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A Government without a clear strategy on rail has no chance of being credible on climate change

Ladies and Gentleman,

Over the past few days we have seen climate change come to the foreground of politics, and with it a debate about how we can all play a role in curbing the growth of harmful emissions.

If we are to have any chance of cutting carbon emissions in this country, of meeting the targets that are now being set both here and in Brussels, if we are to be credible in pursuing a new international agreement on climate change, then rail is a vital part of the future.

To be frank, any Government without a clear strategy on rail, has no chance of being credible on climate change.

A green transport strategy needs to give people real choice.

It needs to give them the option to leave the car at home.

It needs to give them an alternative to a domestic flight.

It needs to encourage people to live in our Cities, and not flee from them.

For all of those challenges, a plan for a growing railway is vital.

But you all know the challenges - and the challenges are here today, now. And that's probably the biggest difference between my view and Douglas Alexander's this morning.

I had a letter a month or so ago from an angry mother in Fife - a lady who is a constituent of Gordon Brown. She was rightly incensed that her daughter had had to stand all the way from Kircaldy to Kings Cross.

Recently I went to Cambridge for a dinner on a Saturday evening. The 5.45 from Kings Cross was so full that there was literally no extra room even for people to stand on it.

My researcher, and others, were thrown off a train at Paddington a few weeks ago because the driver said it was too full to leave.

Just a snapshot of the growing reality on many parts of our railway.

It's an extraordinary situation, given the received wisdom of a decade ago that the railways were in a state of permanent decline.

40% growth later, and that assumption looks as up to date as Stephenson's Rocket.

But the real problems are only starting - and the rumblings about overcrowding that you are now seeing are just a gentle introduction to the reality of what will happen if nothing is done now.

Last year long distance growth, according to ATOC, was nearly 10%.

30% plus more growth is on the way across the network before we ever get to 2014.

Believe me, there isn't room to increase the number of passengers on the 0813 from Ashtead to Waterloo by 30%. It just can't be done.

Or on the Friday night services from Kings Cross to Newcastle.

So to that extent, I share your pleasure that the Government has announced a big investment programme in new carriages. I have been calling for a Quick Win programme of longer trains and longer platforms for the past year, and so it would be churlish not to give this announcement a welcome.

But forgive me if I am just a bit cautious. To some extent I've heard it all before. In the 10 year plan ministers and the SRA promised my constituents on the South West Trains routes longer trains and longer platforms by the end of 2004. They're still waiting.

The truth is that a child in primary school in Epsom when the ten year plan was published still won't have the promised longer trains to travel in when he or she graduates and starts commuting for the first time.

But most importantly, the Quick Win programme that I believe we need cannot wait nearly a decade to happen.

The 30% plus growth that is forecast is for the years before 2014. So today's announcement means you are all going to have to deal with the best part of seven more years of bad headlines before these new carriages are available to start to make a difference.

And I've always regarded extra carriages as the easiest way to start to make a difference. So it we are going to have to wait until well into the next decade to do the easy stuff, it doesn't augur well for the rest of the White Paper.

And by then, I suspect the nature of the challenge that the industry faces will be of a different magnitude, certainly if this Government survives in office and presses ahead with the plan for national road pricing.

So on longer trains the Government gets some credit for today's announcement. But the White Paper has to pass far more tests that this one.

Now they do have some more financial room for manoeuvre - and probably more than the Secretary of State intimated this morning. Over the last couple of years they have squeezed and squeezed the train operating companies, and by definition therefore, the passenger through higher fares and charges.

In the current control period, public subsidy to the train operators is in excess of £6 billion in total. If the franchises meet their commitments between 2009 and 2014, then subsidy levels will be less than half that total.

Now if I were Ministers I would be a little cautious about that money. GNER has already collapsed. Others may do the same, as GNER wasn't the only franchise that has, in my view, substantially overbid.

But there's certainly going to be some extra money coming in.

And there's also no doubt that the Rail Regulator's final settlement for Network Rail will include further cost efficiencies, which will give the Department additional room for manoeuvre.

They have to decide once and for all what they are going to do about enhancements they have already promised in and around key stations such as Waterloo, Birmingham New Street and Manchester Piccadilly.

