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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 11 June 2002

[Sir Michael Lord in the Chair]

Central Railway

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Ainger.]

9.30 am

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): I am delighted to have been able to secure this debate. The subject is of great interest to the Opposition, and I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friends. If it comes about, the Central Railway scheme would have as great an impact on my constituency as anywhere else. Not only would an area of outstanding natural beauty have to play host to a 14 km tunnel that would take five years to construct, but the railway's operations would have a disastrous impact on the quality of life of thousands of my constituents in Merstham, where the route is proposed to run overground.

Since being elected in 1997, I have spent some time making home visits in order to listen to the noise of trains in tunnels. I and my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) have no confidence that the tunnel would insulate those unfortunate enough to live above it. It is therefore unsurprising that, following the scheme's resurrection after its decisive defeat in Parliament in 1996, I have been taking a keen interest in Central Railway's proposals. I note that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), is the fourth Minister to reply to debates on Central Railway. I hope that he will be the last.

The scheme's proponents claim that it will meet 75 per cent. of the Government's objectives in moving freight from road to rail, but that it will be done at no cost to the taxpayer. That superficial level of analysis seems too good to be true. Indeed, on the available evidence, one must conclude that the scheme is too good to be true at national level, as well as being too awful to contemplate at constituency level.

When the subject was last debated here—it was in a debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), who is in his place today—the then Minister, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), was unable to answer my hon. Friend's two simple questions. He had asked whether the Government supported the scheme and, if so, whether they would use the company's proposed vehicle of a hybrid Bill to enable it to escape the usual scrutiny of a planning inquiry. The Minister said that it would be impossible for the Government to take a position until the Strategic Rail Authority had completed its review of Central Railway's proposals.

That evidence was made available to the Government last year, but still no decision has been taken. Indeed, yet more work has been commissioned from the SRA. I regret that, as do my blighted constituents, but I understand the Government's reluctance to give up their

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pursuit of the crock of gold at the end of the Central Railway rainbow. However, enough is enough. My primary objective today is to invite the Government to state their opposition or their support for the scheme at the completion of the latest analysis.

I want to summarise why the Government should not support the scheme. In the last debate on the subject, the Minister helpfully recited the terms of reference that the Government had given the SRA, and they are listed at column 54 of the Westminster Hall debate of 6 March 2001. Because of time constraints, I do not intend to repeat them, but any analysis based on the Government's terms of reference will show that the scheme should fail.

First, on volume, market share, revenue and operating forecasts, the conclusions of chapter 3 of the consultants' report, "Market and Revenue Forecasts", are devastating for the Central Railway proposal. Central Railway claims that within three years it will win a 35 per cent. market share of all freight currently transported by lorry or container between the United Kingdom and the continent via all French, Belgian, and Dutch ports and through the channel tunnel. It is claimed that that market share will generate revenue of £1.4 billion in 2011. That is based on the market continuing to grow at historic rates of 6 per cent. per annum. Central Railway claims that that figure is conservative, but I regard it as heroic. However, from what we know so far, the SRA is in no position to advise the Minister that those market share assumptions are valid. The SRA's report states:

The consultants went on to say:

and that

Yesterday, I asked Chris Savage, the director of government affairs at Central Railway—I am grateful to him for taking the time to come and brief me—whether any further work had been carried out on the economic forecasts. He told me that it had not. That updates the SRA's consultants' statement that

The whole scheme rests on one survey of 200 road hauliers conducted by the proponents of the scheme. In a paper exercise, the hauliers responded overwhelmingly to a question about price. In the real world, it will not work like that, even if the price data are reliable. For example, Central Railway states that the scheme

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At the moment, Central Railway is proposing that lorries will go on trains without their drivers. Quite apart from the inherent inflexibility of rail compared with road, Central Railway appears to have taken no account of the fact that a significant percentage of the road haulage industry is represented by owner-drivers who are unlikely to want to put their lorry unaccompanied on a railway. There is no discount factor in its calculations for that section of the road haulage industry. Its calculation is based solely on its price claims.

The Minister said in the previous debate on 6 March 2001 that operating costs were part of the SRA's remit. The SRA states:

It is, at the very least, inconsistent for what is supposed to be an entirely commercial scheme to rely on advice about operating costs from a nationalised and highly subsidised business. The Minister will have noticed that the SRA's consultants dryly report:

On capital costs, at the time that the consultants' report for the SRA was completed, Central Railway did not have a comprehensive costed schedule of all the work that is required to be undertaken for the total route. According to the information that I received from Central Railway yesterday, that remains the case. Even the most superficial examination of the capital costs, related solely to the work in my constituency, suggests that the ballpark estimate of £4 billion for the construction costs must be way off the mark. Central Railway claims that the 14 km tunnel that will end in an unspecified place in my constituency between junction 8 of the M25 and the A23 will represent 10 per cent. of the cost. It does not know where the tunnel will go, which is a comment on the quality of its proposals. In 1999, my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), his predecessor, Sir Archie Hamilton, and I met the chairman of Central Railway. We had to point out that the company's paper exercise on where the line would run showed that one end of the tunnel would come up in the middle of a housing estate in what was then Sir Archie Hamilton's constituency. On the basis of that information, the tunnel's planned route was changed, but there is still an almost total lack of detail about this important matter.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): I do not want to stop my hon. Friend in mid flow, but I am sure that he agrees that all our constituents face a big problem because their properties will suffer blight as long as the plans and the route remain uncertain. Admittedly, that blight has been masked by the rise in house prices, but it is blight all the same. Something must be done quickly, which is why I am sure that my hon. Friend will urge the Government to say no to the plan as soon as possible.

Mr. Blunt : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. One can see from the presence of so many hon. Members today that there is concern among constituents, who are

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experiencing real hurt because of the loss of asset value of their properties. The Central Railway proposition has been kicking around for seven years, and anyone living near the proposed route or routes has suffered property blight. The Government owe it to our constituents to end that uncertainty, and the primary objective of today's debate is to enable the Minister to give an undertaking to do so.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): My hon. Friend will see that several Opposition Members from Buckinghamshire are here to support him. Do the figures that he received recently from Central Railway include estimates by Chiltern Railways of the costs involved? Chiltern Railways recently received a new 20-year franchise, and is probably the best train-operating company in the country. It says that the wide gauge of the Central Railway trains would require every station on the Chiltern line to be rebuilt and new tracks to be installed. It also notes that Central Railway's ill-thought-out proposals could be achieved only by constructing two entirely separate tracks along the Chiltern line. Has my hon. Friend received any estimate of the vast costs and disruption to our constituents and the local economy?

