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Continental Rail Links

Volume 483: debated on Wednesday 19 November 2008

It is a pleasure to debate this important subject under your watchful eye and careful consideration for our well-being, Mr. Atkinson. I am pleased to extend my congratulations to the Minister on his position in the Department for Transport. He is a hard-working and decent Member of Parliament, and he thoroughly deserves his position.

I did not take part in the debates in the main Chamber last week about Heathrow airport, but I noticed that many of the hon. Members who did so referred to rail travel as the alternative to air travel, particularly for short-haul journeys. This debate is an important part of getting the detail right, so that we can genuinely say to people that the better alternative is to take a train rather than a plane.

By way of introduction, I would like to describe my experiences in the time that I have been an MP travelling between my Stafford constituency and London. In the 11 years in which I have been here, I have always done that journey by rail. Each time I travel from my constituency to London, I am interested in seeing how services are developing. I recall that back in 1997, when I was elected, several times my journey was seriously disrupted by things going wrong with the network. The top speed of the train was 110 mph, and a typical journey time was two and a quarter hours. Then came the £8 billion public investment to upgrade the west coast main line, and Virgin Trains invested in a new fleet of Pendolino tilting trains. For the past few years, I have experienced top speeds on the line of 125 mph and a journey time as short as 90 minutes.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He will know that as I live at Uttoxeter, I have a choice of going to Stoke-on-Trent, Stafford or Derby. He is right in saying that travel via Stoke-on-Trent is much quicker than it used to be, but sometimes the trains on that route are overcrowded. Perhaps he would address that point. On the service from Derby to St. Pancras, we must try to improve the time if people are to reach London and beyond in a speedy fashion, but it is also important to ensure that connections from towns such as Burton-on-Trent to the Derby-to-London line are improved.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. There are still gains to be made by tackling the last few bottlenecks on the network and by improving things such as signalling but, fundamentally, as we face the future from a position of success and growth in the railways, I shall argue that the problem is one of capacity and that we need to develop more lines, particularly high-speed lines. I hope that my hon. Friend will be with me when I make that argument.

From next month, the story of the journey from Stafford to London will get better still. With the new December timetable, which is a result of the great investment in the west coast main line, journeys will be even quicker. From December, many of my journeys will take one hour and 18 minutes, with no stops at all between Stafford and London. More trains will make the journey each day, and the first direct service of the day from Stafford will reach Euston 36 minutes earlier. In a remarkable stride forward, from 14 December, the weekend service will be as good as the improved standard weekday service in terms of frequency and journey times. We have not experienced that on the west coast main line in modern times.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right about the weekend service improving, but that may not happen for at least another year. I believe that there will be blockades on the line for at least 35 of the 52 weekends post- 14 December. Does he see that as a problem for the introduction of the new service?

I would ask the hon. Gentleman to be a little cautious in speaking so generally. I specifically mentioned the route from Stafford to London. Many of the blockades that he is talking about will be well north of Stafford. It is true that we have taken a lot of pain in the past 12 months, as preparations are made for the new timetable in December, and we have witnessed considerable disruption and inconvenience for travellers at weekends. We will be glad to see the back of those problems after 14 December.

Alongside the improvements in rail services between Stafford and London, there has been an improvement in rail travel between London and the continent in the past 11 years. We have moved on a long way since the time that train travellers had to cross the channel on a boat, having built a tunnel to connect ourselves to the continent, but I still regard my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who was then the Deputy Prime Minister, as a great hero for saving the channel tunnel rail link project. I remember that evening when he came to the House of Commons Chamber at 10 o’clock at night to make a statement about saving the private-sector project from financial oblivion with a helping hand from the Government. The new public-private partnership secured the link and gave us what we have today. At that time, the terminus in this country for those services was Waterloo, but at this time last year there was a move to St. Pancras station, when the line became known as High Speed 1.

High Speed 1 is a success as far as passenger traffic is concerned. The figures from Eurostar show that, in the first nine months of this year, Eurostar carried a total of 7 million travellers, up nearly 14 per cent. on last year. Ticket sales were up more than 17 per cent., at more than £521 million. That is the advert for Eurostar, but let us be practical and admit what a marvellous travel experience the journey from St. Pancras is. We begin at a station that has been brilliantly restored and modernised. The journey by high-speed rail service links St. Pancras with Ebbsfleet, Ashford, Paris, Brussels, Lille, Calais, Disneyland Paris, Avignon and the French Alps. Some journeys are incredibly good value. I checked the Eurostar website yesterday. A return to Paris or Brussels is possible for as little as £59 for adults and £49 for people under the age of 26.

The biggest difference from 11 years ago is that today there is growing public concern about climate change. People wonder about the best way to travel. Clearly, Eurostar now has a good story to tell: all journeys are carbon-neutral, and a journey between London and Paris or Brussels generates 10 times less carbon dioxide than an equivalent air flight. To celebrate the first anniversary of the move to St. Pancras, Eurostar issued a news release to announce that passenger numbers from the regions north of London have increased by as much as 150 per cent. in some cases, thanks to the introduction of through fares from more than 130 towns and cities. It is instructive to look at developments in different regions. There is a 100 per cent. increase in passenger numbers from the east midlands, Yorkshire and the north-east, whereas from Manchester and the west midlands, the growth is 50 per cent. The number of travellers from Scotland is up as well, but this time by one third.

Overall, those growth figures demonstrate that travellers are taking advantage of easier rail connections between domestic train operators and Eurostar services, with higher frequencies and better punctuality than regional air services. Again, to complete the Eurostar advert, with through fares booked on starting a journey, many of the train operating companies can offer return through fares from, for example, as little as £67 from Luton and £89 from Glasgow. Hon. Members can see the increased attraction for people of making those journeys. I should like to mention to the Minister a point of detail about making the journey from Stafford to the continent by train and ask what he can do to make it better than it is at present. Although I will focus on Stafford I am, hopefully, speaking for every passenger who wants to take a train from the west or north of London to the continent.

In October 1994, the then Secretary of State for Transport, John MacGregor, told Railtrack to put the infrastructure in place to allow rail services to operate from the regions to continental capitals:

“The Eurostar will speed passengers from the Midlands, the North and Scotland to the Continent with sleeper services also connecting the west country and Wales. These services help to ensure that the economic and social benefits are extended beyond London and the south east and offer daytime services beyond the national capital.”

