HL Deb 25 June 2001 vol 626 cc124-6

2.57 p.m.

Lord Bridges

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have to improve rail communications with the Haven Ports following the announcement that Hutcheson Whampoa propose to increase capacity at Felixstowe and to create a new cargo facility at Harwich.

The Minister of State, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, the amount of freight moved by rail has grown steadily over the period of this Government. Our 10-year plan for transport reinforces our commitment to ensure that that growth continues.

We have established the Strategic Rail Authority to implement detailed plans for rail freight. The authority published its first freight strategy in May. This includes plans for delivering a major programme of improvements to rail links to major ports, such as Felixstowe.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that reply. I welcome him to his new role. I hope that it will be less troublesome—and perhaps of a different shape—than his other principal responsibility.

As to the matter in hand, perhaps I may ask the noble and learned Lord to bear in mind two considerations. First, that the increase in the number of containers proposed in the Haven ports is considerable. At Felixstowe there is at present a capacity of 2.1 million units, which is to be increased to 3.5 million units—that is, an increase of 1.4 million units. At Harwich, on the other side of the river, there is no special container facility at present but one for 1.7 million units is to be established. Thus the throughput of the estuary will be increased by 3.1 million units—that is, from 2.1 mill ion units at present to 5.2 million units in the future—an enormous increase which the local transport network is quite unable to handle.

The second consideration is that the timetable for considering these matters is entirely different between the railways and the ports. Does the noble and learned Lord agree that, if we are to believe in an integrated transport policy, it is very important that the planning applications for the ports and the work needed on the railway network are considered at the same time and run in parallel? Otherwise we will not have an integrated transport policy in East Anglia. The only means of handling these extra units would be to move them by road. If the noble and learned Lord wants to promote a social revolution in East Anglia, this would be quite a good way of setting about it.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his warm welcome. I should point out that I still retain my previous responsibility, which I am very proud to do.

The end of the noble Lord's supplementary question was lost in the widespread approbation for its quality and I did not hear it. However, let me make two points in relation to the question. First, I entirely agree with the noble Lord's proposition that there should be an integrated transport strategy. That is what the Government have produced. Secondly, I take note of the noble Lord's detailed point and I shall deal with it by writing to him.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the Rail Freight Group. Is my noble and learned friend aware that, uniquely among the major ports in this country, Felixstowe Port charges an extra £40 for freight containers that go by rail? Does my noble and learned friend agree that that is not quite in line with the transport strategy that he has outlined? Will he suggest to Hutcheson Whampoa that it should come into line and charge the same for rail containers as it does for those that go by road? I am sure that that would lead to the growth in rail freight that everyone wants.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I am aware of that; the noble Lord pointed it out to me approximately five minutes before I entered the Chamber. Hutcheson Whampoa is a private contractor and any charges are a matter for it to decide. The noble Lord will know the structures that are in place to deal with allegations of monopoly abuse. I am not saying that there is any abuse in this case, but those are the places to take up these particular points.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, in praising the Question, perhaps I may say that I shall remain a member of the Strategic Rail Authority until the end of this week, although this will continue to be a subject for debate. In reference to the use of monopoly powers, the provision of good rail facilities to East Anglia requires a new railway line across the country towards Birmingham and the West Coast Main Line. Have the Government given any consideration to how this can be obtained without a huge ransom being paid to Railtrack, which is in a monopoly position as regards the provision of such facilities?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I agree with the proposition that it is important that there should be an upgrade in the Felixstowe-Nuneaton rail freight line in order to increase capacity. Work is already being undertaken in relation to that. A substantial feasibility and project definition work study has been completed. Railtrack expects to deliver project cost estimates by the autumn, and a project development group has been formed to direct progress. We expect a gauge upgrade to enable nine-foot six-inch containers to be ready by 2005, with additional capacity by 2008. I am sure that the processes by which this matter will be examined will seek to ensure that the Government and the nation receive value for money.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, the Minister has spoken of hopes with regard to planning in the East Anglian region, which is already snarled up. Will he undertake to ensure that there is no expansion of the port at Felixstowe until the facilities are in place to take the extra traffic?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, a number of special applications are being made in relation to Felixstowe. It would be wrong for me to comment at this stage on the detail of those applications. It is a matter for the planning process.

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