Railways

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There is no intention to make some smaller schemes interoperable, and there would probably be no economic benefit in doing so in the case of a small branch line that needed improvements made to itself or its bridges. In certain cases, we may request derogation, so we may not have to apply the interoperability rules. It would be extraordinary if a major construction was not interoperable, but that would depend on the scheme itself and the uses that the persons promoting it had in mind.

Mr. Pickles: May I give the Minister a chance to clarify a point he made to the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green)? The Minister said that the Cullen recommendation on train protection would be in force in a little while. A rather primitive train protection system will be in operation, but I remind him that Lord Cullen recommended that we go for the European rail traffic management system. He recommended level 1, but the Commission for Integrated Transport and the SRA suggest that that should be abandoned and that we should move towards level 2. However, that would not come about until 2017. Given that the ERTMS is conditional on receiving aid from the European Union, will he clearly state the Government's position on advanced train protection?

Mr. Jamieson: The position is as I set it out to the hon. Member for Ludlow—a recommendation has been made to the HSC. The Government also have the documents before the Committee. I dare say that, in a short time, the commission will make recommendations to the Secretary of State. We shall make our decision in the context of the documents before us.

Improving and maintaining safety is an absolute priority, but we must do that cost-effectively. We must consider the economics to ensure that we do not place too great a burden on the industry, because it is perfectly possible that putting safety systems in place on the rail system could impose such a burden that freight may be driven back on to the roads. That could be even more dangerous and cause more casualties, so we must weigh the matter carefully, both generally and in terms of the whole European package.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster: The White Paper's objectives are clearly credible, in so far as the purpose is to move traffic from road to rail—the Government are leading on that. I suggest to the Minister that the most obvious place to put that into practice is the south coast, where we have no option but to look to rail because further use of the road network is impossible for environmental reasons. The map on page 35 of the White Paper seems to show no strategic links across the south of Britain. Should that problem be considered in a European dimension, or is it wholly a matter for the Government?

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Mr. Jamieson: We very much welcome the move within the European package to get traffic from road to rail. My hon. Friend is probably aware that we lead in Europe in the grants that we have given to facilitate both that and, on occasion, transportation on water, either by sea or inland waterway. We still have responsibility for the internal network, but any decisions that we take would more sensibly be made in the context of the European package. However, if I understand him correctly, it will be for the United Kingdom and our industry to make decisions, and recommendations may be made to the SRA. That will be very much a matter for the United Kingdom, just as it will be for other member states to develop their rail systems as appropriate.

Matthew Green: I return once again to the introduction of TPS by the end of 2003. What advice have the Government received about whether it will lead to lower rail capacity and whether it could push more people on to the roads, thereby increasing road accident rates, which could lead to a higher overall death rate?

Mr. Jamieson: I alluded to that a moment ago. I do not think that we expect that from the TPWS—the train protection and warning system. If we went for the whole European rail traffic management system package, we would certainly have that capacity, mainly for economic reasons.

Our network is different from those of other European countries, because it is highly concentrated. The west coast and east coast main lines in particular are highly complex, with freight, local and inter-city trains all running on the same tracks. As soon as we upgraded one part of the line, we would have to upgrade all the trains in the system, the cost of which could be enormous. As I said to the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), if we went to extremes with the upgrading, traffic could be pushed on to the roads for economic reasons, which would cause greater casualty rates. Therefore, we must weigh those matters carefully.

Lawrie Quinn: I endorse the Minister's comments about the complexities of operational railways, especially in the south-east, where three or four different types of railway are operating at once.

That leads me on to my question, which relates to the application of development and safety management. The responsibility for safety cases rests with Railtrack. What discussions has the Minister had with Railtrack about the documents that we are debating? Will any improvements be made to its approval system for safety cases? Perfectly reasonable new stock is awaiting safety approval by Railtrack before it can be brought into service. Consumers are desperately in need of the services, so can we speed up safety cases without compromising safety?

Mr. Jamieson: Obviously, we have had discussions on all such matters with Railtrack and all the other

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bodies involved, as my hon. Friend would expect. I agree that the wait for safety case approval is frustrating, and we must be mindful of the possibility that the directives may slow down or inhibit the approval of safety cases. Under the new regime, however, the HSE will have to approve each safety case, and we want to ensure that it has the resources and facilities to do so expeditiously.

In the longer term, an advantage of the policy is that rolling stock will be common and standard throughout Europe. That is for the long term, but it may ease some of the technical problems of approval to which my hon. Friend alluded.

Mr. Hoban: May I take the Minister back to the answers he gave to questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar and the hon. Member for Ludlow? The Railway Forum estimated the cost of the directives at £3 billion. Is that the cost that he objects to imposing on the railway companies?

Mr. Jamieson: That is one of the costs that has been mentioned. The overall cost will depend on the level at which the system is implemented across the network, and the cost to which the hon. Gentleman alludes is simply one of the estimates.

