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Lord Morris of Castle Morris: My Lords, my point in reply to my noble friend is that they ought to be going through the Severn tunnel and they are not. So there will be very little difference--if he had listened carefully to what I said at the beginning of my remarks--to the Welsh publishing trade whether the tunnel is closed or not, though the Welsh publishing trade is a large part of the Welsh economy, certainly in its cultural areas.
Welsh books have to be exported through the Severn tunnel and over the Severn bridge, and marketed skilfully in England and beyond. It is significant that Irish novelists and poets are infinitely better known. They have, to use a slightly vulgar but vigorous phrase, "got their act together". Perhaps the significance of this was realised long ago by Harri Webb in another of his short, shrewd poems, entitled "Our Scientists are Working On It", when he wrote:
Lord Rees: My Lords, I add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Crickhowell for introducing this short but stimulating debate. I also congratulate him on his very detailed analysis of the problem and indeed, to a degree, the history of this great 19th century railway project, the Severn Tunnel.
It may well be that the Minister will be tempted to take the easy course and say that most of the questions which I and other noble Lords may direct to the Government Benches are properly to be asked of and answered by Railtrack; but I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, and perhaps other noble Lords will join with me when I say that I doubt whether that is an adequate answer. Knowing the thoroughness with which the noble Lord the Minister reads his brief, I am sure that he will give a rather wider view and a governmental approach to this particular question.
Perhaps I may leave with him a few questions, which I hope he will be able to answer. First, is it realistic that people should be asked to plan on the basis that this work will be completed in six successive weekends during the course of this year? Even Railtrack, in the document which I am sure other noble Lords have received, have suggested that the current plan is to renew 4.3 kilometres of track in the tunnel, but further work will take place in the year 2000-2001 and then,
The next question is: what consultation process has there been so far? What consultation process do the Government feel is needed and will be undertaken, and by whom, in regard to the bodies, the people, the businesses, which will inevitably be affected? What chance have they had to voice their legitimate concerns, maybe directly to Railtrack, but what about to the Government themselves? What are the likely consequences to the economy, if it can be identified in quite such terms, of South Wales and, for example, the Bristol area?
Has any thought been given to the need to improve the railway line and probably the signalling round Gloucester? I understand that over those six weekends, and whatever further period is needed, trains will be diverted round Gloucester. It is idle to say, "Oh, but it is only over the weekends", because as I understand it--and it came as an interesting piece of information to me--Sunday is one of the busiest days of the week for rail traffic. Perhaps the Minister could enlighten us on that.
Finally, has any consideration been given to the environmental consequences of the work? It is very important to know how it is likely to affect the Severn itself or the riparian communities. I do not wish to take up more time of the debate on this because I have nothing in particular in the way of information to contribute. However, I hope that the Minister will not give us a bland reply, passing responsibility to Railtrack, but will tell us what serious thinking has been given by the Government, and from which department, to this undoubtedly very important question.
Lord Islwyn: My Lords, our grateful thanks are due to the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, for initiating the debate on this important transport facility. The noble Lord has rightly drawn attention to the inconvenience that will be caused to the travelling public and to the commercial considerations, which may not be negligible, as a result of the proposed closure of the tunnel for limited periods while new track and other work are carried out. Nevertheless, I believe that the prime consideration must be public safety and in that regard I wish to illustrate what has happened in past years.
To use what I would call "Hoddle-esque" language, in a previous incarnation I represented Newport for many years in another place. The Welsh side of the Severn Tunnel was in my constituency and I took a certain amount of interest in its functioning. It is a fascinating construction. The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, has mentioned that each day many thousands of gallons of pure water are pumped out of it and that large quantities of that water are supplied to the nearby modern Whitbread brewery. Before the construction of the second crossing, the Whitbread management suffered something approaching apoplexy because it envisaged that when the foundations were dug for the new bridge, sea water could be let in which could contaminate its hitherto pure supplies. It hired top QCs to appear before the appropriate committee. There was quite a lot of concern at the time. In the event its fears proved unjustified and its supply of pure water continued unabated. There has been a seepage problem inside the tunnel in recent months but, to the best of my knowledge, that has now been corrected. The point I wish to make is that with regard to the Severn Tunnel safety is the predominant issue.
