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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1020 - 1039)

TUESDAY 12 DECEMBER 2000

RT HON LORD MACDONALD OF TRADESTON, CBE, AND MR BOB LINNARD

Chairman

  1020. Railtrack is demanding that somebody builds a test track.
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) Various options are being looked at as to how we could improve the testing on track before they are put into service.
  (Mr Linnard) One of the things that the SRA were asked to do about a month ago was to set up a group, which became five sub-groups under a steering group chaired by Sir Alastair Morton, to look at various structural problems within the industry, not in terms of whether Railtrack ought to be split up, or anything like that, but what has been described as the sore points, contractual, regulatory problems within the industry. One of those groups has been looking specifically at vehicle acceptance and reliability and the fact that a lot of the new rolling-stock is not—

  1021. It is a little late, is it not, Mr Linnard, because these problems have existed for, certainly, the last two years, to my knowledge?
  (Mr Linnard) The problems have existed. The Strategic Rail Authority were asked about 18 months ago to set up a group with rolling-stock manufacturers, leasing company train operators, which they have done and which has produced some good results in terms of speeding up delivery.

  1022. Has it got any more rolling-stock on to the rails that are producing good results?
  (Mr Linnard) It has speeded up the delivery of some rolling-stock, yes, but there are still problems. One of the problems, as the Minister said, is the fact that when the stock does come out of the production line it does not operate reliably enough.

  1023. Everyone in the rail industry operates existing rolling-stock on the assumption that the way to find out if there are any problems is to run the equipment over the first year before they accepted delivery, deal with the manufacturers, put them into operation and when they are only working properly then to accept delivery. This is not a new problem, it has existed in the rail industry since the original George Stevenson was at the game. Now suddenly it is being extended by Railtrack.
  (Mr Linnard) If I can respond to that, I do not think it is a new problem that has been discovered. What is, undoubtedly, true is because of the intensity of use on the network, with the growth that has happened over the last three or four years, the effect of a breakdown is much more serious on a lot of crowded commuter lines than it used to be.

Mr Donohoe

  1024. When you were talking to Sir Richard did he indicate to you that Alstom, who have something to do with these trains, have been granted a variation order to defer the delivery of these trains? Were you aware of that?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) No, I was not, no.

  Chairman: Perhaps you would like to talk to the Italians, who deliver them without any trouble at all.

Mr Donohoe

  1025. The figure is something like a four month delay. In private conversation with train operating companies I am sure you get a different response than you will probably in public. As far as the service that they get from Railtrack is concerned there seems to almost be intimidation in terms of the way that Railtrack almost coerces the rail operating companies into lying. Can you just confirm that some of the operating companies themselves have made representations to you to suggest that Railtrack is broken up and they, in fact, as franchisees will be given the responsibility of the maintenance of the Railtrack?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) Some of the work that we did after the Paddington disaster was looking at the relationship between the train operating companies and Railtrack. We had heard about concerns that Railtrack were less than responsive to the needs of the TOCs. The work that we did showed no conclusive evidence of that. In reading what the Regulator had to say when he came to see you, he too had not had complaints of intimidation, as I recall him saying.

Mr Bennett

  1026. He did make a pretty firm statement about the need for a change of attitude.
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) It was very much a change of attitude, because we do believe that Railtrack has to focus much more on its customers, the train operating companies and their customers and the passenger. So, yes, it does need a change of culture, and from everything we hear from the new management they are intent on delivering that.

Mr Donohoe

  1027. The problem is that this crisis is almost open-ended as to when it is going to come to a conclusion. Are you saying it is going to be by Easter?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I am saying that very significant changes are promised by the end of January. There will be a post Christmas/New Year schedule brought in on 8 January and then another schedule on 29 January, according to the last information I was given by Railtrack. At that point we will have had, "A very significant improvement", I quote their words.

