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Transport: Rail and Air

Volume 687: debated on Wednesday 22 November 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will take steps to make it more expensive to fly than to travel by train for journeys between London and Scotland or northern England.

My Lords, The Future of Air Transport White Paper recognises the important role of rail services in providing an alternative to air travel. The Government have invested heavily in upgrading the rail network, improving the frequency of services and reducing journey times, thereby increasing its attractiveness compared to air.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that while market forces are obviously crucial in a modern economy such as ours, they do not necessarily lead to the best outcome for the environment, especially as train fares to parts of this country may be three times as high as the comparable plane fares? Does he agree that the Government need to take further their policy of improving the west coast main line in particular, possibly with a high-speed link, given that otherwise—according to this morning’s news—there may not be the ability to carry all the passengers on that service in 10 years’ time?

My Lords, this morning’s news was an unvarnished tale of success in terms of the increase in the number of rail journeys. The pressures on the system are due to that increase, which reflects the fact that the comparative position between rail and air is changing because of the quality of the rail service. My noble friend is right on the broader issues regarding emissions and climate change. Of course we must consider measures other than just the market.

My Lords, am I right in thinking that pollution per passenger mile for a fully loaded train is more than that for a modern airliner, such as the Airbus A380? Its makers claim that it is less polluting per passenger mile than the most modern, energy-efficient car.

My Lords, that depends a great deal upon the distances being travelled. This Question is about travel within the United Kingdom. On the broader issues, the noble Lord is right in one obvious respect; namely, that modern aircraft are considerably less polluting than their predecessors and that is due to improvements in technology. We look towards such improvements with regard to aviation pollution, but that does not alter the fact that if processes continue at the present level, aviation pollution in the atmosphere will increase by a very substantial percentage over the next two decades. That is why we are addressing the question of aircraft emissions.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that in respect of the announcement on the west coast main line, he has not focused on the concerns expressed by the Comptroller and Auditor General? They were that, despite the £8.6 billion investment in that line, there is a danger of early obsolescence with the electronic signalling and that the industry does not believe that it will be able to deal with the potential uplift which, in the past year, has been encouraging, with a 20 per cent growth.

My Lords, it is right that we take into account the contribution by the National Audit Office that identifies potential bottlenecks two decades on, but that reflects a substantial increase in passenger traffic in recent years. The noble Lord is right: that we need to look at potential further investment in that line and that one of the constraints may be the quality of signalling available. But in other respects, as Virgin has indicated, some extra demand can be met by lengthening trains and by some increased frequency of service.

My Lords, will my noble friend join me in congratulating British Airways, British Midland and easyJet on the provision of cheap air fares from Aberdeen, Inverness and the northern airports to London and other European destinations, so that ordinary, hard-working people and their families can travel to London? While recognising the admirable green qualities of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, will the noble Lord, Lord Davies, in his role as Deputy Chief Whip, have a kindly word with him and remind him that ordinary working-class families are what we on this side are all about?

My Lords, I assure my noble friend that all my words, both public and private, to my noble friend Lord Dubs are kindly, but I take on board the point that my noble friend emphasises. Cheap air travel has increased opportunities for people to travel within the United Kingdom, particularly on journeys from Scotland. Those journeys are and will remain lengthy by any other form of transport, and that is why air travel has a role to play. We should recognise that companies have succeeded in providing opportunities for people across the range.

My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that some parts of the United Kingdom will not have the luxury of competition between trains and aeroplanes from London until we get a tunnel between Great Britain and Northern Ireland? Does he realise that this week it cost me £380 to come here by British Midland and that today my son-in-law came from Northern Ireland for £50 with easyJet? There is a wide range of prices for travelling by air. Does the noble Lord agree that the Government should not get involved in manipulating and controlling the price of aeroplane tickets?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for reinforcing the point that I sought to make in my opening reply, which is that the Government have no intent to interfere in the pricing policies of air or rail travel. I take on board his point that, although we congratulate ourselves—rightly—on improved rail services, that has limited significance to those who travel to this country from Northern Ireland.