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Transport: Rail and Air Travel

Volume 699: debated on Thursday 6 March 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to substitute rail travel for air travel within the United Kingdom.

The noble Lord said: I am delighted that we are having this debate, and I thank everyone else who is participating at this time on a Thursday. Although I travel by rail backwards and forwards to Cornwall these days, I have to admit that today, for various reasons, I am going by car, mainly because I have passengers and I am carrying freight. I wish to make clear that one thing I am not—I am sure other noble Lords are not either—is a rail anorak. I do not know a huge amount about rail. I use rail more or less every day, and find it very useful. I have a background in the transport industry but mainly in road and freight, so I do not have a particular bone of contention in this area.

What concerns me most is that, within the UK transport sector and communications, we seem almost by default over the past few decades to have gone down the route of having no real planning—I do not mean central planning, but strategic planning at governmental level—in terms of the way that we move people, particularly over long distances. Going through the facts and figures for this debate, which I originally tabled some 18 months ago, I found that a number of things have changed over that time. Whatever challenges there are between air and rail also exist—in some ways even more so—between air and road transport over long distances.

I shall give the Committee some background. One of the clear issues here is climate change and carbon emissions; that will be one of the key themes of this debate. The Government have published in their Climate Change Bill their target of 60 per cent carbon reductions by 2050. They will refer that to their climate change committee and expect it to rise to 80 per cent. Transport accounts for almost one-quarter of total current emissions; that is, some 23 per cent. The carbon dioxide emissions performance over the past few years has unfortunately stayed remarkably level since about 1997; in fact, since 1999 it has gone up slightly, although it went down very slightly in 2006, according to the figures announced in January. Within that, however, transport emissions are going up, so although industry and domestic emissions are going down significantly, the real challenge in meeting any climate change targets is to decrease the emissions of the transport sector.

If you look at ratios such as emissions per passenger kilometre or per passenger seat, particularly over long distances, although there are great variations in them depending on how they are calculated, it is clear that over a longer distance—within the UK, not necessarily internationally—rail is substantially less polluting in greenhouse gas emissions than other forms of transport. Some people calculate it as being 10 times better, while others make it nearer a 30 per cent or 50 per cent reduction, but whatever it is, it is clearly an improvement. That is despite the fact that within the UK we have electrification of only about 40 per cent of our rail network, where there is much greater potential for reductions in CO2 emissions because of the potential for non-carbon fuel use. We are one of the lowest-ranking countries in Europe in that regard.

Looking at rail policy as I see it, as a user and as someone who takes a more general interest in it, one of the great aspects has been its growth over the past decade. We have an increase of something like 40 per cent in rail traffic over that period, and the last available figures, for 2006, show that growth was something like 6.5 per cent. That says to me that despite all the problems there have been since privatisation—and I am less critical of it than many of my colleagues—given the right circumstances, rail transport can provide what customers need, be attractive and generate growth, which was not the case during most of the post-war period.

In government reports or reports sponsored by the Government—in particular, I read through the Eddington report at some length when it was published early last year—there seems to be a huge lack of ambition on a macroeconomic scale. My background is as a corporate economist in the freight sector. It is one those areas where you can make the right cost-benefit analysis decisions around individual sectors over a particular period, but can get it completely wrong strategically.

The Eddington report, though excellent in many ways, came down to looking at where you get the best return for your investment, pound for pound, over a medium timescale. That is not an unreasonable way to look at things, but within the transport sphere, which is of major importance with regard to the way the economy functions, you always land up putting more investment in short-distance in the south-west, where all the immediate benefits will be felt. That leaves out the long-term competitiveness of the UK economy and the ability to increase and improve transport infrastructures over a much longer distance. That whole policy area gets left out.

The outcome of that over the past few years has been a huge rise in internal air transport. Because of the way the investment decisions work, airport expansion is difficult in terms of planning but you can use far more airport capacity. You can buy individual units called “planes”, which are very flexible pieces of equipment, and you can therefore establish air routes and easily grow a long-distance air structure. For rail, that is almost impossible. In fact, interestingly, since I tabled this Question some 18 months ago, domestic air travel has started to decline for the first time. The interesting thing about that is that no-frills economy airline growth is still at around 10 per cent—so the challenge is still there—and overall, with international flights, it is still going up.

