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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 720 - 739)



  720. Surely the fact that they introduced new rails, as we heard from Railtrack, and then within a year they start to break up, it seems to me as if there is not the necessary research and development being undertaken before they introduce this new product. We hear of new trains that are lying in sidings for years in some cases. Why is that being allowed to happen and is it not your job, as you said earlier, to put something in to make it all stick together? Your job is to apply the glue, is it not, to this?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) I think you have moved on a bit from research and development. To take the first one, the rails. The rails in question: the last significant change that I am aware of was in 1990 or 1991, when these harder top rails were brought into the railways. There is no recent change in type of rail of any significance that I am aware of but that would require asking Railtrack. However, I do not think there has been. So the question of why they are starting to break up is part of a puzzle. The thing I said in public yesterday, that this accident has spooked the railway, is because people cannot find a correlation between the particular cast at a particular mill that produced a particular rail, who installed it by what method using what equipment, the rolling stock which has run over it, the weight of traffic that it takes. This does not appear so far to have any correlation. I suspect it is a detective job that is going to produce answers but it has not produced them yet. Therefore, the question of research into why this is happening is complicated. However, I am clear, from being reported to, that Railtrack has involved more outside experts than you can shake sticks at in this question already. Our coming in and banging the table and saying, "Are your outside experts doing the work you have been paid to do"—


  721. But, Sir Alastair, do you not think that this is one of the problems? We have asked Railtrack how much engineering expertise have they got in-house at every level. What concerns this Committee is that even after they moved all the chairs, they still may not have sufficient engineering expertise throughout the whole of the organisation to check the quality of the contractors' work. With respect, I would be quite happy to take over Railtrack tomorrow, but I can assure you one of the first things I would do would be to appoint engineers.
  (Sir Alastair Morton) I think you have every reason to be keen for them to have more engineering.

Mr Donohoe

  722. What is your input in that respect?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) Our input is the one I was talking about earlier. We want Railtrack fit for the purpose. That means we want Railtrack able to hold up its end of the business of controlling a maintenance programme, controlling a renewal programme, controlling an enhancement programme to our satisfaction or we will be saying why should they be paid for it and getting public money?


  723. It is a good question, is it not?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) It is a perfectly good question, I am not against the question at all. May I just come to the question of rolling stock because that is where I think you did go on to?

Mr Donohoe

  724. Sure.
  (Sir Alastair Morton) There is a very, very disappointing record in the introduction of new rolling stock. Historically railways in this country have the happy habit of doing a couple of prototypes and running around this network for a couple of years and then taking them back and rebuilding. It is not a good idea but, anyway, it is not an idea that is possible nowadays because you have all the different customers and the different routes that they go on, you have got Railtrack and you have got a lack of capacity to permit people to run around testing things, which is a problem. As a result this rolling stock has been designed by the manufacturers, probably pushing forward in terms of performance and quality quite a bit from the last generation, and has been presented to Railtrack and, lo and behold, has not worked properly. That is partly because it has been badly built. It is like the worst days of British Leyland, quite seriously, bits and pieces falling off here and there. It is partly because of the lack of compatibility between this malfunctioning rolling stock, or even when it is functioning, and the track on to which it is being put. That is partly due to the fact that Railtrack has not in the past made enough data available on the conditions of whichever strip of track. The list goes on. Basically there are faults on Railtrack's side and there are faults on the manufacturer's side. I think the train operators and the rolling stock companies who ordered these trains showed inexperience in going for an engineering specification, a technical specification, that was not pre-harmonised to everything and something. It probably could not have been, to be honest. You had to start somewhere, you ordered the rolling stock, it arrived and if it was in good condition it probably still would not all work because it would have incompatibilities with the network.

  Chairman: I am sorry, there is now a division in the Commons, I must suspend for 15 minutes.

  The Committee suspended from 4.33 pm to 4.41 pm for a division in the House.

Mr Donohoe

  725. Sir Alastair, you were in the middle of explaining to us the rolling stock problems that there are.
  (Sir Alastair Morton) I got as far as saying there is a problem on both sides, it is deeply unsatisfactory and we are vigorously involved. An executive of the Strategic Rail Authority chairs something called the Long-Term Group which brings together Railtrack, manufacturers, ROSCOs and TOCs with us. It just worries away at this problem being constantly surprised by the way both sides let themselves down.


