Channel Tunnel

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th October 1973.

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Photo of Mr William Deedes Mr William Deedes , Ashford 12:00 am, 25th October 1973

Before I become critical I must clear up a point touched on by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Tope). My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has been exemplary in the way in which he has consulted the Kent County Council as well as hon. Members with Kent constituencies. Those of us who represent Kent constituencies have better reason than anyone else to know this, and it must go on record. Anything which is said to the contrary, even by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir J. Rodgers), is rubbish.

For certain reasons I think that the Government have, on balance, reached the right decision about this project, but they are not the reasons which persuaded them to embark on the proposal, nor are they altogether the reasons which are now advanced in the White Paper. I have no doubt that in the early stages the moving force behind the project was the French, whose support, for obvious reasons, we wished to win.

The opponents of the proposal have a point, which cannot be entirely dismissed, in asserting that the French had, and must still have, a stronger vested interest than us in the project. Their monumental efforts at Dunkirk illustrate the importance to them—and it is a legitimate aim—of winning a larger share of the traffic which is now going to and from the United Kingdom via Belgian, Dutch and German ports. That line of reasoning is not now calculated to get support in all quarters here, so I will not dwell on it, but we should be aware of it.

Weight is now increasingly being put on British Railways and on the environmental considerations, which I want to dwell on more critically. As the Green Paper, which was published in the summer, was at pains to point out, the weight of road traffic on the corridors between London and Europe, mainly through Kent, give rise for alarm. If we could show that the European rail network, with greater distances favouring railways, would help alleviate this weight, which is increasing at 8 per cent. a year, we would find that there was a popular case for proceeding.

We may be in danger of pushing this argument too far and overstating the environmental case. On this point I am in agreement with the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland). But in any case I do not think that this is intrinsically the main justification. I reach the opposite conclusion to that of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam.

What tips the scales in favour of the tunnel is not French co-operation, or even the environmental considerations, but the possibility of a fuel crisis, which has been underlined by recent events. The project would at least pave the way for a shift from oil traction to electric traction, and that is a powerful factor in its favour. There may be good reasons for not overstating this in public, but the factor exists and is now a principal justification. There may be cogent, diplomatic reasons for not dwelling on it in public, but equally there are good reasons for not trying to oversell the project for the wrong reasons.

We have been presented with a mass of paper and documents on this project. I cannot for the life of me imagine why anyone is in favour of any further inquiry or report. It takes a weekend merely to skim through the documents we already have.

The most difficult matter is to get the proportions right rather than to understand what these technicians say. It is imperative not to mislead ourselves or potential customers about what the railways can immediately achieve. I do not believe that, in the context of Europe, we can possibly say what will happen in the 1990s in respect of freight travelling by container or by roll-on/roll-off through the tunnel to this or that port. I know that to say this is heresy, but it is my opinion.

I turn first to freight. Continental trade with countries outside the Channel Tunnel zone was about 200 million tons in 1971. In the Channel Tunnel zone, but not likely to be diverted by the tunnel, it amounted to 36 million tons. The potential tunnel market, according to the economic and financial study, is about 6·1 million tons, which is about 0·4 per cent. of continental trade.

The September White Paper says that the tunnel is expected to attract at least 5 million tons in the first year, doubling by 1990. I find it difficult to assess how much will be roll-on/roll-off and how much will be container traffic. That is a rather blurred area. I understand that later studies suggest that containers will carry more than we now believe. Let us hope that that may be true.

The fact is that there are physical limitations, which the White Paper is silent about but about which British Railways have been rather more open. There is the loading gauge factor. Even with the new £120 million rail link from the tunnel to White City, a great deal of continental rolling stock will not be able to go beyond the White City. We shall be running a certain amount of available freight—we say three-fifths—on our own rolling stock.

I understand that about 10,000 wagons in Europe are now loading gauge dual-purpose, able to run on our tracks as well as European. Even so, there seems to be a big interchange in prospect at White City. That must be borne in mind before we become too bullish about what the railway network with Europe will generate. I suspect that in reality quite a lot of our own rolling stock built for the purpose, will be direct-link between multinational companies, between Ford of Dagenham, say, and its counterpart in Germany.

Whatever the French or anyone else may say or hope, my conclusion is that, short of a fuel crisis, the tunnel will leave a considerable volume of traffic to move by roll-on/roll-off, not only on the railways but still between the ports, to Hamburg, Zeebrugge, Amsterdam and Rotterdam in particular. I am not persuaded that there will be a big switch from those ports. The more I look at what goes on in them, the more doubtful I become.

We should not mislead ourselves or industrial customers about the services outside the tunnel which will be needed and which must be fostered. There is a difficult balance to be struck between what we do for this great project, which the Government are guaranteeing and in which they will have a hand, and what we do for the ports, which will have a continued use. We trade with Germany, Belgium and Holland as well as France and Italy, which are the two countries attracted by the tunnel.

Then let us consider passenger travel, both business and pleasure. My reading is that the shift will be less from road to rail than from air to rail. I do not doubt that many who now endure the purgatory of the short journey from Heathrow or Gatwick will prefer to go by rail to Paris and Brussels, even at current speeds, let alone high speeds. But that does not meet the environmental point. It is clear to me, and I must make it clear to my constituents, that the bulk of passenger car traffic will go from the Cheriton terminal. We had better say that loudly now and not be caught out later.

If we examine modes of travel we find that about three-quarters of present passengers with cars travel from Dover and one-quarter from five other sea ferry routes. According to the economic and financial studies, half the Newhaven and Harwich traffic and one-third of the Southampton traffic will divert to the tunnel. My calculation, based on that study, is that in 1971 3 million passengers crossed with vehicles via Dover and that in 1980 one-third of 15 million—5 million—and in 1990 one-third of 30 million—10 million—will go via the tunnel and from Cheriton. That is the amount of saving of passenger transport on the road.

The right hon. Member for Grimsby spoke about the possible complex at Cheriton. Is it true that land around Cheriton is being bought by continental interests, German in particular? I am not asserting that it is, but if it is true it suggests that those interests see a major potential for development in that zone. It is something that we had better get straight before we finish the debate and possibly mislead people about the environmental factor, which worries me.

I do not want to be unkind, but the promoters of the tunnel and the Government are to some extent talking at cross-purposes. The Channel Tunnel Company naturally wants to advertise the amount of traffic that will be drawn to the tunnel, even to the tunnel mouth. The Government naturally want to press the weight of traffic on the roads which the tunnel will relieve. The two aspects do not quite add up in the various surveys.

It may be said, and I think that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State said it, that the twin motorways, the M2 and M20—M20 not yet built—can look after a great deal of the traffic. But they cannot. They will both become very crowded in the next 10 years. Secondly, many people will want to travel to Cheriton from the South and West, not on rail but on tyres. We should know whether the Government have in mind an east-west motorway linking Southampton and Dover.

My instinct, after looking at the study, is that the Government are making out a stronger prospect for the railways and for relieving the roads in Kent than the facts and prospects warrant. I wish it were not so but I fear that it is. I hope I am wrong.

As one who has based his appeal to the county on the way in which the tunnel can switch traffic from road to rail, I am most anxious now not to mislead. The case for the tunnel, in reality, resides in the fact that it could have, and may have, a major contribution to make towards conservation of oil and the transition to electricity. That justifies it. But we shall not inspire confidence if we dwell too much on the environmental factors and find very shortly that we are misleading. That would play into the hands of those who do not want to see the project started and, even when it has been started, will wish it to fail. If we want the venture to succeed, we must be more explicit about the real reasons for it and the likely consequences of our decision.