Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1020
TUESDAY 12 DECEMBER 2000
CBE, AND MR
1020. Railtrack is demanding that somebody builds
a test track.
(Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) Various options are
being looked at as to how we could improve the testing on track
before they are put into service.
(Mr Linnard) One of the things that the SRA were asked
to do about a month ago was to set up a group, which became five
sub-groups under a steering group chaired by Sir Alastair Morton,
to look at various structural problems within the industry, not
in terms of whether Railtrack ought to be split up, or anything
like that, but what has been described as the sore points, contractual,
regulatory problems within the industry. One of those groups has
been looking specifically at vehicle acceptance and reliability
and the fact that a lot of the new rolling-stock is not
1021. It is a little late, is it not, Mr Linnard,
because these problems have existed for, certainly, the last two
years, to my knowledge?
(Mr Linnard) The problems have existed. The Strategic
Rail Authority were asked about 18 months ago to set up a group
with rolling-stock manufacturers, leasing company train operators,
which they have done and which has produced some good results
in terms of speeding up delivery.
1022. Has it got any more rolling-stock on to
the rails that are producing good results?
(Mr Linnard) It has speeded up the delivery of some
rolling-stock, yes, but there are still problems. One of the problems,
as the Minister said, is the fact that when the stock does come
out of the production line it does not operate reliably enough.
1023. Everyone in the rail industry operates
existing rolling-stock on the assumption that the way to find
out if there are any problems is to run the equipment over the
first year before they accepted delivery, deal with the manufacturers,
put them into operation and when they are only working properly
then to accept delivery. This is not a new problem, it has existed
in the rail industry since the original George Stevenson was at
the game. Now suddenly it is being extended by Railtrack.
(Mr Linnard) If I can respond to that, I do not think
it is a new problem that has been discovered. What is, undoubtedly,
true is because of the intensity of use on the network, with the
growth that has happened over the last three or four years, the
effect of a breakdown is much more serious on a lot of crowded
commuter lines than it used to be.
1024. When you were talking to Sir Richard did
he indicate to you that Alstom, who have something to do with
these trains, have been granted a variation order to defer the
delivery of these trains? Were you aware of that?
(Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) No, I was not, no.
Chairman: Perhaps you would like to talk to
the Italians, who deliver them without any trouble at all.
1025. The figure is something like a four month
delay. In private conversation with train operating companies
I am sure you get a different response than you will probably
in public. As far as the service that they get from Railtrack
is concerned there seems to almost be intimidation in terms of
the way that Railtrack almost coerces the rail operating companies
into lying. Can you just confirm that some of the operating companies
themselves have made representations to you to suggest that Railtrack
is broken up and they, in fact, as franchisees will be given the
responsibility of the maintenance of the Railtrack?
(Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) Some of the work that
we did after the Paddington disaster was looking at the relationship
between the train operating companies and Railtrack. We had heard
about concerns that Railtrack were less than responsive to the
needs of the TOCs. The work that we did showed no conclusive evidence
of that. In reading what the Regulator had to say when he came
to see you, he too had not had complaints of intimidation, as
I recall him saying.
1026. He did make a pretty firm statement about
the need for a change of attitude.
(Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) It was very much a change
of attitude, because we do believe that Railtrack has to focus
much more on its customers, the train operating companies and
their customers and the passenger. So, yes, it does need a change
of culture, and from everything we hear from the new management
they are intent on delivering that.
1027. The problem is that this crisis is almost
open-ended as to when it is going to come to a conclusion. Are
you saying it is going to be by Easter?
(Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I am saying that very
significant changes are promised by the end of January. There
will be a post Christmas/New Year schedule brought in on 8 January
and then another schedule on 29 January, according to the last
information I was given by Railtrack. At that point we will have
had, "A very significant improvement", I quote their
1028. The problem is that in using your statistics,
as you did when asked the question, they are almost fundamentally
flawed. You are using changed timetables to come to the conclusions
that you have. These changed timetables have added as much as
an hour or two hours on to a journey. The airlines have done that
for years, it is the oldest trick in the game to extend the period
between A and B in terms of time and then to suggest to the travelling
public that things are improving when in actual fact they are
(Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) Please let me be clear,
these are not my statistics, they are statistics delivered by
Railtrack and by the train operating companies. The levels of
punctuality that we were talking about, the percentage of normal
services running are percentages of that original timetable. The
punctuality is compared with the current timetable.
