Select Committee on Mersey Tunnels Bills Minutes of Evidence

Examinations of Witnesses (Questions 300-319)


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

300. Would you care to say something?

(Mr Wilkinson): We have had ferries crossing the River Mersey for centuries and they are still operating across the Mersey. The fleet is owned by Merseytravel; we have three boats and we run a commuter service in the morning and afternoon, a heritage cruise in between times, and late night cruises during the summer. There are still a number of people who choose to cross the river by the ferry rather than go on the railway or go in a car or in a bus through the Mersey Tunnels.

301. The ferries are not car ferries?

(Mr Wilkinson): They are passengers only, not car ferries.

302. MR GEORGE: Mr Bates is going to give the figures for the numbers on the ferries, but I simply remind my noble Lady that under Clause 91(3)(d) there will now be a power to spend surplus toll money on operating the ferries. They have become expressly one of the groups on whom money can be spent. That concludes the evidence of this witness.

Cross-examined by MR McGOLDRICK

303. MR McGOLDRICK: We are proceeding a lot faster than we anticipated.

304. CHAIRMAN: I am delighted to hear it!

305. MR McGOLDRICK: I get the impression you want us to be as quick as possible, so I will try and follow that. Mr Wilkinson, you mention the history of the tunnels, and the early days, and you said that there was never any intention that the tunnels would be financed by the ratepayers. Is that correct?

(Mr Wilkinson): That is my understanding of the original intent in 1934. Reserve power was provided for rate aid and was, in fact, used. As I understood it, the legislation was created on the basis that the tolls would be charged to the users for a period, ultimately, of 40 years expiring in 1974, and in the intervening period funds would be created which would pay for all subsequent operating and maintenance costs. The tolls would simply be removed after 40 years.

306. I am going to go through volume B and the various tables Mr Wilkinson has commented on and just ask questions, basically, in the order they are in the book. Item B.5 is a graph which shows in blue the vehicles going through Birkenhead Tunnel and yellow the vehicles going through the Wallasey Tunnel. One of the points you made is that the tunnels are reaching capacity, at least during the peak periods. This graph seems to indicate that the Birkenhead Tunnel, since it reached a peak, obviously, shortly after the Wallasey Tunnel opened (although based on this graph it looks as if it actually dipped slightly before the Wallasey Tunnel opened) has now got a lot less vehicles going through it. How does that match up with the fact that the tunnels are near capacity?

(Mr Wilkinson) When the Birkenhead Tunnel was carrying traffic of 18 million vehicles per annum the local newspapers ­ I have brought some of them along with me ­ were talking about rush hour traffic chaos, hundreds leave buses and walk to work, what can be done to avoid this. The newspapers at the time were calling for another crossing. That is the position which I am trying to avoid or which I referred to when giving evidence. The reality was that from the late 50s and early 60s onwards the Birkenhead Tunnel was a struggle with chaotic traffic jams and Liverpool and Birkenhead were grid­locked.

307. MR MCGOLDRICK: I agree that was the case at one stage. You said that the solution to that was building the Wallasey Tunnel, was anything else done that alleviated a lot of this congestion?

(Mr Wilkinson) Considerable sums were spent on ventilation work in the Queensway Tunnel, something in the region of about £6 million had to be spent because the queues were so long, they were backing up through the tunnel and the fumes were growing to dangerous levels.

308.MR MCGOLDRICK: Was anything done to alleviate the congestion before the Wallasey Tunnel?

(Mr Wilkinson) I am not sure I understand the question.

309. CHAIRMAN: My interpretation of that is were there other traffic crossings, any other roads built, ferries put up or some other form of transport?

(Mr Wilkinson) I know of nothing else that was done.

310. MR MCGOLDRICK: Mr Wilkinson said that he knew of nothing else but there were substantial things done to alleviate congestion, the three main tolls on the Liverpool side were moved to the Birkenhead side, a lot of the congestion was due to the toll and by relocating on one side reduced the congestion in Liverpool city centre considerably. The second thing was the construction of the flyovers in Liverpool and Birkenhead to segregate the tunnel traffic from other traffic, again that made a tremendous difference in the congestion. The other thing was vast marshalling areas were created in Birkenhead.

