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High-speed Trains

Volume 478: debated on Tuesday 8 July 2008

Following my recent invitation to examine longer-term options, Network Rail announced in June a study of the potential for new lines to accommodate future growth on the network. This will include an assessment of the role that high-speed lines might play. I look forward to seeing the results of the study next year. Separately, the Department is leading the procurement of new rolling stock to replace the existing fleet of high-speed trains.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that response. What reassurance can she give the House about the Government’s welcome ambitions for a new fleet of express trains and five high-speed routes? On the route to Penzance, as a result of rising sea levels, the line 100 miles away at Dawlish always becomes threatened when high spring tides coincide with strong easterlies. Is the Secretary of State able to factor that into the plans, or to make an announcement today that the high-speed route could be rerouted?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to make such an announcement today, but I understand that Network Rail is looking at the issue that he has raised with me. Network Rail needs to be in a position over the next year or so to understand where rail is going to be most intensively used, and that is why it is undertaking a study of where there might be a need for new lines, including high-speed lines. If the hon. Gentleman has issues with the scope of those studies, I am sure he will make representations to Network Rail.

I welcome the commissioning of the study, but can my right hon. Friend tell us what criteria she has set for Network Rail for assessing the feasibility of high-speed rail?

I can tell my hon. Friend that I invited Network Rail to carry out a wide-ranging study, without constraint, of where future demand might emerge on the railway, and where there might be need for extra capacity. As my hon. Friend and other hon. Members know, it takes a long time between thinking about and planning for a new line and constructing it, as with Crossrail, so Network Rail is carrying out a study with a wide scope of where extra demands might materialise and how plans can be put in place in case such a scenario arises.

High-speed rail lines from London to the continent have benefited the economy of the south-east of England. When will we see the network completed to Glasgow?

The hon. Gentleman from month to month tries to make the case for high-speed rail to Glasgow. I have not set my mind against high-speed lines; it is right that Network Rail should consider all the options, particularly how the need for extra capacity might be met. If extra capacity is needed and a new line needs to be built, it must consider whether that line should be high-speed. I do not suggest, as the hon. Gentleman sometimes does, that there is necessarily a huge carbon advantage from high-speed rail. For instance, if a high-speed line were to run between London and Manchester or London and Glasgow, one might expect a carbon advantage, but not the scale of advantage that some hon. Members sometimes suggest.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that people in Yorkshire very much want a high-speed service to the major cities of this country, not just to London? Is she also aware that recently at weekends some conspiracy between National Express and Network Rail has sealed off the northern region from the rest of the country through the disruption and damage done to the timetable?

My hon. Friend will know that there is huge investment in the network at present, including an extra £10 billion allocated to invest in capacity over the five-year period to 2014. Clearly, from time to time there will be disruption on the route, some of which may be unavoidable as a consequence of the upgrading of the line. If it is not unavoidable that is clearly unacceptable, and I am sure my hon. Friend will make representations to Network Rail, as indeed shall I on his behalf.

Does the right hon. Lady understand that it is not much fun standing on a platform and a high-speed train sucks you off because of the turbulence—[Laughter]—or whatever. The important thing is that the train should stop, so will she bear in mind the fact that high-speed trains should go not just from major centres of population to other major centres of population but, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said, to some of our great cities, including the great city of Lichfield?

The hon. Gentleman is of course right; it would not be much fun, but nor would the train be very high speed if it were to stop at every station. Clearly, there is a trade-off between reductions in journey time and the number of stations where trains stop, but I am sure those issues will be taken into account.

My right hon. Friend is aware of my support, and that of many of my hon. Friends, for the reopening of the Woodhead line over the Pennines. Will she give us an assurance today that the economic benefits to the north of such a link will be given serious consideration as part of the study being conducted by Network Rail?

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State assures me that she has met both National Grid and Network Rail to discuss precisely those issues. A freight study is being carried out to assess whether the Woodhead tunnel might be needed in future to carry freight trains, and there could of course be passenger benefits, too. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) has ensured that the issue has been put on the table, and I can assure her in response that it is being studied seriously.