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Railwatch 087 - March 2001

Westminster Watch

Rail freight

During a debate on rail freight in the Commons on 12 February Kelvin Hopkins (Lab, Luton North) accepted that passenger trains had been the Government's priority up to now but he added: "Our Government has, however, recognised that increasing the amount of freight carried by rail is important for the future and that roads alone cannot take the whole strain of ever-increasing freight volumes."

He went on to express three concerns:

  • The Government's targets for rail freight are too modest
  • Current investment in rail freight is too low, even to achieve the Government's modest targets
  • Railtrack is not taking rail freight seriously

He said: "I suspect it believes as many have before, that rail freight is inherently uneconomic."

He insisted: "Rail freight is commercially profitable elsewhere in the world, even over quite short distances, and can be so in Britain with the right investment."

Stating that the Government's own figures implied a rise in rail's share of the market of only 3% he went on: "A rise of 3%, even if achieved over that 10 years, would still be too small and shows that 80% of not very much is still not a lot.

"If we wish to develop an efficient freight transport network, we must make greater use of rail. The freight transport industry should be developed as a coherent whole, with the full support and co-operation of hauliers and railway operators.

"Cooperation, not competition, must be the way forward, with rail providing a service to hauliers tailored to hauliers' needs."

All this was a preamble to the main thrust of Mr Hopkins' speech, promotion of the Central Railway's scheme for a new freight railway from Liverpool to Lille.

"Hauliers tell me that what they really want is a dedicated lorries-on-trains service through the Channel Tunnel," he said.

"Indeed, I have been informed this weekend that one haulier could use one whole train each way between Germany and Britain every day."

Stressing the advantages such a scheme would bring to the regions in terms of time saved, fuel used and costs cut, Mr Hopkins also highlighted the savings to the Exchequer from a reduction in road costs.

"Road repairs cost the Exchequer many millions every year, as well as causing bottlenecks, congestion and delays on the trunk road network, bringing frustration to hauliers and car drivers alike.

"EWS, the rail freight company, recently drew attention to a Confederation of British Industry estimate that congestion costs the economy £15billion a year. Taking a larger proportion of road freight off the roads and putting it on to rail would save considerable sums in roads expenditure."

Furthermore, "investment in rail freight is inadequate to meet even the Government's own targets." He added: "It seems clear now that the existing strategic rail network is going to have its work cut out simply coping with future growth of passenger traffic.

"I understand that there are significant and worrying problems on the West Coast main line with capacity, signalling and investment needs. Passenger traffic will take pride of place and crowd out freight - especially the serious, long-distance, heavy freight, and most notably international freight using the Channel Tunnel route."

After touching on the problems of gauge, difficulties of mixing freight and high-speed trains, and the lack of confidence in reaching the Government's modest targets he suggested: "What Britain needs is new, dedicated freight line capacity providing full-scale lorries-on-trains services between strategic centres in Britain and the Channel Tunnel. Such a scheme has been proposed - the proposals made by Central Railway."

Blight

Philip Hammond (Con, Runnymede and Weybridge): "Whatever the merits or demerits of the freight-only railway, does Mr Hopkins agree that the position in which my constituents - and those of Beaconsfield MP Dominic Grieve, and many others - are placed is wholly unacceptable?

"Their properties are blighted by a scheme proposed by a company with very little in the way of financial substance, yet the company shows no inclination to bring its proposals forward for any formal scrutiny in the short term. That leaves my constituents in an impossible situation."

Mr Hopkins: "I have reminded Mr Hammond in previous debates that Central Railway has proposed a generous property compensation scheme that was praised by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

"Clearly, building any new infrastructure of this kind has effects on the people who live close by. That is inevitable and it would have to be faced by the Government."

Also, Mr Hopkins pointed out the Channel Tunnel was only carrying three million tons of railfreight per year instead of the 11 million forecast by this time.

Channel Tunnel traffic was doubling every 10 years, but much of it was juggernauts which went through on the shuttle only from Calais to Folkestone and then proceeded to thunder down the M1, making life intolerable for many of his constituents living near that road.

