The Government is reportedly planning to break up Network Rail and replace it with a dozen mini Railtracks. Rather than pulling the railways to bits and selling them off, we should be creating a network operator that can deliver the bigger and busier railway the country needs.
First, a reality check. No one would argue that Network Rail in its current form is doing a perfect job. Despite the much trumpeted "biggest investment in the railways since the Victorians' it has racked up massive delays and allowed debts to spiral into tens of billions. So out of control were costs on projects like the Great Western electrification that last year the Government called a halt and set up no less than three reviews into Network Rail's activities.
Two of these - the Hendy and Bowe reviews - concluded last year without making too many waves. Hendy's review of the current Network Rail work plan managed to keep the show on the road for all the big projects, sacrificing a few smaller ones and selling off chunks of the railway estate to cover the shortfall. The Bowe review made some far reaching recommendations in how Network Rail agrees its future priorities so never again would it bite off so much more than it could chew.
It is Nicola Shaw's review of the long-term shape and financing of the rail network which is drawing the opprobrium. Due immanently, Shaw is examining how the network can raise revenue, support devolution and introduce a sharper focus on customers (drawn in the widest sense to include taxpayers and train operators, not than just passengers). Given the shortcomings at Network Rail, these issues clearly need to be addressed. It's just that Shaw's reported response seems highly likely to make matters worse rather than better. If the newspaper reporting is accurate, there will be a fragmenting of the current system with a reinvented Strategic Rail Authority joining the Office of Rail and Road and the Department for Transport in overseasing the rail industry. Next, Network Rail will be broken up and privatised creating would-be Railtracks in every region. Added to the mix is the suggestion that an important motivation behind the review is not to improve performance, but to allow the Treasury to get Network Rail and its collossal debts off the public balance sheet in the quickest way possible.
What the railways actually need a properly integrated approach. This should bring together the interests of rail users, public policy objectives, budgets, planning and skills to ensure the network is managed in the widest interests, that the right investment projects go forward and are delivered in a realistic and cost effective manner. The best way to do this through a properly accountable national operator which works in partnership with passenger groups, national government, city regions, train operators, communities and others and is incentivised to meet agreed shared objectives.
In the coming years, the railways will need to cope with unprecedented demand and pressures. Now is the time to build them up for this role, not pull them apart.
Image by Carl via Flickr