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Railways (Electrification)

Volume 885: debated on Friday 31 January 1975

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4.1 p.m.

I am glad to have sailed unscathed through a sea of pornography to bring to the attention of the House the need for further railway electrification. It is rather surprising that I should have to do so. If there has been one commercial and industrial success in this country over the past decade it is the success of the electrified lines of British Rail, in passenger and freight terms.

Only about 17 per cent. of our rail network is electrified, which puts us behind virtually every other country in Western Europe. For example, in France, 24 per cent. of the total route miles have been electrified, in West Germany 28 per cent. and in Italy 48 per cent. In addition to the existing electrification in this country, work is in hand, at the preliminary survey and design stage, or nearing completion, on a number of other electrification projects.

In April 1973, British Rail announced the start of work on electrification on the Eastern Region's Great Northern suburban services, to be carried out in two stages: a new "inner" suburban route, Moorgate (Northern City)—Finsbury Park—Welwyn Garden City—Hertford North, 37½ route miles, due to be in operation by the end of this year or the beginning of 1976; and the "outer" suburban route, Royston—Kings Cross and Hertford North—Langley Junction, 35¾ route miles, to be completed by spring 1977.

There are a number of other lines in this country which are suitable for electrification. The success of the west coast main line since electrification is well known, and a prime candidate for equal success would be the parallel main line known as the east coast route, from Kings Cross to Edinburgh—

Aberdeen, as my hon. Friend says.

There are also the main cross-country routes from Cardiff and Bristol to Derby and Sheffield, plus the old Western Region main line from Paddington to South Wales, all of which, given the existing traffic potential, would be prime candidates for electrification in future.

A great number of benefits, to the travelling public, British industry and British Rail, would flow from electrification. Journey times are cut for the passenger and for freight, not only through greater speed but because of the greater efficiency of operation of electric traction and its greater ability to make up lost time. Electrification makes possible greater frequency and reliability, cleaner trains, and more modern stations generally, giving a far more modern image to what has been regarded, somewhat unjustly, as an old-fashioned industry.

Electric-powered units mean for the railways more business on commuter services, less maintenance and greater of ease of operation, particularly on all-electrified routes. Electrification of the London Midland main line between Euston and Manchester and Liverpool cut the journey time from nearly four hours to approximately 2½ hours. In the first year of electrification—1966–67—traffic increased by 32 per cent. By 1972, the increase since 1966—the year before electrification—was 150 per cent. It is estimated in the current year that the overall increase since prior to electrification will be about 200 per cent. New services introduced since electrification on those routes have produced for the railways new travel equal to 60 per cent. of the previous total. New annual journeys between London and Manchester attributable to electrification after five years totalled 600,000. Between London and Birmingham, with a journey time reduction of about 23 per cent., traffic in the first five years increased by 71 per cent. It has increased so much since then that it is possible to travel from Wolverhampton, Birmingham or Coventry to London, or vice versa by what is, outside Japan, the most intensive electrified inter-city service in the world. There is a service for approximately 13 hours a day, of a half-hour frequency.

Traffic increases have been even more impressive within the 200-mile range of London. In five years from 1967 traffic levels between London and 12 major towns served by the London Midland electrified route more than doubled. Advantage can also be taken of the higher speed potential of electric traction in conjunction with line improvements and the installation of more modern signalling to reduce journey times considerably. This is attractive to customers and makes the railways competitive with other forms of transport—a factor which will plan an increasing rôle on other routes as highspeed trains now being developed come into service.

It is fair to say that, in general, journey times on express passenger and outer suburban trains have been reduced by about 15 per cent. to 20 per cent. since electrification and running times of inner suburban trains can be cut by as much as 30 per cent.

Despite the fact that it is seven years since electrification of the west coast main line, the current issue of "Modern Railways" continues to repeat the success story which the London Midland region achieved at that time. Under the heading
"Sparks effect shows on WCML"
it states
"Passenger carryings on the West Coast main line since the introduction of electric working have increased considerably in comparison to last year. Latest figures estimate the total increase at 57 per cent. In the period August 11th to September 7th, 1974, loadings on AngloScottish day trains in both directions between Euston, Glasgow and Inverness increased by 42 per cent., compared with 1973. The increase recorded on Liverpool/Manchester—Glasgow/Edinburgh services was 51 per cent. On the Bristol/Birmingham — Glasgow/Edinburgh route carryings were up by 116 per cent."
We are becoming more and more conscious of the environment and its pollution, which can be caused by industry and various modes of transport. One of the great advantages of electrification is that it offers positive benefit to the environment. It is claimed that there are no exhaust fumes or smoke, and the output from power stations can be controlled. It makes far less noise than road or air transport, and noise suppression on newly laid railways is capable of much further improvement.

