Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Address in Reply to Her Majesty's Most Gracious Speech

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:35 am on 25th November 2004.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Broers Lord Broers Crossbench 11:35 am, 25th November 2004

My Lords, I am grateful to be the fourth Member of this House today to have the opportunity to address your Lordships for the first time and to thank your Lordships and the loyal staff of this House for my generous welcome. I thank especially the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, for his particular welcome.

I warmly commend the commitment of Her Majesty's Government, expressed in the gracious Speech, and elaborated upon by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, today, to streamline the organisation of our national rail system and to improve performance.

The path that led me to this House today was a varied one, beginning in Calcutta, taking me to school in England and Australia, then to university—first in Melbourne and then in Cambridge, then at length into a 20-year career in research and development for IBM in the United States. Following that, I returned to Cambridge, some 20 years ago now, to Trinity College and to be professor of electrical engineering. I wanted to get back to basic research, to my life-long interest in electronics, and especially to discovering new ways in which to fabricate nanoelectronic devices. I also wanted to try my hand at teaching, although I assure your Lordships that the considerable anxiety that I have felt about speaking to this august body was nothing compared to the prospect of first lecturing to a very large class of undergraduates on a gloomy Monday morning.

After 10 years of frontline academic life, I took on other responsibilities—and, following a rewarding time as master of Churchill College and head of the engineering department at Cambridge, I eventually served for seven years as the university's vice-chancellor. I now have the privilege to be the president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and to have time to return to my industrial and business interests. The fellows of the academy regard as one of their main responsibilities that of enhancing national capabilities. There is no more important capability than that of our transport system.

Transport is the lifeblood of the nation; all our other achievements, in science, medicine and the arts, are diminished if people cannot gain access to them. Rudyard Kipling even wrote that transport "is" civilisation. It is well established that there is a strong link between the increase in movement of people and goods and the growth of GDP. Over the past 50 years, the number of road vehicles in Britain has grown almost sevenfold, and traffic by a factor of eight. Today there are around 8,500 kilometres of road traffic per capita, and because we have not planned adequately for that volume, Britain's roads are probably the most congested in Europe, which costs us an estimated £15 billion a year, a sum that is likely to double in the next decade.

Perhaps more serious is the consequent increase in the emission of CO2 and its impact on global warming. Transport already accounts for 28 per cent of all CO2 emissions in the UK. In addition, it is sadly the case than an average of over 100 people are killed or seriously injured on our roadways each weekday. Britain can be proud of its record in reducing road accidents compared to other industrialised countries, but we must all welcome Her Majesty's Government's proposal to legislate in order further to reduce injuries and fatalities.

Rail transport can provide solutions to these problems, and there has been a significant growth in rail traffic—for example, 46 billion passenger kilometres in 2002—but rail still represents only 7 per cent of total travel and a further increase in traffic to rail is hampered by lack of railway capacity. We are already close to saturation.

Solutions to our transport problems will not be simple. It is inevitably difficult to balance people's desire for personal mobility with the wider benefit in reduced pollution and congestion. To rebuild our infrastructure while services are in operation necessarily causes long-term inconvenience, and that will be nowhere more apparent than in the long-delayed rehabilitation of London's Underground. But creative engineering can provide the solutions and our engineers do a superb job when they are empowered to do so. Take for example the completion of phase II of the Channel Tunnel Rail LinkCTRL—which is expected to open on time in 2007 and the record performance of tilting trains on the re-engineered London-to-Manchester line.

For Eurostar the opening of phase I of CTRL has contributed to a 17 per cent growth in traffic. Market share is now 68 per cent of all London/Paris trips, a substantial increase over 2003. Completion of CTRL II in 2007 will further cut the journey time to Paris to two hours 15 minutes. That will be an engineering triumph of which we will be proud—Britain's first ligne à grande vitesse and the first new main line for a century.

However, with the completion of CTRL and of the West Coast Main Line upgrade, no further major improvements are in prospect. There appears to be no incremental plan, no rolling programme for improving the quality and capacity of our railways. For engineering designers and suppliers that is a disaster. They cannot maintain expert and skilled teams on the uncertain prospect of future work. The pace will be lost; the cost of restarting will be higher.

In the crucial area of railway rolling stock, the end is in sight for manufacturers in the UK. The order for CTRL trains has gone to Japan. There are very few further orders, apart from London Underground, and they may also go overseas. I understand that the year 2006–07 is expected to see no new trains delivered for our national rail system.

Having said that, it is especially gratifying that the Government propose the construction of the long-delayed Crossrail project which is so essential to London's future competitiveness. Let us hope, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, have already expressed, that in addition to the planning and engineering proposals, the financial framework for this large and essential project is also put in place.

Those achievements and plans are surely good news, as is much that is in the White Paper, but they fall far short of what is required. We need to develop an overall transport strategy and plan and let our engineers put it in place. It is the experts, in many cases the engineers, who need to be involved in the early planning and not brought in after the mistakes have been made and there are problems to fix.

Everything in our society depends on transport—schools, hospitals, retail, the supply of industry's goods to and from our ports and airports, culture, entertainment and sport. There is virtually nothing in our society that cannot be harmed or enhanced by transport. If we do not wake up to the need for a coherent plan and ensure that it is put in place, we will not be able to meet the severe international competition referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham. I, as an engineer, will do what I can to help with this task.