Transport Questions with the Secretary of State (HC 379-i)
Transport Committee 24 Feb 2010
Evidence given by Department for Transport Rt Hon Lord Adonis, Secretary of State for Transport
Q24 Mr. David Clelland: To come back to the strategic road network, Secretary of State, has the Department now given up on the objective of creating a proper three-lane motorway on the A1(M) all the way from London to Newcastle?
Lord Adonis: No.
Q25 Mr. David Clelland: Your answer is "no" and so the objective is still to create a proper three-lane motorway from Scotch Corner to ---
Lord Adonis: As you know, we are currently investing in the A1 upgrade from Dishforth to Barton and the A1 upgrade from Dishforth to Barton will provide a motorway standard road through to Newcastle. At the moment, the Dishforth to Leeming section, which is the southern section of that project, is proceeding at a cost of £318 million. Work began last March and is due to be completed by spring 2012, and the process is under way for the remaining section from Leeming through to Barton.
Q26 Mr. David Clelland: I appreciate that and that is well done. However, it is the section of the road north of there that I am talking about.
Lord Adonis: I thought your question was about to Newcastle.
Q27 Mr. David Clelland: The question was about a three-lane motorway from London to Newcastle. When we get to Scotch Corner of course it reduces to a two-lane motorway.
Lord Adonis: But this will be a motorway standard road.
Q28 Mr. David Clelland: Yes, but it will be two lane not three lane?
Lord Adonis: On the issue of north of Newcastle, of course that ---
Q29 Mr. David Clelland: I am not talking about north of Newcastle; I am only talking about between Scotch Corner and Newcastle at the moment. You are aware that we had a discussion about the Highways Agency now proposing that that section of the A1(M) around Tyne and Wear is to be reduced to 50 mph in advance of creating three very narrow lanes out of the current two lanes. Is there a danger that rather than having a proper three-lane motorway through the North East, the whole of the length of the motorway is eventually going to be three very narrow lanes at 50 mph so that people travelling from London to Scotch Corner on a normal motorway at 70 mph are going to come to the North East when everybody is reduced to 50 mph? Is that going to happen?
Lord Adonis: I was not aware that the 50 mph limits were going to be in place for any indefinite period. I am happy to look at that. I know that there have been temporary arrangements necessarily while work is taking place. I was not aware that there were proposals which would have permanent reductions in the speed limit. I am happy to look at that.
Q30 Chairman: Secretary of State, could you perhaps look at that and let us know what you find in answer to Mr Clelland's question?
Lord Adonis: Yes. I should stress that one of the biggest investments that the Highways Agency is currently engaged in is upgrading the A1 south of Newcastle to get a motorway standard road.
Mr. David Clelland: That is south of the North East you are talking about. South of Newcastle it is motorway standard but it is two-lane motorway as opposed to the rest of the country.
Chairman: Lord Adonis will give a full response to that question.
Q64 Mr. David Clelland: Members of Parliament have been receiving a considerable amount of post from worried constituents about the proposals by Network Rail to reduce maintenance staff by 1,500 and of course trade unions, rail unions, have claimed that this could result in another Hatfield disaster. What is your response to that?
Lord Adonis: Maintaining a safe railway is a prime duty of Network Rail and ensuring that a safe railway is maintained is a prime duty of the Office of Rail Regulation. I have met with the trade unions which have voiced their concerns. What I said to them was that any concerns that they wished to put in writing to me I would immediately forward to the ORR, and I encouraged them to make their concerns known to the Office of Rail Regulation. I believe they have done so. They have certainly sent some to me and I forwarded those to Anna Walker, the Chair of the Office of Rail Regulation. On 29 January, Anna Walker wrote to me to say, and I quote: "I can assure you that we have been scrutinising Network Rail's restructuring proposals for some time and that we will continue to do so. We will make our own independent judgment as to whether the proposed new structure and workforce can safely maintain the railway and will take the appropriate follow-up and enforcement action if we believe safety may be compromised as a result of the changes." So the ORR is taking its responsibility seriously. They are, as I understand it, in detailed dialogue with Network Rail on issues to do with job reductions and the safe operation of the railway. I believe that they will in due course be making further statements.
Q65 Mr. David Clelland: As of now, we actually do not know whether these redundancies will have an effect on safety or not. We are waiting for that.
Lord Adonis: What I do know is that the ORR has a prime responsibility to ensure that any changes to maintenance practices that are made are consistent with the safe operation of the railway and that they are engaged with Network Rail to be satisfied that the changes in maintenance practices that are taking place are indeed consistent with that.
Q66 Mr. David Clelland: When will they expect to have the results of that investigation?
Lord Adonis: This work is ongoing at the moment and I would expect the Office of Rail Regulation to make further statements on this issue.
Q67 Chairman: These cuts have come about because the same Office of Rail Regulation has demanded over 20% of cuts from Network Rail following similar cuts in the previous control period. Are you not uneasy that the same Office of Rail Regulation is responsible for both economic regulation and for safety regulation? Is there not a conflict there?
Lord Adonis: The ORR is expected to operate proper assessments when it makes efficiency judgments and of course its responsibility to maintain a safe railway is a prime responsibility. It is essential that it maintains Chinese walls within the organisation.
Q68 Chairman: Are you satisfied that that happens? After all, the ORR demands efficiency cuts. As a consequence of that, Network Rail is losing all these jobs, all at the front line, leading to great fears about safety. Then it is the same ORR that declares safety is not being jeopardised. Surely there is a conflict there?
Lord Adonis: They are expected to operate Chinese walls within the organisation.
Q69 Chairman: Are you satisfied on that?
