20 May 2010

S3M-6349 High-speed Rail [Closing Speech]

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 20 May 2010

[The Presiding Officer opened the meeting at 09:15]
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High-speed Rail

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-6349, in the name of Stewart Stevenson, on the high-speed rail link.
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Stewart Stevenson:

The debate has thrown up a number of key questions: about the route; about whether we should press ahead with building a high-speed rail line southwards; and about the key issue of how it should all be paid for. The fact that there is a huge return does not alter the fact that we have to lay out money before the return is delivered to us.

Charlie Gordon described himself in his opening remarks as an old railman. He is desperately unkind to himself. From the elevated age from which I view such matters, he is but a young broth of a boy. He referred to Network Rail's new line study and the sound business case that derives from that. We should all pay close attention to that study. It has been developed by those who run the railway and understand the metal that we have.

In his closing speech, Charlie Gordon referred to the need to make incremental change in the existing network, such as removing pinch points and working on bends. We are, of course, doing those things. We are also considering whether some of the speed limits on the existing network are now necessary in consequence of some things that have happened.

Charlie Gordon also pinpointed, as others did, the need for extra capacity on the network. Indeed, in many parts of the world—including France, where the TGV is held up as an exemplar for Europe—the whole reason for a high-speed rail link was driven by capacity rather than speed. The increased speed was merely a consequence of the fact that a new line had to be constructed.

The need for a local high-speed line between Edinburgh and Glasgow was also mentioned in the debate. In many ways, of course, that is the aim of our Edinburgh to Glasgow rail improvement project. With the EGIP, we will bring the travel time down from around 52 minutes to around 35 minutes. Huge amounts of money would take us down to 20 minutes without delivering the same scale of benefit. Clearly, we are addressing the need for that direct connection. However, it is vital that both our major cities are served independently by the proposed high-speed rail link, rather than simply one of those cities being served via the other.

Robert Brown: In saying that both cities must be served by the high-speed rail link, does the minister accept the case that both city centres must be served? I think that there are issues with that.

Stewart Stevenson: Yes, it is certainly true that the city centres must be served. I will enter a note of caution that the city centre can encompass a relatively large area of the respective cities. We are talking to the councils about that and we have preliminary views as to what that might mean. To give an example without indicating outcomes, I think that it would be formidably difficult to provide at Waverley station the length of platform that is required for high-speed trains, which will be 400m long. Even the half-length train that might come to Scotland will be 200m long. As Waverley has no platforms of that length, the stop might need to be placed a little bit further to the west. In Glasgow, we probably have the opportunity at Glasgow Central to provide the platform extension that would be necessary, but there are capacity issues on the approach. The point that I am making is that we understand the issue and are engaged in it.

Alex Johnstone correctly pinpointed how railways were central to economic development in these islands. However, such development was not all pain-free. Whereas every town had its own clock up to that point and could go its own way, the railways standardised time. We are now under the cosh of time, Presiding Officer, again thanks to the railways.

Very properly, Alex Johnstone also pointed to the substantial environmental benefit that people in west London might derive from the reduction in noise and pollutants from plane engines. That precisely illustrates why the question of who derives the benefits from high-speed rail—and, therefore, who should contribute to its funding—is a complex one with which we need to engage. The issue is not susceptible to quick responses.

The word has been that high-speed rail will start in 2017. However, the previous Secretary of State for Transport indicated to me that he expected that three and a half to four years would be required for the legislative process alone at Westminster, even under the Transport and Works Act 1992, which is similar to the Transport and Works (Scotland) Act 2007. In part, that is because of the bicameral nature of the Westminster Parliament, where proposals must be scrutinised by committees in both Houses of Parliament. Therefore, far from having the planning advantages that the Chinese Government might have, we have substantial difficulties, both north and south of the border, in dealing with these issues.

