Plenty of risks for Network Rail from 2019

Four pages of RAIL 847 contain  a summary of Network Rail’s strategic plan, which it published on February 13. That will save you wading through all 1,857 pages of it.
Those pages are spread across 31 documents. Helpfully, there’s a 32-page summary from NR’s headquarters with a foreword by Chief Executive Mark Carne. Unhelpfully, it doesn’t summarise what’s in each of the nine route plans and 12 functional plans. This makes it difficult to see, for example, how much the company plans to spend on operating, maintaining, renewing and enhancing the railway beyond the headline figure of £47 billion over the five years from 2019. There are small graphs showing how spending varies over the five years of Control Period 6 from April 2019 but no figures. In any event, there’s no split between operations, maintenance, support and renewals – they’re lumped together.
Carne concludes his foreword saying: “This is a radical plan, an ambitious plan. It is not without challenge and risk. But with great people, great teams, the right quality of leadership, the right incentives and the determination to see it through, it can deliver the better railway that a better Britain needs.”
I hope the plan does deliver that better railway. Whether it’s radical or ambitious is at first less clear. Towards the back of the summary, there’s a chart that makes clear where its risks lie. Chief among them is ‘train performance delivery’, followed by ‘efficient delivery’ and then a trio of ‘sufficient engineering access’, ‘renewals delivery’ and ‘supply chain capacity’. The summary reckons the plan is deliverable but then says the routes only have a 50% chance of success.
NR is asking much from its suppliers. They’ve had a rough ride in the current five-year period, seeing track renewals abruptly switched off as money ran short. Now renewals are to play a much increased role. From wrenching the valve shut, NR now plans to open the taps. Meanwhile its strategic summary says: “We must avoid the huge variation that we have previously had for some activities so that we can better support the supply chain in delivering the country’s major programme of infrastructure investment.”
No argument there but there’s nothing in the summary that even hints at how NR plans to put this welcome message into practice. It talks about new regional framework arrangements. Previous frameworks have been akin to zero hours employment contracts. They have had a bank of work to be done and an expectation but no guarantee that it will be done. That should change to give contractors more certainty.
The current control period should have seen a major change in the railway with widespread electrification laying the foundation for even more wiring that would have left most major inter-city routes running electric trains over the next few years. Having sat on the fence for many years, the Department for Transport leapt from it with alacrity in 2012 and foolishly demanded a programme that was beyond Network Rail. Had it been in less of a rush, Whitehall would now be overseeing a successful programme, just as Transport Scotland generally is. As it turned out, budgets and timescales fell into tatters and the department has now returned to its previous state of indifference towards electric trains. The railway looks to have missed its chance to electrify, even though it could claim to have been set up to fail thanks to the DfT. As a word ‘electrification’ is mentioned only once in NR’s summary and that’s in the context of third party investment.
Instead, signalling takes centre stage. NR reckons: “Over 60 per cent of ageing signalling equipment must be renewed over the next 15 years.” It’s not clear whether that’s 60% of signalling or 60% of NR’s old signalling (or how old it must be to qualify) but there’s certainly much to do. It contends that this renewal “can only be delivered affordably by cheaper solutions, which the digital railway will facilitate. CP6 will see the end of major analogue resignalling. Digital signalling is the future that this plan ushers in.”
There’s been plenty of background work by NR’s Digital Railway team under David Waboso so this switch should not surprise anyone working for signalling companies.
Nevertheless, the graph of signalling renewals by year for this and the next control period shows sharp peaks and troughs. Next year is the peak in this control period but the year that follows is set to have the lowest level of signalling renewals of the ten-year period the graph covers. Digital kicks in from the middle of the next Control Period and NR expects even more work in the two five-year periods that follow from 2024. You can decide whether the peaks and troughs of this graph match NR’s aim of avoiding huge variations.
Whether digital signalling in the form of ETCS does start appearing in CP6 remains to be seen. It’s what NR is aiming at but it doesn’t yet have the funding to do it. A table of constraints, risks and opportunities within Digital Railway’s plan lists eight risks and seven opportunities. The main risks centre on funding and supplier capability. Funding depends on government and needs NR to construct sound business cases with realistic costs and demonstrable benefits. The current transport secretary has already shown that he’s not willing to spend large sums for negligible passenger benefits. If ETCS cannot demonstrate notable improvements for its costs over conventional signalling then he – or his successor – will ask why NR is not pursuing standard signalling. NR expects cheaper costs and it specifically assumes that Feltham’s resignalling with ETCS will cost the same as conventional kit.
It remains to be seen whether signalling suppliers have the capacity to cope with NR’s planned increase in work. As RAIL 845 noted, London Underground also has a major resignalling project underway with its ‘4LM’ programme covering its Metropolitan, Hammersmith and City, Circle and District Lines. It’s due to be complete in 2023 so that both NR’s and LU’s demands will coincide.
There’s another part to Digital Railway and that’s traffic management (TM). NR had hoped to make more of this in the current Control Period. It now sits as an ambition for the next one. Recent increases in services have led to poorer performance as delays from incidents ricochet around the network. Now train operators want to run even more. Without better management, NR will struggle to contain performance, let alone improve it. And it’s set an ambition to cut the number of delayed trains by 15%. That might sound ambitious but with the recent decline it only takes the network back to the punctuality seen in 2014.
NR can control two areas that affect punctuality – asset reliability and incident management. TM can help with the latter and renewals can contribute to the former, with newer kit generally performing better than old. Here signalling is a major culprit. Figures for 2017/18 suggest that of 25,000 delay incidents, 15,000 were caused by signalling. Hence the emphasis on signalling renewals.
Rolling out ETCS and TM will be radical. But it’s not guaranteed from my reading of NR’s plans. That makes it ambitious. So Mark Carne’s foreword’s conclusion is right. His company’s summary would have been stronger if it had spelt out this challenge more clearly. It’s almost as if Network Rail has deliberately downplayed the difficulties it faces. I fear this ambiguity sets up NR for a signalling repeat of CP5’s electrification criticisms.

This article first appeared in RAIL 847, published on February 28 2018.