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Transport Policy: Railways

Volume 620: debated on Thursday 14 December 2000

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3.23 p.m.

Whether, in view of the state of the railways, they will reconsider their transport policy.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(Lord Macdonald of Tradeston)

My Lords, the Government's integrated transport policy was outlined in the transport White Paper and supported by our 10-year transport plan that set out a £180 billion programme of spending, including £60 billion for rail to ensure that our transport policies are delivered.

Our rail policies are founded on increased investment to maintain, renew and enhance passenger arid freight services and will be delivered inside the frameworks approved only recently by Parliament in the Transport Act 2000. We shall, of course, make adjustments as necessary to ensure that we carry out safety recommendations arising out of the inquiry currently being conducted by Lord Cullen.

My Lords, I welcome the thrust of the noble Lord's reply and the Government's announcement this morning of further spending that will help in the longer term. However, we have a more immediate problem. As the train delays are to continue until Easter, and possibly beyond, and as increasing numbers of hard-pressed people are having to switch from rail to the airways and to road travel, will the noble Lord take every step—we have great faith in him—to ensure that we do not have a repeat of the chaotic situation on the railways in our airports and on the motorways?

My Lords, we shall try to ensure that there is no repetition of the situation on the railways. In some sense, that situation is unique because it has been caused by a phenomenon known as "gauge corner cracking" and a rate of propagation that was quite unexpected by the engineers. Be assured, we are doing everything in our power to try to support Railtrack in its attempts to deal with the problem. At a Rail Recovery Action Group meeting this week I was assured by Railtrack that by the end of January 85 per cent of services will be returned to normal.

We have brought the Rail Recovery Action Group together because we believe that having the Health and Safety Executive, the DETR, the Rail Passengers' Council, the Strategic Rail Authority and Railtrack round the same table will not only give the Railtrack bosses the confidence that they need to proceed, but it will also lessen the distractions on their valuable time. Their priority must be to get the railways running again.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the sheer scale of the present problem is without precedent not only in this country but also in any other major railway passenger system? Does he also agree that the fragmentation of the post-privatisation management structure is a major part of that problem? Is it not time that we considered returning to a more logical structure, while retaining a mixture of public and private finance? We must not simply try to patch it up and continue with the present system.

My Lords, I respect the analysis offered by the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, in view of his background as Secretary of State for Transport. I believe that the railways are too fragmented; and I believe that that is accepted even by the previous administration now that they can see the outcome. Further, I believe that it is also a matter of management. We are assured by the management now in place in Railtrack that they understand where some of the difficulties have arisen through over-extended lines of supply and communication with their maintenance contractors. I also understand that the strategy of Sir Alastair Morton and his refranchising of the railways anticipates that there will be a consolidation of ownership there too. By giving as much support as possible to the industry, I believe that we shall see changes occurring that will be consistent with the analysis that the noble Lord offers and that we shall see a rationalisation of the railways in the future.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that much of the splintering of the railways is a result of the privatisation caused by the previous government which his 10-year plan is supposed to put right? Does he agree with the report of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs in another place, published yesterday, that Railtrack's management has been guilty of systematic, often-repeated failings, and that radical changes should be made to the way that the company is managed.

My Lords, I believe that the Railtrack board itself has accepted that it may have done better in the past. It is a company that emerged from public ownership only a few years ago. I believe that it is still in the process of finding the right kind of balance and expertise that it needs to manage such a complicated system. I do not believe that it is necessary to intervene in the ways suggested, such as government shareholdings in the railways. The shareholders, through the board, should ensure that they have the right management in place. If the right management is not in place, the board can take action; if the board does not take that action, the shareholders can take action and ultimately the market can deal with it by a takeover of that company if it does not perform as the shareholders want. I suggest also that within the structures that have been created, we shall be able to help it to manage better.

My Lords, does the noble Lord still say, as he did in the famous New Statesman article, that, "There is no rail crisis", or does he agree with the Prime Minister who said earlier this week that travelling on the railways is absolute hell?

My Lords, I am grateful for that question. In the unlikely event that the noble Lord opposite is a subscriber to the New Statesman, he will see in it today a letter from me which puts on the record that my reply to the question of, "Is there a crisis on the railways?", was, "I think that there is a crisis and that crisis must be managed". I then went on to talk about other crises of investment, confidence and political control. I agree that what is happening on the railways is dreadful for too many people. That is why we are working with such vigour to try to get things sorted out as quickly as possible.