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Transport: London and the Regions

Volume 732: debated on Tuesday 15 November 2011

Question for Short Debate

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have for improving transport links between London and the regions.

My Lords, by coincidence a Question was asked in the Chamber earlier today which brought the issue of links between the regions and London very much to the fore. Perhaps I will take the opportunity to refer to that later. It is the case that for decades Governments have had regional development policies in place. Since the Second World War I believe that successive Governments have made it part of their policy to carry out works and to spend money on the development of the regions and their economies in order to bring prosperity to the entire country. One of the ways this was done—Europe did the same thing—was by putting into place meaningful infrastructure so that it was possible to get to and from particular regions. This is how our country has developed since the Industrial Revolution. We can go back to the canals and all sorts of developments; they were all about creating access to all sorts of centres of population from centres of production. The United Kingdom developed in this way over many decades.

We know that there are many proposals on the board for developing rail, the most obvious of which is the proposal to put in a high-speed rail link between Birmingham and London. There are other proposals for road development and for the east and west coast railways to be upgraded. All these things are part of the general infrastructure of our country. Indeed, the European Union through its regional development funds has provided significant amounts of money to improve infrastructure throughout the United Kingdom.

The debate I want to have now is on whether we are going to continue to ensure that the investment that successive Governments have made in trying to improve the economies of the regions is going to be sustained in these difficult times. It was clear from the Question this afternoon—and I found this from my experience in government as well—that when a business makes a decision about whether to expand, or an inward investor decides whether to come into a particular area, a key issue and one of the first things that they look for, after whether the relevant labour is there, is the infrastructure. Can they get goods, services and people in and out of a region quickly and effectively so that they can get worldwide access for their goods and services? Can they get executives, and of course the population in general, in and out? Now that we travel much more, one of the key considerations is whether, if you are in one of the regions, you have access to the major hubs, particularly air hubs. That way you can go on holiday or conduct your business as efficiently and effectively as possible.

There has been an enormous debate, particularly in the London area, over airports. We have things like Boris island being talked about and the proposal from Norman Foster for the Isle of Grain. There have been decisions from the Government and the Opposition not to proceed with the third runway at Heathrow. Therefore, air travel and traffic in general is the subject of extremely significant debate in this country at the present time. When the noble Earl replied earlier in the Chamber, he made the point, which I fully understand, that if you are looking at air route access from the regions for instance, there is potential for a public service obligation to get people from a region to the London area. However, from the evidence of the comments made around the Chamber this afternoon, we all know that that is not quite the issue.

The issue is very specific. Heathrow is the principal air hub in the United Kingdom and if you do not have meaningful access to Heathrow, you do not have meaningful access to other routes in and out of the UK. It is as simple as that. If you are going to market remote regions as places where people can do business, one of the first things they will look for is whether they can get to that place reasonably quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively. If you do not have access to your principal airport, that is likely to be a negative factor when an investment decision is being made.

My anxiety is this: as we know, in recent days British Midland International has come on the market and Lufthansa wants to sell it. There has been a bid from BA and we know that Virgin Atlantic is also interested. This has significance, not only for Northern Ireland, but for all our regions. I believe that earlier this year BMI removed its Glasgow service. I have no doubt that air routes, particularly for the Scottish Islands, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle, Manchester and Cardiff, are all vital. Therefore, how can we ensure that our regions will retain appropriate access to our principal airport at Heathrow, as long as it remains the principal hub?

It is not clear to me—and I would ask the Minister to respond to this at the end of this debate—how the Government can ensure that this access exists. I am afraid that it is not enough to leave it purely to commercial decisions, because everybody knows that landing slots at Heathrow and at other key airports are worth enormous sums of money. We are talking about hundreds of millions of pounds. It is also the case that airlines tend to make much more profit out of long-haul flights than from regional flights. It does not take a lot of imagination to see this. Indeed, the chief executive of the IAG group, Willie Walsh, has already indicated publicly that he would be looking at some of these slots for international use. Of course, Virgin Atlantic is an international carrier and not a domestic carrier. It therefore seems highly unlikely that, if it should become the owner of BMI, it would suddenly wish to take on and start producing a domestic service, when even its very name indicates that it is an international carrier.

