It was billed as the great re-privatisation of the railways with the market ushered in to reign supreme over the tracks. But anyone hoping the Secretary of State was going to take a chainsaw to Network Rail or even summon the dark spirit of Railtrack will be disappointed.
Instead, Chris Grayling used his much trailed speech on the future of the railways to do a little housekeeping and change emphasis a bit while leaving the main building blocks of the railway sector pretty much as they were.
Before you tune out completely there are some genuinely important things to note.
First, there is some progress on what industry geeks call vertical integration. Us lesser mortals will understand this better as getting the people who manage the tracks to talk to those who run the trains. Rather than taking the ‘new broom sweeps clean’ approach, Grayling has actually opted to implement the recommendations from previous Government reviews by Roy McNulty and Nicola Shaw. While media reporting suggested the train operators were going to be given full responsibility for managing the tracks is thankfully wide of the mark, we do have a sketch of how train operators and Network Rail might work together at route level.
Within the confines of existing institutional structures, this makes good sense. The disappointment is how narrowly Network Rail is being allowed to interpret who its customers are. Basically, this starts and finishes with the people running the trains, and perhaps the private sector if they have money to invest. Any formal role for the passengers who rely on the trains and who pay the large majority of what the railways cost is absent. This is especially frustrating when one considers how clearly and cogently the Shaw Review set out the case for such a function.
In reality, the railways are rarely as simple as a single train operator and Network Rail agreeing the right thing to do and everyone else reaping the rewards. Train services like Cross Country and rail freight operators need to travel across different franchise and route areas. As things stand, they could easily be left out in the cold by the new arrangements. What, for example, is to stop freight trains from Felixstowe getting stopped at Ipswich because Greater Anglia and Network Rail have decided not to take their interests into account? Network Rail's system operator role must be maintained with centralised timetabling and planning, and passenger train operators need to be incentivised to protect cross-franchise and freight services. We will be pushing for these important issues to be addressed and resolved as the new ways of working bed in.
Grayling also gave an idea of how major rail investment projects might work in the future. Having been identified as a priority by the National Infrastructure Commission, East West Rail linking Oxford, Milton Keynes and Cambridge will be taken forward as a priority. It will not, however, be developed by Network Rail but instead by a separate organisation taking on design, delivery and oversee financing of the project – an approach similar to that used for Crossrail. We are likely to see more of this for major projects – a reaction to the failures of the current five year Control Period (CP5) programme. This has been beset by delays and overspend on large electrification projects with the Government forced to go back on promises of new rail infrastructure which Network Rail is no longer in a position to deliver.
Grayling emphasised links between the new East West rail line and land use planning and development. This is something we have long championed and gives some hope that the much-vaunted Oxford - Cambridge arc might have good quality, high capacity rail links at its heart rather than becoming a congested tarmac sprawl. We will be encouraging the Government and the organisation delivering the rail project to make sure this is the case.
Other announcements from the Secretary of State include a long overdue increase in transparency for costing rail projects. As well as more Crossrail-type models for big schemes, the Government is now moving to a simplified approach to Control Periods. In future, big projects to be announced in a similar way to current Control Period, but smaller schemes will have to form an orderly queue and hope money is available to deliver them when their time comes. While this might make political and administrative sense, the major risk is that big projects hoover up all the cash and leave the small but high value investments like junction improvements, longer platforms and new stations out in the cold. The Department for Transport (DfT) together with the regulator, the Office of Rail and Road, need to set out how they will stop this from happening. One probable outcome is that only those projects that can attract funding from developers, Local Economic Partnerships and the like can be guaranteed to go ahead.
Another big change concerns transport in and around London. The Government has faced down pressure and decided not to give London’s Labour Mayor control of any more lines or services into the capital despite Transport for London’s (TfL) success in growing rail and coordinating services. Instead, TfL will be given a formal input into those franchises running commuter services into London. It is worth noting that TfL has delivered huge improvements to long neglected inner suburban rail services in London. We wait to see if closer working with franchises serving the London commuter market delivers anything like these levels of improvement to stations and trains.
The Secretary of State is also expected to talk about implementing smart ticketing across the network. We welcome this, but with a note of caution. Southeastern trains have recently launched their smart ticket, 'the Key'. But in reality their offering looks anything but smart, doing little more than replacing paper tickets with a plastic one. Passengers need to see real benefits like automatic refunds, flexible and part-time season tickets and more cross-modal transport options before smart ticketing will really be seen to be delivering.
The final point is what all this means collectively for passengers. The Secretary of State’s line is very much that an increase in efficiency will mean lower running costs and therefore cheaper tickets. Vertical integration of trains and track will mean engineering problems being dealt with more simply and faster. These outcomes are not a given and represent the least well developed part of Grayling’s plan. We will be pushing the DfT to think much more about passengers' interests as it develops its plans over the coming months.
Image courtesy of Number 10 via Flickr