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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 440-456)

RT HON JOHN SPELLAR MP AND MR MARK COULSHED

WEDNESDAY 26 JUNE 2002

Dr Pugh

  440. Last week we also had the Passenger Transport Executive and they mentioned a number of different proposals they had in mind for network linking, small network extensions, even re-opening bits of networks. They have got projects in mind and most of these projects currently do not sit in the Ten-Year Plan and are not fundable within their PTE budget. Should they forget about them as totally pie in the sky or is there a way of progressing them and, if so, what? I am thinking about the Wigan Hub, the Burscough Curves, things which have been around for years.
  (Mr Spellar) Well, the Wigan Hub is not just a rail plan, but it is tied in with a road plan as well. It is a mixed development which they have certainly talked to the Department about. At the moment we are looking at and hopefully getting a better picture of the commitments that we already have. We also have the Rail Partnership funding and we are also concerned that we should not be over-concentrating just on big schemes to the detriment of a considerable number of smaller schemes which may deliver a very substantial enhancement to the network.

  441. So although you are not against small schemes, you are not encouraging these schemes to be too optimistic?
  (Mr Spellar) No, it is not just that we are not against small schemes, but we actually believe that the previous focus maybe of the Strategic Rail Authority largely towards large schemes, there may need to be a degree of correction because a considerable number of smaller schemes may deliver quite substantial enhancement to the network.

Andrew Bennett

  442. Stephenson's Rocket, when it was first introduced, managed to do over 30 miles per hour. In fact it would find itself at home, would it not, on most of the routes between major cities in the north of England as 30 miles per hour seems to be about the speed of the trains on those routes? When will we actually get the very efficient, up-to-date, fast service between any of the major cities in the north of England?
  (Mr Spellar) That is very much the focus of the franchise for the Trans-Pennine Express in order to look at the enhancement of faster trains between those centres and also to grow that market and separating that out, therefore, from the more local trains and getting that different focus for those two franchises.

  443. Can you give us, for instance, two cities which would be benefiting from that within the next three years?
  (Mr Spellar) I would obviously have to look at the proposals—

Chairman

  444. You would like to give us a note on that?
  (Mr Spellar)—that are going to be coming out of the franchise bids.

Andrew Bennett

  445. What about the engineering works and this idea we are going to have the West Coast Main Line closed for 18 consecutive weekends. Great idea?
  (Mr Spellar) There was an initial proposal from Railtrack which was just to close for a block period—three to four weeks is my recollection but we can correct that if I am wrong. There was considerable resistance from the business community in the north west to seeing that shut off for that period. There is a lot of work being done in order to minimise the inconvenience to passengers over those weekends and quite a bit of money being spent, but it is a straightforward trade-off. The engineers, quite frankly, would nearly always prefer to have a solid block of time because of the time it takes to secure the network before they move workers on to it; then, of course, the time when you are dismantling those provisions as well. It really is a case where there needs to be a decision; it is not an easy one and I think there are arguments on both sides, but I think there would have been considerable opposition had there been the closure for that period of time. It is the difficulty with retrofitting an existing system.

  446. When the line was last upgraded, forty or thirty years ago, there were four tracks and two were done and then the other two. Why can that not happen now?
  (Mr Spellar) One reason is I think we operate under more stringent health and safety procedures now.

  447. Have the health and safety absolutely vetoed that as a solution?
  (Mr Spellar) I think that the procedures under which you have to work, particularly the closeness of the tracks here and the ability to be working while train systems are still running, makes that extremely difficult.

  448. It has been done on quite a lot of the other parts of the track, though?
  (Mr Spellar) That is what my advice is, and I am sure that those train companies who are being affected by this would have been pressing for this very strongly if they had not been convinced of the argument that closure, either over weekends or for a block period, was required. After all, this is the sort of difficulty we face on motorways as well, in terms of how we do repairs.

  449. The Highways Agency seems to be getting more and more efficient at dealing with these whereas Railtrack, whatever you call it, seems to be getting less and less?
  (Mr Spellar) The Highways Agency is doing that and you are now drawing attention to some of the underlying problems, as I said, with Railtrack. Notwithstanding that there is still a requirement for closure either at weekends or on a completed block.

  450. Can I take you on to industrial relations and driver shortages. What are you doing about it to make sure it does not happen again?
  (Mr Spellar) The rail companies are, in fact, working with the SRA doing a considerable amount on that; in pretty well all of the franchises there are a lot of drivers in training, there has been an extensive recruitment campaign, and driver shortages are certainly reducing as reasons for delays.

  451. What about a no-poaching agreement between each of the franchises?
  (Mr Spellar) That might be regarded as a restraint on the ability of the drivers themselves to move between one company and another, but quite apart from that the key issue is to ensure that we have sufficient train drivers and that all franchisees are making sure they are training enough drivers to meet their requirements, and a number of them had not. In some cases indeed, after privatisation, some had as I recall laid off train drivers.

Chairman

  452. The HSE looked at the standards of driver training and gave each one of the companies it looked at a list of things that needed to be done. Are you satisfied, firstly because there is a national agreement on pay and conditions and, secondly, because all the individual TOCs are doing their own training, that there is in fact any kind of standardisation or uniformity across the country?
  (Mr Spellar) Standardisation and uniformity of what?

  453. Of the training of drivers, for a start. It would be nice if they all knew how to drive a train.
  (Mr Spellar) I am not aware—

  454. You did not read the HSE report which said they had looked at a number of companies and they gave strict instructions to the companies as to what was wrong, but they were concerned that there was no consistency across the training?
  (Mr Spellar) But after the HSE have put in improvements then we will be seeing, even if it is not consistency because they are dealing with different groups, adequate training of drivers so they meet the standards. That is quite different, of course, from the question of national rates and conditions and standardised rates and conditions, which is a quite separate issue.

Andrew Bennett

  455. Lastly, could you not bang the drum to make the rail companies give passengers accurate information? I travelled down from Manchester—ironically for a conference on speed—and it took me six hours. During that journey, I was given misinformation on several occasions, and no accurate information. Could you not get the rail companies to tell passengers what is happening when there are problems?
  (Mr Spellar) I very much take that on board and it is quite interesting that, if one looks at public perceptions of different rail companies and then you compare with the objective reliability, very often the public's perception of some companies is much better and one of the key factors may be that those companies give much better information so that even if people are delayed they have a better view.

  Andrew Bennett: What are you doing about it?

Chairman

  456. So you are going to insist in the future that not only the individual companies but also this Committee get no misinformation but very accurate information, very full and always at the time that they want it, is that right?
  (Mr Spellar) Of course, that is an aspiration in both regards!

  Chairman: Thank you very much.





 
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