Mr. Blunt : The answer is, of course, no. Indeed, I do not think that Central Railway has any idea of the costs that would be incurred, which is part of the difficulty with the scheme. As the Strategic Rail Authority's consultants told the Government, there is still a complete vacuum as regards details of how the scheme will operate alongside existing railways, such as the Chiltern line. My hon. Friend has given a classic example of the risk factors involved in such schemes. As she said, they have not been quantified at all in this case.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): I congratulate my hon. Friend on his approach to the matter, and I strongly agree with him and with my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on the question of uncertainty. Does he accept that people up and down the M25—I refer particularly to constituents in Byfleet and West Byfleet—have faced blight for years? That uncertainty is damaging, and it is vital to reach a conclusion quickly and to oppose the proposal.

Mr. Blunt : I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support for my central proposition, which is that the Government must make a decision at the end of the period of analysis. I hope that the Minister will give us and our constituents comfort on the matter later in the debate.

Central Railway claims that the tunnel, one end of which will be in my constituency, will take up about 10 per cent. of the construction costs of the whole railway—£400 million. Nearly two decades ago the channel tunnel cost £100 million per kilometre, four times the price that Central Railway claims for the proposed tunnel under the North Downs. It proposes that the railway will exit the tunnel and run alongside the M25 and M23 past the Merstham estate in my constituency. Any examination of the substantial cuttings and embankments that make up the boundary of the motorways at that point will demonstrate what a huge civil engineering undertaking that 3 km stretch

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alone would be, let alone what the Highways Agency would have to say; I am not even sure that it has been consulted. On the evidence of my eyes, I cannot believe Central Railway's capital cost forecast for the scheme.

The Minister will also know that the chapter on technical feasibility and deliverability of the scheme in the SRA consultants' report is far from a robust endorsement. The consultants said that, to clarify feasibility further,

That is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) made and it is reinforced in the report that is before Ministers. If the Minister does not get satisfaction on those points, it will be a serious indicator that the Government should reject the request for a hybrid Bill.

Central Railway has been around for over seven years; longer than Railtrack or the train operating companies. The fact that it has been unable to address the issues with them in a serious way, and to find solutions, must give us cause to doubt the robustness of the proposal, which throws up myriad serious planning concerns, not least in my constituency, as some of my hon. Friends have mentioned. One can understand why the company wants a hybrid Bill. The Government should not give their weight to any scheme that poses as many serious planning issues the length of the country as this one does, if that enables the issues to escape proper public scrutiny.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I hope to say more later, but I should like to highlight the inclusion in the scheme of terminals for trans-shipment from road to rail. One is proposed in my constituency in an area that is already saturated with traffic, and to which it is intended to attract lorries from a 200 km radius. Such issues and their implications seem to be totally unaddressed by Central Railway.

Mr. Blunt : My hon. Friend makes the point extremely well and I agree with him. I am glad that I do not appear to be getting a terminal as well as a tunnel. The point about planning is central. A hybrid Bill would be the most inappropriate vehicle for this scheme. Planning blight is well documented and has already been mentioned—many of our constituents have been badly affected. After seven years, those constituents and other people who have suffered damage as a result of the scheme are now owed certainty from their Government.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton): My hon. Friend has kindly raised the question of certainty. That is much in the minds of my constituents, as they still have hanging over them the possibility of a service station at Downside. This morning's papers report that consultants now say that the M25 should be widened further. That will undoubtedly affect my constituents and his, and it means that the Central Railway plans will be subject to many other considerations that the Government will have to take into account. We will not

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know the outcome for some time unless the Government are decisive and reject at least that element of uncertainty.

Mr. Blunt : I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as I had not been aware of the precise points that he made. The M25 has recently undergone an extension, not least through Reigate. The junction of the M25 and M23 is a central point, and no doubt the motorways will be developed beyond the present four lanes. To put a railway line bang alongside the M25 and M23 would be unacceptable to the Highways Agency, I imagine, as it would preclude expansion of the motorway network in decades to come. Consultation has not taken place on such issues, which is another nail in the coffin of the Central Railway scheme.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey): I have a question on blight. My hon. Friend will be aware that Central Railway maintains that it has an innovative compensation scheme for people who are likely to be affected. Has it suggested how many people might benefit from that scheme? Does not the firm retain control over who is offered the compensation package?

Mr. Blunt : My hon. Friend is right. On superficial reading, the compensation scheme seems excellent, but one then has to read the small print. In the end, Central Railway decides who has access to the scheme. As there is no one else to adjudicate on access, the decision will be taken by Central Railway.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Blunt : In a moment.

However good the compensation scheme looks at first, I regret to say that it is not robust enough to survive analysis. Perhaps the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) will suggest that the scheme has changed since it was last presented to me, but that is currently its fatal flaw.

Mr. Hopkins : Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the scheme proposed by Central Railway was praised by the then Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions? The essence of it is that it will pay enough to compensate people. There have been examples of negotiations with possible trackside homeowners in which they have agreed to accept compensation under that scheme.

Mr. Blunt : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because he makes the point that the scheme is superficially generous and sounds good. However, in preparation for the debate, I asked Central Railway in a letter whether entry to the property owners' compensation scheme was a matter for the company's discretion. Central Railway replied that the provisions of the property protection scheme were at the discretion of the company, and pointed out that they were more generous than the statutory arrangements. It also said that people would continue to have their statutory rights under the scheme. The scheme sounds very nice, like the whole Central Railway proposition, but the detail is lacking. It is in the detail that the scheme fails.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): The essence of the compensation scheme as I understand

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it, is to underwrite the value of a property, and thus make it tradable while the blight continues. Is not the real weakness of the scheme that the guarantee is only as strong as the company that makes it? That company is thinly capitalised and likely to go belly-up if the scheme itself does not proceed.

