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I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) on securing the debate and on his campaigning. It is about 20 years since I started the campaign for the upgrade of the west coast main line. I had black hair at that time and was about 3 stone lighter. The first thing that he must do is keep his seat.
I take exception to one or two points. A high-speed line would not be built to Birmingham to reduce the journey time by 20 minutes-£10 billion would not be spent on that, because it does not make economic sense. The reason for doing it is that it is the start of the high-speed line. The hon. Gentleman was rather lazy in his arguments. When he did not like something, he said that it was a lazy conclusion, but did not go into the issue.
The point is that we need to build a high-speed line because there are major capacity problems on our railways. Whether we like privatisation or not, a lot of people have been travelling by rail and there are major capacity problems. We therefore have to build new lines. If we are to build new lines, we might as well build high-speed lines so that there is a better railway. The capacity problem is in the west, on the lines to Birmingham and Manchester. Beyond that, we can argue about which direction the line should go in. There is a major capacity problem that we need to deal with and that is why we are talking about building a high-speed line. This is not a wish list. We are talking about spending £30 billion to complete one line from London to Glasgow and Edinburgh. That is a lot of money, so we have to justify it. The capacity problem is the justification.
We do not have to forget about the classic, traditional lines. I chair the all-party west coast main line group and our lobbying has been successful. At the moment, speeds on the west coast and east coast main lines are limited to 125 mph. The speed on both lines could be pushed up to 140 mph with little investment. I suggest to people who live on the east coast that their first priority should be to upgrade the east coast main line, because that could bring faster speeds and quicker journey times to London and elsewhere without the need to wait 30 years for the high-speed line, as the hon. Gentleman said. We need to sweat our existing resources better.
We must be careful that those who live on the periphery of London, such as the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), do not block the advancement of the economy in the north. The question of Scotland, as raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason), is difficult. From the Scottish border, it is about 70 or 80 miles to Edinburgh and Glasgow. The question is whether the Scottish Government will have
the money to pay for that and whether an independent Scottish Government would have the money to pay for it. I doubt that they would.
John Mason: I think that an independent Scottish Government would have a lot of different priorities, and this question is about priorities. If we are putting money into things such as nuclear weapons, there will not be money for railways.
High-speed lines work. They work on the continent and High Speed 1 works. However, we must drive down the costs of high-speed lines. There is a very good line from St. Pancras to the channel tunnel, but it is the most expensive high-speed line in the world. We must reduce the costs and make savings. When the policy is decided on, it must be stuck to.
I chaired a meeting of the all-party rail group last night. An hon. Member who is not present said that he would sooner have no high-speed line than one that did not go to Yorkshire. That is the sort of planning and bigotry that has held back the railways in this country for so long. We need a high-speed line, we have to give it some thought, we must get the money to do it and we must do it as cheaply as possible, but in the meantime, we must not forget the lines that we have. I say to the people on the east coast, the upgrade of the east coast main line and the electrification of the midland main line should be their first priorities.
Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I will be very brief indeed. I want to put in a plea about the first stage, which hon. Members all agree will go to Birmingham. HS2 still has to report on whether we will have two stops in Birmingham-one in the city centre and one at Birmingham international airport. I want to explain to hon. Members why it is so important that we get a Birmingham international airport stop.
First, the west midlands economy is highly dependent on access to fast communications. We have had the worst unemployment increase in the country and we have suffered worst from the downturn. We are looking for overseas investment and we are having an extension to our runway to facilitate wide-bodied aircraft, so that people can come into Birmingham international and move on south, or to Manchester or further north. That is extremely important and will provide economic benefits for the whole country, not just the region. A high-speed rail link will make Birmingham international airport truly international and, as other hon. Members have said, it will be the first step towards having a better, faster, environmentally friendlier link to the rest of the country.
Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD):
Thank you, Mr. Benton, it is a pleasure to serve under you this afternoon. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) for securing
this important and timely debate. As we await the HS2 report, which will no doubt be the Secretary of State's Christmas reading, it is vital to debate an issue that could shape our domestic transport infrastructure for the rest of the 21st century.
