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Railwatch 086 - November 2000

Westminster Watch

Hatfield crash>

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott made a statement in the House on 24 October about the Hatfield crash which occurred four days previously.

"Last Friday, the Health and Safety Executive issued its preliminary findings on the accident. It found obvious and significant evidence of a rail failure and no evidence so far of a prior failure of rolling stock.

"Further to its preliminary report, the HSE is undertaking a formal investigation into the crash, overseen by a board that includes independent experts. I have agreed with the HSE that the investigation must look beyond the immediate causes of the crash, to any root causes, including structural and organisational factors that could have contributed to the accident.

"I do not want to get into the argument about privatisation. All I will say is that we are agreed that there is a fundamental flaw in the way in which the privatisation of the industry was presented to the House. We have tried to change that. We have established the Strategic Rail Authority.

Don Foster (Lib Dem, Bath) asked: "Does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that, in many people's minds, a perverse incentive scheme is operating? Railtrack is fined if it delays trains, and it is fined if it does not delay them so that it can carry out necessary safety work.

"Finally, does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that a further complication is where the money is to come from to improve safety?

"The Rail Regulator yesterday announced more money for Railtrack for safety measures, but that money will come from the Government. It will be given to the Strategic Rail Authority, which will give it to the train operating companies, which in turn will give it to Railtrack.

"Why cannot the money go directly from the Government to Railtrack? Can the Deputy Prime Minister assure us that it is new money?"

Mr Prescott: "As to whether there is a conflict between incentives, the Regulator says that there is not. "The concern of the Regulator and the HSE is that, despite Railtrack's promises, it has not taken appropriate action to reduce the number of rail breaks. That is a matter for investigation. Let us await the outcome.

"I particularly asked the HSE to consider, in the course of its investigation, the matter of contracts and whether it causes any problems. It is the subject of complaint by the contractors as well as Railtrack.

"On the question of resources, the money is extra money. That is clear to everyone from the 10-year transport plan. Also, different forms of finance, which do not have to go through the operators, can be arranged with Railtrack and the SRA. There are various ways of financing the railways and we are experimenting with one or two different ways.

Inspections>

"With regard to the frequency of inspections, I have asked the Health and Safety Executive to consider the matter. I know that the Regulator is also looking into the matter and has arranged an independent assessment jointly with the HSE. I want the best possible system of safety. I have been concerned that, in the meantime, trains continue to run in places where there is evidence of broken rails or such a possibility in the future.

"I have asked them to look at whether the inspection system and the management system are robust enough to work properly now."

Peter Snape (Lab, West Bromwich East): "Does Mr Prescott accept that the Hatfield derailment would never have happened when the railways were publicly owned because local knowledge plays an enormous part in finding weak spots, especially on high-speed tracks?

"As long as there is a system in which Railtrack lacks the basic skills to maintain the track and has to buy them in, the problems will continue.

Responsibility

"Every MP knows that, from one end of the country to the other, main lines in Britain look like long-abandoned gasworks, covered with weeds, rubbish and grass. That would never have happened when specific gangs of men were responsible for individual stretches of track. The fault for the shambles of Hatfield and similar disasters lies entirely with the Conservative party."

Mr Prescott: "I do not want to follow Mr Snape down some of that road. While I understand his points, he gives me a chance to stress that I must concern myself with the facts of the case. Let us consider broken rails. I do not know whether Hatfield would have been prevented before privatisation, but when considering the number of broken rails in different periods, MPs must realise that in, for example, 1981-82, there was an average of about 1,000 broken rails.

"That figure was down to about 600 in 1990 and it has now climbed to nearly 1,000 again.

"If we consider the facts and figures for fatal train accidents in the past 25 years, the number of deaths has decreased by approximately 50 per cent. since 1975."

Mrs Alice Mahon (Lab, Halifax): "After the disastrous privatisation of the railways - everybody agrees that it was disastrous - and the 18 years of Tory neglect, will former Tory Ministers be giving evidence to the Cullen inquiry? Will they be brought to account for the mess that they undoubtedly made of both the railways and privatisation?"

Mr Prescott: "It is not for me to answer for the Opposition. Lord Cullen is taking advice from all parties. Everyone should give advice to Lord Cullen on these fundamental matters."

Miss Anne McIntosh (Con, Vale of York): "I understand that there have been reports that the Eurostar carriages that have been added to the operation may have contributed to the higher incidence of broken rails. Will the Cullen inquiry have an opportunity to look into that?

"Will the Deputy Prime Minister explain why railway disasters are treated differently from aviation and maritime accidents? Would this be a good opportunity to invoke the same procedure for rail disasters as for aviation and maritime disasters?"

Mr Prescott: "On the latter point, Miss McIntosh makes a sound suggestion, and one that I hope Lord Cullen will consider. The Government and the Opposition will be giving evidence on how we might implement a more comprehensive and consistent method of dealing with safety between the different transport modes. The Select Committee has made strong recommendations on this matter recently.

Penalties

"As for Eurostar, any train going on to the track must go through a safety procedure. As I understand it, the Eurostar carriages have not made any difference. However, the inquiry will be considering these matters, and it is proper that it should do so".

Answering Ms Rosie Winterton (Lab, Doncaster, Central), Mr Prescott said: "Of course, if there is a breach of safety regulations, there are penalties. Indeed, the ultimate penalty lies with me. If there is a serious breach by Railtrack and it fails to carry out its responsibility under its licence, I can remove that licence.

"I must confess some surprise that, under Railtrack - it was the same with British Rail - there is no register of assets for our railway system. It is curious that there is no register, and we have been pressing Railtrack about that for some time. We do not know how many stations there are, how long they are or the state of the track. That makes it difficult now as we talk about areas of concern. We are discussing that with Railtrack, and the Strategic Rail Authority has it as a central consideration."

