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High-Speed Rail

Volume 450: debated on Wednesday 11 October 2006

Mr. Weir, imagine a railway line that could get you from Edinburgh or Glasgow to London in three hours instead of the five or six hours that it takes now—a world-class, high-speed link and a journey that is safe, reliable, comfortable and makes the minimum impact on the environment. That would be a journey that the Minister and I would take regularly, if only we could.

I am delighted to have secured this debate at what I believe is an opportune time while we await the publication of Sir Rod Eddington’s review of transport policy. It is important that high-speed rail is at the top of our agenda, and I welcome the Minister to respond to this debate.

Travelling regularly from Edinburgh and Glasgow to London by air and then to Westminster by train is part of our job. I have tried all the alternatives: the train during the day, the sleeper and the car. I am in no doubt that if a high-speed rail link existed it would not only be popular but would have an economic and environmental impact that would benefit cities and regions throughout the land.

On 22 September, Virgin’s Pendolino tilting train broke a 25-year record when it made the journey from Glasgow to London in less than four hours on the west coast main line. The event gained considerable media and public attention, but a French tourist at Euston station would have been less impressed. While we were celebrating our own record, across the channel the French were celebrating the 25th anniversary of the hugely successful TGV high-speed train. While today’s debate will focus on the prospects for high-speed rail links in the UK, it is worth remembering that in many other countries it has been a staple of the transportation system for 20 years. The first high-speed rail line was the Japanese Shinkansen project—the bullet train—which opened in the 1960s in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. However, the main growth era was in the 1980s as lines were built across many European countries. Today there are an estimated 2,500 km of dedicated high-speed lines across Europe and it is expected that by 2020 there will be 10,000 km of such lines crossing the entire continent. To put that into perspective, the UK will contribute an expected 113 km of that total.

A European high-speed rail network is beginning to take shape and those projects have created widely recognised symbols of national pride. It is a great failing of ours that since the 1980s the British railway network has more often been a source of national shame than of national pride. Why can Taiwan move from planning a high-speed rail link in the early 1990s to completing it, when we are stuck in the past?

I hope that the Minister will indicate where he thinks we stand in relation to the rest of Europe and elsewhere, because we were once in the lead in the design, construction and development of the railway industry. The Forth rail bridge—or half of it—is in my constituency. That engineering marvel is recognised worldwide. It shows that where there is a will, we deliver. If we could do that 100 years ago, we should be able to do more today. Today, the main passenger routes between central Scotland and London, the west coast main line and the east coast main line, use track routes that were laid down more than a century ago. Until recently, the west coast line had had no significant investment since the 1960s, despite being the UK’s busiest mixed-traffic railway. Railtrack set out an ambitious upgrading plan, which was costed at about £2 billion. With a completion date of about 2002, it is six years behind schedule, and it is estimated to run over budget and cost up to £7 billion or £8 billion. The channel tunnel rail link, in contrast, will carry trains up to speeds of 300 kph, and it will, we hope, open on schedule and on budget in 2007.

I hope the Minister agrees that it would be impossible to develop any strategic improvements in Scotland without the UK network being part of the plan. I mention that because certain other parties believe that it is possible, and that decisions from a separated Scotland could determine transport south of the border. I shall understand if you, Mr. Weir, take a different view.

David Begg, among many other things, heads the Northern Way strategy’s transport group, a Government-sponsored body that is charged with making northern England more competitive. He recently said that the rail network will soon require a new line anyway, as it will be full to capacity in 12 years. The key point is that our rail network is creaking under the strain of overcrowding, and it will not be able to meet the projected increase in freight and passengers in the medium term—far less in the long term.

Although the network faces undoubted challenges, we should not consider them in isolation from the rest of the transport network. In the near future, we shall have to change our entire transport network because of the environmental, social and economic pressures upon us. Our heavily congested transportation system tops the list of concerns in surveys of business interests. Congestion costs the UK economy an estimated £20 billion a year. We are the most car-dependent country in Europe and, under this Government, traffic has risen by 11 per cent. since 1997, despite repeated promises to reduce it.

There is a growing awareness of the environmental impact of our present transport system. The urgent need to lower our emissions sits uneasily with the recent explosion in air travel and our increasingly overcrowded roads. The emerging consensus on the need to tackle those issues is important, and they are climbing up the agenda.

Similarly, although the vast majority of UK transport emissions are from private vehicles, the aviation industry is rapidly becoming a major contributor. That must be set against a backdrop where the demand for fast and efficient transport will continue to increase. Although aviation produces only 7 per cent. of the carbon dioxide emissions released by Britain’s private vehicles, it is on course to become an equal greenhouse gas emitter by 2012, according to information from the Tyndall centre for climate change research in Manchester.

