Skip to main content

North of England: Rapid Mass Transport System

Volume 813: debated on Monday 28 June 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to the construction of an underground Maglev rapid mass transport system between cities in the north of England.

My Lords, the Government have thoroughly investigated whether our forthcoming major investment in connectivity between northern cities should be maglev rather than rail. We concluded that rail remains the best option for a number of reasons, the most important being that new conventional rail infrastructure can better be integrated into the existing network.

My Lords, maglev is a great British invention increasingly deployed in Asia for high-speed travel. As our world-beating British tunnelling engineers have shown, constructing railways in-tunnel can be cheaper than constructing them on the surface, provided that it stays in-tunnel. However, it seems that every proposal for maglev that comes from the Department for Transport is rebuffed. Can my noble friend explain why her department is so wedded to a 200 year-old technology that, when constructed on the surface, can both cost more and be very annoying for local voters?

I am sure all noble Lords will agree that, just because something is old, that does not mean it is useless. We must look at all technologies, and that is precisely what we do. My noble friend makes an important point in saying that systems around the world use this, but just one operational high-speed system does so at the moment: the Shanghai City maglev. There are many others operating at lower speeds—that is, less than 100 mph—and obviously, there is one in construction in Japan, but it is coming up against some cost pressures.

Will the Minister give a clear commitment on behalf of the Government to Northern Powerhouse Rail as part of the integrated rail plan?

I can reassure the noble Lord that the Government are considering all options as part of the integrated rail plan and of course, Northern Powerhouse Rail is a very important part of that. Once the IRP is published, Transport for the North will submit a business case consistent with policy and the funding framework.

My noble friend’s idea of an underground magnetic railway between northern cities certainly has a strong attraction, especially following Elon Musk’s proposal for 1,000 mph trains in the United States, and especially coming from a former deputy chair of Transport for London. However, as Transport for the North has said, our aims in the north should be to improve the frequency, capacity, speed and resilience of our transport system. Can my noble friend go a little further in telling us, in a realistic way, how the Government intend to facilitate those aims in the near future?

The Government are working extremely hard on setting out plans as to how we will improve connectivity in the north. As I mentioned previously, the integrated rail plan will be published soon and will bring together the benefits of not just High Speed 2 but Northern Powerhouse Rail and other very significant projects across the north. Of course, our investment in traditional rail and upgrading and improving our current lines also continues.

My Lords, what the north-east needs is not an underground line but investment in the East Coast Main Line, which, according to LNER, does not have the capacity even to accommodate the service that it provided up to 2019. How can it be consistent with government policy to halve the daytime service from Berwick-upon-Tweed to London and the major cities, reducing it to a two-hour gap between trains with a longer journey time? This is the railway going backwards, is it not?

I accept that there are capacity constraints on the East Coast Main Line, which is why we are investing more than £1.2 billion to upgrade it. On 11 June, LNER launched a consultation on the new proposed timetable for the East Coast Main Line from May 2022. I encourage all noble Lords who have an interest in the East Coast Main Line to respond to it.

My Lords, if it is concluded that what we really need is a strategic rail link between not just Leeds and Manchester but Middlesbrough and Liverpool and all major towns in between to improve connectivity and boost productivity, how likely is that to happen and how much money will the Government allocate to it?

I can reassure my noble friend that we are of course looking at connectivity across the regions. A number of urban centres need to be connected, and it is really important that we make sure that towns and villages are connected via local transport to those point-to-point systems.

My Lords, I have long been a supporter of improving our strategic rail network, but I now wonder whether we face a mid to long-term future in which electric vehicles incorporating artificial intelligence within intelligent connected road networks will become the de facto mode of speedy, seamless door-to-door travel. Is the Department for Transport contemplating and investigating this possibility?

My Lords, I suspect that it will not be an either/or situation in the future, as indeed it is not now. We are actively considering opportunities for automation and AI. We want to see the safe development and deployment of self-driving vehicles. The Government have the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles, which is looking at developing regulations, investing in innovation and skills and engaging with the public, because it is important that we take them with us.

My Lords, it still strikes me as ironic that, although the UK invented maglev, Asia has made far greater and more imaginative use of this high-speed technology. I worry about us being too risk-averse in refusing to keep it on the table. Can I press the Minister perhaps less on the sci-fi possibilities of innovative technology solutions—although I do find them exciting—and more on the concrete plans to bring about high-speed connectivity between northern cities, which is crucial for levelling up? Can the Minister assure us that urgency and speed will be deployed rather than emulating HS2, which has to be the slowest high-speed project in the world? Surely the cost challenges of maglev in Japan are not worse than those of HS2 here.

I, too, am extremely excited by technology. The noble Baroness said that there has been widespread take-up of maglev technology across Asia, but that is not the case. The high-speed system is up and running in Shanghai at the moment, but China has now decided to invest in conventional rail rather than rolling out a large number of high-speed maglev systems. As I have mentioned many times, the Government are considering connectivity across the north and this will be set out in the integrated rail plan.

Can the Minister confirm in the light of her earlier answers that the Government do not know when the Northern Powerhouse Rail project, first promised by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2014, will be approved, when its route plan will be made clear or when its promised infrastructure work will actually start? Assuming that is so—I think the Minister has been telling us that—can she at least assure us that work on the construction of Northern Powerhouse Rail will take priority over the start of work on the Prime Minister’s latest project: the construction of a new royal yacht?

I think that that is a rather extreme assessment of what I have said so far. I reiterate that the integrated rail plan must come first. Without it, it is pointless having a plan for Northern Powerhouse Rail because, of course, the whole point is that everything has to be integrated. As I said previously, we will work with Transport for the North, which will submit the business case for Northern Powerhouse Rail. Once we have received that, we will be able to set out how the project will go forward.

Does the Minister acknowledge that continued speculation about the future of Northern Powerhouse Rail and the issuing of new timetables by the East Coast Main Line, which reduced rail links for northern cities, simply serves to undermine confidence in government promises to level up and therefore reduces the likelihood of private sector investment in northern cities?

The absolute priority for this Government is to get it right. Endless amounts of pressure—questions such as “When will it be published?”—is probably not particularly helpful and leads to an awful lot of speculation. As I have said previously, we are taking due consideration of what stakeholders are saying and we are working very hard to come up with a robust, deliverable plan. That is exactly what this Government are going to do.

My Lords, the Minister is right about the Shanghai maglev, which I have been on. It is very fast and very noisy, but the technology, and therefore the costs, are very tight, because the track has to be kept within plus or minus half a millimetre in both directions, vertical and horizontal. She is absolutely right to reject it and I hope that the Government stick to their promises.

Now we are all very jealous—I too would love to go on that maglev. The noble Lord makes an important point: it is not just about the cost of infrastructure, but of operation, because it has a very high electricity consumption and can therefore be more costly to operate. I know that the Japanese system will be using superconducting electromagnetics, which should be cheaper but, although maglev has some great applications, it is not applicable everywhere.