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Railways: High-speed Trains

Volume 696: debated on Monday 26 November 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What plans they have for further high-speed railway lines within the United Kingdom.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government have no plans at present for further high-speed railway lines. A White Paper was published in July setting out the Government’s strategy for the railway and, on new lines, it states that further study is needed in conjunction with multimodal assessments of demand. The Government plan to undertake such analysis in time to inform the long-term transport plan, which is due to be published in 2012.

My Lords, I take note of the Minister’s somewhat complacent Answer. In view of the fact that oil prices are rising steeply and that we will be in a period of both very high prices and shortages, and bearing in mind the long timescales required, should we not be putting in hand the planning for a high-speed line to the north in order to strengthen the country’s defences against these circumstances?

My Lords, I understand entirely where the noble Lord is coming from. However, given the likelihood that, on current projected trends, over the next decade there will be an increase in the number of rail passengers of about 30 per cent, the Government have fairly taken the view, which the noble Lord has supported, that our priority should be to ensure that we tackle congestion on the railway lines and put in place measures to meet those capacity demands. I do not think that passengers would thank the Government if we failed to do that. The case is very simple. To expand in the way that the noble Lord suggests would be an extremely expensive option, one which could cost as much as £30 million—I mean £30 billion; I wish that it were £30 million—over the period he is proposing.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that this may be a useful time to look again at whether the railway system as such should not be considered as something that the state ought to control?

My Lords, this question often comes up in your Lordships’ House and I am intrigued that that is increasingly the case. Again, I am not sure that this would necessarily be the best use of public funds. The Government should continue to focus on the key issue of investing in the infrastructure, to ensure that trains run on time, that there are plenty of them and that they are modern, well equipped and all of those things—which of course are the passengers’ priorities.

My Lords, in considering the railway high-speed programme, is the Minister aware of the grave concern in some sections of the railway community about the numbers of prisoners working at night on track maintenance? The concern is really about public safety. Can he tell us what steps if any are being taken to reassure the public on this and whether the prisoners are being paid the minimum wage?

My Lords, I am afraid that my brief this afternoon does not cover that question, and I apologise to my noble friend for that. I shall properly research the answer and provide him and other interested noble Lords with a full response.

My Lords, given that about 30 planes fly between London and Manchester every day, perhaps the Minister should make sure that high-speed rail is further investigated. Will he also comment on the observation of the Commission for Integrated Transport that the costs in this country are about 50 per cent higher than they are in other countries? If we looked at these costs, we might be able to build more lines.

My Lords, I am delighted that the Conservative Party has decided that it now rather likes the railway network; during its 18 years in government I had the distinct impression that it was not at all keen on rail. If my memory is right, that was a period in our history when there was significant underinvestment, and we have cheerfully and happily reversed that trend. Of course we keep our options open and continue to keep these issues under very careful review. I invite the noble Lord to support the Government’s programme of continued investment in the railway network as a way of dealing with many of the environmental problems and challenges facing our country.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the remarks attributed to Sir Rod Eddington in apparent opposition to a new high-speed line were solely in respect of a new high-speed line built on the maglev technology, not on the basis of a high-speed line such as the Channel Tunnel rail link? On that basis, can he confirm that if a demand for a high-speed line can be demonstrated, the Government will look favourably on it, based on existing and proven technology?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right about maglev. I would be surprised if Eddington was at all impressed by maglev as a form of investment. It is three times more expensive to build a kilometre of track using maglev technology than it is with the more traditional means. The Eddington study found that the United Kingdom has a well connected transportation network and that journey times by rail between major UK cities compare favourably with those in other European countries. Of course, if we need to reconsider our position and put a high-speed network higher up our list of priorities, we will have to do that. I am sure there will be a proven economic case should that need be demonstrated.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that a high-speed line between London and Scotland would be environmentally much more preferable to an ever increasing number of flights, which, at the moment, are the only way in which most of us can get from Scotland down to here?

My Lords, I hear what the noble Earl says about the environmental desirability of rail and understand his point about high-speed lines. But we should look at these matters in context, not in isolation. Annually, there are about 50,000 flights to the UK mainland from Heathrow and about another 50,000 to Amsterdam, Paris, Brussels and Rotterdam. Even if half of the passengers on those flights switched to rail, Heathrow would be operating at about 90 per cent of capacity and would be full by 2020. So we have to be realistic about how big a change would be achieved by making the kind of switch suggested by some noble Lords.

My Lords, is the Minister aware—if not, will he take into consideration—that one of the major problems in the overall context is the bottleneck of London for rail freight transport? Should it not be a high priority to try to bypass London so that Channel Tunnel traffic going north does not have to navigate it?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a perfectly respectable transportation point. Of course that is one of the issues—

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that not everyone in this country lives in a major city? The preoccupation of the major rail companies in their new timetables for high-speed services which will come into effect in December 2008 will mean that, outside the major cities, train services to London and the south coast from the north of England and Scotland will be much longer.

My Lords, I am going to do some research on this because I am not sure that that is entirely right. I understand the noble Lord’s point, and it is right that we must ensure that people have easy access to rapid forms of travel between the more remote parts of the United Kingdom and coming into London. That is clearly in everyone’s interests, particularly passengers’.