  726. It is not quite both sides, is it, because the ROSCOs must have a very important part to play in this? If they are the financiers of the various new rolling stock, the way that they agree to pay for and accept delivery of the rolling stock must be enormously important.
  (Sir Alastair Morton) I think that is not causing the delays that I was specifically talking about, the inability to complete delivery. That may hold up the placing of orders, although I am not aware that it does very much. They have been built and now they are sitting in sidings that is the business I was particularly addressing. That is a struggle between manufacturers with an inadequate product facing Railtrack with inappropriate procedures.
  (Mr Grant) Just to add something. We did have a Short-Term Action Group as well and they had some success.

  727. Is this a different one from the Long-Term Action Group?
  (Mr Grant) It is. It was specifically to try to get some of these trains that were parked in the sidings on to the network. There was some success, particularly with the LTS and SWT, the c2c franchises that Sir Alastair mentioned.

  728. Given that there is a record being taken, would you be kind enough to spell out what it was.
  (Mr Grant) c2c is the trading name of what was London, Tilbury and Southend, and there was also South West Trains. They did clear the safety clearances and then the problem was the reliability of the trains and they were withdrawn. One of the areas we are looking at with the industry is testing facilities. That is part of the Long-Term Action Group.

Mr Donohoe

  729. My concern, and the reason I ask these questions, is that it was my understanding that the Shadow Strategic Rail Authority, and tomorrow you will have lost your shadow, was on the basis of the whole question that you are the glue in the middle that is supposed to put all this together. It seems it is a bit like superglue, it is not working, there is not the melding that there should be to industry and we are not seeing direction as to where we are going at this stage.
  (Sir Alastair Morton) I understand the concern. I am anxious to maintain the point that we do not manage any of the parties in terms of giving instructions: go and they go. We are not the operators or controllers of any part of the action, so we are at another level. The concern that this should be such a problem for so long is very much on our desk. When you have written to the Chief Executives of Daimler Benz train division and you have written to the Chairman of Bombardier Trains Group and so on, and said "you are really making extremely shoddy products, would you kindly do better", you are starting to use up the large shots in your locker. You have frightened their subordinates, you have annoyed the bosses, you have made it clear you are not going to be sympathetic to their yells for help to bully Railtrack on their behalf. At the same time, if you have irritated Railtrack to the point where people are downright furious and they say "I have got a job to do, you are telling me how to do it", and I say "If the way you are doing your job is not actually producing a proactive attitude to bring rolling stock on to the network as opposed to a reactive attitude saying `well, I have measured it again since you brought it here and it still does not fit'", I am quite happy for them to be miserable. I think you have got to be proactive. We have pushed these people and the question is what do you do if the pressure does not work? The answer is you go to other suppliers. We have been active in encouraging other suppliers in response to the inquiry we put out for Mk 1 replacement stock. Similarly, and you go above the particular management, the divisional management of Railtrack, and you talk to the top management at Railtrack and we are then back in the problem we were talking about of Railtrack being fit for purpose at the top level. It is just another point on the list that we have under discussion with the Railtrack top management.

  730. You are making that sound very, very pessimistic and you are virtually saying to me, I do not know about the other Members of the Committee, this fragmentation that there is within the industry, even with your role, is never going to resolve this situation.
  (Sir Alastair Morton) I did not say that.

