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Track Record forum
ATOC Director Philip Benham is quizzed by Chris Wain
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Wednesday, 1 December, 1999, 16:50 GMT
Track Record forum: George Muir

George Muir answered your questions
George Muir, director general of the Association of Train Operating Companies, answered some of the hundreds of questions you sent in to the BBC Track Record forum.

Phillip Benham, director of ATOC also stepped in to answer many more of your emails. Mr Benham was quizzed in the studio by former BBC transport correspondent Chris Wain.

Alan Macro, South East: Many travellers have been put off travelling by rail recently because of safety concerns, despite rail being one of the safest forms of transport. When are we going to see a committment to install Automatic Train Protection or the more modern Train Control System so that people will feel safe travelling by train again? Please note that I was on one of the trains involved in the Paddington crash.

George Muir: We have started installing an automatic system to prevent trains passing red signals, the TPWS. It will be fitted in at least three quarters of all trains by December 2002. The rest of the trains will be fitted the following year. The system, which will be installed across the network, will greatly improve safety, preventing two thirds of the incidents we are concerned about.

The additional protection needed, for trains travelling over 70 mph, will be provided by either an enhanced version of TPWS or a system based on the new European System.

The four high speed lines, West Coast, East Coast, Great Western, and the Channel Link will be covered by the European System. This system is the same as the Train Control System (another name for the same thing) and it is similar to, but a step forward from, the ATP now in use. There is a date for its installation on West Coast, because it is part of the WCML upgrade, of about 2005 or 2006. Dates for the East Coast line will be set as part of the current discussions about the upgrade of that line. The Great Western routes are partly covered by the current ATP already.

A decision has not yet been taken whether to protect trains travelling at 70 mph on the rest of the network by enhanced TPWS or by installing the European system nationwide. This is one of the key issues Sir David Davies will report upon.

Sayeed Uddin, South East: Tories told us that Railtrack was being privatised, so that it can raise the necessary investment required for our antiquated rail infrastructure from the capital market, So what happened to that necessary investment?

George Muir: Railtrack can raise the necessary money from the capital markets and is ready to do so. The hold-up is not due to any inability to raise the money. Money is not the issue. The time is being taken, and necessarily taken, to plan out what needs to be done. It is only in the last year or two that it has become apparent that rail demand may grow by up to 50% in the next ten years. Before that, people thought rail demand was flat. The investment projects are very large and very complicated. They need careful thinking about. But there has now been a lot of planning work and you can expect some big decisions in the next year.

David Burland, South East: How can TOCs increase capacity if the Network is already overloaded?

George Muir: To some extent. In some places longer trains can be run - but they have to be ordered and built. To run longer trains it may be necessary to make platforms longer, increase power supplies or change signalling. It depends on local circumstances

Steve Warrington, North East: Would you not agree that you are obliged to provide a reliable service irrelevant of cost and that the rail companies should be held accountable for compensating passengers when they fail to provide this service?

George Muir: We can't be held responsible for delivering what is physically impossible.

Peter Wood, North West: Where more than one operator runs over a route, where should the balance lie between competition and integration? Is it, for instance, sensible that First NorthWestern all-stations service from Macclesfield to Manchester, charges higher fares than Virgin expresses, with one intermediate stop, over the same route, thereby restricting journey options?

George Muir: It is a very difficult balance to strike. There are times when you need more competition and must put up with some illogical outcomes, because this allows everyone to experiment and find out what is possible. At other times you need more integration to avoid illogical outcomes.

Jonathan Tyler, North East: Will the Train Operating Companies agree to work towards establishing a nationwide, rail and bus, interconnecting, even/regular-interval timetable so that the nonsense of widespread dis-connections in existing timetables is at last removed ?

George Muir: Yes. But we must create the most benefit for the most people, and you cannot totally tie trains and buses together until trains and buses are 100% reliable. You have to think what you are going to do if one is delayed.

Didier Barbaud, South East: How do you explain that train fares are much more expensive in UK than in France?

George Muir: We get much less subsidy than in France.

Philip Benham stepped in to answer more questions
ATOC director Philip Benham answers your questions.

Freddie Flintstone I am concerned that the train operating companies are extending the mileages between routine maintenance examinations and expecting more time in service whilst reducing the skilled maintenance staff and the amount of time trains spend on depots for the routine maintenance.

Skilled maintenance and support staff are being allowed to leave without a thought on the outcome. Please note that this is a fact and not something I dreamed up. I cannot give you my real identity for fear of losing my job.

Phlip Benham: It's very difficult without having his particular details to be able to comment on the specifics of the allegations being made. However it's obviously important that equipment is maintained properly, both from a safety point of view, which is clearly paramount but also in terms of reliability.

