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Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hopkins: I really have very little time, and I have had only one notice of an intervention. I apologise to my hon. Friend.

The line would make use of old Great Central track bed for much of its length and would link Liverpool with Lille in northern France. It would provide a full-scale lorries- on-trains service, and Central Railway proposes an initial four trains an hour in each direction. It is proposed to build major loading facilities on the route in south Yorkshire, the midlands and close to London, and it will

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make use of the currently closed Woodhead tunnel through the Pennines. Later extensions to other parts of Britain could be developed.

If hauliers could load their lorries, swap bodies and containers in the north and then guarantee a time of arrival in northern France. that would bring new life to our industrial heartlands and integrate them more fully in the wider European economy. The Central Railway service would also provide for double-stacked containers, which is effectively two train loads in one train's length.

The scheme is compelling in its logic and would transform rail freight in Britain. My hon. Friend will understand that, in my own best of all possible worlds, I would like to see such schemes developed in the public sector. However, the modern fashion for private development fits entirely with Central Railway's proposals. It is a wholly commercial and commercially viable scheme that will require no Government funding or underwriting.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): Whatever the merits or demerits of the freight-only railway, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the position in which my constituents--and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), and many others--are placed is wholly unacceptable? Their properties are blighted by a scheme proposed by a company with very little in the way of financial substance, yet the company shows no inclination to bring its proposals forward for any formal scrutiny in the short term. That leaves my constituents in an impossible situation.

Mr. Hopkins: I have reminded the hon. Gentleman in previous debates that Central Railway has proposed a generous property compensation scheme that was praised by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Clearly, building any new infrastructure of this kind has effects on the people who live close by. That is inevitable and it would have to be faced by the Government.

The scheme would be linked into the rest of the rail network and would take freight traffic from elsewhere, too. It would make the channel tunnel truly commercially viable and take up the vast amount of spare capacity that the tunnel currently has. Ten years ago, Eurotunnel forecast that there would be 22 million passengers and 11 million tonnes of freight using the tunnel each year. It has actually achieved only 7 million passengers and less than 3 million tonnes of freight; less than a third of predicted levels. Boosting passenger numbers will be difficult, so there is a massive capacity for freight growth if only there were an effective delivery system on the British side. A rail freight link to the north of London carrying lorries on trains must be the answer.

Central Railway will take 8,000 to 10,000 lorries off our motorways every day by 2010. The scheme is vital to Britain's future infrastructure needs. If such a scheme had been proposed in France, Germany, Spain or Holland, I am sure it would have been built by now. Central Railway will make a major contribution to Britain's future economic success and it must not be allowed to fail.

There are other important factors in the case for the scheme. European freight is carried on lorries and Central Railway's proposal is the only scheme that meets the needs of hauliers. The existing UK railways cannot take

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lorries, and there is ample evidence that Central Railway's proposal is workable. I am informed that Central Railway's construction costs are along the lines of the TGV and the channel tunnel rail link phase 1. It has also been endorsed by SNCF's engineering arm, which believes that Central Railway's operating plan is realistic.

Lorries-on-train operations are a daily practicality across the channel. Central Railway is designed to be compatible with continental freight train standards and works at a European level, fitting in with EU operational objectives. Cross-channel freight is doubling every 10 years, growing much faster than the domestic freight market. Without Central Railway, almost all the additional lorry journeys will be by road, many of them on the M1 passing through my constituency of Luton, North.

If we are serious about raising the proportion of freight carried by rail and about regenerating the industrial regions of Britain, we cannot afford to let this opportunity slip and see the road arteries of Britain clogging up as the years go by, causing serious damage to Britain's future economic health and prospects.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hopkins: I am sorry, but I have too little time.

Over a century ago, Sir Edward Watkin had a vision of a channel tunnel linked to the great central railways. Sadly, he became ill and died before he could see his vision come to fruition. I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to give his most serious attention to the Central Railway scheme and to ponder the thought that if he and our right hon. and hon. Friends lend their support to the Central Railway scheme, they could be credited with having made possible a venture of historic proportions.

