Rail Electrification

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:46 pm on 8th March 2001.

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Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour 8:46 pm, 8th March 2001

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, on tabling this debate which is a fitting end (if I may say so) to his period with the Strategic Rail Authority, encouraging that body to look strategically. Listening to that speech and to that of my noble friend Lord Faulkner, one begins to believe that if they had been running the railways for the past 20 years, the railways would not be in their present state. But we are where we are. I believe that the argument for electrification advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, is very persuasive, provided there is a secure supply. That is the subject on which I want to focus.

I welcome electrification for passenger services. In declaring an interest as chairman of the Rail Freight Group, I also welcome it for freight if there is 100 per cent coverage, as in Switzerland, as the noble Lord pointed out. Half and half is not a very good thing. The problem is whether, if an oil crisis arises, electricity will be in plentiful supply. Sadly, the days when we burnt British coal to keep our electric trains running are over.

The 22nd report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, entitled Energy--The Changing Climate, provides some interesting forecasts about the UK's energy consumption and resources in 2010. I give them in ascending percentages: renewables, 4 per cent; nuclear, 6 per cent; coal, 10 per cent; oil, 30 per cent; and natural gas, 40 per cent. Let us consider how much of these sources of energy are imported and from where. Obviously, renewables and nuclear are UK-based. Some coal still comes from the UK, but not very much. A good deal of coal is imported, but often from politically stable countries. Most of our oil is imported from countries that are not very stable. Not much of the 40 per cent of natural gas is imported, but that will increase in future.

Paragraph 377 of the report, Electricity from Renewables, from the Select Committee on the European Communities states that there is evidence from Climate Network Europe to suggest that by 2020 70 per cent of the EU's energy requirements will be imported. Much of that will be gas from Algeria and from east of the Black Sea which is supplied by Russia. If one wished, one could comment on the political stability of those countries.

Electricity is being generated in increasing volume from gas, much of which in future will come from abroad. I am concerned about whether the supply of fuel for electricity for trains will be much more reliable than that of oil fuel for trains. If there was a secure electricity supply the position could be different. Noble Lords will recall that for many years London Underground generated its own electricity at Lotts Road. I do not believe that it still does so. Could the railways themselves do it today?

In the past few weeks Questions have been asked in your Lordships' House about renewables. Government policy is very much to encourage renewables. One wonders whether Railtrack can take a lead in encouraging the development of renewable energy, be it windmills offshore, solar energy or other sources, to assist in providing a stable supply. It could even mean encouragement of local production and delivery. I do not suggest that 100 per cent would need to come from there, but it would encourage renewables and give some long-term strategic thinking to the electrification programme. It might cost a little more, but it would certainly be a useful element in two long-term government strategies: first, to ensure transport in this country in the event of an emergency, lack of oil supplies and possibly lack of gas supplies; and, secondly, to encourage the development of renewables.

Given such a secure supply, a wide network of electrification would be highly desirable. As the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, said, if it took 20 years to complete, that would fit in quite well with some of the longer passenger franchises that one understands the Strategic Rail Authority is thinking of awarding. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw. I support the noble Lord's idea that the SRA should be asked to start work on this now. I should like to see it linked to a renewables programme so that when the railways are electrified, we have a secure supply of electricity, at least for the trains.