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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 760 - 779)

WEDNESDAY 29 NOVEMBER 2000

SIR ALASTAIR MORTON AND MR MIKE GRANT

  760. Do you think that the reaction to the Hatfield accident has perhaps been exaggerated if you take into account the overall safety record of the railways?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) I think the reaction has been a very sharp one and would not have been the same under a combined British Rail, not so much because the people were different in those days but because risk was assessed over the railway as a whole and it was the risk between the entire railway system and the user of it. Now you go down to the risk between the provider of the rails, Railtrack, and the user of the rails, the operators. The Health and Safety Executive confirms that Railtrack owes a duty only to those who use the rail, meaning the operators. It only has to deliver safety of its rails. It is a much narrower question than before. Therefore, actions of Railtrack tend to export risk and say "I will deal with my risk, you have got to go and find some other way of dealing with your risks, fellas". As a result we are getting much more sharp and assertive action to deal with the particular problem of rails being broken than we might have seen under a combined British Rail which would have said "well, on the one hand, and on the other hand, we have got to look after the system as a whole."

  761. We have spent a lot of time questioning you about the Railtrack organisation. Are you aware of the figures which Mr Stuart Francis, who is the Chairman of the Rail Passengers' Council, gave out on Newsnight last night, which I checked today, when he said that the investigations of the miles of rail so far have not revealed a single piece of track which appears to be in a similar condition to that which failed at Hatfield and that, furthermore—his words—"it appears that this would be an isolated incident". If that is true, and I double checked with Mr Francis' office and also the place at which these statistics were given to him and they seem to be very bona fide, do you feel that organisations like yours to some extent, certainly Committees like this and the public in general, are overreacting to the potential risk of going by rail?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) It is my personal belief that we have to, how shall I say, consider that very carefully. The problem comes when you say "consider it carefully". If you have a narrow duty to provide safety and you have lawyers telling you the troubles you will get into if you do not deliver that narrow definition, you consider only that narrow definition. What has gone missing as a consequence of privatisation is the system look—or the look across the system. If we can find a way of negotiating, as it were, a treaty between the parties, and this cannot be done between now and next week, to govern the reactions of the system to share risk, if you like, in future crises, because one day there will be another one, we will have done something very useful. It is not the same question, it is not the same parties, it is not the same consequences, but in the electricity industry there is a code, a treaty, setting out how the National Grid, the regional distributors and the generators will behave towards each other in assessing and taking on risk when a line falls down or something like that. Is there a way of reading across from that to rail? I do not yet know. This is part of what we will be looking at in the New Year when we talk about an industry seminar to look at crisis management. This has not been a satisfactory crisis management episode. That is a way of saying that, amongst other things, there have been overreactions at particular times.

  762. Do you see part of your role in future incidents of this sort as being able to give a more balanced view perhaps and putting the particular crisis, if you use that word, into context? As I read the safety figures of the railway, it is one of the safest forms of travel, and I am not the first person to have said that, and yet that does not come through.
  (Sir Alastair Morton) Absolutely.

  763. I think we are doing a disservice to the public in the way these things are handled. Do you feel that you will be in a position to cast some light on this problem?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) I would hope we do now and I hope we can do more and more and better and better as time goes by. I would remind you of how short a time it is since everybody was jumping like a person with a bee sting if the word "safety" was mentioned because the Ladbroke Grove lawyers, the victims and the survivors, were watching. I think that was an overreaction. There are accidents in transport. I used in a speech yesterday the example of the Sainsbury's lorry wiping out six people a few days after Hatfield. That is just like a freight train on a permanent way, a restricted access permanent way; it is not far from a train, and how little notice was taken of it. There is this problem of people pointing the finger. The Daily Telegraph headline the day after Hatfield was "Who can we blame this time?", or "Who is to blame this time?". If we insist on blaming somebody and we put lawyers behind that and courts behind that and new legislation behind that, we will get the kind of overreaction where people facing fines and jail financially and personally will say: "I am responsible only for this patch. I will make sure there is no risk in this patch. Everybody else can worry about all the patches they have to worry about; that is their problem, it is certainly not mine". That is how you get overreaction. We export risk to each other, pass the parcel, faster and faster, and I think this is a problem the industry has arrived in. I think it has been brought to it partly by its own failures to act and partly by the reactions of others to whatever has happened.