Mr. Blunt : Quite.

I want to return to capacity. Some other points may be dealt with in other hon. Members' speeches, and I will hurry to a conclusion to allow time for others to contribute.

The channel tunnel is a vital choke point for the scheme, but it does not have enough capacity for Central Railway's projections alongside those of everyone else. There will be a mix of demands from different rail operators through the channel tunnel. Central Railway must operate throughout the day to handle its forecast volume of ad hoc lorry traffic. It suggests that peak arrivals in 2010 will be 403 units an hour. That includes 10 Central Railway trains, increasing to 15 trains an hour by 2020. However, by 2010 the tunnel will be approaching capacity, based on the projections of the Eurotunnel shuttle and the high speed Eurostar passenger traffic from St. Pancras. Simply put, there may not be enough capacity in the tunnel to meet Central Railway's plans. In response to that potential showstopper, Central Railway challenged the assumptions of Eurostar and Eurotunnel, but why should their assumptions have less merit than those that underlie the Central Railway proposition?

The quality and detail of the Central Railway proposal has always been the problem, which is perhaps unsurprising given the nature of the company. It employs fewer than a dozen full-time equivalents, has only one corporate shareholder and its proposed project manager is an American company called Parsons, which owns only 8 per cent. of the equity. The remainder is owned by the directors and employees. The entrepreneurial nature of the company is at one level to be admired, but the Government would be in wholesale dereliction of their duty if they invited Parliament to pass a hybrid Bill on the basis of the scant information available now from that little company.

The latest report from the SRA leaves more questions unanswered than answered. It has exposed a project built on unreliable evidence. In the words of the disclaimer on Central Railway's own information document, "The business case for Central railway":

The Minister will be aware that the Government cannot properly make such a disclaimer—certainly, we understand that to be the case under the new management of his Department.

The Government are providing Central Railway with a third opportunity to refine its superficially attractive proposals for a freight railway line from Liverpool to Lille. On examination, the proposal seems an entrepreneurial and environmental catastrophe waiting to happen. The SRA will finish its next assessment of the revised proposals in September. The Government must then be willing to put this half-baked scheme out of its misery.

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9.56 am

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): I congratulate the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) on raising this important subject, although I take a different view of the scheme. I am a strong supporter of the concept of Central Railway and look forward to the Government, in time, making a positive decision to accept and support it.

Mr. Hammond : If the scheme's merits are so self-evident, why are its promoters reluctant to use the established procedures for obtaining approval, as laid down in the Transport and Works Act 1992, and seeking instead to shelter behind Government support in the form of a hybrid Bill?

Mr. Hopkins : The hon. Gentleman would have to ask the company that question. The hybrid Bill route is one way in which to achieve Government support and involvement, which is important for a scheme of such national consequence. It might be easier to get the scheme through under a hybrid Bill than by using the measures under the Transport and Works Act 1992.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth : The hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head. Of course it would be easier to get the scheme through under the hybrid Bill procedure because it would avoid the planning constraints and public inquiries that would normally take place. In other words, by that means, the scheme would avoid proper public scrutiny. Does the hon. Gentleman not think that that is an inappropriate way in which to proceed with such a scheme?

Mr. Hopkins : No, I do not think that it is an inappropriate way to proceed. Of course, any Government involvement would necessarily mean that the Government would have to take careful account of all interests involved, especially those affected by the route. No Government would ride roughshod over people's feelings and interests—certainly not this Government.

I have been involved with the scheme for the past seven years, but I should emphasise that I have no pecuniary interests in the matter. I have had lunch with people from the company on many occasions, but have always insisted on paying for myself, because there is no such thing as a free lunch. I believe profoundly in the scheme, which would make a vital contribution to the nation's transport infrastructure. A dedicated freight link between the industrial heartland of Britain and the continent, especially from the north, is essential.

Mr. Grieve : How can it be a dedicated freight line when its proponents intend to share the track that will run through my constituency and the constituencies of several of my hon. Friends with Chiltern Railways, which says unequivocally that shared use is incompatible?

Mr. Hopkins : It is essentially a freight scheme. Clearly, extra track will have to be built in some areas, but the scheme will mostly use unused track bed and unused tunnels. I do not dispute that there are likely to be technical and civil engineering difficulties, and, indeed, social and economic difficulties on the route.

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Those will have to be dealt with and paid for, but that is insufficient reason to prevent this great scheme from going ahead.

The north-west of Britain and south Yorkshire have suffered serious economic decline in recent decades, and it is vital to link peripheral economies with the continent of Europe. We are experiencing increasing gridlock on our roads, which increases the difficulties for lorries such that reliability will soon be impossible for the road haulage industry. This turn-up-and-go rail scheme will guarantee delivery to the continent of Europe in a few hours and will have tremendous cost advantages for road hauliers but, more importantly, it will have the advantage of reliability and will breathe new life into northern economies.

Roads beyond south Yorkshire and south Lancashire can still cope because traffic density in the area is not as great, but roads further south are already clogged, and getting worse.

Mr. Hammond : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the objectives that he has outlined of revitalising northern economies could be achieved as easily by the alignment of a freight-only railway to the east of London, and that such an alignment would fit more comfortably with the Government's policy of regenerating the Thames gateway? Can he see any reason why the railway would have to pass to the west of London?

Mr. Hopkins : No. I do not think that there is an argument for any alternative. The original scheme proposed a long tunnel from Olympia to Croydon in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies). There has now been a new proposal, but I do not think that there are other alternatives. It is important to ensure that the scheme goes ahead, so that there is an aorta—a lifeline—between the northern and midland economies of Britain and the continent of Europe. It will form part of the trans-European networks on which the European Union is so keen. I have some criticisms of the European Union, but in this respect, I am on its side. I believe that there is also some sympathy for the scheme among Commissioners in Brussels. That may not persuade all Opposition Members, but the scheme is important to our economy.

The major advantage of the scheme is that it will use super gauge—large height and width gauge—so that full-scale lorries can be put on to trains and rolled off at the other end. It will not require investment in cut down trucks or special lorries—a key advantage for hauliers. The gauge will also permit double stacked containers, although the channel tunnel cannot take two full-size containers. It can take one container of 9 ft, 6 in and one of 8 ft, 6 in, but not two containers of 9 ft, 6 in. If the channel tunnel were built slightly larger, double stacked full-scale containers could have been used all the way through.

