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Railways: High-speed Train Services

Volume 684: debated on Tuesday 11 July 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What studies they have made of high-speed local train services in other countries.

My Lords, while the Government have considered a number of long-distance high-speed rail studies, I am not aware of any studies into high-speed local train services.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the proposed reinstatement of the line between Galashiels and Edinburgh proposes a journey time of a full hour, which is the same as it takes to drive? While I would not expect the Minister to comment on that, because it will be a devolved service, could not the Department of Transport encourage train operators throughout the UK to look at countries such as Spain, where diesels are used that have good acceleration and gradient-climbing capability?

My Lords, I will be careful, as the noble Lord invites me, not to trespass on to a devolved aspect of railways. New rolling stock is coming on-stream in Scotland that will improve the service. We are interested in improving the pick-up speeds of trains on local services, but when we talk about high-speed trains we are talking predominantly about trains that travel at over 125 miles per hour, which are obviously not suited for commuter services.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a simple explanation for the difference between the foreign passenger railway systems and that in the United Kingdom? Does he agree that a large part of the problem is that overseas countries recognise that passenger railway systems need funding, and they provide funding and subsidies in an organised way? In this country, every time there is a change of Government there is a change of railway structure and funding policy.

My Lords, that may have been truer of the past than it is of the present. The noble Lord will recognise the substantial investment that is going into the railways and has been going in over the past decade. He will appreciate that conspicuous improvements are being made, particularly to our commuter and short-distance services, which were the basis of the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Steel.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the French railway system, apart from the TGVs, is almost in meltdown through lack of maintenance and that there is serious concern there about the safety of some branch lines? Does he agree, therefore, that what we have achieved in this country has been a great deal better than what is happening in France? Our traffic is growing, and theirs is declining.

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to reflect on something at which we are better than the French, therefore I am glad to hear that confirmation from my noble friend. Commuter services, particularly, and short-distance services in Britain present one of the greatest challenges in Europe. There is no city quite like London for having to cope with the number of passengers who have to be moved each day. We are making very good progress in that area and in some respects compare favourably with the rest of the world.

My Lords, although it is unsafe for trains to run fast on certain small branch lines, is it not the right policy to permit speed on the rail?

My Lords, obviously itis in the interests of the operating companies to transport passengers as rapidly as they can, consistent with safety. That is why new trains and new rolling stock have quicker pick-up times between stations in localised travel.

My Lords, I ask the Minister, with a declared interest, whether he is aware that I share his pleasure that people are coming off the roads and on to rail. In the commuter system using third rail a very large amount of carbon is discharged into the atmosphere by using old-fashioned steel conductor rails. Is there any study, such as that by the New York State Energy Research Association, that seeks to swap steel conductor rails for composite aluminium rails, which do not make such a mess?

My Lords, I am happy to confirm that, since the noble Lord last asked that question, I have studied it with even greater care. The third rail manufactured in the way that the noble Lord indicates has some advantages in operation with regard to carbon emission, but the construction of the rail is expensive and carbon-emitting intensive, so it is not clear that the noble Lord’s proposal is cost-effective, even measured in terms of carbon.

My Lords, were there not more passenger railway journeys made in Britain last year than in any other country in Europe? Indeed, the number in Britain is higher than at any stagesince the days of the Beeching report. Is not the problem with Britain’s railways that which thenoble Lord, Lord Marsh, mentioned: lack ofcapacity and investment? Will my noble friendlook sympathetically at Network Rail’s request for substantial investment in rail capacity?

My Lords, that request will be looked at carefully. The Government certainly intend to continue their practice of increasing investment in rail and encouraging private investment. Next year we intend to publish our full plans on the future ofthe railways over a decade and more, when we will be able to inform the House about the nature of the investment that we envisage.

My Lords, when considering a new railway proposal, does the Minister assess its long-term benefits over, say, 60 years—for example, regeneration—or its immediate costs? If the latter is dominant, will that not lead to a less well engineered railway?

My Lords, we intend to take a long view on investment in rail, but thereis a limit to that. We are thinking of the 20-year period beyond 2007, while bearing in mind rail’s contribution to combating climate change.