Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mark Tami.]
I very much welcome the opportunity to raise some issues in this debate. I assure the House that I do not intend it to be what we in Scotland call a greeting meeting, where we just catalogue all the complaints. There will be some of those, but I hope that we can focus on what we can and should be doing to fulfil ambitions for the services. I say that with some feeling, as I represent a constituency that is literally at the farthest end of the east coast main line. In that context, may I stress to the Minister my earnest hope that he will make it clear that the east coast main line runs from London to Aberdeen, not from London to Edinburgh? That is a genuine concern, not least because it is London to Edinburgh when investment decisions are being made, but London to Aberdeen for operational services.
I hope that the Minister will understand that those of us who represent constituencies and stations north of Edinburgh are campaigning energetically for some commitment to improve the quality of the service, not least because if the time comes, as I hope it will, when we have high-speed links to the central belt, the north of Scotland will also have at least relatively high-speed links to enable passengers to access cross-border routes effectively.
Debates about cross-border rail routes have been going on as long as there have been such routes—perhaps 150 years or more. It is a matter of regret to me that I rarely travel on the cross-border routes, not from any prejudice against trains—quite the reverse, I enjoy travelling by train—but because, frankly, the journey times are impossible for somebody who travels as often and as regularly as I do.
As it happens, Aberdeen airport is in my constituency. It is expanding in both passenger numbers and services, but there are people who object to its expansion. They offer the usual arguments about pollution, noise and climate change. I point out to them that, although I am sympathetic to their arguments, the truth is that the airport is the lifeline communication for an economy such as ours.
I would like to believe that there is an aspiration to ensure that people have real choice and that surface transport, particularly rail, is a genuine, viable alternative for more people more often than is currently the case. For the record, the journey time between London and Aberdeen is between seven and seven and a half hours. Indeed, most journeys are in excess of seven and a half hours, and that is only the time from station to station. By the time one adds on access to the station, particularly city centre stations, and travel across London, one is talking about a journey of nearly nine hours, as compared with my air journey yesterday, which, even though delayed, was about four hours. I am sure Members will understand that there really is no contest when people have to make a choice.
At present, several issues have clearly caused concern and anger. The Minister will not be surprised to hear me refer to the disruption caused by the engineering works at Christmas time. Virgin has estimated that it lost £10 million in revenue, and 50,000 people were affected by the disruption and the fact that it went on well beyond the predicted time. Somebody sarcastically said, “We are back to BR,” but “BR” meant bus replacement rather than British Rail.
Dan Roberts wrote in The Daily Telegraph about the problem. To be fair, taking the whole article, he acknowledged that, given the age of the infrastructure, it is surprising that for much of the time our trains run on time and provide a reasonable service. The problem is one of predictability. He states:
“The perverse paradox of Britain’s bungled privatisation experiment”—
I do not expect the Minister to defend privatisation, as he and his Government were not responsible for it—
“is that railways are expensive and unreliable because they are so popular. There’s not enough slack in the crowded system to allow trains to route around maintenance closures. But rather than spend the billions needed to lay new track, Network Rail and its dysfunctional private counterparts seem happier letting rising prices keep demand in check.
Sadly, profits have little to do with operational effectiveness and everything to do with how poorly or otherwise the contracts are negotiated.”
A discussion that does not deserve mileage in this debate is whether Virgin, Arriva or National Express is better or worse, or whether Network Rail is responsible. We tend to hear enough over the airwaves of train operators blaming the track operator and vice versa—presumably the track operators blame the train operators for having the discourtesy to run trains on their tracks and generally making it inefficient for them to operate a network—but such debates do not really get us anywhere. What is really required is to bring all this together in ways that will meet the needs and expectations of passengers.
There are three passenger franchises covering the cross-border rail services: National Express on the inter-city east coast main line, Arriva-owned CrossCountry Rail, which took over the franchise in the past few months, and, of course, Virgin on the west coast. As they are relatively new services, it is not possible to evaluate them, although there is anecdotal evidence. No doubt in due course we will be able to determine how well they are performing.
Many people regret the passing of the Great North Eastern Railway, or GNER. The irony is that one of the most popular franchises lost its right to operate because of the failure of its parent company, not because of shortcomings in its operations. Indeed, it was the franchise that passengers put at the top of their preferences. The new franchise clearly has quite an act to follow, and we hope that it will maintain the standard.
The other problem is that since the new franchises have taken over, they have announced some of the biggest fare rises on all the routes. National Express East Coast fares will increase by 6.6 per cent., and CrossCountry by 7 per cent. Both increases are measured at the retail prices index plus 2 per cent. That is significantly above the average 5.4 per cent. increase across the whole network, which itself is above inflation, and may bear out the comments that I just read out from The Daily Telegraph.
The Government may argue that above-inflation fares are needed to enable services to be improved, but I believe that passengers would like services to be improved first, rather than think that they are paying for something that may not materialise. In any case, if we are serious about the long-term aspirations of developing the network and encouraging more people on to it, it is reasonable to expect that fares will not increase above inflation. Indeed, in an expanding network that was actively encouraging people to transfer to it, one would hope that, if anything, fare increases would be below the overall RPI.
There are some other worrying indications. I need to press the Minister a little more about the negotiations and terms of the contracts, about which I have had some correspondence with him and others. When Arriva CrossCountry came through as the winner of the franchise in July last year, it said that it would introduce an older fleet of trains and cut back on-board services such as toilets and shops. I was contacted yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who would have been here were it not for the fact that his Select Committee commitments prevented him. He asked me to point out his concerns about the services that pass through his constituency, in particular through Berwick. He is appalled to hear suggestions that hot food services could be cut in standard class between Dundee and Penzance.
Evidence suggests that not many passengers take the whole journey on that train, but the train makes the whole journey and people have the right to do so, too. If people taking a significant chunk of the journey from Dundee to Penzance are told that they will be on the train for hours but that no hot food will be available, it is pretty poor provision. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what is happening. If the argument is that by not having hot food and having fewer toilets we can seat more passengers, it means that more passengers will be offered a poorer service. Are those the expectations? Is such provision within the contract that the Government negotiated? What is the justification for that? I hope that the bid was not accepted because it cost the least in subsidies, rather than because it met the balance between cost-effectiveness and passenger need. Will the Minister share with hon. Members how the Government balance the two factors of value for money for the taxpayer, in terms of a lower subsidy, and comfort and efficiency for the passenger? It is not right for one to be completely traded for the other. I hope that the Minister agrees.