There are many where Ministers have been promising action for years, but Godot has still to put in an appearance.

The most extreme example is New Street, where the Prime Minister himself promised rapid improvements during the Hodge Hill By-Election three years ago.

The builders have yet to move in - and there's no definite sign right now that they're on the way.

They also need to finally live up to some of their promises on freight.

A green transport policy needs rail freight to continue to grow, and to attract goods off our roads.

Remember that amongst the many promises that the Government made in its 10 year plans were the much needed improvements to the key rail freight routes into the ports.

Seven years later those improvements are still on the "to do" list - either not yet happening, or tied up in the complexity of the TIF bidding process.

And Ministers will be met with snorts of derision from across the industry if they don't finally take firm decisions about what they are going to do about major projects like Thameslink.

Ladies and Gentlemen. The overcrowding crisis is here, today. Newspapers are already writing stories, and launching campaigns about it. The current franchise agreements mean that every January fares are going to rise and rise. The industry faces some unhappy years in the media, as passengers pay more and more to travel in packed trains.

In the end, your customers will go back to their cars.

Ministers need to be very careful about making another round of high profile announcements which are followed by years of inactivity.

The railways just can't afford it.

Let me turn now to two other subjects.

Firstly, our rail review.

You will remember that last summer I said that I did not believe that the industry could meet the challenges of the next decade if it did not operate in a much more integrated way. In the speech launching our review of the industry, this is what I said.

We don't think it is realistic to keep expecting passengers to pay more and more to travel on trains that will be more and more overcrowded. And people won't leave their car at home if that is the alternative. Something has to change."

"We think that an important part of the problem lies in the structure of the industry that exists today. We think, with hindsight, that the complete separation of track and train into separate businesses at the time of privatisation was not right for our railways."

He added: "We think that the separation has helped push up the cost of running the railways - and hence fares - and has slowed decisions about capacity improvements. Too many people and organisations are now involved in getting things done - so nothing happens."

And despite the issues that I have said that Douglas Alexander must address this summer, I do not believe that the HLOS can or will deal with all of the problems and challenges.

Since I made that speech, we have taken written evidence, held seminars, had private discussions with key people in the industry, talked to organisations outside the railway.

And as I stand here today, I have not changed my view in the slightest.

I have asked large numbers of people the question - do you think the industry can meet the challenges of the future with its current shape and structure. Virtually everyone has said, though sometimes with a little reluctance, NO.

I have asked people if they believe a more integrated railway would be a better option for the future.

Again, virtually everyone has said yes.

Of course different people mean different things by a "more integrated railway".

For Network Rail, it means greater responsibility for trains.

For the Train Operators, it means greater responsibility for the infrastructure.

But again and again, I have been given good examples and good reasons why we need a more integrated railway.

But the other message that I have received loud and clear is that an ill-judged and excessive programme of change within the industry will make it more difficult to meet the challenges of the next decade - not easier.

I said when this process started that the industry needs change, but through evolution and not revolution.

That remains my firm view today.

We are in the process now of finalising the work on our review. We have some clear ideas about what can be done. My aim remains to bring forward our ideas this summer.

The other piece of rail-related work that we have begun is on high speed rail.

I thought the Eddington Review was going to do this for us.

Its brief was to look at Britain's transport system post-2015.

Instead it talked about the kind of quick wins that are needed before 2015.

Mind you, I'm not sure I would blame Sir Rod.

I imagine that most of you don't know that the Eddington Report that was published was not the report that was first written.

There was a first draft to the report.

It was submitted to Ministers last summer.

And the Government refuses to release a copy. I have pressed them to do so, but they say that Ministers need to be able to formulate policy out of the public eye.

Except that Eddington was supposed to be an independent report - not Government policy.

I intend to pursue Douglas Alexander all the way to the Information Commissioner to get that report published, and to find out once and for all whether Eddington really was forced by Ministers to redraft his findings.

To me the glaring gap in the report that was published was an absence of a serious assessment of High Speed Rail.

Beyond the focus on quick wins in the next few years, I have little doubt that beyond that we will need to bring forward longer term projects to tackle the capacity constraints that are hindering both economic development and the kind of modal shift that will be needed to help our battle against global warming.

