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Transport: Freight Services

Volume 794: debated on Monday 7 January 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will consider proposals by Transport for the North to include capacity and capability for freight services within their plans to electrify and upgrade the Manchester to Leeds route; if not, why not; and what alternative proposals they will make for freight services.

My Lords, we are planning to invest £2.9 billion in the first phase of the trans-Pennine route upgrade over the next five years, with an immediate focus on improving journeys for passengers. We have taken Transport for the North’s advice into account as we develop this first phase and are taking forward many of TfN’s recommendations. We will continue to work with Network Rail and Transport for the North to develop future phases of the upgrade and on how best to realise potential future benefits for cross-Pennine freight flows on this line and other routes.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer, but she has not answered the second part of my Question, about alternative proposals if the Government are not going to do this. Is the Minister aware of the enormous pressure from ports and customers in the north for rail freight to go across the Pennines? PD Ports, which runs Teesport, says that this failure to allow for freight,

“could seriously damage the economic aims of the Northern Powerhouse and would leave an overreliance on the heavily congested M62”.

Perhaps the Minister is going to widen the M62 instead, which would have enormous environmental benefits. Will she give a categorical assurance that this freight upgrade will happen and that freight can start running now, even without the necessary gauge clearance?

My Lords, there is some freight on the route already, and that will continue. I absolutely agree that rail freight plays a vital role in transporting our goods around the country and in cutting congestion on our roads. Sadly, however, taken together, all the proposals for freight and passengers exceed the amount of work we are able to do over the next five years and, indeed, the £2.9 billion we have allocated. Where we are doing electrification work, we will also ensure that it is future-proofed for freight in the future and we have enhancement works east of Huddersfield, which can provide more capacity for freight movements that use the main trans-Pennine route.

My Lords, the Minister, in a Written Answer to me just before Christmas, referred to a feasibility study into the reinstatement of the Skipton-Colne rail link as part of a route for passengers and freight. This has recently been completed by the Steer group—at a cost of nearly £1 million, I believe—and submitted to the Secretary of State. She said that the Government are considering next steps and expect to make an announcement shortly. If this major new freight route across the north of England is built, it will provide a route from Liverpool docks, via Skipton-Colne, to Leeds and Yorkshire, and up the east coast main line to the Yorkshire coast and to Drax. Is this not a scheme that, at a fraction of the cost of any new major scheme in the south-east or London, could provide a major freight route across the north of England within three or four years? Will the Government make this a priority?

The noble Lord rightly highlights the benefits that the scheme could bring but I am afraid I do not have any update to the Answer I gave him just before Christmas. We have received the feasibility study. We are looking at it carefully and we will make an announcement on it shortly.

My Lords, could the Minister give us her opinion on the purpose of organisations such as Transport for the North if major strategic decisions affecting that part of the United Kingdom are to be taken by London-based Ministers and civil servants? How many extra heavy goods vehicles will be used to replace the existing freight flow across the Pennines that uses this line—a freight flow that has been intensive since the line was built—while this modernisation takes place? Will she think again and get the Secretary of State to think again and listen to the people directly involved, rather than making decisions in Whitehall?

My Lords, we absolutely listen to Transport for the North when making these decisions. That is a vital role which it plays for us. We are carefully considering its proposals. As I said, we are not able to deliver the entire upgrade of the trans-Pennine route within five years. The existing freight lines will continue so there will not be additional trucks on the M62. We listen very carefully to Transport for the North when we make these decisions. We are prioritising passengers with these upgrades, which is the right thing to do after the disruption they have seen over the past year.

My Lords, if we are to have a real crack at the northern powerhouse, do we not need to think about electrification from Hull to Liverpool rather than from Leeds to Manchester? Do we not also need to think about the networks within each conurbation? The problem is not just the trans-Pennine bit, but about travelling within Manchester, Leeds, Hull or Liverpool.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that there is a lot of work to be done on the rail systems in the north. Transport for the North is working on its strategic outline business case, which we expect to see shortly, and we look forward to its suggestions.

My Lords, the existing infrastructure across the Pennines, and indeed around Manchester, is being used rather wastefully at present. It appears that the timetable is very slack. I am sure that it could, with advantage, accommodate more trains than it does at present. Will the Minister agree to meet me and an expert on timetabling—not at anybody’s expense—to try to create paths on the existing routes?

The noble Lord raises an interesting point. Of course we want to maximise the capacity on our routes for both passengers and freight. As the noble Lord will be well aware, timetabling is very complex and I do not profess to be an expert in it. Network Rail leads on the technical aspects of this but I would be very happy to arrange a meeting with the noble Lord.

My Lords, if the Government are to give the regions the opportunity to make these decisions, would it not be sensible to ring-fence funding for all the regions so that they can spend that money?

My Lords, as I said, we absolutely are consulting Transport for the North on our funding, and we have committed that £2.9 billion to the trans-Pennine routes upgrade, which is the largest investment in existing railways at the moment. Obviously, the rail system is complex, crossing all parts of the country, and it is important that we co-ordinate it centrally, but we listen to the needs of people in the areas where we are making the investment.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the construction of a high-speed network is critical to the provision of extra capacity for freight on the entire rail network north of London, and not just to the Midlands but to the north-west and the north-east?

I certainly agree with the noble Lord. Our railways are absolutely at capacity—we have seen a doubling of passengers—and we desperately need more space, which is what HS2 will deliver.

My Lords, with the fiasco of Northern rail, the debacle of the phantom drones at Gatwick, and now Kent, where only half the HGVs turned up for the trial, what does it take for a Secretary of State to have to resign these days?

My Lords, I reassure the noble Lord that the Secretary of State is absolutely across all the issues he has raised.