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Railwatch 073 - October 1997

Integration

Baroness Hayman announced in the Lords on 11 June that significant progress had already been made in integrating the policies of the Departments of Transport and Environment "to secure the maximum advantage from integration, and to simplify lines of responsibility".

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions came into being on Monday 16 June. She said detailed decisions on organisational structures will be taken in September.

Rail Tickets

Transport Minister Glenda Jackson said in May that train operators had a legal obligation to sell tickets impartially and provide accurate information about ticketing and fare options.

She had been asked by Gwyneth Dunwoody (Lab Crewe & Nantwich) about proposals to ensure that passengers received impartial advice when buying tickets,

Ms Jackson said the Government intended to establish "more effective and accountable regulation by the Rail Regulator".

During questions about Railtrack in May, Ms Jackson said Railtrack was penalised for delays to services caused by faults in infrastructure or signalling. It was thereby encouraged to invest in necessary maintenance. She said that in setting the charges payable by train operators, the Rail Regulator had assumed Railtrack would spend £3.5 billion at 95/96 prices on network renewal in the six years to 2001.

The Regulator could not force Railtrack to spend this amount but would consider its performance in reviewing access charges from 2001.

Further questioning from Mrs Dunwoody elicited the information that the Regulator had no powers to direct Railtrack to spend money on any particular scheme. If the Health and Safety Executive felt that any track was unsafe they could issue improvement notices requiring work to be carried out by a certain date. (As happened on the approaches to Euston Station when for several weeks, trains were limited to 10 mph because of the appalling state of the track!)

Fast link

In June, Ms Jackson, whose official title is Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, announced that a public enquiry would be held into the proposals to build a new station at Stratford, East London, to be served by the Channel Tunnel rail link together with a double track connection from the fast link to the West Coast main line. (In fact, as Lord Sefton pointed out in the Lords, the connection is to be made to the North London Line.)

Ms Jackson said the motion sought the approval of the House for the proposals under the Transport and Works Act 1992. The TWA has replaced private Bills as the means by which new railways, tramways and certain other works projects are normally authorised.

"Section 9 of the TWA gives Parliament a continuing and important role in relation to schemes that the Secretary of State believes are of national significance by making the approval of each House a precondition to the making of an order under the TWA."

The application for the order was made by Eurostar (UK) Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of London and Continental Railways Ltd which is building the Channel Tunnel rail link. These works were not in the original CTRL Act.

Ms Jackson outlined the main benefits of the proposals: improved connections to the Underground's Central and Jubilee lines, Docklands Light Railway, the North London Lines and Great Eastern Railway.

The station is expected to help the regeneration of the Stratford area and thus employment opportunities. The improved connection with the West Coast main line will cut journey times for North of London Eurostars by avoiding a stop at St Pancras.

Mr David Chidgey, Liberal- Democrat Transport spokesman asked if it was still the intention to complete all the works mentioned without recourse to additional public funds.

Ms Jackson said it was her understanding that it was.

She further referred to the 59 objections the department had received about the proposals. These were briefly, excessive traffic on the surrounding road network, inadequate provision for public transport and cyclists at the station, adverse environmental effects on the Bully Point nature reserve and the River Lea, and loss without replacement of garden allotments, recreational amenities and open land in the Lea valley.

She said the issue for the House was to decide if the proposals were worthy of proceeding to a public enquiry. The Secretary of State would then have a duty to consider the inspector's report and make a decision.

The Secretary of State would be under a statutory obligation to consider the environmental statement in determining whether to make the order. The Government considered the works desirable in principle and had no hesitation in inviting the House to pass the order.

More roads!

Sir George Young, Conservative transport spokesman, gave the order the opposition's full support. He wanted confirmation that the road building necessary to the success of the station as well as the regeneration of east London would be forthcoming. He hoped LCR would be allowed to make profits, in order to carry out its share of the bargain by paying for the works under discussion.

Mr Peter Snape (Lab West Bromwich East) who was making the detailed case for the proposals emphasised the advantages to the population of east London. He stated that a full range of bus services, based on the new Stratford bus station would be accessible to travellers using the international station.

