars of that programme and its timetable?
I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, that what is needed is a debate, informed by facts and figures, on the planned temporary closure of the Severn Tunnel. I trust that my noble friend the Minister can produce those facts and figures.
§ 4.27 p.m.
§ Lord Thomas of Gresford
My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, on introducing this extremely valuable debate. What becomes apparent as your Lordships speak on this topic is that an opportunity was lost to create a concurrent rail/road link when the second Severn crossing was constructed. That is rather surprising having regard to the Britannia Bridge works where a concurrent road/rail link was provided during the 1970s. We on this side of the Chamber sought to discover which government was responsible for the decision to have only a road link. To use my family motto, ar Bwy mae're Bai?— Who can we blame? Neither my noble friend Lord Hooson nor the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, could remember precisely who originally commissioned the bridge.
701 I have had the opportunity today to discuss the problem with Mr. Chris Gibbs, operations director of Wales and West Passenger Transport. He tells me that the repairs to be carried out this summer are the replacement of ballast and sleepers over a distance of 38,000 feet of track, together with the cleaning and repairing of the drains, at a total cost of approximately £3 million. He says that the pumps that deal with the Great Spring, to which the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, referred, were replaced a few years ago and that the new ones work perfectly adequately. My information is that the work is to be carried out over the Easter weekend and on four subsequent, but not consecutive, weekends during April and May, and that, although some disruption is inevitable, less busy weekends have been selected. I am also told by Mr. Gibbs that in the next couple of years Railtrack propose to carry out upgrading work in the tunnel which will permit trains to travel at speeds of up to 90 miles an hour and closer together in time. That work is anticipated to be completed in a full week with perhaps eight additional weekends. He says that the tunnel will not be totally closed during that period.
I listened to the concerns expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Islwyn and Lord Prys-Davies, about the paramount requirement for safety in the tunnel. What is required is an independent, multidisciplinary engineering survey of the tunnel so that not only noble Lords but the Government and the people of Wales can be informed of the precise engineering position of the tunnel. It is not a responsibility for Railtrack simply to ensure safety in the tunnel; it is also a government responsibility.
Perhaps I may be permitted to widen the debate a little, not to the bookshops and publishing places to which the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, referred, but to the general topic of the importance of railways in the Welsh economy. The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, said that the Welsh Assembly will take an interest in what happens with the Severn Tunnel. I am sure it will. However, although the Welsh Assembly will have full control over the Welsh Office's roads budget, it will have no real power in relation to rail transport. The rail system will continue to exist on subsidies and contracts which are decided at Westminster. Although Wales is not the largest part of Britain, a plethora of rail companies serve it at present. There are the InterCity routes, and the Cardiff Railway Company, with the valley lines. Wales and West Passenger Trains are Cardiff-based and responsible for regional routes radiating from Cardiff to West Wales, Holyhead, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, London, Portsmouth and Paignton. It is also responsible for the Swansea to Shrewsbury service. Central Trains are Birmingham-based, with services on the Cambrian lines and Chester to Shrewsbury via Wrexham. North Western Trains are Manchester-based and provide services in North Wales on the coast route, the Conwy Valley and the Wrexham to Bidston service.
702 For Central Trains and North Western Trains, Wales is a minority part of their network. Anyone MD travels on those lines—as I do two or three times a week—knows only too well that, as Mr. Rhodri Clarl of the Institute of Welsh Affairs put it,the connections policies of the three regional operators do not acknowledge that anybody could possibly want to travel from one part of Wales to another".That is the fact. The barren, cold Shrewsbury station is well known to those of us who seek to travel from North Wales to Cardiff.
