A clearer strat­egy for rail in­dus­try.

Woolly poli­cies are not help­ing the in­dus­try to de­liver the suc­cess­ful, cost-ef­fec­tive and ef­fi­cient rail­way that pas­sen­gers de­serve, ar­gues PHILIP HAIGH

Rail (UK) - - Con­tents -

STRAT­EGY and pol­icy are in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked - the first is a re­ac­tion to the sec­ond. De­cide your pol­icy, then the strat­egy that de­liv­ers it, and (fi­nally) plans to im­ple­ment.

Ac­cord­ing to the Depart­ment for Trans­port’s web­site, gov­ern­ment trans­port pol­icy is: “Safe and de­pend­able trans­port is es­sen­tial to UK so­ci­ety and the econ­omy. The gov­ern­ment is work­ing to make rail, road, air and water trans­port more ef­fi­cient and ef­fec­tive, keep them safe and se­cure, and re­duce green­house gas and other emis­sions.”

In turn, DfT’s rail pol­icy says: “We need a mod­ern rail net­work to sup­port eco­nomic growth and pro­duc­tiv­ity, and to help peo­ple get around quickly and safely.”

This is rather woolly. In broad terms, it’s hard to dis­agree. Yet it is also hard to ex­plain what suc­cess­ful im­ple­men­ta­tion would look like.

Strat­egy has long been con­sid­ered the stuff of mil­i­tary cam­paigns. Here, pol­icy can be sim­ple. Most school­child­ren could ex­plain what Churchill wanted to achieve in the Sec­ond World War - his pol­icy was to win. The strat­egy to achieve this was more com­pli­cated, but es­sen­tially boiled down to hold­ing his ad­ver­sary at bay for long enough to build al­lied forces to a strength with which they de­feated Ber­lin’s forces.

DfT’s poli­cies can never be as sim­ple as Churchill’s, but it’s no­table that its rail pol­icy doesn’t fully fol­low wider trans­port pol­icy. There’s no men­tion of rail re­duc­ing its green­house gas emis­sions, de­spite rail be­ing widely touted as en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly. Many pas­sen­ger-miles rely on burn­ing diesel, and with elec­tri­fi­ca­tion fall­ing from favour with White­hall this looks set to con­tinue.

In­deed, the only men­tion of the word ‘fuel’ in DfT’s re­cently pub­lished Strate­gic Vi­sion comes in a small box panel sug­gest­ing that dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy will help fuel ef­fi­ciency. The tech­nol­ogy in ques­tion - Con­nected-Driver Ad­vi­sory Sys­tem (CDAS) - cer­tainly should do that, but is small beer com­pared with the dif­fer­ence that wider elec­tri­fi­ca­tion could make, if only Net­work Rail could bring down the cost of in­stalling cate­nary down­wards. Hy­dro­gen ( RAIL 838) could make a dif­fer­ence, but there’s no con­vinc­ing in­cen­tive to de­velop it with­out a clear gov­ern­ment pol­icy call­ing for lower emis­sions.

Of course, a woolly pol­icy can­not fail. If suc­cess can­not be mea­sured then fail­ure can­not oc­cur. That al­ways ap­peals to politi­cians with­out clear con­vic­tions. But there’s some­thing rather dispir­it­ing about avoid­ing fail­ure rather than cel­e­brat­ing suc­cess.

UK rail can cel­e­brate its safety suc­cesses. They have been hard-won, and have come by learn­ing the hard way with a se­ries of fa­tal ac­ci­dents. But look through DfT’s Strate­gic Vi­sion, and you’ll find no clues about whether to­day’s safety is suf­fi­cient or whether min­is­ters wish it to fur­ther im­prove. In this, the doc­u­ment re­flects last sum­mer’s High Level Out­put Spec­i­fi­ca­tion (HLOS), that set no safety tar­gets.

Nor did DfT set per­for­mance tar­gets, de­spite ac­knowl­edg­ing that de­lays in­fu­ri­ate pas­sen­gers. I can’t ar­gue with the Strate­gic Vi­sion’s claim: “Ev­i­dence from the pas­sen­ger watch­dog Trans­port Fo­cus shows that pas­sen­gers put a high pri­or­ity on re­li­a­bil­ity and per­for­mance. Dis­rup­tion to ser­vices, and frus­tra­tion when it is han­dled badly, are the top driv­ers of dis­sat­is­fac­tion.”

But no tar­gets. This might be clas­sic Con­ser­va­tive lais­sez-faire, but it’s not help­ful to those plan­ning the rail net­work or to those hold­ing it to ac­count. So we have HLOS say­ing: “The Sec­re­tary of State does not pro­pose to set na­tional top-down per­for­mance tar­gets. He be­lieves that the best way to de­liver per­for­mance will be for Net­work Rail, through its de­volved Route struc­tures, to work closely with train op­er­a­tors and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the end users of the rail­way to de­ter­mine ap­pro­pri­ate met­rics and stretch­ing yet re­al­is­tic tar­get lev­els for each part of the net­work.”

It makes you won­der just what DfT is buy­ing for the £47.9 bil­lion it said last Oc­to­ber would be avail­able for the 2019-24 Con­trol Pe­riod (of which £34.7bn will be Net­work Rail’s grant).

For­tu­nately, HLOS is not en­tirely empty. It does spec­ify peak ar­rivals ca­pac­ity into ma­jor English cities, which at least gives plan­ners

some­thing to aim at.

