Select Committee on Mersey Tunnels Bills Minutes of Evidence

Examinations of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)


The Petition of David Loudon, John McGoldrick and MR JOHN McGOLDRICK examined

40. Work is now under way in devising improved escape ways for the Queenway Tunnel, making use of the space in the large invert beneath the carriageways. When you drive through the tunnel one tends to forget that being circular in dimensions there is a large area underneath where you are driving through and that is the place where you can put down staircases and use the invert as an escape mechanism, in case you have a fire, for instance, or a serious accident in the middle of the tunnel. It is very expensive to do but is the sort of thing which is nowadays expected - and, the Committee may feel, rightly expected - of authorities.

41. It was thought that it was going to be necessary to have an extra one-off tunnel toll revision last year to pay for some of these works. However, at the last moment the Department for Transport gave government approval for further borrowing of £2.4 million and, therefore, it was not necessary to proceed with that application, which was for a one-off toll rise particularly to deal with that matter. The debt was simply added to, to the extent of £2.4 million, which will be part of the money spent on these improvements.

42. The second recent development is that on the 16 January 2003 the European Commission proposed a new Directive on tunnel safety, and Lordships will find that at document A.34. Its technical name is given at the top. It is 2002/03/09. The aim of that being to achieve a uniform, constant and high level of protection for all European citizens driving through tunnels on the trans-European road network. I do not want to mislead your Lordships. That Directive is, in the first place, has not yet come into force and, secondly, it only applies to the trans-European road network, and the Mersey Tunnels are not part of that network. However, when that Directive was referred to the Committee on Regional Policy, Transport and Tourism, they suggested an amendment to it, which I will read to your Lordships. "So that it contain a provision 19A that Member States are encouraged to implement comparable safety standards for road tunnels located in their territory that do not form part of the European road transport network and, consequently, do not fall within the scope of this Directive."

43. The Commission has apparently now agreed a modified proposal for the Directive on 26 February 2004, but they have not yet published its text, so we do not know whether they have included 19A. Whether or not 19A is included, it is surely right that bodies who manage tunnels should review standards in the light of proposed European legislation, and regard it as a benchmark. Your Lordships will find, at A.34, that the Directive proposes a whole series of safety measures. I do not take your Lordships through them - they have got to have various officials with individual tasks. In particular, if one goes to Article 3, which is on page 239 of your Lordships' bundle, at Article 3(i) "Member States shall ensure that tunnels in their territory meet the minimum safety requirements laid down in Annex 1", and then in Annex 1 there are a whole variety of measures.

44. We are not saying that every matter referred to in Annex 1 is necessarily either relevant to these tunnels or will be put into effect, but already this Directive has had the effect of putting a new focus on tunnel safety, and we would ask that that be commended by your Lordships. I mention that matter because there is a suggestion in some circles that we are taking safety unduly seriously. What we simply say is that it is right endlessly to keep the matter under review, and that the whole question of escape-ways and the like - ventilation and so forth - inevitably cost money, and will be a call upon the toll revenues in the future to an extent which it has not been in the past.

45. PROFESSOR THE LORD BRADSHAW: In the Explanatory Memorandum to the Bill, a sum of £8.5 million is needed to be secured to enable safety works arising out of the report to be completed by 2006 at the latest. I assume that that money is in addition to that to which you have just referred.

46. MR GEORGE: The £8.5 million particularly had in mind the draft of the Directive and is the money which it is planned to spend pursuant to the Directive.

47. PROFESSOR THE LORD BRADSHAW: So that £8.5 million is all of it?

48. MR GEORGE: It is all that is presently envisaged, but a number of the works are still at an early planning stage. They have been costed and the £8.5 million refers to the costings at this stage. One cannot cross one's heart and say that they will not cost more; one can say that it is very seldom that works cost less. Those are the sort of figures. In other words, one is thinking in terms of millions of pounds.

49. CHAIRMAN:Just to be absolutely clear on that point, the £8.5 million mentioned in the explanatory memorandum, does that include the £2.4 million that you referred to or exclude it?

50. MR GEORGE: The £2.4 million which is borrowed is going to go towards the £8.5 million, the rest is going to come from the total.

51. CHAIRMAN:Thank you, it is subsumed within. Thank you very much.

52. MR GEORGE: Your Lordships will have seen in the Explanatory Memorandum four purposes set out for the Bill and I adopt those headings and just want to say a few words about them. It is the first page of the explanatory memorandum and it is page 99 of the bundle. The first is, "(1) to amend the statutory provisions relating to the levying and revision of tolls for use of the tunnels particularly so that, in future, tolls are revised with reference to inflation".

53. Mr Wilkinson will explain the structure of the outstanding debt and if your Lordships want to bear in mind a figure, a figure of 94.6 million is the latest figure I can give your Lordships, that is what we believe the debt will stand at at the end of March this year, at the end of the present financial year. That is, of course, the major cost which has to be paid in addition to the cost on operation and refurbishment.

54. Merseytravel's case is that the existing mechanism for toll rises is wholly inadequate, it involves expense and delay and that a much more sensible system is to tie the tolls to the RPI. It seems to us that in an age of devolved government and when subsidiarity and proportionality are meant to be key things the present situation is frankly ridiculous. Our thinking is something in line with that of the Government in relation to the Dartford crossings. In the case of both those crossings there are tolls and they are linked to the RPI by a mechanism very similar to that which is proposed in the Bill, and that is what we are suggesting.

55. Your Lordships will find the two relevant measures in the bundle, if I can ask your Lordships to turn to A.29, it is the Severn Bridges Act 1992 and at page 165 in section 9 (4), at the top of the page, your Lordships will see that the RPI is involved and in that way you do not have to have applications for toll rises, it simply keeps up with the RPI.

56. The position at Dartford is similar and is contained at A.31 in the A282 Trunk Road (Dartford­ Thurrock Charging Scheme) Order 2002.

57. CHAIRMAN: Could you repeat the page again?

58. MR GEORGE: Page 182, in document A.31 and that order is made under the Transport Act of 2000 as your Lordships will see in the preamble to the Order. The relevant passage there is at page 185 in Schedule 3. At paragraph 3 you will see that there is a mechanism incorporating the retail price index.

59. My second witness Mr Bates will explain why we have chosen the simple RPI link rather than any of the other more complex indices, frankly most of the other indices would lead to a higher rise in the toll, higher than we think is necessary. It seems to us what is good enough for Severn and Dartford is good enough for us also.

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