Crossrail Bill
Speech

House of Commons

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate, and particularly grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) for bringing Isambard Kingdom Brunel into our considerations. My reading of schedule 8 suggests that technically the bridge that he built, which was such a triumph, and the bridge that was subsequently built to exactly the same design when the line was widened could be demolished, although I do not believe that the Secretary of State would condone such an act of vandalism.

It is good that Brunel has been mentioned in the debate, as he built the first Crossrail. There is nothing new about what we are debating today. The first trains to go across London were Great Western trains, which went underground at Paddington and all the way to Aldgate. They were not viable and were withdrawn. I am sure that economic conditions in London have changed since then, but it is worth noting that there is nothing new about Crossrail—we have had it before.

In principle, I support the idea of improving east-west rail links. Crossrail is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a difference to transport in the south-east, which could also benefit long-distance travellers, including those from my constituency, but if the country is to spend the kind of money envisaged by the Bill, we need to provide more than the Crossrail project offers. We all agree that we must do something. The project outlined in the Bill is something, therefore we must do that. That dangerous train of logic must not seduce us into thinking that the Bill automatically deserves our support tonight.

I shall speak primarily about my constituents' interests. That is what I am here to do, and I am clear that the Bill is in direct contradiction to their interests. It is the end of all the dreams that we have in Worcestershire along the Cotswold line of improving the service to the level that we ought to have. Only last week, I believe, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), jointly with the chamber of commerce for Hereford and Worcester, wrote a letter to the Secretary of State asking for the track between Oxford and Worcester to be dualled all the way and for a better service. They should have done that when the Strategic Rail Authority's route utilisation strategy was up for grabs. That was the time to do that.

If the Bill passes tonight in its current form, forget it. It is not worth spending the money on doing that because there will not be the capacity between Reading and Paddington for the additional services that we want. The Secretary of State spoke reassuringly about maintaining current service levels. Current service levels between Worcestershire and London are a scandal. They do not need to be maintained; they need to be dramatically improved. Since the new Adelante rolling stock has gone on to the First Great Western service, loadings have gone through the roof. It is standing room only on most trains. There is a market there crying out to be met, to take people off the roads and put them back on to the railways. Forget it, if the Bill passes.

The Bill may well be an emperor, if not with no clothes, then with very few indeed. The aspect that could persuade me is the Reading-Maidenhead issue. If we could end the railway at Reading, not Maidenhead, with fast and semi-fast services instead of the ridiculous proposed crawling services beyond Paddington, I might be persuaded. I could happily get off a train at Reading, change to a semi-fast service into the centre of London, near where I wanted to be, but I am not prepared to get off a train at Reading, which I will almost certainly have to do, with fewer trains going through to Paddington, make a journey to Maidenhead or God knows where else, and then get on to the underground when I get to London. It is just not acceptable.

We must consider the instruction to the Select Committee. I have raised the matter privately with the Secretary of State and he may by now be in a position to give definitive guidance. It is clear that the instruction is an instruction: it is what it says on the can. The Select Committee can do nothing but obey it. The Government are instructing the Select Committee not to consider anything beyond the terminus laid down in the Bill, which is Maidenhead. That means I must vote against the instruction, because it is fundamentally wrong. I hope that when the Minister winds up, he will be able to give some more definitive guidance. I am operating on the best advice that I have had, which is clear and unequivocal.

I hope the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) is listening in his office. He went away happy, thinking that he had got from the Secretary of State what he wanted, and that he could vote for the Bill and for the instruction tonight. He cannot. I know that the Secretary of State was giving his view in good faith. I have spoken to him and I am convinced that he was speaking in good faith, but I am not convinced that he was right. We need to consider the matter carefully.

The Secretary of State gave some useful reassurances about the other aspects of the instruction, which I had hoped to invite the House to consider this evening, about the issues relating to the likely impact of the construction and operation of Crossrail on rail freight services and other rail passenger services, and the extent to which Crossrail should be planned, operated and regulated as an integral part of the national rail network. He said those were matters more properly left to the Standing Committee stage of the Bill. Because of Bill's hybrid nature, some of those have cross-reference to the private sector implications of the Bill and should be considered by the Select Committee. I do not accept his argument in totality, although it has a good deal of validity.

The problem is that we all know how Standing Committees work in this place. The Select Committee will have a very leisurely pace—perhaps too leisurely for the liking of its members, if they are to consider all the many petitions that they will receive. The Standing Committee will be ruthlessly timetabled and guillotined. It will not have the opportunity to consider the issues in depth, as they demand. I shall vote against the instruction on those grounds too, because it does not instruct the Select Committee that it may examine those issues. I am fearful that it will not, as a result of which the House will not.