There’s an ar­gu­ment that pro­vid­ing free­dom is a sign of a ma­ture re­la­tion­ship. It shows you trust your sub­or­di­nates to make the right de­ci­sions when con­fronted with choices. I could un­der­stand this if NR had a good track record of delivery. I could un­der­stand this if pas­sen­ger feed­back was rat­ing train op­er­a­tors highly. How­ever, sub­or­di­nates need to know what you’re aim­ing at if they’re to make the right de­ci­sions.

In­stead, DfT ap­pears to be con­cen­trat­ing on in­puts. By pro­vid­ing more money for re­newals, for ex­am­ple, it seems to think re­li­a­bil­ity will in­crease. So it should, although it must be said that NR’s re­cent re­newals per­for­mance has left much to be de­sired. We’ve re­cently heard talk of re­dun­dan­cies while work stacks up.

In any case, know­ing what DfT wants at a top level will help NR de­cide where to con­cen­trate re­sources re­gion­ally, to al­low those de­volved route man­agers to then de­cide how best to use their al­lo­ca­tion. Per­haps this is hap­pen­ing in­ter­nally, but with DfT re­fus­ing to re­veal what’s in the rail in­dus­try’s ini­tial ad­vice for 2019-24 (un­like the Scot­tish gov­ern­ment) it’s hard to know. This leads me to think that DfT only wants trans­parency when it ap­plies to oth­ers, and cer­tainly doesn’t want to be pinned down as be­ing re­spon­si­ble for its ac­tions.

DfT is cer­tainly con­cen­trat­ing on in­puts when it de­cided to change the way NR and train op­er­a­tors work to­gether. It wants closer work­ing with joint teams re­spon­si­ble for track and trains. It notes: “When things go wrong, en­ergy and time which could be spent on solv­ing the prob­lem can be lost in con­trac­tual de­bate and in­dus­try dis­pute pro­cesses.”

This was the sort of crit­i­cism lev­elled at rail com­pa­nies many years ago, and is some­thing the in­dus­try has done much to counter with in­te­grated con­trol rooms con­cen­trat­ing on fix­ing prob­lems and re­cov­er­ing timeta­bles. That said, things still go wrong, such as De­cem­ber 7’s Hull Trains fail­ure that stranded pas­sen­gers on a failed train for sev­eral hours just north of Peter­bor­ough. I sus­pect in­te­grated work­ing was not the prob­lem here, more likely a lack of prompt and de­ci­sive ac­tion.

Not that DfT has helped in­te­gra­tion in the past, when it set dif­fer­ent tar­gets for track and train to de­liver at the same time. That might be an ar­gu­ment for DfT set­ting no tar­gets, but it would be bet­ter if it set con­sis­tent tar­gets.

Hence the DfT is hav­ing an­other go at cre­at­ing al­liances be­tween NR and op­er­a­tors. It cites the close work­ing be­tween NR and Great West­ern Rail­way, but this didn’t stop NR spring­ing a last-minute week­end clo­sure of Read­ing on GWR last au­tumn. That’s hardly close work­ing, and it’s hardly putting the pas­sen­ger first.

A sharp let­ter from Trans­port Fo­cus Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Antony Smith not­ing the late re­lease of timeta­bles and tick­ets for Christ­mas is an­other ex­am­ple: “I am be­com­ing in­creas­ingly con­cerned about the im­pact on pas­sen­gers of late no­tice re­quests for en­gi­neer­ing ac­cess.”

Smith gave a spe­cific ex­am­ple: “On Oc­to­ber 9 the full nor­mal timetable for Wed­nes­day 27 and Thurs­day 28 De­cem­ber was show­ing for Padding­ton to Cardiff jour­neys - days on which Padding­ton sta­tion is closed - with­out any warn­ing that in­cor­rect in­for­ma­tion was show­ing.”

First/MTR and NR have signed a South West­ern Al­liance. To date, this seems to con­sist of the op­er­a­tor tak­ing the crit­i­cism for NR’s seem­ingly daily track cir­cuit and other fail­ures on the ap­proaches to Water­loo.

DfT would be bet­ter to pub­lish what it wants rail in Eng­land to achieve. It should con­cern it­self less with struc­tures than with set­ting goals. If those goals are con­sis­tent be­tween NR and train op­er­a­tors, then both sides will have in­cen­tives to work in the best way that de­liv­ers the re­sults that DfT, pas­sen­gers and freight for­warders want.

Fi­nally, a word on trans­parency. As 2018 gath­ers pace (Happy New Year by the way!), it’s now seven months since Net­work Rail last pub­lished its board min­utes on the trans­parency sec­tion of its web­site. Not that I’ve been check­ing…

“If suc­cess can­not be mea­sured then fail­ure can­not oc­cur. That al­ways ap­peals to politi­cians with­out clear con­vic­tions. But there’s some­thing rather dispir­it­ing about avoid­ing fail­ure rather than cel­e­brat­ing suc­cess.”


On Novem­ber 14 2017, a Great West­ern Rail­way High Speed Train en­ters Read­ing bound for Lon­don Padding­ton and pass­ing un­der the over­head wires that were due to power pas­sen­ger trains for the first time from Jan­uary 2. The close work­ing be­tween Net­work Rail and GWR is cited as a rea­son for Gov­ern­ment plan­ning more al­liances.

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