Examination of Witnesses (Questions 760
WEDNESDAY 29 NOVEMBER 2000
760. Do you think that the reaction to the Hatfield
accident has perhaps been exaggerated if you take into account
the overall safety record of the railways?
(Sir Alastair Morton) I think the reaction has been
a very sharp one and would not have been the same under a combined
British Rail, not so much because the people were different in
those days but because risk was assessed over the railway as a
whole and it was the risk between the entire railway system and
the user of it. Now you go down to the risk between the provider
of the rails, Railtrack, and the user of the rails, the operators.
The Health and Safety Executive confirms that Railtrack owes a
duty only to those who use the rail, meaning the operators. It
only has to deliver safety of its rails. It is a much narrower
question than before. Therefore, actions of Railtrack tend to
export risk and say "I will deal with my risk, you have got
to go and find some other way of dealing with your risks, fellas".
As a result we are getting much more sharp and assertive action
to deal with the particular problem of rails being broken than
we might have seen under a combined British Rail which would have
said "well, on the one hand, and on the other hand, we have
got to look after the system as a whole."
761. We have spent a lot of time questioning
you about the Railtrack organisation. Are you aware of the figures
which Mr Stuart Francis, who is the Chairman of the Rail Passengers'
Council, gave out on Newsnight last night, which I checked
today, when he said that the investigations of the miles of rail
so far have not revealed a single piece of track which appears
to be in a similar condition to that which failed at Hatfield
and that, furthermorehis words"it appears that
this would be an isolated incident". If that is true, and
I double checked with Mr Francis' office and also the place at
which these statistics were given to him and they seem to be very
bona fide, do you feel that organisations like yours to
some extent, certainly Committees like this and the public in
general, are overreacting to the potential risk of going by rail?
(Sir Alastair Morton) It is my personal belief that
we have to, how shall I say, consider that very carefully. The
problem comes when you say "consider it carefully".
If you have a narrow duty to provide safety and you have lawyers
telling you the troubles you will get into if you do not deliver
that narrow definition, you consider only that narrow definition.
What has gone missing as a consequence of privatisation is the
system lookor the look across the system. If we can find
a way of negotiating, as it were, a treaty between the parties,
and this cannot be done between now and next week, to govern the
reactions of the system to share risk, if you like, in future
crises, because one day there will be another one, we will have
done something very useful. It is not the same question, it is
not the same parties, it is not the same consequences, but in
the electricity industry there is a code, a treaty, setting out
how the National Grid, the regional distributors and the generators
will behave towards each other in assessing and taking on risk
when a line falls down or something like that. Is there a way
of reading across from that to rail? I do not yet know. This is
part of what we will be looking at in the New Year when we talk
about an industry seminar to look at crisis management. This has
not been a satisfactory crisis management episode. That is a way
of saying that, amongst other things, there have been overreactions
at particular times.
762. Do you see part of your role in future
incidents of this sort as being able to give a more balanced view
perhaps and putting the particular crisis, if you use that word,
into context? As I read the safety figures of the railway, it
is one of the safest forms of travel, and I am not the first person
to have said that, and yet that does not come through.
(Sir Alastair Morton) Absolutely.
763. I think we are doing a disservice to the
public in the way these things are handled. Do you feel that you
will be in a position to cast some light on this problem?
(Sir Alastair Morton) I would hope we do now and I
hope we can do more and more and better and better as time goes
by. I would remind you of how short a time it is since everybody
was jumping like a person with a bee sting if the word "safety"
was mentioned because the Ladbroke Grove lawyers, the victims
and the survivors, were watching. I think that was an overreaction.
There are accidents in transport. I used in a speech yesterday
the example of the Sainsbury's lorry wiping out six people a few
days after Hatfield. That is just like a freight train on a permanent
way, a restricted access permanent way; it is not far from a train,
and how little notice was taken of it. There is this problem of
people pointing the finger. The Daily Telegraph headline
the day after Hatfield was "Who can we blame this time?",
or "Who is to blame this time?". If we insist on blaming
somebody and we put lawyers behind that and courts behind that
and new legislation behind that, we will get the kind of overreaction
where people facing fines and jail financially and personally
will say: "I am responsible only for this patch. I will make
sure there is no risk in this patch. Everybody else can worry
about all the patches they have to worry about; that is their
problem, it is certainly not mine". That is how you get overreaction.
