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Lord Hooson: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. The noble Lord speaks of repairing the track, but that would take place whether or not the track went through the tunnel. Repairing the track is a normal maintenance operation in the short term. Surely the concern expressed in this debate, to which the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, adverted in his opening remarks, is that every tunnel has a lifespan as does every bridge. That depends on the amount of traffic that goes through. Is there any plan to have an overall assessment of the likely life of this tunnel and what needs to be done to extend that life?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the noble Lord is correct that all track needs replacing from time to time. But when it needs replacing in an intensive pinch point like a tunnel, the job of itself is bound to be more difficult. In terms of assessment of the overall life of the tunnel, there is not an extant assessment of the life forward from this date. It is clear that Railtrack does not consider that the tunnel has reached the end of its useful life. Nevertheless, in an overall assessment of the priorities for further investment by Railtrack which we would hope to undertake under the strategic rail authority, the whole question of whether or not this is a priority area for major new investment would have to be addressed.

As the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, mentioned, a study has already been carried out with regard to the whole network and some of those results will be available to

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the shadow strategic rail authority some time this year. No decision has been taken either by Railtrack or the Government on a major modernisation. Nevertheless, the extent of the work required and being provided by Railtrack at this point should take care of the traffic through to the period I indicated--2007 and beyond.

In terms of the dates, since there has been some confusion, I should perhaps lay down in Hansard the precise dates it is intended to close the tunnel. The periods of closure are less continuous and less extensive than Railtrack originally envisaged and indeed advised its consultees. They will run from the Easter weekend--2nd to 5th April--and thereafter from 2.30 on Saturday to 4 a.m. on Monday morning from 10th to 12th April, 17th to 19th April, 24th to 26th April, 15th to 17th May and 22nd to 24th May.

As indicated, there will be further phases of this work next year though the degree of closure in each is likely to be substantially less as far as Railtrack can foresee at the moment. In relation to diversions, there are three passenger operators going through the tunnel--Great Western Trains, Virgin Cross Country and Wales and West. I understand that Railtrack has agreed with Great Western that the majority of its services will run and be diverted through Gloucester with a consequent additional journey time of less than one hour. Virgin Cross Country trains will also be diverted via Gloucester to Newport. Finally, I understand that some Wales and West trains will be diverted via Gloucester as well but some will stop short at Bristol Temple Meads and passengers will have to pick up other connections. The services from Swindon to Gloucester will also be cancelled during those periods. So the passenger companies are already well advanced in making alternative arrangements and the impact on passengers is therefore likely to be smaller than had been feared. I suggest likewise that the impact on the economy will be smaller than some of the exaggerated fears expressed before we reached this degree of clarification.

In relation to freight, the two freight companies are English Welsh and Scottish Railways and Freightliner Limited. They are also in the process of liaising with Railtrack about possible alternatives. The improvement in the level of freight being carried on this and other lines is crucial both to our integrated transport policy and to the revitalisation of Wales.

A number of other specific points were raised. My noble friend Lord Islwyn and the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, referred to safety. As my noble friend Lord Islwyn indicated, a major accident occurred in December 1991 in the tunnel and anxieties were expressed about that. The Health and Safety Executive is investigating and enforcing safety standards; Railtrack is meeting those standards, and that is part of the work, as well as the engineering work, that is required.

The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, raised the question of the rescue train. A rescue train is based at the Welsh end of the tunnel and access at that end is by the rescue train. Since the accident in 1991 an access road has been built at the eastern, English end, of the tunnel which allows access for road and rail equipment.

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Ventilation and telephone equipment have been substantially improved as well as telephone communications.

I am not sure how to respond to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, about comparing security arrangements with those for the Channel Tunnel. Clearly, safety is paramount at both tunnels. There are possibly slightly different aspects of security relating to the two tunnels because at present, at least, we are not expecting an invasion from Wales.

My noble friend Lord Prys-Davies asked whether penalties would be imposed were Railtrack to overrun the closure periods. That will be assessed as part of the overall performance regime and Railtrack would have to pay performance payments were there greater disruption. In any case, it will have to make payments to the operating companies for the disruption caused by the closures.

