Railwatch

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Railwatch 079 - April 1999

Rail champion

The importance of recognising the east of England as a region in its own right was stressed during a debate on economic development in eastern England by Patrick Hall (Lab Bedford). He told the House of Commons on 11 November that it was difficult because Bedford's connections to the west (to Milton Keynes and Northampton) were at least as strong as those to Cambridge and East Anglia and none were as strong as those to London and the south.

If planning was not done carefully, the whole region would become dominated by London. "There would be suburban deserts with over-congested transport links into and out of the metropolitan centre."

This would lead to economic under-performance and a denial of opportunity to the people of the area. The need was for economically dynamic communities across the country in towns and villages as well as the big cities.

He went on to stress that some of the most heavily congested roads in the country were in the east of England, citing the A1 and M1, which are north-south links. He was pleased we now had a government that understood the value of regional development.

He was "convinced that there are great opportunities along an east-west axis". The eastern region would not prosper unless east-west links were considerably improved.

"One of the best ways of boosting the eastern region, including my constituency, would be to deliver an east-west rail link."

He drew attention to the proposal for a new rail route from Ipswich to Swindon, via Cambridge, Bedford, Milton Keynes and Oxford and the important links north to south that this would provide. He hoped the "fantastic" idea would be well received by ministers. He said there was no doubt about his support for the concept including the "preferred route through Bedford". He hoped it would also prove attractive for freight.

Customer care

Two MPs wanted to know from the Government what plans there were for ensuring train operators improved their services to the customer.

The question came from Ann Clwyd (Lab Cynon Valley) and Eric Martlew (Lab Carlisle).

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said that in November 1997 he had agreed a concordat with the Rail Regulator, and issued new instructions to the franchising director requiring him to put passengers' interests first, which the previous government had failed to do.

Also they were in the process of making three key appointments to strengthen passengers' interests.

There would be a new chairman of British Rail who would be the prospective chairman of the new Strategic Rail Authority. (Former Eurotunnel chairman Sir Alastair Morton was named as the man for this job on 25 February.)

There would also be a new franchising director who would be the prospective chief executive of the SRA.

In addition there would be a new Rail Regulator.

He also had a meeting on 26 November, together with the Minister of Transport, with the train operators and Railtrack to discuss performance problems, and thrash out a plan for immediate action.

He said this would result in 800 extra drivers, 500 new vehicles (editor's note: most of these were on order anyway) and a new national passenger survey. He also announced that there would be a rail summit on 25 February to deal with longer term improvements.

Mr Martlew wanted to focus on the poor service on the west coast main line. He said that much of it was due to Virgin's incompetence but that Railtrack was also failing to maintain the line. He asked if Mr Prescott was aware "that Railtrack has decided to cut back drastically on planned maintenance. This had resulted in the loss of 17 jobs in his constituency. He wanted to know if Mr Prescott could take any sanctions against Virgin or Railtrack for failing to provide an adequate service on the West Coast main line.

Mr Prescott replied that he understood the MP's frustration and that if the line had been privatised in the manner he had suggested, he would now be riding on a modernised west coast main line instead of facing the current difficulties.

He instanced the case of train operators sacking drivers and then finding they had to recruit new drivers to make up a shortfall. He said the new SRA would advocate the interests of passengers much more effectively than in the past.

Fares fair

Sir Sydney Chapman (Con Chipping Barnet) wanted Mr Prescott to confirm that fares on the privatised rail com-panies had gone down in real terms, in stark contrast to fares on publicly owned London Underground, which have increased way above inflation. Editor's note: Perhaps if the Underground is privatised we can look forward to having to book a week in advance to obtain cheaper fares.

Mr Prescott said it was the policy of the Government to achieve the quality of service that will be reflected in fares. It was, though, a higher priority to get investment into the systems that have not improved over the past decade or so. Along with the Regulator and the Franchise Director they would be looking at how the fares system fits into that.

Shaun Woodward (Con Witney) asked if the Government was aware "of the absolute contempt with which his rail and transport policies are regarded in Oxfordshire?" His constituents "who every day hope for a better rail service . . . are no longer able to park at the station because there are insufficient spaces. While promoting integrated transport, the Highways Agency closes the A34, has no consultation with the train companies to provide extra services and has managed to bring the roads of Oxfordshire to a complete halt".

Mr Prescott replied that he was a little confused! He said his grants for improved rural services had been welcomed in Oxfordshire. Parking was a problem in all cities but there was a successful park-and-ride scheme in Oxford and there was demand for more such facilities.

Virgin misery

David Winnick (Lab Walsall N) suggested Richard Branson should forget about balloon flying, and travel on his trains and share the misery of passengers like himself, who uses the trains regularly. "What a dismal failure transport privatisation has turned out to be."

Mr Prescott admitted that it seemed to be generally agreed that improvements in rail services had not been seen following privatisation, but that efforts must be made to improve the service. People did not care who owned the railway, they just want a good system.

West Coast

Dr Phyllis Starkey (Lab Milton Keynes SW) expressed concern that the proposed upgrading of the fast lines would have an adverse effect on those services using the slow lines, in particular those stopping trains using Wolverton and Bletchley. She said that operators Silverlink and Connex were worried that there would be insufficient capacity on the slow lines to maintain current service frequencies, as well as the freight which uses the line. She wanted assurances from the minister that he would require the Regulator to ensure that services can expand on the slow lines so that all her constituents could benefit from the upgrade. Minister of Transport Dr John Reid replied that as far as freight was concerned he had met the chief executive of Railtrack on 15 November to discuss a range of issues and had yet to receive detailed proposals from them.

