High Speed Rail (Government Policy)

Commons Hansard
30 Mar 2010

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I am glad that you are in the Chair, Mr. Illsley. Perhaps we will not have any instances of mistaken identity today, which is something that can happen. As I am sure you are aware, a number of hon. Members who wanted to attend this debate are not here because of confusion over timing. Apparently the usual channels collapsed, and the debate was on the Whip as being at 2.30. Those who wanted to be present are probably on the west coast main line right now.

I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement on 11 March about the high speed line. If I have become an expert on anything over the past 20 years, it is probably on the railways. I have chaired the all-party parliamentary groups on rail and on the west coast main line for about 15 years. The Secretary of State's announcement came as a bit of a surprise, because the Railtrack proposal had been to take the line up to the west. The idea that the line should go to Birmingham and then fork up to the eastern side must have pleased you, Mr. Ilsley, because it will go to Leeds, Sheffield and on to Newcastle. The west fork, of which I am more aware, will go to Manchester and, eventually, to Glasgow. It seems a very sensible way in which to carry on.

The trains will eventually travel at about 250 mph-initially, though, speeds will be closer to 225 mph-which will bring the country closer together. Members who represent areas that will be affected by the line but may not benefit from it may want to ask why we need a high speed line. Whether we like it or not, the reality is that the number of people travelling by railway has increased over the past two decades. That may be down to privatisation or to the fact that the motorways are congested. The west coast main line, especially south of Birmingham, is now running short of capacity.

It is easy to know when we are running short of capacity on a motorway because things do not move. It is more difficult for the public to know that the railways are running short of capacity, because all they see is an empty track, which leads them to think there is plenty of room there. For safety reasons, however, the trains have to run a certain distance apart, so extra trains cannot just be added. People might say, "Why don't you put extra carriages on?" If we did that, the trains would not fit the platforms any more. Then, of course, we have the problems at peak times. We are getting to a point-we have probably reached it in some areas of the south-east-where we are suffering from severe overcrowding, so we need to build a new line. If we are going to build a new line, we must build one for the future, not the past. A new line is needed, so we will build High Speed 2, and that is what the Government have agreed to.

My understanding is that once we get to Birmingham there may be some arguments about where the line should go, and I will come to that later. Everyone is in general agreement that the line should go from London to Birmingham; the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are agreed on that. However, will the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) clarify one point? About three years ago, I visited China with the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), who was Front-Bench spokesman on the railways. He had great enthusiasm for Maglev, the magnetic train that runs from the airport to Shanghai. Has the party changed its mind about that and does it now favour going back to the traditional rails?

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): I am happy to clarify that point. My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) did suggest that we should investigate the possibilities of Maglev travel, but I think he was considering it for shorter distances. People do not seriously expect that a new high speed line would be run on anything other than the high speed technologies that are available in the continent of Europe, the far east and other such places.

Mr. Martlew: That clarifies matters. I was not trying to make a political point; I just wanted to know what the position was.

Let me concentrate on the classic railways for a moment. I get the feeling that because the Government want to promote the new high speed line, they have been indicating that the money spent on the upgrade of the west coast main line-they spent £9 million, as opposed to the £30 billion proposed by Railtrack-has not been well spent, and that the upgrade created a great deal of disruption and will prove to have been unnecessary if we go ahead and build a high speed line. The reality, however, is totally different. The west coast main line had been neglected for nearly three decades. Some 75 per cent. of the money spent on it was not for an upgrade, but for necessary renewal work. If we are talking about a high speed line not reaching Glasgow for 25 years, then we should be talking about not only maintaining the west coast main line but making major improvements to it. For example, there is a need for block signal systems, or in-cab signalling, which will increase the capacity on the line by allowing trains to travel closer together. Such a device would help capacity problems in the short term.

