by Chris Grayling MP on the future direction of Network Rail, CILT’s Strategic Rail Policy Group said:
“While the policy announcement by the Secretary of State is somewhat less radical than some had anticipated or hoped for, it shows a welcome attention to improving the overall level of service to rail users.
“The approach is based on fostering practical cooperation in management at working level between train operators and infrastructure managers, without changing either ownership arrangements or the legal responsibilities of the companies (which would probably require primary legislation). Two examples of such arrangements have already been tried, in Wessex and in Scotland, and these could serve as models or at least an experience base upon which to build.
“The proposed introduction by way of franchise renewals implies a very gradual timescale, and the focus on the East West route in particular is interesting – it will take many years to build and then, as a new railway, not really be representative of the challenges associated with the rest of the network. Some of the other franchises may be better test cases.
“Should there be an appetite for more radical reform, such as train operators taking on full responsibility for infrastructure maintenance functions, the following factors would need to be taken into account:
- Successful implementation would require significant upskilling of train operators, who do not currently have the relevant experience of network management, or network-wide operations, to take on this safety-critical role. The understanding fostered by system-wide management training schemes was abandoned when BR was abolished.
- Infrastructure management has a longer-term planning focus than associated with franchised train operation, so implementation would also require a realignment of incentives to overcome this. Some operators which cut across ‘normal’ boundaries such as Cross Country and the railfreight sector would need to be given equal access and operating rights to those other organisations operating on and managing their networks.
- The industry is already addressing the skill shortages which affect several engineering disciplines. Train operators migrating to become smaller scale infrastructure managers would need to recruit and retain specialist staff and grow their expertise in new areas.
- None of these challenges are insuperable but the industry would need to retain the competences required to continue its highly successful safety record while at the same time reducing the costs and timescales of infrastructure upgrades. The test will be whether the service provided to passengers and freight customers improves."