1029. That is a problem, because if you are
dealing with the current, which has been elongated over a period
of time, you are not dealing with a situation that was invoked
six months ago, where the timetable was much adjusted to what
it is today. That is the problem with your statistics.
(Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) Again not my statistics,
these are the TOCs' statistics.
1030. But it is fundamentally warped by virtue
of the fact that it is not looking at it on the basis of like
(Mr Linnard) Could I explain what I understand Railtrack
to be saying when they say services will be "substantially
back to normal by the end of January". What they are saying
is that compared with the normal timetables, the pre-Hatfield
timetables, well over half the services will be running to these
timetables, ie, within the normal tolerances, and for the remaining
services, on the Anglo-Scottish inter-city routes all the services
will be running within 45 minutes of the normal timetable, and
on the inter-city routes all the services will be running within
30 minutes of the normal timetable.
1031. But they already are much longer. The
point Mr Donohoe is making is very straightforward. Originally
the line between Crewe and London ran trains at one hour 50 minutes.
Of course that was under British Rail. Then it went to two hours.
Last Friday, for my sins, it went to three and a quarter hours
and somebody went from London to Crewe yesterday was and it three
and three-quarter hours. Frankly, coming and saying we are within
X degrees of getting somewhere near the present timetable is a
load of nonsense, is it not? There are vast numbers of people
travelling in every day and travelling into areas where there
are vast numbers of problems who will not recognise that as any
kind statistic at all.
(Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) The speed restrictions
are there because engineers have found cracks in the rail. It
is not, surely, for government or a select committee to put pressure
on the people at the rail level to say "lift those restrictions
and get us running on time" if there is a safety risk.
1032. Not one member of this Committee has suggested
that to you. You gave us the figures and you said, "This
is what these kind gentlemen have told me. This is how it is all
going to be alright. This is the future. These are the figures."
All I am saying to you is unless we can agree the baseline there
is absolutely no point in saying by Easter (which is what we are
talking about) we ought to be back to a timetable. Whose timetable
and under what circumstances and how many hours are we talking
(Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) Madam Chairman, we have
round the table a number of times a week the Health and Safety
Executive and Railtrack and the other bodies involved in this
to try and ensure that we find the quickest route to run a safe
railway. We want to lift the speed restrictions as quickly as
possible but we have to be aware that they are there because rails
are said to be cracked and dangerous.
1033. Lord Macdonald, you have heard of the
expression "it will never get better if you pick it."
Do you think that the rail industry, over and above all the other
industries we have privatised, has been subjected to an extra
special set of standards and complications, that is to say is
it a political football and is that the problem?
(Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I suspect that one of
the problems is that the railway was broken into too many pieces
and therefore for all those pieces to be put together again you
need more complex structures than might have been the case if
it had been done in a different way.
1034. Do you accept that it must be one of the
most heavily regulated of the so-called deregulated industries.
After all, we deregulated many inefficient public industries,
the car industry, British Airways, and all the rest of it but
without setting these impossible standards for them. Do you think
the railways are subjected to something over and above what might
reasonably be considered acceptable?
(Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I do not think they
are impossible standards but they are standards of service that
can only be reached with a considerable investment from the government.
The aim that you could eliminate all subsidy from the railway
was incorrect. The belief that railways were at best static and
probably in inexorable decline, which was the basis on which many
judgments were made, turned out to be wrong and therefore the
subsidies put in place at privatisation have had to be enhanced
because of the increasing demand and because of our belief that
there should be an expanding social railway in this country and
that fares should be at an affordable level against other comparative
forms of travel. So for all those reasons I think we have to have
regulation in place to say that public money is well spent or
better spent than it has been.