We know that none of that happened. For many years, the sleeper trains sat on a siding and they were eventually flogged off. Of course, we do not have regional Eurostar services at all. Mr. MacGregor’s Department asked the first operators of the Eurostar services, which were called InterCapital and Regional Rail Ltd, to produce a report about developing regional Eurostar services. After the end of the Conservative Government, the Department produced a report called “Review of regional Eurostar services” on 13 December 1998, which stated that

“direct Regional Eurostars to destinations north of London are not commercially viable”.

Parliament was outraged and, on its behalf, the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee expressed rage in its report on that review dated 20 January 1999:

“The regions have been cheated. The acquiescence of Members of Parliament to the Channel Tunnel Act 1987 depended on the provision of regional services.”

My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East, the then Deputy Prime Minister, was also unhappy with the operator deciding whether the services should go ahead and asked for an independent review. A company called Arthur D. Little Ltd was set up and was asked to report back. Its report in February 2000 concluded:

“On purely financial grounds…Regional Eurostar would not be viable”.

There is a clue there that the priority at that time was affordability, rather than the broader issues, including environmental ones.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and for the excellent contribution that he is making to this debate.

Even if we were to judge these services only on a financial or commercial basis, is it not the case that these projections were made at a time when people were expecting an era of cheap air travel, which is certainly relevant in respect of competition on routes from the regions and nations of the United Kingdom? Is that era not coming to an end? Does that not indicate that, even on a commercial basis, the case for direct services to the continent of Europe from various points north of London is stronger than ever?

I agree with my hon. Friend that the finances have changed completely in the past decade. In respect of climate change issues, the price of carbon will inevitably drive up the cost of flying and will make rail, by comparison, more competitive. My description of the increase in passenger numbers is the same across the country. The problem today is one of capacity, not of declining services. The finances are changing for rail and the position is different, which brings me neatly on to my next point.

On high-speed links in the UK, as I have said, the channel tunnel rail link was rather provocatively renamed High Speed 1, heralding the age of more high-speed links in this country. In 2004, the Strategic Rail Authority commissioned a report from Atkins about high-speed rail, which concluded that it was an attractive and viable project but that in order for it to go forward it would need strong support from the Government. I cannot help thinking that that phrase gives a clue about why the Little report in 2000 was not more positive. The Atkins report said that, depending on the route option, a high speed line

“is capable of relieving much of the crowding on competing rail routes. Similar improvements could also be secured by upgrading the existing strategic rail network, but HSL has the advantage of also being able to free capacity on the existing rail network that can be used to open up new local, regional or freight markets…We therefore conclude that there is a good transport case for HSL.”

It continued:

“In economic terms, HSL has a positive case, generating a benefit: cost ratio of at least 1.4 to 11”.

That just shows the change by then, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) mentioned. The report continued that

“it is possible to improve this significantly by optimising the use of freed classic rail capacity and by fine-tuning the fare strategy.”

Finally, it states:

“On balance, therefore, there is a good business case for HSL and it is capable of delivering greater net benefits than other rail or highway schemes.”

That is quite an eye-opening conclusion.

Until the past few hours, there was political consensus on the need for high-speed rail. I am not sure whether that consensus still stands as far as the Official Opposition is concerned, given their reluctance to spend any money now. Perhaps we will get some clarification on that at the end of the debate.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that substantial investment is needed and that there is a need to identify additional sources of funding? Has he considered a flight surcharge for domestic flights to fund a transport infrastructure fund that could be used to build the high-speed rail links that I think he is about to say we need everywhere and as soon as possible?

Before the hon. Gentleman intervenes on me to answer the point made by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), I should like to say that I will wait and see what he says about the Conservatives’ position. I have seen the Conservative party inch towards being a supporter of new high-speed lines and I agree that we need to know that its commitment is not affected by its announcement yesterday not to continue even with Labour’s public spending plans.

I am delighted to tell the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), who secured this debate, and the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, that there is only one party in the House that is not committed to high-speed rail—the governing party.

Well, I should be interested to hear if the Minister is going to change the view, because the then Secretary of State last year ruled it out explicitly. Perhaps the Minister will change the Government’s view today.

The governing party is the only party in the House that is not committed to high-speed rail. I am happy to make the commitment that the announcement made by the Conservative party in September—that it is committed to high-speed rail and to building it—remains.

As a Labour Member, I keenly support high-speed lines. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s contribution.

On the intervention by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, it is really a question of having an identified fund of money to pay for a particular project. He will know that the Treasury has, from time immemorial, never been keen on hypothecation, and it is difficult to get it to move. Personally, I think that there should be a lot of movement, particularly in the environmental scene, because a lot of the public would like to see another environmental project benefiting when they pay extra money for something. Although I do not accept the detail of the hon. Gentleman’s policy, I see the case for and the merit in some kind of ring-fencing of funds.

I have mentioned the Atkins report. Just to bring hon. Members up to date, the Eddington transport study was published in December 2006. At page 213, paragraph 4.194, it states:

“High-speed rail is likely to make the most effective contribution to environmental objectives where the scheme is developed to address existing or projected capacity constraints, increasing the probability of high demand and high load factors, and improving the economic and environmental returns.”

Some people read the Eddington report, overall, as being negative about high-speed rail. The Transport Select Committee wanted to ask Sir Rod Eddington about this. It interviewed him on 16 April 2007, when he explained that he thought that high-speed rail using established technology had a key role to play in Britain and that planning should start now. He is unequivocal in his support.

That challenge was taken up in June 2007 by Greengauge 21, a not-for-profit group, with its well-worked proposition for a High Speed 2. It proposed a high-speed line along the north-west corridor, which I would be pleased about because it would benefit Stafford, but I hasten to point out that there are other proposals, including one for a high-speed line paralleling the M1 motorway. The point is that workable proposals for more high-speed lines are already in existence. To pick up on the point made by the Conservative spokesman, the Government, in comparison, are still at an investigatory stage.

On solutions to the growing capacity challenge on the rail network, Network Rail is conducting a strategic review of the case for building new rail lines. It is considering five of Network Rail’s strategic routes north and west of London: Chiltern, east coast, west coast, Great Western and Midland main lines.

The hon. Gentleman said that the Government are at the investigative stage and went on to quote Network Rail’s investigations. Is he suggesting that Network Rail is an arm of the Government, or are the Government’s investigations separate?

I am working my way towards the Government’s position, and it is coming soon, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman will contain himself for one more minute.

