Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill

Part of Orders of the Day — Schedule 3 – in the House of Commons at 6:17 pm on 1st November 1995.

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Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler , North Cornwall 6:17 pm, 1st November 1995

Some six hours ago I, too, emerged from the channel tunnel on Eurostar, coming back from meetings in Brussels, and I have to say that my experience was identical to that of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) rather than that of the hon. Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink). Indeed, other passengers in the carriage clearly thought that there was something wrong with the train. Those coming from Brussels who had not used it before, having had the smooth ride through Belgium and France, when suddenly faced with a remarkable reduction in speed, and much more rattle and swerve as they came through the Kent countryside, clearly did not relish the prospect of reaching London, as they feared, some hours late because the train obviously had something wrong with it.

We know that there is nothing wrong with the train; it is a great institution, but the link is clearly totally inadequate. That is why I believe that hon. Members on both sides of the House will congratulate the Select Committee and express relief that it has made such progress so far. We are grateful to the right hon. and hon. Members who have undertaken this task, but it has to be said that already the likely cost of the link has risen by another £170 million as a result of the amendments. We are now looking at a bill of something in excess of £2.7 billion. The cost of delay is clearly the most difficult cost of all to face. How can we justify that to our constituents, who are already well aware of the considerable time that it has taken to get thus far?

The instructions clearly are helpful in a number of ways, and I shall concentrate on one or two of them and their broad purpose rather than go into great detail, because I know that many hon. Members with local concerns wish to speak. The most important implications are for the provision of freight travel through the tunnel. I have always believed that to be the major justification for a rail-based fixed link across the channel. Indeed, I believe that that is already considered to be fully justified, and that its potential is extremely exciting.

Last year, for the first time, freight shipments on the United Kingdom's rail network fell below 100 million tonnes. That has serious implications for the whole British economy, let alone for the balance between road and rail. I hope that both these instructions and the speed with which the Committee is able to make progress will result in increasing opportunities for the economic transport of freight by rail.

A few weeks ago, it was suggested in the Financial Times that that would be the most critical issue in regard to future funding of the tunnel, and also that it would be critically important to our entire rail network. Given that few freight journeys of less than 300 miles are possible because of the loading and unloading costs at each end, the access given by the tunnel to the continental rail network is clearly of remarkable importance. We shall not have that opportunity again. More than 75 freight trains a week are making regular return journeys to a number of European countries; surely we should encourage that trend.

Given that the inadequacies of the trans-European network from Britain's point of view are of our own making, we are clearly presented with another opportunity. According to a Railnews bulletin sent to hon. Members by Eurotunnel, taking the road to rail ratio and comparing to other countries, Britain could have got 750km of high speed rail but instead only got 80km, for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. Sources in Brussels have said that Britain could have got very much more if it had applied; one wonders if there is a real government intention to spend a significant amount of money on improving the West Coast Main Line. Could not some of it have come from this TEN scheme? Even the modest £70 million required for the line upgrading between Glasgow and Folkestone for piggyback services could have been covered under the combined transport priority list.The Whitehall excuse is that projects, other than the CTRL, were not sufficiently advanced—who can we blame for this but the same people! The CTRL is incredibly important in itself, but it should also be the pioneering project that leads to effective new investment—particularly in freight travel—on our rail network in other parts of the country. It is feared that the return that Railtrack will demand for access charges—not just for the CTRL, but elsewhere in the country—could hold that back.

Of course noise insulation—to which the hon. Member for Medway (Dame P. Fenner) referred—and blight involve important considerations. Many hon. Members will wish to express their constituents' views on those subjects, but those are transitional problems, and I hope that the improvements that have already been hinted at will be seen as the Committee continues its work.

I believe—as, I think, do many members of the public, as well as Members of Parliament—that the function of this link to the continental network to extend opportunities for the freight industry to convey more loads by rail will really make the difference. It will be able to remove from the hard-pressed roads of Kent, and southern England generally, a proportion of the heavy loads that they are currently carrying, and at the same time enable the road improvement programme to be seen in a different light.

Finally, let me comment on future funding for not just the CTRL but similar projects. The French Government may not be perfect in other respects, but over many years, under different political leadership, they have seen opportunities for partnership between local authorities and national Government, and between public and private enterprise, as critical to such projects as high-speed rail links. The DATTAR scheme is by no means perfect in its consideration of environmental implications—we in this country would probably consider ourselves better at such things—but in other respects it leaves us standing.

Today, not for the first time, I passed through the amazing station at Lille where the three mayors of the Lille conurbations—all of different political persuasions—worked together to create a magnificent focus for a TGV station, as well as for Eurostar and for an integrated nodal transport system. That project is already a great success: it has generated new business and retail involvement.

I believe that we are missing an opportunity. I hope very much that the Committee's work will be successful, but I fear that we are still treating the project as a "one-off"—a project that can be attempted only in special circumstances—when it should be showing how we can bring private investment into the public-sector rail network as a whole.

That is the Liberal Democrat recipe for the success of a 21st-century rail system. It is working successfully in other parts of Europe, and we should model the future of Railtrack on it rather than allow the cranks of the right to abscond with an important national asset. The House will wish to congratulate the Committee on the work that it has done so far. I believe, however, that delay could prove extremely expensive, not just to the individuals who are blighted by it but to the whole British economy. With heartfelt emphasis, we add to our previous plea: the Committee has all our best wishes, and godspeed.