Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Capital Transport Campaign (RI 29)

  On behalf of Capital Transport Campaign, I should like to submit a supplementary memorandum concerning rail investment, as set out in press notice 53/1999-2000 (2-10-2000), in the light of developments since the Committee's inquiry into rail investment was announced in May of this year.

  The rail accident at Hatfield on 17 October has once again focused attention on the issue of investment in and maintenance of the national rail network. Although the causes of this accident have yet to be fully investigated, there is strong evidence to indicate that track quality may be implicated in this accident. Moreover, it appears that Railtrack were aware of track problems in this area and in as many as a hundred other areas in the rail network.

  Statistics from the Health and Safety Executive also demonstrate that there are increasing number of track defects. The provisional figure for broken rails for 1999-2000 is 22 per cent higher than the figure for 1995-96 and 28 per cent higher than the figure for 1996-97, although there is a 4 per cent decrease in the number of broken rails compared with 1998-99. In the Booz Allen and Hamilton report for the Office of the Rail Regulator, published 18 months ago, in March 1999, Railtrack's target with regard to track quality was to "restore track quality to at least its condition as at April 1994 by the end of the control period" (p 9) in 2001.

  The figures cited above combined with the widespread speed restrictions on track of questionable quality introduced in the last few days raise serious doubts as to whether this target can be achieved. After the publication of the Booz Allen and Hamilton report there was substantial "spin" from Railtrack on the question of track quality, the gist of which was that indices of poor track quality reflected the lack of investment in the last years of a nationalised rail system, and should not count against Railtrack. This claim is unlikely to be repeated in the wake of the Hatfield accident.

  Railtrack's figures for its operating performance for the first half of the current financial year should also be considered in assessing its stewardship of the rail system. Railtrack's had been reducing the delay minutes for which it was responsible, with the largest improvement between 1995-96 and 1996-97 [source, Table 1, page 5, Booz Allen and Hamilton report]. However, these delay minutes increased by 10 per cent between April and September of this year—for passenger traffic, while freight traffic, running on a shared rail network, experience a 13 per cent reduction in delay minutes for which Railtrack is responsible. These figures suggest a differential operation of Railtrack's stewardship of the network, with passengers receiving an inferior quality of service to that provided to freight contractors.

  The sharp deterioration in two key indices for Railtrack—track quality and delay minutes for passenger services—raises serious concerns about Railtrack's performance and the effectiveness of regulation in overseeing the activities of Railtrack. Regulation in its present form is often reactive, in the sense of locking the stable door after the horse has bolted, rather than proactive. Whether this can be significantly changed without legislation is a moot question.

  Evidence about Railtrack's investment policies has also emerged in connection with the several stations at West Hampstead, where there is the potential for a significant improvement in the transport network that could contribute to providing an orbital rail network for London, which could significantly reduce passenger congestion in the central areas of London, where it is worse. Railtrack's proposals have been closely monitored by a local consultation group, which has argued that Railtrack have understated future passenger interchange in the light of transport developments. There is also concern that Railtrack is only prepared to offer minor station improvements in the area as a means of gaining planning approval for a lucrative housing and retail scheme, which is, or should be, unrelated to Railtrack's primary objective of stewardship of the national rail network.

  The rail regulator, Tom Winsor, has said that "Railtrack benefits from substantial public funding and it is important to make sure that it focuses its resources on the core business of maintaining and developing the railway network." [Guardian, 20-9-2000]. The resources presently available to regulating Railtrack are insufficient to ensure this. To pursue investment in the development of the rail network from sources other than Railtrack will require both resources and a regulatory framework adequate to ensure that Railtrack focuses on its core business.

  A final issue raised in the press notice is the criteria to be used in replacing rail franchises. One issue that has concerned the Campaign is the failure of the shadow Strategic Rail Authority to require action from train operating companies where the sSRA has itself published evidence of passenger overcrowding. We have analysed the figures published by the sSRA on 20-4-2000, and found that six train operating companies (TOC's) serving the London area were operating route groups where there was overcrowding in excess of the generous set limits. The sSRA had stated in this press release and also in their Annual Report, published in the summer, that "the figures . . . show passengers experience excessive overcrowding on routes operated by four of the ten train operating companies which serve the capital: Thameslink, Connex South Central, South West Trains and Chiltern . . ."

  We wrote to the sSRA with our results, and the reply we received from Robert Plampin of the sSRA Secretariat stated that:

    "The press release that you refer to provides a breakdown by service group[sic] and some groups will obviously be more overcrowded than others. Passengers in excess of capacity is a measure of overcrowding taking into account both seating and standing capacity and is measured for the whole train operating company and not specific individual route groups."

  We are concerned that Mr Plampin's comments substantially modify the load factors and capacity requirements set out in the Passenger Rail Industry Overview (September 1995), which stated that the measure of passengers in excess of capacity "is always used in connection with groups of trains (eg routes, TOC's etc.)"

  Overcrowding is a serious problem for passengers in the Greater London area both from the point of view of comfort and of safety. The criteria used to decide on the replacement of franchises should include reference to effective action to deal with overcrowding. Information is available in the form of the overcrowding figures which can be used to determine whether a TOC is facing a substantial growth in passenger numbers or whether overcrowding indices have increased as a consequence of cuts in services. The sSRA at present is failing to require sufficient effort from TOC's on passenger overcrowding. It should require a clear and enforceable commitment to effective action on overcrowding from any bid for a replacement franchise.

October 2000

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