I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter of considerable importance to many of my constituents and to many other people throughout the country. I am glad to see the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), in the Chamber at this hour. I have always found her to be courteous and helpful in previous exchanges in the House. In her previous profession, the B-movie probably preceded the main business in the cinema but, on this occasion, the B-movie is coming after the main business considered by the House. None the less, although it may be a B-movie for those hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber, it is a matter of the greatest concern to many people.
My interest in raising this matter lies in the fact that I am strongly in favour of the movement of freight by rail. It is of great environmental benefit. I have a non-pecuniary interest in that I am co-chairman of the all-party rail freight group. I hope that that demonstrates my credentials as someone who is pleased to see the success of the rail freight industry. I am pleased about the enormous growth in rail freight that has taken place since the privatisation of the railways. That is most welcome.
In the short time available for the debate, I shall concentrate on some slightly more negative points connected with rail freight, but I hope that, in doing so, I shall address them constructively. Only if proper attention is paid to the environmental difficulties that can be caused by rail freight for those who live closest to rail freight facilities can the necessary expansion of rail freight take place in a way that will benefit our country and bring overall benefits to the environment. There can be enormous environmental dividends, but only if the industry is fair to its neighbours.
I have stated my own broad support for the expansion of rail freight, but, in raising the real and reasonable concerns of hundreds of families in my constituency who are affected by problems of noise and vibration from such freight movements, I am especially keen to acquit them of the charge of nimbyism. I allude to the particular problem caused by the transport, daily, of large quantities of limestone from quarries in Buxton to the Brunner Mond chemical plant in Northwich. I note that the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) is in the Chamber, although I am not sure in which capacity. I presume that he is here because of his constituency interest in the matter.
Freight from Buxton flows, by a slightly odd circuitous route, through the constituencies of Hazel Grove; Altrincham and Sale, West; Tatton; and Weaver Vale. I have had cause to be grateful to my parliamentary neighbour the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) for his support and assistance.
This evening, I am pleased to have the coincidental support of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Select Committee, which today published its report on the integrated transport White Paper. I am sure
that the Minister will have been reading the report all day and that she will be familiar with its contents. She will have noted that paragraph 164 states:
Despite the wider environmental benefits of an increase in rail freight, there are likely to be disadvantages, in some cases severe, for people living close to railway lines. It will be necessary, therefore, for improvements in rolling stock and track technology to be exploited to the full in order to minimise the noise and other environmental impacts generated by freight trains.
It is a coincidence that that report has been published on the same day as my Adjournment debate takes place, but I am pleased to have the Committee's clear support. We need to accept that a balance must be struck between the overall environmental benefits of carrying freight by rail and the severe difficulties that can be suffered by those who live closest to rail freight facilities.
As I said, I am keen to acquit my constituents of any charge of nimbyism because the flow of freight has gone on for decades. The railway line in question runs adjacent to the playing field of my old school, and I remember watching the wagons of long trains pass during the day. However, the flow of trains laden with limestone continues at night, and that became a significant problem towards the end of 1997, when the wagons were replaced.
On 10 February 1998, the freight operator, English, Welsh and Scottish Railways, sent a constituent of mine a letter which stated:
The way the wagon is made and its running characteristics does induce more noise and vibration".
It is clear and it is accepted by all the parties involved—by Brunner Mond, the customer, EWS, the carrier, and Railtrack, the operator of the track infrastructure—that the problem is a relatively new one. Although everyone accepts that the provision of limestone to the Brunner Mond plant is essential to the conduct of its business, all the parties to the affair recognise that there has been an increase in the noise and vibration nuisance generated by that necessary flow of freight.
It is important to recognise that, in densely populated residential areas—such as Timperley and Hale in my constituency, where the railway lines runs very near to some residential properties—it is only acceptable for freight flows to continue if maximum efforts are made to mitigate the environmental nuisance that they cause. Although I accept that none of the companies involved has acted deliberately, in the case that I describe, far from being mitigated, the environmental nuisance has been increased unnecessarily by a change in the technology employed.
As I said, the problem affects hundreds of families in my constituency, and I shall allude to a few of them. Mr. Wilson wrote to me to say that he is
woken at 5 in the morning to vibrations which make my whole house shake".
He adds that the vibrations must register five on the Richter scale, which might be a slight exaggeration, but I am sure that, in the small hours, the vibrations feel all too real to sufferers. Mr. Carr, who has lived in the area for three and a half years, wrote to me saying that, although the 4 am train used to pass virtually unnoticed,
Last night four trains came by between 4 and 6.30 am.
These people have been woken repeatedly, night after night, in the small hours. They are suffering a real loss in their standard of living and are very concerned about potential damage to their properties.