It would seem that there is a genuine, clear and present threat to access of the key slots at Heathrow for the regions in general, and not simply for Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland’s case is more acute because we cannot get into our cars and drive directly to the south-east, nor can we get on a train to the south-east. We have either a ferry and a very long drive, or air access. To all intents and purposes, for meaningful business to be done, you need air access.

As was made clear in the House earlier, in many cases flights are exceptionally expensive if you want to get to the key hubs. I would say to the noble Earl that access to some of the peripheral airports in the London area might be fine for leisure customers and so on, but it is not suitable in all cases for the business customer. Anyone with anything to do with economic development will learn that access has to be as quick and as accessible as possible. It is therefore my intention to draw your Lordships’ attention to the critical importance of access as we move forward, and I would ask the noble Earl to address that in his response. I intend to take this matter further, if necessary through the route of a Private Member’s Bill, if the law is insufficient to allow the Secretary of State for Transport to have adequate direction powers over this matter. I feel strongly that we cannot sit back and simply wait until a crisis arises. We have to anticipate it and prevent it.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Empey on initiating this debate. He has raised an issue which applies to many parts of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is a bit different. I did think of being helpful at Question Time today by suggesting to the Minister that since both parties had rejected the idea of a third runway at Heathrow, much of the domestic traffic could be taken by a high-speed line, and that it should be continued to Scotland and then tunnelled to Northern Ireland. But it might take a little bit longer and it might be a bit expensive. However it does exemplify the problems.

I am not going to talk about HS2 today. I thought I would focus on the connectivity problems of somewhere which is a pretty far-flung part of England—Cornwall, where I live. It is a great countryside and holiday destination, but it has high unemployment, low wages and few opportunities to change that. That is why it has objective 1 status, along with south Yorkshire, west Wales and the Valleys, and Merseyside. The noble Lord, Lord Empey mentioned the objective 1 issues. To quote from the European Commission’s definition, it is an area,

“where the gross domestic product is below 75% of the Community average”.

The problems associated with this and the regions are,

“low level of investment; a higher than average unemployment rate; lack of services for businesses and individuals; poor basic infrastructure.”

That applies to the areas I mentioned. Northern Ireland is actually a transitional one and not an objective 1 area, as are the Scottish Islands. To a greater or lesser extent they all suffer from that.

I go to the Isles of Scilly often, and there is a serious problem with transport there, but I will not mention that tonight because it needs much more debate and justifies another occasion. I shall go into the Cornwall problem in more detail. As the noble Lord, Lord Empey said, it is to do with economic regeneration and connectivity—just as the Government are arguing in favour of the HS1 line from London to the north, if I can put it that way.

It is interesting to compare the rail services between the four objective 1 areas I have mentioned at a time when the Government are about to renew the Great Western franchise. I believe the Minister said that the draft specification would come out in the new year. If we review those four areas and take the centres of Liverpool, Leeds, Swansea and Truro: to Liverpool the journey time to London is two and a quarter hours, and there is one train every hour; to Leeds, it is two and a quarter hours, and there are two trains an hour; Swansea takes three hours and there are two trains an hour, one of them changing at Cardiff. But to Truro it is four and a half to five and a half hours, with one train an hour and 40 per cent of them require you to change. The first train from Cornwall in the morning from Paddington gets to Truro at noon with one change, so you cannot really do a day trip for meetings.

I talked to someone this afternoon who deals with Scottish transport. He said that the growth in traffic within Scotland between the central belt and Aberdeen is quite amazing. I know it is not the Minister’s responsibility, but we can get examples from these places which indicate that more people are travelling by rail, as is happening in Cornwall. The growth in the branch lines and the main line in Cornwall has been amazing in the last year. On the Falmouth branch, traffic has increased by 67 per cent in a year, which is pretty incredible. All the branch lines in Cornwall are growing by 19 per cent on average, as is the main line up through the centre of Cornwall. That is good because it indicates that there is a demand. People see it as important for economic regeneration and clearly they want to use the railway, whether to go to school, university, hospital or work. It is great that it is being used.