It is fair to say that the Government have been slow to get on board in support of high-speed rail. Had Lord Adonis not been made Secretary of State for Transport, I doubt whether the Government would have had a change of heart. Hon. Members will remember the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly), who said only two years ago that
"it would not be prudent to commit now to 'all-or-nothing' projects...for which the longer-term benefits are currently uncertain".
Government inaction and indifference to high-speed rail has resulted in the UK lagging behind the rest of Europe. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West mentioned, out of 3,500 miles of high-speed rail around Europe, only 68 miles are in the UK, between St. Pancras and the channel tunnel. Hon. Members from all parties will be aware that the Liberal Democrats were the first party to pledge support for a high-speed rail link to the north and beyond. As usual, the Conservatives have limped in at the last minute with a half-hearted proposal.
John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that, in the run-up to the general election, now is an opportune time for all parties to make a clear commitment to a high-speed rail network throughout the UK that serves all major cities, so that no area suffers from blight?
Mr. Leech: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I am certainly happy to go on record as giving a Liberal Democrat commitment to a high-speed rail network. I hope that the other parties will do likewise.
Understandably, there will be much debate and disagreement about the exact route of a high-speed network, and hon. Members will make the strongest possible case for high-speed rail coming to their own areas. I was interested to hear that the General Synod of the Church of England has stated in a recent resolution:
"This Synod urges Her Majesty's Government...to sustain employment opportunities, further environmental targets and strengthen future economic and social development by implementing the planning and development of a high speed rail line from London to the North-West and Scotland."
I do not want to get too embroiled in a debate about the exact details of a network, except to say that we envisage a high-speed rail network, rather than just a line, which will serve and provide access to northern cities and carry on through to Scotland. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) is absolutely right that Members representing northern cities either side of the Pennines should not fight over which way the line goes; they should work together to ensure that the north, Scotland and other regions of Great Britain receive the same transport funding as the south-east.
"would allow both sides of the country to be served...We will tell the government that the preferred option from our point of view is a network that certainly serves Manchester as well as places like Nottingham, Sheffield, Leeds and up to Newcastle and one way or another, up to Scotland."
There is also the issue of stations. My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) raised the issue of Birmingham international and Birmingham New Street. Of course, there will be a wider debate about whether we ought to consider city centre or airport locations for stations. Clearly, such details will have to be debated thoroughly.
Lorely Burt: May I inform my hon. Friend that New Street is not likely to be an option for Birmingham? We might be able to develop the east side of Birmingham, which is in need of regeneration, in order to facilitate a Birmingham city centre site.
The real issue is how we will pay for high-speed rail. Some hon. Members were at the all-party rail group meeting last night at which high-speed rail was discussed. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), who has done an excellent job of chairing the all-party rail group and has argued the case for investment in rail over a long period. In these uncertain economic times, there is understandable concern about whether any Government will be prepared to commit the money, particularly for such a long-term project.
In our policy paper, "Fast Track Britain," we have set out in great detail the benefits of high-speed rail and other rail improvements, but we have also indicated how we would start to pay for them. There would be a £30 surcharge on domestic flights- we have been very open about that-and a lorry road-user charging scheme, which would also ensure that foreign lorries paid their way for using UK roads, instead of having an unfair advantage over British hauliers. We would also get more money out of the train operating companies by offering much longer franchises in return for better investment. Currently, train operating companies have little incentive to invest for the future, as they are uncertain whether they will be running services in two or three years' time.
We are the only party to have a costed plan. In the Manchester Evening News on 9 September, the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) claimed that the Conservatives have a costed plan. Perhaps the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) will clarify how the Conservatives will pay for their plan. I recall listening to the shadow Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet, at an all-party rail group meeting possibly 18 months ago. She was trying to claim that the Conservatives could pay for high-speed rail out of existing budgets, and still have money for the rest of the network. Is that still the position of the Conservative party? If so, where will the savings be made and what part of the existing rail network budget will be cut?
