Transport System: Failings - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 12:44 pm ar 25 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Viscount Hanworth Viscount Hanworth Llafur 12:44, 25 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, Britain was once a great innovator in transport. It was the first of the European nations to create a modern transport network. In the late 18th century, John McAdam and Thomas Telford, known to his contemporaries as the Colossus of Roads, were at the forefront of an endeavour to construct a serviceable network of highways that expedited travel in an unprecedented way.

At the same time, a network of canals was under construction that enabled goods and freight to be conveyed over long distances. Then, from the middle of the 19th century, a vast network of railways was under construction. This was achieved by speculative private enterprise, which often resulted in private ruin. In Lewis Carroll’s poem, “The Hunting of the Snark”, we hear of threatening a person’s life with a railway share. The process was a free for all, and it endowed the nation with a network that was arguably full of replication and redundancy. It was fit for pruning. It was eventually reduced drastically and, in retrospect, far too extensively, in the 1960s under was aegis of a certain Dr Beeching. He was an engineer and physicist who had worked for Imperial Chemical Industries before he was charged with this task, which made him a prominent public figure.

By the middle of the 20th century Britain’s transport network had fallen into disrepair, and its roads were no longer to be admired. Britain lacked the autobahns, autostrada and routes nationales of its European neighbours, some of which had been inspired by dictators with militaristic intentions. Belatedly, in the 1960s Britain indulged in a feverish process of catch-up that created our own inadequate motorways.

Our rail system had also fallen into disrepair, and it still compares unfavourably with those of its continental neighbours. They have benefited from national investment programmes that have been absent from Britain. Worse was to come when the Conservative Government of John Major denationalised the railways and sought to re-establish the system of large railway companies that had dominated the industry in the 1930s, which was arguably its heyday.

Now, at the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, Britain’s transport network faces an unprecedented challenge on two fronts. The first challenge is to provide the means of transporting goods and people in a manner that will cater to the demands of the modern economy. The second challenge will be to staunch the emissions of the greenhouse gases to which transport is a major contributor. Current estimates indicate that transport contributes one quarter of all the nation’s domestic emissions. Most of these emissions come from road vehicles. The additional emissions of international transport are not part of this reckoning.

An inescapable judgment is that the present Government have failed adequately to meet these challenges. The denationalisation of British railways has resulted in a system that lacks the strategic oversight needed to maintain an orderly investment programme. The procurement of rolling stock has become disorganised and sporadic, and much of it is provided nowadays by foreign suppliers. The once great engineering works at Derby that served the London, Midland and Scottish Railway has passed into foreign ownership. It was acquired in 2001 by the Canadian company Bombardier and in 2021 it passed to the French company Alstom. Given the current hiatus in the procurement of new trains, it now seems to be destined for closure. Its demise represents a paradigm of national mismanagement and illustrates the danger of allowing our industries to become offshoots of foreign enterprises.

It must be acknowledged that rail transport contributes only a small proportion of the nation’s emissions of carbon dioxide and of greenhouse gasses more generally. However, there are two reasons why attention should be paid to the matter of its reform, and an incoming Labour Government would be committed to do that. First, there are numerous diesel-powered trains on the network that contribute significantly to pollution and need to be eliminated. Next, an expansion of the network would enable people and freight to be transferred from the roads. This would be an effective way of reducing emissions from road vehicles.

The modest size of the total emissions coming directly from the rail network is a testimony to its energy efficiency, and to the fact that much of the traffic is powered by electricity. There must be concern for how the electricity is generated, for it is not free of emissions. Nevertheless, further electrification should be seen as a means of eliminating diesel power. But Britain faces some difficulties in this connection that do not affect continental railways to the same extent. Many of the old bridges and tunnels have small apertures that prevent the installation of overhead electric cables. To overcome this difficulty, trains must be available that are powered by batteries and fuel cells. Here, there has been virtually no progress, for which there can be little excuse.

A major reduction in emissions must come from a major reduction in the number of road vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. There too, the steps taken so far have been wholly inadequate. The Government have backtracked on their original commitment by deferring a ban on the sales of such vehicles to 2035—five years later than originally proposed. The ban on sales of petrol-powered and diesel-powered vehicles should provide a stimulus to our automotive industry, which must adopt batteries and hydrogen fuel cells as a means of powering road vehicles. It will be an effective stimulus for the industry only if there is an accompanying development in the industries that provide batteries and fuel cells.

It is doubtful whether our automobile industry will be able to rise to the occasion. It is in the hands of foreign and international owners who see their British factories as offshoots of their main enterprises. They will be willing to close them and to move their operations elsewhere if this becomes a more profitable option. Manufacturers are liable to be drawn to places where a supply of batteries is closer to hand. The UK has failed to develop an industry that can manufacture batteries in the numbers required. There is only one manufacturer of batteries that operates on a large scale—a plant in Sunderland that supplies the Nissan car factory. It is run by the Chinese company Envision and is small in comparison with the genuine gigafactories that exist elsewhere in Europe and in China. The other automobile manufacturers in the UK rely on imported batteries. Unless we can develop our battery manufacturing, we will be in danger of losing the majority of our motor manufacturers.