DfT’s decisions will keep external advice to a minimum

Back in September 2011, Network Rail published initial industry plans for England and Wales and for Scotland.

The plans were one of several important milestones in ORR’s periodic review work to establish NR’s income and spending for Control Period 5 (2014-2019).

Spin forward and ORR is again conducting a periodic review, this time for CP6, 2019-2024. September 2016 came and went and there was no sign of initial industry plans. They had slightly morphed into initial industry advice (IIA), aimed at government ministers to help them formulate their High Level Output Specifications (HLOS, due this summer), but essentially they are the same thing. They are an outline of what the industry thinks should be done over the next control period. The Rail Delivery Group now compiles them which removes the old accusation that NR was planning and controlling Britain’s railways.

RDG published Scotland’s advice in February. Within its 70 pages, Scottish ministers, stakeholders and anyone else with an interest can read of the challenges and opportunities facing rail north of the border. The advice explains what RDG’s Planning Oversight Group (POG) thinks must be done. It notes, for example, that there should be sufficient cascaded EMUs available to cope with Scottish demand to 2024 but suggests that more DMUs will be needed too.

It divides enhancement projects into several categories. The first is those from CP5 that will be carried into CP6 for completion; the Aberdeen-Inverness upgrade, Glasgow Queen Street improvements and a new platform for Dunbar. Another category is options to increase capacity and performance. They include improving Edinburgh’s suburban line to provide a bypass for Waverley, improving track layouts at Carstairs, making Greenhill Junction grade-separated, remodelling Glasgow Central to provide extra platforms and electrifying to Maryhill, East Kilbride, Barrasie and Kilmarnock.

When RDG’s POG met on January 11 it was looking forward to the reaction to its initial industry advice. It minutes recorded that its next meeting was March 15 and said: “The March POG will take a structured view on how the IIA has landed, and what POG might choose to do in the future.”

For England and Wales, it was to be disappointed. The Department for Transport, as recipients of the advice, chose not to publish it. Those interested in the railway’s future in England and Wales have not had the opportunity to see what the Rail Delivery Group thinks should be done.

When the DfT responded to an ORR consultation on NR’s strategic business plans (that should follow later this year once DfT has decided what it wants), Rail Strategy Director Richard Carter wrote: “We regard the active involvement of stakeholders in the development of SBPs as absolutely essential to ensuring that user needs are given even greater priority in the railway. To do so, we support a step change in the level of effective stakeholder engagement in the development of the SBPs, going significantly beyond that seen in previous periodic reviews.”

Contrast that with the view I received from a source close to RDG, having been promised strict anonymity: “DfT didn’t want RDG to publish it initial industry advice. DfT didn’t want people lobbying it for rail projects.”

So the DfT wants stakeholders involved but doesn’t itself want to be bothered by their views.

My RDG source reckoned that the initial industry advice for England and Wales might be published when DfT publishes it HLOS later this summer. This will define what ministers want from the railway. In 2012, HLOS said the railway must deliver performance of at least 92.5% punctuality by the end of March 2019. It included a long list of electrification projects to deliver. For all this DfT was prepared to offer £16.8bn over the five years. This sum was the Statement of Funds Available (SoFA).

Some of the specified overhead wire projects have been delivered but NR has run seriously over budget and behind timetable with its Great Western scheme and government’s been forced to postpone similar projects for the Midland and trans-Pennine routes.

The spiralling costs have punched a hole in finances and NR’s reclassification as a public body in 2014 has stopped the company borrowing private money. Instead, it can only spend what the Treasury provides. Few expect generosity over the next control period. One experienced railwayman reckoned the DfT would try hard not to publish a SoFA this summer, despite it being a legal requirement. Is he suffering from excessive pessimism? Maybe but it appears that DfT is not willing to expose the rail industry’s advice to external scrutiny until it’s decided what it wants. If it manages to avoid publishing a SoFA it can drip feed money on a year-by-year basis without any long-term commitment to projects or accountability for their delivery.

This makes me suspect they’ll be little money for Control Period 6. I fear that DfT’s reticence points towards government deciding what’s best without interference from others.

This would return us to the days of close state control even though Conservative governments usually preach the benefits of the free market. Indeed, the government is keen to see private money drawn in to help fund rail enhancements. At NR, Chief Executive Mark Carne rarely misses an opportunity to press the case for private investment.

Several things make me think this is a forlorn hope. The railway has a reputation for overspending, chiefly driven by Network Rail recently but Railtrack’s West Coast upgrade two decades ago doesn’t help. It has a reputation for being difficult to work with. And if it’s seen as under even more government control, that will surely dissuade private investors from putting their money anywhere near it.

The DfT didn’t want to talk about IIA. Instead, it sent a line, saying: “In due course we will make announcements on the outcomes we want to see from the railway during CP6, as well as engage with stakeholders.”

Which sounds like DfT will decide what England and Wales gets and stakeholders will then be engaged to persuade them to accept it. There was no hint in DfT’s few words that it will publish RDG’s advice and so those stakeholders will be left with no idea what the railway industry thinks is needed or thinks is possible.

Far from being accountable, the DfT is turning the clock back to the days when important decisions about the railway were made behind closed doors.

There is an alternative. DfT should publish RDG’s IIA. It should let people see what the railway needs. It should expose what England and Wales could be losing because the railway’s addicted to spending. It should use the pressure this creates to force the pace of reform to create a more efficient railway. That’s a railway that can deliver enhancements on-time and on-budget and deliver passengers and freight to their destinations as promised and for a fair price.

I don’t believe DfT will even consider this. With nationalised Network Rail under its firm control, it’s too busy playing trains.

This article first appeared in RAIL 823, published on March 29 2017.

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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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