I should note at this point that Railtrack has attempted to help by commissioning some studies of the vibration levels involved. Preliminary reports suggest that the level of vibration, although clearly noticeable to those who live near the railway line, is not sufficient to cause structural damage to properties. That may be so, but it is definitely sufficient to cause major disruption to the lives of many of my constituents. They are losing sleep and remain concerned about structural damage to their houses. The problem must be tackled even if their properties are not in immediate danger.
Steps are being taken to improve the situation. The Minister will be aware that this is the third time that I have raised the matter in the House. I previously asked questions of Ministers at the relevant times and this is my first Adjournment debate on the subject. I have also written to Ministers outlining my concerns and those of my constituents. The responses have always been helpful, but ministerial replies have improved in recent months as there is increasing recognition that this is a real problem that must be addressed. In her letter to me of 8 April 1998, the Minister wrote:
Such is the demand for railfreight wagons, due to the increased carriage of goods by rail, that in this case the customer was not able to hire quieter wagons. EWS can only run trains to meet the requirements of their customers and at times when Railtrack can allocate train paths so, as in this case, freight trains tend to operate through the night, leaving the tracks free during the day for passenger traffic.
The Minister makes a perfectly reasonable observation, but the tone of her letter fails to acknowledge the real difficulties that people face in their daily lives. I am pleased to see appreciation of this problem increasing. A representative of EWS also wrote to me on 8 April 1998 and that letter contains the simple statement:
At present I don't believe there are any further steps we can take to improve the situation".
However, there have been a considerable number of suggestions about the way to proceed.
My purpose in initiating this debate is to try to focus on what can be done practically to help my constituents and those of neighbouring Members of Parliament who are suffering as a result of this problem. The tone of the responses from Railtrack, Brunner Mond and EWS is always helpful. They make it clear that they are exploring ways of ameliorating the problem—for example, they are considering altering the speed of the trains, which may improve the situation. I am told that they are investigating the possibility of improving the track with continually welded sections, which may reduce the noise and vibration. I also understand that Brunner Mond, with the support of EWS, has applied to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions for a freight facilities grant in the hope that the design of its wagons can be improved and the company can introduce a "track friendly" wagon—to use its phrase.
I know that the DETR is considering this matter, and I do not expect the Minister to give me an answer about the freight facilities grant tonight. I would like to impress on her, however, that, although this problem is of immediate concern only to a few hundred families in my constituency—more widely, perhaps, it concerns a few thousand families—it has a much wider impact because rail freight is rapidly expanding. As I have said, I welcome that and I believe that it can bring environmental benefits, but Ministers should now understand and accept that that expansion should continue only where it mitigates environmental problems for neighbouring residents.
The Department must help my constituents not only because it is right to help those who are suffering an unnecessary burden of nuisance and distress that has, for no good reason, increased in the past couple of years, but because this is a matter of public policy. If we are to achieve the ends that both the Minister and I desire, the problem must be tackled now, and it is only by recognising its wider implications that the future of the rail freight industry can be secured.
I ask the Minister and her colleagues to continue to work with the parties, as the Department has done at various times in the past few months, towards early mitigation of the problem. It has been suggested that, if we get a freight facilities grant, there might be improvements in rolling stock on that line early in 2000. That would be welcome, but my constituents cannot tolerate a deadline that constantly shifts backwards. It is essential that the Minister investigates the problem immediately and continues to be involved in pressing the parties to find a solution as quickly as possible.
I am not alone in having expressed these concerns. My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn), who is present, secured his own Adjournment debate on the problems of his constituents a few months ago. Only by dealing with those problems can we achieve the environmental outcomes that we all desire.
I am sure that the Minister understands the importance of improving the quality of life of my constituents, and that she will want to achieve that improvement. I hope that she will also recognise the wider public policy consideration that the problem must be solved in the interests of striking a fair balance between the rail freight industry and those who live next to it, so that we can make progress towards a sound environmental outcome. I look forward to hearing what I hope will be words of comfort from the Minister.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) on securing this debate. Not only are the issues important to his constituents but, as he rightly said, they have a much wider importance. Constituency concerns, however, are always the main feature of these debates, whatever the hour of showing. My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) has been active on behalf of his constituents in attempting to secure a solution to this problem.
I am delighted to hear that the hon. Gentleman shares the Government's wish to encourage the movement of more freight by rail. It is a key part of our integrated transport strategy, and we have taken a number of initiatives in support of this policy. Indeed, after coming into office, we took immediate steps by improving the freight facilities grants scheme: cutting the red tape and doubling the grant spent in our first year.
Over the past two years, grants totalling £60 million have been awarded, and we have made it clear in our White Paper that more funds will be available over the next three years, if the demand is there.
At the national level, we shall also look to the Strategic Rail Authority to promote transport of freight by rail, establish rail freight targets and ensure that the network has sufficient capacity for freight as well as for the growth in passenger movements.
