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Railwatch 081 - October 1999

By Michael Weinberg

Reliable rail

Transport supremo John Prescott said giving people more choice was one of the main aims of the Railways Bill which was given a second reading on 19 July. The Secretary of State for Transport, the Environment and the Regions said it would help to give them an alternative to depending on cars.

"That means providing a better, more reliable public transport alternative." It was about taking the 'shadow out of shadow SRA. The Bill was consistent with the report of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and the Regions which had stated: "We support the Government's plan for a strategic rail authority as a practical way of addressing the problems of the restructured railway." Also, "the proposal for a strategic body was universally welcomed by our witnesses."

Patrick McLoughlin (Con West Derbyshire) asked why, if the Bill was in line with the Select Committee report, was he sending it back to the Select Committee before making further progress?

Fast track

Mr Prescott said these were new procedures to give select committees an opportunity to examine Bills. This produced a lot of inter-party wrangling throughout the debate, with Conservative members saying this meant the Bill was unlikely to see the light of day until the end of the next session of Parliament.

Mrs Gwyneth Dunwoody (Lab Crewe and Nantwich) intervened to say that as the Chairperson of the Select Committee she welcomed the chance to improve the Bill, "in those few areas where we shall want to raise the odd omission."

Mr Prescott went on to quote the director general of the Railways Forum David Morphet who said: "This Bill is good news for the railways and good news for the transport industry as a whole. As well as forming the basis for a genuine strategic partnership between the Government and rail companies, it ensures Britain's railways are at last at the top of the political agenda."

Reopenings

David Heath (Lib Dem Somerset and Frome) asked if the SRA's authority in promoting railways would extend to rural areas, not only preserving small stations "but reopening some of the ones we have lost in the past 20 or 30 years?"

Michael Colvin (Con Romsey) wanted assurances that when new franchises were negotiated for long-haul railway services, the SRA would take into account "the extent to which those companies are able to provide feeder services." He felt we must make use of existing track to provide connections with longer distance trains. Franchises should be longer than for seven years.

John Bercow (Con Buckingham) wondered if it would be possible for passenger representatives to become members of the SRA? Also in the spirit of competition would the authority be able to bid for franchises?

Mr Prescott said he intended to have members of consultative bodies on the SRA but not the chairmen of those bodies. "That is a proper balance, keeping that independence and accountability." As for the second point, the SRA would be able to take over franchises as a last resort, in the event of failure of a company. That was previously the role of the franchising director and his functions were simply being transferred to the SRA.

Dale Campbell-Savours (Lab Workington) asked about infrastructure. "Has Mr Prescott seen the condition of some of the great railway stations of this country? They are dilapidated; they are falling down; rubble is strewn across areas surrounding tracks."

Mr Prescott said there was a disparity between our largest stations which had improved over the last few years, (for shoppers rather than passengers!) and others which have been allowed to deteriorate. The Bill was concerned with enhancement of the whole system rather than the fragmented privatised service they inherited.

In reply to Jeremy Corbyn (Lab Islington N) who had asked whether the Bill provided any opportunity for even a portion of Railtrack to become publicly owned in view of the vast amounts of public money going into it, Mr Prescott said: "As public money does not go directly to Railtrack, the question of Railrack's accountability doesn't arise."

However the Regulator had told him that he did not have sufficient powers to force Railtrack to deliver on promises that it had made about network services. That was why there was a new Regulator and new powers of enforcement. It was to ensure that Railtrack is accountable to the public for what is basically a public facility run in a privatised way.

Property blight

Ms Margaret Moran (Lab Luton S) hoped that Railtrack property development services were brought within the rules of accountability. She said the opening of Luton Airport station was being delayed "because of protracted negotiations between Railtrack and its property development side."

Mr Prescott: "We often hear public statements by Railtrack about the many billions of pounds that it intends to invest. The previous Regulator's complaint to me was that although those promises had been made, he could not ensure that they were kept."

Shadow transport spokesman John Redwood (Con Wokingham) said: "Given his dislike of Railtrack's standards of service, will he now rule out giving Railtrack an inside track on one of the Tube contracts?" (Ouch!) "Will he now promise to open up that contract to proper competition? I read in a newspaper that Bechtel, rather than Railtrack will be brought in on that contract. Is that correct?"

Mr Prescott replied there was nothing new in that. Bechtel was a project management company which had been brought in to manage the CTRL after the collapse of the former contract. "If the previous Government had done the same for the Jubilee line extension, I would not be facing an extra £1 billion cost on a lousy contract that was not implemented properly."

He had learned there must be a good project organiser, and that he was not going to leave the Tube contract solely in Railtrack's hands. After coming into office Labour had inherited a situation in which:

  • Passengers did not know who to turn to when their trains were late, cancelled, dirty or overcrowded.
  • A freight industry eager to expand was held back by red tape and underfunding.
  • There was a lack of investment throughout the network and historical underfunding.
  • Parts of the industry felt no sense of urgency about making up lost ground.
  • The Rail Regulator's sanctions were unwieldy and lacked teeth.
  • And finally the passenger's voice was neglected.

Labour had taken stock of the situation, and after two rail summits, amendments to the existing arrangements were introduced, together with the formation of the shadow SRA, and lastly this Bill had been proposed.

"The shadow SRA is also developing a proper strategic plan for the railways, planning for growth of freight as well as passenger traffic." (Those RDS members who attended the rail reopenings conference in Walsall might be forgiven for thinking this message has not yet got through to the new Franchise Director Michael Grant!)