  1028. The problem is that in using your statistics, as you did when asked the question, they are almost fundamentally flawed. You are using changed timetables to come to the conclusions that you have. These changed timetables have added as much as an hour or two hours on to a journey. The airlines have done that for years, it is the oldest trick in the game to extend the period between A and B in terms of time and then to suggest to the travelling public that things are improving when in actual fact they are not.
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) Please let me be clear, these are not my statistics, they are statistics delivered by Railtrack and by the train operating companies. The levels of punctuality that we were talking about, the percentage of normal services running are percentages of that original timetable. The punctuality is compared with the current timetable.

  1029. That is a problem, because if you are dealing with the current, which has been elongated over a period of time, you are not dealing with a situation that was invoked six months ago, where the timetable was much adjusted to what it is today. That is the problem with your statistics.
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) Again not my statistics, these are the TOCs' statistics.

  1030. But it is fundamentally warped by virtue of the fact that it is not looking at it on the basis of like for like.
  (Mr Linnard) Could I explain what I understand Railtrack to be saying when they say services will be "substantially back to normal by the end of January". What they are saying is that compared with the normal timetables, the pre-Hatfield timetables, well over half the services will be running to these timetables, ie, within the normal tolerances, and for the remaining services, on the Anglo-Scottish inter-city routes all the services will be running within 45 minutes of the normal timetable, and on the inter-city routes all the services will be running within 30 minutes of the normal timetable.

Chairman

  1031. But they already are much longer. The point Mr Donohoe is making is very straightforward. Originally the line between Crewe and London ran trains at one hour 50 minutes. Of course that was under British Rail. Then it went to two hours. Last Friday, for my sins, it went to three and a quarter hours and somebody went from London to Crewe yesterday was and it three and three-quarter hours. Frankly, coming and saying we are within X degrees of getting somewhere near the present timetable is a load of nonsense, is it not? There are vast numbers of people travelling in every day and travelling into areas where there are vast numbers of problems who will not recognise that as any kind statistic at all.
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) The speed restrictions are there because engineers have found cracks in the rail. It is not, surely, for government or a select committee to put pressure on the people at the rail level to say "lift those restrictions and get us running on time" if there is a safety risk.

  1032. Not one member of this Committee has suggested that to you. You gave us the figures and you said, "This is what these kind gentlemen have told me. This is how it is all going to be alright. This is the future. These are the figures." All I am saying to you is unless we can agree the baseline there is absolutely no point in saying by Easter (which is what we are talking about) we ought to be back to a timetable. Whose timetable and under what circumstances and how many hours are we talking about?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) Madam Chairman, we have round the table a number of times a week the Health and Safety Executive and Railtrack and the other bodies involved in this to try and ensure that we find the quickest route to run a safe railway. We want to lift the speed restrictions as quickly as possible but we have to be aware that they are there because rails are said to be cracked and dangerous.

Mrs Gorman

  1033. Lord Macdonald, you have heard of the expression "it will never get better if you pick it." Do you think that the rail industry, over and above all the other industries we have privatised, has been subjected to an extra special set of standards and complications, that is to say is it a political football and is that the problem?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I suspect that one of the problems is that the railway was broken into too many pieces and therefore for all those pieces to be put together again you need more complex structures than might have been the case if it had been done in a different way.

  1034. Do you accept that it must be one of the most heavily regulated of the so-called deregulated industries. After all, we deregulated many inefficient public industries, the car industry, British Airways, and all the rest of it but without setting these impossible standards for them. Do you think the railways are subjected to something over and above what might reasonably be considered acceptable?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I do not think they are impossible standards but they are standards of service that can only be reached with a considerable investment from the government. The aim that you could eliminate all subsidy from the railway was incorrect. The belief that railways were at best static and probably in inexorable decline, which was the basis on which many judgments were made, turned out to be wrong and therefore the subsidies put in place at privatisation have had to be enhanced because of the increasing demand and because of our belief that there should be an expanding social railway in this country and that fares should be at an affordable level against other comparative forms of travel. So for all those reasons I think we have to have regulation in place to say that public money is well spent or better spent than it has been.

