The hunt for DfT’s rail strategy

Strategy and policy are inextricably linked. The first is a reaction to the second. Decide your policy, then the strategy that delivers it and, finally, plans to implement.
According to the DfT’s website, government transport policy is: “Safe and dependable transport is essential to UK society and the economy. The government is working to make rail, road, air and water transport more efficient and effective, keep them safe and secure, and reduce greenhouse gas and other emissions.”
In turn, DfT’s rail policy says: “We need a modern rail network to support economic growth and productivity, and to help people get around quickly and safely.”
This is rather wooly. In broad terms, it’s hard to disagree. Yet it is also hard to explain what successful implementation would look like. Strategy has long been considered the stuff of military campaigns. Here policy can be simple. Most schoolchildren could explain what Churchill wanted to achieve in World War 2. His policy was to win. The strategy to achieve this was more complicated but essentially boiled down to holding his adversary at bay for long enough to build allied forces to a strength with which they defeated Berlin’s forces.
DfT’s policies can never be as simple as Churchill’s but it’s notable that its rail policy doesn’t fully follow wider transport policy. There’s no mention of rail reducing its greenhouse gas emissions despite rail being widely touted as environmentally friendly. Many passenger-miles rely on burning diesel and with electrification falling from favour with Whitehall, this looks set to continue.
Indeed the only mention of the word ‘fuel’ in DfT’s recently published ‘Strategic Vision’ comes in a small box panel that suggests that digital technology will help fuel efficiency. The technology in question – Connected-Driver Advisory System (CDAS) – certainly should but it’s small beer compared with the difference wider electrification could make, if only Network Rail could bring the cost of installing catenary downwards. Hydrogen (RAIL 838) could make a difference but there’s no convincing incentive to develop it without a clear government policy calling for lower emissions.
Of course, a wooly policy cannot fail. If success cannot be measured then failure cannot occur. That always appeal to politicians without clear convictions. But there’s something rather dispiriting about avoiding failure rather than celebrating success.
UK rail can celebrate its safety successes. They have been hard-won and have come by learning the hard way with a series of fatal accidents. Look through DfT’s ‘Strategic Vision’ and you’ll find no clues about whether today’s safety is sufficient or whether ministers wish it to further improve. In this, the document reflects last summer’s High Level Output Specification (HLOS) that set no safety targets.
Nor did DfT set performance targets despite acknowledging that delays infuriate passengers. I can’t argue with the strategic vision’s claim: “Evidence from the passenger watchdog Transport Focus shows that passengers put a high priority on reliability and performance. Disruption to services, and frustration when it is handled badly, are the top drivers of dissatisfaction.”
But no targets. This might be classic Conservative laissez-faire but it’s not helpful to those planning the rail network or to those holding it to account. So we have HLOS saying: “The Secretary of State does not propose to set national top-down performance targets. He believes that the best way to deliver performance will be for Network Rail, through its devolved Route structures, to work closely with train operators and representatives of the end users of the railway to determine appropriate metrics and stretching yet realistic target levels for each part of the network.”
It makes you wonder just what DfT is buying for the £47.9 billion it said last October would be available for the 2019-2024 period (of which £34.7bn will be Network Rail’s grant). Fortunately, HLOS is not entirely empty. It does specify peak arrivals capacity into major English cities which at least gives planners something to aim at.
There’s an argument that providing freedom is a sign of a mature relationship. It shows you trust your subordinates to make the right decisions when confronted with choices. I could understand this if NR had a good track record of delivery. I could understand this if passenger feedback was rating train operators highly. However, subordinates need to know what you’re aiming at if they’re to make the right decisions.
Instead, DfT appears to be concentrating on inputs. By providing more money for renewals, for example, it seems to think reliability will increase. So it should although it must be said that NR’s recent renewals performance has left much to be desired. We’ve recently heard talk of redundancies while work stacks up. In any case, knowing what DfT wants at a top level will help NR decide where to concentrate resources regionally to allow those devolved route managers to then decide how best to use their allocation. Perhaps this is happening internally but with DfT refusing to reveal what’s in the rail industry’s initial advice for 2019-2024 (unlike the Scottish government) it’s hard to know. This leads me to think that DfT only wants transparency when it applies to others and certainly doesn’t want to be pinned down as responsible for its actions.
DfT is certainly concentrating on inputs when it decided to change the way NR and train operators work together. It wants closer working with joint teams responsible for track and trains. It notes: “When things go wrong, energy and time which could be spent on solving the problem can be lost in contractual debate and industry dispute processes.” This was the sort of criticism levelled at rail companies many years ago and something the industry has done much to counter with integrated control rooms concentrating on fixing problems and recovering timetables. That said, things still go wrong, such as December 7’s Hull Trains failure that stranded passengers on a failed train for several hours just north of Peterborough. I suspect integrated working was not the problem here but, more likely, a lack of prompt and decisive action.
Not that DfT has helped integration in the past when it set different targets for track and train to deliver at the same time. That might be an argument for DfT setting no targets but it would be better if it set consistent targets.
Hence the DfT is having another go at creating alliances between NR and train operators. It cites the close working between NR and Great Western Railway but this didn’t stop NR springing at the last minute a weekend closure of Reading on GWR last autumn. That’s hardly close working and it’s hardly putting the passenger first. A sharp letter from Transport Focus Chief Executive Antony Smith noting the late release of timetables and tickets for Christmas is another example. “I am becoming increasingly concerned about the impact on passengers of late notice requests for engineering access.” He gave a specific example: “On October 9 the full normal timetable for Wednesday 27 and Thursday 28 December was showing for Paddington to Cardiff journeys – days on which Paddington station is closed – without any warning that incorrect information was showing”.
First/MTR and NR have signed a South Western alliance. To date, this seems to consist of the operator taking the criticism for NR’s seemingly daily track circuit and other failures on the approaches to Waterloo.
DfT would be better to publish what it wants rail in England to achieve. It should concern itself less with structures than with setting goals. If those goals are consistent between NR and train operators then both sides will have incentives to work in the best way that delivers the results that DfT, passengers and freight forwarders want.

This article first appeared in RAIL 843, published on January 3 2018.