Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)




  120. Could I apologise for the slightly late start. It is almost inevitable that we take some time. Mr Carroll, welcome to the Committee. Would you mind introducing yourself and your colleagues, and tell us which company you represent and your organisation.

  (Mr Carroll) Good morning, Chairman. Firstly, thank you for the invitation. Although the invitation was actually sent to myself as Managing Director of First Great Western, we have a team here this morning that is representing First, the former FirstGroup, the integrated transport operator. I am the Managing Director of First Great Western; on my right is Justin Davies, Managing Director of First Cymru, the main bus operator; and on my left is Ben Davies, the Assistant General Manager for the business unit now set up in North Western as part of North Western trains.

  121. I understand you have got an opening statement you would like to make?
  (Mr Carroll) Yes, thank you, just a few words of introduction. We welcome the opportunity to give evidence this morning. As First we are representing an overall transport operator; and the largest bus operator in this country; a major player in the train business in operating three train operating companies; and also significant expertise in the provision and operation of tram services in this country; as well as the largest operator of school buses in the United States. I think that represents one of the key issues for us this morning in terms of overall integration in what First has attempted to do in terms of integration and in terms of what it plans to do in future integration. We also believe we have a key responsibility in driving forward current and future improvements in rail services throughout Wales, and we look forward to questioning and debating in that area; and we fully understand the responsibilities that our company has in improving the economic and social prospects of Wales in the provision of extensive bus and rail services. Thank you, Chairman.

Dr Francis

  122. How do you think the current division of responsibility for transport between Westminster and the Assembly promotes (or works against) a fully integrated approach to transport in Wales?
  (Mr Carroll) Our main contacts are with the Strategic Rail Authority as far as the strategic direction of railways and, as part of that, the opportunities as far as rail and bus integration is concerned; and key contacts with the Regional Assembly in terms of priorities for Wales. I think there is a link there between Westminster and Wales. We are organised both in the trains and the bus division to try and take on those priorities and improve both those systems within Wales.

  123. Do you think it is possible for the Assembly to pursue an integrated transport policy without more influence over rail services?
  (Mr Carroll) I think it is certainly possible for the Assembly to influence, and they have sought to do that in the meetings we have with them. The Welsh Assembly seeks to achieve that, yes.

  124. Have they asked you your view as to whether they should have more powers?
  (Mr Carroll) No, they have not.

Adam Price

  125. Could I pursue Hywel's line of questioning further. Do you think it is possible to have a genuinely integrated transport policy when powers over roads and, of course, buses are devolved to the Assembly, while powers over rail remain reserved here at Westminster?
  (Mr Carroll) I think it is possible. It is potentially more difficult, and it clearly requires a clarity as far as relationships and responsibilities, and a clear path of communication; but I believe it is possible, yes.

  126. It would be easier to facilitate that if there was devolution of powers over rail services to Wales as in Scotland?
  (Mr Carroll) I believe that a structure would be easier to manage and have a clarity of accountability if that was the case, yes.

Albert Owen

  127. Just to take that a little further across buses and local authorities having an input. What kind of meetings do you have with them? Do they ask for the Assembly to have more powers or more direction, or are they happy to hold on to what they have got?
  (Mr Justin Davies) In terms of meetings with the local authorities there has been progressively a move to local authorities coming together in a number of different structures throughout Wales. You have got Swift, Switch and Tiger, and you have a number of local authorities working together who are currently developing their own transport plans and initiatives. We have meetings with all of those under both ourselves and with the Confederation of Passenger Transport, and give them our views on how we feel the structure can best be developed. The Assembly themselves have just been consulting on what is the best structure for the administration of transport itself.

Mr Caton

  128. Looking at franchising, the new Draft Directives and Guidance to the Strategic Rail Authority issued in June requires that "all bidders ... must be made aware of the criteria upon which their bids are being assessed". In your experience, has the Government achieved this position with the SRA yet?
  (Mr Carroll) No. Clearly it is a period of significant change within the rail industry at the moment. We are looking forward to a clarity on the franchising process in terms of the mix between two-year franchises, extensions and longer term franchises. We wait with expectations of the SRA's ten-year strategy, which is due out shortly, to provide some of that clarity.

