HL Deb 20 January 1999 vol 596 cc575-7

2.45 p.m.

Lord Cadman asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they consider that Railtrack plc's apparent lack of plans for the provision of "piggyback" freight facilities in the context of the upgrading of the west coast main line will undermine their policies in respect of the transfer of freight from road to rail.

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

My Lords, the Government remain committed to the development of rail freight to help ease congestion on the roads and reduce pollution. So far as "piggyback" is concerned, my colleague, John Reid, the Minister of Transport, had a useful meeting with the chief executive of Railtrack in November at which the "piggyback" scheme and other rail freight upgrade proposals were discussed. All would require significant amounts of government grants. No formal proposals have been received from Railtrack. Officials are exploring with Railtrack various aspects of the alternative schemes.

Lord Cadman

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Bearing in mind that the Government are committed to raising the cost of road fuels by considerably more than the rate of inflation, does the Minister not agree that the market for this kind of traffic is likely to increase rapidly in the future? How do the Government intend to ensure that Railtrack's stewardship of our railway infrastructure more appropriately reflects the demands to which it is likely to be put?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is the case that over the past few years the situation for rail freight has improved significantly after a long period of decline. The figures for last year and the first half of the current year show a 16 per cent. increase in freight kilometres, which is a healthy trend. The intention of the Government, in pursuit of their integrated transport policy, is to give the strategic rail authority the objective to promote the transport of freight by rail. In the meantime, as my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister has announced, the shadow strategic rail authority will be able to make a start on strategic planning to this end.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, in asking my question, I declare an interest as chairman of the Piggyback Consortium and the Railfreight Group. My noble friend the Minister suggested that some Government grant might be available for the "piggyback" upgrade. If the grant were sufficient to cover the majority, or the whole, cost of the upgrade and Railtrack still failed to implement it, what action could the Government take? Would he recommend any further legislation in the absence of any pressure that the Government might put on Railtrack?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, in terms of future legislation, much will depend on the way in which this House deals with an announcement to be made later today and whether we are able to introduce in this Session the legislation for a strategic rail authority, which would deal with much of this issue.

As far as the current position is concerned, Railtrack investment is regulated by the Rail Regulator in line with the network licence, which specifically obliges Railtrack to maintain, renew and develop the rail network in a way which meets the reasonable requirements of train operators and others. The question of whether a body having paid for the whole of an investment constitutes a reasonable requirement and failure by Railtrack to respond to that therefore constitutes a breach of that condition is a moot point. It will be a matter in the first instance for the Rail Regulator. I therefore believe that it is important that we move on to new legislation to deal with this situation and set up the strategic rail authority.

Lord Newby

My Lords, in view of the level of profits which Railtrack is declaring, is the Minister satisfied with the level of investment currently being undertaken by Railtrack?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am not entirely satisfied with the amount of investment and we are discussing in detail with Railtrack a number of investment proposals particularly geared at dealing with the pinch points and the lack of capacity on certain of our strategic routes. That includes the capacity for rail freight.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that unless investment in freight facilities on this line is produced rapidly there is a great danger that freight will suffer as much as passengers do at present?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, yes. However, capacity on the railways is available for both freight and passengers. The west coast main line, on which some noble Lords will have experienced some difficulty, is also one where we wish to increase freight capacity. The two do not necessarily move in parallel; there is a degree of competition. At present Railtrack is unable to meet all of those requirements. The strategic rail authority will be a major tool that is available to the Government to achieve those ends.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, if there is a rationing of capacity between freight and passengers on the west coast main line or any other line, which would the Government rather see: more rail freight or more passengers carried?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, we should like to develop the track in a strategic way that meets both objectives.