Nigel Har­ris asks if a rein­vented NR could ful­fil a wider strate­gic role.

Could Carne’s rein­vented NR ful­fil a wider strate­gic role?

Rail (UK) - - Contents - nigel.har­ris@bauer­me­ @RAIL


“As far as I can see, there is a yawn­ing chasm where in­te­grated strate­gic plan­ning should be.”

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 bi­modes? 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?

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