Only yesterday, the figures for Glasgow airport’s future were released in its 25-year masterplan. If we add them to the planned expansion at Edinburgh, the 18 million passengers using these airports each year will rise to almost 50 million by 2030. That is the equivalent of 50 flights an hour, every hour, of which half go to other cities in the UK. Those destinations could easily be reached by rail if the alternative were attractive and available.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I agree with all that he has said, and I hope that I agree with the rest of his speech, too. On the question of links to other cities in the UK, should not we bear in mind another comparison with Europe? In many European countries, there are cities where, 10 or 15 years ago, air travel was common, but where high-speed rail is now considered the norm. Airline companies choose to route their passengers through rail links between, for example, Paris and Brussels, precisely because a high-speed rail link exists. We could do with them in this country.

I agree with that well made point, which I shall cover in more detail later.

We will justify a high-speed rail link neither merely by pointing out the problems with the high emissions of short-haul flights, nor by complaining about our congested roads. Any argument must show that it will be a quicker, greener and cost-effective alternative that people will choose to use. If we can demonstrate that, the case will be irrefutable.

A north-south link would connect the major cities of northern England and Scotland with the midlands and London. There could be direct routes to Heathrow, the channel tunnel rail link and central London. Journey times would be transformed, with times between Edinburgh and London slashed to around two and a half to three hours.

The evidence shows that throughout the 400 km to 800 km range of journey lengths, high-speed rail is the fastest way to travel. For a country the size of the UK, it is an attractive proposition. Experience abroad shows that provided high-speed rail were affordable, it would have a major impact on those figures. On trips of three hours or less, the TGV dominates the market in France. A further useful comparison is the Eurostar service, which boasts a 71 per cent. market share of the London to Paris route, and 64 per cent. of the London to Brussels route. The key point is that if we provide a rail service with competitive travel times and cost, people will use it.

A similar shift from air to rail would have a dramatic impact on emissions. Passengers who fly between London, Paris and Brussels generate about 10 times more emissions of the greenhouse gas CO2 than travellers who go by rail, according to independent research published only last week. A round trip between London’s Heathrow airport and Brussels airport generates 160 kg of CO2 per passenger, compared with an estimated 18 kg of CO2 for the same return journey by rail.

I am fortunate enough to have Edinburgh airport in my constituency, and I am as aware as anyone of its huge economic benefits. It brings more than 3,000 jobs directly and more indirectly, and it is a gateway for Scottish tourism. However, the most dramatic benefits have come with the increase in long-haul flights. By reducing the number of highly pollutant domestic short-haul flights, we will free runway space for the international flights that people want. They generate more income and provide a bigger boost to tourism.

It is a mistake to assume that the aviation industry is diametrically opposed to high-speed rail or that it would be the major loser because of any link. The Edinburgh airport masterplan published recently takes into account the impact of a potential high-speed link from Edinburgh to London. When all that is taken into account, and when 60 to 90 per cent. of that demand—if France is used for comparison—could be met by the more environmentally friendly alternative of high-speed rail, it simply does not make sense to use scarce airport capacity for domestic flights.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent speech, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. It would be disingenuous of me to use his valuable time to badger the Minister about the loss of the late-night rail service to Newbury, however it would support the argument that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) makes. People—business people in particular—are changing their patterns of travel, and to expand on his point, we must second-guess those travel demands. Does he agree that a terrible lag in business travel developments has encouraged business people to use air? A properly marketed operation would enable more of the business community to use the high-speed rail services that he describes.

To sum up, if the high-speed alternative were available, business men would use it. Businesses, business people and the environment would benefit from it.

In spite of the environmental benefits, in the real world we will win the argument on high-speed rail only if we can show that it will benefit the wider UK economy. One key argument used to persuade people to support the 2012 Olympic games was that it would benefit the whole UK. High-speed rail will do the same, but it must be presented in that way.

The so-called north-south divide widened between 1997 and 2005, but according to a recent study by economic analysts at Cambridge Econometrics, a high-speed rail link would help to relieve that disparity. Regional business groups say that a high-speed line could transform their fortunes, with direct foreign investment in the north-east doubling to £5.7 billion a year, according to one estimate. In the long term, the south can fulfil its economic potential only if its transport system is expanded, and the north only if its perceived disadvantage in location can be overcome.

