Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 199)



  180. The investment in the track is not just about speed; it is hopefully about comfort because most of us who travel on your trains to Paddington have spilt coffee all over ourselves several times in a year's journeys. One would hope that with track improvements that would no longer be the case. Without the track improvement and with your investment in new trains, what sort of improvement can we see?
  (Mr Carroll) Having been on the new trains, both our new class 180 trains that will be introduced and go as far as to Cardiff, and the new class 175 train that is now in service in the north west, the customer sees an immediate improvement in terms of the overall on board environment, the facilities on those trains in terms of information provision and catering improvements. There is a substantial improvement by introducing new trains. Yes, you are absolutely right. In terms of things like ride quality, in terms of overall journey improvements, the track is critically important. It is also important to remember that the performance of the railways at the moment nationally and in Wales is unsatisfactory. 70 per cent plus of the delays certainly on south Wales services are being caused by infrastructure failures, particularly signalling, track, the kinds of embankment problems that I described earlier. It is not only a matter of the ride improving; the delays that I am sure you have experienced on our trains are largely down to infrastructure and track problems which will only be resolved through that kind of investment.

  181. You have said the Great Western line generally has not had a good deal. Why do you think that is?
  (Mr Carroll) Part of it is that it has almost been waiting in order. The east coast was the priority in electrification terms during the eighties. The west coast, which was electrified in the early sixties, became naturally the next order of priority and that is the investment that is now being made on the line from Euston to Birmingham, Manchester, etc. I would like to think that it is Great Western's turn next as the third key Intercity route in the country and one again that, from its current performance, there is evidence that major investment is required.

Mrs Williams

  182. Can I follow on from the question that Mark asked earlier about Scotrail's idea and the way you answered that question. It is too much of a coincidence that the area we have just been discussing now, the most western point of South Wales and the area we discussed earlier, the Isle of Anglesea, the north western point of North Wales, has been somewhat neglected. Would it not be better so that the operating companies cannot blame the company looking after the infrastructure and vice versa? Would it not be better at the end of the day for the whole thing to be under one umbrella?
  (Mr Carroll) Yes, as long as the operator of that understood what they were inheriting. Recent events concerning Railtrack demonstrate the amount of investment that is required. Looking at last year, as far as gauge corner cracking and all the speed restrictions, this also identifies the lack of detailed understanding as to the condition of the infrastructure. If it was being suggested that a new operator inherits the responsibility of maintaining that track, that new operator would want to know in detail what the condition of the assets they were inheriting is. Only in understanding that and understanding the obligations that that new operator was taking on in terms of improving that infrastructure would that kind of structure be able to be established. I am not sure we are there yet on that. That is why I think we are much more comfortable in taking on responsibility for signalling trains and controlling trains and responding to events and delays, which is all part of the current Railtrack responsibility. The infrastructure maintenance and renewal is a very specialist activity that we are not experts in and that is the issue.

  183. Can I move on to something which you are supposed to be experts at? That is the stock. Why has Great Western Trains not invested in new trains earlier? Why are your new trains late?
  (Mr Carroll) The new trains were designed and ordered nearly four years ago. That process of four years which is clearly too long showed that when that train was ordered back in the late nineties this country did not have the capability to build trains. The train manufacturing industry in this country had declined quite substantially because of the lack of orders during the eighties and the nineties. If one thinks of the train that we are now having built, it is only being assembled in this country. The body shells are built in Spain. The engines are built in the United States. The gear boxes and most of the components are built in Germany. They are assembled in Birmingham. That four year process shows where the capability of the rail production industry had got to. The delays in us having them—and you are absolutely right; we hoped that we would have the new trains a year ago—are due to the poor performance of the manufacturer. We are working intensively with Alstrom who are building the trains to supply those trains. We will not accept a train that does not meet our very high standards as far as safety, customer service, comfort and reliability. Alstrom have not been able to demonstrate that high level as yet. Until they do, the trains will remain under test. We are now hoping that the first new trains will enter into service in February and we are producing a timetable for May next year that will have those new trains timetabled into that timetable.