In the 19th century, Britain led the world in rail infrastructure development and transport development generally. Over the period from 1836 to 1848, Parliament gave permission for some 8,000 miles of railway track to be constructed, at an estimated cost then of £200 million, which was equal to something like the gross domestic product at that time. Since the Second World War, we have closed a lot of that down—quite rightly; I am not a sentimentalist in this area. In terms of new rail infrastructure, effectively we have about £9 billion to keep together the west coast main line and the channel rail link, which opened some 15 years too late.

To me, that shows how, as a national economy that needs to be competitive, we have moved backwards. We should not just focus on local travel—although that is very important—but we should raise our horizons to look at long-distance travel. It is part of an internationally competitive economy, and therefore it is an area where we need to be brave and follow where many other European economies have already gone. I rest my case.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for getting this debate on the Order Paper and for his very thoughtful speech; I agreed with every word that he said. He started with the point about emissions and Eddington. To put it another way, the Government’s response to the Eddington report, which came out towards the end of last year, shows quite dramatically the forecast reduction in emissions between the different economies in the sector. The worst performer for the next 15 years is transport. That is saying the same thing, and Eddington is confirming it.

In the debate on my Starred Question on Tuesday on the third runway at Heathrow, we heard my noble friend and a lot of other noble Lords basically saying that we need to continue air expansion in the south-east to maintain our economic position in the world. I do not know where they get any information to support that view, because the UK economy, particularly in the south-east, seems to be doing quite well, even with a pretty third-rate airport, which most of us think Heathrow is at the moment. A lot of us try to avoid Heathrow if we have to fly somewhere, because it is so difficult. I am not sure why the same comments could not apply to good quality rail services. There is nothing particularly special about air; 50 years ago people thought it was sexy with nice air hostesses giving you drinks and everything else. It is not like that now; it is a major hassle, actually.

Air and rail should be looked at in the same way. We have to consider where the country is going to be in the next 20 or 30 years in terms of people’s demands—it is mainly people, although there is a bit of freight, and I declare an interest as chairman of the Rail Freight Group—and where they want to go and how, and the growth. The Government’s forecast for rail passenger traffic increases is for it probably to double in about 15 to 20 years. Certainly, rail freight will do rather more than that. The indications are that by 2030, using existing technology, at least all our rail lines between the major centres will not just be full to capacity, but demand will exceed supply by something like 50 to 100 trains a day. That is quite serious.

I support the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, to divert short-haul flights on to rail and thus increase demand still further. In some ways that will improve the financial case for high-speed lines and more capacity, including more capacity for freight. It would also solve a problem I raised on Tuesday. According to NATS and the CAA, there will not be enough capacity in the air over the south-east of England to take all the flights that will be possible under BAA’s expansion plans for Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and so on. In his response, my noble friend said that if we were to accept that analysis, we would not have undertaken the consultation on a third runway. CAA and NATS are government institutions, so if they have got it so wrong, I would be interested to hear from my noble friend what he intends to do about it. I think that one ignores advice from the CAA and NATS at one’s peril.

If it is possible to divert more passengers from air to rail, it would have to be done alongside a more rigorous application of the principle that the polluter pays; indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, provided us with some information about that. However, let us explore for a moment the routes where it might work, not only with the existing high-speed lines but with ones that could be built in order to make journey times comparable with air, and with lines where capacity could be increased. That is in fact more important because we are talking about routes between London and Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Cologne and Lyon. Some are four hours away by train, which is better than what is achieved by most air journeys even if they are not delayed.

It usually takes an hour to get to the airport, where you have to wait for around two hours, and then, depending on the delays, you have an hour in the air and another hour travelling to the town centre. Even a four-hour journey by rail is better than the equivalent made by air. That marks a change in the planning of 20 years ago, when three hours marked the tipping point; today it is closer to four hours. When I came back from Cannes by easyJet last summer, it took 10 hours from the hotel to my home. I reckon I could have made that journey using the TGV train in the same time. Cannes is not much further than Lyon, so there is great potential in that.

