Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160 - 179)



  160. But not improved?
  (Mr Carroll) I think the debate will continue for the next 12 months as to the amount of funds that are required to improve.

  161. Are you satisfied with the information you are getting from the department in terms of changes and the way in which you have been kept informed?
  (Mr Carroll) Generally, yes, it is still being managed at a very senior level as far as the changes are concerned, and the future structure is clearly still emerging. Yes, we are generally being kept well informed on that.

  162. Can I perhaps look at a parallel situation. Some people suggested that Scotrail, which is a vertically integrated operation managing both the trains themselves and also the infrastructure, might be a possible model in the future for Wales. What is your opinion on that?
  (Mr Carroll) I think that is a possibility. I think one has to be absolutely clear what one means by "vertical integration". Certainly as a train operator we are interested in considering the expansion in the role and responsibilities to cover signalling, to cover the control activities around running trains. Where I think we are less clear is around the maintenance and renewal of the infrastructure, because I think that is a very big issue. First is not a civil engineering company. We do not have that expertise within the company, nor do generally the current train operators be it National Express, Stagecoach or Virgin. It would be a very big and strategic decision to move essentially a transport operator into a civil engineering maintenance-type company. That, I think, would warrant a lot more debate.

Adam Price

  163. As you will be aware the Scottish Executive has powers of guidance and direction over the Strategic Railway Authority. Could I invite you to comment on what you would see as the advantages and disadvantages of the National Assembly in Wales having similar powers over the SRA?
  (Mr Carroll) I think the advantages would be your understanding of the Welsh priorities and the investment requirements. You would be that much closer than the SRA are at the moment. I think accountability and clarity in strategy would be clearer. I also think measuring and monitoring progress would probably be more intense as well. I think they really are the main advantages, as I see it. First welcome the opportunity to work with whatever organisational structure—whether it is existing or a devolved structure that takes place.

Mr Wiggin

  164. Is that something you would like to see? You would like to see the National Assembly have more say, or was that not really what you were getting at?
  (Mr Carroll) We would like to enter into that and be part of that debate. I think it is a natural development from setting up a Wales and Borders franchise, which we have discussed already, and I think that reality is going to be secured in the next 12 months or so. I think it is a natural reality in setting up a franchise responsible for the delivery of rail operations generally in Wales to consider how that is managed at a strategic level and how that is funded. I think that debate must take place and we would welcome the opportunity to participate.

  165. You also run the trains that go to Hereford. I can easily see you getting torn between two masters if you did find that happening. You are not worried about that at all?
  (Mr Carroll) No, I would not put it in those terms. We clearly have to operate a number of different train services for different markets at the moment, and that is something that organisationally we are established to do. Again, I think it is very much about how those different services are integrated to maximise the benefit for the customer in things like connections, station facilities and other improvements.

  Mr Wiggin: Very confident. I think "service" is rather a generous expression from what I have been through. Thank you very much.

Mrs Williams

  166. Have you discussed the question Mr Price asked you within your company, or are these your personal thoughts today?
  (Mr Carroll) We have discussed them within the company. Our company's view is that we would very much want to work with any emerging structure, and want to participate in that debate, with the SRA, with the Assembly, with politicians in general in deciding what the future structure is.

  167. In your discussions within your company, did the benefits outweigh the disadvantages?
  (Mr Carroll) We have not evaluated that to that level of detail; but I think that would be part of the debate that would take place.

  168. Really you are not giving us a straight answer?
  (Mr Carroll) Not at the moment. I think it would be unfair to ask for an evaluated response.

  169. You have not had the time to consider the benefits and disadvantages and which outweighs the other?
  (Mr Carroll) No.

  170. Are you intending to?
  (Mr Carroll) I think we will as the debate continues. I think there is a lack of clarity as to what options and what the options are.

  Adam Price: I was posing the question in terms of advantages and disadvantages from a National Assembly or Welsh perspective. I am grateful for your reply.

  Chairman: I think we have had the replies you can give us at the moment.

