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


Examination of Witness (Questions 160-179)

RT HON STEPHEN BYERS, MP

WEDNESDAY 10 APRIL 2002

Chairman

  160. If they cannot get their 72 trains, Secretary of State, what are you going to do? They have suffered now over many months, and all sorts of firms are involved, it is not just the straight EWS involvement, there are lots of small firms providing jobs in the railway industry who are really suffering because of this.
  (Mr Byers) I appreciate that, and up and down the country you are right to say it has a consequence, not just for EWS, which is obviously the main company involved, but many other companies.

  161. So what are you going to do if they do not get their 72 trains?
  (Mr Byers) We have put pressure on the French authorities and we are beginning to see benefits from that. As I said, the figures are very clear: in the week ending 17 March, 21 trains were coming through; the week ending 7 April, 42 trains were coming through, so we have doubled the amount there. The French are now saying that with effect from Monday of next week they hope to run an average of 72 trains a week. Now we have to hold them to that. They have to put in place the appropriate security measures. They have put more police there, which is beginning to make a difference. We obviously need to investigate the incident which happened yesterday where something like, so we hear, 100 asylum seekers came in on one train. We think they boarded in Milan but it clearly was not checked properly in France, and that needs to be properly investigated. The French authorities know the importance we attach to this. As I say, it has been raised with them at the highest level. I have written just this morning to my French counterpart on exactly this issue in the light of what happened yesterday, and we do expect the French authorities to take the necessary steps.

  162. With the greatest of respect, we have been expecting them to take the necessary steps for some months now. We are talking about 8,000 job losses, we are talking about an enormous amount of investment and, with the greatest respect, the Arrival of a small group of Gendarmerie is nothing like that expense for the French Government.
  (Mr Byers) No, there has to be a political will by the French Government to meet their obligations.

  163. So I ask you again, what will you do if they do not get their 72 trains through? Another letter, frankly, is not enough. I could provide you with a letter if you would like some help in drafting it.
  (Mr Byers) I have an army of civil servants for that.

  164. True—all very well paid—but we need to know, what is the next step?
  (Mr Byers) I think there are two things. One is, we need to keep up the pressure as far as the UK Government is concerned. Secondly, we need to ensure that there is free movement of goods within the European Union, that the European Commission makes sure that those obligations under the European Treaty are backed by the French authorities.

  Chairman: You will have noted the fact that the Commission has just pointed out that France is one of the worst offenders against European Directives and regulations, I am sure.

Chris Grayling

  165. What does "keep up the pressure" actually mean from your point of view?
  (Mr Byers) It means government to government. It means talking to the French Transport Minister.

  166. How often do you actually do that?
  (Mr Byers) On a regular basis. As I said to the Committee, I have written to him today in fact, in the light of what happened yesterday, because there are two issues here. One is the question of people coming into the country illegally, which we cannot tolerate, and we need to make sure that does not happen. Secondly, there is the issue of freight being able to travel through the Tunnel. We shall continue to do that and we shall enlist the support of the European Commission to make sure that the French authorities and the French Government meet their obligations within the Treaties.

Dr Pugh

  167. I have two quick questions. One is speaking in respect of the £300 million. Have you had confirmation from the Treasury—because without it there is absolutely no point at all, it is a futile endeavour—that the £300 million will not count as a deficit in the public accounts?
  (Mr Byers) The £300 million, as I say, we expect will not be a cost to the 10 Year Transport Plan.

  168. So they have told you it will not feature in public accounts?
  (Mr Byers) As I said, it will not be a part of the 10 Year Transport Plan.

  169. My second question is very straightforward. The freight operators have said that Virgin's £400 million compensation claim would be far better spent in upgrading freight paths. What is the view of your Department on this proposition?
  (Mr Byers) This is in relation to the West Coast Mainline?

