High-speed Rail

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 12:21 pm on 8th December 2009.

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Photo of Chris Mole Chris Mole Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 12:21 pm, 8th December 2009

I congratulate Greg Mulholland on securing this important debate. High-speed rail is, without doubt, a hotly debated topic across the country, and I was grateful for the opportunity to hear all the views that have been raised today, including those from my hon. Friend Ms Smith, Mr. Lidington, my hon. Friend Mr. Betts and John Mason, the common-sense comments of my hon. Friend Mr. Martlew and the views of Lorely Burt. I shall endeavour to respond to all the issues, but, if I do not, they have been heard and will be examined.

Railways across the UK are a success story. We have seen great improvements in the areas that matter most to passengers, including punctuality and reliability. Our priorities for the railway are still capacity, safety and performance. A reliable railway is the single most important requirement of passengers, and it is also important to the wider economy.

Rail punctuality and reliability have improved by more than 10 per cent. since early 2004. The rail White Paper, "Delivering a Sustainable Railway", published in July 2007, specified further improvement during the high-level output specification period to 92.6 per cent. of trains arriving on time by March 2014, a 25 per cent. reduction in delays of more than 30 minutes and, to maintain momentum on safety, a 3 per cent. reduction in the risk of death or injury to passengers and employees by 2014.

The White Paper outlines the single biggest programme of investment for a generation. It does so without imposing new burdens on regulated fares while being able to return to historic levels the demands made of the taxpayer. More than £10 billion will be invested in enhancing capacity between 2009 and 2014, with overall Government support for the railway totalling £15 billion. Without drawing the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West into a debate on this, I can say that we will introduce a significant number of extra carriages on to the rail network in England and Wales by 2014.

The £8.9 billion spent on upgrading the west coast main line has already delivered faster journeys between London, Birmingham and Manchester and beyond, and the December 2008 timetable change has resulted in greater frequency of services to some of our greatest cities. For example, we now have more frequent and faster journeys between Manchester and London, with a train every 20 minutes during the day and average journey times of around two hours eight minutes. Liverpool and Preston to London takes only a few minutes over two hours, and Warrington and Wigan are less than two hours away. Chester is one of the big winners, having a regular hourly service for the first time, with a journey time of just two hours. Services between the north-west and Scotland have also improved as have those to the west midlands.

But it does not stop there. On 23 July, the Government announced a major £1.1 billion programme of rail electrification. The Great Western main line between London and Swansea will be electrified by 2017, the line between Liverpool and Manchester will be electrified by 2013, and we are working to identify other viable routes for electrification.

Turning to the central issue of this debate, high-speed rail in the UK, I would first like to mention that we already have our first high-speed rail line, the £5.8 billion channel tunnel rail link, known as High Speed 1. That significant project opened on time and on budget, and, from next week, HS1 will be used for the full-service Southeastern Javelin service. That timetable change will bring about the biggest change in more than 40 years and will mean an entirely new service pattern throughout parts of Kent, East Sussex and south-east London. It will provide passengers with more than 200 extra trains in the south-eastern region every day, boost capacity by 5 per cent. and dramatically speed up journey times for people using the high-speed services; for example, the journey time from St. Pancras to Ashford will be 38 minutes.

We are planning now to ensure that we are in the strongest position possible to make the right investments in future years to continue developing the rail network. However, we also recognise that the west coast main line will be operating to its maximum capacity by the end of the 2020s, and that a new route might be needed. That is why we have created High Speed Two Ltd to develop a proposal for an entirely new line between London and the west midlands, and to advise on the potential development of a new line beyond the west midlands. HS2 will also provide advice to Ministers on the potential development of a high-speed service beyond the west midlands and consider in particular the potential to extend to Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, the north-east and Scotland.

To pick up on some of the points raised in the debate, I can assure those such as Mr. Grieve, who are concerned about local environment impacts, that HS2 has carried out detailed environmental analyses at a local level, and its report at the end of the year to the Government will include an assessment and mitigation measures. I can also advise that HS2 has been actively seeking the views of stakeholders from across the country and has engaged directly with interested parties as its work has progressed.

As hon. Members will be aware, the Secretary of State is also keen to understand the benefits that high-speed rail can deliver to the country and has met a range of stakeholders, including several Members of this House, to discuss the issue. I, too, have heard views on high-speed rail, in particular during my summer trip to the north of England, where I met with Nexus, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester integrated transport authorities, all of which were keen to impress on me the value that high-speed services would bring to their economy.

To address a couple of detailed points, I can assure the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West in respect of double-deck trains that HS2 is working to a gauge minimum of UIC GB+ or similar, which will give the flexibility to run duplex high-speed trains on a new line if that is necessary. Of course, that would have freight benefits as well, which I believe addresses one of the issues raised by Mr. Leech.

Several hon. Members said that they wanted a strategy for a wider network, and I can assure them that in our response to HS2's report early next year we will address the question of a strategic view on a wider UK network.

Let me set out why we feel that high-speed rail needs serious and informed consideration. Until recently, Governments considered rail in the UK to be in a state of inevitable and irreversible decline, and they failed to invest in new infrastructure. As a result, today we are behind most other developed countries in building a high-speed rail network. Yet over the past decade, rail has experienced a tremendous renaissance in Britain. High-speed rail has the potential to meet future inter-conurbation capacity requirements and sustainably to transform the transport connections between our major conurbations, with substantial economic, social and environmental benefits.

International experience bears that out. Before high-speed rail, just 24 per cent. of journeys between Paris and Brussels were by train. Since the introduction of a high-speed line between those cities, the proportion of train journeys has more than doubled to 50 per cent., with a huge increase in capacity. In Germany, high-speed rail is so popular that Lufthansa has scrapped flights between Cologne and Frankfurt-little wonder, now that the high-speed line has slashed the 110-mile journey time by train from two hours 15 minutes to just under one hour. Before high-speed rail in Spain, two thirds of journeys between Madrid and Seville were by plane; just one third were by train. With the advent of a high-speed line, the railway now takes 84 per cent. of the market. A similar dramatic change is taking place on the Madrid to Barcelona route, with the opening of the high-speed line between those two cities earlier this year.

I am not sure that we can lay all the credit at the door of the west coast main line upgrade, but it is the case that not that many years ago only one third of the journeys between London and Manchester were made by train, with two thirds being made by plane. Now it is the other way around.

The question is where we in Britain go now. The Department for Transport will receive the report from HS2 at the end of the year, and it is currently envisaged that we will respond early in 2010, at which time the HS2 report will be published. Later in 2010, we intend to consult on the proposed route, with options, between at least London and the west midlands, subject to analysis of HS2's report and decisions thereafter.

We are keen to engage with colleagues in this House on high-speed rail. It is our firm belief that a project of this magnitude, with such long-term investment and planning timelines, will succeed only if we all work together, across parties, on a shared national strategy-