Just this week, there was a demonstration by passengers on First Great Western, boycotting that railway, refusing to pay or using fake tickets. I do not want to make too much of that, but there are clearly pinch points where passengers feel aggrieved because, although they are paying, in some cases, significant sums to use trains, they are not getting the service they expect so, not surprisingly, their anger rises.
The Government, perhaps understandably, are anxious to control or reduce the subsidy given to the railways—we need a debate about that. However, that has to be part of a genuine public engagement about where the burden is shared. If it is simply a matter of the Treasury reining back on the cost of the railways and, in effect, offloading it on to passengers by saying, “We do not have the capacity anyway, so we can charge them more and more and actually it will be helpful if they go elsewhere”, that ignores the wider debate about climate change, pollution, congestion and so on.
One of the reversals of progress, compared with 150 years ago, or even in my lifetime—50 years ago, say—is that people used to be able to walk into a station, ask about the route and find out which fare, by whatever class they wanted to travel, provided the best value from A to B. That is no longer an option. The amount of questioning, effort and research that is needed to find the best route and the best fare is disproportionate to the result.
When I was researching for the debate, I was intrigued to see that one of Arriva’s commitments for its new cross-country franchise was to provide a website showing clearly the cheapest fare and the quickest way to make journeys. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether he or his constituents have any experience of whether that website is up and running yet?
I do not know, although I will give a sample of fares for part of that route later. However, the hon. Gentleman makes my point. It is all very well saying, “We have a route—one route—and we can tell you exactly what the best fare is on it”, but many people travelling cross-border have to change trains and operators, particularly when going from north-east to south-west, or vice versa, and that is where the difficulties arise. That was true in Victorian times, too, but there was none the less an integrated timetable and fare structure, so it is not something that was possible only during the British Rail era.
The whole fare-pricing structure involves the price, the name of the ticket and its validity, any conditions attached to it, its variability and whether it is appropriate for the journey that people are taking. Increasingly, people are prepared to use the internet, hoping that it will have done the work for them, to search for the best fare. However, that is a matter of trust; people do not know how good the internet service is and the extent to which it has provided the right answer. In any case, they have to ask the right questions.
A considerable amount of research is still required to find the cheapest price. People have to book early in advance, if they can, for the cheaper, fairer prices that the Government say are available, but which are often buried in an obscure area, for an obscure train at an obscure time. If that is so, it is a meaningless option. The French have a “most recently bought” competitive fare, which enables passengers to know which fare people buy most regularly and how it compares with other fares.
As information is not available and people cannot find the best deals, journeying by rail is becoming increasingly beyond the means of the majority of people in this country, particularly if they are travelling, as I have sometimes tried to do, with a family, notwithstanding family rail cards and the like. My office priced a journey for a long weekend next month, travelling on Thursday and returning on Monday, from Huntly in my constituency to Bristol. That is not an unusual journey—it is not true that everybody wants to go to London—but the cheapest price for one adult is a saver return at £168.30 on a restricted ticket. When I talked to someone from my local newspaper about that, he said, “Don’t you mean £68.30?” I repeated that the ticket cost £168.30. A standard open return ticket costs £279, which is a pretty steep jump.
People can pay a cheaper fare if they have the patience and time to investigate the single fares on offer. Of course, that has become the great catch. Most people assume that if they are buying a return ticket there is a discount—a deal. However, increasingly, the way to find the best deal is to buy two singles, independently, from opposite ends of the proposed journey. If people do that for a return journey from Huntly to Bristol, they can find a return fare totalling £92, but the tickets are valid only on specified trains. That is a serious problem, because even people who are pretty clear about when they want to travel can find that circumstances change, and their whole ticket would be invalidated if that happened.
Just for the record, the train journey from Huntly to Bristol takes 10 and a half hours. According to the AA, the road journey takes nine hours and 55 minutes on 547 miles of road. Although I am not sure that I believe that figure, I shall use it for a comparison. Would a family, or even two or three adults, even contemplate a 10 and a half hour train journey that cost, at a minimum, nearly £300 and might cost £500 or £600, or would they take the car?
Although people can find competitive fares, it is not reasonable to expect them to do all the work themselves. There is no guarantee that they will get the most appropriate fare or deal for their circumstances. We need to take a much more radical look at how all these things are operated and reported on. That is not just my view. The Select Committee on Transport has, not surprisingly, looked into the matter and was pretty critical about what it found out in its sixth report of the 2005–06 Session, “How fair are the fares? Train fares and ticketing”. The Committee commented on the costs and said that
“on the whole, there is little doubt that walk-on rail fares in the UK are more expensive than in many European countries.”
It also criticised the lack of flexibility, particularly for walk-on fares:
“It is essential that when rail passengers walk up and buy a ticket immediately before departure, they do not have to pay over the odds. Fully flexible open fares may need to command a price premium over other less flexible tickets, but the prices now charged by many long-distance operators are absurdly high. The ‘see how much we can get away with’ attitude of operators has put the thumbscrews on those passengers who have no option but to travel on peak-hour trains, using fully flexible open fares. Such behaviour has brought not only individual train operators, but the passenger railways in general into disrepute.”
The Committee issued a rebuke about the complexity in unregulated fares. The Government have said that they are putting in place a simplified system, but it is not clear how effective it will be or whether long-distance operators will apply it. If the Minister can give an update about exactly what is being done to try to simplify the structure so that people can access and manage it, I would be grateful.
It is worth recording that, although things have improved, the three cross-border routes attract a high number of complaints. When I asked the Library for information, I was told that, in 2006-07, there were 1,229 complaints against the three train operating companies offering cross-border services, which outnumbered the 973 complaints made against all the remaining 18 train operating companies. There were more complaints against those three operators than the other 18 by a factor of four to three. I accept that the cross-border routes involve longer journeys, but given that many people do not bother to complain and only three operators and three routes are involved, it is indicative that there have been serious problems. However, I acknowledge that the figures seem to have improved.
The situation is not all bad. We have some good operators and some new franchises, but there is still some uncertainty. People want reliability, improved journey times and fair and competitive fares, but we have a long way to go, even within the existing structure, to deliver people’s expectations.
I turn to the vision thing, or perhaps I should call it the lack-of-vision thing. Many people have travelled on continental railways. People travel internationally, so they are aware of what other countries are doing, and they feel that the United Kingdom is falling embarrassingly behind. Japan sets a high standard in reliability, punctuality and cost. My parliamentary researcher, who went to a wedding in Japan over the Christmas and new year period, reminded me of how efficient the Shinkanseng—the bullet train—is in time and price.
