Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200 - 219)

TUESDAY 27 NOVEMBER 2001

MR MIKE CARROLL, MR JUSTIN DAVIES AND MR BEN DAVIES

Mr Prisk

  200. Could I turn to Cardiff Central Station which has enjoyed a recent refurbishment for, I am told, about £12 million or thereabouts? Could you clarify exactly the nature of your role as a business n those works and, in particular, in the design and improvement of designs involved?
  (Mr Carroll) For clarity, the station is owned by Railtrack, as are all stations. They are the landlords. We are the tenant and we lease the station for a commercial rent. We have worked very closely with Railtrack in the design feasibility of the overall station, in taking part in surveys to show what customer flows were and what future requirements were and in signing off those investment requirements. Some of the elements of that expenditure than get replayed back to Great Western in terms of the overall rent that we are paying Railtrack and they acknowledge the improvements that have been made in things like booking offices, the toilets in the waiting rooms and facilities like that.

  201. You said that you signed off the designs and so on. There are some specific things that have been raised by some of the submissions to this Committee. One is the simple practicality that if you stand at a taxi rank you stand outside the canopy that has been erected and enjoy the weather. Secondly, if the station is meant to be open access, the ticket barriers seem to be a makeshift set of trolleys or were at one stage. Was it not the aim of the station to be open? Could you comment on those two?
  (Mr Carroll) Taxis are a shortfall that you have identified.

  202. In a literal sense!
  (Mr Carroll) Yes. We will do something about that because it is unsatisfactory. The original design was that there was going to be a pull in of people waiting underneath the canopy. They do not and that is unsatisfactory. The introduction of automatic gates is a policy that has been taken forward by a number of train operating companies. The benefits are well recognised, both in terms of revenue protection and security. At locations where we have installed automatic gates, such as at Reading, they tend to deter some of the more unsavoury elements of people and vandalism and crime that do unfortunately tend to happen at railway stations. We have had a number of incidents of assaults to our staff at Cardiff. Some of them have been quite serious, as well as significant vandalism to the station in facilities that have recently been modernised. Therefore, we see automatic gates as being an improvement in that. We have to be very careful how we design and introduce those gates because the station was never designed for gates. There are key issues around access for disabled, access to lifts, provision of information, that will be taken into account in designing the final gates. It is also a listed building and therefore we have to be party to those requirements in introducing gates. We are still at a feasibility and design stage. We will be consulting with the Rail Passenger Committee and with other interested parties, particularly groups representing the disabled, in demonstrating to them that any future design of gates will not be a disadvantage to them.

  203. You mentioned the Rail Passenger Committee. There have been some reports that there have been attempts to prevent the Committee from conducting surveys at Cardiff Central Station. Could you say whether this is true and could you confirm that you are perfectly happy for the Rail Passenger Committee to conduct such surveys?
  (Mr Carroll) Yes. Members will be aware that First Great Western is subject to a special investigation being led by the Rail Passenger Committee. A request was made which was originally rejected but has subsequently been accepted for representatives of the Rail Passenger Committee to be present at stations and for leaflets to be distributed with posters advising customers of that special investigation so that they can make a contribution to that. That has now been agreed. We are waiting for the supply of those leaflets and posters and they will be erected, including at South Wales stations.

Albert Owen

  204. Going back to rolling stock, Wales and the Borders Trains told the Committee in February that they would have spare trains located strategically in case of failure or delay. Do you pursue such a policy?
  (Mr Carroll) Great Western does. The plan is to have one spare set throughout the day and that is strategically located in the west, at either Bristol or South Wales, during the morning and then in London in the afternoon. That is a reaction to cover the main flows of traffic and the increased capability that we require.
  (Mr Ben Davies) First North West is exactly the same. More often than not, we have a spare unit standing at Chester.

Mrs Williams

  205. Could I now turn to skills shortages, sometimes given as an excuse as to why trains cannot start on time. A skills shortage of drivers and sometimes maintenance staff has severely affected some services. We have read about various problems recently. The Transport Sub-Committee has identified the need to "improve the poor state of industrial relations in the railways." Do you as a train operator have problems in recruiting drivers or maintenance staff?
  (Mr Carroll) No. First Great Western have a policy of recruiting additional drivers at the moment to provide a spare capability. We are also recruiting extra maintenance staff at a number of our depots and we do not have difficulty in attracting or recruiting high quality candidates.

  206. Do I understand that sometimes Virgin Trains are able to look upon yourselves to find train drivers when they have difficulties?
  (Mr Carroll) There is a fair amount of circulation within the rail industry. Great Western benefits from the fact that drivers like to drive big, fast trains and therefore tend to be attracted towards companies like Great Western. It is also fair to say that there is a tradition of employment within Great Western because of the brand and the history of it, where we still are seen as an advantageous employer, where people are attracted to us.

Chairman

  207. God's wonderful railway?
  (Mr Carroll) Exactly.
  (Mr Ben Davies) We are very fortunate in North Wales. At Holyhead/Llandudno Junction in particular, we have strengthened the workforce, both drivers and conductors, and we have no problems at Chester.

Mrs Williams

  208. Do you take on apprenticeships these days and if so how many?
  (Mr Carroll) We take on trainee drivers.

  209. That is not quite the same, is it?
  (Mr Carroll) It takes over a year to train a Great Western driver and therefore it is a significant investment. We take on drivers on a very planned basis not only to manage natural changes such as retirement etc., but also we are now recruiting drivers for the new trains and the extra trains that will be running in 2002 and 2003. As far as apprenticeships in the maintenance side—here we mean the depot side—we have not taken on apprenticeships this year on the depot side, but it is something we are actively looking at now for next year.