The Network Rail study recognises that by 2025 many lines will be full, especially those running to and from the north and west of London. The study will examine how we can meet the capacity challenge and find solutions, including possible new lines and high-speed rail links that are deliverable and affordable. The report will be complete next summer.

Network Rail has told me that it is sensible that, if we are to build new lines, they may as well be high speed. Network Rail is also part of the recently established national networks strategic group, chaired by my noble Friend and Minister of State at the Department for Transport, Lord Adonis. Among other things, that group is looking into high-speed rail links, and is due to report back next spring.

I come now to the experience of Mr. D’Arcy—not the character in Jane Austen's “Pride and Prejudice”, but my constituent, Mr. Gerald D’Arcy, who regularly travels by rail between Stafford and the continent using Eurostar services, which have been from St. Pancras for the past year. He readily accepts that his experience has been better this year than in the past, when his train from Stafford arrived at Euston and he had to haul his suitcase and hand luggage across London to Waterloo. Now, he just has to get to St. Pancras, which is also on the north side of London, as is Euston. He has tried the tube, but it is crowded and difficult with luggage, and there is still quite a lot of walking, especially at the King’s Cross-St. Pancras end, but at least he can buy an Oyster card in advance. He has tried taxis, but they are dearer and sometimes the wait has been longer than the walk would have taken. He has tried the bus, and there is a regular service from outside the front of Euston station, but there are no signs to indicate which bus to catch. He likes to pay all his travel costs in advance at Stafford railway station, but his plusbus ticket is valid in London only for a day ticket and not a return journey, and there are no railcard discounts or child fares available, although the latter point is not relevant to him. He has often tried walking, but the pavements, if not better or worse than in the rest of London, are uneven, and there are five junctions to cross with no special help for passengers walking from Euston to St. Pancras. I have done that walk, and I thoroughly agree with all that my constituent says about the journey. I wonder whether the Minister has walked that route. If not, will he consider doing so?

Will the Minister consider everything that I have said about the practical problems of making that short link between Euston and St. Pancras, and pull together the people who can make a difference—the rail companies obviously, the local authority, Transport for London, and his Department—to see whether they could make some modest improvements that would make a big difference to people who make regular journeys, so that they can cover their travels costs in advance and that there is a decent welcome at Euston with signs showing where to go, and make that walk a pleasurable experience instead of a slightly dangerous one? Perhaps a yellow-brick-road approach could guide people in their journey, so that it is a pleasant experience rather than an unpleasant one. That would be extremely easy, and could be done straight away.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that would also be a huge benefit for people coming to the UK as part of the Olympics? Clearly, they will use St. Pancras station, and may want to do a short walk or easy journey to Euston to go up north, or in other directions to appreciate the whole UK, not just London and the Olympics.

I agree, and I have made some short-term suggestions. Euston-St. Pancras is so near and yet so far for travellers. It is different for people from different parts of the country. For people from the east coast, the trains at least come into St. Pancras, so what I have said is not so relevant for them, although my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) referred earlier to problems with congestion, timing and so on, which also need to be addressed. There are things that could be done in the medium and long term that would be improvements.

In the medium term, we would like passengers from Stafford to have direct access to St. Pancras or perhaps Stratford International. I have pursued that matter for quite a long time, and back on February 2007 the then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris) said the following in reply to my written question about a physical link between the west coast main line and what is now High Speed 1:

“A connection is being installed as part of the”

channel tunnel rail link

“section two works to provide access to the channel tunnel rail link from the west coast main line via the north London line.”—[Official Report, 27 February 2007; Vol. 457, c. 1229W.]

A House of Commons note on the channel tunnel rail link dated 30 June 2008 confirms that London and Continental Railways was contractually obliged at the outset to provide a physical link between the west coast main line and the channel tunnel rail link to be used by regional services, but, curiously, was not obliged to provide any services other than those between London and the channel tunnel. There could be a physical link, but at the moment there are no commitments that anyone will use it. Surely, with a stroke of the pen, the Minister could make a difference. Will he consider whether we can, at a reasonably early stage, have physical access by train to High Speed 1 for our journeys?

In the longer term, surely it is time to examine high speed rail across the country. I am particularly keen on the Greengauge 21 scheme. It would offer a connection between St. Pancras and Stratford International with the centre of Birmingham by high speed operation, which Greengauge 21 proposes should be High Speed 2. Both High Speed 1 and High Speed 2 would have direct contact with Heathrow airport, and there would be an extension of Eurostar services as a result to Birmingham and Manchester. All that would release capacity on the existing west coast main line for more commuter and freight services.

The Minister should be enthusiastic about such an approach, and I want to hear him say that that is what the Government are working towards. Is the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) barracking from a sedentary position?

I have taken a bit of time, but I think that other hon. Members are not here to make speeches. My last point is about freight. It tends at the moment not to go by high-speed rail, and quite a lot of continental freight goes by sea. However, if we built new lines, that would free up capacity on the existing network, so that freight could step in and use it, which would bring significant benefits to the rail freight industry.

I have some praise for the Government’s support in helping to link rail from the south of the country to the north. For example, from an early stage I have watched the development of the Terra Marique multi-purpose pontoon project, which is a seaborne link from the continent to the inland parts of Britain by the north sea and the channel and inland waterways. The Department promoted that from the start, and significantly funded it. In fact, anyone who was out on the Terrace three years ago would have seen the maiden voyage of the Terra Marique, because it came past to show itself off to us.

The Government are working well with British Ports to increase capacity at ports, and I was pleased that money has been given to establish links between ports and centres of population, such as linking Felixstowe and Southampton ports by improvement work on lines to the midlands. Of course, High Speed 1 is designed to carry freight as well as passenger traffic. Under legislation, the infrastructure managers are required to allow access to freight journeys. We have recently passed the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (Supplementary Provisions) Act 2008, which is partly a prelude to the Department selling off the state’s interests in High Speed 1—the infrastructure and its land interests. Some people are nervous that the sale might lead to a lack of control over the access that freight operators have through the tunnel. As the Minister moves towards having the entire High Speed 1 operation in the private sector, I hope we do not stifle growth and competition—for either passenger or freight. A number of passenger and freight operators would like to run trains through the tunnel to routes beyond London, and new entrants certainly ought to be able to expect fair competition with Eurostar.