I have made some comparisons between the UK and France. France may be the aspirational model, but it is our next-door neighbour and it is reasonable to ask why we are so far adrift from what the French have done. There is no doubt that what has been achieved in France has been the result of genuine political leadership, vision and determination. I shall give an example. The trip from Paris to Marseilles is about 411 miles, compared with 397 miles for the trip from Aberdeen to London. That is the distance as the crow flies, and I accept that the track does not follow the crow, but I am comparing like with like. The journey time is hugely different; from Paris to Marseilles, it is three hours and three minutes, compared with seven hours and eight minutes on a comparable line in the UK, so there is no contest.
Even given the favourable exchange rate, the TGV fare is significantly more affordable. The most popular, most bought fare is £36 return. Recently, I helped my daughter to book a summer rail trip from London to Avignon, which is a direct service that runs in the summer and takes five and a quarter hours. The return fare is £189, which is a fantastic bargain in time and price compared with anything in the UK.
When the Government commissioned a feasibility study on high-speed trains, as they did for their last manifesto, they estimated that £30 billion would be required for a high-speed Scotland to London line. When the White Paper was launched last July, the Secretary of State dismissed proposals for a high-speed railway and suggested that it would not be considered again until 2012, presumably because then we will have digested the Olympics and it will be after the next election. That is not a satisfactory response. The Secretary of State said:
“If the economics or the environmental calculations change, it is right that we consider them in due course”—[Official Report, 24 July 2007; Vol. 465, c. 695.]
I suggest that they are changing, and changing fast.
There are issues of climate change, congestion, pollution and economic diversity in the UK. My constituents and I consider ourselves to be major contributors to the British economy in terms of the goods that we supply, particularly food, to the home counties market. We are heavily engaged in oil and gas, paper and other industries. A high proportion of our customers are in the south of England, and communication with people and goods to the south is of mutual benefit, yet one has the impression that the south of England is quite happy, despite our balance of payments deficit, to import competitive products from the near continent rather than from the UK’s hinterland. Part of the reason for that is that the near continent has invested in high-speed rail links that are not available to the further parts of the United Kingdom.
That economic disadvantage hampers not only the parts of the UK that have the capacity to serve domestic markets, but our own economy, because it means that instead of using domestically produced goods, we are importing them. That is partly due to the lack of infrastructure investment. A fast rail link between Edinburgh and London would help to redress the north-south economic divide, and I am sure the Minister acknowledges that.
We should consider journey times in France, and what a high-speed rail link would do for the United Kingdom. Journey times to the central belt of Scotland could be only two and a half hours, which would have a huge impact on domestic capacity at airports, allow more international flights from domestic airports and reduce the number of journey connections. There would be benefits in reducing aviation, reducing pollution and increasing efficiency.
When I spoke to Virgin, the company said that there is substantial capacity to switch people from planes to trains on, for example, the Glasgow route. It obviously has an obligation to run its services, but it needs upgrades and improvements on the lines to do so. Its plea is for both parts of my submission: first, that we keep investing in existing services to cut down journey times and increase efficiency and reliability, or enable rail companies to do so and, secondly, that we have the vision in the long term to connect to a high-speed link as and when that investment is made.
It is easy to ask where £30 billion or more will come from, but that is where the political will comes in. It is a lot of money, but it can be spread over many years. Governments have a way with figures. When they want to show how much they have spent, they total a huge number of years and say that they are spending billions, and when they want to say how unaffordable something is, they do the same. When they want us to believe that identity cards are a great idea, they say that the cost is just a small amount each year and absorbable within the overall cost. It is a matter of will.
The chief executive of Network Rail favours such an investment—as he would. He talks about London to Glasgow, via Birmingham and Manchester, London to Edinburgh via Leeds and Newcastle, and London to Cardiff via Bristol. There is talk of a possible route linking London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow, perhaps with a branch to Liverpool—[Interruption.]
Order. That is the third occasion on which the debate has been interrupted by an electronic device. Will all hon. Members and observers please ensure that such devices are switched off?
I apologise, Mr. Taylor. I assure you that my phone is now firmly off.
The argument is that we can invest in rail if we want to. Such investment would have a huge transformational effect on the sense of unity of the United Kingdom and its land area. As a Scottish MP who believes in the Union, I say to the Minister that a strategic focus of that kind is a classic example of what the Union can achieve. It will bind us together in a common interest rather than drive us apart.
I make no complaint about the fact that a significant amount of the funding for the railway network in Scotland has been devolved to the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament. I do not quarrel with that because clearly they have more local knowledge. However, I hope that the Government will acknowledge that devolution does not absolve them of strategic consideration for rail services that affect Scotland and England. I do not mean just those that straddle the border, but linking services, too. It is not commonly recognised that, if one is in the central belt of Scotland, there is more than 300 miles of Scotland to the north. My home village of Torphins is 220 miles from the English border, but it is also 220 miles by road from Orkney. Such distances are really important, and railways contribute hugely to shortening those journeys.
I am not arguing for a high-speed link all the way to the north of Scotland, but for real investment in services across the central belt. We need a real commitment to invest in high-speed trains for journeys that include the central belt and we need investment in efficient connecting links. There would be little point in building a high-speed line that cuts the journey time from London to Edinburgh to two and a half hours, which would be comparable to what the French have achieved, if it then takes two and a half hours or more to get from Aberdeen to Edinburgh—a journey of little more than 100 miles—to connect with that service. There needs to be a comparable upgrade in all the services to enable such a high-speed line to work.
I want to make two small local points. One of them is within the remit of the Scottish authorities and the other is not, so I shall speak to the Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) about it. Network Rail made a commitment to upgrade the Aberdeen to Inverness service and to provide for the possibility of a commuter rail link between Inverurie, the main town in my constituency, and Aberdeen, which would have huge benefits for consumers, at a cost of between £60 million and £70 million. Network Rail handed over that responsibility to the Scottish Executive who, so far, have shown no real will to pull together the money. They have argued that the project needs to be phased, showing a complete lack of understanding. The project does not lend itself to phasing, because the track, passing spaces and signalling have to be provided before the rolling stock can be introduced. Once those things are in place, the rolling stock is immediately required. I hope that Network Rail has not handed us a duff transfer.