Lord Adonis: I am satisfied that they do take this responsibility immensely seriously. It was Parliament which set in place the arrangements to ensure that these responsibilities were pulled together. This was long before my time; it was because they believed that these responsibilities were not being properly maintained within the HSE. Members of the Committee will recall the previous regime; the concern that there was then was that having rail safety as one of many responsibilities of the HSE was not giving a sufficient priority to rail safety issues and that having a more expert safety inspectorate in the ORR would improve the regulation of safety. That was the background, and remember that this was in the light of very serious rail accidents which had taken place before these arrangements were put in place in 2005. The factors which led to the current arrangements were, it seems to me, perfectly proper considerations which led to the current arrangements, and the ORR does take absolutely seriously its prime responsibility to maintain safety alongside its economic regulatory duties.
Q70 Chairman: What steps are the Department taking to ensure that those Chinese walls are maintained? After all, 1,500 redundancies are taking place on people dealing with inspecting and laying lines and overhead lines. Safety concerns have been realised. You are assuming that there are Chinese walls. Is the Department doing anything to ensure that that is in fact the case?
Lord Adonis: I have been assured by the ORR that they are taking concerns that have been drawn to their attention immensely seriously and that they will be in a position to say more about those concerns after they have looked at the concerns that have been expressed to them. On the basis of the assurances I have been given and our view that the ORR is doing a satisfactory job, we are so satisfied. I should say that the judgment that matters in this respect is the judgment of those people who have the responsibility and that is the ORR, which has been entrusted by Parliament with the responsibility for regulating safety. That is an immensely important and serious responsibility which the ORR has and it is a responsibility which it accepts and undertakes.
Q71 Mr. David Clelland: We await with some concern the outcome of those investigations by the ORR. In the meantime, to what extent are you concerned that these redundancies may result in a possible skills loss in the industry? A lot of these jobs are highly skilled jobs.
Lord Adonis: If you look at the Network Rail programme of activity over what is called CP4, the next five years, and if you look at the enhancements together with the renewals and maintenance work, the totality of work that Network Rail undertakes is broadly maintained across that period. In terms of the skills base for the rail industry, I do not believe that the skills base at large is an issue here. Of course for those who are directly engaged in certain maintenance activities there are changes taking place, and I would expect Network Rail to ensure that they have the requisite skills in their organisation to conduct that work properly. It is not for me to determine precisely how many people Network Rail has in particular functions.
Q72 Mr. David Clelland: There must be a concern, given the experience of the West Coast Main Line operation in 2008 and the overruns and disruption that the passengers involved suffered, which was put down to the lack of skills available. Are you not worried that this might be repeated in future as a result of these lost jobs?
Lord Adonis: It is not my job to manage Network Rail.
Q73 Mr. David Clelland: But you will get the blame for it if it all goes wrong?
Lord Adonis: I get the blame for everything that goes wrong! It is not my job and it is not for me to determine what are the precise numbers of employees that they need to carry out their functions properly and to maintain a proper skill level. I believe it is important that there is proper regard on the part of Network Rail to maintain a skills base, but it does not need me to make a judgment on the precise number of people that they should be employing. I should say, on the issue of efficiency, that it is absolutely essential that safety is assessed; that is a prime responsibility of the ORR and it is a prime responsibility of Network Rail. However, it must also be said that there is an issue about the efficiency of Network Rail. Efficiency targets are not, I should stress, a jobs reduction target but a requirement for Network Rail to conduct its work more efficiently at large. The reason why that target has been put in place is because of the international studies which have led the economic regulation part of ORR to conclude that Network Rail is a comparatively inefficient operator by international standards. Of course that means that the taxpayer is getting much less good value for the money being invested in the railway and of course I, as Secretary of State, want to see that we get the best value, consistent with the safe operation of the railway, for the taxpayer. It is important that safety is properly regarded. It is also important that Network Rail becomes more efficient.
Q80 Mr. David Clelland: We can assume then from what you are saying that because you have not, as far as we know, expressed any concern to Network Rail about these redundancies, they therefore have concluded that these redundancies will not result in any safety implications?
Lord Adonis: I can only give the Committee what I have been told by the ORR, which is in the letter that was sent to me on 29 January and which I am happy to make available to the Committee. It is an assurance by the Chair and I quote: We have been scrutinising Network Rail's restructuring proposals for some time and we will continue to do so. We will make our own independent judgment as to whether the proposed new structure and workforce can safely maintain the railway and will take the appropriate follow-up and enforcement action if we believe safety may be compromised as a result of the changes.
Q96 Mr. David Clelland: Secretary of State, you have just said if individual Member States feel that their own security needs enhancement in provision they can enforce that. That raises the interesting point which has been put to the Committee that terrorists attack states, not airlines, and therefore the airlines and air operators feel that it should be the state that provides the security. How do you respond to that?
Lord Adonis: It is obviously essential that when security is provided each country has to work out what is the best way of providing it. The decision we have taken is that the airport operators should provide it; they have an absolute requirement to provide it because the government regulates the provision of security infrastructure at airports. So the public authorities, country-by-country, set in place the requirements. Precisely how that is paid for is a matter for the individual country to determine for itself.
Q97 Mr. David Clelland: So are some countries providing it by public funds?
Lord Adonis: Some do, but of course because in some countries the airports are public entities the relationship between them and our airports is rather different. I should stress that the requirements to provide security equipment and infrastructure in airports are very precisely regulated by the Government in the United Kingdom, and the fact that the provision itself is made independent of private operators does not affect the requirements or, because, of course, we also inspect airport security, the quality of such provision.
This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.
The full transcript may be read here.
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