The other issue is that although the Pendolinos are restricted to 125 mph, they can travel at 140 mph. In parts of the west coast, where there has been very little investment, we could increase the speed of the Pendolinos to the maximum and reduce journey times from Glasgow to Carlisle to less than four hours.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Chris Mole): Does my hon. Friend not agree that one of the challenges of upgrading the west coast main line has been trying to do the work at the same time as trying to maintain an increasingly busy service, which is moving towards full capacity, as he has already mentioned? The joy of being able to promote the high speed network is that that delivers capacity without disruption to the existing lines and services. As some of the traffic moves from the west coast main line to High Speed 2 in the future, my hon. Friend's suggested upgrades should be able to take place with less disruption to passengers on the west coast main line.

Mr. Martlew: I agree with the Minister. I bear the scars of many a bad journey on the west coast main line. I will come back to that point, but I am not sure whether disruption can be avoided. We need a high speed line and we need to maintain the classic lines. I am sure that the constituencies of a number of Members here will be affected by the high speed line, but will not get the benefits from it. I am sure those Members will make representations, which is only right. It is also only right that the Government should listen to those representations and do everything they can to reduce the environmental impact of the new line on those communities. However, it would be wrong if the decision to build the line were blocked because of the opposition from Members representing their constituents. I have no doubt they will be representing their constituents-I have done so myself, on other issues-but the reality is that the country needs a high speed rail line. We have one from the channel tunnel to London and we need one that goes to the north of England and to Scotland.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for having missed the first part of his speech. I agree with him entirely that the line must not be blocked, although some colleagues will of course argue, from the point of view of their constituency, against it. However, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be a great pity if the improvements to the "classic lines" that he referred to-the provincial and regional lines-were derailed, as it were, by the high speed train? I am obviously thinking in particular of the south-west. In the Minister's recent oral statement in the Chamber on high speed rail, he was unable to assure me that money would not be simply diverted from other rail schemes that are much needed elsewhere into high speed rail, which would obviously degrade our national rail network considerably.

Mr. Martlew: I agree totally. One of the issues I will not talk about today is the financing of the high speed rail line; however, I got an indication yesterday during the continuation of the Budget debate that the Conservatives were suggesting they were going to take another £6 billion out of transport. If so, the hon. Gentleman will have great difficulty in getting any rail improvements in his area. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Wimbledon makes a comment from a sedentary position. Does he wish to intervene on that point?

Stephen Hammond: Can the hon. Gentleman tell us which part of the 17 per cent. of funding over three years this Government are already taking out of transport, before he makes wild speculations about "£6 billion"? Exactly how much-£9 billion, £10 billion, £12 billion, £20 billion or £25 billion-will this Government take out of transport spending?

Mr. Martlew: I am afraid that that is what gives politicians a bad name-answering a question with another question.

I would like to continue before we get too deeply involved in that matter. There are issues that I do not want to get involved in today. What matters is the high speed rail link and whether it should go to Heathrow. That issue will be debated at length-will the high speed line link with Crossrail, or will it go directly to Heathrow? I am conscious that others want to speak about that, so I do not want to go into it myself. I know that I have already trod on somebody's toes on funding, and I do not really want to go into that, either, other than to say that the money for high speed rail should not come from classic lines.

Chris Mole: The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) asked a legitimate question and at the risk of offending my hon. Friend, may I answer the question from the hon. Gentleman with another question to my hon. Friend? Where does he think the majority of his constituents who would benefit from reduced journey times to London would want to go? Would they want to go to London as a city, or to Heathrow airport? Furthermore, does he think they would be put off by a diversion that added time to that journey to London by going via Heathrow airport?

Mr. Martlew: The reality is that traditionally people from the North-West have come into London via Euston, without diverting to Heathrow. Of course, if someone is living in the Manchester area they will use Manchester airport for air travel and therefore they will not want to go into Heathrow at all. I think that that answers that question.

I also do not want to go down the road of considering whether high speed rail will be beneficial in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. I think that we will get people coming out of cars and on to the train, but we must also remember that the faster a train goes the more energy that it will use. So I think that those benefits of HS2 will probably be about carbon-neutral overall.