Mr. Blunt : The hon. Gentleman has just given an example of how the scheme fails in the detail. There is no dispute about what appear from his argument to be the superficial attractions of the scheme. I agree with him about the desirability of the strategic objective that Central Railway appears to deliver. The problem is that

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the scheme simply fails on both the business and the practical cases. Double stacking, which was in the Central Railway proposals for some considerable time, is a classic example: it failed to measure the size of the proposal against the size of the channel tunnel. That rather suggests that the scheme is under-prepared and under-resourced in terms of research. It would be wholly improper of the Government to invite Parliament to support a hybrid Bill on the current evidence.

Mr. Hopkins : The primary attraction of the scheme is to put lorries on trains. Another attraction is that it can take containers and double stacked containers up to a certain size. The limiting factor is not Central Railway, but the channel tunnel. The problem is the lack of foresight of those who built the channel tunnel.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that to the extent that it is possible to stack double containers or to have full-height lorries going on at ambient level in journeys within the United Kingdom, the environmental impacts in the rural parts of our constituencies will be considerably aggravated?

Mr. Hopkins : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but the alternative is more lorries on roads. As the M1 goes through my constituency, I am very conscious of the impact of lorries on roads. Trucks damage roads, and motorway congestion is caused by road repairs necessitated by that damage. Axle weight is crucial. The fourth power road law suggests that road damage is proportionate to the fourth power of an increase in axle weight. If the axle weight is doubled, road damage is multiplied by 16; if it is trebled, it is multiplied by 81 and if it is quadrupled it is multiplied by 256. If there were no lorries and only cars on the motorways there would be almost no damage. There would be almost no congestion due to road repairs because the motorways would last for such a long time. It is lorries that cause the problem. We will have to have lorries on the motorways for the foreseeable future, but if we take a significant proportion of them off the roads, there will be less road damage and lower costs to the Government.

Mr. Grieve : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I appreciate his point as a generality, but there is a practical issue. Those lorries will have to get on to the trains at some point. Terminals have been projected by Central Railway and one is to be located in my constituency. The hon. Gentleman will know the geography of my constituency well enough to realise that the area is currently entirely saturated with traffic. Far from reducing the volume of lorry use in the area I represent and the surrounding districts, the scheme, if Central Railway is successful, will multiply it by an almost infinite amount. Yet here is a proposal—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton): Order. This is becoming a speech. Will the hon. Gentleman bring his intervention to a speedy conclusion?

Mr. Grieve : I will do so. The issue has not even been addressed in Central Railway's own proposals.

Mr. Hopkins : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his interesting intervention. The bulk of the traffic will be

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international and will go from the north right through his constituency. But there will clearly be some terminal loading and offloading in parts of Britain too. Inevitably there will be some disruption in certain areas to get this great scheme to work. The alternative is for all that traffic to go on roads through Kent and other beautiful southern counties instead of on a relatively narrow rail track at a rapid rate, with several trains an hour and many lorries on each train.

The loading and offloading will be very quick. I visited France last year with the rail freight group and a number of hon. Members from both sides of the House. We saw the modern technology for loading and offloading lorries. It is very speedy: it takes a second for a truck to drive on at an angle, straighten and go off the other side. One can take the tractor on the train or leave it behind. The technology is advanced and is in place—indeed, the technology for building railways has existed for a century and a half. No new trickery is involved; it is very straightforward. The costs are nowhere near as questionable as hon. Members have suggested.

Mr. Hammond : I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but there are just 20 minutes before the Front Bench speeches start and at least five other Oppn Members want to speak. The hon. Gentleman has been speaking for 14 minutes. Does he intend to convey the impression that he is filibustering?

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I must come to the defence of the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins), who has given way many times. However, we need to start the winding-up speeches in 20 minutes and several hon. Members have indicated a wish to speak. I want to call at least four hon. Members before then. I hope that hon. Members will show self-discipline.

Mr. Hopkins : I will draw my remarks to a close soon. I thought it important to take interventions and I am trying to be generous, but that cuts into other people's time.

The key issue is the future of our country, in terms of its environment and economy—particularly the northern economy. Many hon. Members live in areas of high unemployment and some look forward to the development of terminals in their constituencies because they provide much employment to people in the construction industry. The scheme would provide other economic benefits.

Mr. Blunt : The central economic point is that we do no service to the British economy if we initiate a scheme that turns out to be entirely uneconomic when the business case is examined. That would suck resources from the economy rather than improve it and do damage to the whole economy, including businesses in the north.

Mr. Hopkins : I shall round off my remarks by saying that that is not the view on the continent of Europe. Last year I visited France with the rail freight group; we saw massive investments in rail freight and passenger services. We should go the way of France. It is building new passenger lines and using the older network as a

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dedicated freight network for the whole country. It takes railways seriously; it invests two and a half times what we do in railways every year. That is the way forward. Railways take traffic off roads. Roads and road damage are causing problems and the country would be grateful if the Government sensibly allowed the scheme.

I have been to two revenue forecast presentations by independent consultants. Both concluded that the revenue case is very strong. I see no possibility of the scheme not working, given the enormous demand for north-south freight traffic in Britain. That traffic is currently crowded on to our motorways and up to the equivalent of one motorway lane would transfer on to the proposed railway. The scheme has a great future and I hope that the Government will eventually promote it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I hope, unofficially, that subsequent speakers will restrict their remarks to four minutes. That would enable most hon. Members who wish to do so to speak. [Interruption.]

10.14 am

Sitting suspended.

10.15 am

On resuming—

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth): Long may the peace continue.

I first came across the proposal as a member of the Committee that considered the channel tunnel rail link. The Committee sat in this very Chamber—it was then known as the Grand Committee Room—from February 1995 to February 1996, and we sat for long enough to walk from London to Madrid at a leisurely pace. During the 300 hours of sittings, we considered the then proposal for the Central Railway.

