11 June 2009

S3M-4044 Larbert (Heavy Rail Freight)

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 11 June 2009

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 08:45]

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Larbert (Heavy Rail Freight)
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The next item of business is a members' business debate on motion S3M-4044, in the name of Michael Matheson, on Larbert rail damage. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises the serious problems being experienced by residents in the Larbert area as a result of heavy coal freight being introduced to the line; understands that this is having a damaging effect on their quality of life as well as their properties; regrets that to date Network Rail has refused to introduce a speed restriction for freight trains on the line, and believes that the problems being experienced by residents in Larbert are unacceptable.

... ... ...

The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

I will first deal with a few of the points that have arisen.

In reference to a written answer in which I said that I became aware of the issue on 6 February 2009, questions have been raised about whether previous ministers knew about the matter. I answered the parliamentary question, which asked specifically when the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change knew about the matter. I answered only in those terms. Under the protocols that exist between successive Governments, I have no knowledge as to the knowledge state of previous transport ministers, who had different job titles. That might not add light to the matter, but it explains that particular point.

Dr Simpson: Will the minister give way?

Stewart Stevenson: Let me develop a few other points first.

In any event, that matter is not one for which I can be held accountable one way or the other.

It would be useful to acknowledge that the Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine Railway and Linked Improvements Bill Committee said in its May 2004 report:

"It is important to note that the scope of the Bill includes only the construction of a railway between Stirling and Kincardine (via Alloa) together with associated works. It is not within the scope of the Bill for it to be amended to include matters that pertain to the operation of the railway (for example the speeds of trains or the times at which they should run)."

Having said all that, let me pose an obvious question. Do the minister and the Government think that there is a problem? The minister and the Government are perfectly prepared to acknowledge that there is a genuine concern being expressed by all members who have participated in the debate. Therefore, I want to speak in some positive terms about that.

I hasten to add that I speak as someone who, for 30 years, lived 10m from the main Edinburgh to Glasgow railway line, along which a goods train travelled at 3 o'clock every morning—I suspect, however, that that train was of lower weight than those that we are concerned with today. Of course, different people will react in different ways and will make their own accommodations with the circumstances that they are in, so I will not draw on my own experience to make any points.

I hope that the parties with whom the remedies most simply, readily and immediately lie and the parties who have, by their actions—which are legal and legitimate, within the framework in which they operate—caused us to be here are listening to the debate. They should take notice of the real concern that has been expressed by members on behalf of their constituents. I am talking, of course, of DB Schenker, Network Rail and, to some extent, Scottish Power.

Dr Simpson: I do not want to get into who knew what when, but the freedom of information inquiries make it clear that the officials knew about the situation in September 2008, so there is a gap there.

The minister is quite right to say that we need to find a solution. Will he call a meeting of the agencies involved to try to get them together in order to agree how to alleviate the situation? Everybody is denying responsibility and saying that they will not take action.

Stewart Stevenson: We and Transport Scotland are taking action. Transport Scotland has reviewed the information that Falkirk Council has gathered and believes that there is scope for further research to be done, and work on that will begin next week. We are not using that as an excuse for delay; we simply want to ensure that we have an absolutely standardised approach to understanding what the issues are.

Michael Matheson: Is the minister indicating that Transport Scotland will undertake assessment work in the Larbert area as a result of the findings of Falkirk Council's assessment work?

Stewart Stevenson: Transport Scotland is doing work along the Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine line, but there is scope for further work in Larbert. However, we have to remember that the existing line in Larbert is covered by long-standing provisions. Of course, we should also bear it in mind that the issue in Larbert exists because of the trains that are running on the Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine line.

Michael Matheson made three suggestions: reducing speed, as there is a clear relationship between speed and the disruption that is caused to people's sleep and quality of life; renewing the track; and having DB Schenker consider the equipment that it uses. It is important that those issues are addressed. Neither Transport Scotland nor I have any direct powers in that regard, apart from the general power to do what Dr Simpson suggested and get people around a table and knock heads together. We are engaged with the parties concerned, and we will remain so.

If we are talking about ministerial responsibility, I would point out that the ministers who are responsible for the railway network, who might have undertaken some consultation, are Tom Harris and Andrew Adonis at Westminster. However, I am not really going to finger them, because we are looking at long-standing issues, and—alas and alack—the responsibility for the framework under which railways operate and the licence that is granted to Network Rail by the Office of Rail Regulation does not lie with this Parliament and is not within the remit of this Government. However, I agree that there is a problem and that we need to gather more information. We already have a considerable amount of information on Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine and the effect on individual properties, but we can certainly do more to gather information in the Larbert area.

I congratulate those who have gone out and sought to ensure that we are examining the quality of the rails. Some work is already being done to consider whether the freight wagons are of the appropriate quality. The important and interesting thing that has come out of the debate is that different companies are using different kinds of wagons. We should definitely put that into the mix in understand the matter.

We should be absolutely clear that the Government understands the issue. We would certainly like to see what DB Schenker and Network Rail, in particular, can do. A number of members mentioned the speed limits. Network Rail has the power to impose speed limits only in limited circumstances. There might be a case for differential speed limits related to the weight of the train. That might be one way in which Network Rail could usefully examine the matter. I also understand that there are some signalling issues, which cause further disturbance, and Network Rail could usefully examine those.

The debate has been useful. We have not come to a conclusion and there is more to be done on the subject, but the gathering of information is key to understanding the mitigations that the parties who are responsible for creating the problem and fixing it will have to undertake. We will play our part in ensuring that they understand their responsibilities and live up to them.


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