I would urge the Minister to consider, in the new franchise for Cornwall, an hourly limited-stop service from Penzance, which would probably take four and a half hours—and I mean a limited stop—and in between services that stop at every station. There should be better branch line services, including Sundays, and when you get to rolling stock, the dear old 125s we have seen for so long could be improved and enhanced. They could have automatic door locking and toilet retentions, which they jolly well should have by now. They should last for another franchise. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, might have different ideas, but I think it is quite possible.

It is time that our local services, be they mainline or branch line, stopped being third in the hand-me-down. You start off in the rich south-east and then go somewhere north—I apologise to those who come from the north—and then somehow Cornwall gets the old pacers that go clunkity clunkity clunk along the line. They are lovely trains, and they do have seats. I am encouraged that the county council in Cornwall is talking about possibly helping fund some of these trains themselves. I do not know how they will do it, but it is an interesting idea if they are able to do so. Because of the very long journey time we need to keep the sleeper, which is now extremely popular and means that you can get to a meeting in the morning.

In conclusion, I hope to have demonstrated that in rail connection terms, Cornwall is at the bottom of the four objective 1 areas in the UK. It needs, for the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, a regular fast service to London, along with cross country services—they are possible and necessary. We need better capacity and frequency which can slot in and take the pressure off the pretty appalling local roads. It does not need much investment, it just needs a commitment to support objective 1. Of course, objective 1 will run out at some point during the next franchise and we do not yet know what the European Commission is going to propose for the next stage. But if there is any funding from that source to start the franchise off, that would be good.

There are many other projects that could do with the funding, but I hope that Ministers will take the opportunity to look at the position of regional transport. I have talked about Cornwall, but there are many other areas. Others can talk about Wales, and of course the Welsh Assembly Government deals with that. But it would also be nice to think that, within the franchise specification, the county councils could have a voice in a similar way that the Welsh Assembly Government do with the franchises that go to Wales. I look forward to the Minister’s comments and to his acceptance of all these lovely ideas for the new franchise specification which will come out in January.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Empey, for introducing this subject. I worked in Northern Ireland for seven years and was an extremely frequent user of the services that were then provided by both BA and British Midland. Of course, BA has abandoned the route and the service has moved to Belfast City airport, but it is still a reasonable service, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said, it is difficult to envisage people seeking to do business in Northern Ireland unless there is a good quality, guaranteed service from London. Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said, Northern Ireland is particularly isolated because there are no alternatives. You can take the sleeper train to Cornwall or a train to Edinburgh or Glasgow. It may take longer than you wish, but the train takes you into the centre of the city. Also, for most places it is possible to get there and back in a day, provided that you are willing to get up early. When I went to Northern Ireland, I would get on a plane from London airport at 8.15 or 8.30 am, and I could be back in the evening having had a useful day over there.

In response to the Question asked in the Chamber earlier today, the noble Earl referred to the passenger service obligation and said that there was no such obligation so far as air transport is concerned. I take issue with him on that statement because passenger service obligations exist over a wide range of transport needs. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, will back me up when I say that on the German railway, there are periods when you cannot run trains through particular parts of the country because of the passenger service obligation imposed by the Länder Governments to stop such trains interfering with the commuter services around the big hubs.

There are passenger service obligations in the form of what are known as public service requirements which are imposed on most railway franchises. Franchisees are not free to cast a service aside. They have to maintain a minimum number of stops and a minimum speed of service. If you look at the services from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness and Aberdeen to the Scottish islands, I think you will find that they are all supported by way of a PSO grant of some sort. So I would ask the noble Earl to go back to his department and say that the answer he was given this afternoon is not the whole story and needs thorough investigation.

