Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 65 - 79)

TUESDAY 20 NOVEMBER 2001

MR CHRIS AUSTIN AND MR CEDRIC PIERCE

Chairman

  65. Mr Austin, nice to see you again. If you would like to introduce yourselves, it would be a good start.

  (Mr Austin) I am Chris Austin, I am the Executive Director for External Relations for the Strategic Rail Authority and I have a particular responsibility for working relationships with the National Assembly.
  (Mr Pierce) I am Cedric Pierce, one of the Directors within Regional Networks at the Strategic Rail Authority with particular responsibility for franchises in Wales.

  66. I understand that SRA officials meet regularly with officials of the National Assembly. Can you say how often that is and give us an idea of the kinds of issues which you discuss at those meetings?
  (Mr Austin) Yes, we do. Our memorandum referred to a quarterly meeting which is fairly formal. In fact colleagues or myself meet roughly monthly with Assembly officials and indeed colleagues on the franchising side are down in Wales at least once a week. The areas of discussion with the National Assembly include the Wales & Borders franchise, the current situation with Railtrack, freight developments and the aspirations of the National Assembly for the rail network.

  67. One of their aspirations is an integrated transport policy. How could you support the Assembly in delivering that vision?
  (Mr Austin) We have spent quite a lot of time since we were formally established earlier this year in working with them to try to understand the requirements for Wales and we formed a common view that there is clearly a lot to be done in terms of improving access between the different modes of transport, perhaps particularly in Wales where the bus fills some of the gaps left by the Beeching closures of some years ago. Some of those are quite highly developed links such as Maesteg to Caerav, Porth to Maerdy where they are in the timetable, there is through ticketing, they are well advertised. Others are a more general link, such as the access from train to bus at Cardiff, although even there through ticketing exists. We have identified a number of opportunities there with the operators and with the National Assembly and we are encouraging that in the way we develop the franchise concept going forward. We are also encouraging the physical aspects of development. Chris Gibb in the previous session referred to the work we have authorised and paid for at Haverfordwest which is specifically designed to bring buses close to trains, provide a common waiting area, common information and also good access for taxis and cyclists as well.

  68. A lot of those kinds of changes require finance though, do they not? Is there any chance of extra subsidy from the SRA to match the expenditure the Assembly are putting in?
  (Mr Austin) Yes, Haverfordwest is an example of that. By and large we have this vehicle of the rail passenger partnership fund which is ideally suited for encouraging integration. There are several schemes around the country where we have given approval to that. There is certainly headroom funding to do more of that within Wales and we are working with the National Assembly and with the Rail Passengers Committee on ways of taking that forward. Many of the integration initiatives have already been taken up by operators on a commercial basis, as Chris Gibb described.

Mr Wiggin

  69. Where the National Assembly's transport policies diverge from those of the UK Government, how able is the SRA to take account of this in its work in Wales?
  (Mr Austin) I have to say that in the work we have done with them, there is not a lot of evidence of divergence of policy. We are all in the business for the same thing: to encourage greater use of rail and to move towards increasing both freight and passenger use of the rail network. There is a great commonality of interest. I suppose it remains to be seen how it works through when we publish our strategic plan. We have a particular focus on the need to meet the 50 per cent target for passenger growth, which applies across Great Britain. That is also an interest of the National Assembly.

Mr Caton

  70. In your written submission you state that the railways in Wales do not need major infrastructure enhancements to facilitate increased use of the network. How have you reached that judgement?
  (Mr Austin) From the analysis we have carried out of the network ourselves and with operators and with the National Assembly. It was touched on in the earlier session. That is not to say there are no requirements and Mr Gibb referred to a number of pinch points, with which we would fully agree, around the system which do require infrastructure investment. Perhaps the most important of those is at Cardiff at Queen Street and Central stations. There are others as well, just to the west of Swansea for example, which is a real constraint on services to and from West Wales. In our view, there is not the same need for massive infrastructure improvement as there is in certain other parts of the country, because of the ability of the existing train service to be expanded to cope with growing demand.

  71. Let us think of the intercity line west of Cardiff. Presumably you have travelled on it?
  (Mr Austin) Indeed; many times.

  72. You have experienced in the twenty-first century a train which is supposed to be an intercity train travelling as slowly and uncomfortably as that. Do you think that is acceptable?
  (Mr Austin) I am not sure about uncomfortably. Certainly it is slower west of Cardiff because of the curvature of the line and the way it was laid out. It is also slower because it calls at a number of stations to serve the major centres which exist there. There is nothing inherently wrong with the infrastructure, although the opportunities to reduce journey time should be looked at and are being looked at as part of the incremental outputs Mr Gibb mentioned.

