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Transport Committee Report (High Speed Rail)

Volume 535: debated on Tuesday 8 November 2011

We now move on to the first of two items of Back-Bench business. I shall shortly call Louise Ellman to move the first motion—and, indeed, she will move the second. As I said to the House just over a year ago when we debated the first item under this relatively new procedure, the Chair of a Committee speaks for about 20 minutes, during which time interventions may be taken, but after he or she concludes there will be no separate speeches and we will move on to the next business.

I beg to move,

That this House notes the publication of the Tenth Report from the Transport Committee on High Speed Rail, HC 1185.

I am grateful for the opportunity to present on the Floor of the House the Transport Select Committee’s report into high-speed rail. Our inquiry attracted widespread interest and considered strongly contested and diverse views on the Government’s proposal to build a dedicated, high-speed, Y-shape network, with trains running at up to 250 mph.

Phase 1 is proposed to run from London to Birmingham, opening in 2026. Phase 2 would add two legs to the line, with one going to Manchester and the other to Leeds, operating from 2032-33. The total projected costs are £32 billion, with £16.8 billion for phase 1. The former Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), told the Committee that, spread over 17 years, this was affordable and amounted to an average of £2 billion a year—very similar to the current costs of building Crossrail. Should this proceed, Parliament would consider a hybrid Bill from October 2013 to May 2015.

Our inquiry included consideration of more than 200 pieces of written evidence. We held five oral evidence sessions, with more than 40 witnesses. We travelled on high-speed rail in Frankfurt, Paris and Lille, and spoke to business and civic representatives there, so that we could make some assessment of the impact of high-speed rail on continental Europe. We commissioned a report on High Speed 2 from Oxera Consulting and asked for its analysis of the case put for High Speed 2. We appointed specialist advisers, Bob Linnard and Richard Goldson, to work with our excellent Committee staff. We took those steps because we recognised the importance of this inquiry and we wanted to listen to the greatest possible number of people with different views and different experience, and we wanted the highest level of advice and support in assisting us to analyse the validity of the project before us.

It is regrettable that people expressing sincere and legitimate concerns about what they fear would be the local impact of high-speed rail on their environment have been castigated as “nymbys”. People are entitled to express their views, and while a decision on a major investment of this nature should be taken in the national interest, people are fully entitled to express their concerns about what they believe might be the impact on them, their community and their local environment. Abuse does not help debate.

What are our conclusions? We conclude that there is a good case for proceeding with a high-speed rail network linking London and the major cities of the midlands, the north and Scotland, principally because it will provide a substantial and necessary step change in capacity and a dramatic shift in connectivity not offered by any of the alternatives proposed. This investment will assist passengers and freight. We reject a policy of ever-rising train fares in an attempt to suppress peak-time passenger demand. Current overcrowding is a consequence of a current failure to provide necessary capacity at a time when people want to travel and often need to travel.

The number of long-distance rail journeys more than doubled in the 15 years to 2009. Some of the highest growth has been on the west coast main line, where the number of journeys has increased by about 10% per annum for the past three years. The west coast main line passenger demand levels forecast by HS2 for 2021 have already been overtaken and are projected to increase.

Will the hon. Lady help me by explaining how much money from the Government and how much from the customers or the users of the railway is involved? May I add that, as a representative of the Isle of Wight, there is no benefit whatever for me or my constituents if a lot of money is spent on a railway in the north of England?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Currently, the proportion paid by the traveller or fare payer is increasing and is now about half of the cost. That is very different from what applied in previous years.

We were told clearly that the west coast main line will be full by the end of this decade, which means that additional required routes and services for passengers and freight could not be made available. Our specialist advisers were clear that HS2 is needed for capacity reasons if the pattern of growth continues or if peak demand cannot be spread.

The step change that HS2 would bring does not apply only to people who would use the new line. It would enable expansion on the existing classic line for more local and regional services and for freight. Places such as Milton Keynes would benefit; freight on rail would expand—and demand for freight on rail is anticipated to double. When an assessment of the impact of High Speed 2 is made, it is important to look at what services could be made available on the existing classic line, as well as what would run on the new line.

As a Birmingham MP, it always strikes me that we focus on the benefits from London to Birmingham, but what about trade between Birmingham and cities in the north-east and north-west—another benefit that should not be ignored?

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. It is evident that the debate on High Speed 2 is often cast solely in terms of access to London, but this is also about access between major cities. For example, if and when the line is completed as planned, Manchester and Leeds would be brought within 80 minutes of London, travelling from Manchester to Birmingham would take 49 minutes, while Birmingham to Leeds would take one hour and five minutes. It is as much about the connectivity between the cities of the United Kingdom as it is between cities and their access solely to London. Indeed, a high-speed line offers a dramatic shift in connectivity between the UK’s major cities as well as improved access from the regions to Heathrow and, through linking with High Speed 1, to continental Europe.

A high-speed network could be a catalyst for economic growth, supporting jobs and investment. It could help to rebalance the economy and address the north-south divide.