In fact, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has said, the reason that IAG has put forward a proposition to purchase the slot and the airline, BMI, and the reason that Virgin Atlantic has shown interest is because of the international value of those flights. We have to ask ourselves, as a country, whether we set more store by people going to visit places such as Euro Disney and Florida than we do by the economic health of our own country. We are very good at talking down our own needs, allowing the market to dangle attractive propositions for us, and losing sight of what we are for. The United Kingdom as it stands is the whole of the United Kingdom, and Northern Ireland is part thereof.

I ask the Minister to go away, think carefully about what he has said today and seek further guidance because, on reflection, he will find he is wrong.

I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Empey, for securing this evening’s short debate. Many noble Lords will know that I live in Suffolk. It is not far away; Ipswich is about an hour and 10 minutes from London Liverpool Street, and Norwich, at the far end of the mainline, is two hours away. It is only 120 miles, but it takes as long as it does to get to Brussels. Nevertheless, many people in the east of England commute into London to work, and many have organised their lives around having a good and reliable rail service between East Anglia and London.

Until 2004 we were certainly well served, with Anglia Railways running intercity services and First Great Eastern running commuter services. From Ipswich into London, the competition between the two meant that our service continued to improve. In 2004, the franchise was merged and won by National Express, which called the new service One. It was an inauspicious start. Passengers on the platform would hear an announcement for the seven 20 one train. Was it the train operated by One at 7.20, was it the only train going at 7.20, or was it a train going at 21 minutes past seven? Nobody knew; there was utter confusion and within just a few months there was a huge rebranding exercise. Sadly, things did not get any better.

Passenger satisfaction with the service is the second lowest in the UK at 79 per cent. I am not surprised that the figure is so low, because I have observed a steady decline in basics such as cleanliness, the presentation of the trains and the catering service. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, that this particular part of the rich south-east does not get good rolling stock; it is very old, and when we get new train sets they are always hand-me-downs from other operators. The only redeeming feature is the cheerfulness and helpfulness of the staff who have to put up with all this and offer a good service.

The performance on the line stands at about 90 per cent, which is obviously a major concern for both passengers and the operator. The line is dogged by basic infrastructure problems such as track circuit failures, broken rails, faulty points and signal failures. When you add to those the usual problems such as weather, trespass, fatalities on the line and, most recently, cable theft, it makes travelling on the line highly unpredictable. For lengthy hold-ups, of course, we have the great Delay Repay system but, unlike all other train operators, National Express does not offer an automatic refund to its season ticket holders, who have to claim it. For the rest of the passengers, if they claim compensation, it comes in the form of vouchers, which can be used only in a ticket office. With fewer stations having staffed offices and passengers having to use machines and the internet, the compensation vouchers are useless. It is no wonder that passengers are fed up.

We were all pleased when National Express lost the franchise and we look forward to the new franchisee, Abellio, starting up on 5 February. It has the franchise for 25 months, until the results of the franchise review can be implemented. It is a good company, and most of us are pleased that it is taking over. The new 15-year franchise terms that come in after that are very welcome and will provide a much greater incentive for investment in the franchise.

I know that the DfT has announced that the new franchise will bring significant improvements to the cleanliness of the trains, passenger information, parking, cycling and public transport connections. However, unless there is serious investment in the infrastructure, Abellio and East Anglia commuters will face an uphill struggle. I wonder if the noble Earl can say anything about any work that Network Rail plans to improve the track and signalling on our line.

The contract for the new franchise was due to be signed today, and I guess it has already happened. So it was with some concern that I read an article in Modern Railways which suggested that Abellio are in discussions with the ROSCO, Angel Trains, to reduce the amount of rolling stock on the line. It is talking about reducing the capacity by 4,000 peak-hour seats. Can the noble Earl confirm whether this is correct? If so, how was the decision made and what assessment was made of current passenger numbers, future growth and the safety and comfort of passengers? In addition, I would be interested to hear whether the decision was made before or after the franchise was awarded to Abellio. If it was before, were the other two bidders in the process allowed to rebid on the basis of this reduced fleet?

