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Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I should like to express my support for this group of amendments, especially Amendment No. 240, which seems to me to represent excellent good sense. One of the principal objectives of an integrated transport plan is the transfer of more freight from road to rail. Many different companies and authorities will need to play their full part in that process, otherwise it will not happen. There is one large company among the rail freight companies, but there are quite a few much smaller companies. It seems to me that it would be extremely sensible for the SRA to have such a group of companies with an interest in the carriage of goods by rail, which could act as a sounding-board to ensure that the polices really do fit the bill.
I certainly hope that the Government will give some consideration to this amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, described how he asked for something a good deal more specific in Committee, but now he asks for something more generalised. However, it will be of great value. I hope that the Minister will be able to give it some consideration.
Lord Freeman: My Lords, I, too, wish to support the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, as regards Amendment No. 240. I shall also speak to Amendment No. 246, which is tabled in my name and forms part of this group. Should those on the Government Front Bench think that there is all-party collusion on the matter, I should point out that that is not the case; indeed, we all just happen to agree on the same principles and to be of similar mind on the subject.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said, we all want more freight shipped by rail, but we must not be too starry- eyed about it. Doubling the amount of rail freight over the next 10 years, which is what the English, Welsh and Scottish Railway Company hopes for, will simply be equivalent to the growth over two or three years in good years of road freight--I see that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, seems to disagree with my figures. That is not to say that I do not fully support any move to increase rail freight, but we must still be realistic about the situation. We are not a central or eastern European country, where 30 per cent to 40 per cent of freight is shipped by rail: it is in the low single figures in this country, and should be very much higher. Nevertheless, we must surely congratulate the EWS on achieving a 30 per cent increase in rail freight since privatisation and support the company in its aspirations for growth, although it is disappointing to note that the amount of rail freight--not road freight--through the tunnel fell by 6 per cent last year and the omens for this year are not necessarily as good.
How can we improve upon the situation? As president of the British International Freight Association, I have already conducted the consultation which the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, has requested--I was about to call him "my noble friend": well, he certainly is my friend on this issue. I have consulted our membership about what are the crucial factors that would encourage more use of rail freight. I received two simple answers and will send the results of the survey to the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, as they may well be of interest both to him and to some of his officials. The two critical issues were: reliability and frequency, and, interestingly, not speed. To achieve this, we need to take at least three steps, which should not cost any cash, and three steps that would. Perhaps I may summarise them for noble Lords, as that is all I can do in the time available.
First, the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, should be encouraged to continue with what he has already started; namely, to press the Commission to liberalise rail freight in Europe even further. A good start has been made and interoperability, which is the aim of the Commissioner, must be encouraged. I suspect that the noble Lord is almost a lone voice in the Transport Council on some rail liberalisation issues. If he is not, he is only supported by two or three other countries. The Government's leadership is important in such matters.
Secondly, we must permit faster night freight on the new Channel Tunnel rail link line--a campaign that has been running now for several years. It still does not look as if it has been resolved, but is something that I believe to be vital. Incidentally, the latter is not about speed; it is about getting capacity for freight through the rail link during the night, while it is largely dedicated for passenger use during the day. Thirdly,
I turn next to three issues that I very much hope to see reflected in these annual statements from the SRA. The first is cash from the taxpayer that will help to pay for new rail terminals. One terminal a year might be a modest contribution to our economic well-being. Secondly, we should help to build new dedicated freight track. Let us not kid ourselves: freight and passenger trains do not mix comfortably. They certainly do not complement each other in terms of the wear and tear on track. Finally, there must be help to enhance the loading gauge-- which means the size of the tunnels--for continental gauge.
Although I speak as a Conservative, I am a firm believer in a more substantial rail investment. I have long argued for that. I believe that the cost of this additional investment in rail freight infrastructure can be justified by the social and environmental benefits in the same way as new roads are. To that extent, it is justified. If the Minister cannot comment, I look forward to some comment by the Strategic Rail Authority in regular annual statements.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Berkeley substitutes his previous concept of a rail freight council with a broader requirement for consultation. I fully agree that the rail freight industry needs to be aware of matters affecting it and to have the opportunity to comment on the SRA's strategy. With regard to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, I also agree that if a freight industry is to meet the targets that we look for in the 10-year plan it is also not acceptable for freight parties to have to rely on the goodwill of the passenger operators to alert them to relevant matters and to provide the required priority on the track.
There may have been some failings in the past. They need to be addressed, as well as the important and substantial infrastructure issues on increasing the capacity of the track, to which the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, referred. However, providing it in the terms of the amendment would not necessarily be appropriate. But I can give some comfort: our directions and guidance to the SRA will cover consultation on material matters with the freight industry. We shall consider carefully how the needs of the freight industry are met when we issue these directions and guidance and consult with the freight industry on the draft of the directions and guidance. Without going as far as my noble friend wishes on the face of the Bill, I hope that that gives him substantial reassurance.
On Amendment No. 246, again the SRA has a duty under Clause 205 to formulate, keep under review and publish strategies with respect to its purposes. The intention is that it will do so on a regular basis. These purposes include promoting the use of the network for the carriage of goods. The SRA's budget will be published in the normal way and it will publish an annual report. The noble Lord will understand that the SRA's expenditure on freight will depend in large part
Amendment No. 248 deals with the issue of freight proposals which require grants across the Scotland-England border. I do not think that the amendment is helpful but some clarification may be helpful. The SRA will draw up schemes for freight grants. Once drawn up, the Scottish Executive will administer them within Scotland. The amendment refers to the provision in Clause 210 which makes such grant administration in Scotland solely a matter for the Scottish Executive. It would not be possible, therefore, for the SRA to take the sole lead where a scheme impacts on Scotland, nor for the Scottish Executive where it impacts on England. The simple fact is that we cannot enforce co-operation but we are providing the framework whereby both authorities can work together on a scheme that they consider worthwhile.
I am confident that we shall continue to need cross-border schemes and that they will continue to be administered effectively after the Bill is in force and after the powers of the SRA are in place, and the need for co-operation on such schemes with the Scottish Executive is clear. In the light of those assurances, I hope that my noble friend will not press the amendment.
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