Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 640 - 659)

WEDNESDAY 22 NOVEMBER 2000

SIR PHILIP BECK, MR STEVEN MARSHALL AND MR RICHARD MIDDLETON

Mr O'Brien

  640. Has Railtrack balanced the needs of freight and passenger operators, in drawing up its own investment plans, Mr Marshall; has it balanced the needs of passengers and freight in drawing up its own 10-year plan?
  (Mr Marshall) We have certainly tried to. It is, however, the case that ultimately our investment requirements will be driven by our customers. It is not for Railtrack alone to—

Chairman

  641. Passengers, I think, Mr Marshall, do you not; passengers?
  (Mr Marshall) I was using the word customers in a sense of the train operators and the freight operators, Madam Chair, responding to the question. I do regard also the people who take our trains, our passengers, as our ultimate customers. It is not something that the company has done, up until now, but I think it is very important we look at it that way; that is one of the messages we are giving, as a team, to the company today.

Mr O'Brien

  642. Has the Regulator made any observations on the balance, to the Board?
  (Mr Marshall) The Regulator has set a framework, he has set a very clear framework, for how Railtrack will be remunerated for new investment on the passenger side. The Regulator is also reviewing the arrangements with respect to freight operators over the next three or four months, or something of that nature, and he will be setting the framework for that, similarly. So, as we get into next year and we look forward to the next five years, we will have a clear framework for both sets of customers.

  643. Has the Government's 10-year plan allocated sufficient funds to enable rail freight to increase its market; do you think there is some loss there, because of the problems facing Railtrack?
  (Mr Marshall) We think that the 10-year plan is a huge step forward, it allocates a huge amount of money to rail, £60 billion in total, it is a public/private split, both are bringing money to the party, and the challenge for us all, to be frank about it, is to create the capacity, whether it is the supply chain that we talked about, the scarce skills and all the rest of it earlier on, and to organise ourselves in a way, because we are a complex industry, the capacity actually to channel in and invest that money.

  644. In view of the Government's strategic transport policy, freight plays a very big part in that programme, freight on the rails plays a very big part; what are you doing to try to stimulate a greater amount of freight traffic on to the rails?
  (Mr Marshall) It comes down to investment; the ten-year plan looks for growth of 80 per cent in freight, I believe, over the period, if I recall correctly, and once we have the framework in place for investment, and that has now been put in place by the Regulator, it really is a question of when the opportunities for enhancements come our way to take full account of the needs of our freight customers, and that we will do.

  645. I will come back to my first question now, Mr Marshall. Has Railtrack balanced the needs of freight and passengers in their plan?
  (Mr Marshall) We believe we have, yes.

  646. Are there figures for that; can you let us have a paper to that effect?
  (Mr Marshall) Certainly, we are very happy to submit a follow-up paper; we would also commend our current year network management statement, which sets out a very clear freight strategy alongside our passenger strategy. And clearly we will be updating both of those in our forthcoming network management statement, which will be either the first or second quarter of next year.

Mr Donohoe

  647. Your predecessor, at the CBI Conference, on 7 November, in a statement he made, said that freight trains were destroying the network. Do you support that view?
  (Mr Marshall) I think that is further than I would be prepared to go. Obviously, we understand that the pure tonnage of freight trains increases wear and tear on the network. I do not conclude, from that, that they are a bad thing. I think we have to design the network in a way that accommodates the needs of freight alongside the needs of passengers.

  648. He also indicated, I believe, that it was the freight train that was cracking the rail, because of the heaviness of it. Do you subscribe to that, as a view?
  (Mr Marshall) I do not believe we have support for that, but I will ask Mr Middleton to comment.

Chairman

  649. Mr Middleton, are your new American engines knocking hell out of it; freight, or rolling-stock, are they having this effect on your rails?
  (Mr Middleton) I think Mr Marshall answered, in the sense that freight trains do impose greater stresses on the track, and it is self-evident, they run around with 25-tonne axles, and that is much higher than the axle weight on—

Mr Donohoe

  650. Do you think they were a contributory factor, Mr Middleton, to the Hatfield accident?
  (Mr Middleton) I do not think they were a contributory factor to the Hatfield accident, no.

  651. It would be difficult, would it not, there are only two trains run every week, to run into?
  (Mr Middleton) Correct; exactly that.

  652. So it could not have been that?
  (Mr Middleton) As I said, categorically, no.

  653. Can I ask, just finally, when do you believe yourself to be in a position to resolve that particular problem; when do you see this Professor being able to give you evidence and information and having done calculations that will resolve this issue?
  (Mr Middleton) We will have an early view of his initial conclusions within the next two weeks, but I think the final research conclusions probably will be a few months away, as to the cause of the cracking and the rate of propagation and the means actually of getting some predictors in place.

  654. What, as an industry, was done before the introduction of this hard-steel rail, in terms of trials and testing in the lab, what was done by Railtrack itself, have you an inside lab, or anything?
  (Mr Middleton) No. I think there are two parts to your question. At the last hearing, Madam Chair, you asked me about mill heat-treated rail, which was introduced by BR, and I promised to come back to you with a written response on the testing that was done for that in BR days.

Chairman

  655. Yes, you did.
  (Mr Middleton) What I have said at this hearing is that modern steel, because of the greater quality control, appears to be harder than the steel that was used 10, 15, 20 years ago; so the actual composition of the rail has not changed, it is better quality. So no testing was done because it has not changed. It is believed to be harder and therefore does not wear away as quickly; but, again, this is research that our expert has got to do.

Mr Donohoe

  656. And you would think that that timescale will be six months until you hear about that?
  (Mr Middleton) I did not say six months, no. I said we will have initial views within a fortnight, but, in the manner of academic research, the final conclusion will be a few months away, and I really cannot put a deadline on it, because I must make sure we get the facts.

Miss McIntosh

  657. Just a question arising out of what Mr Marshall said, that "We won't take a decision until we've found the right answer." It does beg the question, what is the question? And, I think, what compounded the crash in Hatfield was the fact that it was not just the gauge corner cracking, it was also on a bend. I presume the gauge corner does not just refer to the bend in a high-speed line. Is the research, that your expert is doing, looking into how this would impact not just on present lines but any high-speed rail track to the Channel Tunnel?
  (Mr Middleton) Yes. The findings of the research obviously will be applied right across the network. You are correct, I do not wish to—it is actually called a curve, we call them curves, on the railway—but, obviously, research into the stresses on the rails and the forces and the impact of the findings of the research will be applied across the whole of the network.

Chairman

  658. I want to ask you one or two quick questions before I allow you to escape. What progress have you made with work on your asset database?
  (Mr Middleton) It is going very well. The computer systems are up and running, and there is an exercise in place to populate the database, and we are responding to the Regulator at the end of this week on the dates by which those asset databases will be populated, in accordance with the regulatory requirements.

  659. Could you give us an indication of what kind of date we are talking about?
  (Mr Middleton) For the Railtrack asset register, we are looking at April next year.




 
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