The other issue is rail freight. A very worthwhile effort to provide subsidy to encourage traffic from road to rail had led to the development of services into and out of Aberdeen. Asda, in particular, was bringing in food for its stores in the north-east and a consortium of local transport organisations was putting together an initiative, too. The rules of the franchise were that there had to be a stopover point in Scotland. As a result, the southward part of the service does not attract subsidy, which means that the service will become non-viable. I hope that Ministers will readdress that point. As I have said before, if we are supplying our goods to the home counties, it seems illogical to enforce a stopover point in Scotland to qualify for the subsidy. I hope that it will be possible for the matter to be concluded.
I have indulged myself, Mr. Taylor, on the grounds that I have not had a huge number of interventions. It has given me the opportunity to range more widely over the course than might otherwise have been the case. I hope that hon. Members will recognise the existence of some very serious issues. I do not suggest for one minute that the Government have no interest and no commitment and have done nothing. Such a comment would be unreasonable and unfair, and I wholly accept that a significant amount of taxpayers’ money is involved. Those of us who were sceptical about privatisation always acknowledged that would be the case anyway, and that achieving a balance was the issue.
I have avoided going into the whole argument about the structure of the railways because that is for another time, another place and another debate. To those who say that we cannot control everything, I point out that all we are concerned about are two issues. Can we have more reliable services, which run more quickly and are more competitively priced, and can we have an aspiration to provide rail investment that will put us on a par with the substantial investment that is taking place across the country?
I hope that the Minister will give us some answers, certainly on some of the detailed points that I have raised, although I am not sure that he will be able to answer my second question. However, that is the kind of vision that our country needs. I submit to the Minister that there is a very strong case for the United Kingdom to recognise that strategic investment of the kind I described benefits the UK economy and all its parts, reduces our balance of payments deficit, increases the efficiency of the distribution of people, goods and services within the United Kingdom and is probably one of the biggest single infrastructure developments that would put us in a competitive position with our continental counterparts. I urge the Government to look for that kind of vision. I am disappointed that so far they seem unwilling to do so.
Thank you, Mr. Taylor. It is a pleasure to see you in the chair this morning. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) on securing this important debate. It is slightly disappointing that there are not more colleagues from both sides of the House with us this morning. Perhaps they are still stuck on a slow train from Scotland. My right hon. Friend was typically eloquent in sharing his concerns about rail services between Scotland and England and made a strong case for improving services. He pointed out that the east coast main line is not just London to Edinburgh. If we are serious about having good rail services, the east coast main line is providing services all the way up the east side to my right hon. Friend’s constituency and to Aberdeen.
The second point that my right hon. Friend made was in relation to the competition that rail services have from the airline industry. Certainly, Aberdeen airport has seen some significant investment and expansion of services that provide very stiff competition to the rail industry. I have to confess that I rarely use cross-border rail services to Scotland, representing as I do the constituency of Manchester, Withington. I am a regular passenger on the west coast main line, but only on the section between Manchester and London. Manchester benefits from a good service to London, which is to be expected given the massive investment in the west coast main line. That has reduced our journey time from Manchester to just over two hours for the quickest service. I have to confess that when I use the late service at night, I am very frustrated that it takes three hours. However, in comparison with what some of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members from other constituencies further north experience, I should be pleased that the journey is only up to three hours.
I am amazed that anyone from Manchester would still choose to fly to London, unless they are on a connecting flight out of the country. When it comes to speed and convenience, the train offers the best choice. However, the situation for services beginning and ending in Scotland is somewhat different. My right hon. Friend mentioned the mammoth seven-and-a-half hour train journey from Aberdeen to London. Yesterday, while preparing for the debate, I checked the journey times of train services from Edinburgh and Glasgow to London. I was amazed that, if I had wanted to take a train from Glasgow or Edinburgh to London this morning, the quickest trains from Edinburgh would have taken four hours and 20 minutes, the time from Glasgow would have been four hours and 25 minutes and the journey times for the vast majority of services from Glasgow and Edinburgh were more like five hours.
My right hon. Friend went on to compare those journey times with the journey times for high-speed rail in France. It takes just over three hours to travel the 400-odd miles between Paris and Marseilles, compared with seven hours to travel the 400-odd miles from Aberdeen to London. People can see the big difference.
If journey times are not enough of a disincentive to choose rail over air services, the increased cost of rail travel is a real and understandable concern for passengers. We can add to that the complicated ticketing structure, which often makes it difficult for passengers to get the cheapest deal. I accept that, if people do their homework, they can get cheap deals on rail services, but that is often quite a lengthy process and, despite the media attention and the report from the Transport Committee to which my right hon. Friend referred, many people are still unaware of the cheaper tickets that they can get hold of.
The relatively cheap cost of flights is a major attraction for passengers. One advantage of flying is that, when someone books a flight, they are guaranteed to be getting the cheapest flight available at the time when they book the ticket, whereas if someone tries to book a train ticket, there is no guarantee that they will get the cheapest ticket.
I will not fall into the trap of comparing the cost of the cheapest flight from Aberdeen to London with the most expensive open single first-class train ticket for the journey from Aberdeen. Having read the record of a previous Westminster Hall debate in which this Minister represented the Government, I do not want to give him the opportunity this morning to dismiss legitimate concerns about the disparity between rail and air fares. However, I have done my homework for the debate and the cheapest rail fare for a return journey between Aberdeen and London is £73.50 and the cheapest return flight costs £60.96. When we take into consideration the very limited scope of the cheapest rail tickets and how difficult it is to purchase them, it is probably reasonable to compare that cheapest flight price with the adult saver price of £117 return, which is almost double the cost and almost double the journey time.
Over the Christmas period, rail passengers suffered a double whammy. They suffered massive delays and disruption to services, and in January that was followed by big price increases, including inflation-busting increases, as my right hon. Friend said, of 6.6 per cent. for National Express services on the east coast and 7 per cent. for the Arriva-run cross-country franchise. It is to be hoped that those fare increases will result in improved services for passengers. My right hon. Friend made the very pertinent point that customers would like to see improvements in rail services before the prices are hiked up.
Following the announcement that Arriva had won the franchise, the Minister argued that the reason for the decision was Arriva’s commitment to increasing capacity on rush-hour trains—an increase of up to 30 per cent. in the number of passenger seats by 2009.
I just want to clarify that point. The hon. Gentleman is referring to the invitation to tender and the requirement in the franchising process for that increase in peak services. It was not part of one particular bid; it was a requirement of all bidders that they come up with solutions that would significantly increase capacity. I think that that should be put on the record.