The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, indicated that he was concerned that some continental freight could not get through the tunnel. Primarily, we shall not be able to meet that point unless we engage in major new investment. Nevertheless, as envisaged, there is a lot of freight already going through the tunnel--long distance and British freight--and there is a general upward trend in the volume of rail freight entering Wales.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, raised the question of the role of the Welsh Assembly. Railways policy as a whole, including the Severn Tunnel and this line, is a matter for United Kingdom policy and is not devolved. However, the Welsh Assembly will be responsible for administering the freight grants scheme on the Welsh lines.

The indications are that the anxieties raised about these closures are exaggerated, particularly when it was thought that there would be a continuous closure or a longer and more disruptive closure without alternative arrangements. Nevertheless, they are real. It is important that Railtrack engages in communicating, not only with the immediate consumers of its services--the operators and the commercial interests--but also with passengers as a whole. Next month it is Railtrack's intention to engage in a major publicity campaign through posters at stations and in the local media to ensure that once all the arrangements are finalised, including the diversions, passengers and potential passengers are informed of those arrangements. It is important that that massive communication effort takes place as close to the closures as possible, but with sufficient advance planning so that people can plan alternative journeys.

The debate has also gone into broader aspects of the Welsh economy. Clearly, the Welsh economy has undergone massive structural changes over the past decade or two. The traditional Welsh industry of deep-mined coal has disappeared and the steel industry has been completely rationalised and modernised. There has been diversification in the Welsh economy and in the various areas referred to: automotive, aerospace, media, pharmaceuticals, electronics and optoelectronics.

As my noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris pointed out in his lyrical contribution, publishing in Wales is thriving, if on a limited market. He said that

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Wales was at a disadvantage compared with Ireland. On a rather mournful dawn, on the west coast of Ireland, I remember an Irish poet saying to me, "The trouble with this country, you know, is that there are far more people writing poetry than reading it." I suspect the same may be true of Wales, in which case he had better get more of his books through the Severn Tunnel.

Despite the diversification, despite the enormous skill and creativity of the Welsh economy, it is also true, as noble Lords have indicated, that GDP per head in Wales is dramatically lower than that in Great Britain as a whole. Indeed, it is the lowest in Great Britain. There have been serious job losses in Wales, including recently at Ystradgynlais and other notable manufacturing areas.

Nevertheless, in the year to September, the number of jobs for employees in Wales has increased substantially by 15,000. Since the general election, the various schemes entered into by the Government, and some inherited from the previous government, have brought 17,000 new jobs into Wales and safeguarded a further 5,500 jobs. In total, 208 inward investment projects have been recorded in that period. One of my noble friends--I cannot remember who--also indicated the important and enhanced role of the Welsh Development Agency in planning for the future, in providing future support for investment in Wales and for the continued diversification and modernisation of Welsh industry.

Nevertheless, the inheritance is there. It is both an indictment of past policy and a problem of Welsh history that we are now trying to obtain Objective 1 status for the Valleys and West Wales, which means that the GDP in that area must be 75 per cent. of the EU average. We must tackle that. We hope that we shall receive European aid so that we can improve the economy and the wellbeing of the people of West Wales and the Valleys.

There are serious local problems as well as Wales-wide problems and in particular South Wales-wide problems. As I indicated, jobs are coming in, industry is being modernised and the Welsh economy needs infrastructure. It also needs government help which we are committed to providing. However, it also needs a transport infrastructure of which the Severn Tunnel and the Severn crossings in general are absolutely vital parts.

I hope I have covered most of the points raised in the debate. I shall check Hansard to identify those I have not covered. If noble Lords will forgive me, I shall write to them subsequently. I thank again the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, for raising the issue. I hope that what I have said and some of the clarification that has emerged from the debate will be relayed back to the people of South Wales and that some of their anxieties at least will be allayed.

5.6 p.m.

Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have taken part in the debate and the noble Lord the Minister for his response. I confess that the debate ranged rather wider than I had anticipated. The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris--that distinguished, though I trust not expensive, jewel of Welsh culture--

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certainly took us very wide indeed. He is a distinguished academic. Therefore, I must not allow him to leave on the record the suggestion that the tunnel was constructed by Brunel. It would have been clever of him if he had constructed it because he had been dead a good many years before work on the tunnel was started by one of his pupils. Nor can I leave him with the suggestion, so frequently denied in the debate, that we are concerned with only six weeks of closures. We have had confirmation from the Minister that there will certainly have to be closures in the years 2000 and 2001.

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