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Railtrack: Licence Obligations
24 January 2001
Volume 621

2.43 p.m.

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asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether Railtrack is in breach of its licence obligations to operate a reliable rail infrastructure.

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My Lords, licence compliance is a matter for the rail regulator. The rail regulator made a provisional order under Section 55 of the Railways Act 1993 requiring Railtrack to produce, by 18th January, recovery plans for individual train operators. I understand that Railtrack supplied these plans on time and that the regulator is now considering them.

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My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the Rail Freight Group. Is my noble friend aware that, while all this was going on, Leeds station and Willesden station on the West Coast Main Line have been closed for two weeks longer than was planned due, I am told, to mismanagement of the work? But the chief executive of Railtrack is quoted as saying:

"We have had a very successful Christmas/New Year period".
Is this not a case for what Sir Alastair Morton calls the "nuclear" option, and he asks:
"Should they continue to have this monopoly licence to operate the infrastructure"?

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My Lords, while there were delays in regard to both Leeds and Willesden, I am delighted to report that those have now been sorted out. But I am even more pleased to report that by next week 85 per cent of the normal daily total of 18,500 passenger services should be running normally.

I should make it clear that we have no plans to revoke Railtrack's licence. We want Railtrack to succeed most immediately in delivering the rail recovery programme.

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My Lords, will the Minister please inform the House which authority is responsible for specifying the quality of steel to be laid on a particular section of track?

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My Lords, ultimately, the Health and Safety Commission looks at matters to do with safety. Indeed, we have just had a report from Professor Smith and his group which looked at the causes of gauge corner cracking. On the basis of what they know to date—and investigations continue—they have decided that metallurgical reasons were probably not at the root of the problems found on the railway following Hatfield.

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My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that the most frightening aspect of the present situation is that four months after the accident Railtrack is not able to establish who was responsible for a situation where trains were running at 117 miles per hour when, in fact, they should have been confined to 20 miles per hour? Does he not agree that there is a strong case for looking at the management structure of the present system, given that such a situation could not have arisen under the functional structure of the previous British Railways Board?

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My Lords, as your Lordships will know, questions of what went wrong at Hatfield are under active consideration by the Health and Safety Executive and, indeed, by the British Transport Police. However, I assure your Lordships that the lessons are being learnt by the industry and by Railtrack in particular. I believe that the approach to the management of maintenance contracts will change. We believe that that is a question of management but the Government will strive to do whatever they can, through their Rail Recovery Action Group, to help co-operation and co-ordination inside the industry.

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My Lords, following on the previous question, is it not the case that prima facie there is very serious reason to suppose that the technological and engineering management of Railtrack is well below the standards which existed during the British Rail period, even in its last and almost least admirable phase?

Who can interfere and who can play a part in ensuring that that lack can be made right? For example, is it a matter for the rail regulator? Does the Competition Commission have a role? How can the Government stimulate any or either of those bodies to do their duty, if indeed it is their duty? And if it is not their duty, whose duty is it?

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My Lords, the rail regulator does have a duty in that regard. He has a legal duty to enable Railtrack to finance its activities. But he also has a duty to ensure that Railtrack maintains standards across the network. We believe that we have introduced a regulatory regime which is more rigorous than that which existed in the past. Lord Cullen's inquiry is in progress at the moment and we believe that we shall eventually end up with an extremely thorough evaluation of the problems of safety on the network. And in this House and another place we have pledged to implement the recommendations of Lord Cullen.

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My Lords, will the Minister say whether those defective rails met the necessary specifications and, if so, is it not suggested, as a result of Hatfield, that those specifications in themselves were inadequate?

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My Lords, the inquiry into the events at Hatfield goes on. It is being conducted by the Health and Safety Executive, which issued an interim report earlier this week in which your Lordships will have seen the remarkable and, I believe, unprecedented condition of the broken rail at Hatfield. Why the rail came to be in that state is, as I said earlier, a matter for the HSE's further inquiry and for the British Transport Police to establish. It would not be right for me to try to anticipate the findings of those two bodies.

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My Lords, can the Minister tell us what the Rail Recovery Action Group has achieved so far and for how long he believes that it will be in existence?

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My Lords, the Rail Recovery Action Group has been remarkably effective in encouraging co-operation among the various parties on the railways. Included in that group is not only Railtrack but also the train operating companies, including the freight companies, the Health and Safety Executive, the Strategic Rail Authority and the representatives of the passengers. As well as encouraging co-operation and co-ordination across the industry in this time of crisis, we believe that it will also help to increase self-confidence, which was clearly badly shaken by the events of Hatfield, following as they did the events at Paddington. I believe that the group has been effective. It has met twice a week and I anticipate, with the progress that has been made, that we shall be able to reduce that to once a week and close the group before Easter.

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My Lords, does the Minister look forward, like me, to the day when the number of rail engineers in the higher echelons of Railtrack outnumber the accountants or, to put it another way, when the wheel-tappers have taken over from the number-crunchers?

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My Lords, the wheel-tappers and number-crunchers' club! I am delighted to report that in recent weeks in Railtrack there have been significant moves to promote engineers inside the hierarchy and to board level. The new chief executive, Mr Steve Marshall, has made it clear that he feels that that is an area of the company's activities that must be strengthened, and action has already been taken.