In Scotland, control of the ScotRail subsidy will effectively be in the hands of the Scottish Parliament. That is not the case in Wales. There is an urgent need for integrated rail services, under the aegis of the Welsh Assembly. The franchises of the three regional operators expire in 2003 and 2004. That is a moment of opportunity which must be seized. When the assembly comes into being, it should urgently campaign for the creation of a distinct WalesRail system, bringing together the entire network and incorporating, along with the lines of the network in Wales, some of the lines in England, notably the Newport to Shrewsbury line via Hereford. The subsidy for those services should no longer be in the hands of Westminster, but should be directed through the assembly which should select a new operator for WalesRail; or—if I dare mention this to the Benches opposite—even create an executive nationalised agency linked to the Welsh Development Agency and the Wales Tourist Board.
Railways in Wales under WalesRail would no longer be at the end of the line. They would radiate from Wales to the Channel ports, to the centres of population and industry in England, and to Ireland. With the full co-operation of the Welsh Development Agency, the opportunity would then exist to create new rail links, for example, to Cardiff airport (which is long talked about without coming to fruition) and to existing, new industrial development sites. As my noble friend Lord Hooson pointed out, the development of freight traffic through the rail network is of vital importance to the future of the Welsh economy. Further, the links between North, Mid and South Wales could be improved with an integrated service connecting bus services to meet the core rail network. The tourist services which bring much income to Ffestiniog, Llangollen and elsewhere could be extended to other areas of Wales.
Welsh Office grants are readily available for new roads, but future rail investment depends upon an act of will on the part of the assembly to obtain the necessary powers. We face a situation in Wales where the economy is beginning to slow down on both sides of the Severn estuary. It is vitally important that we maintain the rail tunnel link and develop rail services in Wales in an integrated fashion.
§ 4.36 p.m.
§ Lord Roberts of Conwy
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Crickhowell was right to move the Motion and to seek clarification of the proposals regarding the closure of the Severn Tunnel. It is a matter of great importance to rail users, as we all realise, and the extent of the tunnel's use 703 may be [...]auged from the fact that during one week earlier this month no fewer than 1,187 passenger trains and 147 freght trains passed through it. That is the current weekly average, which I understand does not change with the sections.
As a number of noble Lords have said, the Severn Tunnel is a vital artery to se[...]side and South Wales and of crucial importance to great tracts of the Welsh economy, as my noble friend described. The livelihoods of many thousands of people are dependent to a greater or lesser extent on the continuing successful operation of this Victorian masterpiece of civil engineering, despite the two road bridge crossings built in the second half of this century, of which the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, has extensive experience as chairman of the Severn River Crossing plc.
As regards how the second bridge was arrived at, I recall the meeting between my noble friend Lord Crickhowell, and the late Nicholas Ridley, who contributed his own genius to the solution of the problem facing us. I recall that all the pressure for the bridge came from the Welsh side, from my noble friend, because the first bridge was rapidly reaching capacity and a second bridge had to be built.
Railtrack plc, which is responsible for the tunnel, tells me that the train companies which use it predict that, although there has been no growth in traffic over the past five years, traffic could increase by between 26 and 32 per cent. over the next decade. So there is no question but that the Severn Tunnel will continue to be a strategic rail route of prime importance.
Curiously, perhaps, the Government do not have security responsibilities over the Severn Tunnel comparable with those they have over the Channel Tunnel under the Channel Tunnel Security Order 1994, but that should not inhibit the Government from taking the keenest interest in the maintenance of the tunnel and the safety of those who use it. The Government can, of course, express that interest through the Rail Regulator and the Health and Safety Executive's Railway Inspectorate. They can bring influence to bear on Railtrack, which carries the prime responsibility for keeping the tunnel in good order.
Tempting as it is to wax lyrical about the magnitude of the Victorian achievement and the courage and determination of the tunnellers when they were completely flooded out, two years into construction, by the waters which poured from the great spring they encountered underground, I shall refrain from doing so. However, I must say that the sumps, pumps and subterranean passages installed on a grand scale to cope with the daily flow of 11 million gallons of water clearly require sustained and careful maintenance if the tunnel is to be kept in sound operational order.