I thank the Minister for clarifying the point, but certainly one advantage of the Arriva bid was that it intended to increase the number of seats available for passengers. However, that increased capacity comes at a price, because buffet cars and toilets have to be removed, and the changes to the timetable mean that a number of direct services to the south coast and the south-west of England from Scotland have been cut. That will lead to further increases in journey times and some disruption at Birmingham New Street.
I do not believe that anyone will disagree that the future of rail services depends on the investment that the industry receives, whether the money comes from the Government, the train operators or the fare-paying passengers. The cross-border rail industry faces a big challenge to be able to compete with domestic flights. At the moment, it cannot compete on journey times and it struggles to compete on price. The Minister may disagree about prices, but even when rail prices are competitive, there is a general perception that as a passenger it is cheaper to fly.
By 1997, there had been massive under-investment in our railways at the hands of the previous, Conservative Governments. I am willing to accept, and I think that my right hon. Friend accepted, that since 1997 there has been some progress, but so much of the investment in the railways—
Would the hon. Gentleman like to tell us when he thinks that the under-investment in the railways started? Did it start in 1979, 1945 or before then? If he is going to start his railway history by saying that the under-investment was from 1979 onwards, he ought to go and read some railway history, because that is not when the under-investment in our railway services started.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I accept that under-investment in the railways did not start in 1979. I can be forgiven for making that accusation about the previous, Conservative Government, as I was only eight years old when Margaret Thatcher came to power.
You can expect to be corrected every time you make it.
However, I argue that successive Conservative Governments from 1979 to 1997 made little attempt to reverse the decline in investment in the railways. Since 1997, there has been some progress. I am willing to accept that, but so much of the investment in the railways has been spent on catching up as a result of years of neglect and on investing in vital safety work. We would all agree that that is vital, but unfortunately it has often been at the expense of expansion of services.
The Government have promised £10 billion of extra investment over the next five-year period, but that will go only so far. The Liberal Democrats propose to more than double that investment through the introduction of a lorry road user charging scheme and an additional tax on domestic flights, except on lifeline routes. Those additional charges are expected to raise up to £12 billion of up-front investment from the revenue that would be generated over 30 years. That policy would have the added bonus of levelling the playing field between the airline and rail industries and would make it easier for the rail industry to compete on price.
We would also maximise investment from train operating companies by increasing the length of franchises to encourage investment. The Minister may disagree, but there is strong evidence that the certainty of longer franchises would boost investment. Most recently, Virgin proposed to acquire 100 more Pendolino carriages. For a £200 million investment in the west coast mainline, it wanted an extension of its franchise. Will the Minister say something about why the Department chose to block that proposal?
The Liberal Democrats are committed to a revolution in the rail industry. We are looking at detailed plans for network expansion with quick wins and longer-term goals, and we are committed to high-speed services to the north of England and Scotland. Rail will compete with air on a level playing field only when quick services to Scotland compete on journey times and price. Unless we invest further in improved services from north of the border, the danger is that excess demand will be taken up not by rail, but by airlines.
Thank you, Mr. Taylor, and like the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech), I must say that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) on securing the debate. We had a broadly similar debate on 13 March last year. None the less, this is a timely debate because of some of the developments in the past year, including the double whammy at Christmas, which the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington described, and the re-letting of several of the franchises that affect cross-border services.
If one looks at the statistics most recently supplied by what I call the Scottish Executive, but who call themselves the Scottish Government, one can see that there were 2.6 million cross-border journeys originating in Scotland in 2005-06. Quite bizarrely, the number of cross-border journeys originating without Scotland was exactly the same, meaning that there were about 5.2 million cross-border journeys. In that context, one would expect the commitment to rail from the UK Government and the Scottish Executive to accelerate. However, when we look at the Scottish Government’s transport plans, we see that their transport spending on rail services is forecast to decrease—they say that they will spend less on rail in each of the next two years. That is important.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Gordon. He counted three cross-border services: the west coast main line, which is run by Virgin; the east coast main line, which is run by the new National Express franchise; and CrossCountry, which is run by Arriva. Of course, there is a fourth—the overnight sleeper is run by First ScotRail—and I shall make some remarks about that later. The right hon. Gentleman gave us an eloquent introduction. He is absolutely consistent in what he says on the matter. I looked at his website, and it is clear that his concerns are not new. He spoke to Ministers prior to the re-letting of various franchises last year to ask for assurances that the contract would maintain services to Aberdeen, rather than focus on links to Edinburgh. I could predict where his argument would go today after looking at his website; he has written about the case for high-speed rail links to the north, and he partially made that case today. I want to explore with the Minister some high-speed rail issues.
The right hon. Gentleman also sensibly pointed out the issue of finding the cheapest fare. Only in the past week have I succeeded in finding the website that tells people about those fares. I declare no interest as regards the website, but I am told that www.barrydoe.plus.com is now the website of choice for those who want to find the cheapest way to get anywhere. However, the right hon. Gentleman made the point that sometimes, people must combine three or four single journeys to find the cheapest fare; and, bizarrely, on one journey, it turned out that buying a ticket to Falkirk was the cheapest way to travel from Penzance to Birmingham. That shows that there are still some bizarre ticketing problems. They are the fault of the operators and Network Rail, not the Government. They cannot be laid at the Government’s door, but it is right for politicians to criticise the train operating companies for them.
I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington. He will not be surprised to hear that, every time that people make a point about the period from 1979 onwards, I make the point that, according to rail industry statistics, investment has been falling since 1945; indeed, a lot of people claim that it has been falling since 1920. If he wants to read some excellent and impartial rail history, I guide him to books by Professor Huxley, who writes well on such matters.
The hon. Gentleman said that the Liberal Democrats are committed—he can correct me if I am wrong—to a revolution in the rail industry. There may be many things wrong with the rail industry, but neither Network Rail nor the train operating companies nor many other people want a revolution. We perhaps need an evolution toward some solutions, but do we need a major structural rip-up? We need to improve what we have, and I shall make some critical remarks about Network Rail because of its performance on the west coast main line over Christmas.
When I talked about a revolution in the rail industry, I was talking about services to passengers, rather than the actual network.
In the light of that clarification, I agree with the hon. Gentleman, as I am sure the Minister will. Ensuring that passengers get the very best services and getting railway system operators to focus on that is important.