We are short of time today, but I must say that the proposal now before us is a much-improved one. It is entirely consistent with the Government's strategy of getting more traffic off the roads and on to rail. That will benefit Hinckley, a main town in my constituency of Bosworth in the middle of England. It is absolutely right that the Govt have asked the Strategic Rail Authority to make further investigations that will answer many of the questions raised by those of my hon. Friends who may not view me as a particular friend in this debate. I apologise to them.

The hybrid Bill procedure that was used for the channel tunnel rail link legislation is the correct one to use. That quasi-judicial Committee dealt with a complex measure and had to fix many important aspects of that route and to make decisions about tunnels.

I am also impressed that the funding for the railway is intended to come from the private sector. If the money does not come, the railway will not be built and the private sector will decide on the merits of the proposals. They are not right yet, and I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) and for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) feel that strongly, but the proposals are well on the way.

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Let us not forget that the Sheffield, as the Great Central railway was originally called, was propelled south from Sheffield through Loughborough, Leicester and Rugby at the end of the century. It came into St. Marylebone after upending the pitch at Lord's, and that is why there is a slope on the ground there. It was the finest railway ever built in Britain, and many in the midlands think that the wrong line was shut. Beeching should have shut the Midland and not the Great Central railway. To rebuild the section between Princes Risborough and Rugby would be relatively easy, because most of the track bed is in place. It is also a very level railway. As the hon. Member for Luton, North pointed out—I shall not use the same terminology—it was built to Berne gauge, so one of the greatest tunnels ever built, the great tunnel at Catesby, is built to Berne gauge. The "cage" at Rugby is still there where the Central railway crossed the west coast main line. It was a superior railway.

The proposal to rebuild the Central railway on a new route around the M25 makes a great deal of sense. I had a long discussion on Friday with Albert Sharpe, a former railwayman who is a consultant in my constituency, and he spoke about the upgrading of Hinckley station to take heavy goods trains and the ability to run more traffic on the upgraded new line. That is the right approach.

All the problems that my hon. Friends have described will be resolved quite simply and all the planning blight will disappear when the line is built. There will be no relief until the line is built. It is the obvious option and we need the line in the midlands and the north. If this proposal is kicked into touch, there will be another proposal for the Central railway, as the track bed is largely in place. If one studies the map in the Library, one sees that the proposal would use mainly disused railways, and the hon. Member for Luton, North is nodding as I make that point. There is inevitability about the proposal. The line will be built sooner or later. It is in all our interests to build it—and the sooner, the better.

10.19 am

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): In principle, it is a good idea to have a north-south freight railway that links to the channel crossing. However, in practice, the proposal is flawed and faces many political and business problems. The financial risk that would be involved in the Government promoting the current scheme would be enormous and the opportunity cost of the money that they would end up spending to bail out a business failure could be better invested in the main transport infrastructure that we so urgently need.

I have several specific problems with the proposal. As Members will know, a cursory glance at the projections for the channel tunnel shows that it is expected to reach capacity in terms of Eurotunnel and Eurostar by 2010. There is no prospect of widening the tunnel or building another, so the proposal is immediately reduced to a north-south rail link, leading on to ferries. It may be a good idea to have such a link, but we should not pretend that any of the freight would be able to go down the tunnel.

Doubledecker containers and stacking on trains have been mentioned. An earlier proposal presumed that doubledecker trains could go through the tunnel, but in

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fact they cannot—we cannot get them under bridges, for example. That shows how early on we are in pushing forward the proposal. We must consider the detail, because it is not the case that everything will be all right once the proposal has been considered. Whether trains fit in tunnels is a fundamental issue, and the fact is that they will not. The smaller trains will fit, but there will be no opportunities for them unless Eurotunnel and Eurostar give up some of their capacity, and obviously they will not.

The business analysis assumes that the trains are filled to 100 per cent. capacity, but empirically one finds that they are more likely to be filled to 50 per cent. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) said that there would be no delay in loading and offloading, but in reality if a lorry breaks down in the queue on the way to a train, the train will be delayed and will not get through the tunnel or will not get its slot. The assumptions are based on perfection, but clearly we live in an imperfect world. In reality, delays occur and have a knock-on effect on efficiency.

A haulage company owner wants to know that his product will go from A to B in a certain time. Obviously, there are congestion problems and delays on the motorways, but it would require only a series of unexpected delays on the trains for a client suddenly to go on to the roads, and the fixed costs in the infrastructure—interest costs and so on—would become difficult to pay. The private sector—the consortium that backs the project, in the first instance—would then go into quick liquidation, and the public sector would have to pick up the tab. If there were a multi-billion pound investment in a north-south freight link, ultimately the Government would be required to finish the project once it had been started. We would then have an enormous white elephant and a massive problem for taxpayers.

I know that many other hon. Members wish to speak, but I am concerned about the risks down the line for Government and taxpayer. I am concerned about ownership of the line passing to Central Railway and about public accountability. The train-operating companies, Her Majesty's railway inspectorate, Eurotunnel, Railtrack and so on appear not to have been properly consulted. I hope that the Government are not suggesting that the proposal will hurtle ahead, but that it will be properly evaluated and the opportunity costs of alternative risks and investments properly considered. That would allow us to get more freight on to the railways, but not on the back of a rather hare-brained scheme.

10.23 am

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I am no opponent of rail freight in principle. I would very much like Daventry international rail freight terminal to be used more intensively. However, the Minister is well aware of the difficulties with security in the channel tunnel, and this debate has brought out well the long-term constraints of that tunnel in terms of a separate rail link. For that reason, I have serious reservations about the Central Railway proposal.

I have not spoken on the matter previously, not least because I thought that as we were likely to consider it under the Transport and Works Act 1992 procedure, I

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should operate quasi-judicially and wait until we had a scheme to consider. I would have fewer inhibitions about making my views known if the measure were to be introduced as a hybrid Bill. I suspect that, like me, most of the Opposition Members here today are concerned about the environmental impact on their constituencies. That concern is proper, especially with regard to my constituency, as the railway would transect it from south-east to north-west over a 30-mile area and would have a major environmental impact. My singling out of particular places in no way removes the generality of my concern.