Praise

Mrs Ann Cryer(Lab, Keighley)said: "I should like to congratulate the men and women who operate the trains on the East Coast main line on behalf of GNER. On the day in question - last Tuesday - I should have been on the 12.10 ex King's Cross to Leeds. Fortunately, I changed my plans and decided to catch the next train that stopped at Stevenage.

"However, I am a little worried about the existing structures. I wonder whether Mr Prescott is prepared to comment on whether he believes that the existing structures for Railtrack and the operating companies are capable, as they stand, of halting the growing list of tragic accidents on our railways."

Mr Prescott: "The House will support the comments about the railway employees and management who deal with tragedies so quickly. However, like all of us, their greatest concern is to maintain a safe railway system. The fundamental question is whether the system that we have inherited is adequate to maintain a modern and safe railway.

"In my judgment, the answer is no. That is why I introduced the Strategic Rail Authority and toughened up the regulatory procedures."

Elfyn Llwyd (Plaid Cymru, Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): "Given the recent increasing number of serious incidents - Hatfield, Stafford last Thursday evening and a fatality in north Wales yesterday - involving the clear failure of infrastructure, is not it blatantly obvious to everyone that, with the 150 speed restrictions, Railtrack is letting us down badly? Has the Government given any recent serious consideration to renationalising Railtrack?"

Mr Prescott: "Mr Llwyd talked about renationalising Railtrack. We should consider whether renationalising Railtrack would make the railways safer. I gave the figures earlier. Whether public or private, ownership does not necessarily determine whether the rail system will be safer."

Dennis Skinner (Lab, Bolsover): "Is Mr Prescott aware that we are reaching the point at which we are pouring money into those millionaire directors' pockets, but they seem to be ignoring faulty lines and all the rest of it? Does he recall the days when we voted against this Tory hybrid monster of a privatised railway? Does he also understand that there is a growing demand among the general public for taking rail back into public ownership? MPs are also getting a bit fed up of handing over money to friends of the Tory party. It has to come to an end. Will Mr Prescott not rule out the possibility of taking British Rail back into public ownership, as we demanded when we were in opposition?"

No nationalisation

Mr Prescott: "Mr Skinner will know - I agreed with him at the time; it is a matter of record - that I thought that privatisation of the railways was wrong. In votes, in committees and in all sorts of circumstances, we opposed the model that the then Government proposed to the House, and we were right to oppose it. I now find myself as the Secretary of State with responsibility for these matters.

"As Mr Skinner will know, it is Labour party policy not to renationalise the rail system. Why is that our policy? As I argued in conference, we cannot avoid putting money into the pockets of those people. If we renationalised the railway, we would probably have to give them compensation.

"Although I assume that Mr Skinner would not want to do that, we would have to consider doing it. As the Euro rules and human rights legislation deal with the need to pay compensation, I cannot be free from a requirement to put money into the pockets of people who I do not want to receive it.

"Additionally, on top of paying perhaps £6billion in compensation, we would have to wait two or three years to pass the necessary legislation. I would sooner be putting that money into track safety and ensuring that the system works.

"As I told the House, the new Strategic Rail Authority, a 10-year investment plan, a new approach to safety and a renegotiation of the franchises will give us a different model. That model will be so successful that the Tories will have to ditch the old model and support the one that we are delivering."

Partnership

Gerry Steinberg (Lab, City of Durham): "I am a member of the Public Accounts Committee. Last year, we considered a report by the National Audit Office on the flotation of Railtrack.

"The report clearly shows that the flotation was an absolute disaster for the taxpayer, track maintenance and the infrastructure of Railtrack. Even the report states that the increasingly favourable perception of investors towards Railtrack since July 1996 has been attributed, by the various parties to whom we spoke, to a combination of factors.

"One of the main factors was that the value of shares increased simply because people knew that Railtrack would not invest in the maintenance and structure of the lines, and Railtrack admitted that it did not know what the state of the track was.

"We recently met Mr Gerald Corbett, who suggested one way forward could be a private partnership between the industry and the Government. Has Mr Prescott considered whether that is a possibility? While not necessarily renationalising the industry, it would at least put it partly under Government control."

Mr Prescott: "Mr Steinberg makes several important points about the way in which public assets were sold off at a disgraceful rate. That concern has been looked at by the National Audit Office and various Select Committees. That sell-off meant an awful lot of money for a few people. The irony for myself and for those who opposed Railtrack was that the greater our determination to get the then Government to drop their privatisation proposal - it was at the time of the 1992 election - the more it was said that we were forcing down the price, and that as a consequence when we were elected the price shot up and many people made an awful lot of money.

"With regard to whether we should hold shares in Railtrack or use a public-private partnership, as Mr Steinberg may know, we still hold a million shares in Railtrack, or about 0.2 per cent of it.

"The Opposition always thought that we would use the Strategic Rail Authority to renationalise the rail industry by buying shares. There is a difficult balance between the Government owning shares in Railtrack and accepting responsibility without any control. Such matters are constantly being put to me, and my mind is not totally closed to all those issues."

Killer car drivers

In the House of Lords, Lord Berkeley exposed the hypocrisy of different attitudes to road and rail safety.

He said: "Lord Macdonald mentioned that each year 3,500 people are killed on the roads. Does he agree that most are killed not by their own actions but by other people?

"Does he believe that a similar campaign to that now commendably taking place on the railways - that is, investigating the causes and taking action - should be undertaken in respect of roads?

"I believe that PACTS has produced a report showing that 1,200 deaths, about one third of the total, are due to excessive or inappropriate speeds.

"Would not reducing speed limits on the roads avoid a large number of deaths commensurate with improvements in rail safety which my noble friend has outlined today?"

Lord MacDonald failed to answer the point.

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