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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 126-139)




  126. I can see from all the witnesses we have that today is our Equal Opportunities day. May I apologise for keeping you waiting. Perhaps you would be kind enough to identify yourselves.

  (Mr Wicks) Roy Wicks, Director General, South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive.
  (Mr Preston) Kieran Preston, Director General, West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive.
  (Mr Mulligan) Chris Mulligan Director General, Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive.

  127. Do you have anything you want to say before we start?
  (Mr Mulligan) The message we want to bring from the North-West is a massive anxiety, expressed both through the North-West Regional Assembly, the North-West Development Agency and indeed every local authority from Cheshire through to Cumbria over the failure for the moment to address the problems of Piccadilly. The sad fact of the matter is that the hub at the moment is over capacity; it simply cannot cope with much more. We fear that some of these new franchises may become quite rapidly academic exercises if the network in the North-West of England is to seize up because of Virgin increasing their frequencies into Piccadilly, because of CrossCountry, because of Trans-Pennine Express. We do not argue with the principle of that; it has to be a good principle to have fast services between Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester and so on. We do feel that the decision of the Strategic Rail Authority to put back major investment schemes back beyond the ten-year horizon in its plan is going to have the most grievous effect on the reliability and the economy of the North-West. That is a message which I am authorised to give from every local authority and the agencies I mentioned.

  128. Perhaps I can bring you to the original franchises, which after all were given on the need to reduce support payments rather than improve services. Are you really saying to us that the new franchises are going to make up for this lack of development or are you really going to say we are going to go round the same track again and find ourselves with an unambitious service level?
  (Mr Mulligan) I have a very genuine anxiety that the Northern franchise, when let, will be a non-enhanceable franchise, in which case, we shall be paying enormous amounts of subsidy over the next 10, 15 or 20 years to perpetuate the system which simply is not working. Greater Manchester's rail network underperformed very badly and the reason is quite plain. We do not have the quality, we do not have the reliability, we do not have the accessibility that something like the tram system, Metrolink, can provide. Hence we are carrying far fewer passengers than the potential. It seems silly to me to perpetuate a system of spiralling decline of our local rail network in particular, when by judicious investment, either in upgrade of the heavy rail infrastructure or expanding Metrolink, you can substitute financing charges for subsidy and have a virtuous circle of increasing patronage and increasing usage to the benefit of the economy.

  129. May I ask you about the Northern franchise? Do you think it is going to become the poor relation of the long-distance and Trans-Pennine services?
  (Mr Preston) Yes, we are concerned that it is. As you know from discussions we have had in the past, we had a terrible time with the original franchise. It was cut to the bone. Some of what Mr Cameron said was absolutely right: he did inherit a poor position. The original bids simply had no resilience whatsoever. Our concern is that as we are moving forward now with the SRA to discuss the replacement franchise, the kind of signals we are getting back suggest that it would seem the very best we could hope for is a guarantee of existing performance. The way the franchise will be evaluated, so far as we can ascertain, is that bidders will be asked to put in a base bid as a benchmark for evaluation across all bids which looks at the price for delivering existing performance.

  130. Which, you are saying, is exactly a repetition of the original circumstances.
  (Mr Preston) Of where we are now, which is obviously totally unacceptable. It is not too long ago that Sir Alastair Morton was talking about 15 out of every 16 trains being punctual. We are getting about 85 per cent now in West Yorkshire of those which run. The next step that bidders will be asked to make in their bids is to offer what they are calling a flexed base which is an opportunity for innovation, for them to suggest how much more can be delivered at no additional cost. Our experience is that that will not deliver a great deal. The third tier to that, as I understand it, is that they will then have an opportunity to put in a bid which reflects what they would do if they were given a percentage increase in the money available. We do not know what that percentage will be yet.

Mr O'Brien

  131. My constituency is covered by the West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive. Timetabling is obviously an issue which is raised quite often. I know there were disturbances with Arriva. When trains are operating in normal circumstances there are still problems with timetabling. The suspicion is that the local network is suffering because of the inter-city network. Is there any truth in that?
  (Mr Preston) It is fairly well known that the inter-city trains take precedence over local trains.

  132. Whose decision is that?
  (Mr Preston) It is really the rules of the route. We have a problem which goes back all the way to the fact that because we are heavily subsidised and track access rights are given to bidders and have been in place since 1997 the only companies which can afford to bid for more rights are commercial operators. Subsidised railways continue to suffer because we cannot actually compete with that commercial dimension.