  184. What system do you have as a company to check design faults along the line and to make sure that the problems are being identified once they are in service, because there have been examples in North Wales of such occurrences.
  (Mr Carroll) The trains are still owned, managed and controlled by the manufacturer. We have a very detailed, clear specification as to what those trains have to achieve before we take over control in terms of reliability, in terms of the design and delivery against that design. We frequently visit Alstrom and meet them on a weekly basis at a very senior level to go through al the issues that are being identified with our particular new trains and that is a very intensive process to ensure those trains reach that capability before they enter service. We will not introduce a train that will not achieve that level of reliability because of the disadvantages that it immediately creates.
  (Mr Ben Davies) It is exactly similar for North Wales with the 175s, also built by Alstrom, and the problems we have encountered during the summer. The main issue is safety. These are brand new trains. Any time we feel that safety is compromised, we will have to take them out of service. For one day, we did take all the 175 fleet out of service until we were able to be categorically assured that there were no problems with them. Yes, we have had teething problems with the 175 fleet in North Wales but those are now overcome and a 175 is now a common sight in North Wales. Almost every other train in North Wales is now a 175, be it from Holyhead to Birmingham or Llandudno to Manchester. We monitored the problems and changed components and I think we are still changing them today. We have improved our on board hieroglyphics and announcements. We were down to a kilometre between the short stations; we have gone back and altered them and made them into half kilometre station changes. It is only by this exercise that we are able to ensure that we have a good, safe, reliable product.

  185. You are fairly confident that they will be in service by February 2002? How confident are you?
  (Mr Carroll) That is the current agreement with Alstrom. We have reviewed their delivery schedules to get to that point and those seem robust. I have been accused of making various promises which have not been delivered, so I am far more cautious than I was in the last 12 months. We believe that February and May into a timetabled service is a realistic and deliverable option.

  186. Will their arrival improve the evening service and will they reduce journey times to Cardiff and Swansea?
  (Mr Carroll) The new trains will be very much used between London and Cardiff, not beyond Cardiff in the short time, so I think we will see overall improvements from Cardiff to London.

  187. What timescale are we talking about to reduce journey times?
  (Mr Carroll) I have not got a number of minutes but we are talking about a number of minutes either way for the journey time between Cardiff and London.

  188. We understand that the more expensive tilting trains to be introduced by Virgin on similar routes, if applied to the South Wales routes, would have reduced journey times. Is this the case, in your view?
  (Mr Carroll) No.

  189. Why?
  (Mr Carroll) The tilting train and the capability of the tilt is specifically advantageous on a rail route that curves. We are fortunate that Brunel, in building the Great Western main line, built a straight line. The tilt opportunity would not create major benefit. The journey time benefit from Great Western is to improve the track dynamics and capability of the track. That does not need straightening out, because essentially it is generally a straight route.

  190. You disagree?
  (Mr Carroll) Yes.

  191. Why has the half hourly service on the Cardiff to London route been interfered with so that there are now gaps even during the day? Was this to service the Bristol and west of England market at the expense of South Wales maybe?
  (Mr Carroll) No, it is completely the opposite.

  192. Could you explain?
  (Mr Carroll) We had a franchise obligation to introduce a half hourly service between Cardiff and London from May of this year. That required a number of extra trains being operated each day, both to London and from London to Cardiff. In doing that, we hoped that we would have our new trains available to provide that extra capacity. We did not and, as a result, we decided to redeploy high speed trains from the south west, serving Cornwall and Devon, to South Wales to give us that extra capacity and to introduce the half hourly service. That is what we did from May. We quickly established that the timetable we introduced was incapable of being delivered in a reliable fashion each day and, in agreement with the Strategic Rail Authority, we agreed to cancel five trains in total each day to give us some spare capacity on those particular services. It still means that South Wales is getting more trains from May than before. They get seven extra trains in one direction and six in another. They get slightly fewer than was originally planned That is only a temporary agreement with the Strategic Rail Authority and we will go back to the full half hourly service, which does operate during the main peak during the day, as soon as our new trains become available.

  193. I am reliably informed that there are no 8.55, 9.55, 1655 or 1855 trains in the current timetable, although they were timetabled initially.
  (Mr Carroll) They are the only four that are not operating. If one looks through the rest of the timetable, there is a regular, half hourly frequency pattern from Cardiff to London and from London to Cardiff. Those trains will be reintroduced as soon as we have the new trains giving us that capacity and they are reliably entered into service.