In Brackley, the major viaduct of the old great central line was demolished some years ago, and rebuilding it would cost some £10 million. It would also be necessary to produce a new alignment around the housing and industrial developments that have been built since its removal. In Helmdon, flora has developed within the old cutting, making it a site of special scientific interest. At Woodford Halse—the old marshalling yard and engineering base of the great central line—a housing estate has been built across the line. The village of Lilbourne—the newly proposed diversion route from Rugby in the far north-west of my constituency that adjoins the Leicestershire border—is already heavily beset by the M1, and would suffer further major environmental, visual and aural intrusion. The bypass would also have major implications for any restructuring of junction 19 on the M1.

I want to emphasise how different things are now from 1963, and the different concept of the scale, frequency, visual and aural intrusion of the trains. I add my concerns to those developed so adeptly by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt). My abiding concern, which echoes that raised by the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies), is that it may be possible to find some answers to these problems, or even to produce a scheme that would be acceptable to some extent, although many of my constituents will never accept it however good the package on offer. However, the costs are enhanced each time a difficulty is identified and addressed. My greatest fear, especially with the hybrid Bill procedure, is that the Government must stand behind the scheme. If it runs into financial difficulties with its private sector backers, the Government will have to step in and finish it off or be left with a half-finished scheme. There is the danger of having an environmental impact, but no benefits. That is far too high a cost to pay at present.

10.28 am

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) on introducing the debate on a matter of great concern to my constituents and those of other hon. Members here today.

There is no doubt that the idea of switching freight from road to rail is attractive. The problem, which we explored thoroughly today, is that the scheme does not and will not work. My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) says that there is an inevitability about the scheme, but the only inevitability is that it will fail. It would be better for it to fail at an early stage—although we cannot describe the stage as

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early even now as it has been going on for seven years—rather than for it to lumber on causing further blight and unhappiness along the way before finally petering out. The financial case for the project is extremely weak. I speak as someone who in a previous incarnation acted as an adviser to Eurotunnel. We all know that the project encountered significant financial difficulties despite the huge amount of backing and careful planning, and the Government's full support. This project has none of that. It is weakly thought through, under-capitalised, and based on a wing and a prayer. A survey of 200 businesses is not a sound basis on which to construct a business case for a project that could cost £6 billion and affect freight movements across Europe.

I am also concerned about the project because of its impact on my constituents, particularly those in South Godstone, South Nutfield and Bletchingly. I have been formally approached by the director of environmental protection for Tandridge district council to express its grave concern about the impact that the project would have in an area of both green belt and outstanding natural beauty. I had hoped that the project had died in 1996, but someone forgot to put a stake through its heart. I hope that the Minister will do that at the earliest opportunity.

10.30 am

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): I should like to make three points. First, on blight, the Government must do something about the situation that our constituents have experienced as a result of the Central Railway proposal. It appears as though a relatively small company can propose a scheme that creates a blight, which is revealed on local authority searches and makes it virtually impossible to dispose of property, with absolutely no obligation to make progress with the scheme. The Deputy Prime Minister said in 2000 that he hoped that an application under the Transport and Works Act 1992 would be made imminently, but we still have not seen any progress. It offends my sense of natural justice—as it must do the Minister's—that this blight can be imposed without any obligation on the scheme's promoter to move things forward.

My second point relates to the scheme's substance. If the Government are considering using a hybrid Bill, the scheme that is covered must optimise the proposals in public policy terms. As I suggested earlier, the alignment of Central Railway's proposal around the south-western quadrant of the M25 runs contrary to Government policy to promote development in the Thames gateway. If it were a purely private scheme going through the planning process, it would be up to the promoters to decide which scheme they wanted to introduce. If the Government are going to support the scheme actively through a hybrid Bill, it is incumbent on them to ensure that it is the most appropriate in terms of public policy.

My third point concerns the appropriateness of the hybrid Bill mechanism. It is not appropriate for the Government to offer shelter and protection to such a scheme. They should not actively support a private scheme that runs counter to public policy in some respects and will effectively put them in the position of promoting one company's proposal rather than opening the field for competitive bids for a north-south rail

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freight scheme, which my hon. Friends and I would recognise as a good idea in principle. There is a perfectly good mechanism for determining the planning aspects of such a scheme, which is the 1992 Act. The Government introduced a consultation paper on planning for major infrastructure projects, and their approach is to build on what is currently made available by the 1992 Act. It would be wholly inappropriate for the Government to allow this scheme to bypass the proper controls and mechanisms that already exist.

The Government have it in their power to relieve the misery of my constituents and to put an end to the blight that they have suffered during the past three years. I urge them to do so without further delay.

10.34 am

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I totally agree with the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) about the general desirability of a scheme to take freight off the roads and put it on to rail, but it must be matched against the reality of the project's details. It may be right and necessary for individuals in my constituency to suffer a diminution in their quality of life for some greater good, but we must consider the scheme's details. They are incompatible with the current use of the Chiltern line, which has been encouraged by the Government and is likely to take many road users off the road and on to the train service to London. That alone should encourage the view that the current proposals are fatally flawed. Furthermore, the location of the freight terminal proposed for my constituency, which remains obscure under present proposals, is truly extraordinary in view of the saturation of the road network, amply demonstrated in a recent planning inquiry into another road/rail depot to be located close by.

That is why we should be deeply sceptical about the proposal. It is not an ordinary proposal, but one seeking Government backing. As I tell my constituents, it is no good blaming the proposers. I may believe that the proposal is flawed, but in a free country anyone is entitled to suggest it. However, the proposers want a hybrid Bill, which places a serious responsibility on the Government to determine their view of the scheme. I hope that the Minister's response today will demonstrate that, in the absence of detailed planning, the Government will be hostile to the scheme and that they will reassure us about the need to remove the planning blight that is harming my constituents and others.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I thank hon. Members for their co-operation.

10.36 am

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): I congratulate the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) on securing the debate. In the eight or so minutes available, I hope to do justice to this serious issue.

The Liberal Democrats support the principle of moving freight off roads and on to rail. On paper, the Central Railway proposal looks attractive. We agree that using rail for freight is a good idea, but the implementation and impact of the proposals is the key

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issue. Hon. Members on both sides have raised important questions, to which I hope the Minister will respond shortly.