That's why in December I announced that we are pressing ahead with detailed feasibility work on three major potential future rail project options, which could help address Britain's longer term transport challenges -

• The construction of a conventional high speed rail network in the United Kingdom.

• The construction of ultra-high speed inter-city rail links using Maglev technology.

• The development of a new dedicated freight route through the centre of the United Kingdom.

In fact none of the three is mutually exclusive - but it is pretty unlikely that we could afford to do all of them. The work will focus in particular on:

• The relative construction cost of the three options

• The overall commercial potential of the options and whether they would require public subsidy

• The likely impact of the development of each of the options, and particularly their ability to link in to existing transport corridors

• The ability of the different options to secure a shift of traffic away from congested roads and motorways and onto rail.

So what lies behind the bare bones of this early announcement - are we serious and what do we intend to do? We've already had numerous questions - not least about our decision to include Maglev in the project.

The logic of starting now is compelling, even though we won't have access to all the support we may need until we are in Government. 2015 may seem a long way away - but transport projects take a long time to come to fruition, and you can never start too early.

The most central questions are about demand, modal shift and cost. Is there really a market for high speed rail in the UK? Would it really encourage people out of their cars or out of planes? How commercially viable would the options be - would they need subsidy, and if so, how big?

In particular people question the need for extra speed - but then if we have to add new capacity, then isn't it logical for it to offer high speeds, leaving our existing networks for slower traffic?

Then there is the inevitable question about Maglev. The immediate reaction of those in the know has been to criticise - until I explain to them exactly what we envisage. No sensible strategist would argue for an immediate project to build a Maglev line from London to points north.

As a technology it is much too newly developed, there are far too many questions about its cost and too many uncertainties about its suitability for longer distances. But we'll only know if we try - and that is the option we are looking at.

No one who has travelled on the only commercially operated Maglev route in Shanghai could fail to have been impressed. It could well be a vision for the future. Not only is it fast - it also appears to offer much more versatility than conventional rail. A Maglev line could, for example, be built above a motorway in an existing corridor, without the need for massive land take - and yet could also sit at ground level alongside an existing route where no constraints exist. That could make quite a difference on the cost front.

If Maglev were to be the right option, my view is that it should be used initially for high speed inter-city Metro services, between cities that are linked by a congested corridor that is a few tens of miles long. Leeds and Manchester and Edinburgh and Glasgow are two obvious route options. Either could serve as a pilot for Maglev without compromising the option of a conventional North-South route.

Considerable work has already been done on possible options for a second stage conventional high speed route - by Atkins, Greengauge and Network Rail, among others. Certainly the logic would be to extend northwards into the Midlands as a next phase, with an eventual goal of moving further towards Scotland.

Would such a project need support from the taxpayer? Possibly, but not definitely. Some TGV lines have proved highly profitable - others less so. In any case, could we conceivably cope with future rail demand without making some alternative plans of this kind?

The third option on our list is very different. Over the years, numerous groups have put forward, often in a very amateurish way, ideas to create a dedicated freight route to the north.

But that doesn't mean that the overall concept of a freight route linking the Channel Tunnel and the East Coast ports to the Midlands is a bad one. If it could deliver adequate modal shift for sufficient freight, it could be a very attractive one for us as a nation with very congested roads. So we'll look at whether there is a viable model that could deliver benefits of the kind that we need.

This work is not simply political window-dressing for electoral purposes. We are very serious about looking at how best to meet a need that is very likely to be there in the next decade.

We plan to work through all of the options carefully, using both industry and financial expertise, to identify what is viable and what is not. Enough work has already been done to suggest High Speed Rail may have a real domestic role for the future. In a world where our transport systems have to become increasingly green, its position is strengthened still.

So my message to you today is this.

In the past the Conservative Party has been far too closely known for its focus on road transport. But as with many things in my Party, that is changing fast.

Our railways will be a vital part of future transport provision in the UK. That's why they are such an important part of the work we are doing in opposition.

But today the focus should be on Douglas Alexander. This year the decisions are his. Will he get it right, or will he miss the moment.

I plan to do everything I can over the next two months to push him towards the right set of decisions, decisions that will determine whether or not our railways can meet and overcome the huge capacity challenge that they face.

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