What is missing from the debate is the fact that it takes a very long time to build new infrastructure, be it an airport, runways or railway lines. The Channel Tunnel rail link has taken around 30 years and Crossrail, if it ever happens, will probably take as long by the time it is finished. I cannot remember how long Terminal 5 has taken, but it is quite some time. The Government need to start planning now for the enormous growth in passenger traffic in what I call the medium distance. In the UK, that is as far as Glasgow and Edinburgh from London, and the West Country the other way. Why fly to St Ives or anywhere else in Cornwall if the train could go a bit faster? However, I will not get on to the issue of First Great Western now.

New infrastructure is also needed to increase capacity and to provide improved interchanges at airports from air to rail. We all know how wonderful it is to travel from Heathrow into Paddington at a cost of £17.50, but what happens when you get to Paddington? You need the Circle line to go anywhere else. How do you get to Gatwick, Luton and so on? Heathrow needs much better connections into the transport networks leading to the west and the north of the country. The south and the south-west will be sorted out when AirTrack is built, which I hope it is. All these projects have to be looked at, but planning new lines through the congested south-east and presumably up through Birmingham and on to Manchester will take a very long time. It will cause major hassle, just as the Channel Tunnel rail link did in Kent, but somehow this has to be done, because there needs to be interchange with Heathrow. However, I suggest that if it were done properly, we could do without the enormous expansion currently planned for Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick.

People are becoming much more concerned about the quality of the experience. I mentioned all the different things you have to do to get on to a plane these days. This week I looked around Terminal 5 with a parliamentary group. The security there involves fingerprints, eye recognition and a few other things. We did not quite take our clothes off but it was not far from it. So I do not think that that process is going to get much quicker. However, if you sit in a train for four hours, you can get a lot done. You have space and you can work, go to sleep or whatever. It is time that we had a consistent policy on air, rail and road transport in this country, reflecting the carbon that each emits.

It is time that the Government looked again at the air travel White Paper that came out four or five years ago, because many things have changed. It needs to be re-examined, not on the basis of whether air travel is essential for the ongoing economic viability of London—I do not think that it is vis-à-vis short-haul travel, although it is for long-haul travel—but on how we can achieve a much better reduction in our carbon emissions compared with what is shown in the Eddington report. That is a big challenge, but now is the time to do it. I trust that my noble friend agrees with me.

My noble friend was right to ask this Question, however long ago it was that he did so, as it is still very relevant. He certainly asked it with great passion, ruing the lack of strategic vision for the railway well into the future. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. I agree with everything that both of them said. However, I shall not sit down just yet.

I have to confess to being an “anorak” with a hefty bias in favour of railways, which leads me to go home tonight by train rather than flying. I also confess to being a bit of a heretic as regards carbon dioxide destroying the world. I prefer the 1,500 year cycle which causes the temperature to go up and down and I note that in both the Roman and Viking eras it was warmer here than it is now. I am reasonably confident that that cycle will continue, as it has done for the past million years.

My noble friend is calling for the Government to make a distinct lurch towards promoting rail travel and to come off the fence, no doubt preferring to plead an even-handed approach and let the public make their own decisions. What about rail for air substitution? Is it desirable and where? Certainly, in terms of the use of resources, emissions and safety, it is desirable. Aircraft make acute noise, especially on takeoff, and create local air pollution and atmospheric pollution. They also create a by-product of road congestion around the relatively few airports.

While rail transport is not blameless in terms of noise, emissions and safety, these are all reduced. One hopes that rail has more pick-up points than any airport so there is less traffic congestion in the vicinity of the very many more railway stations. A new technological development for rail is the arrival of wi-fi on certain routes, giving permanent contact for telephone, internet and laptop users. I am told that firms located on wi-fi equipped routes approve and promote rail travel because it can genuinely be seen as valuable work time.

Going by rail for longer journeys is still a hard sell. My six-and-a-half-hour rail journey to here, and from here back to home tonight, can be done in four and a half hours by air, but in what environment both at the airport and in the air? The way ahead is to promote better advertising about real rail and air journeys, using case studies to back them up. I fully accept that there is a case for domestic flights at the start or finish of an international journey, and indeed from the various island groups in Scotland. The extension of the Channel Tunnel rail services to the north and west of London would also help, enabling people from Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham to go straight through to the Continent.