My understanding is that the rail industry supports Crossrail in principle, as long as it is considered part of the national rail network. The Secretary of State was reassuring in his remarks today, and I found myself wanting to agree with him. What he said was what I wanted to hear, but I fear, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead said, that the Bill does not do what the Secretary of State assured us it would do. I therefore have serious objections to the Bill.

I am reminded of the famous Monty Python sketch, "The Spanish Inquisition". I began with just one objection. My objection is the capacity on the lines between Maidenhead and Reading—ah, and the continuation of the service between Maidenhead and Reading—oh, and—so I have diverse objections to the Bill. It began as one, but the more I considered it, driven by the issue of capacity between Maidenhead and Paddington, I realised that it was not just one or two objections, but such diverse elements as the impact on the existing rail network, funding, the narrowness of the design, the regulatory framework, and the failure to examine alternative solutions beyond the proposal in the Bill.

I know that many other hon. Members who share my concerns had hoped to be present for the debate when it was scheduled to be held yesterday. I think particularly of my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), who is extremely concerned, as am I, about the capacity issues. The fact that the attendance is relatively sparse tonight probably owes something to the change of business. Let us consider my hon. Friend's principal concern and that of Gloucestershire county council—the impact on the existing railway.

Crossrail will pose serious difficulties during construction and beyond. It is a massive project. It will be comparable to a combination of the second phase of the channel tunnel rail link—the tunnelling under London and into St. Pancras, which is new build—and the west coast route modernisation, which is a major construction project. It will be lengthy and undoubtedly very disruptive to existing services. Along the two principal routes 2,200 freight, commuter, long-distance passenger and airport services per day will be affected. The Great Western route from Paddington to Maidenhead and the Great Eastern route from Shenfield to Liverpool Street will be seriously affected. The most noticeable impact will be on train services during engineering periods that require route closures. That will put huge pressure on other transport modes. If the work is carried out during the Olympics, God help us.

Paddington will have particularly serious problems. The Bill allows for it to be shut for a month for construction purposes. We can bet our bottom dollar that it will end up being more than a month. Operations will be severely affected for several years during the construction of Crossrail, mainly because of the closure of Eastbourne terrace for that period and the changes required to the operational railway network. Network Rail's initial analysis suggests that some parts of the station will become unusable and that passenger flows will be severely affected. Taxis are a particular difficulty, because it would be a problem if Olympic athletes could not get taxis at Paddington.

I shall not labour the point about freight terminals, which have already been discussed, but the severe disruption might mean that building materials and other goods are not delivered to London by rail and are displaced on to the roads, which would have severe environmental effects.

I have discussed the construction phase, but what about the operational phase? Demand will be high and the operation will be intense. The network is already close to capacity, but the Bill will create no new capacity between Maidenhead and Paddington and between Shenfield and Liverpool Street. After construction, the capacity for freight and passenger services running west of Paddington to Cornwall, Devon, Bristol, north Somerset, Gloucestershire, south Wales, west Wales, Oxfordshire, the south Cotswolds and, of course, Worcestershire will be reduced from four lines to two. That is a lot of services to fit on to two lines.

Clauses 21 to 26 provide for exclusive use by Crossrail of some of the existing rail lines out of Paddington and Liverpool Street. They effectively enable the Secretary of State to determine the minimum level of principal Crossrail services and to instruct the Office of Rail Regulation to amend or even terminate existing track access agreements to make way for minimum Crossrail services. They give priority to Crossrail over all existing passenger and freight services and undermine the concept of the independent regulation of the railway. If those provisions are enacted, they will severely reduce the frequency of train services into the two main termini, especially long-distance trains and commuter services from stations outside the Crossrail operation such as Twyford, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead mentioned.

By undermining Network Rail's ability to manage Crossrail as an integral part of the overall network, which, despite the Secretary of State's calm honeyed words, would be the Bill's effect, the Bill will significantly reduce Network Rail's ability to deal with incidents on the network, because overall capacity will be reduced. In an exchange with some Government Members, the Secretary of State said, "There will be no capacity problem. I assure you that I would not bring the Bill before the House if I thought for a minute that there would be a capacity problem."

The Government's consultation on the environmental issues resulted in a weighty tome, to which Network Rail contributed submission 55:

"In the absence of a draft timetable for Crossrail services, it is difficult to assess how existing passenger and freight services could be readily accommodated. Furthermore, it is not possible to assess without knowledge of the Crossrail service plan if proposed infrastructure changes will adequately meet the existing and future needs of the industry . . . It has not been possible for Network Rail to conclude if the infrastructure proposed for Crossrail services will be sufficient to meet future needs without compromising the needs of other route users."


