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Rail Britannia – with 98 per cent of projects completed early or on-time – what’s the fuss?

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The news of Network Rail’s difficulties with the most ambitious investment programme in a generation has been cheerfully seized on by the media as damning proof of the industry’s shortcomings.

The chorus of disapproval was in full swing as Network Rail announced a review of CP5. Sir Peter Hendy replaced chairman Richard Parry-Jones and Nichola Shaw, head of HS1, arrived to rescue Network Rail.

Overrunning engineering works, the seemingly endless rearranging of major stations and, worst of all, HS2 – the third runway of railway aspiration – all fuelled the prickly heat of complaint.

The industry, its detractors argue, can barely cope with running the railway it already has. Why throw good money after bad?

The announcement of the review of CP5 and the temporary speed restriction on Midland Main Line and northern electrification may look like an admission of industry-wide failure. The facts hardly bear this out.

Achievements notched up over the last 12 months include replacing 400 miles of track and 300 junctions, sorting out the Harbury landslip, completion of the Borders Railway and major station upgrades at Edinburgh Haymarket, Nottingham and Birmingham New Street. Add in Network Rail’s involvement in Crossrail and the Great Western Electrification project and the picture is hardly as bleak as our detractors would have us believe.

Nevertheless, the rail industry faces three major challenges as it seeks to satisfy public demand for its services both freight and passenger.

Historical Challenges

First, the railway has long suffered from a lack of investment. That is being put right now. However, it bears repeating: we are suffering the penalty of decades of stop-go investment and a muddle-and-mend culture with no parallel outside the Cuban car repair industry. Railway staff, quite sadly, would go on holidays to Europe using priv travel to speed about on gleaming new TGVs and ICEs – wandering around mile after mile of freight yards all full of trains. Railways were taken altogether more seriously right across Europe.

By contrast, British Rail and Railtrack had to cope with a tangle of lines laid out in the reign of Queen Victoria, often missing out local towns altogether.

Indeed although the tracks might conform to the same gauge there all uniformity ended. The loading gauge – width permissible for rolling stock – on the Southern was much tighter than elsewhere. Unhappily this proved a major obstacle to European wagons using the Channel Tunnel. Rail engineers are no strangers to lowering trackbed and widening bridge piers.

From the end of the Second World War onwards, the railways suffered a complete collapse in public confidence which is only now being rolled back. Investment lagged so far behind for so long that it is proving hard to catch up. However, it is essential to maintain and increase investment levels to achieve the goals of CP5.

People of Merit

The second real challenge the industry faces is lack of staff. To progress all the work that needs doing and to run the expanding services themselves, we need more engineers, track staff, IT boffins, apprentices and train crew. Largely unremarked by the outside world, the rail industry is going to great lengths to recruit school leavers, students and graduates. Training academies are being developed and Network Rail’s apprenticeship scheme – one among many – is widely respected and producing great results. Similarly, second careerists are encouraged to join the railway. Hundreds of servicemen and women are being inspired to break cover and sneak across the no man’s land of mid-life crisis into the welcoming arms of the rail industry.

Changing the public perception of rail is imperative if we are to attract young people and inspire them to invest their career in railways. To do this, the railway needs to up its game. The rash of industrial unrest this summer points to a deep suspicion among railway staff about changes to working conditions and job descriptions.

Most people accept jobs change and technologies with them. What’s harder to work out is how many such changes are driven by hard-nosed profitability concerns rather than a desire to advance the general good. It is essential to retain good staff from the heroes of ticket office, platform and depot – see the RailStaff Awards for chapter and verse on this – to senior managers and executives.

Return of the Batman

For the fact is the industry needs inspired leadership supplied by people who know the business, not outsiders. Too often railway companies consider it clever to bring in successful executives from elsewhere and let them loose on the railways. Again, this is changing. Let us hope the appointment to the DfT of the now ubiquitous rail legend Richard Brown, as a sort of rail Batman to Patrick McLoughlin’s Commissioner Gordon, will strengthen rail leadership.

Look at the more successful railway companies and you see them run by people who worked their way up from ballast to boardroom. Pino de Rosa, head of Bridgeway Consulting, David Franks, chief executive of Irish Railways, and Tim Shoveller, who is currently running the NR-SWT alliance, all started work at track level. The lesson here is put the railway under the tutelage of men and women who broke sweat and blistered skin on it. Tap in to their unique alchemy.

Support the Orange Army

Thirdly, the railway, as it upgrades itself, has to cope with burgeoning demand and a largely unsympathetic public. The cheapest way to upgrade stretches of railway is to shut it altogether. The public loathes getting off a train onto a substitute bus service. People are actually far more sympathetic to the idea of taking a different route altogether. A more constructive appraisal of time and blockades needed would be helpful.

For the truth is this is the fastest growing railway in Europe in terms of patronage. More people want to use it more often.

CP5 is designed to give them what they want. Huge electrification and capital programmes, will always need to have costs reviewed and revised. Projects become properly defined and detailed project costs often prove higher than assumed at first.

Given the huge amount of work to be undertaken it is reasonable to expect delays and cost over runs. Network Rail says it completed over 90,000 small, medium and large schemes, with over 98 per cent completed early or on-time. Although two electrification projects have been paused, rail chiefs say the supply chain as a whole will remain virtually unaffected and there will be minimal impact on the market.

CP5 continues, with the Orange Army out in force this summer. Plans to build HS2 continue to bed in. Rail has everything to play for. No person working in railways need take criticism for the review of CP5. This is an industry forging ahead like no other. The underlying rhythm of rail renewal echoes the return of Britain to prosperity and commercial success.

The fates of the United Kingdom and the rail industry are inextricably linked. Far be it from us to add to the emotional pressure on staff but this really is a case of Rail Britannia.


  1. A very good insight and accurate summary of the issues and what needs to be done. Shame the popular media don’t run this story


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