Mr Hopkins concluded: "If we are serious about raising the proportion of freight carried by rail and about regenerating the industrial regions of Britain, we cannot afford to let this opportunity slip and see the road arteries of Britain clogging up as the years go by, causing serious damage to Britain's future economic health and prospects."

Transport MinisterKeith Hill responded: "After many years of decline, the amount of freight moved by rail volume has risen by nearly a quarter, and it continues to grow.

"Much of that has been due to the considerable investment by freight operators. They have invested in new rolling stock and facilities, they are actively pursuing new markets and new operators are emerging.

Grants

"The Government has made more than 130 grant offers since 1997, including a record 47 grants during the last financial year. Grant payments will soon reach £100million, diverting close to 40 million tonnes of freight from Britain's roads."

He said he could confirm that Central Railway had, "informed my Department of its wish to abandon its proposed Transport and Works Act 1992 application to gain approval for its scheme and has instead requested the Government's support for a Bill. However, it remains the case that Central Railway has not submitted its proposals. Bearing that in mind, I cannot give any assurance now that the Government would wish to sponsor a Bill to support the project.

"MPs have said in the past that they cannot pass comment on the Central Railway scheme because of the possibility of having to judge it in a quasi-judicial role if it were the subject of a TWA application.

"The company has made it clear that there will be no TWA application and that it is seeking the Government's political support for the scheme.

"When and how will the Government make their view known to the House of Commons and to the wider public?

"We have asked the SRA to review the Central Railway proposals, and it goes without saying that, until we have seen that, it would be both inappropriate and impossible for the Government to take a view."

He also said: "Any review that the SRA undertakes should be carried out in the context of our 10-year plan and the authority's own strategy for freight. I shall follow the SRA's review of Central Railway's proposals with interest."

The motion on public ownership

This House congratulates the railway unions on the launch of their campaign Take Back the Track in the face of Railtrack's failure to meet its obligation to provide a safe and efficient rail network; further considers that the current structure is insufficient to restore public confidence and attract people back to rail travel; and consequently calls on Her Majesty's Government to introduce legislation at the earliest possible opportunity to return Railtrack to an appropriate form of public ownership.

Comment by Michael Weinberg

I live about half a mile from the M1. In the time I've lived here, traffic on that road has at least doubled. The roar from that wretched road is constant almost day and night.

There are plans to widen it, which will make the situation even worse. And my condition is nothing compared to the daily misery of millions of people whose lives are devastated by roads, on which traffic is increasing day by day.

There is hardly a place in England where some road noise does not intrude. There are many pleas for bypasses, yet any complaint about the everyday noise of traffic on the majority of cases where by-passes are not an option, is met with the response "'if you live by a road you must expect traffic to increase". Any cursory glance at proceedings in Parliament will see that MPs are falling over themselves to sanction more roads, or widen roads already built, widen motorways and "improve" accident black-spots. Yet when there is a suggestion of building a new railway, or increasing services on lines already there, we have MPs like Mr Grieve of Beaconsfield implying a few more freight trains would be like the black death threatening his constituents!

He does not seem to care about the millions of people deafened by ever increasing lorry noise, or the relief many of them would get if a lot more freight went by train.

No, his main concern is the few people who might be made nervous wrecks by an electric freight train running on welded track, which makes hardly any noise at all. Did he make similar noises when the M40 was bulldozed through leafy Buckinghamshire, ruining acres of beautiful countryside with dirt, noise and pollution? A sense of proportion is required.

Many parts of Britain have been completely ruined by massive road schemes built on a scale totally inappropriate to the size of the country, as if some giant race had imposed a road system upon us.

And the Government, scared stiff of the road lobby, is mealy-mouthed and negative about anything which might really put more freight wagons on tracks, to any significant extent.

It has got to stop. The Central Railway is the only scheme so far proposed that could make a change in freight by rail, and in so doing perhaps relieve the daily misery of millions of people.

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