I have not sought to deal with the matter of route choice. Should high-speed rail be given the go-ahead, there will be a great debate on what route any proposed line should take. The subject is worth a debate in its own right, and I hope that we will be able to have a discussion on it in the future.

Cost is always an important issue and I am particularly aware of the rising cost of transport projects. With the cost of the proposed Edinburgh airport rail link in my own constituency rising to about £500 million and that of the replacement Forth road bridge—or tunnel, as I would prefer—under discussion, we must accept that transport infrastructure is costly. Does the Minister believe that Network Rail has introduced mechanisms that can control costs and allow the planning of major new projects to proceed on time and within budget?

Constructing the high-speed rail link would undoubtedly be an expensive project. Estimated costs range between £11 billion and £36 billion. The Government are understandably wary of major capital investment, but a high-speed rail link would bring massive economic advantages. Even at the highest estimate, a high-speed London to Scotland railway would bring in benefits of double its price tag. As a comparison, a Trident replacement would cost an estimated £76 billion according to some estimates. I leave hon. Members to weigh up the comparative cost-effectiveness and benefits of the two projects.

The cost of construction, of course, is only part of the problem. Land acquisition would be a major issue, as would fares. The UK has the highest fares in Europe and few would argue that our rail network is the envy of the continent. However, if construction costs are properly managed, fares should stay low enough not to choke off potential demand. In view of that, it is unhelpful that UK taxpayers currently give the aviation industry an effective subsidy of £9.2 billion a year. Airlines pay no tax on the fuel that they use and virtually no VAT, and they benefit from duty-free. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on the benefits of levelling that playing field.

Although cost is a major concern, a more formidable obstacle to any high-speed rail link is political will, or rather the lack of it. Cross-party support would be essential. The construction of a major new rail line would take far longer than the duration of a Government, and we need urgently to apply more long-term thinking to our transport network. Moreover, since the advent of devolution, for any plan to get the go-ahead there would have to be agreement between Holyrood and Westminster. I can say with assurance that the current Liberal Democrat Minister for Transport in the Scottish Parliament is right behind the idea. The ball is in the Government’s court and I await the Minister’s response with eager anticipation. Britain invented passenger railways 175 years ago; I urge the Government to take the urgent steps required to reinvent them.

First, I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Weir. I know that you have sacrificed your attendance at an important conference elsewhere in the country. I am confident that you will find that the quality of the debate is far in excess of what you might have expected at your party conference.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) on securing the debate and providing an opportunity for the House to discuss high-speed rail links. I thank him also for providing my first opportunity to address the House in my new role. He raised a number of points and I shall cover many of them. If he wishes to raise something specific I shall be happy to give way.

I shall deal first with Network Rail and its ability to control the cost of capital projects. That is, of course, a priority for the Government and for Network Rail, but nobody can predict with any certainty the precise cost of any capital project because, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the time scale would be a number of years. Nobody knows for sure what inflationary effect there would be on an initial cost estimate.

The hon. Gentleman said that few would claim that our network is the envy of Europe. I take him to task on that, because not only do many aspects of our rail industry outstrip performance in Europe, but the model of the British rail network is being examined by European Governments who wish to privatise and restructure their own rail networks along our model.

The House will be aware that the Labour party’s 2005 manifesto committed us to looking at the feasibility and affordability of a new north-south high-speed rail link. The Government have subsequently committed to take the matter forward in the development of a long-term strategy for the railways, drawing on Sir Rod Eddington’s advice on the long-term impact of transport decisions on the UK’s productivity, stability and growth.

Before I turn to the case for high-speed rail links, it is important that I put the debate the context of the current success of Britain’s railways. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I range slightly wider than the narrow subject matter of the debate. After a number of difficult years, Britain’s railways are a success story. It is interesting to note that when I was first appointed to my job, friends would ask me, “What are you responsible for?” I would first say, “Railways”, and inevitably they would tilt their heads sympathetically and tut, and sometimes shake their heads. There is a gap between the public perception of Britain’s railways and the reality, as I hope to show. Passenger numbers are growing significantly, and in 2005 there was the highest number of passenger journeys for 50 years. Last year more than 1 billion journeys were made on the national rail network, an increase of 2.5 per cent. since 2004. Britain’s is the fastest-growing major railway in Europe. There have been significant increases in long-distance and regional services, with annual growth of about 5 per cent. in each. That growth reflects the record levels of investment in the network. For example, there has been a growth of 34 per cent. in west coast services between London and Manchester since the journey time was reduced by more than 20 minutes and the frequency doubled in 2004.