  1035. But there are so many bodies regulating with a finger in the pie. Under your description of the Rail Recovery Action Group, we have a list of half a dozen or more organisations who all have a finger in the pie of whether or not the railways are considered to be operating satisfactorily. How do you run a business with all these public bodies constantly coming in and poking their noses into what you are trying to run?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) That is the nature of trying to run a business in a regulated environment and that has been my particular business experience. I am sure that you would welcome the fact that, for instance, the Rail Passengers' Council has some say now in how the railways are run and that has been strengthened, I am sure, through the good works of this Committee in its preparation of the railways part of the Transport Bill and I am sure, too, that a Strategic Rail Authority is something that this Committee endorsed because of the direction it could give to the expansion and development of the railway. I believe, too, that the Health and Safety Executive has a role round that table because of the concerns, which again I am sure have been echoed in this Committee, about safety on the railways in the last two or three years. I do not see that one would willingly exclude any of those parties from the discussion of how best to run a railway, but I agree with you that there should not be too many distractions for a management. The reason we have got this group is to get people round the table so that they can all talk without having separate meetings and in that way distracting Railtrack's management from the real job which is getting the railway running again as quickly as possible.

  1036. Do you think you should judge an industry partly on the degree to which the public is willing to patronise it, in which case the railways are doing a good job because they have added to the number of people using their services over the period of four years since they were privatised or semi-privatised?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I agree it was very encouraging to see the number of passengers using rail before Hatfield at the highest it had ever been since 1947. You can see in our ten-year plan our political decision to invest in that welcome change by taking the increase up from the 25 per cent or so that we have had since privatisation in terms of an increase up to another 50 per cent beyond that.

  1037. Do you believe it is the public that is making this fuss or the opinion formers?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I think it is a very understandable shared concern and clearly the public, those involved in travelling by the railway, will have every right to be very frustrated and vocal about it, and it is not surprising at all that the media should echo that.

  1038. We do not all go mad if one aeroplane falls out of the sky and impose the standards that we are now doing with the railway and check every single aeroplane causing chaos for so many individuals. My point is are we not trying to make the railway do something which we do not expect of other aspects of travel?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I hope our reaction is not disproportionate. We know the public concern there was after Paddington and there has been after Hatfield and we will try to respond to that, I hope in proportionate way, but there is no doubt at all that the public concern that has been expressed in Parliament and in the media has contributed to the concern that Railtrack rightly have about the dangers of gauge corner cracking. One hopes that they will be able to get reassurance from the expert studies that are being delivered and from the closer relationship with HSE under they aegis of government and regulators and that they will be able to make judgments about the balance of risk involved. There is always a balance of risk. I do not think anybody would expect to run anything as complicated as a railway with 20,000 miles of track, 90,000 staff and 18,000 train services per day running on it without accidents, but it is our job obviously to try and minimise those accidents.

  Mrs Gorman: Can I say one thing to compliment you on the fact that recently you made a very sensible remark about the railways and the reaction of people. You implied that this industry was not so much in chaos but that people were panicking about it, that is the big difference. Is it not true that in the four years since privatisation two of them have not had a single accident involving rail where more than five people were injured or in any other way harmed by it?

Chairman

  1039. We can be kind to you, Lord Macdonald.
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) Of course it was a cause of great satisfaction for the railways when they had those years with no accidents at all but, of course, we have had three very serious accidents in recent years and we have to be concerned about any reoccurrence of that, particularly if there is any suggestion that bad maintenance or management of the railways is in any way contributing to that. I think what we found after the accidents at Southall, Paddington, and now at Hatfield, is that safety on the railways does repay greater investment and greater scrutiny. You will be aware that we are committed to putting new train protection systems across the network.



 
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