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Railways: New Lines

Volume 769: debated on Monday 29 February 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to encourage new or reopened rail lines to be cost-effective.

My Lords, the Government are taking many steps to ensure that all rail enhancement projects, including those working towards opening or reopening rail lines, follow government appraisal guidelines and create business cases which test options ensuring best value for the taxpayer. Local authorities and private sector beneficiaries are encouraged to contribute to the overall costs of the preparation and delivery of such projects to decrease the burden on the public purse.

I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer but does he agree that part of the problem is the very high costs that come out of some of these calculations which indicate that there is not really good value for money? Does he not agree that the answer is actually to have a set of standards appropriate to branch lines or lower-speed and cheaper track, and to cheaper trains—possibly not even signalling, more like a bus—which would be very good for local services but of course totally inappropriate for a main line? Will he encourage the development of some standards that might reduce such costs?

As I am sure the noble Lord is aware, the concept of community rail partnerships sets down specific guidelines as to what qualifies as a community railway. Currently about 40 routes do so in that regard. As for his point about trains looking like buses, I am reminded that we are decommissioning Pacers in certain parts of the country.

Is my noble friend aware that when the Cotswold line was nationalised, it was a virtual basket case? It was always under threat of being closed. Since privatisation, it has now become a victim of its own success and people are actually standing between the carriages, let alone within the carriages. Will he therefore do everything he can to encourage private companies to invest private capital in this railway line, as well as others?

My noble friend is quite right. We have seen very encouraging signs from opening up the rail market to the private sector. Underlining that, the Government are also committed to ensuring that they play their full part, and that is why they have committed to a further £38 billion of investment in the rail network over the next five years.

My Lords, there has been a vigorous campaign to reinstate the rail link between Uckfield and Lewes, which would provide better access to employment in Brighton from the Weald and an additional, badly needed route between the Sussex coast and London. The coalition funded some studies into this but the current Government have not given any firm commitment. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government have plans for action on this and does he accept that the regeneration is needed now, not some time in the future, as indicated, possibly 2030 and beyond?

The Government are committed to ensuring the regeneration of all railways. I will write to the noble Baroness on the details of that particular line. I reiterate that we are looking at ensuring that there is effective and resilient investment in our railways to ensure that they meet the needs of the 21st century.

My Lords, the Minister is absolutely right to draw attention to the success of the community rail partnerships. They have contributed to growth well above the growth on regional railways generally and have attracted some 3,200 volunteers to help improve stations and to work generally on the railway alongside full-time railway staff. This is a great success story and it is important that the Northern Rail franchise embraces that. But does the Minister not agree that for that strategy to succeed, it will be necessary for Network Rail to look realistically at cost levels and get them down where it can, because those have been a bar to opening lines until now? I declare an interest as chairman of the Great Western Railway advisory board and, indeed, the author of a book which deals extensively with this subject.

I am sure noble Lords will be lining up outside the Chamber for a signed copy. Of course the noble Lord is quite right to point out the need to ensure best value and efficiency on our railways. That is why, as the noble Lord will know, the Secretary of State has appointed Sir Peter Hendy to look at the delivery of the investment in the railways across the board.

My Lords, further to my noble friend’s question, will the Minister consider that when an existing franchise falls due for renewal, bidders are invited to look at reopening some of the disused railway lines when they put in their tenders?

My noble friend is correct and that is why the Government are ensuring that that provision is part and parcel of all new franchise proposals.

Is it the case that Dr Beeching wielded his axe too well and too many lines were closed 50 years ago?

History is history and this Government are looking to the future and that is why we are committed to the investment we are making in the railways.

I want to pursue the points made by my noble friends Lord Berkeley and Lord Faulkner of Worcester. The Minister keeps referring to surveys on value and efficiency but in looking at low-cost community rail opportunities, what work have the Government actually done on reopening closed lines on the basis of them being light rail systems, rather than their reopening being costed on an assumption that there will be a much heavier axle load and a complete rebuild of substructure and bridges, which in a great many cases immediately drives up the cost to unaffordable levels? If such work has been done on operating new or reopened community rail partnership lines more like a light rail system than a railway as we normally know it, by how much has it shown that the cost of reopening and operating closed lines or building new lines serving local communities can be reduced?

As I have already indicated, when it comes to any railways, the new franchises will ensure that community rail is part and parcel of them. The noble Lord talked about surveys but they are not surveys. I have referred to a report and to Sir Peter Hendy. As the noble Lord is fully aware, Sir Peter is carrying out a quite stringent review of all aspects of Network Rail spending to ensure best value for money and best value for the taxpayer.

The Minister said in response to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, that history is history, but should we not be learning at least one lesson of history? The period of the Beeching closures resulted in widespread destruction of priceless railway infrastructure in many areas which have since seen growths in population that would have benefited from the railways still existing. Should not one clear lesson be that, should lines be closed or mothballed in the future, at the very least the track bed should be protected so that should reinstatement be necessary it would be easy to do so? I should also declare an interest as the honorary president of the Telford Steam Railway.

I am again in awe of the great historical perspective and wisdom within your Lordships’ House, and of course I take the noble Lord’s comments on board.