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Wednesday, 1 December, 1999, 15:02 GMT
Track Record forum: Tom Winsor
The Office of the Rail Regulator is an independent government department responsible for the regulation of the railways. Its main function is to police Railtrack - the company responsible for Britain's stations and track
Tom Winsor answered some of the many questions you emailed to the track record forum. He was quizzed by the former BBC Transport Correspondent Chris Wain.
Andrew Church, South East: Isn't it about time we nationalised Railtrack? Or shall we just sit around and wait for another disaster and a few more deaths?
Michael Rodgers, South West: Is nationalisation of the railways not the best way to allow the government to control the railways? At the end of the day, despite what they say, the very nature of Britain's privatised rail companies mean that they have a duty to shareholders, not passengers. Surely if British Rail were to be brought back, this problem would not be encountered, and the government would have control over the railways?
Tom Winsor: Unnecessary and unbelievably expensive. The company in question is fair more accountable than British Rail ever was. The fact of the matter is that the legal and political relationship between the secretary of state for transport and the board of the British Railways board was a very loose arrangement. And the relationship between the independent rail regulator and the board of the privatised companies is a far tighter one.
In other words, I have more direct control and influence over the policies and practices, investment quality standards and so on than ever did a politician over a nationalised industry. So although the correspondents suggest we will increase control, by re-nationalisation, the contrary is true. We would lose control and what is more we would spend a lot of money to diminish our control.
Another correspondent said there was a duty to fund-holders first and implied there was no duty to anyone else. That is fundamentally mistaken. The companies have licences, which are granted and enforced and modified by me. Those licences contain very significant public interest conditions in relation to matters such as investment, capacity and so on. Those licences must be complied with before any considerations of a commercial nature are even begun to be thought about. So the duty to the shareholders comes second.
Mike Heath, Midlands: Confused! Yes I am by pricing? If so then I do not have real accessible consumer choice. Does that mean, as a regulator, you have failed on transparent pricing? AND as airlines offer cheap stand by tickets - why not trains? With them, the later you leave it, the more expensive it is. That makes us the suckers.
Mr. Gwydion Jamieson Ball, Scotland: Are you going to consider capping the Super Saver and Saver fares and not just the advance purchase fares? It is normally only possible to get an Apex fare several weeks and often months before travel and this penalises those that have to travel with relative short notice. Do you have any power to force operators to sell more seats at the discounted Apex fare?
Callum Jacobs, South East: Why are there such large differences in prices offered by different rail companies for what is fundamentally the same service? Are some companies undercharging or are other companies overcharging? For example, if one was travelling to Birmingham from London the standard return fare with Virgin trains is £28.50, with Chiltern £22 and with Silverlink £13.80. I'm sure similar things happen elsewhere.
Tom Winsor: As rail regulator I have significant jurisdiction, but my jurisdiction is principally in relation to Railtrack, the rolling stock leasing companies and the monopoly and dominant players in the industry. The new strategic rail authority is the regulatory authority which is concerned with fares. I'm not ducking the question. The questions concern confusion, that is to say passenger information and expense.
The railway companies are offering a variety of discounted fares, depending on the standard of service you want and how far in advance you are prepared to book. I believe that to have a standard fare irrespective of these considerations would actually drive up the price of rail travel, and I think that is undesirable. I think people very much appreciate the discounted fares that are available but they are not universally available. It is up to the rail companies in their commercial judgement to decide what discounts to provide just to fill the trains. Some of the trains are already full and therefore discounted fares are inappropriate.
I think that the variety and pricing is an advantage but passenger information isn't done very well. People do have significant difficulties in understanding fare structures and all the variety of fares that are available to them. I am putting pressure on the national rail inquiries service to improve the accuracy and responsiveness of passenger information. They will be establishing a website which people will be able to get into and they will able to interrogate that website in terms of fare information, engineering possessions, availability of seats and train time running.
Stan Blundell, North West: I find it intolerable each morning and evening to have to pay peak rate fares, for the privilege of having to stand in extremely overcrowded and old trains for the journey to and from work in Liverpool. In these days when you are trying to tempt people back on to the train services you in my humble opinion are putting off the very people you should be courting with better services.
Tom Winsor: Overcrowding is a significant problem. I'm a passenger too, I commute in from Kent 60 minutes every day and sometimes I have to stand in cattle-car conditions so I know exactly what it's like.
The peak fares are high, and the reason for that is the railway companies have declining levels of public subsidy. A policy decision was taken by the last government, and the new government is about to take this policy decision, about the balance between how much money the railways get from the fare box what passengers pay, and how much money comes from general taxation out of the treasury.
At the moment in Britain rail companies have a significant part of their income comes from passengers' fares and that's why fares are so high compared to countries like France and Italy.
So the policy decision needs to be taken as to whether or not we have more public subsidy. Therefore everybody in the country, whether they use the trains or not, are going to pay for a modern well-maintained integrated public transport system, or whether there should be a greater burden on those that use it.
Ken Brown, East: In the light of the severe injuries caused whenever a train is involved in any kind of crash, surely the time has come when standing passengers should no longer be allowed. After all, drivers or passengers of cars may be prosecuted for not wearing a seat belt at as little as 20-30 mph - while sitting in a seat!!
Tom Winsor: Chronic overcrowding means standing passengers are inevitable in the short time. Yes, people not sitting down or restrained can suffer greater injuries in a collision. The difficulty is that there isn't enough rolling stock to cope with the 25% increase in passengers since privatisation. An all-seating policy would mean saying to some passengers travel by bus, plane or car instead. Train travel, despite the very serious and tragic accidents at Paddington and Southall is still the safest form of public transport around by far. Standing passengers are going to be a reality for some time to come, but as we improve the capacity of the infrastructure then the overcrowding difficulties will be alleviated.
