Last week was not one which will be fondly remembered by Network Rail as their ‘spiralling costs and missed targets’ led to the government pausing a large chunk of the £38.5bn investment plan that was proposed during the election campaign. With Richard Parry-Jones being replaced in the organisation and Mark Carne admitting that they had been ‘overly optimistic’ about the work that could be carried out, the future of investment into the UK Rail network, and indeed the future of Network Rail itself, hangs in the balance.
One partial solution was offered by Sir Richard Branson. Mr Branson claimed that Network Rail’s failings had been the cause of 90% of delays for his Virgin Trains services (a statistic that Network Rail was quick to argue with, giving their figure at 36%). His solution is to break Network Rail up into smaller units and for the Operating Companies to manage the infrastructure for their slice of the network. "If we were running the track underneath, because we've got our trains running on that track we'd make absolutely certain that track was fixed and running well, because we value our reputation." Mr Branson and Virgin may be geared up to make this a reality, but it would be very interesting to see what the other TOCs make of this proposal, are they in any way prepared to manage their own infrastructure?
The disbanding of the organisation is surely not an option. However the facts do put an argument forward for it. The organisation, which was reclassified as a public body last September following their debt rising to £37.8bn, have failed to meet over 1/3 of their targets set for CP1, train passenger satisfaction figures have dropped to a lowly 80% and relationships with the TOCs have been strained due to faults and delayed work. The introduction of London Transport’s Sir Peter Hendy, who will immediately review the Network Rail 5 year plan to assess what is actually tenable, is an interesting move and one which should identify a number of the main issues that Network Rail faces moving forward. Inevitably there will be improvements from this move, however it remains highly unlikely that the initial £38.5bn worth of investments will go ahead, and it remains to be seen which projects Mr Hendy deems as appropriate to continue with. And, as always, what does all of this mean for HS2, HS3 and the ‘Northern Powerhouse’?
Ultimately, Network Rail needs to ‘make friends’ with a lot of people again. The government’s manifesto made direct claims to the amount of investment and so the freezing and potential cancellation of projects will hardly be welcomed by MPs across the board. The Train Operating Companies need to have the reassurance that any changes to Network Rail will benefit them and their passengers. But most importantly of all, Network Rail needs to regain the confidence of its most important stakeholder, the British public, who made the 1.6bn train journeys last year. If Network Rail is to continue, survive and improve, we need to see some positive actions and communications happening very soon, or public opinion of the organisation will continue to worsen and frustrations will continue to grow.