With respect to the worries and anxieties of local people at the time, on 6th December 1990 I put down an Early Day Motion in the other place, which was supported by 39 honourable members. It read as follows:
Lo and behold, 12 months later almost to the day, on 7th December 1991, there was a serious accident in the tunnel. A major tragedy was narrowly averted. It was reported at the time that two trains which crashed in the tunnel were lost for half an hour, that passengers were trapped in the dark and that it was 75 minutes before rescuers could reach them. It seems that the original rescue team was sent in the wrong direction and that a general state of chaos and muddle prevailed at the time. Of the 280 passengers no less than 102 were injured.
I repeat that with regard to the Severn Tunnel we cannot toy with safety. If the company is saying that new track and other work have to be carried out, so be it; let us get on with it. We have been told that the work will be carried out at week-ends and, I understand, during the Easter break. Trains will be diverted around Gloucester and the journey will be much slower. There will be inconvenience to the public and there is bound to be a certain amount of damage to the Welsh economy. Fortunately, as the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, pointed out, we have an excellent road network linking both sides of the Severn estuary. I make no apology for having campaigned year in, year out, for the second crossing. It has proved a huge success, and the Welsh economy would certainly be in dire straits today without it.
That does not in any way mitigate the fact that heavy toll charges are an awesome burden on the Welsh economy, large sections of which are still in a parlous condition. The fact that Objective 1 status is to be sought for West Wales and the Valleys bears out what I say.
The privatised rail operators have a lot of catching up to do. They are in receipt of massive public subsidies but up to the present time they have shown themselves to be thoroughly inefficient. Day by day the complaints escalate. I quote from today's Daily Telegraph:
Lord Harlech: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Crickhowell for raising this important matter. I shall not dwell in depth on the politics or issues in relation to public transport or freight. I declare an interest in that I am involved in both those areas.
We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, a litany of all kinds of political beliefs about the week-end closure of the tunnel. Would it not be more appropriate if the Government were to address themselves more to the economy of, and inward investment to, Wales, and to South Wales in particular, and to encouraging overseas investors and our European allies?
There are inadequate and inappropriately-made decisions. There could be single-track working, for example. This is an example of inaccurate politics, underlined by inappropriate examination of the required equality between the trading nations of Wales and England. One needs to be careful. It is important that we do not put on the altar of politics the closure of a vital economic link that can be carefully asserted and adjudicated upon by correct administration. This is an example of an administration that currently in this Chamber and in the other place are ignorant of the public examination of the implications of their decisions.
Make no mistake about it. Noble Lords on the other side may grizzle. But make no mistake about it. Examination of what happens on the ground is more important than a simple agreement between Ministers in an office that bears no resemblance to people's feelings and the effect on their workplaces and their lives.
Lords Prys-Davies: My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, for introducing this short but important debate. I agree with much that the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, said. I am sure that by now your Lordships are anxious to hear what my noble friend on the Front Bench has to say in response. Therefore, I shall be brief. I have no interest to declare except that I travel from my home to your Lordships' House through the Severn Tunnel and that currently it is impossible to rely on the operators' timetable, which may imply an inadequate standard of performance or what others may describe as incompetence on somebody's part.
I believe that we all associate any tunnel, let alone a tunnel under an estuary, with danger. Therefore, the need for the highest standard of safety in a tunnel does not need to be discussed because it is so obvious. Safety in a tunnel is not to be negotiated or compromised. We have heard about the history of the tunnel. I very much agree that it is one of the great engineering
Against that background I should like to ask my noble friend three questions. First, particularly in view of what has been said today, can my noble friend confirm that the Severn Tunnel complies with the highest standards of safety--that is a critical matter--and that it is regularly and frequently inspected by the regulator or the appropriate safety authority? It would be helpful if in answering that question the Minister could explain the precise nature and extent of the works to be carried out during the temporary closure in the coming summer months. For example, is it intended to carry out essential repair work, to instal new technology in the tunnel, or what?
Secondly, we are told that the closure is a purely temporary arrangement. Can my noble friend inform the House of the precise timescale of these works? When will they commence and when will they be completed? Has a firm timetable been agreed between Railtrack and the Welsh Office or the Minister's department? Perhaps my noble friend can tell the House what is to happen if the works are not completed on time. Will Railtrack suffer a penalty? What is the sanction? The fear is that without an effective sanction the work may go on and on for a very long time to come.