Long-distance trains run at surprisingly frequent intervals. Manchester and Birmingham trains are run at 20-minute intervals, which is impressive, and do not have to be booked. The Edinburgh to Glasgow journey is now every 15 minutes, and we are about to open a second line—electrified, no less. This is clearly the way ahead, although I acknowledge that few are likely to want to fly from Edinburgh to Glasgow. I have seen aircraft flying from Edinburgh to Glasgow, although they usually fly on to somewhere else afterwards.

Once aboard, the train offers a better environment: with more space, the possibility of moving around, and using mobile phones and laptops throughout the journey. The challenge to this comes from an unlikely source—the executive coach, with wi-fi. I respect this new competitor, but note that it must operate on our congested road network. Eventually the popularity of such coaches may reduce road congestion, but I very much doubt that that will be the case immediately. Inevitably, I join the call for mainline improvements and for our high-speed network. Plenty has been said about that. We are blessed, or otherwise, with a Victorian network, which, if we were starting again, might have run in different ways to different places. The lead-in time is so substantial that I can only press the Minister for early signs of commitment.

On a digression, after reading about the difficulties for any politician bringing forward schemes for community sentencing whereby political parties criticise each other for being soft on crime if they do not support the maximum use of imprisonment, I appreciate that the default position for politicians and the news media has to change. The same is true for the railway. There must be less rail chaos and more specific reporting of which line is affected and why, rather than the usual blanket approach of “rail chaos”. Ideally, the default position will become, “Rail is the best way and should be the first choice for travellers”. Some hope, but that is the way it should be. For that to become true, new trains will be necessary on additional routes, and existing trains will need to be lengthened to provide sufficient seats for the accelerating demand. I fear that the recently ordered carriages will, on arrival, allow only those who are already standing to sit down, without any real increase in accommodation. The increase in demand will mean that people stand in the new coaches.

We await the Minister’s reply. So far, electrified railways are the only form of transport that can claim to be carbon-neutral, at least in operation, although earlier today I read—can I believe this?—about an electric, single-seater aeroplane that could fly for up to 93 miles before needing a recharge. I do not think that that will threaten the railway for a while. The railway has a great future, provided that the Government will let it.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for introducing this Question for Short Debate. I have learnt to be careful in my response to these debates, because if I say anything positive about the rail industry, the Minister will throw it back at me at Question Time in the Chamber, but I was flattered that he had my quote right on the top of his brief.

I do not think that I heard anything this evening with which I disagreed. I suspect that the issue underlying the noble Lord’s Question is climate change. Climate change is a wicked problem, because past emissions are causing the present symptoms, which were slow to become apparent, and then it took some time to recognise the cause of the problem. Furthermore, we are committed to more climate change and rising sea levels whatever we do. What we do now will take a considerable time before the benefits become apparent. Finally, obvious popular solutions are not necessarily the right ones to adopt. One has only to look at the US ethanol policy to see the dangers. None of this means that we need do nothing, and taking sensible action should not hold back world economic growth unduly.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, to the Climate Change Bill. I know that it is much appreciated by my noble friends who are working on the Bill. The noble Lord has explained to us the transport emissions challenge that we face.

There is little doubt that CO2 emissions associated with aviation contribute to the increase in overall CO2 levels. However, it is only a small proportion of overall emissions. Primary power is much more significant. I am a little anxious about everyone claiming that their use of electricity is carbon neutral, because we know that a large proportion of the electricity that we use in the UK is not carbon neutral—far from it. In later years, aviation could generate a high proportion of UK CO2 emissions, as there is little alternative to liquid fuel propulsion, while other uses of power decrease. What is less perfectly understood is the other greenhouse effects of aviation, and further research is needed here to ensure that policy is backed up by sound science.

Unfortunately for the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, I understand that the climate change model correlates well with the 1,500-year cycle, as well as with the effects of increasing CO2 concentrations. It is obvious that rail enjoys lower emissions than aviation, but are the figures cited by the noble Lord, and those we read, just the marginal CO2 emissions of a journey in terms of fuel, or do they include the energy required to manufacture the aircraft and its materials and the emissions related to the manufacture or recycling of the rails, the manufacture of the sleepers on the railway system and the overhead line support structure? The point is that, although rail is a very low-carbon means of transport, as we have heard, it is not a zero-carbon means of transport.

Perhaps I can help the noble Earl. In a Written Answer in the House of Commons about the carbon emissions per passenger mile in kilograms, air shorthaul flights are 0.23 and rail is 0.10.

