HL Deb 17 April 2000 vol 612 cc456-9

2.53 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in the light of reported delays in the modernisation of the West Coast Main Line, they will call together the parties involved to agree a programme for timely completion of the project.

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

My Lords, a group consisting of officials from the shadow Strategic Rail Authority (sSRA), the Office of the Rail Regulator, Railtrack and the train operators involved ill the West Coast Main Line, both passenger and freight, has been established and meets regularly. The sSRA reports to Ministers as necessary. Railtrack has said that it is on course to meet its contractual commitment to Virgin in 2002 and 2005. The Rail Regulator has published a draft final order that he proposes to make. This would require Railtrack to produce robust plans which demonstrate that it can meet those commitments and that it can meet the reasonable requirements of other train operators and funders, including the shadow Strategic Rail Authority.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I am glad to hear that this co-operative group, albeit at a fairly low level, is in operation. However, is not the Minister concerned that this project is running so dangerously near to being very late that the Rail Regulator has already issued threats of possible action for default? Is not the noble Lord also concerned that there is still doubt as to whether or not sufficient capacity will be provided for freight and for the slow passenger lines that must continue to use the West Coast Main Line? Further, should this work ever start, does the noble Lord know—indeed, does anyone know—Railtrack's plans for coping with the work and minimising the disruption to the rest of the rail network during the process?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, the regulator has sought and obtained enforceable undertakings from Railtrack to provide additional capacity for train operators, other than West Coast Trains Limited, on completion of the next stage—namely, to carry out strategic reviews of the scope for further capacity on the route. In November 1999, using his powers under the Railways Act, the regulator initiated enforcement action against Railtrack to require it to produce credible plans that demonstrate that it can complete the project successfully.

At present, Railtrack has refused to consent to the enforcement action. Without the consent of Railtrack to the changes, the regulator is required to go through a statutory consultation period. When that period closes on 25th April—this month—the regulator will decide whether to confirm, modify or withdraw the order in the light of representations received. However, the Rail Regulator and the sSRA have been in regular discussion about the enforcement action. The sSRA supports the approach that the regulator is taking. Railtrack's undertakings made to the regulator in April 1998 provided that it would carry out the necessary actions to ensure that the line is completed. We are assured that it will be completed on time in its first stage in 2002, and in its later stage in 2005.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, I have a question for my noble friend the Minister about the recent report of the National Audit Office on the Rail Regulator. Does not my noble friend agree that that report reveals how wholly unsatisfactory and inadequate the process of regulation of the railway was until the appointment of the present incumbent, Mr Torn Winsor? Further, can my noble friend also confirm that it is right that the regulator should insist that Railtrack honours its licence commitment to put the public interest ahead of that of its shareholders, and that there must be no slippage on the West Coast Main Line upgrade?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. The present regulator, Tom Winsor, took up his post in July 1999. He is currently engaged in a review which will make the final decisions later this year about the level of access charges to be paid during the period from April 2001 to 2006.

My noble friend referred to the report of the National Audit Office which said that the regulator found it difficult to establish whether Railtrack has carried out enough maintenance and renewal and that was partly because the regulator did not agree clearly enough at the outset in 1993 what standards Railtrack was supposed to meet. Therefore, the Rail Regulator has not been able to monitor the condition of Railtrack's assets, and information given to the regulator has not been independently verified. The Government echo the Comptroller and Auditor General of the NAO, who said that he welcomed the action by Mr Winsor. The Government also welcome the rigour that Mr Winsor is bringing to the role of regulator.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, if the West Coast Main Line is a top priority—I believe it is the unanimous view of industry and commerce in the West Midlands that it should be and that it should, therefore, be completed and completed on time—does my noble friend the Minister agree that it is imperative that the Government do not become a victim of their own success in attracting passengers on to the railways? What kind of assurance can my noble friend give me that the industry will have the capacity to cope with rising demand that will come from the completion of this modernisation; for example, are enough vehicles being built and old ones scrapped?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, there has been an increase of 15 per cent in rail passenger journeys since May 1997. Train operators, however, are running 1,100 more trains a day to meet that increased demand. There has been a 15 per cent increase in freight moved by rail since May 1997. However, I am delighted to say that private sector rail investment has increased by 34 per cent in the past two years and now stands at £1.7 billion. Much of that sum has been invested by Railtrack. The main vehicle for promoting increased rail investment will be the franchise replacement programme currently being undertaken by the shadow Strategic Rail Authority.

At this stage we cannot agree any particular figures for future investment. I believe that the precise amounts needed will be illuminated by the sSRA's and the rail regulator's views on the Railtrack 2000 Network Management Statement, which was published at the end of last month. I agree with my noble friend that we must ensure that modernisation is accelerated to cope with the increased demand and growth. I am delighted to say that in the next couple of months over 200 new vehicles will be "rolling- on our railways.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, the Minister has given us the completion dates, but is there a firm starting date for the modernisation programme?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, the modernisation programme is already under way. We are considering upgrades due for completion by the year 2002 on line speeds south of Crewe, which will be taken up to 125 miles per hour. The second stage, which is to be completed in the year 2005, will take speeds up to 140 miles per hour. Some concern has been expressed about the viability of the project because of the huge sums involved. The original figure of £2.4 billion has been increased to an estimate of £5.8 billion by Railtrack. That higher figure is being scrutinised by the regulator at the moment but we are confident—Railtrack has assured us that that is the case—that work is under way and that we can look forward to quicker journey times on the West Coast Main Line in future.