Rail Electrification

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:56 pm on 8th March 2001.

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Photo of Baroness Scott of Needham Market Baroness Scott of Needham Market Liberal Democrat 8:56 pm, 8th March 2001

My Lords, this particular journey started off almost an hour late. The noble Lords dealing with the International Criminal Court Bill are queuing up behind us, but we have kept to time.

It is in the nature of all governments to find that long, medium and short-term all actually kaleidoscope into "When is the next election?" Even that relatively short horizon tends to be blurred much of the time by unforeseen events and even crises from time to time.

One matter that I much appreciate as a new Member of your Lordships' House is the opportunity sometimes to step back from that kind of political fray and take a look into the longer horizon.

I congratulate my noble friend Lord Bradshaw on initiating the debate today. I join other noble Lords in paying tribute to his work on the Strategic Rail Authority. I have enjoyed other noble Lords' contributions. I have learned a great deal from noble Lords who have spent many years in the rail industry and have much practical experience.

At this early stage, I wish to record my support for the 10-year plan approach adopted by the Government. Ten years represents the medium term in transport planning. It is a marked improvement on the kind of short-termism of which the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, spoke with such passion. Along with the multi-modal studies and the development of regional transport strategies, we begin to get a feeling of some significant improvement in our long-term strategic planning. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, said, we really should be looking at a 20-year strategy for the railway--to look at what new financial mechanisms are needed, to appraise what is required and to work out how the costs can be met.

The fuel crisis last autumn took us all by surprise: first, because we have got out of the habit of having our lives disrupted by that kind of industrial reaction; and, secondly, because the resultant fuel shortages showed us how we have become so dependent on readily available supplies of petrol and diesel. We cannot rule out such an event happening again; neither can we entirely discount the possibility of geo-political upheaval in the Middle East. That might create world shortages of oil. We all know that oil is a finite resource and should not be regarded in the long term as the underpinning source of energy in our economy. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, reminded us of the extremely complex way in which our energy needs are met. Indeed, he reminded us about the need for a more robust strategy in relation to renewable energy.

During the mercifully short fuel crisis, there was some evidence of changing behaviour on the part of motorists, not least a rapid rise in the number of people travelling by rail. Unfortunately, the terrible accident at Hatfield a few weeks later led to a rapid reversal in that trend, as services descended into chaos. But worse in the long term was the loss of confidence in the railway system on the part of the travelling public.

There are many reasons why people choose to travel other than by rail, but safety should not be one of them. Despite the terrible events at Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield and now Selby, rail travel is still far safer than road travel. The tragedies of recent years will be much compounded if people use them as a reason to switch to a more unsafe way of travelling.

It is beyond the scope of this debate to talk about what needs to be done to rebuild confidence and how the railway industry might be structured in the future. My noble friend Lord Shutt of Greetland has shown us how investment in rail infrastructure has in some ways been damaged by the fragmentation of the rail industry in recent years.

I want to speak briefly about my own home region of East Anglia and the rail network that we have at present. Anyone who visits East Anglia will know that at the moment our rail links run almost entirely north/south. That is possibly on the assumption that London would be the only place that anyone would want to go to or get away from. Part of the debate on English regionalism should centre on the need for transport links between regions that are not dependent on travel through London. A more equitable and sustainable pattern of jobs and wealth creation depends on strengthening regions beyond London and the South East.

The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, referred to places across the country that might have benefited from an earlier investment in electrified lines. My noble friend Lord Mar and Kellie enlightened us--he rather tested our geography--on the needs of the rail network in Scotland. In Suffolk we are fortunate to be the home of the Port of Felixstowe, one of the world's largest container ports and a major employer in the area. It currently handles some 2.7 million units, of which 22 per cent travel by rail. The port has impressive plans for expansion and is keen to increase rail use as part of that process. The current levels of congestion on the A.14 at Cambridge and the A.12 at Chelmsford make it difficult to imagine how that increase might take place on the roads. Significant investment in the rail infrastructure is needed to relieve the congestion on the trunk roads and to take some of the pressure off the rail lines to the north and east of London. In February the SRA announced plans to upgrade the route from Felixstowe to the West Coast Main Line via Peterborough and Leicester. That will provide an alternative route to the West Midlands, the North West and Scotland.

As far as concerns passenger travel, many of the same issues apply. We urgently need investment in the east/west link, which would recreate the link between Bedford and Sandy, and link into the East Coast Main Line. That would mean that people from the east of England could travel to Oxford and beyond, to the West Midlands or to Scotland without having to travel to London. We are also looking forward to the CrossRail links across London to prevent the current situation where it can take as long to transfer between stations in London as the original journey from Suffolk. The completion of the Channel Tunnel rail link, with an interchange at Stratford, would provide us with useful rail links.

I have spoken about the East Anglian links, but those points could apply equally apply to any of the regions of our country. The case has been made, and certainly the transport Mafia of your Lordships' House is in agreement. So I think that now we should be looking forward to the action.