HL Deb 18 October 1999 vol 605 cc742-5

3.6 p.m.

Lord Berkeley asked her Majesty's Government:

Whether, now that construction of the motorway network has been completed at a capital cost of about £80 billion over 20 years, similar investment is required to modernise the rail infrastructure.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston)

My Lords, we have made it clear that we wish to see much higher levels of rail investment. We are confident that in the next 10 years we shall see the largest investment in the railways for a long time.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that answer. I should declare an interest as chairman of the Rail Freight Group. Does he agree that the £6 billion which Rail track has committed of its own money over 10 years of investment is nothing like enough? Under the principle of creating a sustainable transport network, will the Government consider that some of the revenue coming out of the planned motorway tolls and other road charges might be allocated to creating a modern rail network?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, Railtrack's plans for investment are under review by the Rail Regulator. That review should be concluded by next summer. Rail investment has totalled over £1 billion per year over the past decade. Last year it totalled £1.7 billion. The indications are that this year it will exceed £2 billion. We are looking at a great increase in rail freight grants, which will rise to around £50 million available this year.

On the question of whether any road-charging moneys might be invested in rail freight, I cannot presume on legislation which may be coming before the House. However, given the precedent being set in London, the money raised locally is hypothecated to be spent locally.

Lord Islwyn

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that, whereas all noble Lords might agree that £80 billion is an awful lot of money, it is nevertheless only a small proportion of the amount that the motorist has paid and is paying over the years in taxation? Does he further appreciate that £80 billion, measured per capita or as a share of gross domestic product, is far less than is being spent in Germany, Italy, France or the Netherlands? That is why we have a poorer service here.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, the £70 billion which as I understand it was spent over the lifetime of the previous administrations resulted in the end in traffic being kept moving, but for every mile of road there were 100 cars at the end of that period for every 70 cars which had been there at the beginning.

Therefore, I believe that the conclusion of our analysis, and indeed implicit in the Green Paper produced by the previous administration, is that we cannot build our way out of congestion any longer through investment in new roads. We believe that the integrated transport policy which we are putting forward will allow us to keep Britain moving and to ensure also that a proper balance is maintained between public transport on the road, on rail and indeed on freight.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, does the Minister agree with what is said in the Question: that the construction of the motorway network has been completed? Does that mean that we shall not have any more motorways built or further improvements to the motorway system?

Will the Minister say that the Question is not comparing like with like because the motorway network was started from scratch whereas the rail infrastructure consists mainly of improvement to existing rails? No one would believe that a completely new rail network should be built.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I believe that the presumption that the motorway network was largely complete underpinned the Green Paper on transport produced by the previous administration and was one on which we built in our White Paper. There still is a scheme to build a motorway north of Birmingham parallel to the M.6. That, of course, would be financed privately. However, we have introduced a targeted programme of improvement which consists of 37 schemes, more than half of which seek primarily to promote safety and healthier communities. We continue to spend very large sums on roads. They play a major role in the UK's transport network. We believe that the agreed programme carefully targets specific problems, with the majority of our schemes being bypasses designed to improve health and safety in the communities who have been bypassed.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord will confirm that the French, with years of levels of investment in rail superior to those obtaining in this country, are still investing more than twice as much as we are on an annual basis? Secondly, is he satisfied with the proportion of our investment in rail which goes into capital projects intended for that purpose—projects with a life span of at least 20 years—rather than routine maintenance or the improvement of rail stations?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, we have set up a strategic rail authority which also envisages, as part of its objective, the enhancement of our railway networks. The authority will promote rail use and plan the strategic development of that network. As I have said, we anticipate that the investment in rail will be the greatest wave of investment that we have seen, perhaps for the past century. Therefore, we hope that under the guidance of the strategic rail authority we shall see a considerable development in the scope, safety and service of the railways.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, will my noble friend agree that one of the most regrettable consequences of the fragmentation of the railway in recent years has been the abandonment of the network approach to railway electrification; and had the railway industry's proposals been accepted by the previous administration, we would now have electrified main lines to the Midlands, to the west of England and to South Wales?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I repeat again that the question raised by my noble friend is exactly the kind of question that will be addressed by the strategic rail authority. We hope to empower the authority—at present in its shadow form—to promote rail use, to plan the strategic development of the network and to ensure that the railway is properly integrated with other forms of transport. With the legislation that is in prospect, I look forward to seeing the strategic rail authority address such questions.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, do I take it from the replies of the Minister on the motorway system that the Government have no intentions of building a motorway to link the northern end of the M.6 with the southern end of the M.74?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, at present I know of no particular plans for that to be built.

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