As has been said today, Railtrack has spent some £10 million over three years replacing some of the equipment. This year, it hopes to renew some 4.3 kilometres of track, sleepers and ballast. By my calculation, that is about two-and-a-half miles and just more than half the total length of the tunnel. The first phase of the work was done last year and further phases 704 are planned for next year and 2001. The total cost will be about £ 6.5 million. It is confidently predicted by Railtrack that when that work is complete the tunnel will not need major track work for another five to eight years.
However, other work may be required. I have studied the comments and representations made by the Rail Users Consultative Committee for Wales on Railtrack's network and management statement. Some six items suggest Improvements in both speed and safety in the area of the tunnel. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Islwyn, will be interested in some of the suggestions. They include, for example, lighting in the tunnel; additional signalling; replacing the level crossing at Bishton, between Newport and the Severn Tunnel junction; and others which would improve the conditions on the line and in the tunnel.
The six weekend closures between Easter and the end of May will clearly mean lengthy passenger train diversions via Gloucester and the rescheduling of freight trains. I was surprised to note that Sunday is the second busiest day of the week for train operators. However, as an occasional Sunday traveller. I should not be surprised by that fact.
Temporary closures of this kind are never popular, as my noble friend Lord Crickhowell and I recall very clearly from our experience of the years when the first and then only Severn Bridge was being maintained and upgraded. Together with strong winds, the work caused insufferable delays from time to time. However, maintenance is vital and the sooner the proposed closures are clearly announced the better. Nothing causes more discontent than uncertainty. I hope that the Minister can dispel the uncertainties that currently exist.
I understand that a study is being taken into the feasibility of a major overhaul of the entire tunnel and that it may result in a more substantial shutdown in the future. I hope that the Minister can say more about the feasibility study, which was referred to by Railtrack as:currently ongoing to investigate opportunities to undertake a major overhaul of the entire tunnel".I hope, too, that this essential work on the Severn Tunnel is not caught up in the argument between the Rail Regulator, backed by the Government, and Railtrack over the rate of Railtrack's investment in rail infrastructure and the degree of its responsibility for train delays. The more I hear of the argument which is erupting in the press the more concerned I become that essential work may be adversely affected. Again, I hope that the Minister may be able to give us some assurance on this point. I hasten to add that, although I hold no brief for Railtrack, it has been good enough to provide me with some factual material for the debate.
We have heard numerous references to the Welsh economy. There is not much doubt in my mind that it is rather fragile, in spite of the Government's confident utterances, and manufacturing industry is experiencing a serious downturn. The last thing we want is to add to the gloom a whiff of uncertainty about the future of a major strategic rail route which the Government acknowledge in their White Paper to be a pinch point in the system. The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle 705 Morris, outlined the current situation and referred to GDP figures in Wales. I can tell him that the situation in Wales would have been far worse had it not been for the tremendous effort made to attract inward investment to the Principality.
I hope that the Minister can allay our fears and provide certainty where none at present exists.
§ 4.48 p.m.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, for initiating the debate. I must reflect the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, that a great deal of uncertainty has been generated in Wales about the Severn Tunnel. It may have led to the noble Lord tabling the Motion; it has certainly led to some exaggerated anxieties.
Railtrack is doing its job. Perhaps noble Lords have heard harsh words from me about Railtrack's investment programme and more graphically harsh words from my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister. However, I believe that on this occasion Railtrack is "doing the right thing". But, as so often happens, its publicity has let it down. The communications in which it has engaged have not reached many potential users, commercial and individual.
Of course Railtrack is under an obligation to consult. It clearly consulted the rail operators. It is also statutorily required to consult local authorities and other organisations likely to be affected, such as utility companies. It is undoubtedly pursuing its statutory obligations in that respect. However, some remarks of noble Lords show that they rather forget that we are now dealing with a privatised railway system with a relatively light and ineffectual system of regulation. That is part of the problem. This Government are determined to ensure that we have a better system of regulation and a more strategic approach to our railway network throughout the United Kingdom. I look forward to the presentation of a Bill in this House in connection with a strategic rail authority either at the end of this Session or the beginning of the next in order to achieve such aims. Meanwhile, clearly, the Government consult with Railtrack on such issues and will continue so to do.
