High-speed Rail

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 12:01 pm on 8th December 2009.

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Photo of John Leech John Leech Shadow Minister (Transport) 12:01 pm, 8th December 2009

I thank my hon. Friend for that clarification. I meant to say Birmingham city centre, rather than Birmingham New Street.

The real issue is how we will pay for high-speed rail. Some hon. Members were at the all-party rail group meeting last night at which high-speed rail was discussed. I pay tribute to Mr. Martlew, who has done an excellent job of chairing the all-party rail group and has argued the case for investment in rail over a long period. In these uncertain economic times, there is understandable concern about whether any Government will be prepared to commit the money, particularly for such a long-term project.

In our policy paper, "Fast Track Britain," we have set out in great detail the benefits of high-speed rail and other rail improvements, but we have also indicated how we would start to pay for them. There would be a £30 surcharge on domestic flights- we have been very open about that-and a lorry road-user charging scheme, which would also ensure that foreign lorries paid their way for using UK roads, instead of having an unfair advantage over British hauliers. We would also get more money out of the train operating companies by offering much longer franchises in return for better investment. Currently, train operating companies have little incentive to invest for the future, as they are uncertain whether they will be running services in two or three years' time.

We are the only party to have a costed plan. In the Manchester Evening News on 9 September, Mrs. Villiers claimed that the Conservatives have a costed plan. Perhaps Stephen Hammond will clarify how the Conservatives will pay for their plan. I recall listening to the shadow Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet, at an all-party rail group meeting possibly 18 months ago. She was trying to claim that the Conservatives could pay for high-speed rail out of existing budgets, and still have money for the rest of the network. Is that still the position of the Conservative party? If so, where will the savings be made and what part of the existing rail network budget will be cut?

As for the Government, I suspect that we will have to wait until the Secretary of State for Transport has finished his Christmas reading before we get any commitment to funding HS2, but I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say in his reply. In the meantime, the Liberal Democrat programme for high-speed rail would begin immediately and be rolled out over 15 years. A high-speed network is vital not only to increase capacity, but to encourage more people out of their cars and dissuade them from taking domestic flights, as well as to help drive the economy and growth in the north and Scotland.

Developing a high-speed network would free up capacity on the conventional railway for shorter-distance local travel, as well as for freight. Currently, some local services play second fiddle to inter-city services and, following last January's timetable changes, some local services became less frequent or were lost completely to increase inter-city capacity. Tony Collins of Virgin Trains has highlighted that the west coast will run out of capacity possibly as early as 2015, and certainly by 2020, despite the £9 billion invested in the west coast main line. High-Speed Rail UK estimates that a high-speed rail network could accommodate all the passenger traffic travelling on the west coast, east coast and midland main lines twice over, which would be up to 15,000 passengers per hour in each direction.

Of equal importance is the potential for expanding rail freight. I understand that HS2 is unlikely to recommend carrying freight on any extended high-speed network, but ruling that out at this stage, in my view, would be a mistake. There is little justification for not taking advantage of the network through the nights when passenger services are not in use. Even if we ruled out freight on the high-speed network, freeing up capacity on the existing network would undoubtedly open opportunities for freight on the traditional lines.

There are sound environmental reasons for supporting high-speed rail. The Eddington transport study estimated that it could lead to carbon savings of 500,000 tonnes per year, or 30 million tonnes over 60 years, valued at £3.2 billion. Transport is responsible for around a quarter of all emissions in the UK and, more worryingly, is the only domestic sector in which emissions have risen since 1990.