  170. Yes.
  (Mr Byers) That is a matter for the Regulator.

  171. You have no view on that?
  (Mr Byers) It is a matter for him.

Mr O'Brien

  172. Fares, Secretary of State. Have you set any limit within which the review of the rail fares must fall?
  (Mr Byers) No, but we will obviously await with interest the review which the Strategic Rail Authority has now begun. It is timely that a system of fares is now given proper consideration.

  173. Is it accepted that fares will have to rise to pay for the increased investment by the Train Operating Companies?
  (Mr Byers) I do not think that has to follow, but, as I say, I think it would be better for all of us to await the work that is now going to be carried out by the Strategic Rail Authority.

  174. You use the East Coast mainline, as I do. It is very expensive for my constituents to travel from Wakefield to London, therefore I consider that the fare situation has to be a part of the strategic planning for the East Coast mainline. You did refer earlier to detailed specifications to be worked out before the long-term proposals can proceed on the East Coast mainline. Have you any timescale for that?
  (Mr Byers) I spoke to Richard Bowker of the Strategic Rail Authority about this just last week. We clearly do need to move it with due speed. It is one of the reasons why the sooner we can get Railtrack out of administration, that will be a benefit. It also means that we need to look very carefully at exactly what the improvements are that we need on the East Coast mainline for the upgrade. That work does need to be done and it needs to be done urgently. It needs to be done in a way which is realistic and hard-headed, because one of the problems with the West Coast mainline is that the details were not properly worked out, work began which had not been properly costed and not properly time-tabled, the engineering resources were not put in place. What we must do is to ensure that we do not have a repeat of what has happened on the West Coast mainline on the East Coast mainline.

  175. That is the point I was making, but I think I would be failing in my duty if I did not press you on this particular issue, because of the passenger and freight services that we have there, that we have a reasonable service on the East Coast mainline from the north into the south. If the infrastructure is not maintained, if the specifications referred to are not brought forward urgently, we are going to see a deterioration in the East Coast mainline which would not be acceptable to people from the north. So have you any further guidance as to when we can expect some of the capital to be invested in the East Coast mainline to make sure that we can maintain that good service?
  (Mr Byers) The thing about the East Coast mainline upgrade is that it is going to be carried through, I believe, in four separate stages. The first two of those I think have now been broadly agreed. It is the details about stages three and four which have not yet been finalised and worked through. I think it may help the Committee if I put in writing the stages and the timing of them. The difficulty we have with the franchise being awarded over a lengthy period is that that will fall very much into stages three and four of the upgrade because the details are simply not there. It is the problem we have on the section 54 issue which I know you do not want to go back into, Chairman. Those are issues to which we need to give proper consideration. For the benefit of the Committee, I can put in writing the situation that we expect. It is probably better coming from the SRA, because they are actually involved in the detail on this, but I do think it is important that we provide for the record details and the timing by which we expect decisions to be taken. I share Mr O'Brien's view that the sooner we can get this clarified and agreed, then the better, because we can then move to the re-franchising of the East Coast mainline.

  176. You did say that there had been a legacy inherited from Railtrack regarding the upgrading of the East Coast mainline. I put the question to you again. Will that include the development of Wakefield station?
  (Mr Byers) I honestly cannot remember offhand.

  177. Will you include it in the letter?
  (Mr Byers) I certainly will.

Chairman

  178. Before we move away from fares, are you aware that there is a dispute between the Rail Passengers Council and the Association of Train Operators, on fares?
  (Mr Byers) In terms of fares, there is a debate going on, shall I say.

  179. That is a nice way of putting it, but they are giving us evidence that in fact the network card is going to become useless on Mondays to Fridays within roughly a 35-mile radius of central London, and that the average fare increase is going to be 33 per cent. As you know, we have already been told that the really important part of the rail system is not those of us who inhabit the outer regions but those who have the honour of living within the great wen, so if we are talking about 28 per cent increases, 58 per cent increases, 43 per cent increases, in things like the network railcard, this Committee would wonder whether you would think this was sufficiently important to raise it with the SRA?
  (Mr Byers) We certainly keep the whole question of fares under constant review, both regulated and unregulated, and will continue to do so.


 
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