  764. Can I ask you just one last point, and it will be much more difficult to answer this. Do you feel that the kind of politicisation of the railways is partly to blame for this overreaction, meaning politicians use these incidents as a means of scoring points politically?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) I do not think that is a fair statement post-privatisation, I think it has always been like that. This is a public service and services to the public, whether health, private sector health, public sector health, or education or jails or railways, are things that concern Ministers and politicians. Parliament wants answers on them. There is a pressure for political response that one has to recognise. You cannot say the fact that there is private sector ownership is the decisive thing and nobody must say a word, it is a public service even though it is provided from the private sector. I think having codes of process, codes of procedure, codes of behaviour in these would be a good idea if people respected them. People respect them if they respect the people involved in them. I do not think anyone will forget the sight of the original Sir Bob Reid amongst the wreckage at Clapham, the way he was patently looking at his railway and feeling responsible for what he saw there. There was no need for a Minister to be anywhere near. Now where you do not see that, you tend to say "where is the Minister, what is he doing about it?" or "Where is Sir Alastair, what is he doing about it?" People being seen to take responsibility at all levels, I am not trying to push it to a particular level, is a very important part of having a concordat about how we react to these events; and how we react to these events will play a part in how we deal with them.

Miss McIntosh

  765. May I remind the Committee of my interest in Railtrack, First Group and Eurotunnel. Sir Alastair, did I understand the Prime Minister to say today that it is now a Strategic Rail Authority, not a shadow?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) I was told that by the Chairman, yes.

  Miss McIntosh: I apologise for being late.

  Chairman: The decision has been voted on in the House of Lords. Sir Alastair is now at the moment a respectable person.

  Miss McIntosh: May I congratulate you, Sir Alastair.

  Chairman: I give no guarantees for his future behaviour.

Miss McIntosh

  766. Am I to understand that your Chief Executive gave evidence to the Public Accounts Committee this week? Would he just like to repeat the evidence he gave to that Committee on the length of time it would take for the track . . .?
  (Mr Grant) It would be a pleasure.

Chairman

  767. As long as it is not four hours long.
  (Mr Grant) It was about that long but I will be much briefer. What I said on the punctuality question was that we had an aspiration of 15 out of 16 trains on time. It had been committed by Chiltern to be achieved in four years and by South Central in ten years and we expected it to be achieved on all the others within the life of their franchises.

  768. What was your comment on the East Coast Line achieving its targets, did you mention that?
  (Mr Grant) That is a discussion that is taking place at the moment, so it is not finalised as yet. That is part of the discussion with Virgin and GNER.
  (Sir Alastair Morton) Certainly long before the final years.
  (Mr Grant) Long before 20 years anyway.

Chairman

  769. So some of them will manage it in 20 years?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) No. At a date to be negotiated within the franchise, not on the last day of the last year of the franchise.
  (Mr Grant) To date we have Chiltern who have committed to do it in four years and we have GoVia committed to do it in 10 years.

Miss McIntosh

  770. Could I ask when you are expecting to announce the franchise for the East Coast Line?
  (Mr Grant) We have almost completed all of our analysis, we have not quite completed it. We have not made a recommendation to Ministers. It is in the near future but I cannot give you an exact date.