Yes, but that does not tell us which carbon content we are looking at. When we build a railway system, we have sleepers. Sleepers have a carbon content. It is complicated. We also need to look at the energy put into making an aircraft, the electricity used to make the aluminium in the aircraft and whether the energy in the aircraft can be recycled—whether we can recycle the aluminium. So it is a much more complicated picture.

We know and agree that aviation emissions are undesirable, but also that aviation is vital to our economy and world development. The noble Lord’s Question refers to internal air and rail travel. There is a fine balance between the utility and economy of the two modes of transport. There is plenty of evidence that improvement in rail services, both in the UK and Europe, leads to a corresponding increase in rail's share of the market.

In the future we could build really fast new railway lines between city centres that would make aviation superfluous for internal travel. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, talked about that opportunity, but he also talked about some of the difficulties of finding a route for such systems. Quite apart from all the planning and financial difficulties, the Minister’s carbon economists would have to study any proposal carefully in order to determine the carbon balance benefits. I suspect that for a given amount of investment there are other, much more effective ways of avoiding emissions.

The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, talked about some of the difficulties in determining policy at the strategic level in government. The reality is that internal air travel is efficient and effective and has great benefits, especially for the periphery of the UK. We need good transport connections to encourage investment in the West Country and in Scotland. Sometimes that will be by air and sometimes by rail; it is not one or the other. Given that the air/rail market is balanced in terms of cost and journey time, reliability of rail services becomes critically important. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, reminded us that we need to look at the total journey time from door to door. Although the flight time might be only an hour, we know that going through an airport takes a lot of time—and it is not very pleasant nowadays, either.

The need for reliability becomes particularly important when passengers are not paying the fare themselves. That is normally, of course, for business purposes, when time is extremely valued. It is plainly far more carbon efficient to make our current rail system extremely reliable and attractive than to build an entirely new system. We need to move away from an acceptable level of failure in the system towards zero failure. In particular, I do not understand why it is thought to be acceptable to have a signalling failure, even if the system fails at safe. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the noble Lord’s Question.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for stimulating this debate. It has been useful. I personally regret that we do not have a few more takers in the Moses Room today; they would have greatly benefited from joining in this important debate. Sometimes in our recent discussions on the rail industry, and in looking at aspects of the aviation sector, we have touched on the subject of rail versus air and rail-for-air substitution, and it is interesting to focus in more detail on that aspect of a broader-based debate.

All the speakers have made good contributions. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, challenged the Government on our lack of vision. I have some comments to make about that. I do not share his view; the Government have gone a long way towards having a broader vision of how the transportation system works, and in particular a vision for the successful and sustainable development of our railway. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, made a similar point and challenged us not just to think in the short term but to look at where we wanted to be in 20 years’ time. That is right. We need to do that, and it is an important part of our thinking and our vision of the future of the rail network. The noble Lord said we needed to construct policies for the longer term, and I do not think anyone disputes that.

The noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, charmingly confessed to being an anorak. I suppose that if you are prepared to take a six-an-a-half-hour rail journey twice a week, you spend a lot of time thinking and rather falling in love with the rail network. No doubt, as you go through some beautiful countryside, you have lots of time to reflect on how the network could develop. The noble Earl made the case, as he often does, for a high-speed network with continuous improvements.

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, said that he did not have much to disagree with in the previous speeches. I shall be studying those speeches to see just how much of the noble Earl’s party policy is now carefully aligned with what has been said, because these things are of broader interest.

I did not say that I accept what other noble Lords have said as party policy. I would not be here for very long if I did.

I would not want to shorten the noble Earl’s tenure in his current post. He made a good contribution, and I did appreciate his observations on the carbon economist’s view of the world. He brought some reality into the debate in terms of arguing that we need a more rounded view of these issues, and I do not dispute that. Indeed, it is probably a view that is more broadly shared than we sometimes think.

The Government are committed to a sustainable transport system which supports economic growth and pays its environmental costs. The Eddington transport study to which almost all noble Lords referred made it clear that a well functioning transport system is essential to supporting continued economic growth in the United Kingdom and maintaining our quality of life, while the Stern review on the economics of climate change confirmed that urgent action is required to tackle emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, and that there is a clear economic case to do so. Indeed, over the past year or so that review has become an important influence in changing the terms of the debate, and we should all be grateful for that.