The proposal should not be allowed to proceed without a satisfactory and full environmental impact assessment. It should not allow the Government to escape from improving the national rail infrastructure, but the proposal is certainly preferable to the six-lane Birtway floated a few weeks ago.

If the proposal goes ahead, will the Government ensure that a full environmental impact assessment is carried out? To what extent will the Government accept financial exposure for the project if it first succeeds but subsequently fails? Many environmental claims have been made about the proposal. Apparently, 3 million lorry movements per year will be removed from the roads. Central Railway has a memorandum of understanding with several national environmental agencies that will ensure that agreed proceedings for assessing and managing environmental impacts are followed. Will the memorandum of understanding be binding?

The proposal suggests seven terminals, perhaps five of which could be located in industrial or brownfield areas, leaving at least two on greenfield sites. Will that contravene any of the Government's greenfield or green belt policies?

Hon. Members have referred to the hybrid Bill. Do the Government support that route or the Transport and Works Act 1992 route? Given the level of concern across the country, proceeding with a hybrid Bill would be a risky venture for the Government, so I hope that they will reflect further on the Transport and Works Act, which would allow more detailed consideration of the proposals. The timing of the Government's plans to overhaul planning procedures for major infrastructure projects might enable them to follow that route in preference to a hybrid Bill.

Many hon. Members have referred to the proposal's impact on rural areas. What can the Government do to alleviate such anxieties if Central Railway's scheme goes ahead?

What consideration have the Government given to one of the greatest matters of concern: the proposed railway's integration with the rest of the network and its compatibility with Chiltern Railways? Is it possible to run a dedicated rail freight line alongside that railway or along the same line as the passenger services, given the impact that the proposed scheme will have on stations along the route?

Many hon. Members have called for much more detailed work to be done on the business case. Central Railway estimates that the total capital cost will be £4.5 billion, although other consultants suggest that the cost will be closer to £8 billion. Have the Government assessed those estimates and what is their view of the potential cost of the proposal? What will be their financial exposure if they provide support for the proposal?

The Liberal Democrats would support the project in principle if the environmental concerns were addressed, if the economics added up and if the new capacity that is promised with the proposal materialised. That is not an inconsistent position; it is much better to ask searching questions and to await responses than to draw

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conclusions on whether the project is sound from the scant details available. Hon. Members refer time and again to the fact that details are not available but then draw conclusions about whether the project is viable. It is better to press for information on which to take a decision rather than to draw rapid conclusions.

It is too early to say whether the economics stack up and whether the environmental impact can be negated. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer my questions in his response.

10.42 am

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) on securing the debate on this important proposal, which will have a dramatic impact on the constituencies of many of my hon. Friends.

I shall be brief, and ask one or two questions, as it is important that the Minister and the Government come clean on the issue once and for all. Do the Government support the scheme? Do they support the use of a hybrid Bill? How many times do they intend to send the proposal backwards and forwards like a yo-yo to the Strategic Rail Authority, which will pronounce on the matter in September? May we have the Minister's assurance that the Government will make a final decision as soon as possible after that date?

The Government must take a view on whether they want the difficulties of a hybrid Bill if they are not convinced that the private sector, in the guise of Central Railway or a successor company, will deliver money from that sector.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said, by taking the hybrid Bill route the Government, may, by association, be implicated in the scheme. If at a future date the private sector runs into difficulties and the scheme does not have the finances expected, the Government may be duty bound to bail it out. Are there not therefore considerable implications for the public purse?

10.44 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) on securing this debate and on his contribution to it. He rightly made many points on behalf of his constituents, as did all hon. Members who contributed. The debate has shown that there are differences on the Labour Benches and on the Conservative Benches—the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) shakes his head, but there are differences. For example, the hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick), who I thought was getting applause at one stage, has a very different view of the matter. It is good that there has been such interest on both sides of the Chamber—the Government are being pressed hard and therefore we must consider the matter most carefully and in detail.

I was pleased to note that I am the fourth Minister to have answered a debate on this subject. We live in interesting times and who knows how many others may yet have to do so. The hon. Member for Reigate gave an interesting analysis of what he considers to be the points

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against the project. I will not go into those points, but they and those made by other hon. Members both for and against the project will be given the most careful consideration when the Government decide whether to support the scheme. I can assure him that those points are not new to us and are being given careful consideration.

Several hon. Members raised the issue of blight. That is a regrettable but inevitable consequence of any major scheme. I hope that the matter can be resolved, particularly on behalf of the constituents of those hon. Members who have raised the matter today. That is why we have placed a time scale on the SRA's consideration of the scheme on our behalf. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) talked about natural justice being served. Natural justice is served in such matters by first giving careful consideration to any proposal and then deciding on it as expeditiously as possible so that people get an outcome.

The hon. Member for Reigate asked two questions, which were reinforced by his hon. Friends. He asked whether we support the scheme and whether we support the hybrid Bill. Those questions were put on 6 March 2001 by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge to one of the previous Ministers answering on the matter. They were recycled from that debate, so I will recycle the answers as well, in my own way. We certainly support, in principle, a move from road to rail. [Interruption.] It needs to be said—if the hon. Member for Reigate wants an answer to his questions, he will have to bear with me.

If a totally viable and sustainable case were made that met the terms of reference in the SRA review, we would have to make an informed decision at the end of the process. Do we support the scheme? We will have to await the outcome of the SRA review to find out whether it meets the criteria that have been mentioned and that were set out in the previous debate.

Do we support the proposed hybrid Bill? In the end, the approach is up to the proposer. If the scheme were to meet all the very rigorous criteria, we would support it. If it were not to meet those criteria, we would not. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman's questions and is helpful to the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, who originally asked the questions more than a year ago.

Mr. Hammond : Since that debate in March 2001 the Government's proposals for infrastructure planning decisions have come on a long way. Will the Minister explain in what circumstances a hybrid Bill is appropriate when the Government have proposed an elaborate scheme of their own for dealing with such infrastructure proposals? Why should a hybrid Bill be used to evade or avoid the procedures that the Government are promoting?

Mr. Jamieson : The hon. Gentleman suggests that proper discussion and examination might be prevented, depending on whether we take a Transport and Works Act 1992 route or a hybrid Bill route. Both routes would, however, require proper examination in the

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House, and hon. Members would have an opportunity to speak on behalf of their constituents in a debate, as they have done today.

