22 April 2009

S3M-3883 High-speed Rail Services [Opening Speech]

Scottish Parliament

Wednesday 22 April 2009

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 14:30]
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High-speed Rail Services

Deputy Presiding Officer (Alasdair Morgan): The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-3883, in the name of Patrick Harvie, on behalf of the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee, on its inquiry into the potential benefits of high-speed rail services.

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The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

I thank Patrick Harvie for securing the debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to present my thoughts on the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee's report on the potential benefits of high-speed rail services.

The committee is to be congratulated on the quality and depth of its report, which is comprehensive and far reaching, and presents a number of challenging recommendations and actions for Government and others. I very much welcome the committee's findings.

The report sets out clearly the environmental benefits to be realised from the development of a high-speed rail service between Scotland and London—and onward to Europe. It presents compelling evidence not only that high-speed rail services offer lower per-passenger carbon emissions than does aviation, but that their shorter journey times can create a shift from air to rail travel. There is no question but that the air route from central Scotland to south-east England is one of the most densely operated anywhere in Europe, and that much of the traffic on that route is a prime candidate for conversion to high-speed rail. I also note the committee's conclusion that it has

"no doubt that high-speed rail would bring significant economic benefits to Scotland."

When I gave evidence to the committee on 16 December 2008, I stated my agreement with those points. I fully believe that high-speed rail will deliver substantial economic benefits and key climate change advantages.

In that evidence session, committee members were keen to discuss the role of the Scottish and UK Governments in supporting the development of high-speed rail. It is right that Patrick Harvie focused in his speech on the need for neighbouring Administrations to work closely together. I agree with the committee's recommendations that the Scottish Government should articulate clearly a long-term vision for the planning, funding and construction of a high-speed rail network and that we should take a strong role in promoting high-speed rail and supporting any project through to completion. They hit exactly the right policy buttons.

The committee recommends that it is essential that the Scottish Government makes further progress in articulating a detailed policy vision for a high-speed rail scheme. We agree that having a policy vision is absolutely key to developing the case for high-speed rail. Of course, in working towards that vision, it will be necessary to consider many of the issues that are raised in the committee's report in closer detail and with the involvement of the many stakeholders who gave evidence to the committee.

Patrick Harvie spoke of the need for political consensus, and I am pleased—as I am sure others are—by the broad support for high-speed rail in the submissions to the committee from people outside politics who engage in the life of wider Scotland. I acknowledge the report's comment that, at this early stage, consensus might not exist on the proposed route or any potential development options, but a shared agenda seems to be emerging. Many stakeholders recognise the benefits that are associated with high-speed rail and support its development. If we have principled agreement, we have the environment in which to develop the detailed responses to the requirements.

In developing a clear policy position, the Scottish Government will, of course, reflect the committee's position that we need to consider the most suitable routes for high-speed lines and how they could serve both Edinburgh and Glasgow city centres. We must ensure that any high-speed rail network connects effectively with the existing rail network to allow the whole of Scotland to benefit from any new high-speed link and we must be ambitious for it to reach every corner of Scotland eventually—perhaps Kyle of Lochalsh will be a little while away. At the same time, we must ensure that the development of a high-speed line does not divert resources and attention from investment in improvements to the current rail network.

Having considered the proposed second national planning framework, the Parliament recommended to the Government that a high-speed rail link between Scotland and London should be designated as a national development. Current and continuing investment in the rail network can help to pave the way for high-speed rail, so I note the committee's recommendation that the west of Scotland rail enhancements that are proposed as a national development in NPF 2 should take account of the potential for future integration with a high-speed rail network. We are considering carefully all those issues in relation to NPF 2 and our findings will be published later this spring. We will set out in a statement the changes that are to be made to NPF 2 in response to Parliament's recommendations, and it will be laid before Parliament when we publish the final NPF 2. Policy will also be informed by continuing studies, particularly Greengauge 21's high-speed rail development programme and High Speed Two's first report, which is due later this year.

Of course, we are working very closely with High Speed Two at official level to ensure that Scotland's voice is heard, including in the decisions that have to be made on line upgrading, totally new routes and how to connect both of Scotland's significant central belt cities to the network. A range of options are involved. We need serious and informed debate on the subject.

We will influence policies beyond our borders. Indeed, there is an open door in that regard. I note that the committee will meet Sir David Rowlands of High Speed Two in the near future and Lord Adonis, whom I will meet tomorrow. Those are important connections for us to make. In Lord Adonis, we have an enthusiast for the railway network. I, too, am an enthusiast. I will follow with interest members' speeches today.


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