This line is an essential part of the infrastructure of the east of England. It plays a hugely important role in the economic prosperity of our region and desperately needs long-term investment, both on the part of the rail operator and of Network Rail. In the short term, of course, it will be highly visible in next year’s Olympics.

My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Empey, for arranging this timely debate. As he indicated, we had a little dress rehearsal at Question Time on a limited dimension of this debate. I hope that the Minister has used the time between the dress rehearsal and the proper play to come up with more positive lines than I felt he gave us at Question Time. However, we did tease from him an important fact, which has been emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, and addressed by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, about whether the Government had powers to act in a critical situation.

The initial bland response was that these were all commercial decisions regarding these crucial slots. BMI has gone and it may well be that the new owners—we do not yet know who will be the new owners of BMI—will, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, indicated, find the new slots infinitely more economic and financially valuable if they are used for intercontinental travel rather than anything to do with a service to the regions, including the critical case of Northern Ireland.

The Minister developed that theme a little more positively during Question Time, but I hope he will take the opportunity of this debate to be positive about the relationship with the regions, as most of the speeches have asked him to be. That is the immediate critical dimension, not just Northern Ireland, although the Belfast service is probably the most critical service that one worries about. Edinburgh is anxious too, as the noble Lord is almost certainly well aware. As the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, indicated, the train is an alternative as far as Edinburgh is concerned, whereas it is not for Belfast. That does not alter the fact that if the service to Edinburgh were to be greatly reduced or even suspended, there would be a great deal of consternation among Scots, just as there is at present in Northern Ireland. That is the most critical issue that the Minister needs to address in his response.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, was generous enough to broaden this debate’s title to include the regions, not just the specific issues of Northern Ireland. Other noble Lords have taken the opportunity of identifying the problems of ensuring that our regions are economically viable in these troubled times. The great danger is that their situation deteriorates more rapidly than the general economy of the country. They can ill afford to do that.

As my noble friend Lord Berkeley indicated, there are real problems in Cornwall and the south-west, and transport is an important dimension. There have been concerns about transport issues so far as Cornwall is concerned, and for that matter Devon as well, for a number of years. I do not doubt that the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, would identify Suffolk. I have the great advantage of enjoying exactly the same train company services as she does, but being a little closer to the south-east and on the line that also serves Stansted, there is a certain difference in the quality of service. However, nothing is more irksome than seeing classy trains, the rolling stock of the future—the rolling stock of today for people travelling to Stansted even though London commuters want those trains—going past at 60 miles an hour and never stopping at the intermediate stations. So we have our own small grievances. However, I recognise what she has said.

An illustration of just how urgently the Government have to put their thinking cap on in this area was brought home to me with an absolute jolt last year when they introduced the national insurance holiday for people being engaged by companies. That national insurance holiday was extended to all the regions except the south-east. Parts of the south-east winced at that. Try telling Hackney, Haringey and Tower Hamlets that they are enjoying the prosperity of the south-east, and they will tell a very different story. The extraordinary thing was that East Anglia was classed with the south-east as being one of the more prosperous areas. That is light years from the understanding that the noble Baroness probably has about living in East Anglia. Certainly if we had had anyone speak on behalf of Norfolk, they would reinforce the comments she made. I do not think that the Government are filling us with the greatest confidence that they have a deep understanding of the regional problem in the United Kingdom.