However, there are issues that I want to raise. The Minister made a comment that a new line would not create disruption. I am very pleased that the Government have decided that the high speed trains should come into Euston, because traditionally that is where the trains have come into London from the North-West. Nevertheless, there are two points to consider. The first is that I suspect that there will be disruption when we start to build the new platforms in Euston, which is something that we will look forward to particularly. I also wonder whether the scheme that the Government have chosen will provide enough new platforms. If we get things wrong and we have a bottleneck at Euston, it will be decades before we put it right.

There is a second issue about trains coming into Euston. People get off the train at Euston and they go on the tube. The tube is desperately crowded now. So, if we are going to bring the high speed trains into Euston and consequently bring more people into Euston, remodelling Euston in the process, we need to do something about the tube. That is the other issue that we need to discuss.

Chris Mole: I would just like my hon. Friend to reflect on the benefits of the potential west London connection that is proposed as part of HS2, at Old Oak Common to the Crossrail link, which would encourage many people coming into London via high speed train to reach their final destination by changing at that point, rather than having all those people come into Euston, where we understand that there are clearly capacity limits on the interchange with some of the existing tube lines.

Mr. Martlew: I accept what the Minister says and perhaps I had not taken that point into full account.

The other development that would obviously be of great benefit would be if some of the high speed trains on HS2 could go straight to St. Pancras station and then people could travel on HS1 into Europe. Hopefully, we will look at that issue; we will probably have a little time to look at it.

The other general issue that I want to discuss is the rolling stock issue. It would appear that we are going to have a high speed line to Birmingham and then classic lines to the North-East, the North-West and Scotland. I understand that the report on HS2 says that slow trains should not go on the high speed line. Therefore, the 140 mph Pendolino trains will not be allowed on the high speed line. That means that we will have to build new rolling stock-new trains-to run on both the high speed line and the classic line. However, I am not sure that it is a good match. In an ideal world, the Minister and the Government would not want to do that.

So I want to ask the Minister a question; will the trains that run on the classic lines off the high speed line be tilting trains? If they are not tilting trains, that will actually slow down the journey time on the classic lines, for example between Glasgow or Edinburgh and Preston. If they are not tilting trains, the trains will be slower than they are now, even if they will speed up when they get on the 90 or 100 miles or so of track from Birmingham down to London. So that is an issue. Then, there is the issue of what will happen to the Pendolinos. They will probably be 25 years old by the time that the new high speed line is built, but they will still have a remaining life of 15 to 20 years. Somebody needs to say something about that issue.

I want to discuss the construction of the high speed line itself. I accept the timetable. I know that the Opposition would like to do it sooner, but I do not think that we will get the Bills and the planning inquiries through and start work before Crossrail finishes in 2017, so we would have to start in 2018. I think that we are talking about 2026 before HS2 is completed-is that right? So will construction on the lines further north begin before that time, or are we going to wait until we get to Birmingham and then start construction further north?

Alternatively, if there is a bottleneck, for example, at Stafford, and if it is decided that there should be a bypass around Stafford, will that bypass be built to high speed line standard? It would make sense to do so. If we look at the motorways, the first part of the motorway system was built 50 years ago and it was the Preston bypass, which is now part of the M6. Those are the sorts of things that we need to consider.

Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab): Given these amazing time scales, my hon. Friend might be interested to know that the original Camden Town to Birmingham railway, which was then extended to Euston, was completed-that is, from the cutting of the first sod to the first train going to Birmingham-in less than three years.

Mr. Martlew: I understand that and I know the reason why; it was because the vast majority of the people in this country at that time did not have a vote. [Laughter.] That was the reason why.

Frank Dobson: They did have a shovel.

Mr. Martlew: There is another point about building the line. I notice that my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe), a hon. Member from Scotland, is in Westminster Hall today. Whose responsibility is it to fund the high speed line in Scotland? Transport is a devolved matter. It might be difficult for the Scots to find the full amount of money required, but would it be possible for them to start building their part of the line before the rest comes from the south? Such issues are probably not for today, but they must be discussed.

I am going to make the case that the train should stop in Cumbria, at Carlisle. Hon. Members will say, "Well, he would say that anyhow, as he's the MP for Carlisle," but there is a lot of logic in the suggestion. Network Rail's proposals said that the train would not stop in Cumbria. The Government are silent on the matter; their proposals say that intermediate station stops will be decided later. Not stopping does not seem sensible.

