HL Deb 17 June 2002 vol 636 cc489-91

3 p.m.

Lord Bradshaw

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the arrangements for the maintenance of the railway infrastructure are satisfactory.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, Railtrack has acknowledged that its approach to maintenance, following privatisation, has been mistaken. Too much decision-making responsibility was placed with contractors, and the company carried out too few inspections of contractors' work. Lord Cullen made clear recommendations to improve the management of contractors and the training of the workforce in the rail industry, and we have asked the Health and Safety Commission to ensure that they are implemented in full.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that a fundamental error was made at the time of privatisation, when management of the track was separated from management of the trains? Will the Minister also acknowledge that, although we have spent vast sums on the rail regulator, engineering efficiency has become worse? Vast sums have been spent on safety, on a health and safety inspectorate, but safety has become worse. Will the Government give a guarantee that they will turn their attention away from financial engineering to the engineering that really matters—civil engineering and signal engineering?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, questioners are supposed to ask for an absolute guarantee, not just a guarantee.

There are different views about the separation of operating companies from track management. Whatever view one takes, it is true that Railtrack started off on the wrong foot. There was no engineer on the board of Railtrack, and Railtrack took the view that safety and track maintenance were the responsibility of contractors and were not a central responsibility. That must be turned round.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, the Question was about maintenance and not about vertical integration. Will my noble friend the Minister confirm that the Health and Safety Commission reported last week that, The contractualisation of the railways was not a problem. It is successful in other interests. The real challenge is better management and control, whether it is with contractors or done by Railtrack'"?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, as someone who is relatively new to these matters, I can confirm that the Health and Safety Commission report, published last week, was a shattering report. In many industries, work is, of course, done successfully by contractors, but what must happen here is that responsibility must rest with Railtrack. Right up until recent times, Railtrack continued to challenge the judgment of the House's Judicial Committee, which said that, in the end, responsibility for contractors, subcontractors and even casual workers lay with Railtrack.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, is the Minister aware that what he says about responsibility and the deficiencies of contractors in that respect are welcome? Will he bear in mind that there has been no engineer in the Treasury or any other branch of any British Government for a long time?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, my criticism of Railtrack for having no engineers on its board need not apply also to the Treasury. There should be more engineers in senior positions in all walks of lift.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that, last year, the Office of the Rail Regulator recommended that Railtrack should establish and maintain an asset register and that that should be one of the conditions of its licence. The issue was also raised in the recent report of the Health and Safety Commission, to which the noble Lord referred. Does the Minister expect that the asset register will be completed in time for the transfer to Network Rail? If it is not completed in time, who will bear the extra risk of not knowing what condition the assets are in? Will it be the Government or Network Rail?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the asset register is only one of several recommendations made by Lord Cullen that should have been carried out by March but were not. In that sense, the noble Viscount's point is valid; there are uncertainties that ought not to exist, as we struggle to get Railtrack out of administration and into the hands of Network Rail. I am, however, glad to say that good progress is being made.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that there can never be absolute safety in any form of transport? If the railway industry had followed the recommendations made by the Uff and Cullen reports and implemented the European rail traffic management system, there would have been a serious reduction—perhaps as much as 15 per cent—in network capacity. That would have made it even more difficult to meet the targets set out in the 10-year plan.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, as so often is the case, the best can be the enemy of the good. There was a good deal of over-reaction, not so much after Ladbroke Grove, but after Hatfield. David Begg, the chairman of the Commission for Integrated Transport, estimated that, if the action referred to by my noble friend had been taken and there had been a reduction in capacity, we would have ended up with something like 20 extra deaths a year on the roads. That is not a good choice.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, in seeking to improve the maintenance of the track, have the Government reminded themselves of the arrangements made by British Rail? Would the experience of those years be valuable, as we seek a better solution today?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the organisational responsibilities of British Rail are certainly to be looked at with favour. We ought to go back to increased central responsibility. I do not like looking back on the era of British Rail as a golden age. In fact—in some ways, I hate to say it—rail safety has improved since privatisation.