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

Examination of witnesses (Question Numbers 1-19)




  1. Can I warmly greet you this afternoon. Thank you for coming. You can imagine that what happens in the railway industry is of enormous importance to every one of us. We were are very pleased to hear from you this afternoon. Can I ask you if you can, first of all, identify yourselves?

  (Sir Alastair Morton) Alastair Morton, Chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority.
  (Mr Grant) Mike Grant, Chief Executive of the Strategic Rail Authority.

  2. Do you wish to say anything, Sir Alastair, to start off?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) No, I am happy to try and answer your questions.

  3. Sir Alastair, what is your reply to the criticism that the SRA has no strategy and not a great deal of authority?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) Starting with the easy one, our authority is derived from ministers and from an Act of Parliament. I think we are quite authoritative within the limits of that definition. I do not think it is the place of a specialised agency of government to try and rewrite legislation after the event or contradict ministers exercising their office. Strategy: it is remarkable, in my view, how many people say, "We want to know what we have to do", and when you probe, in the overwhelming majority of cases, what they want is to be told which physical assets are going to be placed into the ground, where, at what time to come in the future, and preferably, at what cost. That is what they mean by strategy. Strategy for a national railway is much more than that, it is the combination of human resources, financial resources, management determination, availability, lots of things. It does not suddenly arrive because somebody sitting somewhere says something. It emerges from the combined wills and intentions of a huge number of parties. We all agree this is a very fragmented industry. I believe, and I am open to be criticised or corrected on this, that the strategy for railways is emerging as ideas settle down about what our problems are, what our resources are and what our priorities should be.

  4. Forgive me, you were in existence in shadow form for two years and you now come up with what you call an agenda, although it is effectively a plan, and you come to us today and say that these ideas are emerging. Do you not think it is a trifle leisurely?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) I think the rail industry has been the subject of quite a lot of set backs, and some of them are of a nature that do disturb a strategic plan that might be emerging. I can give you the best example, which is that in many senses the entire industry rests like an inverted cone, a pyramid on the back of Railtrack and you have a very damaged and sick base in that case. The changes to Railtrack's fortunes that were caused by events around Hatfield, at Hatfield, after Hatfield, and so on, were very substantial indeed. Any strategy that had been built around Railtrack, and there were strategic ideas, had to be eliminated or drastically modified. That is what I mean by emerging.

  5. Let me ask you something else, because of a lack of clarity and urgency about what is happening within the SRA, have either you or Mr Grant thought of stepping down?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) No.

  6. Mr Grant?
  (Mr Grant) No.

  7. You are quite comfortable with your timetable, with your output and with the results of the work you have done so far?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) It is not in my nature to be comfortable about any of those.

  8. Are you uncomfortable in a way which is likely to translate itself into some form of action?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) I think there is a lot of action. I will give you an example, has anyone written to you or brought to your attention or have you noticed, without that happening, that we have published a strategy for the West Midlands.

  9. I do not think you were kind enough to send me that, you are usually very kind and send me copies.
  (Sir Alastair Morton) I went all the way to Birmingham, which was no sweat at all, the train was on time.

  10. I am happy to know you were on the train.
  (Sir Alastair Morton) I set it out with some care but because it did not create the set standard of dispute, "Blair Row Erupts", or any of those, it did not get reported. What I said was there has been work going on for at least two years that I am aware of, because that is how long I have been round, on matters to do with rail capacity and priorities in the West Midlands, that is to and from there. As a result of that study—the latter part of which was done by Railtrack, very well, actually—the following has emerged, and this is what we propose to do, this is our strategy for the West Midlands in two phases. The near term phase, in the next few years, is to increase the number of seats available to people at Birmingham stations, the city centre stations, main line stations, by at least one hundred per cent. Phase two, the further away part, is to create the additional capacity on the main line through Birmingham, which is Coventry to Wolverhampton, involving the development of a station under New Street or next to New Street, under in effect. I said, carefully, that it would be necessary to demonstrate every step along the way, with each part of these two phases, that there was value for money to be had from doing them at the time they might be suggested to be done. I expect them to be done. That is a high level strategy, it is not a defined project with a budget, funded, signed into contracts, it is a strategy. This is the direction we are going, folks, this is what we are going to support and we are going to set about organising people to work on it.

