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

Examination of Witness (Questions 69 - 79)




  69. Good afternoon. You are most warmly welcome. Would you be kind enough to identify yourself?

  (Mr Steer) Good afternoon, I am Jim Steer. I am Managing Director of Strategic Planning at the Strategic Rail Authority.

  70. Did you have something you wanted to tell us are you happy to go straight to questions?
  (Mr Steer) Very briefly, thank you. I should just like to say that the SRA welcomes the multi-modal study programme. We do believe it is conceptually right to look at the issues across the modes. We do also believe, however, that in some cases the studies may have given rise to unrealistic expectations and that is commented on in our memorandum to you. That memorandum points to some of the particular problem areas. However, we also believe that there are positive ways forward from the conclusions which have been reached and from the programme and I welcome the chance to answer any questions the Committee has.

  71. You may have heard us questioning the ministry officials on precisely this point. Do you know why, when the guidance for the studies was drawn up, the sort of flaw you have identified was not highlighted?
  (Mr Steer) When the studies were drawn up, back in 1998, we were at an early stage in relation to the ten-year plan, we were at a stage where, for instance, the first strategic plan produced by the SRA had not been published, indeed the SRA itself had not come into existence; we had a passenger franchising authority. It is perhaps important just to recollect the passage of time and some of the criticisms which might be levelled at the studies could perhaps be seen as a little harsh if one recalls the exact circumstances in which they were set up.

  72. You were involved in a lot of these things and you have said that you are worried about certain aspects of the work. Has anybody taken any notice of your concerns?
  (Mr Steer) I would not know. We have made our views very clear as the SRA in relation to the project teams. We have made clear our general concerns to the department and to the government offices which have co-ordinated each of the multi-modal studies on behalf of the various stakeholders. I guess I would observe that yes, there is a growing realisation that there are some real issues here and we need to find a way forward for them.

Chris Grayling

  73. When do you think the Strategic Rail Authority could start work on development of any of the recommendations in the multi-modal studies which are not currently in the strategic plan?
  (Mr Steer) We are already working on multi-modal study conclusions.

  74. By "start work" I mean when could one of these actually be built within your knowledge of the budget frameworks for the foreseeable future?
  (Mr Steer) If you are talking about a scheme which could be built, say a new station, it is unlikely that would actually come to fruition in fewer than three years and that would be going some. Typically the timescale for these is rather longer than that. I would add that we believe the emphasis on schemes and infrastructure which characterises the multi-modal study recommendations is not particularly helpful. We believe that there may be a need for infrastructure schemes and they have to be taken into account alongside other proposals the SRA weighs up. Very often, it is a matter of wanting a new or a different service from the rail network and the ability we have to implement new services rather than go out and build new bits of railway is on a much faster timescale, indeed there are some services—I know of at least one—which have already been put into service in the very recent timetable change. It is modest, but it is one additional service to serve Hastings in the evening peak, which was one of the things which was picked up in the multi-modal studies. So it is possible to get on and implement some things. The lead time to implement different kinds of projects varies and infrastructure projects do take time.

  75. The concern is that in a sense we have two planning processes in parallel. You have the process which has generated the ten-year plan and the SRA strategic plan and you have the multi-modal studies taking place alongside, apparently not interlinked with the planning which has taken place for the other two plans. The consequence of that is that you end up with one mode getting attention another mode not, with the result that you effectively have a process which is very stacked towards roads rather than to public transport and rail in particular.
  (Mr Steer) I recognise the concern, but the SRA has actively participated in all of the projects and that active participation comes with an understanding of what the SRA's separate strategic planning process is all about. We have been able to inform the studies as they have gone on and as best we can keep them up to date. Some of the studies have elected to take greater notice of the input we have been able to make than others. I suspect that is rather inevitable. I do not think they are two parallel universes which have no connection. The multi-modal studies look at the local agenda and were focused initially on unsolved problems with what to do on the road network. They were not focused on solving problems, on what to do, with the rail network. We believe there are ways of drawing these together. We can take the outputs of the studies. We can look at them in relation to all of the other things we take into account in continuing to update the strategic plan for railways, as we have to do.

Mr Stringer

  76. Why do you believe that the SRA priorities for long-distance routes are more important than local or regional aspirations?
  (Mr Steer) We would not say that we do.

  77. It is the implication, is it not, of your written submission?
  (Mr Steer) No, the implication is that the rail network is a very inter-connected thing and to look at a particular geographic slice of part of a long-distance rail network and try to come to a conclusion on how it should be developed and services over it should be developed, separate from considering the whole of the route, is unlikely in our view, and that is a point we do make very clearly in the memorandum, to be the right basis for planning the rail network. That is not to say that long-distance services take priority over local services.

  78. It is saying precisely that, is it not? You say you take the full network and therefore those trains which are travelling from Glasgow to London have priority and that is your basis. That is saying that long-distance strategy is more important than local priorities and I should like to know on what economic or whatever base you came to that conclusion.
  (Mr Steer) I beg to differ. In looking at the whole route, say from Glasgow to London, there is nothing to say that we should only be looking at and indeed it would be wrong only to look at the long-distance services on the route. We should be looking at the local, the regional, the long-distance passenger and freight services together. There is no prioritisation which says multi-modal studies must therefore be secondary. I am simply saying that if they are looked at in isolation from the rest of the network, and perhaps the parallel on the road side is the issue of road user charging, it is difficult to produce a coherent picture if you do not look at the whole. There are several instances where that has emerged from the multi-modal studies.

  79. You really have very little confidence in the multi-modal studies which have been done. You seem to be saying that they are distorting the cost benefits when it comes to the railways. Do you think these things should be looked at separately? Is there something fundamentally wrong with that approach? Do the consultants which have been used not have the right rail expertise?
  (Mr Steer) No, we make a fairly specific point, which is this. When the consultant's teams looked at the non-highway, the non-road expansion alternative, they pretty generally came up with a view that what you would do if you were not going to widen the road was to do a package of things. There would be some demand management measures, some local transport measures and, typically in many cases as well, some rail investment. What we have found in practice characterises the case for that package of investment is that consultants have identified an overall cost benefit case for the package and we have been asked as a delivery agency to look at our bit of it, the rail bit. When we have looked at the rail bit, even in the terms of the multi-modal study team and the parameters they have used, perhaps their costs, their estimates of benefits, we found the case for the rail element does not stack up. That does in truth give us a problem, because we are trying very hard to establish an absolutely consistent approach to appraising different kinds of rail investment in different parts of the country, for local, long-distance passenger and freight services. Schemes which have a poor cost benefit performance are not going to do very well in any kind of assessment of prioritisation. That is a problem and it is one which needs to be tackled in assessing how we as the rail delivery agency are to take forward a poorly performing rail component of a package which overall makes sense. That is an issue perhaps for the department to weigh up and I should imagine it will be weighing up.

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