Westminster Watch

By Michael Weinberg

Rail freight

The importance of rail infrastructure was stressed on 4 November when Norman Baker made a plea in the Commons for help for the threatened port of Newhaven in Sussex.

Mr Baker (Lib Dem, Lewes) asked: "Will the Government consider areas where they could apply for European Union funding for port infrastructure improvements, and support the plans for rail investment through the trans-European rail network, because Newhaven to London is a trans-European rail line?"

Transport Minister Glenda Jackson said: "Newhaven is a sizeable port as regards handling cargoes and freight.

"Railtrack is investigating the scope to develop several major routes for freight, and, with a group of local authorities, is studying congestion on the south coast rail route from Weymouth to Dover, with the aim of improving services to encourage more use of the route. We are watching that study with close interest.

"The new freight companies have adopted positive attitudes and ambitious targets, which would quadruple the proportion of freight tonne kilometres by rail in the next 10 years.

"Rail freight volume has already shown a five per cent growth in tonne kilometres in 1996-97, which is the first such increase in many years. More needs to be done.

"We have made it abundantly clear that we are committed to the creation of a strategic rail authority, so that the sort of issues that have been raised here this morning-how we can be best served by our railway infrastructure, where more investment is needed-can be more strategically directed.

"Indeed, a shadow strategic rail authority will be in operation by next spring, based on the British Railways Board and the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising working closely together under new leadership.

"Strategic planning will be an early priority for the shadow SRA, to fill the void caused by privatisation. That work will develop into the strategic plan of the SRA proper. Therefore, it will deal with key long-term issues such as demand, capacity, service levels and investment.

Piggyback

On 28 October, Sir John Stanley (Con, Tonbridge and Malling) asked if the Government was having discussions on a Euro-gauge freight rail system from the Channel Tunnel to Scotland and its policy towards the proposed piggyback rail-freight scheme.

Ms Jackson said: "For some months, Railtrack has been working on an application for grant assistance for a major rail freight upgrade. In drawing up its application the company has had lengthy discussions with my officials. We expect to receive a grant application shortly. It will be treated on its merits."

Central Railway

Sir John also asked about the official attitude to the proposed Central Railway rail-freight scheme.

Transport Minister Dr John Reid said: "Ministers have seen only the consultation documents which Central Railway has recently issued. The Government have therefore not taken a view on the scheme."

Channel Tunnel

Sir John also asked about the Channel Tunnel's capacity for freight.

Ms Jackson said: "EWS estimates that, given the current mix of Eurostar, Le Shuttle and freight trains, the share of Eurotunnel capacity allocated to the national railways for freight trains will be fully utilised in 10 years. The company also estimates that at that point in time, volumes will have more than doubled."

Traffic Reduction

Mrs Linda Gilroy (Lab, Plymouth Sutton) asked what plans there were to implement the Road Traffic Reduction Act 1997.

Dr Reid said: "It is clear that the setting of road traffic reduction targets will be an integral part of the process of drawing up local transport strategies.

"Local transport plans are a centrepiece of the Government's transport proposals and it is vital that we get implementation right.

"We will invite local highway authorities to produce 'provisional' five-year plans by July 1999, covering the period 2000/01-2004/05. These would be the basis for allocating resources for 2000/01 only. Authorities would then roll their plans on by one year and submit 'full' plans for 2001/02-2005/06 in July 2000, when resources would be allocated across the plan period.

"We will expect authorities to submit non-statutory 'interim' road traffic reduction reports in July 1999, as part of the provisional plans.

"The London boroughs are not covered by the White Paper requirement to produce local transport plans, but will be separately required to produce local implementation plans which are in keeping with the Mayor's integrated transport strategy for London. We are taking this forward separately.

"The Road Traffic Reduction (National Targets) Act 1998 requires the Government to consider the setting of national targets.

"We will therefore require a greater degree of standardisation from local authorities in the measurement of existing traffic levels and forecasts-in order that we can assess the national implications.

Rail property

Dr John Cable (Lib Dem, Twickenham) asked which former British Rail sites, since the privatisation of British Rail, have been sold or leased for developments serviced by road haulage.

Ms Jackson said: "This information is not available".

Dr Cable also asked what acreage of unutilised former British Rail land has been allocated to a) Railtrack and b) the British Transport Property Board.

Ms Jackson said: "This information could be compiled only at disproportionate cost."

Rail Authority

Mr Baker asked on 27 October when the strategic rail authority would be set up.

Ms Jackson said: "The Deputy Prime Minister announced on 30 September that a shadow Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) would lead changes to the way the privatised railway is controlled, in advance of legislation to establish the body on a statutory basis.

"The shadow SRA, formed by close working between the British Railways Board and the Franchising Director, will be operational by Spring 1999.

"A new chairman of the British Railways Board and a new Franchising Director will be appointed as soon as possible. Subject to legislation, the new BR Chairman and board will become the chairman and board members of the SRA.

"Following legislation, the new Franchising Director will become Chief Executive of the SRA.