As for the Government, I suspect that we will have to wait until the Secretary of State for Transport has finished his Christmas reading before we get any commitment to funding HS2, but I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say in his reply. In the meantime, the Liberal Democrat programme for high-speed rail would begin immediately and be rolled out over 15 years. A high-speed network is vital not only to increase capacity, but to encourage more people out of their cars and dissuade them from taking domestic flights, as well as to help drive the economy and growth in the north and Scotland.
Developing a high-speed network would free up capacity on the conventional railway for shorter-distance local travel, as well as for freight. Currently, some local services play second fiddle to inter-city services and, following last January's timetable changes, some local services became less frequent or were lost completely to increase inter-city capacity. Tony Collins of Virgin Trains has highlighted that the west coast will run out of capacity possibly as early as 2015, and certainly by 2020, despite the £9 billion invested in the west coast main line. High-Speed Rail UK estimates that a high-speed rail network could accommodate all the passenger traffic travelling on the west coast, east coast and midland main lines twice over, which would be up to 15,000 passengers per hour in each direction.
Of equal importance is the potential for expanding rail freight. I understand that HS2 is unlikely to recommend carrying freight on any extended high-speed network, but ruling that out at this stage, in my view, would be a mistake. There is little justification for not taking advantage of the network through the nights when passenger services are not in use. Even if we ruled out freight on the high-speed network, freeing up capacity on the existing network would undoubtedly open opportunities for freight on the traditional lines.
There are sound environmental reasons for supporting high-speed rail. The Eddington transport study estimated that it could lead to carbon savings of 500,000 tonnes per year, or 30 million tonnes over 60 years, valued at £3.2 billion. Transport is responsible for around a quarter of all emissions in the UK and, more worryingly, is the only domestic sector in which emissions have risen since 1990.
Mr. Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I am trying to be absolutely fair about allocating time. It is already 11 minutes past 12 and other Members are yet to speak, including the Minister, so I ask the hon. Gentleman to bring his remarks to a conclusion.
"The two major challenges facing our next government will be the economy and the environment. A far-reaching high speed rail network that serves the main economic hubs of the UK will help to succeed in both of these areas."
Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con):
I, too, welcome the opportunity that the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) has offered us this morning by
securing the debate. It gives me the opportunity to spell out why I believe absolutely that a high-speed rail network is important for this country and why we hope the Government will do a little more than play catch-up in this matter, which is certainly what they are doing at the moment.
We have heard some interesting contributions. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) made a thoughtful contribution, yet again, on the importance of the strategic network. My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) made the point about routes, which we will all have to address when the High Speed 2 report is published. Clearly, there will be issues about national considerations versus local considerations, and local environmental issues versus national environmental issues. He was right to raise not only the concerns from his constituency, but the argument that the House will have to face when a clearer route is proposed.
I was interested, as usual, by the remarks of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts). He did not want Leeds to be an afterthought, so he must be worried that his Government give no thought to Leeds or Sheffield in their plans. I can only concur with the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), who said that the case for high-speed rail is not an end in itself. It must contribute to the economic regeneration, the travel considerations or the environmental considerations of this country.
While I forgive the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West for his less than gracious response to my intervention, I gently say to him that simply claiming that anyone else's argument is a lazy assumption is in itself a lazy assumption. He predicates his argument on the views of Mr. Colin Elliff, whom I have met three or four times. Mr. Elliff is a passionate advocate for his route, but surely the hon. Gentleman must remember that many people think Mr. Elliff's route has several problems and that he, I suggest gently, is a relatively controversial figure in the railway industry.
Greg Mulholland: There are, of course, problems with all schemes that must be dealt with, and it would be dishonest to suggest otherwise. On the hon. Gentleman's other point, can he tell me why the Conservative leader-joint leader in a coalition-of Leeds city council, Andrew Carter, does not support Conservative party policy and wants a direct high-speed link to Leeds?
Stephen Hammond: My understanding, from my conversations with Mr. Carter, is that while he would prefer a direct link to Leeds, presumably as would the hon. Gentleman, he absolutely supports a plan, which is the only plan proposed at the moment, for a service running from a London terminus, with a spur to Heathrow, to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. The hon. Gentleman has advocated a different route today, but I believe that Andrew Carter, with whom I speak regularly, very much supports the plan.
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