1035. But there are so many bodies regulating
with a finger in the pie. Under your description of the Rail Recovery
Action Group, we have a list of half a dozen or more organisations
who all have a finger in the pie of whether or not the railways
are considered to be operating satisfactorily. How do you run
a business with all these public bodies constantly coming in and
poking their noses into what you are trying to run?
(Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) That is the nature of
trying to run a business in a regulated environment and that has
been my particular business experience. I am sure that you would
welcome the fact that, for instance, the Rail Passengers' Council
has some say now in how the railways are run and that has been
strengthened, I am sure, through the good works of this Committee
in its preparation of the railways part of the Transport Bill
and I am sure, too, that a Strategic Rail Authority is something
that this Committee endorsed because of the direction it could
give to the expansion and development of the railway. I believe,
too, that the Health and Safety Executive has a role round that
table because of the concerns, which again I am sure have been
echoed in this Committee, about safety on the railways in the
last two or three years. I do not see that one would willingly
exclude any of those parties from the discussion of how best to
run a railway, but I agree with you that there should not be too
many distractions for a management. The reason we have got this
group is to get people round the table so that they can all talk
without having separate meetings and in that way distracting Railtrack's
management from the real job which is getting the railway running
again as quickly as possible.
1036. Do you think you should judge an industry
partly on the degree to which the public is willing to patronise
it, in which case the railways are doing a good job because they
have added to the number of people using their services over the
period of four years since they were privatised or semi-privatised?
(Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I agree it was very
encouraging to see the number of passengers using rail before
Hatfield at the highest it had ever been since 1947. You can see
in our ten-year plan our political decision to invest in that
welcome change by taking the increase up from the 25 per cent
or so that we have had since privatisation in terms of an increase
up to another 50 per cent beyond that.
1037. Do you believe it is the public that is
making this fuss or the opinion formers?
(Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I think it is a very
understandable shared concern and clearly the public, those involved
in travelling by the railway, will have every right to be very
frustrated and vocal about it, and it is not surprising at all
that the media should echo that.
1038. We do not all go mad if one aeroplane
falls out of the sky and impose the standards that we are now
doing with the railway and check every single aeroplane causing
chaos for so many individuals. My point is are we not trying to
make the railway do something which we do not expect of other
aspects of travel?
(Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I hope our reaction
is not disproportionate. We know the public concern there was
after Paddington and there has been after Hatfield and we will
try to respond to that, I hope in proportionate way, but there
is no doubt at all that the public concern that has been expressed
in Parliament and in the media has contributed to the concern
that Railtrack rightly have about the dangers of gauge corner
cracking. One hopes that they will be able to get reassurance
from the expert studies that are being delivered and from the
closer relationship with HSE under they aegis of government and
regulators and that they will be able to make judgments about
the balance of risk involved. There is always a balance of risk.
I do not think anybody would expect to run anything as complicated
as a railway with 20,000 miles of track, 90,000 staff and 18,000
train services per day running on it without accidents, but it
is our job obviously to try and minimise those accidents.
Mrs Gorman: Can I say one thing to compliment
you on the fact that recently you made a very sensible remark
about the railways and the reaction of people. You implied that
this industry was not so much in chaos but that people were panicking
about it, that is the big difference. Is it not true that in the
four years since privatisation two of them have not had a single
accident involving rail where more than five people were injured
or in any other way harmed by it?
1039. We can be kind to you, Lord Macdonald.
(Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) Of course it was a cause
of great satisfaction for the railways when they had those years
with no accidents at all but, of course, we have had three very
serious accidents in recent years and we have to be concerned
about any reoccurrence of that, particularly if there is any suggestion
that bad maintenance or management of the railways is in any way
contributing to that. I think what we found after the accidents
at Southall, Paddington, and now at Hatfield, is that safety on
the railways does repay greater investment and greater scrutiny.
You will be aware that we are committed to putting new train protection
systems across the network.