I turn to the particular issue of aviation, to which the noble Lord, Lord Empey, drew attention. This is the sharpest issue at present but, as we would expect, the initial response of the Government is to throw up their hands, perhaps with a little dip of the head in sadness, and say that this is a commercial world, that it is nothing to do with them and there is not much that they can do about it. That is largely their policy on aviation anyway, and that is why the third runway has gone by default. We recognise the fact that the third runway is not going to be pursued. It is a limitation on Heathrow, but that does not alter the fact emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, in his remarks. Heathrow is a hub, and that is why our view on High Speed 2 is that it has got to go via Heathrow. It must link with the hub of Heathrow because, as has been emphasised in the debate, for the regional and, in fact, for the whole of the UK economy, we have to recognise that for external investment and for businessmen arriving in this country, to say nothing of the tourist industry, which is not marginal in terms of our overall position, even without the third runway and the capacity limitations on expansion resulting from that, Heathrow is our critical hub. It will not do to say that people will be able to arrive with equal facility elsewhere. It may be the case with regard to some aspects of tourism, but it is not going to be the answer for businessmen pressed for time if in fact Heathrow is not included. So we want to see the high speed link via Heathrow, and we also think that there is absolutely no reason why the Government should not look again at the route and take on board the fact that they have had a small number of representations, probably from their own supporters, about the route through the Chilterns and that there may therefore be a different route which could be identified.

However the trouble at the present time is that almost every decision which the Government take looks as if it militates against the unions. When it comes to rail, for instance, the fact is that electrification of the great western line is going as far as Cardiff, but not as far as Swansea, which has a clear implication for the Welsh economy. We know the significance of Swansea. We did not know the significance of Swansea before this year. We know it now because it is playing so very well in the premier football league division, and therefore its status is growing in that respect in Wales. However the trouble as far as the Welsh economy is concerned has always been that Cardiff is the capital city, and has been not only the centre point but almost the potential choking-off point for investment beyond it. That is why it is so important to have effective communication links beyond Cardiff to Swansea, and we regretted that decision with regards to electrification. It is also the case that when it comes to the line up to Sheffield, Nottingham and Derby—important cities which clearly require as much assistance and development as they can get—no electrification is to take place there.

We are also well aware of the reduction in new rolling stock, the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, emphasised with regard to East Anglia. It is the case that the previous Government’s projected figure of 1,400 new carriages for the east coast and great western services has been reduced to 600. These cutbacks have an impact upon the regional economies. So my charge against the Government is that unless the Minister can be more positive about the position than we have seen thus far, strategies which are being produced at the present time emphasise the north-south divide. They increase the difficulty in particular of those hard-pressed regions of which undoubtedly the southwest, and particularly Cornwall, is a very clear illustration, and they create enormous dismay in those parts of the United Kingdom which depend a great deal on air links, of which Northern Ireland is inevitably the outstanding illustration. I hope the Minister therefore will be as positive as he can be in response to these very important points made in this debate.

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Empey, for securing this debate. He put the position of Northern Ireland very clearly. I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Davies, that my department has a very good understanding of regional needs. The Government’s vision is for a transport system that is an engine for economic growth, sustainable, safer and more secure. In delivering this transport system we will help to improve the quality of life in our communities. Transport networks, including those between London and the regions, provide crucial links that allow people and businesses to prosper. Simply put, increasing connectivity between our great cities and international gateways will facilitate the movement of goods and people and encourage economic growth right across the country. The Government’s plans, including targeted investment in forthcoming transport projects, will contribute to building the balanced, dynamic and low-carbon economy that is essential for our future prosperity. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Empey, these investments will be sustained. Forecasts show that our country’s transport networks are becoming increasingly congested and that demand for travel is set to grow. This will further exacerbate congestion unless we act.

Let me remind the Committee of some of the action that we are already taking. The Government are providing additional Pendolino trains on the west coast main line. By the end of 2012 all the trains will be in service, thus increasing capacity on that route by around 20 per cent. Further to this, the intercity express programme will deliver a new fleet of 100 intercity trains—not carriages—to replace the existing diesel-powered 125 fleet. This will support and accommodate anticipated growth on routes, including those to the north of England, East Anglia, Scotland, Wales and the south-west. Introducing these trains, combined with infrastructure improvements such as the electrification of the Great Western Main Line, will see journey times fall and capacity increasing by more than 30 per cent during peak hours.

