Hmm. Interesting. I glimpse real frustration behind Plummer’s careful language. I have heard nothing in many conversations with both NR Chairman Sir Peter Hendy CBE and Chief Executive Mark Carne to make me believe they are not sincere about devolution. Both speak with passion and what I see as sincerity about their desire to ‘see it happen’. Carne has made good on his undertaking that if his company’s highly-controversial and oft-criticised (and believe me, that’s putting it mildly) Infrastructure Projects function cannot offer competitive services, then he will open their work to ‘contestability’ in the wider industry. And yet it is happening not just slowly, but not at all according to some observers and participants. Why?
“Local ownership of plans is so fundamental - but little pieces of behaviour unintentionally undermine that and dilute that accountability,” Plummer replies.
What does that mean, exactly?
“I think the project piece is an important example. We need to get to the point where everybody in NR and its stakeholders go to the Route to ask a question about our projects - until we get to that point then the routes won’t feel fully accountable for those projects. Even if it’s unintentional, when DfT or the NR board go to the project team to find out what’s happening, they dilute that accountability. I think that behavioural thing happens all the time, and it sets back the absolute commitment of where we want to go with the customer relationship.”
Both Hendy and Carne have made it very clear to me that if anyone believes they can upgrade or reopen railway infrastructure better than they can, they should step up and do it. Plummer agrees. So what are the obstacles?
“We are trying hard to understand those obstacles,” he begins. “So we have a project which has NR people in it - top people - people from Government, even the supply chain, to understand the obstacles to different ways to financing and delivering projects.
“A lot of it is around behaviours. So no matter what you say at a senior level, if people on the ground don’t believe that what you want will happen, then they’re not going to try and make the effort. Success requires partnership between the route, the developer, the financier, the contractor - those partnerships which are happening in most other industries, they’re hard work on the railway.
“In the past NR and the industry has been able to rely on a convenient way of financing which has been hugely powerful in many ways. But if you want alternative ways of doing it you have to invest the time to make those partnerships work.
“My view is that there really are no fundamental obstacles - but until we get some successes then people aren’t going to put the effort in. Once you get some momentum you can really start to motor and achieve things much, much more quickly. When you get Route Managing Directors with strongly capable teams that have more resources for them so they can be more outward looking… once you get them really owning the asset management plan on their bit of railway… once you get them working with operators and other partnerships to deliver projects in a different way, you can quickly gain more momentum than is there at the moment. But for a time you have to believe that that’s going to happen. At the moment it’s sometimes frustrating for people, and difficult to believe that - so it doesn’t happen.”
Transport Scotland (TS) is very clear in its view that the rail industry has no way of effectively challenging project costs, and that engineers are divorced from the purpose of their work to such an extent that they neither ‘feel the risk’ nor understand real customer needs. Costs soar as a consequence, says TS. Is there a role for RDG here?
“I’ll start with the last bit - no, the role for RDG is limited there,” replies Plummer without hesitation.
“Rather than have somebody else come and do it to them - or even for them - the RMDs need to feel much more accountability and be much more engaging with their customers. They need to feel it’s worthwhile engaging - it’s the RMDs who need to be challenging those.
“It certainly seemed how that worked under the SRA , and it’s how it works already for Transport Scotland. TS is very demanding as a client, and that’s been very positive. They’ve not had some of the problems that we’ve seen elsewhere.”
So how do you encourage NR to work much more in that manner?
“RMDs need to take much more accountability, with the TOCs as their customers.”
RAIL has been urging the rail industry to be more proactive in its conversation with the British people for over a decade… to no avail. But it now seems to be happening with the Britain Runs on Rail (BROR) campaign of print and TV ads. While it’s great to see, was the best time to launch it during the Southern strike, which has had such a toxic effect on the entire industry? Was there not a concern that it would trigger a hollow laugh from the raucous voice at the back of the room, rather than admiring glances and renewed understanding?
“Much of the debate abound BROR’s launch was timing amidst the strike. My answer was there is never a good time!
“I wanted the railway to actually get with some difficult conversations, so it was important to be much more on our front foot. We need to get out there and broadcast what the railway is achieving on the one hand, while also being honest about where it’s not achieving. We need to ask ourselves the difficult questions about fares, ticketing, investment and so on. The response has been positive.”