Mr. Hammond : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jamieson : I will, although it will inhibit my ability to answer some of the questions that other hon. Members have quite properly raised.

Mr. Hammond : This is important. There is a perception that going down the hybrid Bill route will mean that the scheme has Government support and, given the parliamentary arithmetic, that it will be approved. Is the Minister prepared to say that there would not be a whipped vote if a hybrid Bill came before the House?

Mr. Jamieson : The hon. Gentleman is jumping to the next phase. He assumes that the scheme has Government support, but I am saying that we must weigh the matter up. If the scheme gets Government backing, it will have all the support that we normally give Bills as they go through Parliament. If it does not get our backing, it will not have that support. I hope that that helps the hon. Gentleman, and lays the matter to rest.

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) made some good points about developing the economy and employment, and about why we must consider such schemes carefully. They can be important for economic development, and they are certainly important in parts of the country well to the north of his constituency. I am glad that he made those points. The hon. Member for Bosworth made similar points about his area, which I know quite well.

We must weigh the issues carefully. There are strong economic arguments for such schemes, and there are the arguments about moving freight from road to rail. We must, however, balance those against all the environmental and other issues that have been raised today.

Let me answer one of the many questions from the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) so that he does not accuse me of not answering any of them. He asked whether there would be an environmental assessment, and the answer is, of course, yes. He asked many other questions, and they are the very sorts of question that we shall ask when we consider the SRA review.

The hon. Member for Reigate has been following the Government's consideration of Central Railway's hybrid Bill proposals and the SRA's high-level review, and he will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport has written to the chairman of Central Railway about the review's conclusions. I welcome this opportunity to explain the current position to other hon. Members.

As several contributors to the debate have said, encouraging more rail freight remains at the heart of the Government's integrated transport policy, and we are committed to working with the industry to achieve that. After many years of decline, rail freight has made an impressive recovery. Indeed, the figures that the SRA released last week show that the amount of freight

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moved by rail has increased by 30 per cent. in the past five years. We welcome that growth, and want it to continue. Transferring more freight off the roads and on to more sustainable modes of transport is a key component of our long-term vision for transport. Hon. Members will know that our 10-year plan sets out a framework for further growth in rail freight by 2010.

Mr. Hopkins : My hon. Friend talks about the percentage increases in rail freight, but the amounts involved are relatively small, and we need more infrastructure investment to achieve a substantial increase. Central Railway could quadruple present levels of rail freight.

Mr. Jamieson : My hon. Friend makes a good point. Although there has been an increase, the base was very low, and our ambition is that it should be raised considerably.

Through its freight strategy, the SRA is working in partnership with Railtrack and the freight operators to deliver the details of the investment programme set out in our 10-year plan, including improvements to the capacity and capability of the network, better targeted funding for rail freight developments and more freight interchanges. The Government have made it clear that they are committed to rail freight growth as a key element of sustainable distribution. To that end we shall support, in principle, projects that offer value for money and bring economic and environmental benefits to the country. With that in mind, the Government would not wish to obstruct the progress of privately led and privately financed initiatives such as that proposed by Central Railway.

I am aware of the history of the project and of the results of previous attempts by Central Railway to gain the approval of this House for the scheme. In considering the company's request for Government support for a Bill to promote its project, we have taken a number of factors into account and have listened to representations from many interested parties—both those in favour of the scheme and those opposed to it. As a result of the SRA's high-level review, and given other information, it is clear that were it to succeed, the Central Railway proposal would meet a significant part of the freight market's need in the long term. However, it is also clear that important questions remain. Those were considered by the SRA's review but, due to its scope, it was not able to test them in sufficient depth to reach clear-cut conclusions.

The Government recognise the wider public interest, which the hon. Member for Reigate illustrated. We must be satisfied that Central Railway's proposals offer viable solutions for rail freight that are compatible with our long-term vision for transport and the environment. I think that that covers some of the points made by the hon. Members for Runnymede and Weybridge and for Carshalton and Wallington.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): Interoperability is of key importance to my constituents served by the Chiltern line. Can the Minister give me an assurance that, in its new review, the SRA will consult Railtrack and the rail operators that would be affected by the Central Railway proposals? Chiltern Railways told me last weekend that it had still had no proper approach

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from Central Railway to discuss problems. As the Minister knows, Chiltern Railways says that Central Railway's proposal is utterly incompatible with the present level of passenger services, let alone those that it is contractually obliged to provide under the terms of the new franchise.

Mr. Jamieson : I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that, of course, that would be part of our consideration. The availability of channel tunnel paths will be an important factor in underpinning the robustness of Central Railway's revenue assumptions. We shall therefore consider that, too.

Some hon. Members, particularly those whose constituencies are directly affected by the scheme, have urged an early response to the hybrid Bill proposal. Given the scale of the project, it is quite right that the SRA should have wished to learn more about the proposals before taking a view. It was also appropriate that it should have carried out its high-level review within the context of its overall freight strategy and the Government's 10-year plan. Inevitably, that has taken time.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport has made it clear that there is insufficient evidence to enable the Government to support a hybrid Bill. In order to reach a point at which we can take an informed decision about the proposals, further work is necessary. I can assure the hon. Member for Reigate and others who have contributed to the debate that that does not mean that the Government intend to continue to work the proposals until we find good reason to support the scheme. We believe that it is important to give the scheme a fair and thorough hearing, and that is what we shall do.

That is why, with the help of consultants and the co-operation of Central Railway, the SRA is carrying out a further detailed assessment in order to test key remaining areas of the proposals. That will not simply be a repeat of the high-level review; it will test more closely those key areas where the earlier review could not provide sufficient confidence in the proposals. We expect that the SRA's review will be completed in September. When we receive it, we will give it careful and due consideration.

Mr. Blunt : That is appalling.

Mr. Jamieson : The hon. Gentleman says that that is appalling but before we make a decision, given that the scheme is of such importance and has aroused many conflicting views, it is incumbent on the Government to listen to and consider those views carefully, including those that he has aired today. If the Government did anything other than that, we would be irresponsible.

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