  210. Going back to the two year franchise extensions, what impact will they have on your employees' job security and your ability to offer a long term contract of employment?
  (Mr Carroll) The employees are employees of the franchisee. Therefore, if someone was to come in and win the franchise after First, the employees would simply transfer to that new operator. Just as we are transferring the staff who work at Cardiff Station to the new Wales and Borders franchise, the reality is that it does not matter in a way who owns the franchise. We still need station staff; we still need drivers; we still need maintenance staff to run the train service. They will just continue to be transferred to whoever is running the station. That is not an issue.

  211. I am thinking of morale amongst workers. It is important that they get this message or they might be worried about their long term employment prospects.
  (Mr Carroll) Morale within the rail industry at the moment is more affected by the performance of the railways. From my understanding and time that I spend with our employees, their morale would substantially improved when we start running trains on time because clearly they are the face of the organisation in terms of customer service. They have to put up with and manage all the difficulties when trains run late. The morale that I see would be improved as train services are put at a higher level of reliability.

Mr Williams

  212. We have heard about your recruitment policy for drivers but in practice do you recruit drivers from other companies as well?
  (Mr Carroll) A bit of both. We do attract drivers from other trains companies without specifically trying to poach them. There is a natural progression from someone potentially working from Wales and the Borders driving small trains on Valley services or those sorts of services to then drive an Intercity train. We tend to attract people simply because they have the desire to do that and their families and generations before have done that. We still benefit from that sort of opportunity, but more and more we advertise for drivers in the open market place and we are more and more training drivers joining from other forms of employment.
  (Mr Ben Davies) We are quite fortunate in North Wales. We have drivers from other rail industries—in particular, Mersey Rail—and they do not want to go round the loop; they want to come round the main lines. One or two people want to come and live in North Wales and who can blame them? Predominantly, the drivers that we employ at my three depots come from, as I say, the back end. It is a progression either from the platform to a conductor or a conductor to a driver. That is a progression we have had over the last three or four years. We have not gone off the street yet because it is a natural progression for a railway person to be a driver.

  213. I have heard locally that some services have been curtailed in the area I represent because of lack of drivers. Would there be any benefit in having a whole railway service approach to recruitment and training of staff or is that something that could be looked at?
  (Mr Carroll) The rail industry has worked closely as an overall industry in trying to identify what the future needs of drivers are because it is a long term process, recruiting drivers, and there is no doubt that, with the planned increase in freight and services as part of the government's ten year strategy, we are going to need more and more drivers. We have been careful not to break any legal requirements, allowing the free flow of drivers from one company to another, because it is obviously a requirement that one cannot put up barriers. We are working together in understanding future needs. As far as training is concerned, there is work now being done in working much closer together in sharing the resources required for training. We do train Thames Trains drivers and I know there are other initiatives throughout the industry. Also, you will be aware that one of the recommendations of the Cullen Inquiry after Ladbroke Grove was to use simulators far more in training drivers. These are very expensive pieces of equipment and it is far better if trains companies work together, so we are actively working with Thames Trains and Railtrack to have a simulator at Paddington for all drivers to use, so I think there are moves in the right direction.

Albert Owen

  214. I did not hear if you did give a reply to the Transport Sub-Committee when they identified a need to improve the poor state of industrial relations. Would you say that industrial relations within the industry were poor?
  (Mr Carroll) I would not describe them as poor, no. We work within a framework where a vast majority of our employees are part of a trade union and represented by a trade union. That can create some challenges at times, but I would like to think that we have a very open dialogue with our trade unions. Our record as far as industrial action is very good. In the seven years I have been with Great Western Trains, I cannot remember a serious industrial dispute and we continue that dialogue for the overall benefit of the employees and the company.
  (Mr Ben Davies) It is very similar.

Adam Price

  215. It is a longstanding convention that Members of Parliament travel on the railways for free. Alas, the same cannot be said for our constituents. In January this year, we saw fares rise quite considerably across most of the Welsh railway services. Why was it necessary to raise fares above the rate of inflation this year?
  (Mr Carroll) Fares in the last 12 months throughout the rail industry, certainly within Great Western, have been frozen. There has been no or very little increase in fares. In this coming January, our main fare types for season tickets and leisure fares will not be going up again and that will give customers the benefit in due course of nearly two years without a fares increase. Your question is considering what has happened in the past. If one looks at a number of the different fares types, the fares have stayed the same or gone down. For reference, if one takes the Apex fare from Swansea to London, in 1996 that would cost £26. The fare today is £25.50. The fare has gone down 50p in five or six years. The main leisure fares are subject to an RPI minus two per cent formula so in real terms they are falling and will continue to fall.

  216. How much compensation will you receive from Railtrack for the disruption to your services?
  (Mr Carroll) The main compensation to trains companies from Railtrack comes in the form of contractual agreement as far as day to day delivery of the train services. If a train is delayed and that delay is down to an infrastructure failure, there is compensation for an element of the track access fee that we pay Railtrack to run that train itself. Those amounts are significant. At the moment, season ticket holders on Great Western are receiving a ten per cent discount because of poor performance. The levels of compensation that we are providing, the level of extra staff that we are generally providing because of poor levels of service, are not covered by the financial payments that we receive from Railtrack because of poor performance.

  217. Do you have a figure for the amount of compensation you have received to date?
  (Mr Carroll) No, I do not.

Chairman

  218. Is it possible to let the Committee know?
  (Mr Carroll) Yes.

Mrs Williams

  219. Quite a number of business people have asked me why you do not have first class accommodation on these 175 trains around London and the North Wales coast. People like to work as they are travelling and you do not offer that facility. Any plans to?
  (Mr Ben Davies) Not at the moment, no.


 
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