The debate has fallen neatly into two parts: the current state of cross-border rail services, and the future prospects for those services. As has been rightly mentioned, the Christmas and new year chaos was simply unacceptable. Passengers from Scotland and the north of England were rightly angry about the delays, engineering overruns, the fare increases that they suffered, and, as much as anything else, the lack of consultation and notice. The train companies bear the brunt of that anger, but they have led the way in telling Network Rail to do something about its consultation. Tony Collins, the chief executive of Virgin Trains said:
“If they can’t guarantee”
the length of time that engineering works take,
“we would rather the completion date was put back”.
He went on to say that it is simply unacceptable for Network Rail to provide the sort of service that it provides to the train operators.
In the past two or three years, the train operating companies have borne the brunt of passenger criticism for what are usually Network Rail’s errors. Now that a number of institutional factors are no longer in place, I suspect that the train operating companies will not be prepared to take the brunt of the criticism and that Network Rail’s problems will be increasingly exposed. As I said in a debate in the House on 8 January, Andy Chivers, who covered the Liverpool Street area, echoed Tony Collins. He said that there had been a “major failure” of Network Rail operations over the Christmas period. On the west coast main line, 60,000 passengers had their journeys disturbed. As we know, the affected area around Rugby remained closed for about three days. The west coast main line is the busiest mixed-traffic railway—it carries both passengers and freight from south of Glasgow to London. About 75 million journeys are made on it each year. Mr. Collins, chief executive of Virgin, described the situation as a complete fiasco. Virgin’s managing director, Mr. Gibb, spoke frankly:
“This is a major inconvenience to…thousands of our customers”
Significantly, he added:
“I’m sure their patience, like ours, has now run out.”
If Network Rail cannot deliver that service to the train operating companies, people will increasingly ask why it is not more accountable and efficient. That is at a time when we are seeing a squeeze in the public sector because of a more difficult economic situation. A chief executive gets £465,000 and is awarded a bonus of £76,000, and the non-executive directors last year awarded themselves an 18 per cent. pay increase, at a time when our police force is being asked to accept a 1.9 per cent. increase. If Network Rail cannot get itself in order, the public and the train operating companies will increasingly ask the Government, “How are you going to make this company more accountable and efficient?” Disingenuously, Network Rail blames its contractors for the problems. I say that because the contracts for the work done at Christmas would have been put in place 15 months beforehand, on the normal basis for possessions. It is pathetic to blame the contractors when that amount of lead-in time was given. In the light of the lead-in time given, why were Network Rail’s contract management systems so poor?
There is a real issue about the performance of Network Rail. It claims that it would be easier to take those services in-house, yet the reality is rather different. The railway accident investigation branch report on the problems at Waterloo caused by two minor derailments in September and October 2006 rightly pointed out that those problems occurred when the operations were in-house. We can have no confidence in that solution.
One of the questions arising from the Christmas fiasco that the right hon. Member for Gordon will want answered today is whether the Government have been told by Network Rail that the west coast main line upgrade will be delivered on time in December 2008. That is the key to the cross-border services from Scotland.
Over the past year, we have seen one or two other developments in cross-border services. The awarding of the CrossCountry contract to Arriva last year gives some hope. I travelled on that service twice last year—once from Penzance to Birmingham and once from Plymouth to Birmingham. On both occasions, the train was already an hour late when it arrived at Plymouth, and it arrived at Birmingham an hour and a half late. I assume that it would have been two or three hours late when it arrived in Scotland. That is a regular service, and I am sorry to say that it is a relatively regular occurrence. Such delays are not acceptable.
One looks with interest at whether Arriva will be able to deliver on its promise of a 35 per cent. increase in seating. An increase in rolling stock will help people looking for the easiest way to plan journeys, perhaps on the website that I mentioned earlier. Arriva confirmed earlier this week that it is to lease 10 new high-speed cars from Porterbrook and others. That must be good news for the CrossCountry franchise, and good news, I suspect, for people travelling on that service. Getting extra cars on such essential services is the key to delivery. Mr. Cooper, managing director of CrossCountry trains, spoke of his firm’s “focus” and its “priority” of providing effective delivery; I hope that that will be justified with the introduction of those trains. Does the Minister intend there to be more of those trains on that franchise over the next four or five years?
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) initiated a similar debate last year in Westminster Hall. He made much the same points about the east coast main line that the right hon. Member for Gordon has made today about the west coast main line. He also raised some questions about services beyond his constituency in Edinburgh.
I hope that the Minister will speak about the future of services from London to Aberdeen and from London to Inverness, and what the upgrade prospects might be for those two services. The Scottish Executive said that they intend to electrify more lines. I understand that, north of Edinburgh, those two lines are not included in those proposals. I am keen to hear from the Minister exactly what discussions the Government have had with the Scottish Executive about including those lines in the electrification process. If they are not included, we shall suffer a problem that has already been identified—we may get a faster service from London to Edinburgh, but thereafter it will be very much slower.
In that context—perhaps the Minister will also answer this point—the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Scottish Executive have mentioned a new Forth crossing at an estimated cost of £4.5 billion. I am not opposed to that crossing and I recognise the need for it, but does the hon. Gentleman not agree that an awful lot of money could go into improving rail services north of the Forth, which would reduce the pressure on the crossing and on the old railway bridge? Incorporating rail investment into that crossing would be a valuable addition.
I am sure that the Minister will wish to address that point.
I turn to the fourth cross-border service—the London-Scotland sleeper service. Is the Minister clear from his discussions with ScotRail that that service remains secure? What discussions have the Government had with ScotRail or the Scottish Executive to ensure that that service, which I understand has increased significantly in popularity over the last year or so, has future improvements written into its plans? Will the Minister clarify exactly what the Government have said to the Scottish Executive about their proposal to decrease the amount of investment in rail over the next three years?
The right hon. Member for Gordon touched on the vision thing. That is important, but we should not simply build an edifice for the sake of it. If we are to build a high-speed railway, we need to be quite clear why we are doing so. We must be clear that it will deliver the infrastructure needed to support the expansion of the economy over the next four or five years, and whether it will deliver the extra capacity that the railways will need over the next 25 to 30 years. Another part of the equation, of course, is the environment.
The Eddington report said that there should be no plans to review the feasibility of high-speed rail until 2012. Will the Minister say whether that remains the position? In terms of the UK’s infrastructure development, there is a place for high-speed rail, but it will have to be combined with a number of other ongoing projects.