  771. Sir Alastair, the tragic accident to which you referred on the road occurred right in the heart of the Vale of York at Kirby Hill. We currently have, and we are not proud of this, the worst road safety record in the country, certainly in England and Wales. It is causing immense concern to those who travel north or south, the East Coast Line obviously serving those who wish to travel north to Edinburgh or south to London. We are concerned that the speed restrictions currently imposed are causing a greater danger of signals being passed at danger, more overcrowding on trains and causing more people to travel on the roads. Is there anything that you can say to put those minds at rest?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) Those are among the concerns that I would hope the industry, looking at things in the round, would take into account. The trouble comes when you say "who gets sued?" If you get the lawyer for the survivors of Ladbroke Grove in, or the victims, I am not sure who Ms Christian represents, she will give you a very robust answer, she will sue anyone she can sue.

Chairman

  772. That is not unusual in lawyers I find.
  (Sir Alastair Morton) The need, therefore, if you are going to have shared responsibility, is to reach what I call a treaty to share it. That requires mutual confidence between the parties. I am not saying here today we know we can achieve that level of confidence in the near future.

Miss McIntosh

  773. In your view would the level of investment that we have seen over the last three years in the railway have been achieved without private sector involvement?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) I would very much doubt it. People keep talking about how things would be different or better in the public sector. They might be in the public sector in other countries but the most important thing about privatisation is the access it creates to the import of private capital into this industry which needs capital so badly. You have to pay some prices for that.

  Miss McIntosh: Can I ask, do you have any strong views on whether Railtrack should maintain its contractual relationships for maintenance work or whether Railtrack—

  Chairman: Sir Alastair has answered those questions.

Miss McIntosh

  774. Can I just ask one last question. Does Sir Alastair have strong views on the particular formula that has been chosen not just in Great Britain but in other countries of separating the track from the operation of services on it?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) This has become the European standard, that the infrastructure provision is separated from the operators and there is open access. The ambition is to have open access to the infrastructure which requires, as I was saying earlier, more capacity than we have got. I take it as a given that we will have that separation. I did not mention here, I do not think, but I have mentioned in a number of places that when the structure was devised, I am told, I was not present, the intention was that Railtrack would be in the public sector and there was a later decision to privatise it. The Treasury saw that it could sell it for some ready cash.

  Chairman: They did not actually do very well when they sold it.

  Mr Olner: The lawyers did very well.

  Chairman: Others did very well. If the Treasury are left in the private sector we might be in some trouble.

Miss McIntosh

  775. I think you were going to continue.
  (Sir Alastair Morton) I think I have made my point. I do not actually question the separation and I do not preach renationalisation of any part of it. Our problem is to make work what we have got. I did sit on the fence, or the hedge, somewhat with the first question in that I was saying the Government has to decide. It is a political decision whether to seek a return on investment for the money put into the industry.

  Chairman: We did go into that in some detail.

Mr Bennett

  776. Are some of the existing franchisees in financial difficulties?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) One of them has announced that. GB Rail, which is the parent or the holder of the Anglia franchise, has made a Stock Exchange announcement and it has come to talk to us.

  777. Does that mean that you might actually be driving the trains fairly soon?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) I sincerely hope not. We were under a duty even beforehand, I am not sure if it has changed in the last few minutes, as British Rail to be the operator of last resort and that continues, I think.
  (Mr Grant) The SRA is the operator of last resort.
  (Sir Alastair Morton) It is a duty that we hope not to see land on our doorstep but if it does we would be prepared for it.

  778. You have already shown your enthusiasm for lawyers but in sorting out compensation for some of those companies as a result of some of the problems over the last three weeks there could be quite a lot of money for lawyers to earn. Is there any way of cutting that out or is it going to be a bear pit for some time as to who pays for problems?
  (Mr Grant) What we have dealt with so far has been the period eight compensation, which was announced last week. We have facilitated the deal, if you like, between Railtrack, the train operating companies and the RPC. What we have done is we have alleviated the cash flow problems by not collecting some of the penalties that are due to us. What we have said is we will look at the position towards the end of the financial year to see whether the train operating companies are in any difficulties and take a view at that point whether we should collect it or not.

  779. Do you think it can be resolved without lots of complicated legal battles?
  (Mr Grant) We have—



 
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