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Rail Freight: Channel Tunnel

Volume 810: debated on Wednesday 24 February 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the barriers to using the Channel Tunnel for the conveyance of rail freight; and what plans they have, if any, to overcome such barriers.

My Lords, the Government engage regularly with the international freight sector to discuss a range of issues and are keen to see the expansion of rail freight services running through the tunnel. It is ultimately a commercial decision for rail freight operators whether to facilitate new services, but the Government are open to engaging with industry-led proposals and potential new operators where there is a commercial proposition.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but what needs to change to make it feasible to see more rail freight using the Channel Tunnel and the HS1 route to London?

As I have just explained to the noble Lord, this is a commercial decision by the freight operating companies. The Government certainly stand by to support where we can. For example, we are developing and, indeed, have developed, bespoke customs regimes for rail freight traffic through the tunnel. We have already approved regimes at Barking, Dagenham, Daventry, Scunthorpe and Widnes. We are also looking at, for example, gauge clearance for alternative access routes to the Channel Tunnel. At the heart of all this, the industry has to demonstrate to government that if we put these interventions in place it will come forward with commercial proposals.

I take the Minister’s point that it is a commercial decision, but the Government could help hauliers and exporters of all kinds. What about setting up an innovations fund that they could bid for money from when they have a viable plan? This would stimulate the move from road to rail.

I think the noble Baroness is referring to our Mode Shift Revenue Support scheme, which is indeed already in place. It supports rail services where they may be slightly less commercial, to try to get freight off the road and on to rail. During the Covid pandemic we made sure that part loads would also be supported. The noble Baroness will also be pleased to hear that we have increased funding to this scheme by 28% in 2021 and it now amounts to £20 million.

My Lords, does my noble friend share my concern that rail freight was down 37% in January this year over last year and that passenger traffic through the tunnel was down 71% in January over last year? What support might they be eligible for, for problems that are not of their making but are largely a result of the bureaucratic and administrative change of rules because of Brexit and the situation with Covid? Will she join with me in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, without whose good offices we may not have had a tunnel at all?

I will certainly join my noble friend for the latter comment. The tunnel is a great thing. The noble Baroness asked what support is available. We are working very closely with Eurotunnel to help it access the Government’s support schemes. Some of the Eurotunnel revenues remain in place, because of course haulage continues to go through on the shuttle system. The noble Baroness mentioned that freight was down 37% year-on-year in January. That was because, I think, people were expecting some changes and some impact of Covid. She will be relieved to hear that in February there was a 34% increase over January, and therefore I feel that things are heading in the right direction.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that only around 1 million tonnes of through-freight is taken across the Channel on long-distance freight trains from this country, whereas more than 20 million tonnes is taken on 1.6 million lorries? If you add to it the 2.5 million lorries a year thundering down the M20 to use the sea crossing at Dover, leaving these things to—as she puts it—commercial matters when they are environmentally disastrous is not what those of us who supported the Channel Tunnel from its inception really believed.

The noble Lord will know that whether a consignment uses conventional rail freight or an HGV will very much depend on the nature of the goods being transported. Conventional rail freight is more often used for more dense goods, such as those from the steel and automotive sectors and other bulk goods. But, as I have already said, there is capacity to increase conventional rail freight through the Channel Tunnel and we look forward to those who wish to do so.

My Lords, Eurostar also goes through the tunnel and is in serious financial difficulty, yet the Secretary of State says that it is not his company to save. Well, neither are the domestic train operators that have received billions in government support. Does the Minister accept that, although the Government may not have a legal obligation to Eurostar, they have a moral duty to the planet to ensure the survival of this environmentally friendly alternative to flying to Europe?

The Government continue to discuss Eurostar’s financial situation with the French Government. At the moment there are no proposals on the table.

My Lords, how many of these delays are due to widespread strikes in France over pensions and how many are due to the EU being, as usual, as difficult as ever? I have found no record, of course, of the EU ever having been accused of fairness and honesty.

I am not sure about the delays to which my noble friend has referred, but it is the case that at the end of the year, freight flows decreased somewhat owing to both testing for hauliers, which had to be put in place quickly in December, and preparations for the end of the transition period in January. However, I reassure my noble friend that all freight is now flowing as it should.

The Minister said that there has been a 34% increase in freight truck traffic through the Channel Tunnel in February compared with January. Can she say whether that is a 34% increase in volume or in value, and does it apply equally across all sectors of industry and services?

I would love to have the answers to those questions, but I am afraid that I do not, and I do not have a calculator with me at this moment. However, I will write to the noble Lord with the details he has set out. It is the case that, in January, we were looking at daily HGV traffic flows in the region of around 2,800 vehicles on average and that we are now up into the area of mid-3,000 vehicles. I will write to the noble Lord with the analysis that he would like to see.

My Lords, is not one of the barriers referred to in the Question the fact that gauges in the UK restrict the destination of much of the freight traffic coming through the tunnel? What progress is being made with the gauge enhancement programme to make it easier to send more freight through the Channel Tunnel by rail?

This is a fascinating area and I thank my noble friend for raising it. We are developing a number of loading gauge enhancement projects to extend the strategic freight network of routes to offer the greatest flexibility for carrying intermodal shipping containers on standard wagons. We are working on the Great Western main line between Didcot and Bristol, on the Midland main line between Syston and Trent and, as I have mentioned, we are looking at alternative routes to the Channel Tunnel. Clearances for W10 and W12 will probably offer fairly poor value for money, so further development is more likely to consider W9A, which would allow containers on specialist wagons with lower decks.

Given that there are only nine months of grace, what progress have the UK Government made in securing a bilateral agreement to operate trains through to Calais-Fréthun, and what would be the impact on trade through the tunnel if the UK had to secure EU licensing in order to operate those trains?

We continue to work with the French Government on seeking arrangements for the longer term. This will include recognition of operator licences, safety certificates and train driver licences. We expect the impact of the longer-term arrangements on operators, when they are agreed, to be minimal.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady McIntosh and Lady Vere, for their kind words. However, is one solution to increasing the volume of rail freight traffic through the tunnel not in the Minister’s hands, because of the reduction in passenger traffic and therefore the greater capacity that is available on many parts of the network? She has talked about gauge enhancement, but we need more terminals and capacity. That would attract the just-in-time deliveries that I am sure she would be very keen to see.

The noble Lord is right to say that there are things that we can do; indeed, we are doing them. Network Rail is working with the freight operating companies on timetabling to ensure that we can prioritise freight, in particular in these times of lower passenger numbers. Of course, passengers will come back to the trains one day and we need to make sure that whatever solution we put in place now is for the longer term. However, I reassure the noble Lord that we will leave no stone unturned and that we greatly welcome his input in these matters.