  133. What are your priorities then as the PTE? What is the respective degree of authority of SRA and local PTE over timetabling? Do you have any priorities? Are the SRA involved in this? Do you discuss it with them? Is there a question with the networks? A subsidised service is receiving less priority than the commercial ones. This is an issue which I cannot accept. I think the people who travel on subsidised trains should have the same level of service as other passengers.
  (Mr Preston) It is difficult to answer that one except to say that since 1997 the timetable has pretty much been set in aspic. We have a passenger service requirement (PSR) which is based on 1997, on the specification as it then existed just prior to privatisation. It really has not changed greatly since 1997. We have managed to squeeze in one or two additional services. The point I made rather badly is that the commercial operators have been able to put in additional services, which have been welcome. For example, we now have a four-per-hour Trans-Pennine service between Leeds and Manchester and that is welcome. It used to be three per hour and it is now four per hour. That squeeze in that last track, that last service, on Trans-Pennine has actually meant that if we wanted to put a local service in, for example between Huddersfield and Halifax, we would not be able to do that and we did not have the capacity or the resource to make that bid in competition.

  134. Is that infrastructure that is restraining it?
  (Mr Preston) It certainly would be now. The problem is that in putting that additional service in, we would almost have to meet the full cost of the infrastructure required to make that service resilient. For example, it might be additional signalling or additional track to facilitate that additional Huddersfield-Halifax service.

  Mr O'Brien: What do the SRA say to that? Do they have any thoughts and is there any commitment from them?


  135. You are saying in effect that it is an academic argument because you cannot even ask for it.
  (Mr Wicks) One of the earlier witnesses referred to the SRA currently looking at something they are calling the capacity utilisation strategy (CUS), yet another acronym for you. In that they are trying to see what could be done to make the network more flexible. We are fully supportive of that, but to mirror the concerns that Mr O'Brien has been making, one of the problems on the local rail network is that often you get a three-trains-an-hour service: what you do not get is a 20-minute service. You may well get two trains quite close together and then perhaps a 35-minute gap for the third one. We are naturally concerned that in trying to get the most out of the network, principally because of under-investment in a lot of cases, the local service does not become the poor relation in that network because they are seen as smaller trains, carrying fewer people, with higher subsidy which takes us back to the commercial realities the previous witnesses have been talking about.

Mr O'Brien

  136. That is exactly what is happening, is it not?
  (Mr Wicks) Yes, that is right and that is why we have to watch how the SRA look at this. I am not saying at the moment they are going into this to—

  137. What are you doing about getting the SRA on board to do something about it? I am concerned, not with the Trans-Pennine route, that is all right. I am talking about the local internal network between Sheffield and Leeds and between York and Leeds and the stations in between. My constituents are wanting that service.
  (Mr Wicks) We are certainly participating in that strategy. I hate to use the word protect, because it is sometimes seen as negative, but we are going into it positively and we are trying to enhance the level of service and make sure it is not detrimentally treated. That is supposed to be a fairly quick study the SRA are doing with results out this year. We have to see how we do in doing that.

Mrs Ellman

  138. In your written evidence you are suggesting that Strategic Rail Authority decisions are impeding the implementation of regional transport strategies and regional economic development strategies. Could you tell us any more about that and how you think things should be changed?
  (Mr Mulligan) One of the concerns we have always had as a metropolitan authority and indeed as a local authority is that we are under the legal obligation to produce a local transport plan; indeed this is the main motor in the Transport Act 2000 for the delivery of integrated transport within Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire or South Yorkshire and indeed Lancashire and Merseyside. These go in at the end of each July and are updated. They are supposed to have a cohesive approach to bus, rail and other modes of transport, whether it be tram or ferry or something like that. We find at the moment that the SRA's financial difficulties, together with the difficulty of taking a view on what it would be possible to do on the rail network, is impeding the development of those integrated transport strategies because rail is so important. If we can develop the rail network as a mass transit system, then we will see a major effect on our economy. I have always been puzzled, as the Chairman will probably know from previous evidence I have given, why a duty is not placed upon the Strategic Rail Authority to have cognizance of local transport plans. In my opinion it makes a bit of a nonsense to tell major local authorities they have the complete responsibility for delivering integration in their area and then not to lose the link with London and the Strategic Rail Authority over what is happening nationally. I am told quite frequently that the Strategic Rail Authority has the final say nationally over what is going to go on. One point I should like to make is that when we talk about "nationally" I would submit respectfully to the Committee that with 6 PTEs, including Strathclyde, we account for about 15 million when you add outer London, and we comprise a pretty fair proportion of that nation. I think more heed should be taken of our representations.

  139. Does the Strategic Rail Authority think regionally, even if it does not think locally?
  (Mr Mulligan) I sometimes get lost in some of the distinctions between regional, local and national. I would argue that the regional situation in the North-West is one of national importance to the economy and the development of that economy. Where I sometimes have anxieties, indeed this is reflected by members in the North-West and particularly in Greater Manchester where a scheme such as the Trans-Pennine one is the very point Mr O'Brien was making, is that my elected members in Rochdale, Oldham, Ashton, are all extremely concerned that when Trans-Pennine comes across the hill they are going to lose out in terms of local railways services into the centre of the conurbations. It comes back to the point I made at the outset, that a quart will not go into a pint pot.

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