  194. What lessons have you learned, because you did publicise the fact that "you can travel every half hour from Cardiff to London." That was your promotional sentence.
  (Mr Carroll) One of the lessons that we are all learning is that the Great Western zone is currently running 30 per cent more trains today than it did in 1994/5. If one takes overall the number of trains that are running, freight trains and passenger trains, it is something like 30 per cent more than five or six years ago. The infrastructure is exactly the same as it was five or six years ago. There has been no more track built. There is no passing loop. We are trying to run a lot more trains. The plans are to run more trains in the future. Virgin are running trains to Cardiff planned for next year, using existing infrastructure. The difficulty that presents is you either try to run more trains with the risks in terms of reliability of performance when something goes wrong, when there is a track or train failure; or you try to design a timetable that will deliver a much higher standard of reliability for the customer so that you can plan your journey with some confidence. That may mean a curtailment in trains in the future beyond what is currently being planned.

  195. The operating companies including yourselves knew full well what the state of the track was before you produced your timetable.
  (Mr Carroll) I am not sure we did understand what the capability of the track was in terms of reliability. A year and a half ago, no one knew anything about gauge corner cracking and the difficulties that would present for the rail industry over the last 12 months. I still believe that we are seeing, when there is a delay, when there is a fault on the track or a train, far more serious delays than we used to see because there are m ore trains around and therefore a knock on effect for any failure is far more significant than we used to have. There is a debate with the Strategic Rail Authority as to how does one plan a timetable that delivers the improvements in terms of frequency of service that we have talked about but also has in-built a level of reliability that the customer expects. At the moment, I feel we are running more trains but if one looks at how many of those are running on time the percentage is reducing.

  196. Mr Ben Davies talked about information on the trains now, telling you which stations are approaching and so on. I travelled on one of your trains two weeks ago and when we got to Bangor Station the announcement said, "You are now approaching Llanarechen Station(?)" and we had passed that a few minutes ago. We do understand that you are doing your best to alleviate those problems.
  (Mr Ben Davies) On the integration side, in Bangor in particular, I believe we now have real time information for the buses as well. As customers come off the station, we have real time bus information at Bangor City. At Aberconwy Council, First North Western are having a bus/rail interchange built this coming January. All buses in the Aberconwy area will call at Llandudno Junction Station, so you can either get off the bus onto the train or off the train onto the bus to go to Llandudno or the Valley and likewise with the Snowdon Sherpa. We are working with local councils, to take the point earlier about liaisons with local councils. We sit down almost every four or six weeks with local councils. We are sitting down with the local council next week to look at the development of the port at Holyhead.

Adam Price

  197. A combination of problems of reliability in terms of rail services—customer disbenefit, I think it is called—has meant that there has been a falling off of members using the rail service. I saw a figure last week that in the six weeks following Railtrack being put into administration something like two million people have opted for other forms of transport. Have you any figures on the Welsh services in terms of any falling off in numbers following the administration order?
  (Mr Carroll) The reality for us is that the volume of customer usage is roughly where it was two years ago. Therefore, two years ago, the railways were growing in quite a dynamic fashion and we were talking about five per cent growth in volume and income terms. The events of the last two years, which are a combination of the safety issues with the terrible Ladbroke Grove disaster and then the Hatfield crash and the gauge corner cracking which was a national epidemic afterwards, have seen rail patronage, particularly on the leisure side, the customer who is making a non-critical journey and has other options, move away. That is the concern we have. Our marketing activity in terms of special promotions and advantageous pricing is very much geared to winning those customers back.

Mr Caton

  198. You said that your new trains will only be running between Cardiff and London. When are we going to see better trains going west of Cardiff?
  (Mr Carroll) That is an issue for franchise extension and possibly refranchising.

  199. We are talking way past 2006 then?
  (Mr Carroll) The opportunity that a franchise extension presents for the customers and for the community of Wales is that, instead of waiting for 2006, there is no reason why a franchise extension of two years could not be negotiated within the next year, with obligations to bring forward investment far earlier. That is part of the negotiation. My earlier point around the benefits of a two year extension is that one could see things and not have to wait until 2006 and beyond for those benefits.

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