Examination of Witnesses (Questions 420-439)|
MP AND MR
WEDNESDAY 26 JUNE 2002
420. Are you satisfied that Virgin arbitrarily
redefined what constituted off-peak hours with the effect that
anybody going from Liverpool to London cannot get there before
the afternoon unless they pay the 80 per cent increase? Do you
think that is reasonable?
(Mr Spellar) I think that there certainly is a perception
that some of the increases have been excessive and indeed may
have worked against certain parts of the country and I think these
are matters that need to be taken up, particularly through the
regional rail passenger councils, with the particularly companies
in order to make that argument at first instance.
421. But if the regional rail passenger councils
are not listened to or their comments not acted upon, do you feel,
as the Minister, that you should have responsibility?
(Mr Spellar) I did say at first instance. If the answer
is unsatisfactory, then obviously Members may well wish to raise
that with Ministers.
422. So you, as the Minister, think that that
is part of your responsibility?
(Mr Spellar) I think we do have to convey, as Members
of Parliament do and we have to work on that, the mood of the
travelling public and whether they think they are getting a fair
deal, but I do put it into context where we have to take into
account the very considerable increase in traffic that there has
been, some of which has been driven obviously by the general economic
situation, but some has been driven by the better marketing of
the new companies.
423. I was going to draw attention to the fact
that when the Ten-Year Plan was announced, it was welcomed by
the Yorkshire and Humber Development Agency because of the fact
that it was going to give a boost to the economy. What is required,
Minister, is a link between the east and west ports. You did say
that we have got good connections between the north and south,
and what we need now is east to west, but we are told that the
regional transport strategies set out a programme that there will
be no financing until after 2010 with no date set. Can you give
us some idea as to what action will you take to boost that east
to west link through the Yorkshire and Humber area?
(Mr Spellar) I think initially what we are looking
at are the schemes that we have, and we are particularly talking
about the problems with West Coast Mainline, and other significant
priorities. Because of the history of under-investment for several
decades in the rail system, there are a whole number of existing
problems and, therefore, it is a case, firstly, of looking at
the pressing issues of the schemes that are already in progress
and also where they are costing more money and also then looking
at the priorities for further other schemes. I will ask Mark Coulshed
to say something on the ports access, and I am presuming this
is the Humberside ports access.
Mr O'Brien: Well, what happened is that we have
transport between the Humber ports and the west coast ports along
the M62 corridor and this is over-congested and, therefore, we
need to take traffic off the road and the best place is the rail,
but we have no direct east-west link. Part of the programme was
to develop the east-west link to enhance the competitiveness within
the Yorkshire and Humber region with other regions. We are now
told that this is not going to be available until whenever and
not before 2010.
424. This really arises because of the multi-modal
stuff you were talking about before. It is still recommended that
it should be significant, but it is still clear that it will not
come before 2010.
(Mr Spellar) Well, some is on some of the east coast
ports because we are undertaking work for the East Anglian ports
and improving the availability up through Nuneaton. I will ask
Mark Coulshed to say something about the Humber ports.
(Mr Coulshed) There is money set aside in the SRA
Strategic Plan for freight enhancements, nothing specifically
in relation to Humber ports and I am afraid I do not know what
has been said to Mr O'Brien, and he may have better information
than I do. One of the things that the SRA will be doing of course
is over the second half of this year looking again at the Strategic
Plan, and they are under a duty to produce an update of the Strategic
Plan in January next year and they will have that opportunity
to pick up representations which have been made here and elsewhere
about precisely the questions of priorities within the funds which
are available, so I dare say they may have more to say about the
Humber ports and possibly about other matters to be raised.
425. The point the Minister made about the announcement
of the East Anglian ports, I welcome that, but if there are going
to be specific links between the East Anglian ports and into the
Midlands and we do not get anything in the Yorkshire and Humber
area, then it is unfair competition between the regions, and I
hope the SRA will take note of that because we have had no encouragement
from them today or any other time on that particular matter. Now,
we hope that the Minister will take this seriously and impress
upon the SRA the need for this link from the east coast to the
west coast and back as a significant factor of regional development.
(Mr Spellar) Can I undertake to write to the Committee?
Chairman: It would be helpful and if you would
also deal with the multi-modal point because that was something
you raised yourself and we would like to know what your view is.
426. Minister, in addition to boosting the economic
development of all regions, the Ten-Year Plan says that it wants
to sharpen the competitiveness of British industry. Now, are you
aware, Minister, of the damage that is being caused to local companies,
like Potters of Melmerby, with the closure of freight trains from
the Channel Tunnel? Your former boss told this Committee that
there should be 72 trains a day and that was the figure for April.
