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Railwatch 070 - December 1996

Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill

The Minister for Railways and Roads, John Watts, in suspending proceedings on the Bill until the next session of Parliament, said the principle had been endorsed many times in the House, and the purpose of the motion was simply to ensure that "the Bill can be carried forward for further consideration in the next parliamentary session and to ensure that the good work done here and in another place in improving the Bill since its introduction is not aborted."

This was supported by Keith Bradley (Labour, Manchester Withington) for the opposition.

However, Sir Teddy Taylor (Conservative, Southend East), speaking as one who voted against the legislation on June 5 1986 on the grounds that it would be a dead loss, begged to differ.

He said the House was given an assurance that there was no question of any Government subsidy or contribution in relation to rail projects. Because the project had been such an 'appalling disaster' banks had lost a great deal of money (as had many shareholders) and now the Government was proposing to spend £1.4 billion and also hand over considerable public assets to London and Continental very cheaply. Furthermore, since the restructuring of Eurotunnel's debt, shouldn't a review of Government support be carried out? MPs and Ministers were given an assurance "that the channel tunnel would be a remarkably successful financial project and there was no question of Government finance direct or indirect."

David Chidgey (Liberal-Democrat, Eastleigh) welcomed the bill but wished to raise two small points. Originally the proposals included provision for domestic services to use the line to the extent of eight trains an hour at peak times. This would free up existing routes for more freight traffic. However he wondered if the Minister was aware that Connex, the TOC inheriting these train paths had announced it didn't want them? Didn't this mean that the £360 million domestic service grant was in question, and furthermore how would the capacity for extra freight be found?

Jacques Arnold (Con, Gravesham) said his constituents viewed the Bill with mixed feelings. They welcomed the prospect of commuting in 19 minutes instead of 50 minutes as at present. but were worried about the fate of Ashenbank woods, and the considerable blight they have suffered since 1988.

Mr Watts, replying to the several points raised, said it was important to distinguish between the tunnel and the rail project. The Bill did not provide any subsidy to the tunnel itself (except as previously mentioned the £billions spent driving the M2 and M20 to the tunnel and smashing through Dover itself in order to subsidise the ferry companies as well. Yet again, the difference in attitude taken to road and rail schemes in the same corridor is most marked).

As to the domestic services on the CTRL, Mr Watts was certain that if Connex wasn't interested in operating these services, then the franchising director would offer them to other operators. The rail link would be built to accommodate freight traffic, but it was up to the operator to decide whether he wished to accept freight on the link.

In answer to a question concerning planned increases in investment in London commuter services next year, Transport ministerJohn Bowis said he could not anticipate this year's budget on October 14. However substantial investment was planned by private companies. "Prism intends to replace two thirds of the LT & S fleet by 1999." With what? Cascaded 10 year old trains from WAGN? South Eastern plans to spend £400 million on a modern fleet for its Kent services. No date given for this investment. London and South Coast plans a major refurbishment of its rolling stock. I presume this is Connex who have said they will replace the slam-door stock only if they are given a 15 year franchise, when they would undertake the investment during the life-time of the franchise! Hardly, as the question asked, 'next year'!

Millenium service

Jim Dowd (Lab, Lewisham W) asked a detailed question about possible extension of the East London Line, particularly with a view to serving the Millenium site at Greenwich.

Mr Bowis replied that LUL was examining the possibilities and, though there had been great interest by private companies to be involved in the scheme under the private finance initiative, it was likely that a significant proportion of the cost might have to be met from public funds.

Eric Martlew (Lab. Carlisle) asked the Prime Minister whether he agreed that if a high-speed rail link on the WCML was to be built, there would be a need for public finance.

The Prime Minister replied that they had put a great deal of public money into a number of rail lines. The Opposition should go and look at the new services. They should also examine the extra investment after the privatisation of BR, a privatisation they said could not be done, should not be done and would not be done. The fact is it has been done, and it has been a great success! Investment is up and the service is improving. Was West Coast Main Line mentioned in this answer?

Mr Watts, in answer to a question about the Regional Railways North East franchise, stated that bidders were invited to bring forward self financing proposals for upgrading the TransPennine express service.

Llew Smith (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) asked the Secretary of State for Wales on October 16 how much had been spent on road construction in Wales compared with investment in railway track construction since 1979? William Hague replied that the roads programme in Wales had cost central Government nearly £3 billion. This was apart from other grant programmes which might have supported road construction.

The figure for investment in rail infrastructure was not available on a Wales only basis. What percentage of £3 billion could we guess at?

Nigel Spearing (Lab, Newham S) asked the Prime Minister if he could point to improvements to rail services since privatisation on October 17. Mr Major cited additional train services, better passenger charters and improved passenger care. In addition, the South Eastern was committed to replacing existing trains with modern rolling stock at a cost of up to £400 million. The Midland Mainline would have an extra 22 trains per day to Leicester. ICEC plans to invest £17 million on improvements to rolling stock performance. This would all be at less cost to the taxpayer.

In answer to a question from Gwyneth Dunwoody (Lab, Crewe & Nantwich) about the number of complaints received by the Rail Regulator regarding the sale of tickets and the telephone enquiry service, Mr Watts gave the following astonishing figures for 1996:

        Tickets and fares     TEBs
        April      1    April     1
        May        3    May       0
        June       0    June      0
        July       0    July      0
        August    12    August    6
        September  9    September 2
        October    3    October   1

Considering the furore over fares, ticketing and TEBs in the earlier part of the year following the notorious 'Which' report, these figures show that either the complaints procedure is failing miserably or the Regulator is living in cloud cuckoo land. The general public is seething with resentment about the difficulty of getting accurate information.

Comment by Michael Weinberg

Mrs Dunwoody: 'Will the Secretary of State list those TOC's which have been the subject of enforcement action as a result of complaints received regarding improper advice in relation to ticket sales?'

Mr Watts: 'This is a matter for the rail regulator.'

Mr Callaghan: 'How much money is allocated in the current financial year to improving safety standards on the London Underground.'

Mr Bowis: 'This is a matter for LUL.'

Mrs Dunwoody: 'Will the Secratary of State list the number of speed restrictions currently in operation on the WCML?'

Mr Watts: 'This is an operational matter for Railtrack.'

Mr Charles Kennedy: 'Will the Secretary of State require Railtrack to carry out a comprehensive review of unmanned level crossings and automatic half barriers in the highland rail network?'

Mr Watts: 'No - this is a matter for Railtrack.'

Increasingly, as predicted by RDS, responsibility for the railways of Britain is being abandoned by the Government. Transport did not figure in the Queen's speech.

The transport debates at the Party conferences were very low-key, the Tories indulging in a fantasy of wishful thinking: a triumph of hope over adversity while the Labour and Lib-Dem parties appear afraid to promise the radical changes to policy that would give hope of a railway in the future at least as good as many countries have now.

Note: contact details (postal and email addresses, along with telephone numbers) in old editions of Railwatch out of date. Click CONTACT US for latest contact details.

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