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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 420-439)



Mrs Ellman

  420. Are you satisfied that Virgin arbitrarily redefined what constituted off-peak hours with the effect that anybody going from Liverpool to London cannot get there before the afternoon unless they pay the 80 per cent increase? Do you think that is reasonable?
  (Mr Spellar) I think that there certainly is a perception that some of the increases have been excessive and indeed may have worked against certain parts of the country and I think these are matters that need to be taken up, particularly through the regional rail passenger councils, with the particularly companies in order to make that argument at first instance.

  421. But if the regional rail passenger councils are not listened to or their comments not acted upon, do you feel, as the Minister, that you should have responsibility?
  (Mr Spellar) I did say at first instance. If the answer is unsatisfactory, then obviously Members may well wish to raise that with Ministers.

  422. So you, as the Minister, think that that is part of your responsibility?
  (Mr Spellar) I think we do have to convey, as Members of Parliament do and we have to work on that, the mood of the travelling public and whether they think they are getting a fair deal, but I do put it into context where we have to take into account the very considerable increase in traffic that there has been, some of which has been driven obviously by the general economic situation, but some has been driven by the better marketing of the new companies.

Mr O'Brien

  423. I was going to draw attention to the fact that when the Ten-Year Plan was announced, it was welcomed by the Yorkshire and Humber Development Agency because of the fact that it was going to give a boost to the economy. What is required, Minister, is a link between the east and west ports. You did say that we have got good connections between the north and south, and what we need now is east to west, but we are told that the regional transport strategies set out a programme that there will be no financing until after 2010 with no date set. Can you give us some idea as to what action will you take to boost that east to west link through the Yorkshire and Humber area?
  (Mr Spellar) I think initially what we are looking at are the schemes that we have, and we are particularly talking about the problems with West Coast Mainline, and other significant priorities. Because of the history of under-investment for several decades in the rail system, there are a whole number of existing problems and, therefore, it is a case, firstly, of looking at the pressing issues of the schemes that are already in progress and also where they are costing more money and also then looking at the priorities for further other schemes. I will ask Mark Coulshed to say something on the ports access, and I am presuming this is the Humberside ports access.

  Mr O'Brien: Well, what happened is that we have transport between the Humber ports and the west coast ports along the M62 corridor and this is over-congested and, therefore, we need to take traffic off the road and the best place is the rail, but we have no direct east-west link. Part of the programme was to develop the east-west link to enhance the competitiveness within the Yorkshire and Humber region with other regions. We are now told that this is not going to be available until whenever and not before 2010.


  424. This really arises because of the multi-modal stuff you were talking about before. It is still recommended that it should be significant, but it is still clear that it will not come before 2010.
  (Mr Spellar) Well, some is on some of the east coast ports because we are undertaking work for the East Anglian ports and improving the availability up through Nuneaton. I will ask Mark Coulshed to say something about the Humber ports.
  (Mr Coulshed) There is money set aside in the SRA Strategic Plan for freight enhancements, nothing specifically in relation to Humber ports and I am afraid I do not know what has been said to Mr O'Brien, and he may have better information than I do. One of the things that the SRA will be doing of course is over the second half of this year looking again at the Strategic Plan, and they are under a duty to produce an update of the Strategic Plan in January next year and they will have that opportunity to pick up representations which have been made here and elsewhere about precisely the questions of priorities within the funds which are available, so I dare say they may have more to say about the Humber ports and possibly about other matters to be raised.

Mr O'Brien

  425. The point the Minister made about the announcement of the East Anglian ports, I welcome that, but if there are going to be specific links between the East Anglian ports and into the Midlands and we do not get anything in the Yorkshire and Humber area, then it is unfair competition between the regions, and I hope the SRA will take note of that because we have had no encouragement from them today or any other time on that particular matter. Now, we hope that the Minister will take this seriously and impress upon the SRA the need for this link from the east coast to the west coast and back as a significant factor of regional development.
  (Mr Spellar) Can I undertake to write to the Committee?

  Chairman: It would be helpful and if you would also deal with the multi-modal point because that was something you raised yourself and we would like to know what your view is.

Miss McIntosh

  426. Minister, in addition to boosting the economic development of all regions, the Ten-Year Plan says that it wants to sharpen the competitiveness of British industry. Now, are you aware, Minister, of the damage that is being caused to local companies, like Potters of Melmerby, with the closure of freight trains from the Channel Tunnel? Your former boss told this Committee that there should be 72 trains a day and that was the figure for April. Are you aware of the damage it is causing locally and the fact that freight is now travelling by road which is intended to travel by rail?
  (Mr Spellar) Very much so both from a number of those individual companies, from Members of Parliament's representations, also meetings that I have had with the industry collectively, and also discussions that I have had with EWS. As the Committee will be aware, both myself, the previous and the current Secretary of State as well as the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister have all been pressing very hard with the French Government in order to get improvements. I met the French Transport Minister at the recent Transport Council in Luxembourg and I hope Members will be pleased that there is now an acceleration of the construction programme of a much more robust fence than the one which was previously built and indeed I am shortly due to meet the head of SNCF to explore that further and to see what—


  427. Is that fence going to be guarded adequately?
  (Mr Spellar) I was going to come on, Chairman, to the second part of that equation which is a much stronger commitment from the new Interior Minister to providing an adequate police presence in that—

  428. Is he paying for it himself?
  (Mr Spellar) Is he paying for which?

  429. The extra police.
  (Mr Spellar) The extra police are the responsibility of the French Government and we are making or the Strategic Rail Authority is making a contribution towards the fence.