As I say, electrification makes far less noise than air transport, and it is therefore strange to many of us that another nationalised industry—British Airways—should seek to compete directly with British Railways for passenger carryings between London and Glasgow.

As the rail routes between major cities are well established, the electrification of existing routes makes no new demands on land space, and might even make possible a reduction in the amount of land required. It does not add to traffic congestion, and can help to relieve it. There is minimal visual intrusion with the latest designs of overhead equipment. It might be well to compare the cost of electrifying existing railway lines with the cost of developing new motorways. In a recent reply I received from the Department of the Environment I was told that the total cost for new motorways is £1·5 million per mile.

The weakness of the electrification programme in the future lies in the spasmodic ad hoc basis which successive Governments seem to prefer. There are at times considerable gaps between the completion of one project and the start of the next. There is no doubt that British Rail, as appears in the rail policy review, would prefer continual, planned progression towards completion of the electrification of all parts of the railway system for which electric traction is considered appropriate. The stop-go character of electrification so far has developed because projects have been unable to proceed until financial decisions have been taken by the Government of the day, to whom the British Railways Board has to look for authorisation of the major part of the capital investment involved.

This ad hoc and piecemeal approach adds to the costs of electrification projects and current railway operations, and threatens the loss of industrial capability and specialised technical expertise.

My object in raising the topic is to press my hon. Friend to lay down Government policy for forward consideration and authorisation in principle of a programme of future projects to make the best possible use of existing expertise, personnel and other resources.

A continuous programme of electrification would give economies by allowing overhead costs to be spread over a greater number of larger schemes. It would mean better utilisation of construction plant and a uniform level of work load for the staff of British Rail and contractors. It would reduce the training costs involved in rebuilding specialist teams after the extended time lag between projects. It would provide far better motivation and productivity.

The possibility of forward planning would allow projects other than electrification to be fitted into the work schedule. The development of new techniques, materials, methods and designs would be encouraged and facilitated. That would still further reduce capital outlay and the cost of maintenance.

It should be remembered that before a project reaches construction stage, considerable work, including planning and design and improvement of the route is involved. Negotiations for investment approval, inviting tenders and placing contracts takes months more. From start to finish it may take five or more years to bring a new electrification system into service, of which up to half that period may be needed before construction begins.

A steady long-term programme of electrification would result in maximum possible efficiency and lower running costs for whatever size of system is considered necessary. It would also ensure that British industry is in the forefront of 25 KV development and technical progress in power and control equipment, and that British industry with its associated railway interest is in the forefront in world markets for railway equipment.

Only this week my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade announced a new protocol between Iran and Britain which is expected to generate new business worth more that £500 million for Britain over the next year or so. Included in that is the major project of electrification of the line between Teheran and Tabriz and major projects in Taiwan and South America.

I ask my hon. Friend to lay down some targets to give the British Railways Board and contractors something at which to aim in the near future. I ask him immediately to authorise material orders to be placed for the Bishop's Stortford-Cambridge project, which has been under survey for a considerable time. Preliminary planning and design is complete and the material requirements are known. The cost of authorisation of the order will be about £700,000.

I ask the Government to plan the commencement of the installation of the Bishop's Stortford-Cambridge Line so that that installation may begin by mid-1975 and prevent the break-up of skilled teams of construction workers. The cost would be about £800,000. Will the Minister also consider authorising material orders in respect of the Ipswich-Colchester-Harwich scheme by April this year? The cost of that authorisation would be £1,650,000.

A good deal of harm is being done to the export potential of contractors, such as British Insulation Callender Cables, which has spent so many years building up expertise on British Railways in terms of future prospects of the railway construction industry, because of the delay caused by successive Governments. It is essential to industry that British Rail provides a continuing modernisation and electrification programme offering continuity of employment in the many skills available within the railway industry, so that we shall not lose the opportunity for future railway investment both in this country and abroad. If investment and encouragement is not provided to the railway industry, its ability to compete in export markets will be seriously impaired.