The last announcement I saw from the noble Earl’s department said nothing about the IEPs going to East Anglia or to the south-west. The south-west was going to retain the 125s. Has the policy changed?

No, my Lords. It refers to the cascading of rolling stock. I will touch on cascading later. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, asked about rail electrification. The policy of the Government is to support a progressive electrification of the rail network in England and Wales, and we are looking at the costs and benefits of further electrification. We will continue to work with stakeholders to review these schemes and assess their affordability and value for money.

These improvements will play an important part in making better use of our existing network, but they will not be enough to keep up with increasing demand for rail travel. Additional intercity capacity will be needed in future and the Government cannot afford to ignore this problem. High speed rail provides the best way to meet that pressing need. The Government’s proposals for a national high speed rail network will add the capacity that we need, bring faster journeys between major towns and cities, improve reliability of journeys and drive modal shift from air and road to rail. Crucially, high speed rail is an investment in the future of our whole country, bringing economic growth and other benefits to the towns and cities of the Midlands and the north as well as to London. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Davies, this will help to reduce the north-south divide.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport intends to announce the outcome of the recent major public consultation and final decisions on the Government’s strategy for high speed rail before the end of the year. While the importance of rail networks should not be underestimated, the majority of journeys between London and the regions are made by road. The strategic road network connects all major English towns and cities, and links in to the road and motorway networks in Wales and Scotland. As your Lordships will be aware, the main road links between London and the regions are the M1, M4 and M6. During the current spending review period, seven schemes are planned on these roads. These will increase capacity and journey time reliability. Six out of the seven schemes are managed motorways, which, through a combination of techniques, including hard shoulder running and gantry mounted variable signing and better co-ordination, will provide around 210 additional lane miles during busy periods. It is also worth noting that three years of research on the M42 managed motorway pilot scheme, which was introduced by the previous Government, has shown that accidents have more than halved since hard shoulder running was introduced.

Air travel has become increasingly popular for domestic journeys. The Government recognise the importance of air links between London’s airports and our regional airports, not least because they provide fast and direct links between cities, which is exactly the type of service that both business and leisure travellers demand. A key part of the Government’s approach to aviation is to seek to create the right conditions for UK regional airports to flourish. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, talked about the problems of air travel in the south-east. I should like to draw the attention of the Committee to the fact that Newquay airport has scheduled services to London Gatwick and Manchester. New scheduled services to Edinburgh, Glasgow and the east Midlands are due to commence in 2012.

It is important to remember that in the UK, airlines operate in a competitive and commercial environment, and have done so for many years. Individual airlines determine the routes they operate, with take-off and landing slots at major London airports governed by European law. Currently more than 90 return flights are operated between Northern Ireland airports and London, and 600 each week between Scottish airports and London.

We want to see a successful and competitive aviation industry which supports economic growth and addresses aviation’s environmental impact. Aviation should be able to grow and play its part in delivering our environmental goals and protecting the quality of life of communities. Accordingly, the Government have made a commitment to produce a sustainable framework for UK aviation. In March we published a scoping document to begin a dialogue on the future direction of aviation policy, and we will issue a public consultation on a draft policy framework next year. We are also seeking to reform the economic regulation of airports, to put passengers at the heart of the regulatory regime, and to support investments in our airports.

I will try to answer as many questions of noble Lords in the time available. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, talked about rail travel from Cornwall. As touched on by the noble Lord, Cornwall County Council has an ambitious programme of local rail improvements. We are talking to the council and Devon County Council about devolving some responsibilities for rail to a group of south-west local authorities. A typical journey time from London to Plymouth is just over three hours, and around five hours to Penzance. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley is correct in his analysis, but there is no easy way of addressing this issue. Trains on this route make frequent calls, so cutting out the number of stops would be one way of speeding up journey times. But the communities at which the trains stop value their calls, and withdrawing those would create difficulties for them.

The noble Lord also talked about what we know as the cascading of used rolling stock. The noble Lord will be well aware that the business cases for rail schemes, including electrification, often rely upon the process of cascading, and it is a complicated jigsaw that the department has to manage.