  430. And if it is £5 million, where is that £5 million coming from—out of that budget?
  (Mr Spellar) Indeed because it is extremely important, for all the reasons that have been identified by Miss McIntosh, very important that we actually get stability and then get the increased provision of train services, not just because of the immediate impact, but of course a number of companies, if they move from rail back to road, they then have to sign medium to long-term contracts with the hauliers, so, therefore, it is not a case of when we re-establish the service that there is an immediate return to rail and that is why it is imperative that we improve the situation as soon as possible. I am pleased, however, that for the first time in answering on this I think that there is actually a considerable amount of real improvement taking place actually on the ground and I am getting an indication of the greater degree of confidence now from the industry than I have previously.

Miss McIntosh

  431. Do you think it is right that projects that might otherwise have benefited from this SRA budget will probably not now benefit because you are using SRA funds to strengthen the fence in France with their budget? Do you think that is right and how will you explain it to passengers who have lost out and are there any other French projects which you have in mind for SRA support out of their budget?
  (Mr Spellar) Well, I think it is pretty rich, Chairman, when we are actually taking measures to deal with a very serious problem for freight and we are actually, therefore, facilitating and expediting those that we then get criticised for it. We are dealing with a real problem, that is what government does, and trying to solve it and, as I said, it is as bit rich to then be criticised for actually taking action when the Committee and others have all been fairly free with their criticism in the past for not actually achieving results. It has not been easy, but we are now getting progress.

  432. Does the Government still believe in an independent rail regulator?
  (Mr Spellar) Yes, indeed and we have recently announced strengthening that role by having a board for the rail regulator.

  433. So press reports that you are abolishing the post of the independent rail regulator and replacing him by a regulatory board are untrue?
  (Mr Spellar) Not replacing him by. In fact in regulation generally it is the normal practice to have a regulator and a regulatory board, so it is not a replacement. It is actually coming in line with common regulatory practice.


  434. It is an enhancement. Is that what you are telling us?
  (Mr Spellar) I am saying it is bringing it in line and being consistent.

  Chairman: So it is not a renewal, just an enhancement.

Dr Pugh

  435. Can I take you back to the vexed subject of Virgin's fares. We had Virgin last week and we taxed them on the fact that it is £172 standard return to Manchester and the like. They frankly acknowledged that they were clobbering the business and occasional user in order to provide them with funds in order that they could make the investments they are required to do. Now, there are other ways in which you can raise funds through investment, and I put it to you that that is actually inconsistent with some of the objectives of the Ten-Year Plan because that will deter passengers, particularly occasional users.
  (Mr Spellar) Well, they would obviously be looking at a price that they would be charging consistent with loading capacity on their trains. As I said in my earlier answer, it is undeniable that the targeted marketing of the rail companies in looking at using the capacity on their trains has been a significant factor in the increase in passenger usage in this country. There is the other side of that which is the higher premium fares for those who are using the trains at peak times.

  436. You could argue that with fares like that you need good marketing in some respects, could you not, but is there any study done by the Department for Transport of how much people are put off by the fact that the once in a while that they turn up, they will pay a very high price to go into cities?
  (Mr Spellar) Well, I do not think the figures indicate that there is a discouraging effect, although I think there might be an argument as to whether there is an equity issue.
  (Mr Coulshed) If I may add something about this, the SRA will shortly be publishing a consultation paper on fares policy. We have been talking to them about the issues which might be raised in it and one particular issue, indeed two or three of the issues that have been mentioned this afternoon are certainly covered, in particular this difficult trade-off between financing investment and keeping fares down to a reasonable level, and also the question raised earlier about whether it is reasonable to allow for the definition of regulated fares to be varied in the way it has been.


  437. Is that an important part of the note we are going to get soon?
  (Mr Coulshed) Yes, I understand the SRA are hoping to publish this document in the next two or three weeks.

  438. Does it include rail cards as well?
  (Mr Coulshed) I do not think I want to talk about all the things which might be in this draft. I know of things they have talked to us about.

  439. We just have this old-fashioned idea that you ought to know what is in it and also tell us.
  (Mr Coulshed) It is the SRA's document not ours.

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