In respect of the Severn Tunnel closure, I must emphasise once again that it is primarily Railtrack's responsibility. It must consider what renewal work is necessary. I repeat the comments of the noble Lords, Lord Rees and Lord Roberts. The original Severn Tunnel is 100 years old. It is a great achievement of Victorian engineering. Reference has been made to the fact that at the time of construction there was a massive flood and pumps had to be installed to carry away spring water that had seeped into the tunnel. As the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said, the pumps and control systems installed in the 1950s have already been replaced by Railtrack and, to respond to my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies, a new electrical distribution system has likewise been installed. There has already been £10 million spent by Railtrack on improvement of the tunnel.
However, the problems continue. As noble Lords have said, work must now be done on renewing 4.3 kilometres of track as well as the sleepers and 706 ballast. That is the nature of this year's work. That part of the work is expected to cost around £1 milion with further phases to take place in the next two years. Overall Railtrack estimates that the total cost of refurbishment will be £6.5 million. Once those phases are completed it is hoped that there will not be any major maintenance and repair work for a considerable period of time. Railtrack indicated that that might be within a period of five to eight years at which is I trust that we will have a more strategic approach to rail investment through the aegis of the strategic [...]ail authority and any more substantial modernisation of the tunnel will have taken place or at least have been committed within that period. As my noble friend Lord Islwyn said, the prime concern in relation to this work must be safety. I can assure my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies that safety is of the highest standard and Railtrack intends to keep it that way.
We are talking about a lot of movement through the tunnel. There are around 150 train movements a day with up to 100 passenger and 20 freight trains travelling on the route. At the peak the tunnel carries seven trains an hour. That intensive use clearly puts a strain on the system and the repair work needs to be done. Railtrack predicts that traffic will increase by around one-third by the year 2007 and it is fulfilling its duty to maintain the safety and repair of the tunnel. However, that is maintenance work only and not a complete rebuilding of the tunnel. Some remarks of noble Lords related to increasing freight traffic in particular and suggested that we should engage in a complete rebuild of the tunnel. That is clearly a much more massive engineering task and would have to be considered as a priority investment in an overall strategic assessment.
§ Lord Hooson
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. The noble Lord speaks of repairing the track, but that would take place whether or not the track went through the tunnel. Repairing the track is a normal maintenance operation in the short term. Surely the concern expressed in this debate, to which the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, adverted in his opening remarks, is that every tunnel has a lifespan as does every bridge. That depends on the amount of traffic that goes through. Is there any plan to have an overall assessment of the likely life of this tunnel and what needs to be done to extend that life?
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, the noble Lord is correct that all track needs replacing from time to time. But when it needs replacing in an intensive pinch point like a tunnel, the job of itself is bound to be more difficult. In terms of assessment of the overall life of the tunnel, there is not an extant assessment of the life forward from this date. It is clear that Railtrack does not consider that the tunnel has reached the end of its useful life. Nevertheless, in an overall assessment of the priorities for further investment by Railtrack which we would hope to undertake under the strategic rail authority, the whole question of whether or not this is a priority area for major new investment would have to be addressed.
As the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, mentioned, a study has already been carried out with regard to the whole network and some of those results will be available to 707 the shadow strategic rail authority some time this year. No decision has been taken either by Railtrack or the Govenment on a major modernisation. Nevertheless, the exent of the work required and being provided by Railtrack at this point should take care of the traffic through to the period I indicated—2007 and beyond.
It terms of the dates, since there has been some corfusion, I should perhaps lay down in Hansard the precise dates it is intended to close the tunnel. The periods of closure are less continuous and less extensive than Railtrack originally envisaged and indeed advised is consultees. They will run from the Easter weekend—2nd to 5th April—and thereafter from 2.30 on Saturday to 4 a.m. on Monday morning from 10th to 12th April, 17th to 19th April, 24th to 26th April, 15th to 17th May and 22nd to 24th May.
