Railways

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    "Creation of a European-level safety agency will require the industry to adapt to its existence and interface with it and any layers of management that are subsequently introduced,"

and comments that that is likely to be costly. It goes on to give a stark and worrying warning:

    "The industry is now in the process of implementing a number of the latter's recommendations"—

that is, the proposals in the Cullen report—

    "and any EU legislation must take account of the current domestic situation."

It continues, starkly:

    "There is a limit to the amount of capacity in the UK industry to accommodate and assimilate change."

Those views are shared by the Select Committee. The European Rail Agency sees it as a first step towards complete integration of the European railways. We have heard the views of the Cullen report about how relevant that is. Now that the Minister has had time to consider the matter, we need to hear from him what will happen with ERTMS, because ERTMS is central to interoperability and to the various reports. Apart from a couple of small pilots, there is nothing about it in the 10-year strategic plan, so any support that the Government give to this will be meaningless without a definitive answer as to whether they intend to go for level 2 of ERTMS. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

11.28 am

Lawrie Quinn: I shall briefly reinforce some of the points that I made in questions, and thank the Minister for his answers regarding the situation at

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Sangatte. I know that the British Government are engaged in discussions with the French Government, but it strikes me that the proposals that we are considering will come to nothing unless the French Government can be seen to deliver. For the record, it is worth noting the fact that EWS has lost 2,500 freight train journeys and its losses are approaching £10 million.

I am aware of businesses around the country that are close to going to the wall, or have already gone to the wall, because of the lack of interoperability between the UK and the continent and because of illegals jumping on to freight trains. Indeed, only this morning the "Today" programme told us of another great transgression, but the French authorities do not seem to be paying even Gallic lip service to the problem. I support my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues in their attempts to move the situation forward.

Mr. Pickles: As this is a matter of lack of policing—and the fact that people are not charged with offences—does the hon. Gentleman feel that it would be sensible for companies that are close to bankruptcy to embark on a lengthy legal process with the Commission against the French Government?

Lawrie Quinn: It is for that reason that I urge the Government not only to keep up with their work but to take every opportunity to explain to the new French Administration the damage that is being done to the wider European project in terms of logistics and the free movement of goods and people. That is the key point that I want to reinforce.

I shall move on to my seaside contribution, and my question about fish and chips—getting Whitby fish to Barcelona and Paris, and getting the frozen chips made at the excellent McCain chip factory in my constituency to the continent. The Strategic Rail Authority is already looking seriously at the missing link of the railway line between Pickering in north Yorkshire and Rillington junction. I know that the Minister is aware of it, because I have bent his ear on that subject on many occasions—although I have not yet got round to hitting him over the head with a damp fish.

I hope that my hon. Friend will take a closer interest of the work being done by the SRA on the possibility of filling in the links in the nation's railway network, because the possibilities for freight transport for the future viability—and, indeed, the renaissance—of the port of Whitby suggest that an effective land link of the sort that I suggest, particularly the renewal of its links to the east coast main line via the York to Scarborough route, would pay considerable dividends.

The considerable resources of Forest Enterprise will soon be put to harvesting the timber from Dalby forest, and I am sure that the Minister would want to see that timber being moved around by train rather than on heavy goods vehicles. Indeed, we Government Back Benchers want to see more

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freight go by rail. We want to see those changes made to our national and European transport policies, and I wish the Minister well in his discussions with his colleagues in Europe.

11.33 am

Matthew Green: I am a bit nervous about making this speech, Mr. O'Hara, because I have left my anorak behind. I was beginning to wonder whether the debate would degenerate into a discussion about all the charming little railway lines that can be found around the country in places such as in Scarborough and Cornwall.

We welcome any move towards interoperability across the European rail network and the liberalisation of rail freight. The more freight that can be carried by rail the better, especially for the environment. However, I have a number of concerns about the Government's approach. The Minister has said nothing to suggest that the Government will be doing anything to push the time scale, but it will probably take a minimum of 15 years to implement the changes. I would have thought that if the Government were leading the way on an environmental agenda for Europe, they would be trying to push the European Union to speed up the process. The Minister has said nothing today to suggest that that is the case. In fact, I am worried that the opposite might be true.

One of my earlier questions caused some interesting confusion over TPWS and ERTMS and the effects on capacity. The history of rail in this country shows that once something is introduced, there is great reluctance to change it or invest in something new. TPWS will be introduced by the end of next year and there is some movement towards ERTMS level 1, but if there is to be interoperability with Europe, we need ERTMS level 2, which would entail no capacity problems. I am concerned that there is still some ambivalence on the part of the Government about whether those steps will be taken. They seem to want to leave decisions to other bodies, although I would have thought that Government Ministers should be leading the way.

