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Rail Freight

Volume 470: debated on Tuesday 22 January 2008

We provide grants to encourage the transfer of freight from road to rail, and more than £44 million has been awarded for the next three years. In addition, we are providing more than £150 million from the transport innovation fund for rail infrastructure improvements that particularly benefit rail freight by improving services to and from the major ports, and a further £200 million for the development of a strategic freight network to provide a core network of trunk freight routes.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that encouraging answer. She will be aware of the impending upgrading of the railway track between Southampton and the midlands, which will enable Southampton to develop much greater freight services from the port, but is she also aware that freight services on rail, upgraded or not, generally stop at weekends? Might she seek to talk to the freight transport companies and Network Rail to find out whether methods could be employed that would enable seven-day working, subject to the maintenance of the railway track?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is important for the region and the nation’s economy that we have rail services that can work for freight not only during the week but at weekends, but it is also important for passengers that freight services can be accommodated outside the ordinary working day. That is why the strategic freight network is so important. We have allocated £200 million to unlock pinch points for freight services, some of which will help to alleviate the specific problem to which my hon. Friend refers. It is extremely important that over time we try to encourage freight services at weekends as well as during the week.

Why did the nationalised Post Office transfer so much of its activity from rail freight to the roads? Does the Secretary of State have any plans that might encourage the railways to win that business back?

The answer is a very simple one: it was a commercial decision for the Post Office. The fact of the matter is that rail freight is growing incredibly quickly; it has increased by about 49.5 per cent. over the past 10 years. We can do more—I would like more goods to be shifted by rail freight over the coming years—but ultimately these are decisions that commercial companies have to take for themselves.

I am glad to hear that my right hon. Friend is committed to developing the use of rail for freight. She will be aware that many Members of this House share the ambition of the Northern Way to reopen the Woodhead line, not least because doing so would offer us the opportunity to carry more freight by rail in the north. Will she therefore commit to ensuring that the National Grid Company does not use the 1953 Woodhead tunnel for its recabling work, because doing so would dash completely any hope that we have of reopening that line for freight?

My hon. Friend makes her point in her own way, but it is important that we keep as many options open as possible. I have had contact with the National Grid Company about this, and I think that two points are true. First, it owns the tunnel and can invest in its own cabling in the tunnel. Secondly, it has assured us that even if it did that, it would not preclude reopening the tunnel for freight traffic were the growth of freight traffic to warrant it. I am committed to ensuring that we work with the National Grid Company to keep all options on the table.

The east of England had accepted the need for one strategic rail freight interchange. Since that decision was taken, the Bexley and Shellhaven developments—two in the east of England—have been approved. Will the Secretary of State bear that in mind when the Planning Inspectorate’s decision comes before her in respect of granting or not granting such a development in Radlett in my constituency? We do not need it accessed from our busy roads. We have more than sufficient capacity, given the two decisions that have been made since the application was made.

The hon. Lady is one of the few Members in this House who speaks out against the desirability of increasing rail freight in the future. Rail freight has much potential—it is good for the environment and the economy. It is important that we invest in such a way as to unlock potential pinch points on the network and enable more goods to be delivered by freight. Clearly the Planning Inspectorate needs to examine some issues, and if her claims are right the matter will come before me in due course. It would not be right for me to comment on any possible outcome of that process.

My right hon. Friend realises that an important part of the development of the rail freight system is the four-tracking of the west coast main line north of Tamworth, and her Department is aware that a bridge across a road in Tamworth, which was due for completion in July 2007, is yet to be completed. Without greater control over these projects, does she have plans for the development or merely hopes?

My hon. Friend will know that this is Network Rail’s responsibility, so I urge him to take the matter up with Network Rail and encourage it to make faster progress on that part of the route. I will of course mention the issue when I next meet Network Rail.

The Secretary of State will know that one of the conditions for approving Felixstowe docks’ plans for expansion was that they invest some £50 million in improvements to the rail network, some of the locations being as much as 100 miles away from the docks. Will she explain why it is impossible for Railtrack to give them any long-term guarantees of access for rail freight for their purposes? How does that square with joined-up government?

It is clearly important that any commitments are fulfilled. In future, we intend to look right across modes to ensure that when we think about investment in ports we think about the need to carry goods by rail as well as by road, where it makes sense to do so. That is why we commissioned the Eddington study, which will allow us to look right across the network to see what can be delivered in different ways. I shall examine the specific points that the hon. Gentleman raised and get back to him.