As indicated, there will be further phases of this work next year though the degree of closure in each is likely to be substantially less as far as Railtrack can foresee at the moment. In relation to diversions, there are three passenger operators going through the tunnel—Great Western Trains, Virgin Cross Country and Wales and West. I understand that Railtrack has agreed with Great Western that the majority of its services will run and be diverted through Gloucester with a consequent additional journey time of less than one hour. Virgin Cross Country trains will also be diverted via Gloucester to Newport. Finally, I understand that some Wales and West trains will be diverted via Gloucester as well but some will stop short at Bristol Temple Meads and passengers will have to pick up other connections. The services from Swindon to Gloucester will also be cancelled during those periods. So the passenger companies are already well advanced in making alternative arrangements and the impact on passengers is therefore likely to be smaller than had been feared. I suggest likewise that the impact on the economy will be smaller than some of the exaggerated fears expressed before we reached this degree of clarification.
In relation to freight, the two freight companies are English Welsh and Scottish Railways and Freightliner Limited. They are also in the process of liaising with Railtrack about possible alternatives. The improvement in the level of freight being carried on this and other lines is crucial both to our integrated transport policy and to the revitalisation of Wales.
A number of other specific points were raised. My noble friend Lord Islwyn and the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, referred to safety. As my noble friend Lord Islwyn indicated, a major accident occurred in December 1991 in the tunnel and anxieties were expressed about that. The Health and Safety Executive is investigating and enforcing safety standards; Railtrack is meeting those standards, and that is part of the work, as well as the engineering work, that is required.
The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, raised the question of the rescue train. A rescue train is based at the Welsh end of the tunnel and access at that end is by the rescue train. Since the accident in 1991 an access road has been built at the eastern, English end, of the tunnel which allows access for road and rail equipment. 708 Ventilation and telephone equipment have been substantially improved as well as telephone communications.
I am not sure how to respond to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, about comparing security arrangements with those for the Channel Tunnel. Clearly, safety is paramount at both tunnels. There are possibly slightly different aspects of security relating to the two tunnels because at present, at least, we are not expecting an invasion from Wales.
My noble friend Lord Prys-Davies asked whether penalties would be imposed were Railtrack to overrun the closure periods. That will be assessed as part of the overall performance regime and Railtrack would have to pay performance payments were there greater disruption. In any case, it will have to make payments to the operating companies for the disruption caused by the closures.
The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, indicated that he was concerned that some continental freight could not get through the tunnel. Primarily, we shall not be able to meet that point unless we engage in major new investment. Nevertheless, as envisaged, there is a lot of freight already going through the tunnel—long distance and British freight—and there is a general upward trend in the volume of rail freight entering Wales.
The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, raised the question of the role of the Welsh Assembly. Railways policy as a whole, including the Severn Tunnel and this line, is a matter for United Kingdom policy and is not devolved. However, the Welsh Assembly will be responsible for administering the freight grants scheme on the Welsh lines.
The indications are that the anxieties raised about these closures are exaggerated, particularly when it was thought that there would be a continuous closure or a longer and more disruptive closure without alternative arrangements. Nevertheless, they are real. It is important that Railtrack engages in communicating, not only with the immediate consumers of its services—the operators and the commercial interests—but also with passengers as a whole. Next month it is Railtrack's intention to engage in a major publicity campaign through posters at stations and in the local media to ensure that once all the arrangements are finalised, including the diversions, passengers and potential passengers are informed of those arrangements. It is important that that massive communication effort takes place as close to the closures as possible, but with sufficient advance planning so that people can plan alternative journeys.
The debate has also gone into broader aspects of the Welsh economy. Clearly, the Welsh economy has undergone massive structural changes over the past decade or two. The traditional Welsh industry of deep-mined coal has disappeared and the steel industry has been completely rationalised and modernised. There has been diversification in the Welsh economy and in the various areas referred to: automotive, aerospace, media, pharmaceuticals, electronics and optoelectronics.
