Hot on the heals of the government’s Industrial Strategy, the Department for Transport has published its latest strategy for the railways. The headline grabbing stuff about opening up new routes to unlock housing and development sounds exciting enough, and probably is if it all comes to pass, but aside from plans for the new East West Rail and the Cambridge – Oxford Expressway, the strategy is thin on detail as to how these new lines might be funded, or who will fund them.
Government strategies tend to be high on aspiration, and thin on detailed delivery plans. Perhaps that’s inevitable. So while the rail strategy is, in itself, fair enough and actually in many respects to be applauded, its success can only be judged by whether its aspiration is actually delivered. That is inevitably going to take time, and many of the changes proposed, particularly the greater integration of track and train, can only happen as current franchises are renewed or renegotiated.
Every five years or so the railways seem to go through a major structural upheaval. We’ve seen the collapse of Railtrack and the creation of Network Rail initially as a quasi-private company but now fully renationalised. We’ve seen the creation and abolition of the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising, the creation and abolition of the Strategic Rail Authority, a regular redrawing of the franchise map, and a rolling stock strategy that has seen brand new trains discarded before they even come into full passenger service.
This latest rail strategy is not a “big bang” reform. It will be gradual and many of the proposals will take time to be introduced and bear fruit. That is to be welcomed. The last thing the railways need right now is some major fresh upheaval. But the one big reform which is the subject of much discussion and debate, that is yet to show any evidence of gaining momentum, is the plan to see greater private and third-party funding and financing of rail infrastructure. This is by no means a straightforward issue, not least because while Network Rail remains a nationalised organisation, any private financing will still count on the government’s balance sheet. And Network Rail itself will surely have to give up control over how projects which attract private financing are specified and implemented, as no private financier will put its money at risk if it does not have control over the delivery of the project in question. It remains to be seen whether Network Rail is really, deep down, willing to cede this control.
Talk to the railway supply chain – the companies that actually deliver the projects on the ground – and they will tell you that Network Rail’s track record in specifying and procuring projects has room for improvement, and that projects are too often so costly because standards are excessive. Network Rail has said it is committed to introducing standards that are more appropriate to the actual needs of the railways. That too is to be welcomed, but until we address the core elephant in the room – the sheer cost of the railways – no amount of strategies will actually deliver a more efficient and cost-effective railway.