Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-139)

WEDNESDAY 10 JULY 2002

RT HON JOHN SPELLAR MP, and MR PETER THOMAS

  120. At the moment, the tax payer is paying Eurotunnel for slots that are not being used by freight trains?
  (Mr Spellar) No. At the moment they are paying a minimum usage charge and therefore if those slots, for whatever reason, are not being used they are still being paid for. They would be, whether those are being used by trains or not.

  121. Nonetheless it is the case that there are empty slots being paid for by the tax payer which cannot be used because of the hiatus.
  (Mr Spellar) That is a slightly different issue to the impact that this is having on the freight business.

  122. What assessment have you made of the current problems on the growth patterns in freight and rail set out in the 10 year plan? Is that going to retard progress?
  (Mr Spellar) Not a great deal because in terms of volume the international rail freight business is a small though important part of the freight business. It is however very important as part of the Europe-wide policy of ourselves and other members of the Community in order to shift freight from road to rail. We do not under-estimate the significance and the importance therefore of getting the system back and running, but in terms of the volumes that we are looking at carrying this is a small part of that.

  123. Are you confident that, when this is over, if it ends in the near future, the freight transfer from rail to road which has taken place can be reversed?
  (Mr Spellar) That can be the case but I would not anticipate that that could happen too quickly because a number of companies where they have had to shift back to road will of course have had to sign contracts for a period of time in order to make that worthwhile for road hauliers. Again, I do not under-estimate the importance of the difficulties that have been created.

  124. Basically, the longer this goes on, the more it will add to the congestion problems in and around London?
  (Mr Spellar) Not necessarily in and around London but particularly on the roads leading into Dover which is a significant problem.

  125. Those lorries come up via the M25 and predominantly they will be going different ways around some of the most congested parts of the country.
  (Mr Spellar) Yes.

  126. Frankly, this ought to have been for a very long time a very urgent priority.
  (Mr Spellar) It has been a very urgent priority from—

  127. It does not feel like it, observing from outside. The impression those of us outside have had is that this has been a slow, long, labourious process and very little progress has yet been made.
  (Mr Spellar) It has been a slow and long process. British ministers from a whole range of departments, including the Prime Minister, have been regularly raising this issue with their French counterparts in order to get a remedy. I am pleased to see that the physical construction is now taking place. It would have been preferable had it taken place earlier but I would remind you that this is on French sovereign soil and therefore our scope is to persuade and encourage.

  128. One suspects if the boot had been on the other foot things might have happened rather quicker, but that is another story.
  (Mr Spellar) I am not aware that we can take unilateral action on other countries' sovereign soil.

Andrew Bennett

  129. How does the imaging equipment that you referred to earlier work?
  (Mr Spellar) There are various types of equipment that we are looking at. There is thermal imaging equipment which is capable of detecting clandestine entrants in soft sided vehicles and wagons. There are also acoustic detectors capable of detecting vibration on trucks, set up in the chassis of a lorry, by the beating of a human heart. Carbon dioxide detectors detect the traces of CO2 exhaled by clandestine entrants. Again, those are only effective with soft sided rail wagons.

  130. How soon are they going to be in place?
  (Mr Spellar) Discussions are taking place with SNCF as to how and where those could be located.
  (Mr Thomas) The expertise on all this equipment, which is very much state of the art, lies with the Home Office and the Home Office have been in discussion initially. They have some of this equipment already at Coquelles and Dover.

  131. Have you a clue how practical it is to use this equipment? If you are doing one lorry, you can do the one lorry and it can move on. If you are doing a freight train, how long does it take to do the freight train effectively?
  (Mr Thomas) I do not know. I expect the equipment would probably be used not to test every single wagon. It would only test the soft sided ones, not steel containers. As I understand it, it can operate as the vehicle moves past it or as the train moves past it.

  132. You do not think it is going to slow trains down?
  (Mr Thomas) It has not ever been used on a train. I am speculating but I imagine that it would be used, for example, as the train entered the yard slowly. This is very new equipment and nobody has ever used it to check a train.

  133. It is a bit hopeful?
  (Mr Thomas) Exactly how it is going to be used is beyond the wit of us.

  134. One of the problems at Fréthun is that trains spend too long there. If you want to speed it up, I am not quite sure how this equipment is going to speed the process up rather than slow it down and make the trains more vulnerable at that depot. You have referred to gangs on several occasions. What success are we having at prosecuting the gangs in this country when they are collecting money from the people who have already got in?
  (Mr Spellar) You would have to ask the Home Office about their overall success rate with regard to that.

  135. Would it not be something that the government ought to be publicising, because if we were having a success rate it might deter some people from trying to get in in the first place, might it not?
  (Mr Spellar) Yes, although if those who were coming in as economic migrants had their claims dealt with rapidly and they were removed rapidly that would also be a deterrent.

  136. If they were dealt with rapidly?
  (Mr Spellar) And if they were removed rapidly.

  137. Is getting EWS back on the rails as far as this is concerned going to be trying to get compensation from the French government or is it going to be extra assistance in some way from the UK in order to make it viable and to encourage more people to get back on to rail freight?
  (Mr Spellar) In the first instance, any claim would be with the French government and the industry is looking at the options in that regard.

  138. Are you helping them with those claims?
  (Mr Spellar) We will certainly be prepared to provide assistance on any information for them.

Chairman

  139. I know that there is still one question that Miss McIntosh wants to ask you but what is it you really think that you have agreed with the French government? I am not very bright. Be patient with me. What have you agreed? Have you agreed that SNCF and the French government will be responsible not only for more physical constraints but also for an increased police presence and, according to the word you have used, a consistent police presence? Is that agreed?
  (Mr Spellar) Yes. That is our understanding.


 
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