We do not see this as being a choice between rich and dirty on the one hand and poor and green on the other. Stern properly exposes that as a false dichotomy. The cost of early action is significant at around 1 per cent of global GDP per annum, and perhaps higher for a developed country such as the UK, so the option of being rich and dirty does not really exist. It was for that reason that last October the Government published their White Paper entitled Towards a Sustainable Transport System, which was our response to Eddington and Stern. It sets out a new framework in which transport can support economic growth and contribute to lower carbon emissions. For example, in aviation the UK’s airports play a pivotal role in supporting both the national economy and regional economies by providing around 200,000 jobs directly and making a national contribution of some £11 billion, while by providing international connectivity they help to support the economies of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions.

However, we argue that all this must be sustainable. A balance must be struck between tackling environmental challenges so that impacts are effectively mitigated while enabling people to fly and UK business to compete internationally. The demand for air travel is continuously growing and our airports, particularly those around the periphery of London, are operating at almost full capacity. We therefore support the provision of additional capacity in the right circumstances. This means making better use of existing airport capacity as a priority ahead of building targeted additional infrastructure. This is the policy outlined in the 2003 air transport White Paper, which makes it clear that the Government do not support predict-and-provide policies and fully recognise the need for development to be sustainable not only in terms of local environmental effects, but also in terms of aviation’s contribution to climate change.

Our support for two new runways in the south-east, first at Stansted and then at Heathrow—subject to strict local environmental conditions set out in the White Paper being met—is entirely consistent with this view. A new runway at Heathrow would provide much-needed capacity, would support the UK economy and help Heathrow to remain competitive. As noble Lords know, our consultation on adding capacity at the airport closed last week, and the responses are currently being reviewed. We expect to make final policy decisions later this year.

We are aware that some groups are calling for a halt to airport expansion and for restrictions on air travel—noble Lords this afternoon did not make that call, but there are echoes in things that are said in your Lordships’ House that reflect that view—while others are requesting that greater consideration be given to alternate transport modes such as high-speed rail. That was reflected in comments made this afternoon. The answer is that both aviation and rail have key roles to play as we continue to support the development of a transport system that both supports economic growth and helps the UK to meet its climate change responsibilities. It is not up to the Government to say who can and cannot fly. The fact is that more people than ever want to fly. However, by using tools such as the aviation emissions cost assessment, we can inform future strategic policy to ensure that aviation pays for its environmental costs.

I do not particularly disagree with the Minister. I am not at the end of Liberal Democracy that says that Heathrow Airport should disappear. As the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, rightly said, aviation is incredibly important for a number of areas, and the railway will never be a substitute for it in certain ways. However, given the way in which the economy is structured, airport expansion is driven these days by the private sector rightly being able to say, “There is the demand, and we can get the investment”. There is always pressure—through government, planning or whatever—to meet that capacity, because there are straightforward ways in which it can be done.

However, the expansion of the rail infrastructure cannot work that way, because, unlike in the 19th century, it must be driven by Crossrail or whatever, as we have seen. It must be brought together by government because the private sector is not capable of delivering it. There is an equal demand for capacity and an increase in rail, as we have seen, but there is not the same pressure from government to meet it because of public expenditure and planning for the service. I want to understand how government can create a more level playing field, not so much on the cost side but in the ability to enter the market and create additional infrastructure, because it is clear to me as a traveller and as someone who reads the statistics that the rail industry will hit capacity within the time that it takes to plan these new routes. I apologise; I have intervened for too long.

The noble Lord is a little like a fast-running train sometimes; he gets carried away with his arguments. I was going to come to that part of the argument, and will say simply this. If we turn from aviation to the Government’s wider strategy for the rail network, the White Paper published in July 2007 is, we can fairly argue, the most positive statement about the growth and development of Britain’s railways in the past 50 years. It commits substantial funding—£15 billion—in public support for the rail network between 2009 and 2014 and is a whole-scale vote of confidence in rail travel. Certainly in my lifetime, it surpasses anything that has been committed previously. Some £10 billion will be spent specifically on enhancing capacity—the very issue touched on by the noble Lord—in those years, and these investments will enable the railway to accommodate a further seven years of what we anticipate will be record growth.