On top of that, High Speed 1 is proposing to charge freight trains around £12 per train mile compared with £2.50 on the rest of the Network Rail network. By law, that is supposed to represent marginal cost, as required by the EU first railway package. I hope that the Minister is keeping a close eye on what is included in the calculation of the marginal cost, because as these rates stand, the lack of affordability will deter use of the line for freight—even though High Speed 1 offers some good capacity, especially at night.

I have also been told that there is the potential for high-speed freight. The consortium called Carex, which operates out of Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, is developing high-speed parcel services between major airports and is interested in using High Speed l for access to British airports. The other issue in relation to freight travel is what the level of future demand is likely to be. According to a forecast made by MDS Transmodal on behalf of the Rail Freight Group and the Freight Transport Association, there will be a shortage of around 200 train paths a day for freight on the main routes north of London by 2030. That assumes there will be no additional passenger trains, which is not a likely outcome. So, either new freight lines or routes will have to be built, or new passenger lines will have to be constructed to leave capacity on the existing ones for freight growth. Otherwise, there will be no room for the growth in freight, which will mean that the demands of customers will not be met. More importantly, the demands and legitimate expectations of the British public for as much freight to be put on rail as possible will not be met. I hope that the Minister will say that freight is important and that future growth in demand will be catered for.

The best hope for an early decision on more high-speed rail links and the improvements that I would like to see in direct rail services to the continent is contained in the announcement made by the Secretary of State on 29 October in a written statement: Official Report, column 34WS. That statement is about the new national networks strategy group, which will be chaired by my noble Friend Lord Adonis. I know that the group has been widely welcomed by the rail sector. The European high-speed network is set to double in size to 5,700 miles by 2015 and open access will start in 2010, so it is surely imperative that the Government outline a longer-term vision for UK railways. We must not allow ourselves to be left behind by our European competitors. I ask the Minister to pass on to the noble Lord the suggestions and comments made in this debate, and I urge him to meet the Secretary of State’s deadline for reporting his group’s conclusions in the spring of next year.

Part of the beauty of St Pancras is the new statue of John Betjeman. I have described my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East, the former Deputy Prime Minister, as a hero of that line, so perhaps we could have a sculptured statue of him there eventually. I looked for a bit of support to back up my case from John Betjeman’s poetry, but I have been unsuccessful. I did, of course, find “From a Railway Carriage” by Robert Louis Stevenson:

“Faster than fairies, faster than witches,

Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;”

and Auden’s “Night Mail”:

“This is the Night Mail crossing the border,

Bringing the cheque and the postal order”.

However, the best I could find for this debate from my hero John Betjeman was “Dilton Marsh Halt”, which ends:

“And when all the horrible roads are finally done for,

And there’s no more petrol left in the world to burn,

Here to the Halt from Salisbury and from Bristol

Steam trains will return.”

I hope for a bit better than that from the Minister, and I look forward to hearing what he has to say.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) has done a service to the House by bringing the wider debate on this issue to the attention of hon. Members. I congratulate him on the way in which he has enhanced the cultural standards of the debate with his poetic contribution. I am afraid that I will not be able to follow that.

My hon. Friend has also done us a great service by reminding us of the history of the proposals for links between the continent and those parts of Great Britain that are north of London. It is worth remembering that the issue has had an extremely chequered history. My hon. Friend reminded us that it was a promise of the previous Conservative Government to provide such through-links. That promise was not simply broken after a few years, it was broken at the start because those links were not provided when channel tunnel services started to operate.

For a while—this applies to the east coast, but it might have applied to other parts of the UK, too—there were some bizarre substitute services. I remember that shortly after 9 o’clock every day, a train left Edinburgh for London Waterloo. The train took about six hours to get there after it had meandered around the outskirts of London. Not surprisingly, many passengers found it much easier to go to King’s Cross and get the tube to Waterloo rather than use that service. The service not only took a long time to get to London, but, presumably because of some franchise arrangements under privatisation, it was not allowed to take passengers from intermediate stops en route. I saw people trying to get on the train who had assumed that they could perhaps go to Newcastle or York. They were turned away because the service was only allowed to be used by passengers going to Waterloo to connect with Eurostar services. As that train meandered through the east coast of Scotland and England and refused passengers en route, it was like some modern day version of the sealed train that took Lenin through Germany in 1917. Not surprisingly, it was not commercially successful and did not last long.

To rub salt into the wound, the rolling stock that has been purchased to allow through services from Scotland and Wales and the regions to the continent was eventually disposed of and used by Great North Eastern Railway for enhanced services to Leeds. That was obviously welcome for Leeds, but it certainly was not what was intended when the stock was first provided. This subject has had a chequered history and we now have the opportunities to try to set the record straight and repair the damage done by the neglect of the provision of these services for so long.

Clearly, the new channel tunnel terminus at St Pancras has increased the possibilities for people who are north of London to use services from St Pancras to the continent. As my hon. Friend pointed out, despite the extra inconvenience of changing trains, more and more people are using those services from places north of London. Certainly, great improvements in journey times are possible. I have travelled from Paris to London by train in under seven hours and from Brussels in under six and a half hours. That makes rail journeys to destinations on the continent much more competitive with air travel.

If we had direct services from the continent to destinations north of London, we could clearly do much more. We certainly now have the time and the opportunity to consider how those services could be introduced. Things could be done about that now. My hon. Friend quoted the previous Conservative Secretary of State for Transport’s comments on sleeper trains going from the north to the west and across to the continent of Europe. That is certainly something that could be introduced now. Because of the timings of journey start and finish points, people are now quite used to somewhat circuitous journeys to get to their destinations. There is no reason why sleeper trains could not run from Edinburgh and Glasgow, or points further north or south, to Brussels or Paris. That could be thought about now, and I hope that the Department is doing so.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, it was expected that there would be a link from the new channel tunnel link that would allow services to run further north along the west coast main line. That could provide services to Stafford, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Edinburgh and possibly further north. My hon. Friend the Minister might find great support for the suggestion that channel tunnel direct services could even run as far as Kirkcaldy! I am sure that that would find great approval at least in high levels of government. The potential exists for through services even now, and, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, at a time when there is greater awareness of the environmental consequences of flying, when, bluntly, flying and going through airports is becoming a less and less pleasant experience, and when air fares are clearly going to go up, the potential for such direct rail services, even with existing lines, should be seized on by the Government and transport industry.

