HL Deb 15 November 2000 vol 619 cc269-72

2.43 p.m.

Lord Brookman asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the programme of track replacement, to bring some 2,000 miles of railway track up to satisfactory standards, can be completed quickly and efficiently.

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

My Lords, following a meeting with the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister last Thursday, Railtrack announced that the bulk of track repairs should be completed by Christmas, with the remainder to be completed by Easter. Railtrack has checked 3,000 sites and identified 300 miles of track which needs to be rerailed. So far about 70 miles has been rerailed.

Lord Brookman

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that very clear Answer. Is he aware that rail manufacturing in the United Kingdom is carried out at Workington? Is he further aware that 30 per cent of the workforce at that plant are to lose their jobs by the end of the year? Is he aware also that it is the intention of the company, Corus, which was British Steel plc, to make steel at Redcar and ship it to France to make the appropriate length rails for use in our country? Does he agree with that? If he does not, will he do something to help that company to survive in the North West?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, my noble friend, with his distinguished record in the steel industry, will know that Corus, previously British Steel, has been supplying the vast majority of rails to Railtrack and, before that, to British Rail. In May of this year, Corus announced a five-year contract with Railtrack to supply rail and welding services worth in excess of £120 million, one of the largest contracts ever awarded.

I understand that part of the contract is for the supply of 72-metre long rails which the Corus plant in Workington cannot produce because of restrictions on the site. Corus has decided instead to supply those rails from a French plant—Sogerail—which Corus recently bought. I am told that Railtrack is sensitive to the potential for loss of rail-making capacity in the United Kingdom. But essentially it says that that is an issue for Corus. However, I am sure that noble Lords will agree that it would be very welcome to have the rerailing of British railways undertaken, where possible, with rails made in Britain.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, will the noble Lord give some indication of what proportion of the 300 miles of track which requires renewal was laid during the past five years or so?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I cannot yet give those details, but that is a very interesting question. I am told that part of a new phenomenon which is emerging is that gauge-corner cracking appears to be affecting rails which are perhaps only one year old as well as rails which might be 10, 15 or 20 years old. So an expert working party has been set up by Railtrack to examine the question, which is not unique to Britain. I am told that that is happening also in France, Germany and Japan. It appears to be a new phenomenon which we are looking at very closely. I shall report back when I have more details.

Lord McNally

My Lords, as the Minister knows, among the heaviest users of long-distance rail are families reuniting for Christmas in the North West, the North East and Scotland. From what the Minister said today, is he giving an assurance to those families that it is sensible to plan those long-distance journeys at Christmastime or are we to have widespread confusion and chaos in the Christmas rush?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, as I said earlier, the bulk of the rerailing will be completed by Christmas. The Prime Minister is meeting representatives from the rail industry tomorrow and is looking to the industry to publish its national track recovery plan on 17th November, with sustainable emergency timetables which will come into force from 20th November. The meeting tomorrow is the latest in a series of meetings held by the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister to try to return normality to the railways as quickly as possible.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, my noble friend gave a rather encouraging response in the latter part of his Answer to my noble friend. But are the Government fully aware of the fact that, given the very substantial increase in the need for rails for the current replacement programme and because of safety considerations, the expectation is that there will be a requirement for a higher number of rails in the future? Is it not sad that men at Workington, who currently expect their jobs to disappear, should be asked to work longer hours at present? Does my noble friend accept that the people at Workington, and perhaps many others, may think that France would take a rather different view if the boot was on the other foot?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, those are matters for Railtrack and Corus. However, in July we announced a 10-year transport plan which foresaw the investment of £60 billion in the railways over the next 10 years. Recently, we have seen the rail regulator underpin £15 billion of investment by Railtrack over the next live years. So the Government are doing everything they can to increase investment in an under-invested railway and I believe that that will generate the kind of jobs which my noble friend obviously wishes to encourage.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord has tried to do any rail journeys in the past few years. If he had, he would have found it an absolute nightmare. Will he do something to improve the information provided—and not only that given by telephone, which is something of a joke most of the time? Some degree of punctuality needs to be achieved. I travel regularly to and from Carlisle and each trip has been four hours late over the past few weeks. One appreciates the problems of the staff, floods and rails, but at this moment I do not believe that the railway companies are living up to the standards which we expect of them.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, of course, we inherited an industry which had its defects. However, it is an industry in which we wish to invest. We wish to make it more coherent. And we wish to help to see it through its present difficulties by being as positive and supportive as possible. I share the noble Lord's concern over the disruption caused to passengers. Compensation for disrupted journeys is under very active consideration. Noble Lords will have seen that Railtrack has set aside a very considerable sum of money for that purpose. But I agree with the noble Lord that we must get back to having a more punctual and reliable railway network. I hope our investment will help that. I do not believe that running a railway efficiently may be in any fundamental conflict with running a safe railway.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, has the noble Lord seen in today's newspaper the severe criticism of Railtrack by the chief executive of GNER? Will he pay attention to that? Like the noble Lord, Lord Monro of Langholm, last week I limped home at 2 a.m. on GNER, the last 60 miles on a clapped-out bus. This week I was told by my local railway company that I could get as far as York and after that I would be on my own. Do the Government realise the effect that this situation is having on the reputation of GNER and on the reputation of the railways in general? It will be difficult to recover any lost business.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, it is regrettable that almost coincidentally we have had two calamities afflicting the railroads. Clearly, after the tragedy at Hatfield, there have been the problems with broken rails and gauge-corner cracking, but that has been exacerbated by the considerable difficulties of flooding on railway lines. I am glad to say that as of today only eight sections of the rail network are still blocked due to flooding.

On the line mentioned by my noble friend, there has been a serious collapse of an embankment caused by flooding on the East Coast main line between Doncaster and York. Earlier in the week, the forecast was that that may not reopen for six weeks, but I am delighted to say that that has been reduced to two weeks.