Network Rail is stifling important debate

I’ve been writing recently for a quarterly magazine called Rail Review. It’s aimed at senior railway managers and, uniquely I think for railway magazines, it is peer-reviewed. In other words, the features within it are reviewed by experienced railwaymen who give a view on the ideas and opinions within those features.

In the most recent edition is my interview with Network Rail Infrastructure Projects Managing Director Francis Paonessa to examine the aftermath of overrunning engineering work last Christmas at Paddington, King’s Cross and London Bridge.

The essence of the interview was that NR regards the disruption last Christmas as inevitable. Paonessa pointed out that NR plans for a 95% of engineering closures to be completed on time, with the clear implication that 1-in-20 will run late.

NR checks its plans by breaking them down into their constituent parts and then assessing each part according to previous experience of the time each part takes. In other words, NR uses averages to predict future events. This has the effect of blunting the effect of extreme events, such as previous overruns.

I can’t say that I was overly impressed with what I heard and so was looking forward to seeing what the peer reviewers would make of my piece. However, Rail Review’s publishing team found it almost impossible to find anyone willing to take on the task. In the end, only Michael Holden stood up to the plate. He’s a vastly experienced railway manager who had recently stepped down as chairman of East Coast as the Department for Transport sold that company to a consortium of Stagecoach and Virgin.

He seemed unimpressed, noting the problem with computer models – ‘garbage in, garbage out’ was his pithy summary.

That no other railway managers dared stick their head above the parapet is deeply worrying. It shows the dominant nature of Network Rail if its customers dare not criticise it, even in a limited distribution magazine. This is not healthy. I’m not calling for a free-for-all but an industry in which debate is stifled is an industry that will not fix its problems.

There is a debate to be had about engineering work and the closures and inconvenience its brings to passengers who pay an increasing proportion of the railway’s income. There is a balance between adding so much contingency in people, equipment and time into engineering work that it becomes too expensive, uneconomic and achieves so little work that further closures are needed.

There’s a debate about the best time to close lines. Should it be at holiday periods (when perhaps demand is lower) or during the week when people need trains to get to and from work? Should it be in winter when daylight is in short supply and weather less favourable or in summer when there could be more holidaymakers? Should closures be longer and perhaps more efficient or be a series of short closures, perhaps every night, with the implication that work will take longer overall?

Sadly, except for Michael, there was no-one from today’s railway companies willing to give a view on a subject that prompts strong opinions from press and public alike.

I think Network Rail (and its Department for Transport paymasters) should closely and honestly examine whether their actions are inhibiting healthy debate.

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Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.

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