D.Willis, South East: How are do you intend to ensuring that rail companies replace the outdated slam door trains that are currently the principle rolling stock operating south east of London. A number of these units do not even have doors between carriages leaving passengers isolated whilst travelling. Surely there is a major safety issue here?
Tom Winsor: The Transport Secretary John Prescott made new regulations in August this year providing for the phasing out in a few years of the old slam-door rolling stock.
David R Bennett, South: Has the rail industry got the capacity to implement the scale of investment required over the next 5 - 10 years?
Mr Smith, South East: Tough regulation has a tough effect on company share prices, ie. they drop, which makes it even harder to found rail network investment. How do you balance your stance to achieve the optimum solution to enable Railtrack and other companies not to lose confidence of the city?
Tom Winsor: I'm involved in the rewriting of the entire financial framework in the way Railtrack charges for access to stations, track and signalling. That is called the periodic review of access charges and takes place every five years. Provisional conclusions will be announced within the next few weeks with final conclusions in July 2000 to take effect from the April 1, 2001. The object is to improve the incentives to invest strongly in new capacity and the quality of the infrastructure . My objective is to get the means and the will to invest. I am sorry if the City of London dislikes tougher regulation because that's what the public are entitled to have. The effect on the share price and investor confidence is a significant factor. But when my chief economist and I meet existing or potential shareholders of Railtrack or potential lenders, what they see is a rational approach to the company and its affairs. They are not worried because we're not in knocking the company done but knocking them into shape.
K Arnold, South: Most would agree that a private company must make a profit in order to attract investors. Such a company should be held in reasonably high regard by the public at large. Why do you, and the government, seem not to support the principle of private company ownership?
Aleksander Mazalon, South East: I think that Railtrack is being at times treated unfairly. Afterall, they have inherited a clapped-out infrastructure from the state. Yes they should spend large sums of money on network improvements but these should be carried out sensibly. I am not saying that Railtrack should be let off the hook, but all these threats from your office are doing no good. Are there better ways of reaching deals rather than imposing hefty fines and bad publicity?
Tom Winsor: My efforts in the five months since I've been in office have focussed on Railtrack because when the monopoly infrastructure provider does things badly everybody suffers. I'm surprised people think I'm too tough on Railtrack. Most commentators think we're treating them just as we should. I accept Railtrack inherited a poor network but it was created 5½ years with access charges double the amount of subsidy going into BR. That created significant public interest obligations which haven't been met in many respects. I've been putting pressure on the company to improve its investment and capacity performance.
Helen Eadie, Labour MSP for Dunfermline East, Scotland: Will the Rail Regulator ensure that every railway station that is either a new build or a refurbishment ensure that Railtrack makes it fully accessible for independent access by disabled people?
Mary Tanti, South East: My local station is not manned at night and there are 30 steps to reach the platforms. This makes it inaccessible to disabled people and useless at night because it is dangerous. I have written to my local companies several times about this but to no avail. Where else can I turn to and what will you do about this problem which is a common one once you are out of the central big stations?
Tom Winsor: Disabled access is a significant point and I'm conscious that new or refurbished stations should have full facilities for disabled people. It imposes significant costs on rail travel and we have to decide how it's going to be paid for. I shall publish a new disabled persons' protection policy early in the New Year which will set out what is expected of the railway companies.
Chris Warren, South West:It is obvious that the network needs to expand dramatically and soon. We need to return to a "pre-Beeching" size network. What scope is there in the present Railway set-up for this to be achieved. If the incentive is not there for this to happen, how can it be made to happen? John Almond, East Are you in favour of rebuilding as much of the national rail network as is economically possible, and if so how do you intend to encourage/force railtrack to do so.
Tom Winsor: Expansion is already taking place for example in the upgrade of the West Coast mainline services to Birmingham and Manchester will be doubled. We have to deal with the possible rather than the desirable. Rebuilding the national railway network is a long-term aspiration. The short-term objective is to get the existing network into better shape and to improve its capacity where we can. The perennial question is who's going to pay for this? The taxpayer? The passenger? Very shortly the strategic rail authority - which is the principal single paymaster for the industry being the instrument of government which routes the public subsidy into the railway - they will make known what shape of railway they want for the next ten years.
Once that that has been established how do we ensure that Railtrack does it? I have the power under Railtrack's network licence to enforce delivery of that investment programme. I have already taken action under that same condition twice - in relation to passenger performance targets and West Coast mainline updgrade - and I have that power in the future. I want to rewrite the financial regime for Railtrack so as to improve the company's incentives so that it aligns the commercial aspirations with their public service obligations which includes increased investment.
Rob Mallows, South East: If push comes to shove, would you ever be prepared to recommend to government that a company should lose its franchise, if the service became so poor?
Peter Livesey, South East: What on earth are we supposed to do when the rail companies can simply ignore our complaints and the organisations that were set up to police the railways do not have the resources to do the job? What are you going to do to force rail companies to improve their dire performance?
Tom Winsor: It's not up to me to take away franchises but I can take away licenses if I'm satisfied there are good grounds for doing so. It's not true to sy railway companies can with impunity ignore passengers' complaints. I am reviewing complaints handling procedures because the existing ones are poor in terms of the way they're handled. But poor quality information, dirty trains and stations and so on can be improved from the low level of standard of service enshrined in the first generation of franchise contracts as part of the franchise replacement programme. This is a matter for the strategic rail authority to renegotiate these contracts with higher commitments to the quality of service. The resources of the railway companies will be put into higher investment.
The resources of the regulatory authorities are significantly stretched. We're doing the best we can. I believe the record of the last five months is a pretty good but we're determined to make it better.
The end of the line for Britain's railways?
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