I turn to my third and last question. Does the planned closure signal that there will be further closures of the tunnel or the track in the vicinity of the tunnel during the next few years which require trains to be diverted? In other words, is the planned closure of the tunnel in the next few months merely the first instalment of a more extensive programme down the track? If so, can we be provided with particulars of that programme and its timetable?
I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, that what is needed is a debate, informed by facts and figures, on the planned temporary closure of the Severn Tunnel. I trust that my noble friend the Minister can produce those facts and figures.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, on introducing this extremely valuable debate. What becomes apparent as your Lordships speak on this topic is that an opportunity was lost to create a concurrent rail/road link when the second Severn crossing was constructed. That is rather surprising having regard to the Britannia Bridge works where a concurrent road/rail link was provided during the 1970s. We on this side of the Chamber sought to discover which government was responsible for the decision to have only a road link. To use my family motto, ar Bwy mae're Bai?--Who can we blame? Neither my noble friend Lord Hooson nor the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, could remember precisely who originally commissioned the bridge.
I have had the opportunity today to discuss the problem with Mr. Chris Gibbs, operations director of Wales and West Passenger Transport. He tells me that the repairs to be carried out this summer are the replacement of ballast and sleepers over a distance of 38,000 feet of track, together with the cleaning and repairing of the drains, at a total cost of approximately £3 million. He says that the pumps that deal with the Great Spring, to which the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, referred, were replaced a few years ago and that the new ones work perfectly adequately. My information is that the work is to be carried out over the Easter weekend and on four subsequent, but not consecutive, weekends during April and May, and that, although some disruption is inevitable, less busy weekends have been selected. I am also told by Mr. Gibbs that in the next couple of years Railtrack propose to carry out upgrading work in the tunnel which will permit trains to travel at speeds of up to 90 miles an hour and closer together in time. That work is anticipated to be completed in a full week with perhaps eight additional weekends. He says that the tunnel will not be totally closed during that period.
I listened to the concerns expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Islwyn and Lord Prys-Davies, about the paramount requirement for safety in the tunnel. What is required is an independent, multidisciplinary engineering survey of the tunnel so that not only noble Lords but the Government and the people of Wales can be informed of the precise engineering position of the tunnel. It is not a responsibility for Railtrack simply to ensure safety in the tunnel; it is also a government responsibility.
Perhaps I may be permitted to widen the debate a little, not to the bookshops and publishing places to which the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, referred, but to the general topic of the importance of railways in the Welsh economy. The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, said that the Welsh Assembly will take an interest in what happens with the Severn Tunnel. I am sure it will. However, although the Welsh Assembly will have full control over the Welsh Office's roads budget, it will have no real power in relation to rail transport. The rail system will continue to exist on subsidies and contracts which are decided at Westminster. Although Wales is not the largest part of Britain, a plethora of rail companies serve it at present. There are the InterCity routes, and the Cardiff Railway Company, with the valley lines. Wales and West Passenger Trains are Cardiff-based and responsible for regional routes radiating from Cardiff to West Wales, Holyhead, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, London, Portsmouth and Paignton. It is also responsible for the Swansea to Shrewsbury service. Central Trains are Birmingham-based, with services on the Cambrian lines and Chester to Shrewsbury via Wrexham. North Western Trains are Manchester-based and provide services in North Wales on the coast route, the Conwy Valley and the Wrexham to Bidston service.
For Central Trains and North Western Trains, Wales is a minority part of their network. Anyone who travels on those lines--as I do two or three times a week--knows only too well that, as Mr. Rhodri Clark of the Institute of Welsh Affairs put it,
In Scotland, control of the ScotRail subsidy will effectively be in the hands of the Scottish Parliament. That is not the case in Wales. There is an urgent need for integrated rail services, under the aegis of the Welsh Assembly. The franchises of the three regional operators expire in 2003 and 2004. That is a moment of opportunity which must be seized. When the assembly comes into being, it should urgently campaign for the creation of a distinct WalesRail system, bringing together the entire network and incorporating, along with the lines of the network in Wales, some of the lines in England, notably the Newport to Shrewsbury line via Hereford. The subsidy for those services should no longer be in the hands of Westminster, but should be directed through the assembly which should select a new operator for WalesRail; or--if I dare mention this to the Benches opposite--even create an executive nationalised agency linked to the Welsh Development Agency and the Wales Tourist Board.
