Network Rail’s debt are now our debts. Of course, they always were, it was only accounting niceties and fudge that kept debts guaranteed by government from government’s books.
With the air now cleared, ministers and civil servants can think about how they might take advantage of their new-found freedom over NR as a “central government body in the public sector”, as Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin put it to MPs.
In that same statement, McLoughlin said it would “have no effect on rail fares, performance, punctuality, timetables, or safety”. I sincerely hope it has an effect on punctuality given the daily litany of NR infrastructure failures, such as Tuesday’s East Coast Main Line collapse in north London.
He also said that the Office of Rail Regulation would remain as NR’s economic and safety regulator. I don’t believe this is viable in the long-term. It’s hard to see DfT civil servants setting a budget and ministers agreeing that budget with their Treasury counterparts only for another group of civil servants at ORR to then crawl over it before it’s passed to a fourth government body, Network Rail. That all seems very inefficient!
There’s also the matter of DfT’s long-held but unused right to appoint a “special director” to NR’s board. McLoughlin is considering who to appoint and it will be fascinating to see how political the appointee is.