(Mr Wilkinson) The first two issues mention may have brought temporary relief to the operation of the Queensway Tunnel. We now collect tolls on the Wirral side of the river for both tunnels. The flyover referred to, one at least has come down, the marshalling yards which are being referred to which were needed, at Kings Square on the Wirral was just a means of stacking up the traffic and trying to organise it into two fairly orderly lines for going through the tunnel. It was a series of marshalling yards in which traffic had stacked up, it just had to wait until the traffic lights allowed people to go forward. My understanding, based on a discussion last evening, with the General Manager of Mersey Tunnels, is that those marshalling yards did not work very well and motorists did not wish to confirm to the traffic lights and therefore it did not work as well as I think the petitioner is suggesting.

311. MR MCGOLDRICK: Right. You mentioned at one stage the authorities were trying to get Government aid. I think you mentioned eight applications for government aid. Can you tell us when the last application for government aid was made?

(Mr Wilkinson) I can tell you precisely if you want the detail, it was just prior to the increase in the Mersey Tunnel tolls from 60 pence to £1 for cars in April 1992. The application was made by Merseytravel trying to avoid such a draconian toll rise. The only success we got from that was an allowance for two years for credit approval to help finance a small modicum of refurbishment work. We had no promise of any other form of government aid.

312. CHAIRMAN: No attempt has been made since 1992.

(Mr Wilkinson) The tunnels have been breaking even since 1992.

313. The answer is yes.

(Mr Wilkinson) The answer is yes.

314. MR MCGOLDRICK: Can I ask you to turn to table B20 at page 73. Paragraph 4.3 mentions the fact that the tunnels have been able to accelerate the redemption of debt by £3 million 2000/01 and 2002/03 in each case. In relation to the last accelerated redemption of debt why did Merseytravel decide to do that when at the same time they were seeking an increase in the tolls?

(Mr Wilkinson) My Lord, there was substantial under spending in that year on refurbishment costs. In those circumstances there are effectively two things you can do, you either hang on to the money in the reserve and renewals fund or it could be used to repay the Tunnel's debt and by so doing you reduce the debt charges of Mersey Tunnels beyond that point which means that you stand a chance of improving your viability position from that point on. I choose to do that. As to why it did not contribute or why I was trying to get a toll increase all I can say is that the Passenger Transport Authority took my advice that there was a clear engineering need to build emergency escapes, passageways or refuges in the Queensway Tunnel. It would be irresponsible for the Passenger Transport Authority not to take some steps to seek the means of financing a scheme which at that point in time was estimated to cost £10 million. In engineering terms we have been able to cut the job into a number of bits and we are only spending £6 million in the first phase. I said that on a previous occasion. At that point we were looking for £10 million and I felt that the right way to proceed and the ideal way to proceed would to be get borrowing consent to get us over that temporary problem but every avenue I explored with the Department for Transport officials got me nowhere, that was the position at the time, and I really felt that a toll increase was the only way forward and a toll increase would have brought enough income to pay for the lion's share of the work on a permanent basis. When it came to the closure of the accounts for 2002/03 I was offered or saw an opportunity to again repay the tunnel debt. At that point in time of rebuttal of my request for credit approval I saw signs of the Government Office for the North West agreeing with us, they were at least giving us an opportunity to re-bid for credit approval for the work. I felt this was worthwhile doing because I could see we could get an opportunity here to finance the work in the way I described earlier.

315. Approval is permission to borrow.

(Mr Wilkinson) Yes, it is.

316. When did you initially apply for credit approval?

(Mr Wilkinson) Initially in September 2002.

317. That was presumably turned down.

(Mr Wilkinson) No, I got no reply.

318. No reply.

(Mr Wilkinson) So I wrote again.

319. When did you get a reply?

(Mr Wilkinson) I never did.

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