I know very well what the Conservative policy is. It is not an issue in Cumbria, because it involves taking the high-speed line to Manchester, turning right, going to Leeds and continuing up the east coast. Stopping at Carlisle would not be an issue because the line would not go through Cumbria at all. It is not a case that I would like to defend to the Cumbrian electorate, but that is a matter for the Opposition.

We are building a line-or, to be emotional, putting a scar-through 90 miles of Cumbria that will run through parts of the Lake district and the Eden valley, some of the most beautiful countryside in England, without stopping. The Cumbrian west coast is a centre for the nuclear industry; it is an issue that I know well. It has Sellafield, and there are plans for three or four new nuclear power stations. If there is to be a deep nuclear repository, it is likely to be in Cumbria. Because the people of Cumbria are used to working in the nuclear industry and understand it, they are likely to be the only people in this country who will accept it. We are saying to them, "By the way, we're going to build a line through 90 miles of Cumbria, but we're not going to stop." That is not a good argument.

The county is united on the matter. I wrote to the six district councils, and they all agreed; it is the first time that they have ever agreed. The county council agreed with them. I wrote to all the MPs for Cumbria-four Labour, one Conservative and one Liberal Democrat-and they all agreed. I wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown), who is sorry that he could not be here today. He is totally supportive. I wrote to the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), and he is supportive. I wrote to the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), whose constituency will be affected, but he did not reply; I suspect that he is a bit embarrassed by his party's policy.

The politics of not stopping in Cumbria are daft, and the economic case is even dafter. It is proposed to run a train 200 miles from Manchester to Glasgow, through an area that has traditionally been a railway centre, without picking people up, dropping them off or collecting a fare. At the moment, only one train a day goes through Carlisle without stopping. It is a major transport centre, because of the geography of the area. Ignoring the south of the county, which will not use the Carlisle train, there are probably 350,000 people in the north, west Cumbria, Penrith and Carlisle who would be served. In the east, there are probably another 40,000 for Northumberland. In Scotland, there are probably another 150,000. Although Carlisle is the last city in England, it is the first main line stop in Scotland, because people get off there to go to Scotland. There is an economic case for stopping in Carlisle; I am sure that the people in south-west Scotland are in favour of it.

The other thing that people forget is that the shortest route from Northern Ireland is via Carlisle. People coming across either catch the train from Stranraer or drive to Carlisle and get on the main line. Carlisle serves more than 500,000 people and three countries. It is nonsense not to stop there. However, I am pleased that the Government have not said that they will not.

In conclusion, for many years, we will have a classic line down to Birmingham and Manchester. During that time, the trains will stop at Carlisle. After the high-speed line is in place, it will not make sense not to stop there. It is politically unacceptable and economically daft. I look forward to seeing the high-speed train stop at Carlisle, as it will mean that I am 86.

I suspect that this will be my last speech in Parliament. I hope that the Minister hears it. I suspect that he will not be in the same job by the time the train stops in Carlisle, but I am sure that he can speed it on its way.

11.26 am


Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): ... A detailed timetable from the Department for Transport referred to 2019 as the date by which construction could start. It would then take until 2026 for the line to be built to Birmingham, and a further six years, as we have heard, for the twin lines to reach Leeds and Manchester. That looks suspiciously like an excuse to delay spending, and is against a background of just 27 miles of new rail since 1997, excluding the channel tunnel, compared with more than 1,000 miles of new road since then.

Mr. Martlew: Why does the hon. Gentleman exclude the channel tunnel?

Mark Hunter: I am not excluding the channel tunnel per se. If the hon. Gentleman will listen to the wider point, I am pointing out that, within the confines of the UK, only 27 miles of new railway have been built since 1997, compared with 1,000 miles of new road. Even if we were to include the channel tunnel, it would still be a poor comparison.

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On behalf of Eric Martlew, 3 Chatsworth Square Carlisle Cumbria CA1 1HB