If we are to consider high-speed rail, it is unlikely that a London to Scotland link will be built in one go. We did not build the motorway network in one go; it was built in fragments. It is worth pointing out that the first fragment of motorway went from Preston to the coast, which was not the most logical part to build first. If one were to build the London to Birmingham section first, and then onwards, a total cost of £30 billion for London to Scotland would be about right. However, some good studies suggest that, with some help from the planning procedures, the first phase from London to Birmingham could be built for about £8 billion. It is clear that the City and private sources of finance would be, and will continue to be, available to the Government.
I emphasise, as the Minister knows—he has heard me say so several times—that the Conservative party is committed to undertaking a feasibility study into high-speed rail. It will answer some of the challenges of the next 25 years, especially on the infrastructure, and it will also help with freight. Alongside that, we will consider the taxation of foreign lorries. We must also compare the problems of having longer, heavier lorries against using rail freight. It seems to me that rail freight is important not only from north to south but also from east to west.
We have had a wide-ranging debate today on cross-border services. We have concentrated on the two matters that are crucially important: the services that exist now, including how they can continue to provide the best service and be improved; and also the future of those services. I look forward to the Minister addressing both of those points in his remarks.
I begin by congratulating the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) on securing the debate.
This is one of those occasions when we can perhaps spend a little more time in a slightly less heated environment than the main Chamber on giving some thought to these issues. I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman was the sponsor of this debate, because he raised, in a methodical and reasonable manner, some of his concerns, which, as a constituency MP, are entirely legitimate. I did not agree with all of the right hon. Gentleman’s conclusions and I think that he said in his own remarks that he did not expect me to. However, he has raised some very interesting points. So, in the time that we have left, I would like to go through as many of them as possible.
The right hon. Gentleman first asked me to make it absolutely clear that the east coast main line franchise covers the whole of the route from Aberdeen down to London, and I am happy to make that clarification. When the franchise was handed back by GNER at the end of 2006 and we found ourselves in the position of having to re-let the franchise, it was made absolutely clear that the original specification on which the GNER contract was let would be the template for the new franchise, which, of course, included services all the way up to Aberdeen. That remains the case and will remain the case.
The right hon. Gentleman also talked about the aspiration of giving people a real choice, and that is a sentiment with which I entirely agree. In fact, looking at the coverage of transport policy in this country, one could be forgiven for assuming that the Government have some type of vested interest in, or some type of specific policy aimed at, achieving modal shift. I said in the Chamber a couple of weeks ago and I am happy to repeat it again now that the Government are not committed to trying to proscribe or persuade individuals from using one particular form of transport in favour of another form. That will probably come as a surprise to many observers, certainly to many journalists who write about this issue. What is more important than telling people to give up their car or not to use air travel is to give them a real choice. Where people do not have the choice between modes of transport, the Government must rise to the challenge. However, rather than simply telling people to switch from one mode of transport to another, the Government’s policy and the Government’s plan is to ensure that as many people in the country as possible—ideally everyone in the country—have a genuine choice of which mode of transport to use.
The right hon. Gentleman made a valid point that, in many parts of the country including his constituency, such a choice is not easily available, either to him personally or to his constituents. We must recognise that the facts of geography hold sway in some of these matters. Of course, given the choice between flying and getting a train from his constituency down to London, flying would be the preferred option. It would certainly be my preferred option, if I were in his shoes.
Of a Monday morning, I generally travel down to London using the Virgin west coast service, but on a Thursday evening I generally fly back to my constituency, on the purely logical basis that, on a Monday, I am less keen to see my private office staff than I am keen to see my family on a Thursday evening. For me, that is a choice of convenience and logic, and I hope that my private office staff are not particularly offended by that revelation.
That is a reasonable and logical choice for any commuter to make. In the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency, many people, when faced with the logistical difficulties of travelling by train, will inevitably choose to use airlines instead. Nevertheless, it remains the Government’s position that we want, as far as possible and as far as is practical, to give citizens of this country a proper choice.
However, in quoting from some of the media coverage—hon. Members will see that my grievance against the media is a constant theme of many of my contributions in this place—the right hon. Gentleman said that, given the age of the infrastructure, it is surprising that so many services run on time. I paraphrase; I am not sure which newspaper he was quoting from. There is an assumption, and a danger, that Members will copy or cite that example. There is an assumption that Britain’s infrastructure cannot be described in any other terms than to use the adjective “crumbling”. That is simply not the case, certainly not when it comes to the railway infrastructure, given the huge amounts of investment that have been made and the huge amount of successful work carried out by Network Rail on renewals on the railway network. We are a long, long way away from even a few years ago, during the Railtrack times, and certainly from the 1970s, 1960s and 1950s, when, as the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) correctly said, Governments of both parties were responsible for ignoring and crippling the railway infrastructure with cuts in investment.
We are a long, long way away from that situation now and I just want to put it on record, because it is not said often enough, that, as far as railway carriages themselves are concerned, we have the youngest fleet in the whole of Europe. Yes, there are examples and comparisons that we can give that allegedly put the British railway service in a worse light than many of our European counterparts, but simply in terms of the age of our rolling stock infrastructure we have the newest, youngest fleet of any of the major developed countries in Europe. That is something that we should be proud of and it is something that we should ask all of our colleagues in all parts of the House to recognise, because that is a success story, and we should stop talking down the railway industry as though it is some kind of third world or banana republic failing system, because that is absolutely the opposite of the reality.
The right hon. Gentleman also said—I do not know if these were his own words or a quote from The Daily Telegraph—that Network Rail was “keeping demand in check”. That is similar to the accusation that the Government are trying to price people off the railways; if that is actually the case, we are doing a terrible job of it, given that 40 per cent. more people are now using the railways than was the case 10 years ago. I understand why these political criticisms are made, but there is not a single shred of evidence to suggest that any major line anywhere in the country is showing a decrease over the last 10 years in the number of people using it or is predicted to show a reduction in demand over the next five to seven years. On the whole, therefore, although I respect the view that the right hon. Gentleman expressed, he painted quite an inaccurate picture of Network Rail and its operations.
The right hon. Gentleman talked—inevitably, but understandably—about his concerns on fare increases, as did his hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech). He said that passengers should reasonably expect fares to rise by less than inflation. Once again, to provide some clarity, the Government have said explicitly, in our White Paper, that the current regulation of fares—in other words, those fares that are regulated by the Government—will continue to be regulated by the existing policy of inflation plus 1 per cent. during the rest of the current control period, which ends in 2009, right up until the end of the next control period, which ends in 2014.
