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Channel Tunnel

Volume 167: debated on Monday 12 February 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a further statement on the progress of the Channel tunnel rail link.

British Rail and its private sector partner, Eurorail, are working to specify a route for the Channel tunnel rail link from Swanley in Kent to King's Cross. The aim is to introduce a parliamentary Bill for the project in November.

Is it the Government's view that the rail link represents a major national project that will benefit all regions of this country, encourage the use of the railways and protect the environment? If so, should not it be controlled and financed by a partnership of the Government, British Rail and the private sector?

It is clear that Channel tunnel rail services represent such a partnership, because £1 billion of British Rail money is being spent on the first phase of improving rail links, even before the matter of a new line arises. It is right that the new line should be a commercial proposition, because it will be in competition with the airlines., ferries and other private modes of transport. I do not foresee any need for a public sector subsidy, but it is an appropriate project for British Rail and the private sector to operate as a joint venture.

Does not the Minister agree that it would be sensible for British Rail to use the year that it now has to rethink its policy and use other methods, under which it could consider the comprehensive services that it offers? Does he agree that services to the north are not comprehensive and need further consideration?

British Rail and its partner are using the year to consider some of the measures that the hon. Gentleman suggested, including the route from Swanley to King's Cross. British Rail brought forward a comprehensive plan on links to the other regions. It offers about 3 million seats from the regions to Paris and Brussels and a comprehensive series of freight services from every part of the country. That is a good plan, but if the hon. Gentleman has proposals on how it should be modified, I am sure that the last full stop has not been put to it.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the prospect of Channel tunnel traffic hurtling along existing British Rail track in Bromley and elsewhere is horrific and totally unacceptable? Will he therefore look more closely and sympathetically than he has hitherto at the alternative proposals presented by Ove Arup and Partners, which provides for a national rail infrastructure with reduced environmental damage and disturbance?

British Rail believes that until the turn of the century the new Channel tunnel services will be accommodated on the existing system without disrupting commuter services, and it is important that they should be preserved. Together with its private sector partner, British Rail is considering whether extra capacity will be needed at about the turn of the century. Its private sector partner was chosen after competition, which included firms such as Ove Arup. Ove Arup's proposal includes making four tracks through much of Kent, which might be more environmentally damaging than the two tracks proposed by British Rail and its private sector partner.

Do the Minister and the Secretary of State accept that if we are to get the best economic advantage for Britain and the north, with the least environmental damage to London and the south, we should repeal section 42 of the Channel Tunnel Act 1987? That would allow him and the Secretary of State to reassess the alternatives, so that Britain's national interests are catered for rather than the private interests of the City.

That is a controversial proposal. Section 42 was approved by Parliament and enjoyed all-party support. That section stated that there should not be any subsidy to the Channel tunnel. The reason why that section was introduced and approved by Parliament was sound. Parliament did not want the Channel tunnel to undermine other forms of transport that had to get by without subsidy. What stands in our way is not just section 42 but its underlying principle, which commended itself to Parliament at the time.

I remind my hon. Friend that the fears for the Kent environment are very much alive. Will he, in his discussions with British Rail, ensure that British Rail does not backslide on the considerable measures that it has taken to protect the environment and which were built into its previously announced plans?

British Rail and its private sector partner are well aware of the immense importance that the Government attach to environmental protection. The requirement that an environmental impact study should be published at the time will be part of the process of introducing a Bill on this subject. I hope that that is of some consolation to my hon. Friend, who has been a champion for his constituents in this matter.