So as a principle it would be pretty short-sighted action for any train company to take to actually skimp on maintenance, because apart from any safety risks they're also jeopardising their ability to run a reliable service.

I can assure you that getting the right maintenance cycles in place is absolutely essential. Indeed a lot of train companies have been putting more work there to improve reliability, so I don't believe this is a general trend.

I do not believe generally that skilled staff are being allowed to leave. Certainly the idea of doing that without giving a thought again would be extremely short-sighted action. Reliable trains, safe trains are essential.

Anonymous: How can the train operating companies and Railtrack purport to set safety above profits? As a driver I have, since privatisation, seen various changes to rules which seem to me to be about maximising profits and not cancelling/delaying trains.

For example: 1. The ordering of drivers to work their fourteenth consecutive day, thus contradicting Hidden 18, with the excuse that its only a recommendation and is required for the contingence of service.
2. The removal of the guards safety duties in the event of an accident, thus reducing them to a revenue collector.

I am sorry that I can not give my name or which TOC I work for but I would enviably get the sack if I did.

Philip Benham: Well I think in terms of the recommendations that came out of the Hidden inquiry, then again the whole of the rail industry is fully committed to making sure that they are properly applied. In the normal circumstances staff would not be expected to work continuously day after day without a break. It's surprising to hear of this particular allegation. Again without details it's difficult to comment, but this is certainly not the situation in the industry as a whole.

Now as far as changes to the rules for guards are concerned, this was a change that reflected the fact that the railways are actually a very different kind of environment from that which operated when these rules were first drafted actually over a hundred years ago. We have an entirely different signalling system. The aim of the changes was not to take away safety, but to say that the guards' role should be looking after the safety of people on the train.

Indeed one of the recommendations that came out of an earlier incident at Maidenhead was that there needed to be people looking after people on the train in these kind of situations. So it was a change in responsibility rather than simply saying lets remove the responsibility.

JS Wynne: For a number of years train drivers have complained about positioning and sighting of signals to no avail. Why don't Railtrack consult with drivers with their plans, before re-signalling works take place? We are the ones who have to work with these systems daily, but we are not listened to. There should be a forum set-up with Railtrack and train drivers so Railtrack can hear from the people at the frontline.

Philip Benham: At an earlier stage in my career I actually used to sit on a thing called a signal sighting committee, and I believe this committees still exist for looking at the sighting of signals, any new signals or indeed complaints about the visibility of existing ones.

They include people who represent all the various interests including drivers, we always had a drivers inspector sitting on the committee, and I believe that is still the case. So the concerns of drivers are very much at the heart of decisions in this particular area.

Katherine Birkett, North: Are the train companies really making a serious commitment to safety, or are they too concerned with cost and personal profit to make an adequate impact? I would be quite willing to pay extra to travel, jettisoning my Young Persons' Railcard if I knew that the money was going to be spent on better

Philip Benham: Safety has always been a key priority and it remains a key priority. There is no evidence that overall safety standards have declined. The accident at Ladbroke Grove was of course an absolute tragedy, and the whole of the industry wants to learn from that to make sure that we deliver the highest possible standard of safety.

I do not believe that this is in any sense incompatible with profits. If you just look at it from the perspective that a major accident can have a dramatic effect financially on any train company or operator. There is no advantage in skimping on safety. I am sure there will many lessons for us to learn from the current inquiry but I do not believe that train companies, Railtrack or anyone else in the industry is skimping on safety as a deliberate policy, far from it.

Rob Mallows, South East: Would you agree with the assertion that the primary, overriding responsibility of any private company, including rail companies, is to its shareholders?

Philip Benham: That is one of the primary responsibilities, it's not the only one. Anybody operating in a public service industry, and rail is very much in that environment, also recognises that they have a broader responsibility.

Even taking the responsibility of shareholders which is indeed important, their interests are not going to be served by operating an unsafe activity. So there is actually commonality in many cases in ensuring we run a safe and reliable service and system as well as delivering the needs of our shareholders; the two go together.

Phil Ashford, South East: I would like to know why the train companies and railtrack do not approve a scheme of on the spot cash compensation to customers when a train is delayed more than 10 minutes. This would please the customers and help focus the management to improve the dire service we currently endure.

Robert Fox, North West: Why is there not a sliding scale for compensation, related to the length of the journey, starting, for example, at 20 minutes or half the journey time, whichever is greater, up to one hour, then extending to longer periods?