The full potential of through services from points north of London to the continent will be realised at the point when we get high-speed services and lines running north of London. Various alternatives have been put forward, as my hon. Friend explained, and I do not want to go into all of them today. However, if there is a consensus and high-speed rail lines are on the agenda, I welcome that. I have been attending debates on the subject in Westminster Hall, and have been initiating them myself, for five or six years, as have other hon. Members, including some who are present today. If the mood is shifting in the direction of favouring a high-speed line, I welcome that, and I urge the Government to recognise the potential that that gives us not just to improve travel times and capacity in Great Britain, but to improve links to the continent of Europe.

As my hon. Friend pointed out when he quoted the Transport Secretary of the time when the channel tunnel link was being developed, there are strong economic, environmental and social reasons for direct services to be provided not just to London but to as many parts of Great Britain as possible. Those economic, environmental and social reasons are as strong as, perhaps stronger than, they were then. I urge the Government to listen to my hon. Friend’s call and to give us an indication that the Government will take the opportunities that exist to progress towards high-speed and direct rail links from north of London to the continent as soon as possible. We have seen what can be done about increasing customer numbers, even with the move to St. Pancras. How much more could we do with those direct links, and how much more again could we do if there were high-speed direct links?

I had not intended to take part in the debate, but the sheer style, verve and literary merit of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), who opened the debate, prompted me to make a brief contribution. I do not think that he spoke just for his constituent Mr. D’Arcy, or just for Stafford. As he often does, he was speaking for England and indeed the entire United Kingdom in some of his remarks.

I want to follow up on something that was implicit in my hon. Friend’s opening remarks, when he stressed that high-speed rail, if properly developed in this country, could be a replacement for some air services. We must face that debate. He included Eurostar as an example, and 70 per cent. of the market between London and Paris is now high-speed trains, which have replaced many of the flights there. The airline market between Paris and Brussels has been completely eliminated because of the success of high-speed trains. Now it is not just Eurostar that has the potential to provide services between London and Paris, and so on; a consortium of Air France and KLM is looking to run train services on the High Speed 1 rail line between London and Paris. When airlines are thinking of getting into the rail market, that shows the potential for substitution. Some people have even suggested that of the 450,000 flights a year from Heathrow—I think that is the right figure—perhaps 100,000 could eventually have high-speed rail alternatives. If that is only half right, and it is a question not just of flights between London and Leeds and London and Manchester, but flights from the English regions to the continent, there is a real chance of rail replacement.

I speak as a proud Yorkshireman and have often had correspondence from businesses in Yorkshire saying that we must maintain the link to Heathrow. I have duly written off supporting the retention of an air link between Leeds Bradford airport and Heathrow. However, as time has gone on, I have reflected on whether that is the best that God’s own county can hope for—three flights a day to Heathrow, often circling Heathrow for many minutes, often late and often missing their onward connections. It would be far better if we had that high speed spur to Heathrow. Parts of Yorkshire would be 90 minutes or less away. Perhaps there could be an hourly service, or a 90-minute one. That would be a much better link for God’s own county to our major international airport.

It is disingenuous to say that there is no potential, or very little, for rail replacement of Heathrow air services. That, on all sorts of environmental as well as economic grounds, is the potential that we have before us. Also, if places in Yorkshire such as Robin Hood airport just outside Doncaster can be linked to London in less than 90 minutes, or perhaps 75 minutes, that will make them nearly as close to parts of London as Stansted is now. It could help. The high-speed network could mean that more long-haul destinations could be served from Birmingham, which would be just 45 minutes away from London on high-speed rail, from Yorkshire and potentially from Manchester, too. So there is a lot to be said for high-speed rail from the point of view of the regions—as a matter of both direct air links to the world and faster rail links to Heathrow and London.

In Yorkshire, we have looked on as a great deal of expenditure has been committed, rightly in my view, to Crossrail and the Olympics. High-speed rail is the project that the entire north of England looks to Parliament and the Government to back—and there is definitely a case for extending it to Scotland as well. It is the big capital project, equivalent to the Olympics or Crossrail, that could completely change the dynamics of our economies.

My hon. Friend talked about a statue at St. Pancras station. I think that he suggested such a statue should be of our former Deputy Prime Minister. I do not think that we should put aside the prospects of the Minister who is present today, who is a rising star and one of life’s political healers. The Government have a problem at the moment with the debate about Heathrow and the third runway. I am pleased that they have now begun—after, it must be admitted, a slow start in this Parliament, given that we had a manifesto commitment to high-speed rail—at least to begin to fulfil their commitment, and examine it. I, with my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, hope that they will do that speedily.

We have also passed a new, faster and more efficient planning system. It seems to me that there is some merit in the early-day motion that bears my name, which has attracted support from across the House, and that we should use the opportunity of the next few months—I am not talking about years of delay—to examine airline policy and high-speed rail policy together, rationally and sensibly. I think that my hon. Friend the Minister is one of those people who could begin to forge a national consensus on the issue.

We are talking about our long-term transport strategy. We cannot afford to be divided in the House on this matter and make the possibility of changes to high-speed rail or airport policy dependent on the result of an election. We should get rid of the shackles of all the lobbying that has been going on for a third runway at Heathrow; those tactics remind me of the tactics used by those who lobbied for super-casinos, who thought that they just had to infiltrate the Department, get a few City lobbyists on board and persuade a few people at No. 10, and all would be well. Now we are seeing the beginnings of a debate in Parliament and there is a sense that all is not well. Members of Parliament, like the public, want the Government to reflect on their transport policy and the potential of high-speed rail, to consider high-speed rail together with airports and to use the time between now and the next general election to come up with a policy that can command the support of the House, and ensure that the statue at St. Pancras will be of the Minister.

May I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on securing the debate? He highlighted, among other things, past commitments to ensuring that Eurostar went a little further north than, first, Waterloo and then St. Pancras. He also highlighted the importance of improving freight facilities, to ensure that more, rather than less, of our freight is carried by rail. I shall not reflect on the matter of whom the statue might be—we will have to wait and see. Unfortunately, anything to do with rail infrastructure in this country takes a minimum of 10 to 15 years, so I do not think that any of us can second-guess of whom that statue might be.

I had time to reflect on the subject of our debate as I was standing on the overcrowded, delayed 08.10 train from Wallington to London Bridge this morning. I had further time to reflect as I was standing with about 500 other people, trying to get on to the tube at London Bridge. I happened to be standing next to a foreigner who turned around and said to me, “Is this normal?” I said “Look at the LED display board.” That board said that there was a good service on the Jubilee and Northern lines, so I had to reassure him: “Don’t worry, this is perfectly normal. This is how we travel in London.” He was, I am pleased to say, reassured by that information.