Railways in Wales under WalesRail would no longer be at the end of the line. They would radiate from Wales to the Channel ports, to the centres of population and industry in England, and to Ireland. With the full co-operation of the Welsh Development Agency, the opportunity would then exist to create new rail links, for example, to Cardiff airport (which is long talked about without coming to fruition) and to existing, new industrial development sites. As my noble friend Lord Hooson pointed out, the development of freight traffic through the rail network is of vital importance to the future of the Welsh economy. Further, the links between North, Mid and South Wales could be improved with an integrated service connecting bus services to meet the core rail network. The tourist services which bring much income to Ffestiniog, Llangollen and elsewhere could be extended to other areas of Wales.
Welsh Office grants are readily available for new roads, but future rail investment depends upon an act of will on the part of the assembly to obtain the necessary powers. We face a situation in Wales where the economy is beginning to slow down on both sides of the Severn estuary. It is vitally important that we maintain the rail tunnel link and develop rail services in Wales in an integrated fashion.
Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Crickhowell was right to move the Motion and to seek clarification of the proposals regarding the closure of the Severn Tunnel. It is a matter of great importance to rail users, as we all realise, and the extent of the tunnel's use
As a number of noble Lords have said, the Severn Tunnel is a vital artery to Severnside and South Wales and of crucial importance to great tracts of the Welsh economy, as my noble friend described. The livelihoods of many thousands of people are dependent to a greater or lesser extent on the continuing successful operation of this Victorian masterpiece of civil engineering, despite the two road bridge crossings built in the second half of this century, of which the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, has extensive experience as chairman of the Severn River Crossing plc.
As regards how the second bridge was arrived at, I recall the meeting between my noble friend Lord Crickhowell, and the late Nicholas Ridley, who contributed his own genius to the solution of the problem facing us. I recall that all the pressure for the bridge came from the Welsh side, from my noble friend, because the first bridge was rapidly reaching capacity and a second bridge had to be built.
Railtrack plc, which is responsible for the tunnel, tells me that the train companies which use it predict that, although there has been no growth in traffic over the past five years, traffic could increase by between 26 and 32 per cent. over the next decade. So there is no question but that the Severn Tunnel will continue to be a strategic rail route of prime importance.
Curiously, perhaps, the Government do not have security responsibilities over the Severn Tunnel comparable with those they have over the Channel Tunnel under the Channel Tunnel Security Order 1994, but that should not inhibit the Government from taking the keenest interest in the maintenance of the tunnel and the safety of those who use it. The Government can, of course, express that interest through the Rail Regulator and the Health and Safety Executive's Railway Inspectorate. They can bring influence to bear on Railtrack, which carries the prime responsibility for keeping the tunnel in good order.
Tempting as it is to wax lyrical about the magnitude of the Victorian achievement and the courage and determination of the tunnellers when they were completely flooded out, two years into construction, by the waters which poured from the great spring they encountered underground, I shall refrain from doing so. However, I must say that the sumps, pumps and subterranean passages installed on a grand scale to cope with the daily flow of 11 million gallons of water clearly require sustained and careful maintenance if the tunnel is to be kept in sound operational order.
As has been said today, Railtrack has spent some £10 million over three years replacing some of the equipment. This year, it hopes to renew some 4.3 kilometres of track, sleepers and ballast. By my calculation, that is about two-and-a-half miles and just more than half the total length of the tunnel. The first phase of the work was done last year and further phases
However, other work may be required. I have studied the comments and representations made by the Rail Users Consultative Committee for Wales on Railtrack's network and management statement. Some six items suggest improvements in both speed and safety in the area of the tunnel. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Islwyn, will be interested in some of the suggestions. They include, for example, lighting in the tunnel; additional signalling; replacing the level crossing at Bishton, between Newport and the Severn Tunnel junction; and others which would improve the conditions on the line and in the tunnel.