We shall have to consider the costs carefully, and weigh them against the benefits. The Transport Sub-Committee made that point. As I said to the hon. Member for Ludlow, the potential cost of fitting a safety system throughout the whole network is substantially more than £3 billion. Someone said that it might cost the Government's entire budget for a whole year, and indeed, the cost could be ludicrous if we chose that approach.

Matthew Green: Following on from the question asked by the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban), may I ask where the money will come from to cover the cost of implementing the measures? Does the Minister expect the private sector and the train operating companies to bear the brunt? How much Government assistance will be given as a proportion of the whole?

Mr. Jamieson: Most of the cost of the purchase of the rolling stock will be borne by the industry.

Lawrie Quinn: The Minister will doubtless recognise the problems caused by skill shortages in the UK railway industry. The phenomenon exists across Europe, too. With the enlargement of the European Union, there will be a tendency for new contractors and people to come across from the new entrant countries. What is being done with new entrant countries, bearing in mind the fact that their railways have different standards and a different culture of safety?. I am particularly mindful of contractors involved in infrastructure improvements and civil engineering projects on our railways.

Mr. Jamieson: My hon. Friend raises two important points, the first of which is the skills shortage, which we are addressing but which is a

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problem across the transport industry and perhaps many other industries in this country. As our economy has picked up—it is the most successful in Europe—skills shortages have developed in some industries. We are addressing that, but it would be as well for the industry to do so as well. The Government are playing their part but the industry should do something about its image.

Incidentally, I recently attended the commercial vehicle motor show with the Road Haulage Association, which is putting on workshops for children in schools to raise awareness of the transport industry. We had discussions about children going into professions on the railways as well as on the roads.

My hon. Friend raised an important point about European Union accession states. We are mindful that a number of countries are now moving into a position from which they may be able to join the EU. We have several twinning projects under way between this country and the accession states that address some of his concerns. Other twinning projects that may address some of those important matters are in the pipeline.

The thrust of the interoperability directive is to raise standards to the best possible level. It is my ambition to raise standards of rolling stock, the running of the trains and the personnel on them to the highest levels. Where safety cases are made, we want to ensure that we do not reduce existing UK standards or allow new standards to be set that are below existing standards.

Mr. Pickles: The Commission talks about giving precedence to the most cost-effective investment according to the principle of interoperability. How will that be implemented? Will investment have to be cost-effective for the Commission, the Government or the railway companies? It might be helpful if the Minister were to illustrate his response by telling the Committee at what point a regional railway line would meet the standards.

Mr. Jamieson: Investment would have to be cost-effective in achieving the ambitions set out in the communication—

Mr. Pickles: Cost-effective for whom?

Mr. Jamieson: For the industry, the countries and the economy. Those issues would have to be considered. The investment would be considered cost-effective to the extent that it reached the objectives set out in the communication.

Lawrie Quinn: The Minister will know of the different track gauges at the frontiers of Europe. There is a difference in track gauge between Spain and France, to which the European transport White Paper referred. Work is under way to build a standard-gauge route through to Barcelona. Will the spending required to implement such projects come from the national Governments or the

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operators? Will taxpayers across Europe have to cough up so that, for example, people from Scarborough and Whitby are supporting railways in Seville?

Mr. Jamieson: I certainly hope that the good constituents of Scarborough and Whitby, whom my hon. Friend represents assiduously, would not have to pay the bill for co-ordinating the gauges between France and Spain. Countries such as Spain, Portugal and France will have to address such issues nationally.

I await correction on this point, and if there is some other information I will ensure that my hon. Friend gets it, but I think it probable that only if such a project were part of the trans-European networks, or TENs, for which the funding comes from the European Union, would it be possible for it to be underwritten. I will ensure that that matter is teased out, because I would not want the good constituents of Scarborough and Whitby to be in any way disadvantaged.

Norman Lamb: May I take the Minister back to his response to my question about the time scale for implementing the Cullen recommendation on an independent investigation body? I entirely understood why he said that it was important that whatever we do ties in with the overall European picture, but I am concerned that the time scale of the package of proposals from Europe will slow down the implementation of some vital recommendations in the Cullen report in this country. What are the Government doing to speed up the process of reaching a conclusion on the proposals? The way things normally work with European institutions it could be a long time before anything concrete emerges, and that could slow down the process of achieving safety improvements in this country.

Mr. Jamieson: I understand the hon. Gentleman's question. He rightly implies that some urgency is necessary in addressing the matter. To set up the body to which he refers would require primary legislation, and the Queen's Speech announced that in this Session the Government would publish proposals for implementing the Cullen recommendations that would require primary legislation. We will publish a consultation paper in the next few months, but as the hon. Gentleman knows, the timing of the legislation will depend on the availability of parliamentary time. It is our ambition to seek to allocate some of that time at an early opportunity.

 
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Prepared Wednesday 8 May 2002