I would like to start by commenting on what various hon. Members have started with—the environmental benefits of high-speed rail. Hon. Members will be aware that Eurostar has commissioned some research. Clearly, it is not entirely independent on this matter and it has a certain interest, but that research showed that flying between London and Brussels, or between London and Paris generates 10 times more CO2 emissions than taking the Eurostar. We have heard that Eurostar is already carbon neutral, but it is seeking to reduce its emissions further, with a programme that it hopes will lead to a 25 per cent. reduction in carbon emissions by 2012. It also highlights the fact that the load factor on its services is very good, at about 60 per cent., which compares favourably with the load factor on some airlines at certain times of the day.

Eurostar is trying to highlight the fact that the potential environmental advantage is significant, but that at the moment the UK is failing to capitalise on a growing market for high-speed rail. In other European countries, because of the connectivity provided by the channel tunnel, there is potential to grow that market, but the UK is not really participating at present. A specific point that I would like to put to the Minister is whether his Department will carry out an assessment of how passengers shift from air to rail services when high-speed rail lines are introduced. From a parliamentary answer supplied to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), I know that no specific assessment has been made of the shift in relation to French train services. It would be useful, and it would inform this debate, to see what happens when a large network is installed and how the shift from air to rail happens. I hope that that is something that the Government are willing to undertake.

Open-access railways for international passenger travel should start from 2010 onwards, and they offer the potential for much greater competition, with Eurostar having to compete on the present lines with other providers of high-speed rail services. I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify what the safety standards will be when the open-access railway is introduced in 2010. Whoever is going to compete in the market needs to know what those standards will be, otherwise they will not be in a position to compete effectively from 2010. There is a specific safety requirement for the channel tunnel with which they must comply.

As an aside, I would like the Minister to comment on whether the safety standards that apply in the channel tunnel are entirely necessary. I hesitate to say so, but on the Swiss railways, in mountain tunnels, which are longer than the channel tunnel, different safety standards are used. The Swiss do not have the same safety standards as those that apply in the channel tunnel, but they consider their railway to be safe. I do not know, but they may have achieved a less onerous way of ensuring safety. Will the Minister either comment on that or undertake to conduct research on whether the Swiss have found a more cost-effective system while maintaining safety standards.

Something else that the Government need to clarify, if we are to have open-access railways after 2010 and see a greater degree of competition in the provision of international rail services, is precisely what will happen to services that are using the channel tunnel. The fire took place a few months ago, and it is presumably too early to say what will come out of that, but will the Minister comment on whether is a case for stopping the open design of the HGV shuttles? Is that appropriate? Will he also comment on whether there is a need to consider some of the products and chemicals that go through the channel tunnel, and whether some of them should be sent via designated ferries, as a safer way of transporting them?

A number of hon. Members have commented on the integration issue in relation to Eurostar: how to integrate a train service coming from further north with the Eurostar going on to the continent. The Minister will be aware that there were plans to ensure that there was a single ticketing system to enable someone here in the UK—perhaps at the local station of the hon. Member for Stafford—to make a through booking; a ticket that took him from Stafford station right through to Moscow or Cologne, if he wanted to travel that way. I understand that that has fallen through. The complexity of creating a single ticketing system when, for instance, the age at which someone is a child on the German train system is different from the age under the rules that apply in the UK, has made it impossible. I hope that he can make some suggestions about how to encourage inter-country train travel; not just from the UK to France, but from the UK to beyond France and on to other destinations. How can one encourage that kind of travel when, unfortunately, a single ticketing system does not seem to be on the cards? There may be other things that can be done, such as making people aware of the connections that exist between, for example, Lille and other stations, between Brussels and Paris, and so on.

My final point is perhaps a parochial one. I know that hon. Members from further north will object to complaints about train services going to the south of the country. In the summer, my family and I used to take the train service from Waterloo straight through to Avignon, and we now take the service from St. Pancras to Avignon. For many people in the south-east, that has been a negative change, as time has been added to their journeys. We need to examine whether something can be done to speed up train services in London.

On that parochial point, the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and mine are on the same loop, which goes to St. Pancras. However, as a result of the Thameslink programme in 2015, our constituents will be forced to stop at Blackfriars. I hope that the Minister will take the point that of the 32 or so paths that go through Blackfriars and onwards and upwards, the only four that terminate at Blackfriars are from south-west London. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will join me in urging the Minister to consider that. I know that his colleague, Lord Adonis, is considering it, and I have a meeting with him in the near future, but I hope that the Minister will be persuaded by the force of our arguments on that point for the people of south-west London.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that very helpful intervention, and I echo entirely what he says. In fact, I am due to meet representatives of Network Rail—next week, I think—to discuss the issue, because a number of constituents have raised concerns about it.

The changes that I was talking about mean that at Waterloo some platforms are now available. Liberal Democrats want those platforms to be used for train services. We do not want them to be used to build shops on. With the credit crunch, it is possible that there will be less demand to build shops, so we may be able to invest for the long term in using the platforms for a combination of services, including local train services provided by South West Trains. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) has been pushing hard for that. Who knows? Perhaps in the future there will be the potential to run some Eurostar services back into Waterloo.

The need to increase capacity has been identified by a number of Members as the major issue across all parts of our network. The previous Rail Minister, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), said that it would cost about £5 million to do the works outside Waterloo, yet it is costing us £500,000 a year to mothball those facilities. Does the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) share my surprise at what is happening?

Again, that is a telling point, and no doubt the Minister will provide an explanation—or he may struggle, but we will watch with interest to see what his response is. At Waterloo, there are platforms that could and should be used to provide train services—potentially a mix of local services provided by South West Trains and Eurostar services coming into the south, as they used to; that was their original destination. I hope that the Minister will provide some certainty on that point and say that platforms 21 to 25 will be used for train services, and they will not be lost and become the next major retail development in London, as that would be extremely regrettable.

There is now a degree of political consensus on the need for high-speed rail, but there is some uncertainty about how it will be funded, which is why I threw into the pot the idea of a surcharge on domestic flights to put money into a transport infrastructure fund that could be used to invest in high-speed rail. I shall listen carefully to the Minister and, depending on what he says, I may or may not support a campaign to erect a statue of him at St. Pancras station.

