The tide is turning at Network Rail

How far can Carne make changes without help from the DfT and ORR? Will he be seeking changes to the regulatory regime and franchise system?

“Yes, I think we will need the franchising system to change - and so yes, the role of the DfT also needs to change in terms of its thinking about the system as a whole. One of the things I find really encouraging at the moment is that the DfT really recognises the importance of the system operator and saying to us: ‘Before we sign up for this franchise is it going to work?’ And that’s a really important question.”

So what are his absolute priorities right now?

“The first priority is always safety, through planning and delivering safe work. We know that if we change the way in which we plan and execute work on our railway, then we can significantly improve safety and that we can significantly improve efficiency.

“We’ve shown that implementing this process will lead to halving the number of cancelled possessions, and so we will become much more efficient while halving the number of people who are injured at work. 

“In terms of the number of asset failures, the railway is the most reliable it’s ever been. However, it’s not the most reliable as passengers experience it - in fact, for the past seven or eight years it’s been declining because the delay that each incident causes is going up and up. 

“We need to work together with the TOCs to better manage delays for each incident, so that we actually get that to come down and improve our performance.”

He is adamant that this can only happen through faster and more effective devolution, and is passionate that he can now see things changing for the better after three torrid years of fundamental change.

“This is where the new model really comes to life. What I find really exciting this year is that the quality of the conversations our RMDs are having with their TOCs is light years ahead of where they were last year. The RMDs are now really owning their businesses in a very different kind of way, and that’s very exciting. We are really on the verge of doing something important.

“I absolutely believe that the structure we have in place today is the right one, with the devolved taking 99% of all of the decisions that need to be taken. Around 98% of all procurement decisions are taken within the routes, so please believe it - devolution has happened. 

“Now we have to really see the benefits of that, by seeing the routes actually deliver that improved performance and lower-cost operation. We really do believe that decision making locally, working closely with customers, will give better outcomes. We have given the RMDs the power now to take those decisions - and they have to get on with them and deliver the benefits.”

Do you see NR’s centre getting smaller?

“Yes, the centre will get smaller, absolutely.”

This was an intriguing meeting and a genuinely fascinating conversation. I’ve been heavily critical of NR in the past, and will continue to be so where I see the need - that’s the role of RAIL. This magazine is the railway’s best friend, and the hardest thing a best friend has to do is deliver home truths. We will never shirk that responsibility - true friendship demands that honesty.

It also demands that where you see good things, we should do likewise. And while there’s a long way to go, I honestly did see something different, positive and rather exciting in Mark Carne. I have got to know him reasonably well over the past three years, but there was honestly something different about him this time. 

He was more energised, optimistic and informed than I’ve seen him before. He was genuinely excited - and that’s infectious. And not only to me - my curiosity about this flushed out a comment which might just pave the way for the leap forward that the railway has needed and wanted for a long time.

I wanted to get a measure of whether what Carne had told me was real and not window dressing? We’re judged not by what we say, but what we do - that’s the acid test. So without saying why, I called one of his RMDs and during the conversation I gently probed how things were going within NR. 

I can’t say which one, and nor would anyone expect me to! What’s important is the answer, which both surprised and intrigued me as it was not what I was expecting. In the past I had picked up frustration with devolution and no real change in being able to really carpe diem and make things happen locally, free of the centre’s influence. But this time…

“Actually Nigel, things are really very good. Progress last year was slow, but this year it’s really picked up a gear. Carne is really driving change through now, and we can feel it. We can honestly make a difference.”

And what about all that frustration with IP - has that gone away? Has IP changed how it works?”

“No, it hasn’t,” came the reply. “IP is the same as ever. The difference is that Mark Carne is now giving RMDs the firm platform we really need to take control from the centre to the routes - and it is really exciting. We can really do things differently.”

And that’s where I shall leave it. We are all on the beach, with Hendy, gazing out to sea and waiting for that confirmation that the tide has indeed turned. Only time will tell, and RAIL will be keeping its finger on the pulse.

As I walked away from the detailed and very open conversation with Mark Carne that formed the basis of this interview, I suddenly realised that after 20 years of privatisation, what I’d finally seen a glimpse of was something that the railway has craved… the fragile flower of leadership.

I hope the NR RMDs all seize the opportunity that at least one of their number recognizes, and that the elusive tide of change will be lapping round our feet soon.

We watch and wait.

This feature was published in RAIL 821 on 25 February 2017

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