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


Further memorandum by South West Transport Network (PRF 26A)

PASSENGER RAIL FRANCHISING

  1.  The demise of Railtrack PLC should be seen as an opportunity. It ought never to have been privatised in the first place. "Poll tax on wheels" was an apt description. It was seen as a property company, its top management well versed in finance but lacking knowledge of running railways or maintaining track. It was doomed to failure. Hopefully its successor will be capable of redemption.

  2.  The financial structure of its successor, requiring public money, has to involve the Treasury. In British Rail days (with stop-go) this had dire results: rushes to spend, sometimes inappropriately, within a given financial period, while long-term strategic schemes, committing expenditure over a number of years, were obstructed. The 10-year programme is an attempt, with limitations, to overcome this. Yet really big projects, like Jubilee and West Coast lines, with dubious management, once started cannot stop, and can have massive overruns! The "special purpose vehicle" notion is seen as a way round this. But SRA's CE Mike Grant told me these would not be appropriate for the kind of upgrades we urgently need in the South West. Asked "where can the money come from", his answer: "Public/Private Partnership".

  3.  The "Wessex" notion, related to "NuTrak", will not provide this. Rather we need something like: "Design, Build, Finance and Operate consortia, similar to those that have successfully delivered light rail projects and including train operating groups, with contracts to operate, maintain and upgrade each part of the national rail infrastructure."—to quote from one expert pronouncement—which makes sense. The SRA would have an important co-ordinating role, including production of the national timetable, involving penetrating services. In this connection I quote from a submission we have made, on 8 October, to the South West Regional Assembly.

    "The Railtrack news broke over the weekend. Now that company looks like becoming a non-profit trust, which could in effect become a holding company for infrastructure (some will say re-nationalised in all but name). Thus the way will be open for developments on the lines of the Modern Railways `manifesto'. Speaking on Radio 4 Stephen Byers did not rule out moves to reconnect wheel and rail, though disclaiming his intention to intervene as Secretary of State. It was up to the `administration' (as he called the new Railtrack) and operating companies to come to agreements.

    It is an opportunity for the South West, where the two main lines—the LSW and the GW—are well defined and could become the basis for two `vertically integrated railways' run by `joint venture' Railway Companies. There would need to be agreement as to which takes what of the branches and cross-lines, but much of this is pretty well defined. Since March 2000 we have been advocating something of the sort, saying `Wessex' never did make sense—"artificial" the `manifesto' calls it. No early action can be expected from a reconstructed Railtrack towards the major investments we seek, including duplication between Salisbury and Exeter.

    A bold and sensible move now would be for the Assembly and the RDA to take the lead in opening negotiations with the main players to see what co-operation and determination is on offer towards a `manifesto' type "creation of a functioning railway". Willingness and ability could be established during short-term franchise extensions, while holding out firm prospect of long-term contracts if satisfactory progress is made. Precise terms of contract could be worked out by negotiation during the intervening period as practical steps proceed.

    An embryo Bristol Business Unit is urgently needed, and could be part of an `integrated railway'. Laura Wren at SRA told me by email there have been "a series of meetings with representatives of local authorities and regional bodies regarding SRA's Strategic Plan on an invited basis, therefore I cannot agree to your request to attend" so I am not aware of what has gone on. Anyway it was all before the Railtrack announcement. We are now into new territory.

    Bristol missed out when PTEs were set up in other major conurbations. A Business Unit here, related to buses as well as rail, could perhaps fill that role, as a `public/private partnership'. (It could absorb such expertise as exists in current franchises). The Joint Strategic Planning and Transportation Unit of former Avon Councils could become a sort of PTA, with addition of representatives from adjoining Counties. Gloucestershire and Somerset are generally co-operative in such matters, but Wiltshire—whence there is also much commuting into Bath and Bristol—is less so. All need persuading of the potential benefits.

    In evidence to the Assembly's Select Committee the CBI have illustrated employers' transport problems. Examining unemployment problems it was `realised that suitably skilled people were available in the high unemployment areas to the south of the city. However public transport links between the two sides of the city are very poor and people would have to catch many buses and spend hours travelling to get from south to the north and back again'. There is also the problem of access to Bristol City from Portishead. (Where the Port Company have paid for relaying the line, but without allowance for passengers!)

    Our notion of a Greater Bristol Metro, the S&X routes on existing rail, incorporating prospective LTR(on the Karlsruhe principle) is the potential solution. The important immediate need is re-quadrupling tracks between Filton (a crunch point in the national network) and Lawrence Hill, possibly with duplication of the Avonmouth line to provide an alternative route while work proceeds, opening up future prospects. This kind of thing, and sorting out deficiencies of major interchange stations, will not happen without a well led, flourishing Business Unit located in Bristol.

    There is much to play for in the developing situation, in which the Assembly should have a key role on behalf of the Region."

  Other urgent necessities in the South West include a Business Unit for Plymouth/Cornwall and re-duplication between Salisbury and Exeter. The present franchisee is working on plans for this, and for a train crew depot at Exeter to provide for branch lines and better services westward. Apropos "Wessex", Stagecoach Group's Rail Director says, with good reason: "There is no logic in separating the line from the present South West Trains. It further complicates the allocation of scarce train paths on the main Waterloo corridors, it makes integration with other services more complicated and has the potential for delaying much needed improvements to the Salisbury to Exeter line. More and more we see sense in removing the separation of responsibility for the wheel and the rail that rail privatisation has created. At best such a separation is sub-optional, at worst, it is unsafe."

  I have put a question, asking the Assembly what steps are proposed in the new circumstances created by changes at Railtrack and in the SRA, to be asked at the Assembly's general meeting on 26 October.

  4.  Because railways are an essential part of the national fabric, required to support the economy, help avoid excessive congestion, promote "social inclusion", they cannot be allowed to fail. Therefore Government cannot, in finality, escape risk. But risk can be minimised by carefully drawn-up contracts, offering mutually beneficial incentives. This is a matter of competent management.

Dick Drew

for Transport 2000 SW and Railfuture Severnside

25 October 2001


 
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