At present half the money comes from the Government, and a new railway costing about £18 billion is proposed. It is not clear whether people who can currently afford to travel would still enjoy the same benefits. Would the money that is being spent continue to be spent, or would the amount be reduced?

Those are matters for Government policy. When we raised that specific issue with Ministers in the Select Committee, we were told that the current assessments were based on existing Government policy. That could, of course, change; it would be a matter for the Government of the day.

Many local authorities and business representatives, especially in the west midlands and the north, were extremely enthusiastic about the potential economic benefits of High Speed 2, and many referred to specially commissioned studies that showed what could be achieved. We do, however, have a number of concerns, which must be addressed during progress on High Speed 2 to ensure that the potential of a new high-speed rail network is realised and informs decision making. The Government must commit themselves to phase 2 before phase 1 is agreed.

I congratulate the Select Committee on its exhaustive report. Would it not be useful if the Government found some technical way of including in the Bill provision for services to Manchester and Leeds, so that the north could give its full support to the railway?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, if he reads our report, he will see that we suggested a specific form of words enabling the Government to do just that. I hope that the Government read the report very carefully, particularly the section to which I have referred.

The case for a high-speed line between London and the west midlands depends largely on the assumption that the Y-shape network will be completed. To provide a high-speed line that went solely from London to Birmingham would be to abandon the north, which I do not think many Members would want. Indeed, in the longer term the line could extend to Scotland, Wales and other parts of the United Kingdom.

It is important that local and regional economic strategies are drawn up and supported—that includes support from Government as well as the private sector—to maximise high-speed rail’s potential to rebalance the economy, but it is equally important that investment is maintained in the existing classic line, including initiatives such as the northern hub. Continued investment in the classic line is important for the purpose of local improvements, and people travelling on local lines must be able to benefit from the maximum possible access to the high-speed line.

I congratulate the hon. Lady and the Committee on the report. She raised an important point about connectivity in the north. If people are to travel from London to the north and vice versa, once they have reached the north they will need to be able to travel effectively and efficiently, which they cannot do at present. I therefore believe that the northern hub is crucial to the success of High Speed 2.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I hope that he will put his weight behind the views of the Select Committee, which is already working hard to ensure that the northern hub is delivered.

The Committee considered that further information was required to inform decisions on access to Heathrow and terminals in London. We felt that there was not enough information in the public sphere, particularly in relation to Heathrow. We also felt, strongly, that environmental concerns should be properly assessed in a revised business case. High-speed rail is likely to have substantial impacts on some local communities and areas along the route, and we need to be satisfied that full consideration has been given to an assessment of what those impacts might be.

I join those who have welcomed the report, which contains a very thorough analysis. The Committee has entered a number of caveats alongside its support for High Speed 2. In the summary, the Committee calls on the Government

“to consider and clarify these matters before it reaches its decision”.

Does the Committee believe that the Government should not make a decision until all the points raised in the report have been clarified?

If the Government decide to proceed, they should issue a statement of their intention to do so. We have already been told that more information will be made available before a statement is issued. Following that, intensive work should be done to deal with some of the issues that we have raised before the House considers a hybrid Bill in 2013. It is proposed that proceedings on the Bill should take place over 18 months, so if the Government decide to go ahead there will be plenty of time for consideration to be given and for more information to be produced before any final decision is made.

If the Government think it right to go ahead—and I agree with them—what will change between now and 2013? Surely the hybrid Bill can serve as a framework Bill, and it will not be necessary to wait until next year.

While we are committed to the necessity for high-speed rail, we think it important for the detailed issues that we have raised to be considered fully.

The hon. Lady says that the Committee’s report raises important points, and she says that the environmental impact has not been properly assessed. Does she believe that that impact will have a significant effect on the net cost-benefit ratio in the business case?

That is an important point. I cannot anticipate what the impact would be, but we think that other factors, including the importance of reducing current overcrowding, should be assessed as well. Ultimately, any cost-benefit ratio would have to take account of the findings in regard to those factors, and possibly others as well.

The significance of the 250 mph maximum speed should be explained in relation to the choice of route, and the value of time-saving per individual should be reconsidered. The importance of reducing overcrowding should also be assessed. Much more progress must be made on decarbonising fuel before High Speed 2 can be seen as an essentially green project. Any reduction in carbon emissions that is attributable to high-speed rail should be determined by the extent to which the UK’s energy is decarbonised, although it is certainly true that travelling by high-speed rail is greener than travelling by car or plane. The information that we currently have does not make clear the extent to which high-speed rail would replace air travel, particularly in phase 1. We repeat our call to the Government to publish a transport strategy so that the role of rail and aviation, including high-speed rail, can be assessed in a national context.

Those are our major concerns. We believe that they must be addressed if the High Speed 2 legislation is to complete its passage through Parliament in what, as I have explained, would be a lengthy and detailed process. A decision to invest in a new dedicated high-speed rail network would be the single most important transport infrastructure investment for generations. Our report supports high-speed rail, and identifies important matters that must be addressed before final decisions are made on High Speed 2. I call on the Government to respond constructively.

Question put and agreed to.