He was delighted that at last the great civil engineering project of the Channel Tunnel would be able to bring proper benefits, not just to Stratford or London, but to the whole of the United Kingdom.

Mr Chidgey welcomed the proposals and stressed the importance of good quality public transport links. He asked the Minister to try to ensure that objectors would be satisfied before the public enquiry, otherwise the scheme would be delayed.

Mr Jamie Cann (Lab Ipswich) queried the capacity of the North London Line to deal with all the extra trains and wanted other routes examined for accommodating east-west rail traffic.

Mr Chidgey wanted the North London connection with the West Coast main line to further promote freight links from the north to Europe. He urged the Minister to grasp the opportunity to create through freight trains from the Continent along the fast link and up to the Midlands and North.

He expressed disappointment that the North of London Eurostars were still not running and wondered if the Minister could explain the delay.

'Gateway to Hell'

It was left to Brian Sedgemore (Lab Hackney South and Shoreditch) to pour cold water over the proposals. He said Newham council called the project Gateway to the East but those in the area called it a gateway to hell. Newham council were simply interested in a huge property development, not the station at all, and in 20 years would have the most soulless and empty office blocks ever seen! He derided the suggested creation of 20,000 jobs, saying the actual figure would be 128 once the construction had been completed and 430 while it was being done.

Further the environmental statement was slipshod, shoddy, anti-intellectual and based on unsound methodology. He said the 2,000-space car park was more likely to turn into a 10,000-space car park as the promoters would get 80 acres of land in the area. In calling for park-and-ride facilities, he accused Mr Chidgey of advocating traffic spewing all over south Hackney and various roads in an area which has Lib-Dem councillors. Those residents would be pleased to hear their Lib-Dem spokesman wanting to make their lives a misery for the next 50 years. It would probably lead to the need for far more road building and dual carriageways to the station!

Harry Cohen (Lab Leyton and Wanstead) also expressed anxiety about the degree of car parking at the new station and the road building necessary to feed it. He wanted rail services northwards along the Lea valley and not a new road.

Mr Snape tried to allay fears of MPs, reminding them that the promoters had given assurances that there will be both price and physical constraints on commuter traffic to prevent people railheading in the way favoured by Mr Chidgey.

Stephen Timms (Lab East Ham), one time leader of Newham council, informed the House that Mr Sedgemore had consistently regarded him as a lunatic for supporting the project.

He commended London and Continental for the sensitive way they had dealt with local community organisations. He stressed the economic importance of the project, expected 15,000 jobs to be created when railway land had been fully developed, did not believe a 2,000-space car park would be built, and saw no threat to Bully Point nature reserve.

Ms Jackson replying to the debate said there was a feeling in the chamber that the order should be passed. She said everyone shared the environmental concerns expressed, but these would be more properly examined at a public enquiry. "We must move away from an over-dependency on car usage."

European way

Lord Geddes, a former member of the Southern Region Board of BR, said the European Commission's Railway Strategy Report was aimed at introducing market forces to the rail sector and allowing it to compete more effectively with other transport modes.

Measures included greater financial transparency, relief from historic debt, separation of infrastructure from operations, greater integration of national systems, the promotion of inter-operability and the establishment of rail freight freeways.

It attempts "to balance the benefits of a more commercial approach with protection for the public service element." Transport Commissioner Kinnock had taken up the proposals enthusiastically and "spoke passionately about the need for change if rail is to survive as a major transport mode."

Lord Geddes said the committee recognised that the UK rail sector was considerably ahead of the railways of most other member states in terms of "liberalisation" (but behind in everything meaningful to the customer like high speed trains, electrification, modern comfortable commuter and metro services, reliability, punctuality and state of the track).

The Lords committee was in favour of a European regulatory authority, which the previous government had disputed.

On freight issues the commission was keen to get more international freight on to rail. Within the European Union rail freight travels at an average speed of 10mph and the committee welcomed the idea of setting up freight freeways to try to speed this up.