To establish the local context, we are in the process of revising our planning guidance to promote rail freight options, by introducing the expectation that local authorities will consider and protect opportunities for rail connections to industrial sites.
All that provides evidence of our long-term commitment to rail freight. We are delighted—as is the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West—by the 12 per cent. growth in freight tonne kilometres on the railways during 1997-98, and by the continuation of that growth into the last financial year. We welcome its contribution to easing congestion on our roads, and the overall environmental benefits of less air pollution. Yet I appreciate that, for those who live close to a railway line, the noise from trains can affect the quality of everyday life. We may become accustomed to trains rumbling in the background during the day, but train movements during the night can be especially disruptive. Moreover, freight trains tend to operate during night hours, when the lines are not in use by passenger trains.
The statutory position is that householders affected by noise from new railway lines or where an existing railway is widened by laying additional track are entitled to noise compensation and amelioration measures. The same provision applies. However, there is no provision for compensation or abatement measures when use of a railway line intensifies.
Train operators and Railtrack are subject to the statutory nuisance provisions of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which are in enforced by district councils. Under section 79 of that Act, it is the duty of district councils upon an occasion to inspect their areas to detect any statutory nuisances, and to take such steps as are reasonably practicable to investigate any complaint made by a local resident.
Section 80 of the 1990 Act provides for the serving of abatement notices where a local authority is satisfied that a statutory nuisance exists, or is likely to occur or recur. Section 122 of the Railways Act 1993 provides the railway companies with some defence where they are working as a statutory authority, but it is not an open-ended defence. It would be up to the local authority to convince a court that the noise generated was greater than might be reasonably thought necessary in order for the companies to carry out their statutory functions.
Having set out the policy and legal framework, I turn to some of the specifics of the case to which the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West has referred, which are particular to his constituency. I am advised that, in January 1998, for safety reasons, Brunner Mond had to replace the rail wagons that it was using to transport limestone from Buxton to Northwich. The company changed from four-axle to two-axle wagons. At the same time, the rail freight operator, English, Welsh and Scottish Railway, introduced a single class 60 locomotive in place of the two class 37 locomotives previously used on that service—thus reducing the locomotive weight by 85 tonnes.
As the hon. Gentleman has said tonight, since those rolling stock changes, complaints regarding noise and vibration have increased. Those complaints centre on the early morning full train and the apparent increase in noise from the two-axle wagons, which are more prone to vibration than the four-axle version. I understand that there have been discussions about the problems between Brunner Mond, EWS and Railtrack since early last year. The first solutions discussed were those of re-routing or re-timing the trains. However, the lack of an alternative route and the heavy use of the route by passenger services during daytime hours meant that those were not practicable solutions.
I understand that another possible solution, to replace the wagons, is now the favoured option. New wagons are part of a wider strategy of investment in the Brunner Mond rail operation, which will also involve improvement of the loading and unloading facilities at either end of the route.
The upgrading proposal is the subject of an application for freight facilities grant, which I know is supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale and which is currently being considered by officials in my Department's freight grant unit. I shall endeavour to keep both the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend advised of progress.
I understand that EWS and Railtrack have acted earnestly throughout: playing their part in assessing the size of the problem, engaging constructively in discussions about long-term solutions; and suggesting the short-term measures to improve the situation.
I also understand that Railtrack, following discussion with local authorities along the route, engaged an independent contractor to undertake a vibration survey inside a residential property in Hale, another point referred to by the hon. Gentleman. The property was selected on the basis of it being 10m from a section of jointed track, near a crossover and level crossing, in an area where trains accelerate and decelerate.
Although the incidences of freight trains passing during the 24-hour test period were said by residents to be typical, they indicated that there had been previous instances of greater vibration from the worst trains. However, Railtrack and its consultants concluded that the measured vibration levels were so low that even the worst trains were unlikely to have given rise to cosmetic building damage, although vibration, even at this low level, would be perceptible to residents. The local authorities have also undertaken such vibration monitoring and their conclusions were in line with those of Railtrack.
I understand that EWS has agreed to the placing of a four-axle wagon in the middle of the existing two-axle wagon formation to ascertain whether this might decrease the vibration between wagons and therefore reduce the noise and vibration overall. I am also advised that EWS has agreed to consider running a test service composed of wagons comparable to those which it is proposed to introduce next year. If the company proceeds with this service, vibration will be monitored along the route.
In conclusion, perhaps I should refer to the final option for the Brunner Mond traffic: that is to transport the limestone by road. I have no doubt that we can all agree that such a move, which would add 72,000 lorry movements each year to the already congested roads of the area and cause considerable more air and noise pollution, would be entirely undesirable. I hope, instead, that Brunner Mond, EWS and Railtrack can between them bring about interim measures and long-term solutions to reduce the nuisance caused to the hon. Gentleman's constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale. I have little doubt that they will both continue to ensure that my Department addresses these issues.