In November last year I asked my hon. Friend's Department about future railway electrification projects. I was told that there were one or two minor schemes afoot, two of which I have already mentioned. The Department did not mention the position of the rail policy review, nor did it mention the attitude of the Department towards fulfilment of the electrification potential outlined in those proposals.

It seems to railwaymen outside the House that the Government of the day seek to lay down for British Rail limited financial targets. It is surely not fair for the Department to say that British Rail is not to submit electrification projects to the Department when, at the same time, the Department considerably restricts the amount of investment available to British Rail as a short-term, stop gap measure.

Therefore, I ask the Minister to consider not only the future prosperity of the railway industry, essential though that may be, but the expertise and technological advancement of the railway industry and how much it can offer railways throughout the world, provided that it gets the support and backing that it needs from the present Government.

4.18 p.m.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this complicated subject which has become a matter of great public interest. It is said that electrification would provide the solution to all railway, and indeed environmental, problems. Electrification is said to solve all our energy problems and to abolish or reduce the environmental nuisance of the motor car and the heavy goods vehicle and to make British Rail commercially viable.

I shall try to show why some of these claims are exaggerated and do not stand up to close examination. I shall also seek to explain why British Railways will not immediately be embarking on the massive and continuing electrification programme for which many people, not least the equipment industry and groups such as Transport 2000, with which I have close links, have argued.

First, I should like to emphasise that the electrification record in this country is not as bad as is often made out. Virtually the whole of the Southern Region Railway network has been electrified, most of it for longer than many of us can remember. The West Coast main line from London to Glasgow is electrified and the last stage was opened in May of last year. That electrification project, which was approved by my right hon. Friend in his previous spell as Transport Minister, was very close to my heart because I travel on the line regularly. It is a line from which my constituents gain great benefit and therefore I can say that I am very much aware of the advantages of electrification.

There are several electrification schemes on which work is in progress in the metropolitan counties and others which are planned. On Merseyside there is the Loop, a new single-track line enabling trains for Wirral to make a circuit of Liverpool city centre, and there is the Link, which is a new underground railway which will connect Southport and Warrington railway lines. In Glasgow, my city, an existing low level line is to be re-opened and electrified as part of the Clyde rail scheme. In London work is in progress on the Great Northern suburban scheme which consists of the electrification of British Rail's suburban services out of King's Cross with a new through service to Moorgate.

We should all like to see more schemes of that kind in progress. Indeed, if resources were not so scarce and the economic case for electrification were clearer, no one would be more delighted than me if British Rail were authorised to proceed with the major electrification programmes which they proposed in the course of the review of railway policy carried out by the previous Government.

The operational benefits of electrification are great. Electric locomotives are more powerful, more reliable, and much cheaper to maintain than diesels, permitting fast, reliable services for both freight and passengers that can exploit to the full the potential of the railway network. No one would doubt that.

These are the benefits. But—it is an important "but"—the investment required to install the fixed supply system—the overhead cables and all the associated installations—is enormous. In addition to the electrification, all the signalling equipment must be modified or, as the railway industry says, immunised" against the effects of the magnetic field from the overhead wires on signalling. I think from memory that on the West Coast line the immunisation represented about 30 per cent. of the cost of installation, which is the big problem.

Will my hon. Friend concede that modernisation of the signalling system on the West Coast main line has brought about savings over the years because of the terrific reduction in the number of signal boxes? I believe that there are now only 10 or 12 signal boxes on the whole stretch between London and Glasgow compared with the system in steam days of a signal box virtually every half-mile.

My hon. Friend is right. I know that on the stretch between Glasgow and Carlisle there is only one signal box in place of about 40 or 50. Nevertheless, electrification brings additional costs with the immunisation of signalling. We can have modern signalling without electrification. There is, however, still a net increase in cost with electrification.

A large volume of resources is needed to undertake an electrification programme of any size. I need hardly remind my hon. Friend that we are at present in a period of economic stringency when major claims on the country's scarce resources have to be considered with extreme care. Railway investment competes for these scarce resources with many other programmes which my hon. Friends may consider to be as important, if not more important in some cases.