This has been a fascinating debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on securing it and on introducing it in an all-inclusive way. I am referring both to his style and the points that he covered. Other contributions that we have heard have been interesting in terms of some of the omissions as well as some of the things that were included. The Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), intervened on the hon. Member for Stafford to talk about economic plans announced by my party yesterday, then questioned the support for high-speed rail. However, the Government consistently tell us that his party wants to cut £20 billion from public expenditure, and, intriguingly, he did not announce how he would provide funding or continue to make that commitment.

I was also intrigued by the contribution from the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz), who made a number of good points, but he did not say whether he expects the Scottish Executive, of any political hue, to commit to building high-speed rail in Scotland. I am interested to know whether he thinks that that will be a policy of an Executive formed of his party or of any other hue.

I will respond to that invitation. Clearly, the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to make any commitments on behalf of the current and no doubt short-lived Scottish National party Government, but he should be aware that inter-city rail is still a reserved matter and therefore the responsibility of a UK Government in any respect.

That may be the stated position. Whether the current Administration in Scotland are short-lived or not, I know that they are holding a conference on high-speed rail in the near future and are inviting a number of UK experts. They are talking about delivering that package out of their own resources. As I said, the Administration may or may not be short-lived, but I am interested to see what happens.

Today’s debate is welcome, as the hon. Member for Stafford stated his support for the cause of high-speed rail and linking the UK to the continent. That may even be, in the near future, the policy of his Front-Bench team, who are currently the only Front-Bench team who have not been converted to that policy. When I was listening to the hon. Gentleman, I was somewhat surprised by his comments about the investigative nature of what the Government are doing at the moment. I was not sure whether the onus of what he was saying was that the bulk of the investigation was being done by Network Rail which, supposedly, is not an arm of the Department for Transport. I shall be interested to see whether the Minister chooses to clarify that point.

The reason why many of us suggest that the cross-party consensus to which the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington referred does not exist lies in some of the comments that we have heard from the Government. The previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly), confirmed at column 739W of Hansard on 1 April 2008 that not one civil servant in the DFT was working on high-speed rail. She also dismissed the arguments for the environmental benefits of high-speed rail on 2 April; I refer hon. Members to column 852 of Hansard. Last year’s White Paper, “Delivering a Sustainable Railway”, which was her 30-year strategy for the railways—we all know that infrastructure planning is a long-term business—refused to consider any high-speed lines for 30 years, so although we have heard from various hon. Members about a potential consensus, at the moment we are waiting for the Government to join it.

It may be that today the Minister, who has a number of responsibilities, particularly on local networks, will alter the policy on national networks and that tomorrow his fellow Minister in another place will also alter that, but at the moment the Government’s position is clear. They have rubbished high-speed rail. When my party’s firm commitment was made at the end of September this year, the then Secretary of State described the proposals as “economically illiterate” and “hugely damaging” to the national interest. I cannot see how the Government can claim that they are part of a broad consensus to build high-speed rail and at the same time make such comments on the record.

The history of high-speed rail was set out with more eloquence than I can provide by the hon. Member for Stafford. I hoped that would start with the Orient Express boat trains of the 1930s, but none the less, his history was accurate. The opening of the magnificent new station at St. Pancras has brought an increasing demand for rail links to Europe. Last year, 9 million passengers travelled by rail to Europe. The first nine months of this year saw an increase of approximately 14 per cent. in travellers and, as has been mentioned, the number of travellers from Derbyshire has increased by 150 per cent. The number of travellers from Yorkshire—even if not everyone would agree with the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) that it is God’s own county—has increased by 100 per cent. this year. That highlights the fact that, when rail journeys can be completed within four and a half hours, they compete favourably—if not extraordinarily well—with air travel. It is no surprise to see the demand from those areas rising, and that supports the argument that, if we had a more extensive high-speed rail network, demand would continue to rise.

The UK has 68 miles of high-speed rail linking London to the continent. If the Government’s current policy persists, there will be no advance on that and no plans to expand on the UK’s 0.007 per cent. share of the European high-speed rail network. Italy opened its first line in 1978 and France’s first TGV service began in 1981. Germany’s first high-speed intercity express opened in 1992, as did Spain’s. Sweden opened a high-speed link between the airport and central Stockholm in 1999. Turkey began building its high-speed network in 2003, and Portugal opened its first high-speed line in 2004. The UK lags significantly behind in the expansion of high-speed rail, even more so because—as many of us know—Europe lags behind the rest of the world. Japan had its first bullet train 35 years ago, and the regenerative impact of high-speed rail on the economy is well established.

The constituency of the hon. Member for Stafford is linked to the continent by rail, either down the west coast main line to Euston, St. Pancras and onwards, or via connections to Heathrow, where people can catch a flight. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the west coast main line is already overcrowded and will be full to capacity and able to take no more passengers by 2015. The benefits of new lines and a high-speed rail network across the United Kingdom, linking the hon. Gentleman’s constituency with Lille, through France into Spain or out to Milan are clear, not only because of the economic and environmental benefits, but because that would relieve capacity on the west coast main line. The hon. Gentleman eulogised the route from London to Birmingham and Manchester—I am not sure whether I heard him say Leeds, but that does not matter. There is a firm commitment from the Conservative party to build on that line.

Given the change of policy by the official Opposition yesterday, will the hon. Gentleman say whether he has since had a discussion with the leader of the Opposition, his right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), confirming that those plans are still watertight?

I do not know whether or not the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) is an economic genius. However, at the moment, no economist can tell us exactly the shape of the recession or what the public finances will be like in 2015, when we propose that the railway be built. I have not had such a conversation with my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), but I do not need to. The Conservative party has made a firm commitment to start the process. That will be in our first term of government, which hopefully will be sooner rather than later. The process will involve a hybrid Bill, as outlined in our proposals. By 2015, after the first parliamentary term, we hope that we will be in a position to build that line. We estimate the build time to be between 2015 and 2027. That firm, unequivocal commitment remains, and is sustained. I hope that that clears up the matter for the hon. Gentleman. Yet again, he failed to reaffirm his commitment, but we shall not worry too much about that.