  73. You are saying that there are no major infrastructure enhancements which would facilitate increased use of the network. If you talk to anybody in Swansea, they will say the reason they do not use the railway is that they can travel by other means much more quickly if they are going to Cardiff, or it even affects their decision how they travel up to London. We are told as elected members when we ask why the train service is so poor between Cardiff and Swansea, that it is an infrastructure question. It is not a matter of Great Western's running of the trains, it is a matter of infrastructure. You are saying that there is no need for major infrastructure investment. I really do not understand that.
  (Mr Austin) Referring back to the comments you had from constituents, that may be a constraint in individual cases, but that does not seem to be true in general because of the enormous growth which has occurred over the route over the last five years. Indeed one of the opportunities is actually handling the number of people now using the system. I do take your point, but perhaps more from West Wales than from Swansea, clearly the opening of the M4 makes it much quicker to access the railway at Port Talbot by car than it does by train, travelling in and out of Swansea. That is an area we shall need to address in the longer term.

  74. Even if we are talking in economic development terms, I know of players in the economic development field who feel it is a major deterrent to getting investment into Swansea, but west of Swansea even more so, the way the journey down to West Wales slows so markedly after Cardiff. I really think there is an issue there. I find it rather complacent that you think there is absolutely no need for major infrastructure enhancement, certainly on that part of the line.
  (Mr Austin) There is certainly a need to enhance capacity to deal with growth. Mr Gibb mentioned the provision of the diversionary route via the Vale of Glamorgan which is quite important. It still means that Swansea is within a three-hour journey time of London and rather less to Bristol. It is comparison of that with other areas of the country which is the key issue rather than the actual line speed between Cardiff and Swansea, but I take your point.

  75. We can perhaps continue that discussion at another stage. I come on to the Wales & Borders franchise. You say that the criteria applied in selecting the preferred bidder are set out in the SRA's Instructions to Counterparties which will be revised in the light of the new Directions and Guidance issued by the Secretary of State. You also say that you have not prescribed specifically line by line but have encouraged bidders to speak with local stakeholders to understand their aspirations. Who are the local stakeholders in Wales?
  (Mr Pierce) There is the National Assembly, there is the RPC for Wales and there are the various unitary authorities. Those are the main stakeholders.

  76. Those are the people you are calling on the companies to consult.
  (Mr Pierce) Yes; principally.

Chris Ruane

  77. The Instructions to Counterparties apply to bidders throughout Great Britain. There is a number of local criteria which should be applied in Wales. One of them is that "it creates a market-oriented dynamic railway whose primary concern is service quality and an efficient attractive railway, serving customers needs". You may be aware that my colleague, Betty Williams, the MP for Conwy raised the issue of Virgin trains in Prime Minister's Questions last Wednesday. She was concerned about the standards and quality on Virgin trains. I should like to pick up on that. As far as the punctuality of trains is concerned, I was one hour and forty minutes late three weeks ago; my wife was travelling down with two small children and she was one hour and ten minutes late. I had a constituent knocking at my door at eight o'clock on Friday night saying that his son was stuck in Nuneaton and could not get home that night. There is the punctuality side of it, but also there is the service quality and attractiveness. Yesterday I took the 17.25 train from Crewe down to London and I wanted to use the toilet. There was a Staff Only toilet and I peaked my head round to see what conditions were like in there. There did not seem to be any place for the staff to dry their hands, except by using the toilet paper. In the customers' toilet, if you wanted to use hot water you pressed on the floor and the water came through. The staff had to turn a tap and I think the system on the floor is far more hygienic. The internal doors would not close and were wide open. There was a draught coming down the centre of the train; people were freezing in there. The external doors had wind blowing through the side of the door creating a whistling noise so I could not use my mobile phone. This was First Class, by the way. Customer service and service quality were clearly lacking. The staff are not at fault. The staff on Virgin trains are excellent. I know Virgin are to put in massive investment in the future but in the here and now that service quality is not there.
  (Mr Pierce) It is very difficult to comment on individual journeys.

  78. The 17.25 from Crewe.
  (Mr Pierce) In terms of operating performance, and by operating performance we mean whether or not the trains run and whether or not they are on time, there is a number of different regimes which we operate across the country at the moment in terms of aggregating up the performance of the train company and then they pay us a sum or we pay them a sum, depending on how well they are performing. We also have enforcement measures which we can take under the terms of the Transport Act, should their operating standards fall below certain levels. Those standards differ from train company to train company, although I suspect as we re-franchise that there is more likely to be commonality than there has been in the past. We also have a regime which in the old franchise agreements are known as customer satisfaction surveys, but in the new ones are going to migrate into national passenger surveys, where independent surveyors take passenger opinion of how the train company is running. If they start to fall below benchmarks we shall require them to invest to bring the performance levels back up to benchmarks. That would cover much more the sort of thing you are talking about which is as much about perception and comfort as it is about whether the train is running on time. I was being a bit wordy there but I think you know what I am trying to say.

Mr Owen

  79. Virgin trains, okay. What about the leasing companies? I travel regularly on Virgin and if there is a delay, if there is an engine breakdown, they blame the leasing company. Is that just passing the buck? The travelling public buy a ticket for Virgin trains and they want to get from A to B. They do not want to hear about a third party's involvement, they want to get from A to B. Is it just passing the buck? Are there agreements between the two?
  (Mr Pierce) The leasing companies will lease a train to the train company for a period and the train company is responsible for the maintenance and operation of that train.


 
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