We export risk to each other, pass the parcel, faster and faster,
and I think this is a problem the industry has arrived in. I think
it has been brought to it partly by its own failures to act and
partly by the reactions of others to whatever has happened.
764. Can I ask you just one last point, and
it will be much more difficult to answer this. Do you feel that
the kind of politicisation of the railways is partly to blame
for this overreaction, meaning politicians use these incidents
as a means of scoring points politically?
(Sir Alastair Morton) I do not think that is a fair
statement post-privatisation, I think it has always been like
that. This is a public service and services to the public, whether
health, private sector health, public sector health, or education
or jails or railways, are things that concern Ministers and politicians.
Parliament wants answers on them. There is a pressure for political
response that one has to recognise. You cannot say the fact that
there is private sector ownership is the decisive thing and nobody
must say a word, it is a public service even though it is provided
from the private sector. I think having codes of process, codes
of procedure, codes of behaviour in these would be a good idea
if people respected them. People respect them if they respect
the people involved in them. I do not think anyone will forget
the sight of the original Sir Bob Reid amongst the wreckage at
Clapham, the way he was patently looking at his railway
and feeling responsible for what he saw there. There was no need
for a Minister to be anywhere near. Now where you do not see that,
you tend to say "where is the Minister, what is he doing
about it?" or "Where is Sir Alastair, what is he doing
about it?" People being seen to take responsibility at all
levels, I am not trying to push it to a particular level, is a
very important part of having a concordat about how we react to
these events; and how we react to these events will play a part
in how we deal with them.
765. May I remind the Committee of my interest
in Railtrack, First Group and Eurotunnel. Sir Alastair, did I
understand the Prime Minister to say today that it is now a Strategic
Rail Authority, not a shadow?
(Sir Alastair Morton) I was told that by the Chairman,
Miss McIntosh: I apologise for being late.
Chairman: The decision has been voted on in
the House of Lords. Sir Alastair is now at the moment a respectable
Miss McIntosh: May I congratulate you, Sir Alastair.
Chairman: I give no guarantees for his future
766. Am I to understand that your Chief Executive
gave evidence to the Public Accounts Committee this week? Would
he just like to repeat the evidence he gave to that Committee
on the length of time it would take for the track . . .?
(Mr Grant) It would be a pleasure.
767. As long as it is not four hours long.
(Mr Grant) It was about that long but I will be much
briefer. What I said on the punctuality question was that we had
an aspiration of 15 out of 16 trains on time. It had been committed
by Chiltern to be achieved in four years and by South Central
in ten years and we expected it to be achieved on all the others
within the life of their franchises.
768. What was your comment on the East Coast
Line achieving its targets, did you mention that?
(Mr Grant) That is a discussion that is taking place
at the moment, so it is not finalised as yet. That is part of
the discussion with Virgin and GNER.
(Sir Alastair Morton) Certainly long before the final
(Mr Grant) Long before 20 years anyway.
769. So some of them will manage it in 20 years?
(Sir Alastair Morton) No. At a date to be negotiated
within the franchise, not on the last day of the last year of
(Mr Grant) To date we have Chiltern who have committed
to do it in four years and we have GoVia committed to do it in
770. Could I ask when you are expecting to announce
the franchise for the East Coast Line?
(Mr Grant) We have almost completed all of our analysis,
we have not quite completed it. We have not made a recommendation
to Ministers. It is in the near future but I cannot give you an
771. Sir Alastair, the tragic accident to which
you referred on the road occurred right in the heart of the Vale
of York at Kirby Hill. We currently have, and we are not proud
of this, the worst road safety record in the country, certainly
in England and Wales. It is causing immense concern to those who
travel north or south, the East Coast Line obviously serving those
who wish to travel north to Edinburgh or south to London. We are
concerned that the speed restrictions currently imposed are causing
a greater danger of signals being passed at danger, more overcrowding
on trains and causing more people to travel on the roads. Is there
anything that you can say to put those minds at rest?
