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UK Innovation Corridor - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:43 pm on 30th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Haselhurst Lord Haselhurst Conservative 8:43 pm, 30th April 2019

My Lords, I apologise for detaining your Lordships at this hour. I declare an interest: I am the unremunerated chair of the West Anglia Taskforce, and have been a user of the West Anglia line for more than 40 years. On 6 March, my right honourable friend Priti Patel staged a debate in the other place about transportation in Essex generally, but she did not dwell on the issues that I wish to put before your Lordships’ House this evening.

The West Anglia line denotes a corridor at the fringe of what is ordinarily believed to be East Anglia, because it comes out of north-east London into the upper Lea Valley, into Hertfordshire and Essex and then Cambridgeshire, and is perhaps not seen by many as true East Anglia. It is, however, a very important line. If I dare to quote myself from the report that the task force published in 2016:

“The West Anglia Main Line corridor is vital for the UK economy. London and the East of England are two of the fastest growing regions in the UK, and the West Anglia Main Line links them together. The railway is essential for bringing jobs, homes and businesses together”.

That is why it was felt more demonstrative to describe it as the innovation corridor of the UK.

If I may give a little history, in 1985 the decision was taken that Stansted should become London’s third airport, ending a long battle in which I was on the losing side. Although the term “integrated transport” was very much in vogue in those days, nobody saw fit to apply it in this instance by ensuring that the rail line was made fit for purpose if it was to serve an international airport. Regrettably, action on a proper railway linking Stansted to central London has not been undertaken by any subsequent Government and the problem has of course got worse. The regret which people who were on the receiving end of all this perhaps felt about disadvantage was all the greater for knowing that 20 years earlier in the 1960s, there had been a four-track railway in existence but it became a two-track railway on the advice of Dr Beeching. One does not have to be a sophisticated railway engineer to know that it is very difficult to operate both fast and slow trains on a two-track system. The only places where one train can overtake another are Harlow Town and Broxbourne. That does not of itself lend flexibility to the railway system.

Winding forward, we find that business is burgeoning on virtually the whole length of the route. At the northerly, Cambridge end, there is a tremendous concentration of high-tech industry. There is the biomedical campus at Cambridge, there is the airport and there is a host of businesses which are creating employment, drawing people into the area to fill the many vacancies that exist. Not only is industry becoming more important but the passenger numbers—people commuting and using the railway in any one of a number of ways—have vastly increased, putting pressure on the area. The population is growing still more, so there is continuing demand for more housing.

Stansted Airport has now achieved a throughput of over 28 million passengers per annum and the airport is proud that 50% of the people who come do so by some form of public transport. That is to be commended but, again, it puts a strain on the railway system. Successive Mayors of London have also proved ambitious in wanting to control and expand the inner London rail system to achieve a metro-style train service. This is also difficult to fit in with a railway that has to cope with medium destinations and the very outer destinations. One has to report that few freight paths have been created, despite the fact that Stansted Airport has become a major depot for the likes of FedEx and UPS.

All these demands on the railway simply cannot be met by a rickety, two-track system. Everyone, but everyone, is dissatisfied with the situation which has now arisen—and, at the moment, it shows no sign of getting better. For a while, we thought that the new dawn had arrived, with the emergence of the Crossrail 2 project. I am wholly supportive of this scheme. The project is vital for London, but it also provided the opportunity to boost the prospect of four-tracking on the railway between Tottenham Hale and Broxbourne, which would have opened up great possibilities. Unfortunately, the delay to Crossrail 1 is having a knock-on effect and creating renewed uncertainty about the timetable for Crossrail 2. I implore the Minister to recognise that doubts over Crossrail 2 really must not be allowed to mean that attention to the limitation of the West Anglia line is going to be put on hold. If that is to be the case, two very serious problems will arise for the Government.

The first is that Stansted, which has permission to use its facilities up to a level of 43 million passengers per annum, compared with the present 28 million, is the only airport in the London system with sufficient capacity to cope until further runway capacity is provided. As we seem to find any number of transport schemes where delays occur, I am dubious about the confidence with which Heathrow says that its third runway will be available by 2025. I suspect that it will be later than that. So the only place where new services coming into London can go is Stansted. The airlines are, understandably, very concerned about the quality of the connection to the city and pressure is being exerted. The Manchester Airports Group, the airport operator, is now very concerned about how the problems of the railway line can be overcome. Also, how are we going to get people to fill all the 5,000 or more jobs that are going to be created in the next few years? They will not all be found locally; many will travel from London and the means of doing that has got to be facilitated.

The second problem may seem more minor. Junction 8 on the M11 was the original access to this growing airport and remains important. The decision about the airport was made before a decision about where to put a motorway services area on the M11, and it was then chosen to do it on the same roundabout. I appeared at the public inquiry with the then Member for Hertford and Stortford to object to this. Our pleas were turned down. We were told that we did not know anything about it; the department had the experts; everything was going to be all right. Unfortunately, the whole thing was blocked very quickly after it had opened. More money has had to be spent to try to change the configuration of the roundabout and now even more is going to have to be spent. The simple answer would be to move it, because the congestion problem will not be overcome easily. With more housing planned for the area, the worry is that an inspector conducting an examination of the local plans of some of the immediate housing authorities would ask whether they had taken sufficient account of the capacity of this key roundabout to sustain their plans. That would be a disaster for local authorities.

There could be other solutions, to some extent. It would be churlish of me not to acknowledge that there are new trains, except they will not be able to perform to their full capabilities on a track system which has insufficient capacity. Digitalised signalling may mean that more trains can be put into the system, but that does not resolve the problem of the slow and the fast. There are 82 crossings on this railway line between London and Cambridge. Perhaps some of them could be weeded out. Passing loops could possibly be created to provide a few more overtaking opportunities. The airport tunnel is already constrained. There is also the question of whether or not more services might go in to Stratford, taking some of the pressure off Liverpool Street. If track capacity cannot somehow be expanded, even by a small amount, before extra tracks are provided, the only other answer is fewer trains or fewer stops. This would lead, I believe, to a battle royal between the different interest groups and the Secretary of State would find himself an uncomfortable adjudicator. Before it gets to that state, we must have facts on the table—although I recognise that even studying options costs money for Network Rail. Every possible intervention should be assessed for what it could achieve and at what cost, because that is the only way we will be able to persuade alternative funders to come in, for which I know Sir Peter Hendy would be very grateful.

I know that the Government have been persuaded to undertake so many projects but in the end a choice has to be made. I hope that tonight I have gone some way towards persuading the Government how much rests on reducing the restrictions on the UK’s innovation corridor.