It is also worth pointing out that getting the planning arrangements to the same stage as has been achieved by HS2 for the proposals that are before us will probably cost in the order of £400 million to £600 million. That estimate is based on what it has cost to produce the most recent command paper. Therefore, the decisions involved are not trivial.

Kenny Gibson talked about energy. Electric trains of the kind that we are discussing would save 25 per cent on costs, mainly because of regenerative braking, which makes a big difference.

I listened with interest to Christopher Harvie, who was, as ever, extremely well informed on the history of railways. I had not realised that Japan's Olympics rail link was a spur to the country's modern development.

Tom McCabe made a thoughtful and useful speech. Clearly, he will continue to take an interest in the subject. He spoke of high-speed rail cutting 30 minutes from the journey from Amsterdam to Brussels. That example illustrates that it is perfectly possible for different jurisdictions to collaborate to deliver on the railways. In Ireland, the railway between Belfast and Dublin has been refettled. Although that is not a high-speed rail line, cross-border working was achieved nonetheless.

It is on that basis that we—good collaborationists that we are—have been working with the Department for Transport and HS2. It is important that we continue to do that. Frankly, our input is important. As the project moves forward, we will not close our minds to taking the work more directly into our own house. At the moment, we have an expert team working on the project. Members of that team have built up the skills, and it is entirely proper that we continue to work with them. That is why, at this stage, we cannot support what is encompassed in the Liberal amendment. That is not because what is proposed is intrinsically wrong, but because now is the wrong time to make the decision that the amendment calls for—it is simply too early to do so.

Patrick Harvie made some rather astonishing suggestions. He said that high-speed rail generates more CO2 than conventional rail does. I know that he relied on DFT factors in coming to that conclusion, albeit that he fundamentally disagrees with the DFT when its factors show that the project in Scotland that is causing the greatest amount of CO2 at the moment is the Edinburgh trams. That may seem slightly unlikely, but the conclusion is derived using DFT figures. On the Parliament having approved additional airport capacity, my answer is no, we did not do that. Finally, coaches have increased their carbon footprint by 10 per cent over the past five or six years.

Sarah Boyack rehearsed some old arguments about GARL, EARL and cost overruns. Under this Government, the Airdrie to Bathgate line is on budget and it is staying on budget. Similarly, the M74—for which we placed the contract—is staying on budget, as is the M80.

The debate has been interesting. We have stated our preference for a broad alignment that takes Edinburgh and Glasgow into the equation. We will, of course, work with the new Administration at Westminster. As I said, I have made initial contacts with Philip Hammond on other matters. It is clear that we will be able to have a rational discussion.

Funding issues have to be discussed. It is not clear as yet how HS2 will be funded in England, far less anywhere else. We do not use the regulatory asset base—

The Presiding Officer: Order. There is too much noise.

Stewart Stevenson: We need to have a robust way of ensuring that we harness private and public resources to deliver high-speed rail to make sure that the benefits that we know will come are delivered.

The opportunities that are before us are substantial. However, we have to accelerate what is happening on high-speed rail. We heard from the Conservative party that it wants to include Heathrow airport. As long as doing that does not slow down journey times to Scotland, that is a matter for those south of the border. It is important that we have the shortest possible route from London to Scotland and that we have access to trains that will speed up our journeys.

At the time of the DFT's announcement, the Conservatives were scathing of the plans, saying:

"Labour have got high speed rail wrong ... Their line to Birmingham leaves the North, Scotland and Wales out of the massive social, economic and regeneration benefits of high speed rail."

Clearly, there should be—and I look for—a change in direction from the UK Government that gives us new opportunities to press the case for high-speed rail for Scotland.

I reiterate that, on this agenda, as on so many others, Scotland is absolutely not peripheral but central. Scotland is central to the business case for high-speed rail in the UK. It is absolutely essential that Scotland is included in the planning for high-speed rail at the outset, free from bias—including our own. The Scottish Parliament should speak at decision time with one voice. We should send the clearest and most unambiguous message to London that we need to be part of this project from the outset.


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