  731. I am not trying to interrupt you, but just to take it forward, who has got the blueprint? Who is saying "we have got to go down the road 10 years because we have already got this 10 Year Plan on investment"? Who is working towards that? Where are the targets in the system? What are each of these fragmented companies doing that is going to be examined, and I suggest the examination should be by you, in order that the public can see that there is direction starting to come into the system, that we are out of this crisis management and we are going to achieve something? Or, as I am beginning to believe, is it impossible, that it will never happen unless instead of being the rail authority you do become the management authority?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) Short of that last point, which is clearly where we part company because I am not appointed to become a management authority, the answer is you have to take what action that is within your powers, or within your influence, to improve the performance of those that are going to be in the industry longer term, medium to long-term, and stop doing business with the ones that should not be in the industry medium to long-term. That is about your choice. You can vote with your feet by doing no more business with them but you cannot actually veto, from where I sit and from where Mike Grant sits, a private sector company that wants to do business with that inadequate company over there, whatever it is. Where is the power—perhaps you know where it is, Mike—that enables us to ban company x, y, z from getting any rail business? I am not aware of it. We can make clear our attitude. We can say "we will not do business with them". For example, in the business of new franchises, which is our business, we have to pre-qualify people, people who in principle are willing to discuss whether they can have a franchise, and then we have to short list them as being people whose ideas are worth talking about and whose performance is at least possibly good enough for the longer term franchises, and then we have to choose a preferred bidder and get to the terms and conditions, which will be very different from the existing ones. There we have a direct contractual relationship with the future franchisees. Maintenance contractors we have no relationship with. ROSCOs we have no relationship with. We may buy some Mk 1 replacement stock because we are concerned that that programme can go ahead and does not get sidetracked by talk of refranchising and who is going to be the buyer. We buy them and we pass them on to whoever the new franchisee is, we do not own them long-term. Therefore, we will have a contractual relationship with the supplier and we will make it hurt if these things do not work. So you go on across the industry. But what you do have is a fragmented industry, that is what happened at privatisation. Therefore, in your discussions under regulation, under statute, under franchise agreement or under other contract or under rental lease or whatever, what is your locus to say what you want and have it done? For the rest, you are simply trying to influence. We do lead, I do not think we are accused of not doing that. You have got to understand that this is a system that is now not centrally controlled and that was a political decision.

  732. Honestly do you think it is going to work?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) I think it is going to work. I think we are all going to have more aggro than we would like to have and really need to have along the way because you cannot get so many parties involved without them having different ideas, so perhaps we need to have the aggro.

  733. But it will work?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) Define "work". When 15 out of 16 trains are on time, or when there is no more enhancement?

  Mr Donohoe: You set these standards.


  734. Not taking too many hours on a journey into London and out again, or into Manchester and out again every day, would be a start, would it not?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) In 1997 performance reached its peak but it has fallen back a bit since. The number of trains that were on time, as measured with whatever it was, was 90 to 92 per cent.
  (Mr Grant) 92.5 per cent.

Mr Donohoe

  735. When do you see it coming back to that point of efficiency that there was in 1997?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) That is a long subject but remember one of the reasons why it is down from that point is lack of resilience in the system. When things go wrong, how quickly does it recover? Why is the system not very resilient? It is not very resilient because sometimes it is short of drivers, so you cannot just put on another train because you have not got a driver even if you have got a train. It is not very resilient because there is a lack of rolling stock. That does not get cured by just building new ones because quite a lot of the new ones are to replace old ones that by law have got to be taken out of service. There is a lack of resilience because of space on the network, you cannot go round any more because there is a scheduled train going that way, which is not always possible anyway but where it was possible. There is a lack of resilience because the maintenance requirements of the network, having been whatever they were, have now become more and, therefore, you cannot go round, as it were, or you cannot go over that track alongside because somebody is doing maintenance work on it. You have got an ageing network that is showing its age, that is much more crammed full than it was and is lacking the resilience which is actually a large part of performance. It is lacking in performance for reasons of age, from time to time of management and lack of resilience.

  Chairman: It all sounds very reasonable.

Mr Donohoe

  736. My last point I did not get an answer to because I mixed it up. Do you have a five year plan that mirrors that of the intention of Government to have investment?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) We have a plan to pursue the investment programme spelled out in the 10 Year Plan, to pursue performance levels spelled out in our specifications for new franchises, to pursue service levels that will satisfy customers that we have spelled out the requirements for in getting the new franchise requirements. Yes, that is what we are going to bring out.

  737. So when will we see that?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) January. It will not say "the train to Wimbledon will leave at four minutes past four in the afternoon, or else", it will say "there will be services to the London suburbs" as it were.

  Chairman: I think it would be nice if we were able to say "the trains will leave".

Dr Ladyman

  738. I can recollect when, Sir Alastair, you were trying to refinance the Channel Tunnel and I seem to recollect that one of the conditions that was put by the investors on that refinancing was that you were in charge of the company because they had confidence in you.
  (Sir Alastair Morton) That is a happy memory.

  739. So it is true to say, therefore, that investors in a company do have influence over the board of the company. So when you said earlier that Railtrack is a private company and, therefore, you, and presumably the Government, have only limited influence over who is on the board and who is in the senior management of that company, that is only partially true. The bankers, the investors and, therefore, the Government have considerable influence over who is on the board of the company.
  (Sir Alastair Morton) The Government is a very, very small shareholder in Railtrack.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 27 April 2001