I am conscious of the time, as I know that the Minister wants to respond. The proposals by the Conservative party and by Greengauge 21, as well as the comments from a number of hon. Members about the benefits of high-speed rail, are broadly the first step. A high-speed rail network around the UK is advantageous, and it will enable people to travel around the UK and link it to the continent. It will provide shorter journey times, faster trains, improved reliability on dedicated lines and extra capacity, both on high-speed lines and by releasing capacity on conventional lines.

If we build a dedicated high-speed line linking London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, that will clearly have an impact on the west coast main line which, as I have described, will be full to capacity by 2015. There will be huge benefits for a number of people, particularly the constituents of the hon. Member for Stafford. One could postulate the same thing for constituents in Milton Keynes, Macclesfield and so on.

The high-speed rail link will benefit capacity on the rest of the network, and it will also generate extra rail freight capacity. It is not insignificant that the Rail Freight Group has announced its support for high-speed rail. We need to improve the freight paths around the country, and a high-speed rail link would do so by allowing freight to travel on the high-speed rail link at non-busy times or through the night, and simply be creating extra capacity.

High-speed rail would provide a dramatic benefit for the economy. Any proposal of the sort put forward by Greengauge 21 or by the Conservative party would show the potential for a new central business centre in the north of England. Such a link would increase the prospects of Manchester and the north of coming into what has been recognised as the south-east growth zone of the economy. Better infrastructure would enhance the case for inward investment, and areas around high-speed rail constructions gain huge economic regenerative benefits. We can see that by looking at any number of the stations built in Japan.

Other contributors have dealt with the environmental benefits in more detail. However, Eurostar tells us that it emits a tenth of the carbon emissions of aircraft travelling between London and Paris. That is not by using the newer generation trains, but by using an existing energy mix and the available technology. Undoubtedly, part of that energy mix will be nuclear, but if we had a different energy mix and the new generation of trains, those carbon emissions might be even less. The hon. Member for Stafford concluded the announcement on 29 October that the national network strategy group was going to look at this matter. There are some people who, while welcoming that announcement, will wonder whether it is not another example of pushing policy into the long grass or to the right. All I want to hear from the Minister today is confirmation that the Government will join the cross-party consensus and agree to build a high-speed rail network in this country.

This wide-ranging debate has been excellently led by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), and I congratulate him on securing it.

It might be helpful if I set out the background to some of the changes that we have made, which were not recognised by the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond). It has been said that we are not committed to high-speed rail, but we have seen the introduction of the new High Speed 1 route and have invested £8.8 billion in the west coast main line, which has substantially changed travelling for many hundreds of thousands of people across the country. Promises made by former Secretaries of State in 1994 have to be supported by investment, as do any of our commitments. That investment was not there at the time, but is now—that has been the substantial difference under our tenure.

Since 1996, rail passenger kilometres and journeys have grown by more than 50 per cent. People are now travelling further by train than in any year since 1946. For the first time since 1961, more than 1 billion rail journeys were made in 2003-04, and, in each of the next three years, that number increased further. Not only passenger rail transport is growing: since 1996-97, the amount of freight moved has increased by 40 per cent.

One of the reasons why people are willing to use trains today is that rail performance has improved steadily over the past several years, against that background of investment, and punctuality and reliability are now at 90 per cent. However, if rail is to continue its revival, the Government must continue to invest in the industry’s needs. With the rail White Paper, published in July last year, we committed ourselves to making that investment, including the high-level output specification. Historically, the railways have lurched from funding crisis to funding crisis, to the detriment of passengers and our wider economy. With the White Paper, we have put it on a stable footing, under the scrutiny of the independent regulator, while delivering major, much-needed investment.

In setting out a clear and sustainable long-term strategy, the White Paper is the most positive statement on the growth and development of Britain’s railways in 50 years. It sets out our priorities in tackling capacity pinchpoints on the busiest sections and services in our urban areas and their supporting regions, and on inter-urban corridors and freight links to international gateways—the strategic economic priorities that Eddington identified. In the medium term, the focus is on measures that will enhance and make better use of our existing railway infrastructure and deliver visible benefits to users—for example, train and platform lengthening—rather than on committing to speculative step-change measures using unproven technologies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) mentioned overcrowding, which has been one of our priorities in delivering capacity improvements that will improve the travelling experience for that substantially increased number of passengers. We want the railway to have the capacity to handle double today’s freight and passenger traffic, to be even safer, more reliable and more efficient, to cater for a more diverse, affluent and demanding population and to meet its environmental potential by reducing its carbon footprint.

Through HLOS, the Government have set out, for the first time, the amount of money that they are committing to the railway between 2009 and 2014. Critically, it also sets out the expected returns on that substantial investment of £15 billion. Major projects, such as the £5.5 billion Thameslink scheme, the £600 million for the Birmingham New Street and Reading stations and improvements to track and infrastructure across the network, will help to meet those immediate and medium-term goals. Although the railway is safer than ever and reliability better than it has been for several years, despite the railway carrying more people and being used much more intensively, we have specified further improvements. By 2014, reliability will be 92 per cent.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, and others, mentioned their personal experience of some of the improvements made on lines—for example, the speed of some trains has increased from 110 mph to 125 mph. The other week, I was with a Birmingham chamber of commerce, where it was recognised that the service between Birmingham and London is second to none and that the journey time has reduced substantially—by some 20 minutes. I recognise that the west coast main line upgrade has caused some upheaval to the travelling public, especially at weekends, but out of it will come a far more reliable, effective and efficient service.

My hon. Friend referred to rail links. I can confirm that they exist—for example, from King’s Cross, on the north London line, and on the west coast main line at Willesden. He also referred to open access to Eurotunnel, which has agreed lower rates for rail freight, and he will also know that English Welsh & Scottish Railway Ltd has started running new intermodal and automotive services by utilising that potential. In addition, in showing our support for rail freight—we want to see it grow substantially in the long term—we have agreed that British Railways Board will continue to pay the UK allocation of Eurotunnel’s fixed costs and to invest some £200 million in the development of the rail freight network.

I assure my hon. Friend that I shall draw Lord Adonis’s attention to this debate, and, to pick up on his concluding remarks, I promise that we have no intention of returning to steam trains. The success and growth of Eurostar patronage was well documented by statistics released in November, and we welcome those improvements.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) referred to changes that he has observed and his desire for further such developments. Part of the £15 billion investment strategy will be to improve train times. Some 130 stations already have through ticketing, but of course that is a work in progress, and we will continue to introduce new technologies to take advantage of greater opportunities.

On the high-speed links—