Are you aware of the damage it is causing locally and the fact
that freight is now travelling by road which is intended to travel
(Mr Spellar) Very much so both from a number of those
individual companies, from Members of Parliament's representations,
also meetings that I have had with the industry collectively,
and also discussions that I have had with EWS. As the Committee
will be aware, both myself, the previous and the current Secretary
of State as well as the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary
and the Prime Minister have all been pressing very hard with the
French Government in order to get improvements. I met the French
Transport Minister at the recent Transport Council in Luxembourg
and I hope Members will be pleased that there is now an acceleration
of the construction programme of a much more robust fence than
the one which was previously built and indeed I am shortly due
to meet the head of SNCF to explore that further and to see what
427. Is that fence going to be guarded adequately?
(Mr Spellar) I was going to come on, Chairman, to
the second part of that equation which is a much stronger commitment
from the new Interior Minister to providing an adequate police
presence in that
428. Is he paying for it himself?
(Mr Spellar) Is he paying for which?
429. The extra police.
(Mr Spellar) The extra police are the responsibility
of the French Government and we are making or the Strategic Rail
Authority is making a contribution towards the fence.
430. And if it is £5 million, where is
that £5 million coming fromout of that budget?
(Mr Spellar) Indeed because it is extremely important,
for all the reasons that have been identified by Miss McIntosh,
very important that we actually get stability and then get the
increased provision of train services, not just because of the
immediate impact, but of course a number of companies, if they
move from rail back to road, they then have to sign medium to
long-term contracts with the hauliers, so, therefore, it is not
a case of when we re-establish the service that there is an immediate
return to rail and that is why it is imperative that we improve
the situation as soon as possible. I am pleased, however, that
for the first time in answering on this I think that there is
actually a considerable amount of real improvement taking place
actually on the ground and I am getting an indication of the greater
degree of confidence now from the industry than I have previously.
431. Do you think it is right that projects
that might otherwise have benefited from this SRA budget will
probably not now benefit because you are using SRA funds to strengthen
the fence in France with their budget? Do you think that is right
and how will you explain it to passengers who have lost out and
are there any other French projects which you have in mind for
SRA support out of their budget?
(Mr Spellar) Well, I think it is pretty rich, Chairman,
when we are actually taking measures to deal with a very serious
problem for freight and we are actually, therefore, facilitating
and expediting those that we then get criticised for it. We are
dealing with a real problem, that is what government does, and
trying to solve it and, as I said, it is as bit rich to then be
criticised for actually taking action when the Committee and others
have all been fairly free with their criticism in the past for
not actually achieving results. It has not been easy, but we are
now getting progress.
432. Does the Government still believe in an
independent rail regulator?
(Mr Spellar) Yes, indeed and we have recently announced
strengthening that role by having a board for the rail regulator.
433. So press reports that you are abolishing
the post of the independent rail regulator and replacing him by
a regulatory board are untrue?
(Mr Spellar) Not replacing him by. In fact in regulation
generally it is the normal practice to have a regulator and a
regulatory board, so it is not a replacement. It is actually coming
in line with common regulatory practice.
434. It is an enhancement. Is that what you
are telling us?
(Mr Spellar) I am saying it is bringing it in line
and being consistent.
Chairman: So it is not a renewal, just an enhancement.
435. Can I take you back to the vexed subject
of Virgin's fares. We had Virgin last week and we taxed them on
the fact that it is £172 standard return to Manchester and
the like. They frankly acknowledged that they were clobbering
the business and occasional user in order to provide them with
funds in order that they could make the investments they are required
to do. Now, there are other ways in which you can raise funds
through investment, and I put it to you that that is actually
inconsistent with some of the objectives of the Ten-Year Plan
because that will deter passengers, particularly occasional users.
(Mr Spellar) Well, they would obviously be looking
at a price that they would be charging consistent with loading
capacity on their trains. As I said in my earlier answer, it is
undeniable that the targeted marketing of the rail companies in
looking at using the capacity on their trains has been a significant
factor in the increase in passenger usage in this country. There
is the other side of that which is the higher premium fares for
those who are using the trains at peak times.
436. You could argue that with fares like that
you need good marketing in some respects, could you not, but is
there any study done by the Department for Transport of how much
people are put off by the fact that the once in a while that they
turn up, they will pay a very high price to go into cities?
(Mr Spellar) Well, I do not think the figures indicate
that there is a discouraging effect, although I think there might
be an argument as to whether there is an equity issue.
(Mr Coulshed) If I may add something about this, the
SRA will shortly be publishing a consultation paper on fares policy.
We have been talking to them about the issues which might be raised
in it and one particular issue, indeed two or three of the issues
that have been mentioned this afternoon are certainly covered,
in particular this difficult trade-off between financing investment
and keeping fares down to a reasonable level, and also the question
raised earlier about whether it is reasonable to allow for the
definition of regulated fares to be varied in the way it has been.
437. Is that an important part of the note we
are going to get soon?
(Mr Coulshed) Yes, I understand the SRA are hoping
to publish this document in the next two or three weeks.
438. Does it include rail cards as well?
(Mr Coulshed) I do not think I want to talk about
all the things which might be in this draft. I know of things
they have talked to us about.
439. We just have this old-fashioned idea that
you ought to know what is in it and also tell us.
(Mr Coulshed) It is the SRA's document not ours.