Paul Sumner, North: Many people are often affected by delays, overcrowding, cancellations and general poor quality of service. Despite nice glossy brochures and posters promising the contrary. Yet the Public complaints system offered by TOCs varies from no acknowledgement of complaints, template letters in what they are investing money in - to anything up to 40% of the cost of your ticket reimbursed. When will there be a consistent customer and compensation package offered to us long suffering rail users?

Philip Benham: First of all, let's remember that we do have a customer's charter. Each train company has to publish a charter, which gives an indication as to what they would do in circumstances such as this as well as a range of other things that are to do with the that is service offered.

I think it's worth remembering that the circumstances that give rise to a complaint and need for compensation can actually vary. The needs of people who are on season tickets are actually somewhat different perhaps from someone who's only making the only journey they're making that year.

The idea of instant compensation sounds tremendously attractive. I've actually tried operating that from my days when I was working as part of a train company and it isn't as easy as it sounds. You can be in a situation where the problems of actually administering it at that time are themselves going to give rise to complaints.

If you suddenly have a train full of people and say we're instantly going to give you compensation, you actually have the issue of how you practically administer it, and of ensuring that the only people who actually benefit from that are those that have been genuinely delayed. I think it's sensible for everyone to have a controlled way of handling this.

These decisions have to made against a basic standard by looking at the individual circumstances and deciding what is fair in the circumstances. In many cases, what train companies are trying to do is to restore confidence to their customers and retain their loyalty so it's an important decision.

David Burland, South East: How can TOCs increase capacity if the Network is already overloaded?

Graham Trace, Midlands: Do you agree that only by increasing the capacity on Britain's railways will the government achieve its stated goal of getting people off the roads and onto cars? If so, would the train companies be prepared to make payments to Railtrack based upon ticket sales or similar measures reflecting usage of the system rather than the current flat-rate payments?

Philip Benham: In some circumstances, they may well be and we've already seen such an arrangement being agreed between Virgin and Railtrack in relation to the upgrading of the West coast main line. This may be a way forward in particular cases.

There are a number of ways that congestion can be handled but a lot of it will come back to investment in the network and that's a question of support by government, work by Railtrack and by the train companies and everyone involved. The funding can be a big issue. Already we have a lot of extra money being promised in infrastructure improvements, particularly by Railtrack. The process of looking at longer franchises will make it easier to justify investment as far as train companies are concerned.

Obviously more immediate action can be taken in terms of looking at the lengths of trains, looking at how one can get more out of the existing network, making perhaps fairly minor improvements in the layout of individual junctions. But certainly getting more capacity out of the network is also a very important issue.

Bradley Bonser, South East: If the government is as successful as it hopes to be with its 'road to rail' policy, by which the public will be encouraged to use trains instead of roads, surely the capacity of the rail will have to be increased. One possible initiative would be take examples from countries like Spain, where they use double-decker trains. Can you see such a scheme being feasible in the UK?

Philip Benham: There have been double decker trains in the UK, the Southern Railway experimented with them just after the war - they weren't very popular because of being very cramped for passengers. It is being looked at as I understand it, but one of the problems we have is that our loading gauge, that's the space available for the trains themselves, underneath bridges in particular, is quite limited.

So you've got to look at what is feasible and that will produce a comfortable environment for passengers. But I don't think it'll be ruled out, we just need to look at how we can use modern technology.

Claire Hounsham, East: I have recently returned from a year spent in Germany where trains are clean, reliable and regular. Why is it so difficult to do the same in the UK? What real plans are being discussed to improve services?

Philip Benham: It's always easy to say that the grass is greener on the other side, that isn't to say that we haven't got a lot to learn from our colleagues overseas -undoubtedly we have. A lot of effort is actually going in to improving reliability, getting trains to run on time along with safety, these I guess are the two biggest priorities. Providing a clean environment is important as well, and a lot of effort is going into that with things such as specialised on-train cleaning gangs.

Alan Birch: As a former headteacher I used to have a list of qualified staff to call in on "supply" to cover absent staff. Why can't the rail companies do the same?

Philip Benham: He's talking about drivers who were relief drivers who would be called in to cover for somebody who'd gone sick. That kind of arrangement still exists. The planning of drivers is done to try and make sure that you've got a balance between the people that you need to actually run the service and the fact that some of them might not be available.

I don't think that the basic arrangements have changed much from the ones that have operated for some time. It's a question of making sure you've got enough people trained and available. At the same time there has to be a recognition that there's a limit to how many people you can have on tap at any one time.

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29 Nov 99 | UK Politics
Track Record forum: Gwyneth Dunwoody
01 Dec 99 | UK Politics
Track Record forum: Tom Winsor
01 Dec 99 | your reaction
Track Record: Your comments
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