RAIL 825: Thinking the unthinkable

Nothing will ever shake my pride in, or my commitment to, Britain’s crucially important railway - especially its amazing army of people who achieve miracles every day. You only have to watch the two recent ‘fly on the wall’ Channel 5 documentary railway series to see that - Inside London King’s Cross and especially Rob Bell’s brilliant Inside the Tube are doing the best job of showing the nation just how amazing our railwaymen and women really are. 

But my admiration and passionate belief in our railways is all too often matched by despair at how we can be both brilliant and inept simultaneously. In many ways we have the best railway that we’ve ever had - but it still costs too much. That particular problem is now being tackled within Network Rail, and hard work by CEO Mark Carne and his team deserves to bear fruit. There are very encouraging signs, but I still despair at our abject failure at strategic planning. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the becalmed barminess that appears to have overtaken the Midland Main Line (MML).

Electrification was on. Then it was paused. Then it was back on again. Now there’s… what? Until we hear otherwise, the project is still supposedly  alive and NR is continuing to prepare the way for eventual wiring to the East Midlands. Yet I can find no one who says anything other than that the wires will never go north of Kettering.

I’m told the DfT was so scarred by the ferocious criticism in the backlash to the notional tripling of Great Western electrification costs to nearly £3bn that it is reluctant to confront and clarify MML electrification plans. Recent DfT documents discussed wires south of Kettering, but only ‘route modernisation’ to the north.

Damaging uncertainty thrives in the resulting vacuum. If the wires do end at Kettering, what happens to the current 125mph services between Nottingham, Derby, Sheffield and Leicester to St Pancras? Those places are determined to hang on to their 125mph through links - but how? Some kind of bi-mode service would be an option - but what would it be? 

More Hitachi IEPs? In which case what happens to the Meridian fleet? Should we resurrect the ‘Project Thor’ pantograph car idea that would convert the DEMU Meridians into bi-modes? That plan was shelved some years ago allegedly because of the high price attached to these cars by Bombardier. Compared with the costs of wiring to the East Midlands those pantograph cars may now represent better value? Or are we going to continue running 125mph diesels under the wires from Kettering to St Pancras? Also, what happens to fill the gap when the HSTs leave? As far as I can see, there is a yawning chasm where integrated strategic planning should be. How can a new franchise be effectively planned and let in this morass?

The ripples of disruption from the GWR electrification problems go a long way. My old chum Wolmar and I recently gave a talk in Seascale, a lovely former Furness Railway resort south of Whitehaven on the Cumbrian Coast. There was despair among rail activists that the long campaigned-for reinstatement of a Sunday service south of Whitehaven, which had finally been included in the new Northern franchise, would not now happen because the trains needed were unlikely to be cascaded and released as planned. Similar problems exist elsewhere. So, where there is an element of strategic planning it is all too often simply not happening. And where such planning is urgently needed, there is none. 

None of this is the fault of train operators and it is certainly not NR’s fault. This failing falls squarely on the shoulders of Government, which since the abolition of the Strategic Rail Authority in Alistair Darling’s rail review of 2004, has been responsible for strategic planning. The procedures in place since the SRA was scrapped have simply not worked effectively and the consequences are now painfully apparent. As is always the case, the problems of politics and presentation get in the way. 

There is also a growing acceptance that whatever strategic planning had previously been included in Control Period financing will be missing from CP6 (2019-24). The widespread belief is that the only major enhancements in CP6 will be those that overspill for one reason or another from CP5 - and no more. Any major enhancements will be specified and managed as standalone projects - and in many ways this may be no bad thing. 

There is a crying need for an informed client to properly understand what railway it wants to buy long term, and then to procure it efficiently. Yet again, you have to look north of the border, where Transport Scotland does precisely this - and does it well. The High Level Output Specification (HLOS) and accompanying Statement of Funds Available (SoFA) are not working effectively. This has been because of a shortage of the right expertise in the right place - partly because of the pernicious influence of politics and, yes, partly because of failings by NR.

Which is where there may be a glimmer of hope, because although improvements are still to be widely seen there is no question in my mind that things are changing for the better at NR. I am by no means the only one who has noticed - and is commenting on - really encouraging signs of cultural change, improved efficiency, better engagement, rapidly decreasing arrogance and more collaborative working. A few swallows don’t make a summer, but it would be wrong not to highlight what seems to be positive changes at NR.

The effective partnership of Chairman Sir Peter Hendy CBE and CEO Mark Carne is having a clear effect on turning the NR supertanker. Improvements are patchy and inconsistent and some may scoff, but I’m convinced enough to speak up and say so. Read my interview with Carne in RAIL 821 and I hope you’ll see what I mean. I’ve put it on the RAIL website for those who missed it.

Which raises an intriguing prospect. If Carne and Hendy embed, extend and expand these improvements, and if the imminent Hansford Review paves the way (finally) for significant cost reductions and efficiency improvements, then NR could be in pole position to assume a much more strategic role. 

Many will dismiss such a suggestion. A few may even think I’ve lost my marbles. But think about it. We are in dire need of decent strategic thinking. The new generation of empowered Route Managing Directors such as Rob McIntosh (LNE) and Martin Frobisher (LNW) are showing what can be achieved with genuine devolution and strong local management. Carne insists this will lead to a smaller ‘centre’ for NR. With the RMDs busy doing the heavy lifting, a highly skilled central core of strategic thinkers could be developed.

Government won’t reinvent the SRA. Nor will it cede authority elsewhere. That authority could, however, be exercised to greater effect through the evolved and more capable NR that Hendy and Carne are working hard to create.

Or am I thinking the unthinkable?

Comment: RAIL 825: April 26 2017 - May 9 2017

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