The freight grants scheme has been revitalised with awards totalling £60 million over the last two years. The new Rail Regulator had begun asking some very searching questions of Railtrack, "about the robustness of the statements in the network management statement about freight; about the absence of costed options for the freight routeing strategy; about the robustness of proposals for gauge enhancement."

Mr Colvin wanted to know when they would see the new guidelines to the authority for the issuing of new franchises. He wanted longer franchises to encourage companies to invest in new stock. "Investment in rolling stock ought to be a criterion in granting the new licences." Mr Prescott: "If Mr Colvin waits for guidance, he will see that it is very much in line with what he wants. It is a pity that such guidance was not issued in the first place, but the franchises were rushed through without any such requirement, and he voted for that."

Land sales

Bill O'Brien (Lab Normanton) was concerned about land in the ownership of the British Railways Board, and that under the previous administration instructions were given to sell off that land as fast as possible. "It is important to retain the land because we may need to open lines, especially in the north where we often travel east-west rather than north-south."

Mr Prescott said he had given instructions to that effect. The Bill amends the regulatory regime set up under the Railways Act 1993 to allow "the SRA to ask the Rail Regulator to direct facility owners to provide enhancements to existing station and rail facilities.... That power could be used to achieve greater rail capacity in the network or even to secure new network."

The Bill also requires the Regulator to balance the promotion of competition with the specific benefit of rail users. An important point was that "the Government has agreed in principle that the SRA will be able to retain income from penalties and to reinvest it in the railways."

Rail revival

Mr Prescott concluded by saying that though the railway industry had endured much well-deserved criticism, there were now positive signs of a revival of Britain's railways. There was growth in passenger and freight traffic, and there was a new spirit of co-operation and responsibility in the industry.

Mr Redwood said he was glad Mr Prescott had acknowledged the success of the privatised railway with the number of passenger trains running having risen by 14%, and freight-tonne miles increased by 35%. His main concern, however was that this Bill opened the way to renationalising the railways.

There followed the now familiar exchanges with Tories saying what a brilliant success privatisation was, and Labour members complaining it was a disaster. Mr Redwood also insisted that the poor prices obtained during the sell-off was due to Labour scare stories undermining the whole process.

Mr Redwood then went through the Bill clause by clause to show that the SRA would become a huge quango with enormous powers amounting to virtual control of the railway. "That is the kernel of our case - the power is a very wide ranging one, allowing the back door, or front door - renationalisation of the railways, should the Secretary of State be so inclined, and should he be able to persuade the Prime Minister and the Treasury of the need to do so." (Pretty big 'ifs'!) Mr Redwood: "The Bill creates not just a Regulator but a body that can take public money, with the Secretary of State's consent, and run passenger and goods railway services.

Investment

Mr Prescott intervened to say they were only transferring existing powers. "The Regulator is already able to require Railtrack to invest in the public interest."

Mrs Dunwoody welcomed the Bill, saying the debate was long overdue. She thought that far from delaying the Bill the Select Committee could produce a polished Bill and perhaps even a better formulation. She said the Bill contained tremendously important provisions. "Railtrack will now have to comply with investment requirements not simply by producing a number of wish-lists, but by demonstrating that it is serious about its investment programme."

Personal opinion by Michael Weinberg

This is a transcript of a TV broadcast Tony Blair was to have made, but was suppressed by New Labour spin doctors. It has come into the hands of your editorial board!

"My Fellow Britons, I wish to address you this evening, in the spirit of open government promised to you at the last election by new Labour, without fear or favour, laying it on the line, (if you'll forgive the pun), telling it like it is, that our transport policy is in a mess!

Many of you will no doubt be amazed at this announcement, but I have to confess that our transport policy is in difficulties and it's all John Prescott's fault!

He told me he had an absolutely wizard idea for solving the problems of traffic congestion by getting millions of motorists out of their cars and on to public transport. He said it would be popular, effective and above all, cheap!

So I made him supremo of transport, the environment and the regions. "It needs a big man John," I said. "Well, you all know what happened: Nothing!

Now new Labour listens to what people want. And millions of focus groups tell us you want all those super metro, tram, rapid transit systems and high speed trains that you go on when you're on holiday abroad.

Well, I have to tell you tonight that you can't have them! They are all horribly expensive, and Gordon Brown won't let me have any money! Do you realise that you can get 10 miles of motorway for what the Manchester Metro cost?

And talking of abroad, whenever I go to France to see that horrible French chap, he goes banging on about all the blasted 'crossrails ' they've built in Paris. You know they've got six or seven already and they are still building more. Well, it's easy for him. Anyway, I reckon they've still got a bit of the S word about over there: Socialism! I'm sure it will all end in tears. I remember Margaret Thatcher saying so 20 years ago! Anyway I've come up with the new big idea for transport. Roads! As I drive round the country listening to our focus groups, I've noticed there are miles and miles of empty fields. The farmers don't want them any more and we can't put golf courses on all of them. Why not build lots of new roads in those?

Ah! you say, but there's nothing to drive there for. Well there isn't, yet! But there soon would be. Petrol stations for a start! Then we'd soon find vast new mega giant superstores springing up. Then we'd get warehouses, distribution centres, cinemas and leisure complexes until there wouldn't be any need to drive into our towns and cities at all. Congestion would be ended at a stroke! I've discussed my ideas with everyone that matters and they think it's a terrific policy. The AA, RAC, British Road Federation, the Road Hauliers Association, the car manufacturers, tyre makers, construction and oil companies are all in favour. I'm sure you will be too. Good night and happy motoring.

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