The six weekend closures between Easter and the end of May will clearly mean lengthy passenger train diversions via Gloucester and the rescheduling of freight trains. I was surprised to note that Sunday is the second busiest day of the week for train operators. However, as an occasional Sunday traveller, I should not be surprised by that fact.
Temporary closures of this kind are never popular, as my noble friend Lord Crickhowell and I recall very clearly from our experience of the years when the first and then only Severn Bridge was being maintained and upgraded. Together with strong winds, the work caused insufferable delays from time to time. However, maintenance is vital and the sooner the proposed closures are clearly announced the better. Nothing causes more discontent than uncertainty. I hope that the Minister can dispel the uncertainties that currently exist.
I understand that a study is being taken into the feasibility of a major overhaul of the entire tunnel and that it may result in a more substantial shutdown in the future. I hope that the Minister can say more about the feasibility study, which was referred to by Railtrack as:
I hope, too, that this essential work on the Severn Tunnel is not caught up in the argument between the Rail Regulator, backed by the Government, and Railtrack over the rate of Railtrack's investment in rail infrastructure and the degree of its responsibility for train delays. The more I hear of the argument which is erupting in the press the more concerned I become that essential work may be adversely affected. Again, I hope that the Minister may be able to give us some assurance on this point. I hasten to add that, although I hold no brief for Railtrack, it has been good enough to provide me with some factual material for the debate.
We have heard numerous references to the Welsh economy. There is not much doubt in my mind that it is rather fragile, in spite of the Government's confident utterances, and manufacturing industry is experiencing a serious downturn. The last thing we want is to add to the gloom a whiff of uncertainty about the future of a major strategic rail route which the Government acknowledge in their White Paper to be a pinch point in the system. The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, for initiating the debate. I must reflect the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, that a great deal of uncertainty has been generated in Wales about the Severn Tunnel. It may have led to the noble Lord tabling the Motion; it has certainly led to some exaggerated anxieties.
Railtrack is doing its job. Perhaps noble Lords have heard harsh words from me about Railtrack's investment programme and more graphically harsh words from my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister. However, I believe that on this occasion Railtrack is "doing the right thing". But, as so often happens, its publicity has let it down. The communications in which it has engaged have not reached many potential users, commercial and individual.
Of course Railtrack is under an obligation to consult. It clearly consulted the rail operators. It is also statutorily required to consult local authorities and other organisations likely to be affected, such as utility companies. It is undoubtedly pursuing its statutory obligations in that respect. However, some remarks of noble Lords show that they rather forget that we are now dealing with a privatised railway system with a relatively light and ineffectual system of regulation. That is part of the problem. This Government are determined to ensure that we have a better system of regulation and a more strategic approach to our railway network throughout the United Kingdom. I look forward to the presentation of a Bill in this House in connection with a strategic rail authority either at the end of this Session or the beginning of the next in order to achieve such aims. Meanwhile, clearly, the Government consult with Railtrack on such issues and will continue so to do.
In respect of the Severn Tunnel closure, I must emphasise once again that it is primarily Railtrack's responsibility. It must consider what renewal work is necessary. I repeat the comments of the noble Lords, Lord Rees and Lord Roberts. The original Severn Tunnel is 100 years old. It is a great achievement of Victorian engineering. Reference has been made to the fact that at the time of construction there was a massive flood and pumps had to be installed to carry away spring water that had seeped into the tunnel. As the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said, the pumps and control systems installed in the 1950s have already been replaced by Railtrack and, to respond to my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies, a new electrical distribution system has likewise been installed. There has already been £10 million spent by Railtrack on improvement of the tunnel.
We are talking about a lot of movement through the tunnel. There are around 150 train movements a day with up to 100 passenger and 20 freight trains travelling on the route. At the peak the tunnel carries seven trains an hour. That intensive use clearly puts a strain on the system and the repair work needs to be done. Railtrack predicts that traffic will increase by around one-third by the year 2007 and it is fulfilling its duty to maintain the safety and repair of the tunnel. However, that is maintenance work only and not a complete rebuilding of the tunnel. Some remarks of noble Lords related to increasing freight traffic in particular and suggested that we should engage in a complete rebuild of the tunnel. That is clearly a much more massive engineering task and would have to be considered as a priority investment in an overall strategic assessment.
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