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

Examination of Witness (Questions 787-799)




  787. My Lord, we are very grateful to you for joining us this afternoon. May I ask you to identify yourself for the record?
  (Lord Berkeley) Tony Berkeley, Chairman of the Rail Freight Group.

  Chairman: We have one piece of housekeeping to undertake if you will forgive us. Some members of the Committee have declarations of interest to make. I am a member of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Trades Union.

  Mr Donohoe: Brian Donohoe, member of the Transport and General Workers' Union.

  Mrs Ellman: Louise Ellman, member of the Transport and General Workers' Union.

  Miss McIntosh: Anne McIntosh, Railtrack, Eurotunnel, First Group, BA, BAA and the RAC.


  788. Thank you very much. Now, my Lord, do you want to say something to us before we begin the questioning?

  (Lord Berkeley) Madam Chairman, perhaps I could update you and the Committee on the Channel Tunnel situation which is changing.

  789. That would be extremely helpful. It is a matter of great concern to us.
  (Lord Berkeley) It is referred to in my evidence at paragraph 16. Since preparing this, madam Chairman, two or three weeks ago there were more mass invasions of the French terminal and the service again stopped completely. SNCF closed it and no trains ran for about a week. Then we heard that the French authorities were providing more police and we understand that an extra 70 or so have been allocated this week and the trains have started to run at about the same pretty appalling level as they were three weeks ago, but at least they are running. I am very pleased that I have managed to arrange a meeting with the Préfet tomorrow (thanks to the British Consul-General in Lille), who is in charge of the police, and I am going to ask him "why does Eurotunnel get a whole company of CRS riot police when they have trouble and why does the SNCF terminal get a few gendarmes who are driven for three hours per shift from somewhere in the east of France." I cannot tell you any more at the moment.

  790. My Lord, since you will be aware that this Committee has raised this matter—individual members have raised this matter but also the Committee has taken evidence about it—if you would be kind enough to give us a note of your meeting after you have met the Préfet, that would be extremely helpful and we would be very grateful.
  (Lord Berkeley) I will, madam Chairman.

  791. Is the Government being too cautious in setting the rail freight target as at 80 per cent growth in 10 years, but "up to 80 pre cent" and "80 per cent subject to the train operators improving their efficiency"?
  (Lord Berkeley) I think it is being unnecessarily cautious in the wording of the 80? growth; as for the condition upon the train operators improving their performance, if they are going to have a condition like that they should apply it to Railtrack as well because if Railtrack cannot perform the train operators cannot perform either. It applies to both of them. I have to say that in the last six months things have got quite a lot better, in fact since Railtrack went into administration. I know there has been a blip in the figures but overall reliability has improved almost back to pre-Hatfield. Whatever the passenger people may say, for freight it is not looking particularly bad; in fact it is looking quite good in some ways. The 80 per cent is achievable but it is subject of course to some Channel Tunnel traffic which is looking very bad at the moment.

  792. I think we can accept that there is a problem with Channel Tunnel traffic for the moment; we are all aware of the problem and we will return to that. Rail freight did go up by 8 per cent last year, so what are the main markets that have led to that increase?
  (Lord Berkeley) A lot of it is coal. The Committee will be aware of the new arrangements for coal. Much of it is imported either through Bristol or Hunterston. To give you one example, Bristol port have a new branch line, opened in January, and it is already taking something like 15 coal trains a day in addition to what they were taking before with an underground conveyor belt. A lot of coal is coming in there. It is like many energy things,—and I expect a company called Enron were involved in this—it is traded. The train operators sometimes have to change the destination of the coal daily because it is all to do with the chemical content of the coal or where it is coming from or the price, so it is quite a difficult logistics exercise but, frankly, if it had to go by road it would be a disaster for the roads, and it is a good business. Other traffic is also good. There is a new parcels service up in Scotland which is a new development. There are more temperature controlled services run by Safeways in Scotland. Corus—yes, we have heard many—

  793. Before you go on to steel, can I ask you about the temperature controlled traffic? Is that a genuinely new increase or is that an incremental increase on traffic that already existed?
  (Lord Berkeley) It is extra traffic over the existing service which started two or three years ago to Inverness and I believe it is going up to the north of Scotland towards Wick and to Aberdeen. I am not sure of the exact destination. It is extra traffic on the same service.

