My Lords, it is a real pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. His modesty prevented him from describing perhaps his greatest moment as Minister for Transport, which was to resist, quite early on in his term in office, a very crazy plan from the British Railways Board and his Department for Transport officials to embark on a programme of closures of rural railway lines. I think about 40 lines were involved. He made quite clear that he would not stand for that, and more or less from that point the option of closures has gone off the political agenda. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, deserves a great deal of credit for the fact that we have a railway network of the size it is, which we are now going to build on.
I should start by declaring my various railway interests, which are on the register, particularly my chairmanship of the Great Western Railway advisory board. Other noble Lords spoke about the phenomenal increase in demand for rail travel. I will not go over those figures again but those of us who worked in the industry in the 1970s and 1980s, when cost-cutting, contraction and decay were all too frequent a feature of life on Britain’s railways, rub our eyes in disbelief at how great the transformation in the past 20 years has been. That growth has been achieved even when, for some of that time, the economy as a whole was in recession, or, as more recently, fuel prices at the pump made car travel cheaper.
Your Lordships will have seen the consequences of this doubling in the number of passenger journeys from 750 million a year to 1.5 billion in terms of overcrowding on the existing services. Each working day, 3,000 people must stand in the trains arriving at Euston, and a similar number in Birmingham. The west coast main line does not have enough train paths to accommodate the numbers wishing to use it. The railway tried to respond to the continuing increase in demand by fitting more trains on to the network, lengthening trains and reclassifying some coaches from first to second class to increase seat numbers, and so on. On the east coast, the new Azuma train fleet will add 28% more seating capacity at peak times for long-distance trains from King’s Cross. That may accommodate some years of demand growth, but on the even busier west coast main line the Pendolino fleet has already been lengthened, the busiest commuter trains operated by London Midland have had a 50% seating capacity increase, and extra commuter trains have been squeezed into peak periods by increasing the top speed of commuter trains to closer to 125 miles an hour.
That a limit would be reached by these kinds of measures has been evident to the Department for Transport for some time. In the competition for a long-term franchise for the east coast intercity service run in 2000, a bidder had suggested building a new high-speed line to accommodate an expansion of services. While the idea of a long-term franchise was abandoned on that occasion and was let for just two years instead, the experience prompted the first serious examination of the case for high-speed rail in Britain. The study, which was carried out by Atkins, Ernst & Young and others for the Strategic Rail Authority and subsequently published by the Department for Transport, found that there was a business case for a north-south high-speed rail because the existing trunk lines—the west coast, the midland and the east coast—would all be approaching capacity limits, starting with the west coast by the mid-2020s. It took the imagination and foresight of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, as the then Transport Secretary, to get hold of a high-speed rail project idea and make a reality of it, and then, crucially, win cross- party support, so that when the Government changed the policy did not change with them.
I have to tell your Lordships that the problem of overcrowding on the west coast main line is not a new phenomenon. I came across this letter published in the Times, which said:
“Sir, I left Rugby yesterday by the 12.45 pm train which is due at Euston-square at 4 o’clock pm. We arrived at Euston-square at 5.50 … The cause of our delay was the breaking down of a luggage-train ahead of us. There is such an enormous traffic carried on what used to be called the London and Birmingham Railway that such delays (to say nothing of the danger to passengers) are constantly occurring. Would it not be a great improvement if the company were to lay down two additional lines for the sole use of luggage-trains?”.
The date of that letter, my Lords, which was signed:
“Your Obedient Servant, A Cockney”,
I come back to today’s situation. A number of noble Lords have talked about the impracticality of adding to capacity by further upgrades of the main line. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, referred to that, as did my noble friend Lord Rosser. There are other more radical solutions, two of which would be familiar to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. One is to discourage the number of people travelling by train by pricing services up so that only the wealthy could travel and by making them less attractive. You would have to accompany that with a huge new programme of motorway construction, the environmental consequences of which would be horrendous.
We have heard a bit about the Chilterns today. One has only to look at the website of the M40 Chiltern Environmental Group, which represents 25,000 people who live along the M40 corridor from junction 3 to junction 8, to understand how appalling life is for people living close to motorways. I quote:
“Day and night we all suffer from intolerable noise pollution”.
Years on after the M40 opened, they are still campaigning for noise barriers.
The third option—and the sensible option, of course —is to build a new network of high-speed railways, as has been done in many other countries in the world. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, made the point that I was going to make—namely, that no national system which has embarked on a programme of high-speed rail has regretted it or said that it would take those services out of use. Instead, they are constantly adding to the networks that they have. Compared with Japan, which opened its first Shinkansen line in 1964, we in Britain have been rather slower in realising the potential of high-speed rail travel. We have tended to assume that because the Victorians left us such a fine network of main line and secondary railways, we could somehow get by without building new ones. Perhaps that made sense when the demand for rail travel was static or even falling, as it was in the 1970s, but that is not, of course, the case now.
In November 2007, the nation’s first high-speed line was fully opened with a launch at a transformed St Pancras station, which was attended by Her Majesty the Queen, and High Speed 1 was born. After all the tribulation and all the objections to that programme, it was delivered on time and to budget. Once the Eurostar trains had to operate over the old Southern Region tracks into Waterloo, but once the new line was opened, they could run at much higher speed over the new Channel Tunnel rail link. One consequence of that was that complaints from residents about train noise ceased altogether. People in that part of the world now protest about noise from the M20 motorway.
The environmental standards to which High Speed 1 was constructed were stringent and of high quality, and the extensive consideration that has been given to these matters in the design of High Speed 2 will, I am sure, ultimately have a similarly good outcome. When the construction of High Speed 1 was planned, it was thought that only the Eurostar services would use it. However, Eurostar demand has grown to more than 10 million passengers a year, and rail now dominates the London to Paris and Brussels travel markets, where once air traffic was dominant. However, other domestic high-speed services have materialised and Kent’s Javelin services now carry a further 10 million passengers a year. Taking the two service types together, the 20 million-plus annual passenger levels are similar to those originally forecast for the Channel Tunnel rail link. Forecasting has inevitable uncertainty, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said, to assume that the growth in demand will miraculously stop two years after the line is opened, is, of course, nonsense. That demand will continue and we have to plan for it well into the future. High Speed 2 has had the support of successive Governments. The Bill before us is the first part of what should be regarded as a national high-speed rail network.
Before I finish, I would like to stress a little understood but important aspect of High Speed 2. Once it is built, the need to try to fit together “paths” for non-stopping express passenger services alongside those for freight and local and regional passenger services over the same railway is removed. Part of the capacity gain that High Speed 2 delivers arises from the new tracks it provides and from the services with longer trains they can accommodate. Another part comes from the narrowing of the speed range of services operating on the parallel routes—initially with High Speed 2, that will mean the west coast main line. This is the “capacity release” effect and it means that intermediate places on this line such as Coventry, Northampton and Milton Keynes and smaller places, too, will be able to get better services in the future. And it should be possible to accommodate more freight off our congested motorways and on to rail, especially container traffic to and from the major ports and major distribution centres. So High Speed 2 is not just a foundation stone for the national high-speed network, and for improving the links between our major cities, but it is also an essential device to overcome constraints on today’s network and allow the expansion of services at smaller towns and cities and create better pathways for freight.
I believe that High Speed 2 is very much a project for our times. I congratulate the Minister on the way that he introduced the Bill, my noble friend Lord Rosser on the way that he responded, and all the other speakers in this debate. The fact that there is so much support in this House for this Bill is remarkable and perhaps mirrors the experience in the other place, where the Third Reading of the Bill received 90% of the vote with a huge majority. I am sure that the Bill will have the same support in this House.