High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:57 pm on 14th April 2016.

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Photo of Lord Lea of Crondall Lord Lea of Crondall Labour 2:57 pm, 14th April 2016

My Lords, one has to be selective at this stage in the debate, and I begin with the theme picked up by the noble Lord, Lord Prescott. There are two aspects of the north-south question. The first has not been made much of today, but I shall say one word about it—the idea that the Great Wen will draw everything to London and that this scheme will even make it worse. I do not accept that, and it would be useful if the Minister could say a little more than he did in his opening about why it is a fallacy. I would say this, possibly, as a Lancastrian by birth, but I do not think that the civic officials in Lancashire are all mad as a hatter in saying that this proposal will be good for the north, because there will be much more integration of a great regional area, call it what you like—not only in the northern powerhouse or estuary to estuary, Mersey to Humber, but also for Derby, Nottingham, Sheffield, Birmingham and so on. That idea should really be knocked on the head.

One way in which to help to knock it on the head would be if we gave a bit more priority to getting HS3—an informal term at the moment, I think—into focus and into a timescale as a matter of some urgency. We cannot just do it at the drop of a hat, but it would be essential for the credibility of the northern powerhouse infrastructure body if as much as possible of east-west—HS3—could be integrated into all public policy and speeches about the northern powerhouse and HS2. That would underpin the credibility of the northern powerhouse idea.

Secondly, I would like to say an additional word, if I may put it that way, about capacity. We have 20 extra paths for freight trains that are able to go up the west coast main line, with significant environmental benefits. I must say that I am rather sad that some single-issue environmental pressure groups seem to have very little to say about some of the environmental benefits of HS2. We have heard speeches about forests, tunnels, the Euston area and so on. I suppose there is no perfect answer to building anything. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Mair, apropos his excellent maiden speech, that civil engineers have to be lauded for the contribution that they make. Let us look at the last 200 years. What about the Ribblehead viaduct? Everyone admires it and goes sightseeing to look at it, but would it have been built today? I think not. It would have been thought to have been absurd by all environmentalists. What about Brunel’s bridges? Most of them would not have been built. What about many viaducts, lines skirting beauty spots and so on? They would not have been built. Also, the intermodal benefit of rail as opposed to motorways is hugely positive in terms of noise and air quality, so let us hear that from some of the environmentalists. I do not think they are very courageous in what they say to their own pressure groups. I am not saying they do not have a case; I am saying that they look as if they just want to address their own single-issue pressure groups, not to help to fit into the wider picture.

With regard to the towns and villages going up towards Stratford and Birmingham through the Chilterns and so on, I convened a meeting with the National Association of Local Councils a couple of years ago to introduce it to the villagers of the north Kent HS1 line. As my noble friend Lord Berkeley will agree, they had a very highly successful and productive set of discussions, 15 or 20 years ago now, with the people who were then planning to build HS1. I am sorry to hear that the people in the area do not feel as if they have had a good relationship with HS2. In some respects, HS2 has surely leant over backwards. As I understand it, it has been announced that the amount of tunnelling will double from 10% of the whole line to 20%—20% of the whole line to Birmingham will be in a tunnel.

Everyone in this House and indeed in the country wears different hats; they have different roles on different days of the week. Sometimes we are listening to a train going by the back of our garden—I must say I think trains are easy to get used to, relative to motorways—but the next day we are on a train, and we like to look out of the window at the countryside. I had a day not so long ago on a train in the Upper Rhine Valley, or at least one of the Rhine valleys, going up to Andermatt in Graubünden. It was a joy to look at the views from the train. We cannot have trains in tunnels the whole way—I am making this point semi-seriously—but it is necessary to balance a number of factors when it comes to tunnelling. If I have my arithmetic right, 20% of the distance of HS2 is the best part of 20 miles of tunnel. Is that roughly right? That is a lot of tunnel. It is a distortion for some noble Lords to say that somehow this has all been badly handled.

I turn to the problem of capacity. It has been announced only recently that we cannot have direct train services using the west coast main line from Shrewsbury to London or from Blackpool to London, because of capacity. There is an idea that these problems will be solved in 10 to 20 years’ time and it is all nonsense to talk about capacity, but it is here and now that people are not able to use trains, which are environmentally friendly compared with motor cars. In terms of balance, again, we need to recognise that people use motor cars.

I come to the question of parkway stations versus in-city stations. To slightly pick up a point from my noble friend Lord Berkeley, it all depends on the geography. In the case of Nottingham and Derby, not only is it pretty obvious that you need a parkway station half way between the two but there are some advantages to parkway stations. When you go towards south Wales, there is Bristol Parkway station, where there is very good parking—there is no problem about parking a car—and it has a jolly good service from Paddington. We have got used to what we now call parkway stations. I am not so sure that everyone wants to get to the part of London, Birmingham or Sheffield where the railway station is. They still have to go somewhere when they get to the railway station. That is to do with urban planning, trams and all the rest of it.

Lastly, I want to make a point that has not been made. I am echoing what has been said about one aspect of Euston: as I understand it, the distance between Euston and St Pancras/King’s Cross is the same sort of distance as between terminals 1, 2 and 3 at Heathrow—it is not a lot different. It requires modern travelator arrangements. That is the answer to those people who, rather sadly, have said that they wanted HS1 to be part of the connection with HS2.

I used to work at the TUC, and I am very glad to note—this should be put on the record, and I think the Minister will confirm it—that recently there was an announcement about a framework agreement between the TUC and HS2 on the construction period. I pick up a point from the noble Lord, Lord Adonis: this all has to happen in 16 years, which is pretty challenging. However, the framework agreement is very similar to the one for the construction of the Olympics. It requires a lot of principles of employment, health and safety and so on, but it augurs very well for the progress of the scheme that people are aware of this. I hope that the Minister might say something about the TUC agreement with HS2 covering construction, engineering, transport and so on in the 10 years ahead.