HL Deb 17 January 2005 vol 668 cc536-8

2.52 p.m.

Lord Bradshaw asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have to expand the use of Britain's railway network.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the Government support continued growth in the use of the railway network by making the best use of existing capacity through measures such as route utilisation strategies and ensuring that the railway operates as efficiently as possible.

We also need to plan for the long term, when increased capacity may be needed. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport hopes to make an announcement soon on the Government's thinking on future strategy for the network.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for the encouraging nature of his reply. A study was undertaken by W S Atkins of the potential for a new high-speed line from London to the north of England. That was completed at the end of 2003. It showed a high cost benefit ratio and identified considerable relief for airlines, roads and moving freight. Do the Government have plans to develop the W S Atkins scheme further? Obviously, it is not ready to be implemented, but one would hope that it, at least, is part of the Government's forward thinking.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the noble Lord has lighted on one of the more ambitious possible innovations in railway development. He will recognise that the creation of a specially dedicated track for high-speed trains running north to south is somewhat in the longer term. However, as he said, a study was completed in 2003, and I can assure the House that it is under active consideration. The noble Lord will recognise that substantial resources would need to be committed to make the proposal realistic.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of how much support there was for the initiative taken by the SRA last year to develop community railways, the less glamorous rural services? Can he give an assurance that, when the responsibilities of the SRA transfer to the department, the initiative will be continued and the future of those lines will not be put at risk?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, we are eager to continue the consultation process which the SRA developed with regard to community railways because, by definition, it requires the widest-possible participation from a local area or region in the development of railway services. However, I can assure my noble friend that the new arrangements, which of course will be discussed when the Railways Bill comes before this House in the fairly near future, will take account of this necessity.

Lord Renton

My Lords, would it help the Government to know that having driven 70 miles each way to and from London for many, many years, I had to give up driving because I found myself falling asleep one day? Since then, I have used the railway for 65 miles each way. It has never been overcrowded, and the journey has taken only 65 minutes each way, although half a dozen stops have to be made.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am grateful for that assurance of how successfully we are improving the railway service, and no one should the railways seek to serve better than the noble Lord. I emphasise that, when every noble Lord in the House can testify to the same extent about the success of our suburban and city network services, I will be a happy representative of the Government.

Lord Snape

My Lords, will the Minister accept that I perhaps cannot be as helpful as the previous speaker on this matter? There is at least one clause in the Railways Bill, which is in another place, that would make it easier for the Government to contract rather than expand the railways. Could he offer us any comfort as far as that clause is concerned?

I have a further question about freight railways. Do the Government have any plans to restore freight facilities grants in England? They are paid in Scotland. Is it not a rather bizarre situation that the Scots receive them and the English do not?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, my noble friend will of course get his opportunity to make a contribution to the debate on the Railways Bill. He will recognise that all legislation exists to enable the Government to foresee any potential development. Therefore, in certain areas, it may be the case that some contraction takes place, but, overall, we are looking forward to continuing what has been an extraordinary record in recent years of expanding the usage of the railways. The railways are being used more intensively than at any time since 1947. Therefore, I assure my noble friend that the Bill that is before the other place is constructed to enable us to pursue an active expansion of the railway rather than negative factors.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that he has just given a glowing endorsement of railway privatisation and of the train operating companies, as passenger numbers have increased so much in recent years? Does he further accept that the next Statement that the Secretary of State will make will be the sixth major railway review in seven years? So we wait with barely concealed excitement for yet another new announcement on the railways. Will the Minister explain how the Government expect passenger numbers to grow in the future when they are encouraging the SRA to cut the number of services?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the noble Viscount managed to conceal his excitement fairly well, but I emphasise that the next Statement will be about the progressive expansion of the railway in line with our achievements in recent years. He will also know that we have had to dedicate a great deal of parliamentary time and Ministers' time to cleaning up the shambles that we inherited in 1997. The noble Viscount will recognise that we will build on Labour successes rather than Conservative failures.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

My Lords, an additional high-speed line to the north, and possibly extended to Scotland, would draw passengers from the existing rail, air and road networks, thereby reducing overcrowding and increasing safety. Is not rail substitution a central aim of the Government?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the noble Earl is undoubtedly right about the prospects of a high-speed line doing that, but I want to emphasise to the House the improvements already made to services and the increased reliability of the railway. That is having an effect on airline traffic. The noble Earl will recognise in particular the development of the high-speed line to the Channel Tunnel, which is giving it a competitive edge. It is also the case that the improvements made to the North West Main Line have resulted in faster journey times. That, too, poses a real challenge to the airlines, with the result that we have healthy competition between both modes of travel.