Alongside the growth in passenger numbers, rail freight is increasing. In 2005-06, 22.1 billion net tonne kilometres of rail freight were moved on the national rail network, a growth of 66 per cent. since privatisation. Performance has improved markedly in recent years thanks to the renewed focus on punctuality of Network Rail and the train operators. A co-operative approach to reliability improvement, improved timetabling and investment in joint control centres have at last improved punctuality levels to pre-Hatfield levels. In the last period for which information is available, 87.2 per cent. of trains arrived on time, as measured by the public performance measure, up from an industry low of 74.2 per cent. in October 2001.

Network Rail and the Association of Train Operating Companies announced in December 2003 the successful installation of the train protection and warning system across the entire national network. At the end of May 2006, signals passed at danger risk has reduced by 87 per cent. from the benchmark set in March 2001. Safety and reliability are permanent priorities for the railway. Rail must always be able to demonstrate that it can move people and goods safely from A to B at a reasonable cost and thus meet the basic minimum requirement of any functional transport system. Rail is a relatively efficient mode of transport from an environmental point of view, and provided that it can continue to deliver safe and reliable transport, coping with the growth in demand will be the central challenge facing the railways in the coming years.

On the matter of a high-speed line, in taking a decision on a project of such a scale we need carefully to consider the need for and benefit of it. In other words, before we determine the solution we should understand the problem. In planning priorities, accommodating growing demand for freight and passengers is the central challenge. The work that we have done so far suggests that there will be robust growth between the major cities in the next 20 to 25 years. However, the challenge will be greatest at the London end of the network and around major cities such as Birmingham. A high-speed line could help to deliver the extra capacity needed, but the existing network also has more to contribute. The railway has responded to passenger and freight growth in the past with greater and more efficient use of its assets, by squeezing more and longer trains on to the same network. Train kilometres have increased by 23 per cent. since 1997, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to generate significant new capacity in that way, as the hon. Gentleman correctly said.

Does the Minister accept that having increased freight capacity, but with slow-moving trains and increased passenger capacity at points in the network where speed is of the utmost importance, means that increasing capacity on bottlenecks such as the Forth rail bridge is a real problem? The slow freight trains are stopping the faster passenger trains from increasing in numbers.

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I will talk later about whether freight should share the same lines.

A few years ago the headlines in the press about the railway industry focused on the lack of punctuality and the number of trains cancelled. Now, more often than not, when the press report on the railway industry it talks about capacity and people being squeezed into carriages. That issue is an absolute priority for the Government. When we announced the successful bidder for the South Western franchise a few weeks ago, we were able to say that part of the successful bid included an increase of 20 per cent. at peak times on the network, which is essential across all the franchises if we are to grow the network in future.

It is likely that significant benefits can be gained from within the current rail network by ensuring that we use the available capacity to its maximum. In that regard, Network Rail is taking forward a series of route utilisation strategies—I will try my best to avoid acronyms, which are the bane of the railway industry. The strategies aim to ensure that capacity is used to its maximum and that demand and supply are as closely matched as possible, while ensuring better performance and reliability. The route utilisation strategies process also highlights areas where small to medium-scale investments will enhance capacity and capability.

Solutions such as train lengthening and better timetabling can deliver and have delivered, significant benefits. For example, Network Rail’s recent route utilisation strategy for the south-west indicated that about 50 per cent. additional peak-time capacity can be provided through those measures and within the boundaries of the existing network, yet without the extra expenditure of increasing infrastructure.

Having considered those relatively simple solutions to optimise the use of the network, we should also investigate the important role that technology is likely to have, as we seek to increase the carrying capacity of the railway. Moving from line-side to in-cab signalling, coupled with substantial increases in reliability and selective removal of infrastructure bottlenecks, could release significant additional capacity.

Although we think of rail as congested—the hon. Gentleman referred to the possible congestion on the network in 12 years—there is typically a gap of several miles between trains on the main lines. Most experts believe that it should be possible to use the railway much more intensively by adopting in-cab signalling, where each train knows its own position and adjusts its speed to keep a safe distance from the trains in front and behind. A signalling-based solution could in principle have a lower financial and environmental cost than building new infrastructure. However, although the technology has been proven on metros, it remains expensive and has yet to be fully developed for a complex multi-purpose network such as ours.

