Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 230-239)




  230. Good evening, gentlemen. I apologise for making you wait. I am afraid we have been taking some very interesting evidence and I am sure you will understand. Would you be kind enough to identify yourselves for the record?

  (Mr Rix) I am Mick Rix, General Secretary of ASLEF.
  (Mr Crow) Bob Crow, General Secretary, RMT.
  (Mr Rosser) Richard Rosser, General Secretary, TSSA.

  231. Is there any one of you who wants to make some opening remarks or do you have someone who would speak for all three of you?
  (Mr Rosser) I should like to make some opening remarks on my own behalf.

  232. Please begin.
  (Mr Rosser) Looking at the terms of reference, there is certainly something I wanted to say about the issue of levels of investment as far as the TOCs are concerned in the North of England and it is simply this. There are several so-called experts, independent people, who are producing figures to say that at current prices it now costs two or three times more than it did in the days of BR to undertake major investment projects. Obviously our concern on that, particularly bearing in mind that the SRA's plan of proposals for the next ten years is not exactly heavily weighted in favour of the North, is that if we are also faced with a situation where, for reasons that we perhaps will not go into, it appears to cost more nowadays at current prices to carry out projects than in the days of BR, whether in fact the money that is there is going to deliver the projects claimed. If you look at the track and re-signalling scheme, the Leeds First scheme, for example, that was originally expected to cost some £165 million and is now estimated to have cost £245 million. The second point I should like to make is that clearly it is quite crucial as far as the services in northern England are concerned that there is co-operation and trust between the PTEs and the Train Operating Companies. As I know your Committee will be more than aware, that trust does not always seem to exist at the present time and really does need to be rectified. One appreciates, having said that, that there is a little bit of a clash of interest because the PTEs inevitably tend to look at things from the local service perspective, companies like East Coast Mainline and West Cost Mainline will obviously look at it from a rather wider perspective than that and the freight companies have a different view. This does emphasise the importance, frankly, of the role of the Strategic Rail Authority and, I would say, the need to remember that it is a national rail network and to remember that what happens in one part of the system can have an effect on what is happening many miles away. The third point I should like to make is that I think there is a lot of scope for further railway re-openings in the North of England. One can still think of quite large population centres without a rail service: Washington, Leigh, Skelmersdale, Blyth, which are not rail linked. In fact railway re-openings, as opposed to the construction of completely new lines, is pretty good value for money when compared with the cost of road building, dual carriageway and certainly much better value than building a motorway. We do very much support the approach in the SRA plan where the SRA Chairman has made it very clear that the money is there to preserve and maintain the services which already exist. He has said particularly, for example, in the regional networks where the cost of supporting those is significantly higher. We have seen one or two articles in the media recently by people who have questioned whether we ought to be continuing with some of the rural routes and we hope that statement by the Chairman of the SRA means as far as the SRA is concerned we are not about to embark on any form of Beeching Mark II. Our concern about the SRA and the letting of the franchises in the North of England is that they may be looking for significant reductions or reductions in costs over what it is currently costing to run those franchises. They are after all putting them out to competition. If that is the case, we fear that will have an adverse effect on quality of service and indeed on staffing. After all, the reason why the existing operators are in trouble is because when the original franchises were taken out there were some very over-optimistic bids, I have no doubt by companies which simply took the view that British Rail was inefficient, therefore ipso facto it must be possible to achieve substantial savings. Many of those companies have found out that British Rail was not quite so bad at operating railway services as they may have chosen to imagine. A further point in relation to freight traffic. We are concerned, because it is particularly important in the North of England, at speculation there has been in the media that there may be moves to reduce the value given to rail projects in reducing road congestion in the context of the Government's review of the ten-year plan, expected shortly. We very much hope that is not the case because if there is, or that does prove to be true, it presumably means that fewer rail projects will be deemed to be viable. May I also say a word on the split between the Trans-Pennine and Northern franchises? Our members concerned certainly feel that it is a rather artificial split and are not quite sure why the SRA are pursuing it. If you do make splits, you do reduce flexibility and it can lead to increases in costs in relation to franchises which are not very healthy financially anyway. We believe as far as the services in the North are concerned, indeed we say this throughout the country, that there is a need for clockface timetables on all routes so that people will know when the services are running and encourage use. We do not agree with some of the pricing strategies, which appear to be trying to price out of the market passengers who just turn up on the day and want to travel. This actually seems to be contrary to the policies of many local authorities which are seeking to discourage car use. It does not seem very helpful if the local railway company has a fares policy which does not seem to be in accord with that. There also appears to be some frustration which is expressed to us by our members at the sometimes very slow progress being made over the re-opening of local stations. One example which has been quoted to us is Haxby and Strensall on the York to Scarborough line. There is, as they see it, an inability between the SRA, Railtrack and the TOCs to work together with the local councils to find agreeable solutions. At least there will be a bit more impetus being given there. A final point on the letting. It looks like being the two franchises but the letting of the franchises should not just be based on which is the cheapest, it should actually be looked at to see which is the one which gives most added value to the rail user.