There were formidable obstacles to integration and inter-operability, differences in gauge, electrical systems and rolling stock design. The report calls for a pragmatic step-by-step approach concentrating on getting the various systems working together rather than trying to impose a single uniform system at a very high cost.

The committee recognised that a restructuring of European railways would involve significant job losses, but Lord Geddes quoted Mr Kinnock in evidence to them: "The choice now is between the lingering demise of rail, which will be cataclysmic for the number of jobs involved, and the possibility of progress through change."

Road building

But Lord Berkeley, who is chairman of the Rail Freight Group, underlined the real problem when he commented that "the whole of Europe has spent the past 20 years building roads. The railways have ended up with enormous debts while there is virtually no debt in respect of roads."

Lord Berkeley, who is involved in trying to set up a freight freeway from London to Hungary outlined the myriad difficulties encountered on the way.

Lord Methuen was worried that the European rail strategy seemed to be modelled on what had been done in the UK and yet it is far too early to be clear what the advantages and disadvantages of our approach will be.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford said the full cost of road use should be imposed on road hauliers.

In reply, Baroness Hayman, Parliamentary under-Secretary of State, Department for the Environment and Transport, said the Government agreed with many of the initiatives proposed by the commission.

More roads!

The demand for more roads goes on. The latest plea comes in a debate initiated by Bob Blizzard, Labour MP for Waveney. He spoke at length about studies purporting to show the way to prosperity for the region is to build bigger and better roads. He wants the A47 and A12 widened, together with a second river crossing in Lowestoft and a South Lowestoft "relief" road.

Comment

By Bob Stephens

Imagine, for a moment, before hopping into your £25,000-plus "go up the side of a mountain" four-wheel drive car to visit the local supermarket for a tin of beans, you want to check on what special offers are available.

You dial a number and within 15 seconds a cheery voice tells you that supermarket A is selling beans at 2p a can reduction; supermarket B is giving a free can with every five bought: supermarket C is giving away a packet of crisps for every three cans bought, providing you have the loyalty card and are prepared to shop at off-peak hours. Another one is selling half-price beans providing you order them a fortnight before you actually want them!

And so, armed with all this impartial information you can point your go-anywhere vehicle in the right direction. Or at least you can, once you've got similar information on all the other products you require.

Sounds ridiculous?

Yet that is the sort of thing that is being demanded of the 25 rail operating companies, all introducing a plethora of special offers in a desperate bid to get enough customers for them to meet the financial criteria to make good their promises to the Franchise Director.

And what about the people who give this information to the would-be traveller?

It has been calculated that some enquiry bureau staff have had up to five different employers in the past two years, each company planning its own restructuring or reorganisation or downsizing or whatever euphemism is currently in use for giving people the sack!

Staff have been faced with all the uncertainty, the rumours, the worry of not knowing what course their current employer will take, only to find themselves sold off like a table or chair to some other firm out to make a fast buck from rail privatisation.

Many of them have voted with their feet and left the industry rather than face this uncertainty. Their replacements, as likely as not insufficiently trained and totally ignorant of the geography and pattern of services of British railways, are left to implement what is fast becoming a farcical situation.

When you buy a train ticket these days, the seller is probably a third party subcontracted to do the job.

Quite probably this third party is itself in competition with other companies based, not on accuracy, but on speed in answering calls.

They will have to deal with people who want to go from London to Cornwall via Birmingham because of a special offer from Virgin Trains. If they cannot respond, they cannot claim to be impartial.

Working out fares for routes involving two or more train operators will become a chllenge for the enquiry clerk and the passenger.

Some companies want tickets to be sold on the train rather than at booking offices. A bit late for impartiality then!

It is suggested tickets should be sold at shops and post offices or on the internet.

Heaven help anyone wishing to find out from their computer the fare from London to Birmingham, let alone Loughborough Junction to Kyle of Lochalsh.

A system has been created under which impartiality is a chimera. No private transport system can be impartial. Try ringing up an airline and asking what the fare is to New York.

Any railway system will throw up infinitely more complex variations in fares, so that the time taken to collate all the possibilities will make organising travel by rail a nightmare.

Travellers can expect to pay in inconvenience for this obesssion with competition.

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