The current UK high-speed train fleet, which is one of the great success stories of the British railway, is now approaching 30 years in service. The Government are co-coordinating and sponsoring the programme to develop an appropriate replacement strategy. The challenge includes delivering increased capacity and reducing environmental impacts. For example, by reducing wasted space, a longer carriage vehicle could provide a further 16 per cent. of extra furnishable space, with no reduction in comfort, when compared to today’s high-speed trains. Thus, in the short to medium term, the Government believe that there are opportunities to increase the carrying capacity on the rail network within the current boundaries.

Nevertheless, the Government are still considering the need for a step change in capacity on the railways. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not take any of my comments so far as meaning that the Government have in any way ruled out high-speed rail links. Such a step change can be delivered in a number of ways, for example, through a major upgrade of the existing network—that is, by adding new lines alongside the current alignment—by building a new line of conventional speed or of high speed, or from building a new line using magnetic levitation technology, or Maglev.

This is perhaps an appropriate moment for me to take pause and offer my sincere condolences, on behalf of the Government, to the friends and family of the 23 people who tragically lost their lives in the accident at the German Maglev test facility last month.

In referring to that tragic accident, will the Minister acknowledge that the tragedy had nothing whatever to do with the technology?

I am more than happy to accept that. In fact, I was in Berlin the week the accident happened and was told on my arrival about a plan by the federal and local governments finally to construct a commercial Maglev line—no longer a test line—in Munich. I was interested and glad to hear today that those plans have not been derailed. I also understand that two members of maintenance staff are being investigated for possible charges of manslaughter as a result of the accident, which had absolutely nothing to do with the technology.

To return to the choice between a high-speed link or a Maglev, we will need to take account of many factors to assess the most appropriate solution in considering such a step change. The most critical of those will include the overall cost—that is, up-front capital cost and whole-life costs—the environmental impact of any scheme, and the benefits that are accrued to the passenger and economy from journey time reductions. There is a range of estimates for the cost of a new line, which depend on the route and the technology, but they all suggest that it would cost a very large amount of money, in the order of tens of billions of pounds.

On the face of it, upgrading existing lines might may appear a cheaper option. However, it might prove more cost-effective to build one new line than to upgrade three existing main lines, especially as that would limit the disruption that has affected passengers on the west coast main line during its upgrade.

I failed to congratulate the Minister on his new post, and would like to correct that mistake by welcoming him to it now. His new role gives him a key opportunity to get to grips with the brief and see what is happening elsewhere in the world. Other countries have chosen to move ahead and make substantial investments, accepting that although the financial cost is high, the option might be the best for the future. Will the Minister, in his new role, look at what has happened elsewhere in the world?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I would be absolutely delighted to accept any invitation from almost any Government in a foreign country to take a faraway flight to look at their transport systems. Of course it is important that Governments use the experience of best practice elsewhere in the world. I hope that that is exactly what this one will continue to do.

With either a new line or an existing line, the sums of money involved are substantial. As much of the money would come directly or indirectly from the taxpayer, the Government have a duty to ensure that the scheme would offer good value for money.

Whatever the nature of the upgrade, the speed of operation would need to be considered. In that respect, the case for a new line is not self-evident. As of now, rail emits less CO2 than either cars or planes. In carbon terms, conventional rail is more than twice as efficient as the car and more than three times more efficient than short-haul aviation. However, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, as speed increases, energy consumption—and hence carbon emissions per passenger mile—also increases. Air resistance quadruples with every doubling of speed, so trains, in common with cars or planes, need to burn progressively more fuel to reach and maintain higher speeds.

Furthermore, increasing speed has only a limited effect on journey time where runs between stations are relatively short, as they inevitably are in the UK. The need for the train to decelerate, stop and accelerate again limits the benefits of high top speed. However, it is load factors that might be crucial. Rail’s advantage is much greater at high levels of occupancy, while a low-use rail service is an energy-inefficient transport option, so we want to be running trains that are full across the route.

It is possible that reducing journey times between major urban centres could benefit the economy as a whole, by enabling workers to access a greater range of jobs—and employers a greater range of employees—and by enabling businesses to trade with a wider range of suppliers and markets. The question we must answer is how significant that will be, especially for a country with the geography such as the United Kingdom’s, where most of the major urban areas are already within two to three hours of each other.

These are complex questions that must be addressed from a genuinely multi-modal perspective. The case for, and nature of, such a project will depend on the balance of advantage between the wide range of factors that I have discussed. Robust evidence will be essential to inform what is certain to continue to be a vigorous and important debate. The Department for Transport and Sir Rod Eddington are working through the issues with an open mind. Our conclusions, drawing on Sir Rod’s report, will contribute to the long-term strategy for the railways to be published next summer.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Five o’clock.