Mr Caton

  171. Moving on to track and infrastructure. How does the state of the railway infrastructure in Wales, particularly on the South Wales main line, compare with that of the rest of the UK?
  (Mr Carroll) Our conclusion would be that the infrastructure in South Wales, certainly the main line in South Wales, is below average. I say that, although it is difficult in a way to quantify how you might measure that. Information on the quality of the infrastructure, apart from customers and people like yourselves saying, "It feels a bit bumpy", is sometimes difficult to quantify. Generally, I would conclude that the infrastructure is below average. That is not surprising, given the fact that the infrastructure of South Wales, both in terms of track and signalling, is aged 25 years at least since major investment took place; and, therefore, coming to the end of its natural design life and requiring major investment in the future.

  172. It has not been given that priority up until now by the Strategic Rail Authority, has it? Do you think that is mistaken?
  (Mr Carroll) I think the whole of the Great Western Railway, if you like, has not been prioritised. I think that is really as a result of the main part of investments going towards the east coast main line during the late 1980s and the early 1990s. Essentially we saw a new railway being built between Kings Cross and Edinburgh, with station improvements and track improvements, with the resulting improvements that we see on that railway; and then the lion's share of investment in recent years going towards the Channel Tunnel and the fixed link there that has tended to be the focus in recent yeas. Yes, I would say that the Great Western as a whole is disadvantaged, including the main line into Wales.

  173. Can we get a bit nittier and grittier. Where, on your operation, do you identify the main infrastructure requirements are on the whole of your line—because I take your point that just because the lines are in England they still serve Wales?
  (Mr Carroll) In terms of the maintenance improvements, I think there is a need to continue to increase the amount of investment generally throughout the whole of Great Western. Members will be aware that if you took a train this morning from, let us say, Cardiff to London you would be subjected to a speed restriction at a place called Patchway near Bristol, where there was a major embankment slip some eight weeks ago and as a result every train from South Wales is being delayed by probably about three minutes for the last eight weeks. Once you then get beyond Swindon, there was another major embankment slip six weeks ago and a significant amount of work going on there. I think that is just a tangible example that the general infrastructure is in need of significant investment, just to maintain the level of reliability and train performance that we have currently got. I think we then talk about improvements. One of the key improvements I think we see in South Wales is to do with the Severn Tunnel. The Severn Tunnel acts as a quite significant constraint in the number of trains that can go through the tunnel. The journey time and the signalling time to get through the tunnel for a train at the moment is seven minutes and, therefore, the number of trains that can go through the tunnel in either direction is 60 minutes divided by seven. That is clearly a major capacity constraint when one thinks that we are running trains twice an hour now; Virgin are running trains; there are significant freight trains, local trains etc. There is a plan well advanced that is subject to SRA funding, which we hope will be secured that will put a signal half way through the tunnel and therefore reduce the journey time in signalling terms by half, and therefore double the capacity. Secondly, I am sure members are aware that in approaching Newport Station or Cardiff Station, trains seem to slow down; and that is essentially because the layouts at both those locations are 25 years old and lack the flexibility in terms of signalling and track layout that the modern railway requires. Again, we are running more services to Cardiff; Virgin will be running more trains to Cardiff next year; and what is needed is a dynamic layout there to allow those extra trains to be dealt with. Again, I am sure there are examples around—the additional trains we seek to run in relation to major events at the Millennium Stadium. The major constraint now in running more and more trains to Cardiff is the actual track layout and that again, I think, points us towards infrastructure improvements at Cardiff. As far as North Wales is concerned, Ben, I do not know if you want to say anything.
  (Mr Ben Davies) We have just had the upgrading between Chester and Bangor to 90 mph. Of course, we have 90 mph now between Crewe and Chester. With the Isle of Anglesey from Bangor through to Holyhead all the improvements have been finalised on the island and now make it up to 75 mph from the horrendous 50s and 60s we had going down Llangaffo and Gaerwen.

Albert Owen

  174. How soon do you believe the Anglesey line can be upgraded so that the trains can travel at the same speed across the whole of the line?
  (Mr Ben Davies) I think that is an issue for the SRA and for funding. I think any improvement, be it in North Wales or South Wales, is also an improvement and a benefit for the customer as well.

  175. You would say that was below average? When Mr Carroll talked about the Welsh line being below average, that is very below average, is it not?
  (Mr Ben Davies) Yes.

