Skip to main content

Railways: Expanding Access to the Rail Network

Volume 712: debated on Monday 20 July 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will publish a response to the report of the Association of Train Operating Companies, Connecting communities: expanding access to the rail network.

My Lords, the Government welcome any initiative which helps local authorities and other potential promoters of rail services to understand whether the reopening of closed lines is a feasible way of improving links to places not on the rail network.

In welcoming both the report by ATOC and my noble friend’s response, perhaps I may ask him two questions. First, is the report not yet further evidence of the importance of protecting at least the track bed of closed railway lines and perhaps the structures as well, such as bridges? If old lines are to be reopened, it makes the reopening much easier. Secondly, when local authorities have an interest in possibly reopening a particular line, such as the line from Stafford to Wellington, might support and help be forthcoming from the Department for Transport with looking at business cases? I suppose that I should declare a tangential interest as the honorary president of the Telford Steam Railway.

And a very worthwhile organisation, that is, too, my Lords. On the protection of rail routes, PPG13 states that local planning authorities should,

“protect sites and routes which could be critical in developing infrastructure to widen transport choices for both passenger and freight movements”.

That includes rail-track beds as appropriate.

On reopening closed lines, my department is happy to work with promoters where there are strong business cases, and we have a set of rules in place for how that work can be taken forward. I commend my noble friend’s commitment to the Wellington and Stafford line. However, having secured a copy of the 1961 timetable for that line before it was closed, I would point out that it was not a paragon of good service. There were eight trains a day on that line, and the 18.75 miles managed to take the steam locomotives of the day 45 minutes to complete, which represents an average speed of 24 mph. As my noble friend may know, I am passionately committed to high-speed railway lines and I rather hope that they go a bit faster than 24 mph.

My Lords, will the Minister join me in congratulating Parry People Movers on introducing rapid lightweight trains between Stourbridge and Stourbridge Junction which successfully carry lots of people, and much better than the railway to which he has just referred? Will he look particularly at the list of potential lines which that company has put forward for using this railcar, particularly as regards enthusiast and freight railways?

My Lords, I am very happy to do so. The application of new ways of running railway services much more economically than has been the case in the past is something to which we should pay a good deal of attention. As the noble Lord will know, a tram train trial is about to start, building on very positive experience in Germany of using tram technology on the railways, which makes it possible for trains to run off the classic network and into town and city centres. Again, this could be an important development for the future and I am very keen to see it piloted in the UK.

My Lords, I am sure that your Lordships’ House will be grateful to the Secretary of State for the positive nature of his initial response. Experience suggests that when people wish to extend new lines the business plans seriously underestimate the annual recurrent cost. Could his department publish guidance which would help people have a more realistic assessment of the cost that they are entering into when they wish to extend new lines?

My Lords, I would be very happy to do that and to look further at the experience of the Welsh and Scottish devolved Administrations in reopening lines which has been fairly positive in recent years. England may be able to learn from that. However, I note that the Association of Train Operating Companies’ report, which led to my noble friend’s Question, notes that since 1995, 27 new lines, totalling 199 track miles, and 68 stations have been opened. Therefore, there has been a lot of positive development in this area in recent years.

My Lords, I welcome my noble friend’s statement about new lines. Would he consider encouraging the private sector and voluntary groups to be responsible for developing and operating the infrastructure so that there will be some comparison and benchmarking between what they are doing and what Network Rail does—sometimes at a fairly higher cost?

My Lords, my noble friend raises a much wider issue than that raised in the original Question. As he knows, in all these matters I am bound by the law, which I am afraid does not allow for the benchmarking which he has in mind.

My Lords, in the light of the noble Lord’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the United Kingdom’s rail network, is he likely to favour the reopening of the Leamside Line in Durham county, bearing in mind the fact that the Nissan plant in Sunderland has now been chosen to build the new generation of electric cars, and that that line would be invaluable for freight traffic in the area?

My Lords, I am afraid that my encyclopaedic knowledge is not coming to the fore sufficiently fast in respect of that line. It is in here somewhere because I looked at it earlier. All I can give is some general encouragement to promoters who are interested in taking that line forward to see if they are capable of generating a good business case, but I do not think that I am allowed to offer any greater encouragement than that.

My Lords, when a new railway line is opened, could the railway line and the rolling stock be under the control of the same company; in other words, the track would not necessarily be a part of Network Rail but it could be like in the old days when southern railway owned the track as well as the rolling stock?

My Lords, as I said in reply to my noble friend Lord Berkeley, the law applies in this area. Network Rail is the track authority for maintaining the national track.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the test of a good transport system is whether it integrates one mode with another. What plans exist within the department to ensure that we move towards an integrated transport system of road and rail?

My Lords, that is a very large question which could occupy me for a great deal more than the next two minutes. We are keen to see much greater integration that includes much better facilities for buses interchanging at rail stations. I am keen to see much more car parking at stations, too. The new south central franchise requires there to be at least an additional 1,000 car parking spaces at stations so that it is much easier for motorists to interchange. As my noble friend may be aware, I have been making something of an issue recently about bike parking at stations, which is lamentably inadequate at too many of our stations. As my noble friend may have noticed, I came back from Holland recently, having noted that at the station in the city of Leiden there is parking facilities for 4,500 bikes. In all the central London rail terminals put together, there is parking for 1,200 bikes.

The Dutch do not cycle because it is in their genes, but because it is made easy for them to park at stations and they are given significant encouragement. I hope that that gives my noble friend some flavour of the activity that we have under way to ensure that we have a more integrated transport policy.