Of course, that will cause some challenge to some of our media detractors, who, year on year, sometimes month on month, like to announce front page news that there will be “inflation-busting fare rises”. If one wishes to put it that way, there have been inflation-busting fare rises since 2004, when this policy was introduced and we institutionalised regulated fare increases to be inflation plus 1 per cent. That policy will remain until the end of the next control period.
That policy is justified, given the under-investment in the railways that I acknowledge has happened under Governments of both parties since the end of the second world war. We have seen significant increases in investment since 1997—I do not think that any party in the House would query or challenge me on the fact that we have seen record investment in the railway industry since 1997—but that money has to come from somewhere. I know that it is turning into a bit of a cliché, but there are only two sources of revenue for the railway industry; the taxpayer and the fare payer. We have made a deliberate political decision that the balance should shift towards the fare payer in the next control period. The taxpayer will be expected to continue, and will continue, contributing a huge amount of investment, but it is only fair that the travelling public should make a contribution.
On the development of our high-level output specification, the Government faced the difficult question of where to allocate funds over the next control period. The £15 billion that is available for spending on the railways is an historically large amount, and we have decided to use £10 billion of that explicitly to increase capacity on the railways. Different political parties can disagree with our conclusions on that, and different priorities demand our attention—electrification, high-speed lines and the reopening of old lines have all been mentioned—but we have taken the deliberately political decision to make extra capacity our priority. The right hon. Gentleman may believe that some of the £10 billion that is to be used to increase capacity should be used further to subsidise currently unregulated fares, and that is of course a perfectly legitimate political position to take, but it is not one that I share, because that would not be a good use of public money. The demands on infrastructure and rolling stock are so great that the priority should be to spend the money on the 1,300 new carriages that are due for delivery in the next control period.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the new Arriva CrossCountry franchise and the cutting back of services. Let me make it clear that the Department does not specify levels of catering on any of our franchises. I never received so many approaches from fellow MPs from all parties as I did when the GNER franchise was handed back. They were concerned about the future of the excellent buffet services that had been available on the GNER service, which were a luxury that I suspect they particularly enjoyed. However, I had to disappoint them by making it clear that we had never specified the level of catering on GNER and that we did not intend to specify the level for the new franchise. Similarly, we did not specify the level of catering on the new CrossCountry franchise. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the hot buffet service, but the hot food service on other franchises, including Virgin West Coast, is available only at seat in first class, so the problems that he said affect the new CrossCountry franchise are quite prevalent in other parts of the railway industry. That is not necessarily an excuse, but nor is this something that affects Arriva alone.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about customer information, which is incredibly important. He is right that the current fare structure and the system for getting information about the cheapest available fares is completely unfit for purpose. We are working closely on the issue in partnership with the Association of Train Operating Companies. In October, the industry will produce the new fares structure that we have been working on with it. That structure will streamline all existing tickets into four main types. There will also be a new price promise, and we are working with all the train-operating companies to get their unanimous agreement on it. Essentially, that will mean that if a passenger buys a ticket and then discovers that they could have got a better value ticket for the same journey, the train-operating company will reimburse them for the difference. That does not happen at the moment. If we can reach an agreement with all the train-operating companies by October on implementing that process, it will be a major boost to the travelling public.
Will the Minister confirm whether that will include tickets that are bought on the train? Obviously, passengers on the train can pay only the full-price standard or first-class fare.
I ask the hon. Gentleman to wait until we make the announcement in October. I hope that there will be a clean slate in terms of the whole fare structure, the way in which customers buy tickets and the way in which they are reimbursed and protected, so that when confusion arises and people end up buying the wrong product, they are given appropriate reimbursement. The hon. Gentleman may well be right, but I do not want to pre-empt any of the discussions between the DFT and the train-operating companies.
My party would support the opportunity for people to buy the cheapest available tickets both on and off the train. I hope that the Minister will take that on board and raise it in his discussions with the train-operating companies.
I shall certainly pass the hon. Gentleman’s remarks to the team of negotiators who are working with the DFT and the train-operating companies.
Will the Minister clarify whether the four fares that will be put in place will all be dealt with under the regulated fare regime?
Some will, some will not. The fares are titled off-peak, super off-peak, anytime and advance. The fare regulation system will not be changing, and we do not expect to extend regulation beyond the types of ticket that we currently regulate, for the reasons that I set out. However, we shall try to ensure that it is clear to the travelling public which fares are regulated and which continue to be unregulated.
In the few minutes that I have left, I want to deal specifically with the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. He claimed that the Secretary of State had dismissed high-speed lines, although he later clarified what he meant by that. It is true that, in the high-level output specification in the White Paper that we published in July, we did not make a commitment to build high-speed lines in the next control period. However, I refer him to the excellent report submitted to the Department last year by Rod Eddington. He concluded that connectivity, which is sometimes used to justify building high-speed lines, is not a strong enough argument to justify the expenditure involved. He noted that most large urban populations are reasonably well connected and that travel times are not particularly impractical. However, he also said that meeting capacity demands between the major urban centres over the next decade will create demand for new corridors and that high-speed lines might be a solution. He also made it clear that new motorways might be a solution, although the Liberal Democrats might not be particularly comfortable with that.
We are talking, however, about big decisions, which involve big money, and the Government will make those decisions in due course. It would be wrong to say that the Department will be ignoring the issue until our announcement in 2012, because we will be doing a lot of work between now and then on whether high-speed lines will give value for money and are an appropriate response to the capacity demands that will beset us in the early part of the decade after next. It would be wrong to say that the Secretary of State has dismissed the case for high-speed lines; there are ongoing discussions about the issue within the Government, and it is still on the table. However, we will not commit to anything for the next control period.
I understand the excitement that was caused by the opening of St. Pancras and High Speed 1, which gave a tremendous boost to the image of Britain’s railway services, but it would be wrong to start coming up with public policy on the back of the hype. Regardless of the right hon. Gentleman’s admonition that large projects can be paid for over many years, we are still talking about very real money—£30 billion over 10 years—and it will have to come from somebody’s budget. We shall therefore take the necessary decisions in due course, although I accept that that is never quick enough for most people in the railway industry. None the less, the decisions will be taken, and we shall take our time about that because there is no need to reach a decision earlier than 2012. I am therefore confident that we will come to the right decision either for or against high-speed lines.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the Union, and it is a pity that no Scottish National party Member has seen fit to be present for this debate. He is right that we are one country, and high-speed lines would provide, if not necessarily the economic boost that he spoke about, a very physical representation of the Union between Scotland and England.