Rt Hon Lord Lilley

    I have a confession to make. I am as prejudiced as the next man. After a lifetime spent sneering at British Rail, like most people I transferred my prejudice seamlessly to Railtrack and the private rail companies. So I was expecting the worst when I arranged to meet representatives of Railtrack and the Channel Rail Link company to discuss why they plan to close the Thameslink line because of building works. I was accompanied by Charles Elphicke, the Prospective Conservative Candidate for St Albans who was equally determined to find out why our fellow constituents are to be inconvenienced in this way when the West Coast mainline modernisation will involve only the briefest of interruptions.

    As we talked through the plans on site at St Pancras, my attitude to the railways began to change. I realised what a massive transformation is underway. After decades of decline rail travel is growing strongly. In the last three years passenger travel has risen by a quarter; freight traffic even more. Private enterprise is succeeding where BR failed in getting people off the roads and onto trains. The problems, discomfort and overcrowding that I and my fellow travellers experience are the result of the system for the first time working at full capacity.

    The plans for Thameslink which we saw at St Pancras are part of a massive programme, largely financed by private capital, to expand capacity and introduce new routes. The number of trains serving Harpenden will increase form 8 to 12 an hour in each direction at peak times. And for my Hitchin constituents, there will be up to 12 trains an hour each way for the first time linking on to Thameslink and continuing through the City to South London, Gatwick, Guildford and Eastbourne. All this will require an entirely new station built underneath St Pancras (replacing the present Kings Cross Thameslink) with new and closer interchanges with the underground.

    It is building this new station (and not, as I had imagined, the new Channel Tunnel Rail Link Terminal at St Pancras) that will require the closure of the Thameslink line for up to six months in two or three years time. Charles Elphicke and I will continue to press Railtrack to minimise that closure period. But we want to see the investment in the Thameslink line completed as soon as possible. John Prescott?s suggestion that work should be delayed until the Channel Tunnel Rail Link work goes ahead is quite unnecessary.

    The prize for people in Hitchin and Harpenden will be more frequent, more capacious, faster trains, new routes and less need to switch onto the underground. The sooner we get that the better,

    If the rail companies can deliver these improvements speedily and with minimum disruption, I shall to shed my old prejudices. The reforms which started in 1994 are beginning to demonstrate that railways can be enterprising, efficient and expanding.