As my noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris pointed out in his lyrical contribution, publishing in Wales is thriving, if on a limited market. He said that 709 Wales was at a disadvantage compared with Ireland. On a rather mournful dawn, on the west coast of Ireland, I remember an Irish poet saying to me, "The trouble with this country, you know, is that there are far more people writing poetry than reading it." I suspect the same may be true of Wales, in which case he had better get more of his books through the Severn Tunnel.
Despite the diversification, despite the enormous skill and creativity of the Welsh economy, it is also true, as noble Lords have indicated, that GDP per head in Wales is dramatically lower than that in Great Britain as a whole. Indeed, it is the lowest in Great Britain. There have been serious job losses in Wales, including recently at Ystradgynlais and other notable manufacturing areas.
Nevertheless, in the year to September, the number of jobs for employees in Wales has increased substantially by 15,000. Since the general election, the various schemes entered into by the Government, and some inherited from the previous government, have brought 17,000 new jobs into Wales and safeguarded a further 5,500 jobs. In total, 208 inward investment projects have been recorded in that period. One of my noble friends—I cannot remember who—also indicated the important and enhanced role of the Welsh Development Agency in planning for the future, in providing future support for investment in Wales and for the continued diversification and modernisation of Welsh industry.
Nevertheless, the inheritance is there. It is both an indictment of past policy and a problem of Welsh history that we are now trying to obtain Objective 1 status for the Valleys and West Wales, which means that the GDP in that area must be 75 per cent. of the EU average. We must tackle that. We hope that we shall receive European aid so that we can improve the economy and the wellbeing of the people of West Wales and the Valleys.
There are serious local problems as well as Wales-wide problems and in particular South Wales-wide problems. As I indicated, jobs are coming in, industry is being modernised and the Welsh economy needs infrastructure. It also needs government help which we are committed to providing. However, it also needs a transport infrastructure of which the Severn Tunnel and the Severn crossings in general are absolutely vital parts.
I hope I have covered most of the points raised in the debate. I shall check Hansard to identify those I have not covered. If noble Lords will forgive me, I shall write to them subsequently. I thank again the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, for raising the issue. I hope that what I have said and some of the clarification that has emerged from the debate will be relayed back to the people of South Wales and that some of their anxieties at least will be allayed.
§ 5.6 p.m.
§ Lord Crickhowell
My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have taken part in the debate and the noble Lord the Minister for his response. I confess that the debate ranged rather wider than I had anticipated. The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris—that distinguished, though I trust not expensive, jewel of Welsh culture— 710 certainly took us very wide indeed. He is a distinguished academic. Therefore, I must not allow him to [...]eave on the record the suggestion that the tunnel was constructed by Brunel. It would have been clever of him if he had constructed it because he had been dead a good many years before work on the tunnel was started by one of his pupils. Nor can I leave him with the suggestion, so frequently denied in the debate, that we are concerned with only six weeks of closures. We have had confirmation from the Minister that there will certainly have to be closures in the years 2000 and 2001.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, perhaps I can correct the noble Lord. I said that there would need to be further work in 2000 and 2001. It is unlikely that the closures will be of as great a scope as those this year and, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, indicated, there is some indication that we shall not need closures.
§ Lord Crickhowell
My Lords, I note what the Minister says. One of the difficulties about weekend closures is that on more than one occasion they have spilled over into the Monday and caused major disruption to the Monday morning service, as they did a month or so ago.
A number of noble Lords dwelt on the important question of safety. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, was on rather sounder ground when he suggested an independent survey. We also had a demand for an overall assessment of the condition of the tunnel when he produced his, frankly, rather bizarre suggestions about a Wales rail regulator who would have to control a system that largely operates in England. I believe that that would cause considerable difficulty.
The Minister confirmed that Railtrack had been less than perfect in its communication and consultation procedures. I hope we shall see an improvement there. He said that fears had been exaggerated. I note what he said. Time and events will prove whether he is right or wrong. I believe that there will have to be substantial ongoing work on this great Victorian masterpiece. I ask only that there is the fullest possible consultation and the fullest possible provision of information before it is undertaken. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate, and I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.