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Railways: Trans-Pennine Freight

Volume 799: debated on Monday 7 October 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what proposals they have for TransPennine freight in the next 10 years.

My Lords, the provision of capacity and capability for cross-Pennine freight is a key priority for the Department for Transport. We are considering how best to enhance the current capability and capacity for cross-Pennine bulk and intermodal rail freight between a range of origins and destinations. This includes consideration of the potential freight demand via a reinstated Skipton-Colne route. This piece of work is due to report soon and will include a wider assessment of cross-Pennine rail freight.

My Lords, I refer to the Colne-Skipton gap in the network. The then Secretary of State, Chris Grayling, came to Colne at the beginning of last year and again at the beginning of this year to announce two studies. On 19 September, the Department for Transport said:

“An initial study, which was completed in December 2018, found that it is technically feasible to re-open the line. We are now working to assess the freight demand and the commercial viability of the scheme”,

as the Minister said. The new team of consultants attended a routine meeting of the high-level project development team at Peel Ports in Liverpool on 26 September this year. According to people present, the new contractors said that the route was entirely unsuitable for freight of any kind. Can she investigate what is going on? Will she arrange for the publication of the original Steer group report, so that we all know what is in it?

I can indeed update the noble Lord about what is going on: work is continuing apace to understand the amount of freight demand that is not currently being and may be met in future by reopening this line, as well as to look at the commercial viability of the scheme. I undertake to him that we will publish all the reports when these important issues have been fully explored and we understand the full picture.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm or deny the story on the front page of the Financial Times that the HS2 review is considering axing its eastern leg? Is she aware that this report is being treated with great alarm in Edinburgh, Newcastle, Durham, York, Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham, Derby and Birmingham?

I am sure that the noble Lord knows better than me that one should not believe everything one reads in the newspapers. However, as he will also know, the Oakervee review is taking a detailed look at all elements of HS2 and its phasing and will report soon.

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister take this opportunity to comment on HS3 and its implications? I am sure that she and I are both subscribed to the northern powerhouse and its rail element: that we need to increase capacity on rail for both passengers and freight. As the noble Lord pointed out, the spur to Leeds and Sheffield is crucial in this regard. Will she confirm that both HS2 and HS3 will proceed as planned?

I thank my noble friend for raising further questions around HS2. She referred to HS3, which is known to most noble Lords as Northern Powerhouse Rail. It is an incredibly important, complicated and extensive project. It works closely with the trans-Pennine route upgrade, and indeed with HS2. The Government have already committed £60 million of funding to Transport for the North to develop the proposals and a further £300 million to ensure that HS2 can accommodate Northern Powerhouse Rail. As she made clear, Northern Powerhouse Rail could bring huge benefits.

My Lords, some weeks ago, I asked someone from Transport for the North where they could find extra freight rail capacity between Liverpool and Hull. The answer was that they had identified that, if you took container traffic through Daventry, you could take it from Liverpool to Hull; that is an interesting diversion. Meanwhile, freight container traffic goes along the M62, which becomes even more crowded. Can we therefore raise the awareness and importance of increasing freight paths on rail through the north of England without having to go via either Scotland or the southern Midlands?

We are deeply aware that there are a number of freight routes for rail and are doing what we can to improve their usage. For example, I am not sure whether the noble Lord is aware of the W7A gauge clearance project, which is going on at the moment. We are building a business case with industry to develop a W7A gauge clearance which would run along the trans-Pennine rail route via Huddersfield and Stalybridge. I hope that meets with his approval. If there is a positive business case, we will proceed with it forthwith; it could be in place by late 2020.

My Lords, capacity for rail freight is a key priority. Will the Government show that through an undertaking that that they will give the same priority, with the same timescales, to increasing capacity for rail freight across the Pennines as they say that they intend to do for rail passenger traffic across the Pennines?

I thank the noble Lord for his question but, of course, it is not either/or; the two must be developed together. We often end up looking at a single mode for freight; what we must do is look at all the options, which will include road and, obviously, rail. But he brings up an important point. We will look very closely at cross-modal freight across the country in a strategy for the future starting this autumn.

My Lords, as we are moving around the country, I take this opportunity to thank my noble friend’s predecessor for the new services which begin a fortnight today: four trains a day between Lincoln and London and, from December, six trains a day. I also renew the invitation to her and her colleagues to pay a visit to Lincoln on one of these trains in the fairly near future.

I thank my noble friend for his intervention. I was not aware that we were anywhere near Lincoln, but I am happy to discuss it. I am grateful for his words of thanks. These are just some examples of the extra services that the Government are putting back on the track. I will take noble Lords back up north: on the Northern and TransPennine Express franchises, we are delivering extra capacity of 40,000 passengers a week across 2,000 services.