(Sir Alastair Morton) Those are among the concerns
that I would hope the industry, looking at things in the round,
would take into account. The trouble comes when you say "who
gets sued?" If you get the lawyer for the survivors of Ladbroke
Grove in, or the victims, I am not sure who Ms Christian represents,
she will give you a very robust answer, she will sue anyone she
772. That is not unusual in lawyers I find.
(Sir Alastair Morton) The need, therefore, if you
are going to have shared responsibility, is to reach what I call
a treaty to share it. That requires mutual confidence between
the parties. I am not saying here today we know we can achieve
that level of confidence in the near future.
773. In your view would the level of investment
that we have seen over the last three years in the railway have
been achieved without private sector involvement?
(Sir Alastair Morton) I would very much doubt it.
People keep talking about how things would be different or better
in the public sector. They might be in the public sector in other
countries but the most important thing about privatisation is
the access it creates to the import of private capital into this
industry which needs capital so badly. You have to pay some prices
Miss McIntosh: Can I ask, do you have any strong
views on whether Railtrack should maintain its contractual relationships
for maintenance work or whether Railtrack
Chairman: Sir Alastair has answered those questions.
774. Can I just ask one last question. Does
Sir Alastair have strong views on the particular formula that
has been chosen not just in Great Britain but in other countries
of separating the track from the operation of services on it?
(Sir Alastair Morton) This has become the European
standard, that the infrastructure provision is separated from
the operators and there is open access. The ambition is to have
open access to the infrastructure which requires, as I was saying
earlier, more capacity than we have got. I take it as a given
that we will have that separation. I did not mention here, I do
not think, but I have mentioned in a number of places that when
the structure was devised, I am told, I was not present, the intention
was that Railtrack would be in the public sector and there was
a later decision to privatise it. The Treasury saw that it could
sell it for some ready cash.
Chairman: They did not actually do very well
when they sold it.
Mr Olner: The lawyers did very well.
Chairman: Others did very well. If the Treasury
are left in the private sector we might be in some trouble.
775. I think you were going to continue.
(Sir Alastair Morton) I think I have made my point.
I do not actually question the separation and I do not preach
renationalisation of any part of it. Our problem is to make work
what we have got. I did sit on the fence, or the hedge, somewhat
with the first question in that I was saying the Government has
to decide. It is a political decision whether to seek a return
on investment for the money put into the industry.
Chairman: We did go into that in some detail.
776. Are some of the existing franchisees in
(Sir Alastair Morton) One of them has announced that.
GB Rail, which is the parent or the holder of the Anglia franchise,
has made a Stock Exchange announcement and it has come to talk
777. Does that mean that you might actually
be driving the trains fairly soon?
(Sir Alastair Morton) I sincerely hope not. We were
under a duty even beforehand, I am not sure if it has changed
in the last few minutes, as British Rail to be the operator of
last resort and that continues, I think.
(Mr Grant) The SRA is the operator of last resort.
(Sir Alastair Morton) It is a duty that we hope not
to see land on our doorstep but if it does we would be prepared
778. You have already shown your enthusiasm
for lawyers but in sorting out compensation for some of those
companies as a result of some of the problems over the last three
weeks there could be quite a lot of money for lawyers to earn.
Is there any way of cutting that out or is it going to be a bear
pit for some time as to who pays for problems?
(Mr Grant) What we have dealt with so far has been
the period eight compensation, which was announced last week.
We have facilitated the deal, if you like, between Railtrack,
the train operating companies and the RPC. What we have done is
we have alleviated the cash flow problems by not collecting some
of the penalties that are due to us. What we have said is we will
look at the position towards the end of the financial year to
see whether the train operating companies are in any difficulties
and take a view at that point whether we should collect it or
779. Do you think it can be resolved without
lots of complicated legal battles?
(Mr Grant) We have