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National Rail Academy

Volume 405: debated on Tuesday 13 May 2003

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What progress is being made towards the establishment of a National Rail Academy. [112573]

I am pleased to report that the National Rail Academy was formally established on 1 April. Its aim is to provide a cost-effective means of ensuring that the rail industry has the right people with the right skills at the right time.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the announcement, having pushed for the National Rail Academy for more than five years. My worry is that it will be a virtual academy and that virtually no training will take place. We need a chief executive, and we need a headquarters. What progress has been made?

As my hon. Friend probably expects, the Strategic Rail Authority has, since the announcement, been approached by a large number of organisations about where the academy should be located and what it should do. The SRA will consider those views to establish what the industry needs and is prepared to support before it chooses the route forward. The idea is that the academy will be not a single, bricks-and-mortar establishment, but a strategic co-ordinating facility that is able to develop new and existing training facilities around the country as it works with the industry. I take the point, which my hon. Friend has made to me personally, that when it is decided where to locate the core centre, we should seriously consider the claims of Carlisle, which he and others have advanced, given its long record of service to the railway industry.

Given that it is now 14 months since the then Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the right hon. Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers), talked about the allocation of funds to the academy, can the Minister at least tell the House what he expects the public expenditure cost of the academy to be in this financial year?

That is a matter for the Strategic Rail Authority, which will be working with the industry—the train operating companies, Network Rail—and the contracting companies that work with the industry. As I said, the key role of the rail academy is to act as a coordinating organisation. That role may develop, especially in identifying skills shortages in the industry. The concept of the academy is to work with the industry, co-ordinating training that is already being undertaken, and also to look at the skills shortages. I remind the hon. Gentleman that, as a result of his party's privatisation programme and the way in which it was implemented by the train operators, we had substantial redundancies among a number of skills, not least in signalling and train driving, which led to the shortage that has created considerable problems for the industry. The rail academy will be addressing that.