  794. I am sorry to have interrupted you. Corus?
  (Lord Berkeley) Corus, as the Committee probably knows, had a major restructuring a year or two ago and cut a lot of their traffic in South Wales on the railway on bringing ore in. To balance that it has introduced a lot of new services for semi-finished and finished product into different locations across the network, which is a very good service but it does demonstrate that for freight, unlike passengers, one has to be flexible and allow capacity on the line so that when a big company like Corus suddenly changes its policy then the rail freight can react and provide a service rather than wait for Railtrack to put some signals in or a new set of points which might take several years.

  795. Would it be more sensible to have different targets for different sectors?
  (Lord Berkeley) Madam Chairman, I believe that should happen. I think there should be different targets for different sectors and maybe one should consider regional targets as well. I know it might be getting a bit complicated but, looking at the problems in London where the roads are clogged, the railway lines are pretty clogged at some stages and there is also a problem with finding terminal locations due to the high price of land because rail freight cannot afford the same land price as a major commercial development. If there were a target to bring more freight into London by rail and it was reflected in whatever financial support needed to be done to develop terminals or whatever, then I think it would be a lot easier to perform and provide the services for domestic waste, temperature controlled, general merchandise or whatever, which need to come in and out of the Greater London area, for example.

Miss McIntosh

  796. I do not know if you have the figures to hand but what percentage of rail freight traffic is carried through the Tunnel normally by the SNCF services?
  (Lord Berkeley) The percentage of the UK's rail freight that is Channel Tunnel freight is about three per cent. That is not answering your question. I just want to give that as a background. The amount of traffic that goes through the Tunnel—or did go through before all this started six months ago—was just under three million tonnes a year out of a total of about 67 million tonnes that goes across in unitised loads mostly by truck. It is a small percentage, about 5 per cent of that. Just to give you one more figure, when the Channel Tunnel was being developed and promoted the railways expected the tonnage to be somewhere between 6 and 8 per cent in 1994 and rising.

  797. It has been put to me by Potters at Selby in my Vale of York constituency that the total figure that they are giving and the EWS are giving is that half a million pounds per day is being lost, 8,000 jobs potentially are at risk and with no trains going through everything is having to come in by road. I do not know if you have the figures of the number of road vehicles that are coming in in place of trains.
  (Lord Berkeley) The figures you quote I recognise. Assuming the service stopped completely, which is all you can really go on, it is an extra 6,000 lorries a week on presumably the M20 and the equivalent roads in northern France. On your figures of losses, the Rail Freight Group has notified the Strategic Rail Authority last week that our members have lost about 15 million in total in the first three months, that is, November/December/January, and they were seeking some support from the Government to compensate from that on the basis that if they did not get something and they all went into liquidation, if services started again it would take a very long time to re-mobilise.

  798. I know it might not be possible to say at this stage but I would imagine that it is going to be impossible for the Government this year to meet the percentage increase it wants to see for rail freight because of this episode since November with SNCF
  (Lord Berkeley) I think you have hit the nail on the head. If there were different targets for different sectors and the Channel Tunnel was one of course there would be no growth; it would be a major reduction. As I have said, since the cross-Channel rail freight is only 3 per cent of the total freight in this country, it is not going to have a very significant effect on the 8 per cent growth. However, given the fact that it is long distance freight and it is generally in the market sectors where the SRA and we see the most growth—and you will have seen in the press that Ford and Peugeot are both withdrawing their services—there is an enormous amount of temperature controlled traffic that could come from Spain, Italy and southern France if the railways got their act together. It will have a very significant effect on the future.

  799. Am I right in thinking that, for example, if Potters operate and have the rail head at both Selby and Ely, I imagine that the knock-on effect, not just on the M20 as you have mentioned but also on other freight facilities going through the north of England and on into Scotland, is going to be quite significant.
  (Lord Berkeley) Indeed. for the Potters at Ely, Yorkshire, and they have one in Merseyside now so there are three of them (and they are just one of many terminals), there will be fewer lorries coming to the terminals but more lorries on the A1, the M1, the M6 or whatever.


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