  129. We had the SRA before us last week and they described, both in a written submission and verbally, their previous approach, which had seemed to me fairly vague and nebulous. They were talking about making changes that require much harder defined targets for the bidders. Do you welcome that?
  (Mr Carroll) We would, yes. You are absolutely right, the process would move away from almost a "clean sheet approach"—please come forward with some ideas; and then there is a big debate about money, who pays and whether there are sufficient funds available to secure what is being proposed; against, as you say, a much harder regime in terms of this is what we want to achieve in terms of measurable performance, measurable improvements. I think that would give us a much greater degree of certainty into what one was bidding against, yes.

Mrs Williams

  130. What, in your opinion, would be the benefits or perhaps disadvantages for Wales of short, two-year extensions to existing franchises as opposed to a 20-year franchise?
  (Mr Carroll) The opportunity that a two-year franchise extension presents is in terms of agreeing, as part of that very extension, a package of improvements; and that would, I think, create some immediate improvements. Many would argue the rail industry needs some quick wins, and I think that would certainly be an opportunity of the two-year franchise extension. The disadvantage is that you put off the longer term vision by two years in going through that very approach. Again, many would argue that what we need is a long-term vision and a plan to achieve that.

  131. What do you think?
  (Mr Carroll) I suppose I would hedge my answer in two ways: Wales is made up of a Great Western franchise providing the intercity services from South Wales to London. That franchise currently runs until 2006. I think there are some real opportunities in extending that franchise to 2008 and getting some immediate benefits as part of that negotiation. The new Wales and Borders franchise, and all the opportunities that presents, I think would be best served in moving to a long-term franchise as soon as possible. I think that would create the certainty that the community of Wales is looking for; and I think it would then create the agenda for investment and change and improvements that would be part of a 20-year franchise.

  132. How close is First to agreeing with the SRA and National Express on the transfer of the North Wales section of its franchise?
  (Mr Carroll) Ben is part of the new management team in the North West.
  (Mr Ben Davies) First North Western have set up their business ready for migration into Wales and Borders. The staff in North Wales are almost prepared. The management team in North Wales is almost elect. I have been appointed my new position in North Wales. A new customer services position has already been advertised to take into the new Wales and Borders franchise. As far as everything on the ground is concerned, First North Western is almost ready now for whenever the SRA wish to take a role.

  133. What are the major changes you have made?
  (Mr Ben Davies) We now have a customer services manager, purely looking after North Wales; a stations manager purely looking after North Wales; a dedicated train crew performance manger predominantly looking after train crew, drivers, conductors and performance of services in North Wales. Rather than have one person, a multi-functional person, looking after everything, we now have individual people, responsible people, for those specific responsibilities to give the customer the best in North Wales.

  134. So we should not have the problem in the future of monitors on a major station like Bangor being out of order for months?
  (Mr Ben Davies) No.

  135. You sound very honest and emphatic in your answer?
  (Mr Ben Davies) Yes.

  Chairman: Those are the sort of answers we like!

Albert Owen

  136. If you were successful in your bid for the Wales and Borders franchise, how would you bring your services together, the ones you currently run as First North Western, into the existing Wales and Borders franchise? Alternatively, and equally important, if you were unsuccessful how would you integrate so that passengers have a fully integrated service?
  (Mr Ben Davies) There are two parts to that question. The First's franchise bid for Wales and Borders actually does highlight more North/South services, and integrating those services as well in particular between Chester, Wrexham and the Shrewsbury corridor. That is already detailed in preparation for it.

  137. So you would be able to undertake that?
  (Mr Ben Davies) Yes.

  138. Alternatively, if you were unsuccessful how would you make sure the services did integrate with the new successful bid?
  (Mr Ben Davies) I think that would be down to the incumbent of the new franchisee. It would be the same sort of staffing, the same routes, that enabled First North Western, as we are now, to have that route knowledge to take those services.

  139. Can the passengers be confident that if there are two separate bidders who were successful in winning this franchise that they can have full integration? That is the question I am asking?
  (Mr Ben Davies) I believe so.

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