He said "the Rail Regulator has obliged Railtrack to examine how it can meet the capacity requirements of all West Coast main line operators as a condition of approving the Virgin Rail-Railtrack passenger upgrade two deal. I expect to see the fruits of that in Railtrack's March 1999 network management statement".

Tim Boswell (Con Daventry) also had misgivings about passenger services from Northampton and freight from the new terminal at Daventry.

Dr Reid said there may well be drawbacks to passenger services from any freight upgrade.

Gwyneth Dunwoody(Lab Crewe and Nantwich) complained that at weekends when Railtrack was carrying out engineering work, passengers had to guess when trains might be running on the West Coast main line.

Dr Reid agreed, saying he had travelled numerous times with Mrs Dunwoody and that the matter had been taken up with Virgin and Railtrack by himself and the Deputy Prime Minister.

"It is bad enough trying to find the way through the complexities of some of the differentiated and compartmentalised train timetables, now that we have 25 train operating companies, without those companies deciding not to issue timetables in the first place."

Christopher Gill (Con Ludlow) pointed out that customers from the West Coast main line were regularly inconvenienced by the unserviceability of the escalators connecting the main station at Euston to the Underground. When escalators broke down on the London Underground they were out of action for months rather than weeks.

He wanted Dr Reid to have a severe word with London Transport representatives and report to the House that they are going to do better. Dr Reid said he was not fully aware of the minutiae of the escalator to which he referred, but he had no doubt that it did not work because of the tremendous backlog of maintenance due to under-investment in the Underground under the previous administration, which this government intended to put right through a public-private partnership.

"I understand the complaint about one escalator, but I hope that he recognises that the problem, along with the destruction of many other aspects of Britain's social fabric, is a direct result of the negligence of his government for 18 years."

Walesrail

Attention was drawn in the Lords to the fact that while the Welsh assembly would have full control over the Welsh Office's roads budget it would have no real power in relation to rail transport.

"The rail system will continue to exist on subsidies and contracts which are decided at Westminster," said Lord Crickhowell on 17 February. Furthermore, although fairly small, it had a plethora of rail companies some of whom regard Wales as an outpost of their systems.

He wanted an integrated network that would link all regions of Wales. When the franchises were due for renewal, he said a "Walesrail" should be considered.

Grants from the Welsh Office were readily available for road schemes, but "future rail investment depends upon an act of will on the part of the assembly to obtain the necessary powers".

Lord Roberts of Conwy expressed misgivings about the planned closure of the Severn tunnel for repairs.

He said the Severn tunnel was a vital artery to Severnside and South Wales, crucial to great tracts of the Welsh economy.

Lord Roberts said he was aware of the difficulties of maintaining the tunnel in good condition and that Railtrack had already spent significant sums on renewals but more would be needed in the future and such work must be carefully planned to give people ample warning of possible disruptions.

He hoped that essential work on the tunnel would not be caught up in an argument between the Regulator and Railtrack over the rate of Railtrack's investment and the degree of its responsibility for train delays. He wanted no "whiff of uncertainty about the future of this strategic rail route".

For the Government, Lord Whitty said anxieties about the future of the Severn tunnel had been exaggerated. In this instance Railtrack had been doing a good job and had already spent £7million on improvements.

Further phases should be completed in two years time, from when no major work would be required for five to eight years, by which time Lord Whitty hoped there would be a more strategic approach to rail investment.

Kent appeals

Questions about rail services in Kent on 9 February revealed dissatisfaction on various fronts. Dr Stephen Ladyman (Lab Thanet S) wanted to see upgrading of lines from Ramsgate and Dover to Ashford.

Jonathan Shaw (Lab Chatham and Aylesford) complained that much of the rolling stock on Connex South Eastern was "filthy and dilapidated".

Roger Gale (Con Thanet N) said the rail service between London Victoria and Herne Bay and Margate had been frightful throughout the winter. He wanted to know what was being done to improve matters.

Editors' note: Is this the same Roger Gale who in the last Parliament was extolling the virtues of privatisation, one of the advantages of which was that it would free the railways from government interference?

Mr Derek Wyatt (Lab Sittingbourne and Sheppey) was more concerned about the "dreaded Victoria to Sittingbourne line". He wanted a brand-new green line taking freight to Europe so that the east Kent section can be regenerated. He complained that to get from Sheerness to Ashford required a change at Victoria.

Damian Green (Con Ashford) asked Transport MinisterGlenda Jackson if she would allow domestic services to run on the Channel Tunnel rail link which would provide extra capacity and competition.

Ms Jackson chose to quote some dubious statistics.

She then said: "Allowing domestic passengers on to Eurostar train services without the requisite safeguards to ensure that there would be no infringement of safety, and introducing any service into our islands without the necessary restraints that we have on our borders, would not be the way to encourage people to use our railway system."

Travel costs

In written answers on 22 November, Tam Dalyell (Lab Linlithgow) elicited the information that over the past 20 years, bus and train fares had risen by 25-27% in real terms, whereas fuel costs for private vehicles were now at the same level they were 20 years ago.

Mike Hancock (Lib Dem Portsmouth S) wanted to know what assessment had been made of the impact of improved rail services between London and Portsmouth on the levels of traffic and also if the Transport Secretary would discuss with the Franchise Director the condition of rolling stock on the Connex services to Portsmouth.

Ms Jackson said there had been no assessments made and no specific representations made about the condition of the rolling stock, although the Health and Safety Executive had published draft regulations that required the replacement of mark one rolling stock by 2003 and modified mark ones by 2007. The Government was considering these proposals.

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