"We are committed to establishing a statutory SRA at an early opportunity. "

Deeside station

On 26 October, after a question from Barry Jones (Lab, Alyn and Deeside), Welsh Minister Peter Hain said: "I have not had any discussions with Railtrack about the construction of a new railway station on Deeside Industrial Park.

"However, as part of the 1998-99 Transport Grant settlement, 480,000 was allocated to Flintshire County Council in support of the Deeside Integrated Transport Strategy. Part of this award is for the Council to develop plans for a railway station to serve the Deeside Industrial Park. I am currently considering a bid from the council for further funding of the Strategy in 1999-2000."

Wait for Railtrack

Ms Joan Walley (Lab, Stoke-on-Trent North) asked what pro-posals the Government had to promote piggyback rail freight services in the West Midlands.

Ms Jackson said: "Railtrack has for some time been considering an upgrade of the West Coast main line to accommodate piggyback rail freight. The project would be likely to require substantial Govern-ment grant. Railtrack has not yet made an application."

A week earlier Ms Walley said: "In Dr Reid's efforts to encourage the switching of more heavy freight from road to rail, will he do all that he can to take the wonderful opportunity that we now have to get piggyback on to the west coast main line? Will he give the House an assurance that he will do all that he can to bring about that switch from road to rail? Dr Reid said: "Those matters are being considered at present by Railtrack. Although I read in the newspapers speculation on the matter, no proposals have been received by our department. I shall of course consider them sympathetically when they come in."

Save our tracks

On 19 October, Jeremy Corbyn (Lab, Islington North) asked what action the Government is taking to safeguard the trackbed of the former rail link from Carmarthen to Aberystwyth.

For the Government, Jon Owen Jones said: "Preservation of disused railway trackbeds is a matter for the local planning authorities concerned, within the framework of planning guidance which encourages them to promote public transport opportunities, including the exploration of opportunities to re-open rail routes. I understand that the bulk of the land underlying the former railway line between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth was sold some years ago, although Rail Property Limited retain ownership of a number of railway bridges along the route.

Reopenings

Mr Corbyn also asked the Government to list the projects currently being evaluated for the re-opening of a) disused, b) mothballed and c) freight-only lines to regular passenger rail traffic.

Ms Jackson said: "Proposals under consideration for developing the rail network to extend passenger services are set out in Railtrack's 1998 Network Management Statement."

Heavy freight

David Heath (Lib Dem, Somerton and Frome) asked on 20 October what plans the Government had to reduce the level of heavy freight transport using unsuitable roads in rural areas. Dr Reid said: "Heavy lorries should not travel on unsuitable roads when an alternative route exists for collection or delivery. When drawing up their local transport plans, we shall expect local authorities to bring forward strategies to ensure that heavy lorries are routed away from unsuitable roads. We are examining ways of streamlining the use of local traffic authority powers to specify through routes for heavy lorries or to prohibit or restrict heavy lorry movements on particular roads.

Bridges too far

Mr Heath asked: "Does he agree that many rural roads in small communities were not designed for heavy lorry traffic and cannot, and should not, take it? Rather than spending government and local authority money strengthening bridges so that they can take heavy lorries, surely the time has come to say that lorries should not use rural minor roads. "

Dr Reid: "Yes. The Government shares Mr Heath's concerns."

David Hinchliffe (Lab, Wakefield) asked about inland waterways.

Dr Reid: "We should all be keen to transfer or encourage the transfer of freight from road to waterways or rail wherever possible.

"As Mr Prescott pointed out earlier, we have been extremely successful in getting freight off roads and on to rail.

Roads boast

"Last year there was a five per cent. increase in rail freight, which I believe is a bigger increase than the Conservative party managed in 18 years. I am pleased that that trend continues.

"Yesterday, Rover announced that it would put one third of its deliveries on to rail; I am sure that we all welcome that." Nicholas Winterton (Con, Macclesfield) asked about the Poynton bypass.

Dr Reid said: "In the roads announcement some months ago, I announced 15 bypasses, which I believe is three times more than the previous Government announced in five years.

After questions about the noise of rail freight, Lewes MP Mr Baker said: "Far more environmental damage caused by the movement of freight by road.

"The Government's priority should be-as I think it is-to secure a shift of freight from road to rail, which causes less pollution and noise.

Alan Meale (Lab, Mansfield) said: "Moving freight from road to rail creates major environmental benefits."

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said: "We have doubled the amount of freight grants, which has increased freight by five per cent in one year-more than the figure has increased over the past decade.

Challenged by Tom Brake (Lib Dem, Carshalton and Wallington) on his pre-election pledge to reduce traffic overall and not just traffic growth, Mr Prescott said: "I agree to keep to the same commitment. Judge me in five years."

Bus way

In another exchange, Mr Prescott stressed the Government's preference for bus use as opposed to building more light rail routes.

"With regard to light railways, they are an extremely expensive way of dealing with congestion.

"We have a number of them in this country, but frankly the bus could play a greater part than light railway systems."


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