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Session 2001-02
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Standing Committee Debates


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European Standing Committee A

Wednesday 8 May 2002

[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair]


[Relevant document: European Union document No. 11932/01, Commission White Paper: European Transport Policy for 2010: "Time to decide".]

10.30 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson):First, may I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. O'Hara? You and I have shared many happy hours in Committee Rooms over the past decade, but this is the first time that we have shared a Room with you in the Chair, and I am pleased to do so.

The Committee recently debated the Commission's broad policy framework for transport set out in last year's White Paper, which established the context for the proposals for the rail sector. However, I welcome the opportunity to debate them further. The Government share the Commission's objective of seeking to enhance the role of the railways in our transport system through the promotion of greater efficiency and higher quality services. Those proposals build on measures previously agreed by the Council and the European Parliament to open the railways to greater competition, underpinned by technical measures to ensure fair and effective rights of access.

The Council's consideration is still at an early stage, and we want to take account of the opinions of interested parties before we finalise our views. We can welcome much in the package, however. In particular, we support the proposal to complete rail freight liberalisation. Since the rail freight market in Great Britain was liberalised, we have experienced strong growth—among the highest in the European Union. The proposals would provide welcome additional pressure for a more commercial approach by incumbent rail freight operators on the continent.

The package contains important proposals on safety regulation, interoperability and the establishment of a European Railway Agency. The objectives of the proposals—ensuring that safety is regulated transparently and fairly, and that enhanced rights of access to the whole EU rail network are not frustrated by technical barriers—are entirely sound. However, we start from a position of disparate national systems. Harmonisation of standards and methods could impose significant costs, as well as

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delivering benefits. Also, we should recall that the industry is heavily subsidised by Europe's taxpayers.

The Transport Sub-Committee's recent report on the European transport White Paper criticised the Commission's failure to assess the costs of its proposals. We share those concerns. We shall press for a fuller explanation of the costs and benefits of the technical proposals for the rail sector.

The package also suggests that the Community accede to the convention concerning international carriage by rail—the COTIF convention. That rational and welcome proposal reflects the reality of where competence on some matters addressed in the new COTIF convention lies.

The Commission's communication also indicates its intention to make further proposals to enhance the quality of freight and passenger rail services in the next three years. We shall engage constructively with the Commission as it develops its ideas.

I hope that those remarks are a helpful introduction to the debate, and I look forward to responding to it.

The Chairman: We have until 11.30 for questions to the Minister, which should be asked briefly and one at a time. Each member of the Committee is likely to have ample opportunity to ask several questions.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): I also welcome you, Mr. O'Hara, although I think that this is the third occasion on which I have served under your chairmanship. It is always a pleasure.

I want to ask the Minister a general question, of which I gave him notice before the Committee began, about how the documents fit in with the Cullen report and the role of the Health and Safety Executive. The Minister knows what I want, and I am sure that he will oblige.

Mr. Jamieson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his question, which raises a point that is key to our consideration of the documents. As he knows, the Cullen report proposed that there should be an independent body to investigate rail accidents—that is, independent of the rail industry and the safety regulator. I think that it was to be called the rail accident investigation branch, which would be akin to the marine accident investigation branch and the air accidents investigation branch, which have proved to be very good at conducting independent investigations. We welcome that proposal in the Cullen report, as it fits in with Government thinking.

The Cullen report also proposed that there should be a rail industry safety body. The current equivalent is called Railway Safety, a company in the Railtrack group. We do not want to stand in the way of the creation of a new rail industry safety body, but there would be differences in its relationship with the HSE. At the moment, the HSE approves safety cases that come before it and it can make objections, but in

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future, each train operating company would have to seek authorisation from the HSE to go ahead with safety cases. The rail industry safety body would then have a different relationship with the HSE. The documents contain many safety proposals that chime well with the Cullen proposals, and which we broadly welcome.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): It is again a pleasure to see you in charge of us, Mr. O'Hara, in this Committee which now seems to sit almost every week, but not always under your great guidance. I cannot recall whether you are a member of the all-party railways group, which I chair, but I think that everyone in Europe would say amen to the theory of free movement of goods and people on the railways. The current problems of access for freight from this country to the continent and vice versa are a chronic impediment to that, especially considering the ongoing problems at Sangatte and the difficulties with the French Republic's adherence to the principles that we are discussing.

The Minister is probably aware that the freight company English, Welsh & Scottish Railway has lodged a complaint with the Commission. Will he give the Committee an update on what his Department is doing to support that complaint, and does he have any information about the position taken by the Foreign Office in representations to the French Republic?