Mr Caton

  176. Can you give us an idea of the sort of funding we are talking about? To have that decent, high quality line what we should expect in the 21st century in South Wales, what sort of money would need to be put in?
  (Mr Carroll) Hundreds of millions of pounds we are talking about ultimately, because we are trying to run a mixed railway on the same tracks. Wales has a range of traffic from high speed trains, trying to go at 100 mph plus, through to very hot, heavy freight traffic essentially using the same lines with all the difficulties that presents. If one looks at the east coast main line, they have moved very much towards lifting the freight trains and the slower trains on to slower lines so freeing up the fast trains to run at 125 mph capability—picking up the earlier point, that there is no line in South Wales that has a line speed of 125 mph, the maximum speed is 100 mph and a lot of it is well below that. To actually drive up the capability of the track and, therefore, reduce journey times and I think move towards the vision you are suggesting would need significant amounts of investment to be able to move that mixed traffic railway into a high speed railway and a low speed capability railway.

Mrs Williams

  177. What you have just said is very interesting to this Committee, because the SRA told this Committee that the rail network in Wales required no further significant enhancement. What do you think of that?
  (Mr Carroll) It depends what you want is the reality. I think there are improvements that are available to the railways in Wales, but they will come through the introduction of new trains that will have faster acceleration opportunities and, therefore, reduce journey times. Our very strong view is that if one wants a step change in the railway and, therefore, the integrated transport capability of Wales, major investment is required. I think one only has to look at the current record of the railways in terms of reliability and performance to suggest that major investment is required just to lift it up from those standards that I find unacceptable and I know you do as well. I disagree with that SRA position.

Adam Price

  178. This is an example of what are the advantages that would flow from the National Assembly having powers to direct the SRA. Then of course we could more just contradict them in that statement, we could actually issue a guidance to them?
  (Mr Carroll) I agree, and the debate then needs to be within the overall funding capability, because the SRA are trying to manage the priorities of the railways as a whole. For example, the signalling scheme I have described for the Severn Tunnel has to compete with schemes from all around the country for a limited finite amount of funding. That I think is a role that the SRA currently plays at the moment. Yes, you are absolutely right.

  Mrs Williams: Perhaps it is the case, once we have been able to ask all the questions of the operating companies, that the Committee should ask the SRA to come back and we can revisit some of these questions.

Mr Caton

  179. The case you are making about investment in infrastructure is made if we make that comparison between the south west main line, where it takes two hours to get to Cardiff, not too bad, but an hour to get the 50 miles further to Swansea. We get 200 miles covered in three hours. If we look at the east coast main line, trains travel 300 miles in that same three hours. As far as you see it, is that what we need? The only way we are going to get the high quality train service to West Wales that those of us who represent that area want to see is by massive investment in the infrastructure?
  (Mr Carroll) If one is talking about that kind of step change in journey times, it is not simply about new trains having a faster acceleration capability. It is also about having a piece of track that they can run on which has a higher speed capability. All of the track west of Swansea has a line speed of 75 miles or less. Therefore, the maximum journey time that one can make that journey in is obviously very limited by that track capability. In a way, it is an unfair comparison with east coast main line because one of the beauties of the east coast main line is that it has large cities that are very well spaced out. If one looks at York, Newcastle and Edinburgh, they have a good distance between each other and therefore a train can get up to a high speed capability and operate at that speed before it has to start to brake to make its next stop. In South Wales, there are a number of stations that the high speed trains need to stop at. If one was looking at the journey time from Swansea to London as one of the key measures, you would have to make some interesting decisions as to whether those trains would stop at Neath, Port Talbot and Bridgend or whether they would be first stop Cardiff and then Bristol Parkway and then to London. In doing that, you would have to be clear that there was the market capability there to run that kind of service. The Yorks, the Newcastles and the Edinburghs are very large markets that the east coast serves. I am not sure that Bridgend, Neath and Port Talbot fit into that same kind of category as far as the overall market is concerned. To answer your question, yes, if journey time and getting from a sub-three hour or whatever the journey time requirement is, you really do need to see a combination of train and train performance and track dynamics and performance as well.

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