10.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) on securing this debate. I also thank him for his courtesy in giving me notice of the key issues that he wished to raise in his speech. The issues that he raised in respect of the challenge facing the rail freight industry are of great interest to the Government. They are precisely what we are addressing through the implementation of our integrated transport policy.

The Government inherited a railway system that was suffering from years of under-investment. It had been fragmented by privatisation and had no framework for the strategic planning of the industry as a whole. It is clear that mistakes were made in the privatisation process. Since 1997, we have been working to turn the industry round, and there have been tangible results in that time. After many years of decline, the amount of freight moved by rail volume has risen by nearly a quarter, and it continues to grow. Much of that has been due to the considerable investment by freight operators. They have invested in new rolling stock and facilities, they are actively pursuing new markets and new operators are emerging. The Government are matching that commitment, as I shall explain.

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We are committed to more freight on rail as part of an integrated sustainable freight transport distribution system. We have set out in our 10-year plan for transport an unprecedented investment programme to enhance the capacity and capability of the network. Through the Transport Act 2000, we have established the Strategic Rail Authority with a remit to promote rail freight. We have also revitalised the freight grant regime to encourage companies to transfer more freight off the roads. We have made it clear that we wish to see greater investment in the railways to cater for growth in both passenger and freight traffic over the next decade. We have asked the SRA to take forward the detailed plans for applying that investment. As a first step, it will shortly produce its strategic agenda.

The Transport Act 2000 marks a major step forward in delivering the Government's vision for transport in this country, and provides for the development of an integrated approach to the transport of passengers and freight. The shadow Strategic Rail Authority had already started discussions with the industry about its plans for rail freight.

As well as setting up the SRA proper, the Transport Act provides a framework for influencing the behaviour of key industry players, such as Railtrack, in the public interest. For example, it will allow the SRA to apply to the Rail Regulator for directions in respect of railway facility enhancements. This new power will create the right to compel Railtrack, and other rail facility owners, to carry out investment and enhancement schemes on terms determined by the regulator and not by Railtrack or the other owners.

The SRA has also taken over from my Department the responsibility for freight grants. Indeed, the Government have made more than 130 grant offers since 1997, including a record 47 grants during the last financial year. Grant payments will soon reach £100 million, diverting close to 40 million tonnes of freight from Britain's roads.

We want to make even more use of the money available to get freight on rail and inland waterways, where that is justified by the environmental benefits. The money is there to be used if the industry comes forward with the right projects. We have established the Strategic Rail Authority to ensure that development of rail freight becomes part of the strategic management of the network. The SRA is already undertaking work to improve the grant regime and to develop its strategic plan.

The SRA's freight strategy will include modernisation and increased capacity on key routes such as the west coast and east coast main lines, upgrading of freight routes to major ports such as Felixstowe and to the channel tunnel, the elimination of strategic bottlenecks on the rail network, better integration with other modes through investment in new freight interchanges and investment in rolling stock.

My hon. Friend mentioned Central Railway's proposals as a possible solution. Of course, I am aware that he has supported the scheme over many years. I confirm that the company has informed my Department of its wish to abandon its proposed Transport and Works Act 1992 application to gain approval for its scheme and has instead requested the Government's support for a Bill.

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It must be for the company to decide whether it wishes to allow its proposals to be examined openly under the TWA procedure. That is the normal means of considering infrastructure projects falling within the scope of the 1992 Act. It would not preclude the possibility of the Government promoting a hybrid Bill if we considered that to be an appropriate means of authorising a scheme. However, it remains the case that Central Railway has not submitted its proposals. Bearing that in mind, I cannot give any assurance now that the Government would wish to sponsor a Bill to support the project. It is, of course, open to any hon. Member to propose a Bill in support of a private scheme.

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