Within British Rail's overall investment ceiling, electrification projects must compete with other projects that the Railways Board considers to be essential. At a time when we cannot afford a railway investment programme as large as British Rail would like, optional investment schemes—electrification schemes are optional—can only go ahead when there is a real prospect of a substantial pay-off.

I must remind the House at this point that it is for the Railways Board to put forward firm proposals for further electrification to the Minister and the board has put forward no such proposals to date. We are, however, discussing with the board the prospects of further schemes being undertaken, and we are paying particular attention to the capacity of the equipment industry, mentioned by my hon. Friend, to undertake work in future if there is a prolonged hiatus in the programme.

I want now to consider some of the arguments put forward in favour of electrification so as to make clear why the future rate of installation is likely to be lower than my hon. Friend would like. It is often argued that the environmental nuisance of motor traffic will be reduced if the railways are electrified because more passengers and freight will go by train than would otherwise be the case. There is evidence that electrification increases passenger traffic to some extent when compared with the present generation of diesels. But the "sparks effect", as British Rail call it, is notoriously difficult to quantify. It is my personal view that the average person is not concerned with what is in the front of the train as long as it gets him to his destination on time and with a certain degree of rapidity. When the high-speed diesels come in we may be able to make a comparison between the "sparks effect" and sheer reliability.

The case for electrification may weaken and the "sparks effect" syndrome may be weakened when we have more evidence a the diesel alternative. That may be the position when the diesels are improved. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be aware that the new high-speed diesel trains will be introduced on one of the lines to which he has referred. They will be introduced on the London-Bristol-South-Wales route next year and then they will be introduced on the East Coast main line. So far we are thinking only in terms of Edinburgh, but I bear in mind what my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East (Mr. Lamond), an ex-Lord Provost of Aberdeen, says about continuing further to Aberdeen.

Whatever the attraction to passengers it would be a mistake to assume that electrification would make a substantial difference to the amount of traffic on the roads. It is hard to see why freight should be transferred from road to rail simply as a result of electrification. Rather than embark on an electrification programme, the Government consider that there are better and more direct ways of encouraging the transfer of freight from road to rail. The Railways Act 1974 provided for grants to be paid to the consignors of freight towards the cost of private siding facilities, where the consignors would otherwise send their goods by road.

As we all know, the country faces an energy shortage. It is argued that a major electrification programme would reduce our dependence on imported oil supplies. I have yet to see clear evidence on this question. It must be remembered that a considerable amount of oil is burnt in power stations. That will remain the case for a great many years.

We should be concerned as much with conservation of all our energy resources as with conservation of oil alone. There is no conclusive evidence that diesel traction is less efficient overall in terms of energy savings than electric traction.

We are left with the inescapable conclusion that although electrification has many points in its favour they are not necessarily sufficient to justify the vast expenditure of resources that a major programme would involve. It is out of the question for the Government to give a blanket authorisation for a major drive to electrify the railway network. Each project differs and proposals put forward by the board must be considered on their individual merits. However my hon. Friend may be sure that the Minister will take into account all the points in favour of electrification when he considers any proposals that the Railways board sohuld put forward.

Will my hon. Friend include in that consideration the Picc-Vic project in Manchester? That is my main concern although I mentioned Aberdeen earlier. It would show a considerable saving in rail traffic use. It has the full support of the National Union of Railwaymen. It would link Piccadilly Station with Victoria Station and would be of immense value to the rail network in the North-West.

My hon. Friend must realise that he is going much wider than this debate although he is dealing with a specific issue at the same time. The question of the Picc-Vic is basically a question for Greater Manchester as it is included in its transport policy and programme. Those concerned are entitled to spend the money allocated to its programme and the transport rate support grant and on the Picc-Vic.

It is the choice of the local authority in the area as to how it should spend the money. It is for the authority to decide whether it should spend it on one form of transport rather than another. That was the whole point of the introduction of TPPs. The intention was to allow local authorities to make the choice themselves. I understand that there are many matters that come within the whole question of the Picc-Vic line which people wish to discuss, but I suggest that in the first instance my hon. Friend should take up the matter with the local authority. It is the local authority that has the ultimate power and the resources to start the scheme.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock.