HL Deb 09 February 2000 vol 609 cc658-9

2.52 p.m.

Lord Bradshaw

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the developers of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link are required to design and build it so that it can accommodate conventional freight trains and whether freight facilities will be operational at the time that any part of the new railway is available for passenger trains.

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

My Lords, the principal objective of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link is to provide a two-track, high-speed passenger line and any freight provision will need to be designed to ensure that that objective is not compromised. Union Railways has given specific undertakings to Parliament to provide certain facilities for freight from the outset. However, the main benefit to freight services will be through releasing capacity on existing lines in the south-east.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, the existing lines through the south-east require freight to take a circuitous route along lines which are already congested. I ask, the Minister in particular whether he is in a position to confirm reports in the technical press that the freight facilities which were to be provided under the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Act will, indeed, be provided on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, Union Railways gave undertakings to Parliament in 1996, and the new Kent line, when it is built, will be able to carry high-speed freight running at approximately 125 miles per hour. It has been built to the larger continental standards. Therefore, it should have the capacity for faster freight trains and, indeed, for medium-speed freight trains. A problem would arise with slower trains, which could compromise its operating and safety requirements if they run at around 50 miles per hour because a slow freight train takes up the pathways of perhaps three passenger trains. However, be assured that there will be no concessions unless we are utterly convinced that Union Railways is unable to meet its operational objectives.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, does my noble friend share my disappointment that the proportion of freight nationally which is carried by rail is not high? Is not one of the problems that at the time of rail privatisation no single organisation was placed in charge of the strategic development of freight? Is he satisfied that the take-up of track access grants and freight facility grants made available by the Government is adequate to make a difference?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I am pleased to say that since privatisation the growth of freight has been 34 per cent. It now stands at approximately 5 per cent of the freight carried. That is obviously quite a small proportion in comparison with road freight. However, there was 12 per cent growth in the year 1997–98. That has gone down slightly in the past year, but growth is continuing.

On the question of freight grants, it is true that we have had a record number of grants—34 last year. We look to improve on that figure this year. In the three years since 1997 we have spent approximately £80 million on grants. That has resulted in taking about 30 million tonnes of freight off the roads and on to rail. And, for a Minister, I am in the highly unusual situation of saying that there is more money there to spend if anyone wants it.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that the shippers of freight give as their main reason for not using the Channel Tunnel the very poor quality of freight services in and across France?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

Yes, my Lords. I share my noble friend's disappointment about the difficulty of growing freight through the Channel Tunnel. It amounted to just over 3 million tonnes in 1998. Unfortunately, a combination of the impact of the World Cup and a rash of strikes meant that SNCF gave priority, as it always does, to passenger services, and that figure is now below the 1997 level. However, EWS, the freight company, is co-operating with SNCF to try to improve the situation. We have been working hard by talking to the French in bilateral discussions and working with the European Transport Council of Ministers to try to encourage greater competition in Europe to tackle the bottlenecks and to obtain greater technical compatibility there. I hope that that will make a significant impact when it comes into force.