That submission to the Department for Transport is dated 7 June 2005 and came from the group company secretary, Hazel Walker. In his speech, the Secretary of State said that all those matters have been settled, but the experts, Network Rail, say something different, which makes me nervous.

We have addressed the issue of funding, so I will not labour the point, but it is another reason why I am worried. The Secretary of State said that the project will cost about £15 billion, and I think that his estimate is correct. The Treasury has apparently given the Department for Transport a 10-year budget, which does not include Crossrail. I hope that the money is available.

The provisions on exclusive access to parts of the network for Crossrail services will adversely affect the existing First Great Western and One franchises—"One" is an ugly name, but that is what the franchise is called. Some 60 freight trains a day use those lines, so the situation will have interesting financial consequences.

On the narrowness of the design in relation to Reading, the scheme could have brought so much to the south-east, the south-west and the west midlands, but those possibilities are being destroyed by the ridiculous obsession with Maidenhead. We all thought that fast and semi-fast services would run from Reading, but it seems that Crossrail will simply take over existing stopping services from the west into Paddington. Crossrail will not extend to Reading, which is a major rail junction. Richard Branson's Cross Country trains go through Reading. Indeed, one can travel to almost every place in the country that is worth visiting—for example, Edinburgh, York, Darlington and Bournemouth—from Reading, which is the logical place to end Crossrail.

I was brought up near Maidenhead, a wonderful town where my great, great, great, great grandfather was once mayor, but it is an arbitrary place to end a railway—it is not a natural terminus. The Bill will rob a lot of value out of the First Great Western franchise and transfer services to Crossrail. Half the Crossrail services will not even go under London and will stop at Paddington, having crossed nothing except the Thames at Maidenhead. The project looks wonderful, but, as I have said, is the emperor really wearing any clothes?

Why have we not examined the possibility of using this huge sum of money—billions of pounds—radically to improve the London underground? With a bit of tunnelling, a little imagination and a few improvements to access, the London underground could be transformed into an underground for the 21st century. We are ignoring that option in favour of Crossrail, because Crossrail is a shiny new toy.

I shall not labour my concerns about the regulatory framework, but I share the worries expressed by other hon. Members. The Department for Transport has consistently acknowledged that this is a kitchen-sink Bill, but it claims that the situation is all right because the extensive powers, which it may not need, reassure the funders. However, I know that if Ministers are given powers, they will use them. I do not think that the Secretary of State currently intends to use those powers, but when push comes to shove, he will be tempted. Ministers should not be given dangerous toys unless they really need them.

We have not examined the sensible alternatives to Crossrail, which has mesmerised people. I have not dismissed Superlink, which is a better scheme than Crossrail. It would use a similar tunnel under central London, but, unlike Crossrail, it would link directly to regional centres and airports across the south-east, including Heathrow and Stansted, which would relieve pressure elsewhere. Superlink would attract four times as many passengers as Crossrail, which would halve the cost to the taxpayer per passenger. Although Superlink is a bit more expensive than Crossrail, it is fundable in a way in which Crossrail is probably not.

Superlink is compatible with the core section of Crossrail between Canary Wharf and Paddington, and it includes vital but small modifications at each end of that section to enable the major investment to deliver its full potential. Crossrail will not provide transport links to serve the areas of projected housing growth in the south-east and to relieve road traffic, particularly in the Thames Gateway. If Crossrail proceeds, it will pre-empt such infrastructure improvements.

Crossrail is of little benefit to constituencies on the fringes of London or in the area around it, while Superlink would serve all of those areas. By taking travellers directly to their central London destinations, Superlink would more effectively relieve congestion on the London underground and free up key national rail routes.

Interestingly, Superlink's analysis of congestion benefits was not challenged in the Cross London Rail Links analysis of Superlink. A railway that would solve the problems of Milton Keynes and Cambridge and address the east-west issues is a much more attractive option than Crossrail.

I remain unconvinced that the instruction motion will allow the Select Committee to hear well-founded criticism of the Crossrail scheme or properly to evaluate alternative options. This evening, the House must reflect on this basic question: why spend so much money, largely at taxpayers' expense, building a railway from Maidenhead to Shenfield, when, with just a little more thought and a little more expense, we could secure a transport network that addresses the real problems of London and the south-east and that costs the taxpayer less? Unless the Minister can explain why the Select Committee cannot examine the alternatives, why it cannot accept the official Opposition's instruction—for that matter, why can it not accept my instruction, which has not been selected?—and why the instruction is so flawed, I will seek to divide the House on this well-meaning but deeply flawed Bill.


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