Examination of Witnesses (Questions 65
TUESDAY 20 NOVEMBER 2001
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
(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
(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.
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.
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
(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.
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
(Mr Pierce) It is very difficult to comment on individual
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
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.