Mr. Jamieson: I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important point. The problem frustrates freight operating companies, and we, too, are deeply frustrated by our apparent limited ability to affect events there. There has been some reduction in the number of clandestines coming to the United Kingdom in recent months, but large numbers are still entering by train. Some are getting on trains some distance from France, and others may even be boarding in Italy and countries a considerable distance from the channel tunnel. We continue to make representations to the French Government, and we shall immediately seek discussions with the new French Transport Minister, once that person has been identified and taken office.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe will meet the French ambassador today to update him on the ongoing situation. The matter causes great frustration to us, and we are dealing with it daily. We want the companies that are suffering financial loss and loss of business to take up the measures available to them through the Commission and to seek redress through legal means.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I dare say that there is no simple and easy short-term solution, but I assure him that we are doing everything we can to deal with this important matter.

Matthew Green (Ludlow): I draw the Minister's attention to the advanced version of the train protection system. I understand that European ideas

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for the system that would operate on the trans-European rail network are not entirely compatible with proposals in this country. Will he elaborate on what progress has been made on plans for integration with the European proposals?

Mr. Jamieson: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that Cullen recommended fitting a system, and that recommendation will probably be implemented by the end of next year. The Health and Safety Commission has since received recommendations on the European rail traffic management system, and it is up to the commission to consider those, although it received them only on 25 April. It must then make recommendations to the Secretary of State, and we shall act on them.

We must consider several issues, however, including the safety case and the value of any proposal, which means that there must be a cost-benefit analysis. Like all other member states, we must also consider what systems and lines any proposals fit with to see whether they chime with the idea of interoperability across the European Union. We are therefore at an early stage, but we must be mindful of the fact that this country's actions should make it possible for freight to move in the way that we want and for a free and liberal market to be set up.

The underlying message in the hon. Gentleman's question is the possibility of incompatible systems, of which we shall obviously be mindful. As the directives go through the relevant processes, we shall deal with the issues that I outlined, both in the European context and internally.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): The European Rail Agency seems to be an excellent proposition. Is it, like the Strategic Rail Authority, intended to provide a strategic plan? If so, what will be its relationship with the SRA? Will it have teeth and produce lines?

Mr. Jamieson: No, the situation is not quite what my hon. Friend suggests. The ERA will be a technical, advisory body to the Commission. It will contain people from the industry, and will be a fountain of good technical expertise. Any advice that it gives will go through the Commission, and it will not have a direct relationship with bodies in this country. Indeed, those bodies will have a high degree of subsidiarity when carrying out their work.

We welcome the establishment of the ERA. We would like one or two things to be changed, although those will be negotiated with time. Generally, however, we welcome the idea because of the great potential for savings in the context of interoperability through, for example, joint technical standards and the common production of rolling stock. Some economies of scale that may flow from the ERA and the interoperability directive could be considered an advantage. However, I am mindful that we could also incur considerable costs, so we must weigh matters carefully.

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Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham): I draw the Minister's attention to the safety White Paper, which implies that witnesses who give evidence in railway accident investigations should be given immunity. Does he support that recommendation?

Mr. Jamieson: Yes, I think that that is right. It is the practice of other investigation bodies. The investigation would be separate from any prosecution that took place. We want people to feel that they can speak freely when they give evidence to the investigation body. If they do not have that feeling, a proper investigation cannot take place.

Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green): Are there any exceptions to rail freight liberalisation? I am thinking particularly of the spent nuclear waste freight that has blighted my constituency for some time.

Mr. Jamieson: The simple answer is no.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk): I take the Minister back to his first answer on how these matters tie in with the Cullen report and, in particular, the proposal to set up an independent rail accident investigation body. Some time has passed since the Cullen report, so will the Minister say when such a body will be established?

Mr. Jamieson: Because this European package is before us, we must work with it. Doing anything separately and independently at the moment would be ill advised. The measures identified here will be rolled out in the next few years, depending on the progress that they make in the European Union. Our ambition is to have the body in place as soon as possible.

Lawrie Quinn: I do not want to be too technical, but I was a chartered civil engineer before entering Parliament and I worked in railways for most of my life, so I shall take the Minister gently through my question. The aim of the documents is interoperability and the biggest impediment to that in this country, compared with the rest of Europe, is non-compliance with the Berne gauge, which concerns the clearance distance from structures such as tunnel walls, bridges and so on.

There is an SRA proposal to consider a new-build railway through the centre of Britain. Will the Minister say whether that new infrastructure would have to be interoperable, and would therefore have to be built to the Berne gauge? What would be the consequences for operations in this country?

Mr. Jamieson: I thank my hon. Friend for not being too technical. People imagine that the problem of gauge involves the line itself, but of course the size of bridges and tunnels inhibits the free flow of trains throughout the European network. If a new scheme were being considered—either a substantial upgrade of an existing line or a totally new one—it would have to be interoperable with the freight services across Europe. It would be against the interests of those

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promoting such a line to construct one that was not interoperable with the rest of the European Union.


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Prepared Wednesday 8 May 2002