  11. You have a defined timetable to produce that kind of strategy for every part of the United Kingdom. You can also give me a very clear statement of your strategy in relation to, for example, the franchising.
  (Sir Alastair Morton) I did not say that. I said it is emerging, these are strategies and there is one that will be coming out very shortly indeed for freight, another part of the strategy. We said that we are going to publish a strategic plan next November. To be publishable it probably has to be approved by ministers, because under law it has to be, before we can publish it in October. Between now and October the fruits of work done and the case for the West Midlands over more than two years will be rolling forward.

  12. That is one area and you have one strategic plan for that particular area. You are assuming that the timetable for the overall strategy will now be the autumn.
  (Sir Alastair Morton) It will now be the autumn, that is what has been said in public several times, yes.

Mr Donohoe

  13. Will Railtrack itself meet the 21st May deadline it set itself to have most services back to normal?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) I think the answer—Railtrack really ought to answer the question—I would expect the answer to be that a large majority of the services are now operating according to the timetable as was before Hatfield. What percentage punctuality and what percentage of the trains will be running I cannot give you a forecast because I do not know, it would be a forecast. The level of punctuality before Hatfield was down on a year earlier. Whether they will be as punctual as just before Hatfield I think is unlikely to be the case, particularly on the mainlines, the high-speed InterCity lines, however they may be up to the same level of punctuality on most of the commuter lines in London and quite a number of the regional lines. There is going to be a mixed story. The number of trains running to that timetable may be as high as the 98 per cent or 99 per cent, as it was before Hatfield, although I rather doubt it. They will be operating the timetable as back to normal, in that sense, but they will not be matching pre-Hatfield performance.

  14. When do you see that happening?
  (Mr Grant) I can give you some feel for it, last week, which is from 8th October to April 20th, the InterCities were on a punctuality of about 70 per cent. The worry is going to be cross-country, the Great Western region and probably the Great Eastern are probably going to have difficulties on 21st May. As far as London is concerned, this is compared to three months prior to Hatfield, London is 85.5, three months pre-Hatfield it was 86; the regionals last week were 84.5 and three months pre-Hatfield it was 86.7. Overall that gives you a picture of 84.5 on 20th April compared to 86 per cent in the three months pre-Hatfield. There are going to be two or three, maybe four, areas where 21st of May will be looking difficult.

  15. Picking out your crystal ball, when do you expect services to be back to the pre-Hatfield levels then?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) Crystal balls are cloudy. There have been so many dates we do not want to add to the confusion. The problem is on the high-speed lines, let us be clear, the InterCity lines, that is where the problems rest. The fast lines on the West Coast Main Line have been reopened, more or less in full, compared to what they were a few weeks ago. The slow lines are in trouble. There are particular lines, and in a few cases particular areas.

  16. Sir Alastair, it is precisely those lines which are so important, because those are the ones that not only raise large amounts of revenue but they are the ones that people regard as being the core system to many of the rail lines. It is all very well to say there have been so many dates, and we are not going to give you one, but is it really satisfactory that so long after such a major incident we are not able to state when we are going to be back on what is laughingly called a normal service.
  (Sir Alastair Morton) There are two parts of my answer to that question. The first is that it is not satisfactory. The second is that it is not in our power at the SRA to change that. There is no sense in which we manage the maintenance and the operation of the railway, therefore the answer to your question, "What is being done about it and why is more not being done?", has to come from Railtrack. We are not the managers of Railtrack.

  17. No. You may not be in charge of the day-to-day running, nor should you be, but surely a strategic authority should have some say in the speed of response? Surely you would ask them, "When are you going to be back to the levels that you were at before the last major incident?"
  (Sir Alastair Morton) What I have said already, if I may say so, is that I see no point in saying that once again and getting another answer. I will believe they are back to normal when they are back to normal. I do believe they are working at it. I do not find they have left it alone and have gone off to do something else. They will finish that task, with the help of their contractors, just as soon as they can. There is very little, if anything, that the SRA staff or management can do to speed them up.

  18. How is the relationship between yourself and the Regulator?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) That is a completely separate question. It is fine. He has a job to do and we have a job to do.

  19. Are these different jobs completely?
  (Sir Alastair Morton) No, they overlap. I think he has a job that is essentially to do with Railtrack, essentially to do with what I call the day job of Railtrack, the operation and maintenance of the system, which is what we have just been talking about, and our job is essentially to do with the enhancement and future development of the network, which is not the same thing. They do overlap.

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