May I correct the noble Earl? I entirely agree with him that the fewer stops there are, the faster the trains go, but leaving out stops will leave some communities missing. That is why I said that there should be a stopping service in between the fast ones every hour, to pick up the passengers from the communities in between.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for that elucidation. The noble Lord asked whether the minimum service levels will be based on the current First Great Western timetable. The proposed approach to the specification of the services for the next Great Western franchise has yet to be developed and would anyway form part of the public consultation.

Many noble Lords have talked about the problem of slot allocation at Heathrow and public service obligations. Perhaps it would be helpful to the Committee if I carefully reiterated the positions. It would be open to the Northern Ireland Assembly to apply to the Secretary of State for Transport to impose a public service obligation on an air route from Northern Ireland to London, should it feel that a case can be made which satisfies the EU regulation on PSOs. If approved, this would permit slots to be ring-fenced at a London airport. As I said at Question Time, there is no other mechanism for the Government to intervene in the allocation of slots at Heathrow or other London airports.

It is important to note that EU regulations state that the PSO must be between two cities or regions and not between individual airports. Therefore, any PSO would have to take into account services to all five London airports. Other European states have exactly the same problems. You may have a region in France that is slightly deprived, and it might want to fly direct to Charles de Gaulle, but it cannot. It might, perhaps, have to fly to Orly and not have the benefit of going to a hub airport. We do not necessarily have a unique problem.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, suggested that we cannot leave this issue to the commercial market. It is important to note that any PSO on a service to Heathrow could be subject to legal challenge from other airlines. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, talked about the requirements in franchise rail operations, but he needs to remember that airline operations are commercial operations, not franchise operations.

Will the Minister pause there to think of what happens with the services to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland? They are not commercial. They are supported by a PSO agreement.

My Lords, I was just coming on to that point. The noble Lord pointed out that PSOs already exist on air services to Scottish islands from Aberdeen and Inverness. He is correct. They are supported by the Scottish Government as lifeline services that otherwise would not be economic to operate.

They are lifeline services, but is Northern Ireland’s remaining air service to Heathrow not in the same category because, if it disappears, the region will be in real trouble? This is not a trivial point. You have got to concern yourself with regional development. Next year, Londonderry will be the European city of culture. Perhaps the air service will disappear at the same time.

My Lords, I understand what the noble Lord is saying, but BMI has not been sold, and no services have been stopped yet. I think he is going ahead of himself slightly.

The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, asked about the Greater Anglia (Short) franchise and customer satisfaction. Although this is a relatively short franchise, she will recognise that Abellio has offered commitments that will improve customer experience. She also asked several other very detailed questions, and I fear that I will have to write to her on those points.

Abellio plans to continue to run all those services that are crowded today or are likely to become crowded in the next five years in the formation planned by NXEA. In almost all cases where crowding occurs today, the trains concerned are being operated at the maximum formation allowed by the infrastructure, so it is an infrastructure limitation, not a rolling stock limitation.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Empey, touched on the Thames estuary airport. We welcome the input from the mayor and Lord Foster, and their suggestions will be considered alongside the many other contributions about our future aviation policy. However, such a project would be hugely complex. Detailed consideration would be needed on a range of issues, including airspace capacity, safety and access to the airport as well as costs and funding.

I know that my colleague in Northern Ireland, the Transport Minister Danny Kennedy, has been to the European Parliament and spoken to the chair of its transport committee, who in turn has spoken to Lufthansa about the slot issue. This is a pertinent issue. I understand the legal difficulties the Minister is in, but perhaps it is something that with co-operation between Brussels and ourselves we have in our own hands to resolve.

I am sure that noble Lords will keep a very close eye on this issue.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, suggested that he would return to this matter on a future occasion, and I look forward to all such debates. In conclusion, I thank him for this short debate and for all his efforts in encouraging improved transport links between London, the regions and Northern Ireland.

Committee adjourned at 6.40 pm.