  233. We shall take up various of those points.
  (Mr Crow) We put in a written submission on 10 June on the terms of reference of the inquiry being held today. We welcome the Committee's inquiry into rail services in the North of England. We believe that the problems in this area illustrate wider problems with the Government's rail strategy, lack of co-ordination, lack of clarity, over-reliance on private funding and discredited private companies. The current franchising process serves to institutionalise these problems rather than resolve them. RMT's considered view is that without a properly accountable public railway, improvements will be difficult to deliver. I support all that Richard said on behalf of his union, the TSSA. The point we should like to get over is that after the 2001 General Election bidding was re-started following concerns about the robustness of the process and its vulnerability to legal challenge from other bidders. At that point the scope of the franchise was reduced substantially so that the winner of the bidding would be the company which offered best value. The current plan is that the new franchise will start in 2003, however the Strategic Rail Authority have now scaled down Sir Alastair's initial proposals, the inter-city concept, so that there will be no infrastructure investment in the first contract phase. Proposed major infrastructure enhancements to the infrastructure surrounding Manchester Victoria are now off the agenda. New bids will be focused around Manchester Piccadilly, at which there are major train path constraints. There will be no re-opening of the Sheffield/Manchester route via Woodhead Tunnel as proposed by the South Yorkshire PTA because of lack of funds and train paths at Manchester. The rolling stock is now likely to be pre-owned or cascaded, probably ex-Midland Mainline stock, rather than new inter-city stock. Those are our major concerns and as a result of that we have submitted 33 points in our written submission which you should have received on 10 June.

  234. You will find our questions are based on what you have told us. How do you compare industrial relations between staff on the Arriva franchises and the other Northern franchises?
  (Mr Crow) We have major problems with Arriva. We have been in dispute with them and had 13 days of action. We have no confidence in their industrial relations whatsoever. Even though we are opposed to privatisation of the railways network we have to deal with the employers of the day and we have a partnership arrangement with GNER and have a good industrial relations record with GNER. We do not have a problem when we are asking for release of the representatives to consult either with our office or vice-versa. On the industrial relations side, we certainly have a far better relationship with GNER than our non-existent industrial relationship with Arriva.

  235. Do they consult with you?
  (Mr Crow) GNER do; yes.

  236. Are you saying Arriva do not?
  (Mr Crow) We have been in dispute with Arriva since the beginning of January and there has been a total breakdown.

  237. Has there been any indication that there will be any changes in that situation?
  (Mr Crow) No, not at the moment.

  238. Mr Rosser, your members have been involved in that area.
  (Mr Rosser) Yes, I would agree with what Bob has said about GNER. We too would comment favourably on our working relationships with that particular company. One might say that perhaps GNER might be financially a little bit better off. As far as Arriva is concerned and the current situation, as your Committee will know, during 2001 the SRA entered into cost-plus agreements with Arriva which means that the SRA has to consent to major management actions, as though we were in the last 12 months of the franchise. One has to say on the industrial relations front at the moment, it does appear—certainly that was the case a few weeks ago—that the company's hands might be being tied.

  239. Are you saying that the reason they are giving you for their problems and the fact that they are not negotiating with you at the present moment, is that they are constrained by the actions of the Strategic Rail Authority?
  (Mr Rosser) It took a lot of dragging out of them, but eventually they did turn round and say this, that the SRA would not clear things. I would have to say that the most recent contact we have had with the company is that the stance they are taking is that irrespective of the stance of the SRA they themselves would not wish to move any further.

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