The recent £8.8 billion west coast main line upgrade has had a significant impact on shifting people from air to rail, with two-thirds of passengers now travelling from London to Manchester by train, not plane—up one-third from 2004. The figures have reversed precisely for air and rail travel. By the time the work is completed, many journey times on the route will have reduced by almost a fifth compared with those in September 2004. Pre-project, the Glasgow to London journey time was 5 hours, 6 minutes. From December 2008, the fastest journey will be possible in 4 hours, 10 minutes, so the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, will have a little less time to spend on thinking about railway systems. The typical reduction in journey time on today will be around 30 minutes. However, rail clearly cannot provide an alterative to aviation in all cases, particularly not for intercontinental passengers who are using hub airports such as Heathrow to make onward connections.

We argue that Heathrow’s status as a hub airport is crucial to the UK maintaining its strong connections with international centres. Over the past decade, regional airports have helped drive the regeneration of cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle by connecting the regions to international destinations and markets that would not otherwise be served directly by local airports. As experience with the London-Manchester route demonstrates, rail can provide a highly attractive alternative to air travel, especially over short distances such as end-to-end journeys of two to three hours. That is where the major benefit is. As distance increases, however, air travel becomes increasingly attractive. The fact is that neither air nor rail alone can provide all the required capacity.

There are currently around 50,000 domestic flights a year within the UK from Heathrow and around a further 50,000 to Amsterdam, Paris, Brussels and Rotterdam. Even if half those flights switched to rail, Heathrow would be operating at around 90 per cent of its capacity and would be full by 2020, when a third runway could be in operation. That bears some thinking about. Even if we were able to achieve that level, we would still have a major problem with Heathrow.

Noble Lords have touched on the fact that there has been much debate about possible new railway lines. The Government have not ruled out new lines in future, nor have we ruled out high-speed rail being an important feature of our policy, but Eddington told us that most of the links the country needs are already in place; the priority is to increase the capacity of those links, not to construct new ones. High-speed lines are expensive and do not address immediate needs. A north-south high-speed rail line would cost tens of billions of pounds and absorb the entire rail budget for years, just to serve one particular corridor of travel activity.

We also need to think carefully about the assumption that high-speed trains are necessarily the greenest option. Increasing the maximum speed of a train from 125 miles per hour to 220 miles per hour leads to a 90 per cent increase in energy consumption and, in exchange, cuts station-to-station journey times by less than 25 per cent and door-to-door journey times by still less. The Government’s strategy is therefore to improve the quality of inter-urban rail services and to make the best use of existing networks by lengthening existing trains, increasing service frequencies and tackling key congestion pinch points. We recognise that in the longer term, extra route capacity might be needed on some interurban corridors, and the department will look at that in a multimodal context and announce its conclusions in time for the next High Level Output Specification.

I am conscious that we are getting close to 5 pm. I have a few more points to make and then I will wind up. Increasing rail capacity will improve the passenger experience in getting passengers to the airport, and in some cases will offer an alternative to short-haul flights—an objective we always see as desirable. But demand for both aircraft departures and aircraft arrivals exceeds capacity in the south-east. Not addressing that risks damaging the UK’s economic interests, not only in aviation but more widely across our economy, and it would not provide any environmental benefit. The way to tackle aviation emissions is internationally, through an effective Emissions Trading Scheme. Under current plans, all flights arriving from and departing to the EU would be included by 2012.

We need to recognise, however, that to provide a complete end-to-end service to travellers, we need the capacity and capability to build in reliability throughout the whole journey. That is why, rather than planning along modal lines as has happened in the past, we will be focusing in future on those areas—our cities, our interurban links and our international gateways—where transport can best support economic growth and productivity, while also tackling the climate change challenge. We will identify the problems, look at solutions across all modes and prioritise the best value-for-money solutions.

This is a new way of thinking, and we see it as an important part of our transportation vision. We know that it will take time to deliver, but we are committed to delivering on it because we have to, to ensure that we secure a viable economy, effective transport networks and the most environmentally sustainable outcomes. I am grateful to noble Lords for joining this debate, and I am sure that we will have many more on other occasions.

[The Sitting was suspended from 4.55 to 5 pm.]