Network Rail completes track quadrupling to Filton Abbey Wood, following a three-week blockade.
Rail incidents involving vegetation have risen inexorably over the past few years, a report commissioned by former Rail Minister Jo Johnson has found, with 19,000 in 2017-18 (up from 11,500 in 2009-10) that led to 1,750 train cancellations.
At the same time, Network Rail’s spending on external vegetation management contractors has risen from £17.9 million in 2012-13 to £43m in 2017-18, as the company attempts to cut the backlog.
Johnson asked John Varley last February to review Network Rail’s vegetation management, in the light of complaints about overzealous tree felling.
Varley’s report, published on November 28, notes a significant backlog of lineside vegetation management. It says: “Overall we have found that while environmental considerations are included to an extent in policies and standards, they are not truly embedded, and the approach is not balanced or consistent in its implementation. This is driven in part by an overriding and appropriate concern with safety, and also by pressures of cost, compliance and culture. There is a lack of strategic vision and ambition, and limited evidence of a culture that values the environment as a national asset.”
Varley’s report makes six recommendations, with the first that government sets NR a clear policy position that considers landscape benefits, provision of wildlife corridors, and where any extra funding will come from.
The other recommendations call on NR to manage linesides as valued assets, put in place appropriate governance in routes and projects, improve its communications with stakeholders to help them understand NR’s approach, publish an ambitious vision for its linesides, and lead a cultural change to value nature and the environment across the company.
Varley’s research found little support for NR’s approach to tree felling and vegetation management. Train drivers described it as haphazard and poor, other rail companies said it was poor, and community groups called it destructive.
Contractors complained that NR’s approach was reactive and lacked an overall strategy. Even NR’s managers at route level described vegetation management as the poor relation to signalling and track maintenance.
Varley found that previous recommendations to ring-fence funding had been ignored, with money used on other priorities. He noted that it would cost less than half as much for NR to cut back vegetation and then maintain it than cutting back, letting it grow and cutting again a few years later.
Reacting to the report, Rail Minister Andrew Jones said: “Network Rail already demonstrates good practice in many locations, but it is vital this is mirrored across the network, which is why I have asked the organisation to put together a plan which addresses these issues in the next six months. This is about culture change across the organisation as a whole.”
Network Rail Chief Executive Andrew Haines said: “Over the next six months we will develop a costed plan to deliver the aims and recommendations of this report. We will also improve the way we operate to better protect nesting birds, ready for next year’s breeding season.”