We are also concerned that there is a lack of clarity about where the money will come from. The Minister has spoken about some staggering cost implications, which I am sure will be mentioned many more times in future. He said that that would be a matter for the train operating companies, but I fail to see how the train operating companies could bear such costs, even over a long time scale, and remain even remotely profitable. The only solution is for the Government to find some extra investment, yet there is no indication that they have even begun to think about where the money might come from. We seek clarification on that subject.

We cannot be particularly proud of our approach to the rail system over the past few decades. I was stunned to hear the hon. Member for Brentwood and

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Ongar say that he would like us to open more lines. I very much welcome that, but were not the Beeching cuts made under a Conservative Government?

Mr. Pickles: The hon. Gentleman is very unforgiving.

Mr. Francois: It is a pity he forgot his coat.

Mr. Green: The inquiry into the Clapham accident in 1985 suggested the implementation of the TPWS system, but nothing significant was done about it at the time. I am concerned that this Government are following the previous Government in dither and delay over modernising our rail system.

The motion refers to

    "the Government's approach to negotiations"—

but we want to be confident that the Government actually have an approach to the negotiations. From the Minister's remarks, it seems that there are so many grey areas on which the Government have not established a firm position that it is difficult to see how they can adopt any successful approach in their negotiations with Europe.

11.39 am

Mr. Francois: I shall speak briefly. I apologise to the Minister and other colleagues for missing the opening of the debate, but I was participating in a debate in Westminster Hall.

I want to raise specifically the issue of Sangatte and of people attempting to board the trains, particularly the freight trains, that come through the tunnel. We have heard again and again that, for all sorts of sustainable development reasons, everyone is in favour of encouraging companies to transfer freight from road to rail. If we are to do that, however, much more needs to be done about the problem at Sangatte, because those who take commercial decisions at the margins will be deterred from using rail if they believe that the freight service is not reliable.

The issue was raised some weeks ago when the Committee debated the European White Paper. Ministers were pressed to put further pressure on the French Government to do something about the problem at Sangatte, not least because of its serious effect on companies such as EWS. They gave a commitment to redouble their efforts and to see what could be done, but the problem is still with us several weeks later. EWS is virtually bankrupt; it was told that efforts would be redoubled, but they clearly have not been. There is a new, albeit temporary, Administration in France, and I appeal to Ministers—as, I am sure, do my colleagues—to do everything they can to take advantage of that window of opportunity. If they leave the issue much longer, there will not be much of a company left to save.

11.41 am

Mr. Jamieson: As always, we have had a useful and helpful debate. We have taken an extensive tour of the European Union, and stopped off at the seaside in

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the thriving town of Scarborough, which I hope to visit again in the not too distant future.

The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar asked what was in all this for the ordinary person, and that is always a good question to ask when examining legislation or directives. It is sometimes difficult to interpret such measures in terms of the benefits for the ordinary person in the street, but the directives will open up rail freight markets, stimulate competition and innovation, and perhaps provide many new market opportunities for this country. My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby rightly mentioned the export and import situation in his constituency, and the directives will ease the situation there. They could also take large amounts of traffic off the roads. Those are just some of the benefits that could flow from them.

The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar mentioned several improvements that should be made in the United Kingdom, and many of his points made good sense. As he said, many improvements are already under way.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned bottlenecks in the system, which are important. Under the first rail package, in directive 2001/14/EC, infrastructure managers are required to introduce investment plans to identify and tackle bottlenecks on the network. The separate proposal on the trans-European network dealt with those issues in a European context.

We got a bit bogged down on train protection systems. I hope that the record is clear, but I shall attempt to clarify it further. I did not say—or if I did, I did not mean to—that the proposed train protection systems would reduce capacity on the rail system, but the hon. Member for Ludlow suggested that they might. I was saying that if we went for the very highest level of train protection for all lines and all rolling stock across the country, the cost would be huge, which must be self-evident to anyone in the Committee. I hope that that clarifies the issue. I assure the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar that we have no intention of spending the whole Government budget in that way—even if we put a penny on tax, as the Liberal Democrats often want us to.

As the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar said, railways in the United Kingdom have a good safety record; that point needs to be made. We do have a good safety record, and rail is one of the safest ways to travel; it is certainly safer than using the road, and I am pleased to endorse that comment.

Mr. Pickles: For the record, I gave the Minister the benefit of the doubt in my original contribution. I am sure that it was an unintentional slip.

Mr. Jamieson: The hon. Gentleman has now clarified that matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby and the hon. Member for Rayleigh

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(Mr. Francois) raised the issue of the situation at the other end of the channel tunnel. They were right to do so, and I think that I expressed my view forcefully in my answer. I can assure them that the Minister for Transport has actively pursued the matter, and that when the new Transport Ministers are in place in France we shall make solid representations to them. In the case of the latest incursion that has been reported, I believe—although I stand to be corrected if necessary—that the people involved boarded the train at a considerable distance from the tunnel and may have travelled a long way across Europe. That is a separate issue that must be addressed, but it is not the same as the problem at the other end of the tunnel.

 
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Prepared Wednesday 8 May 2002