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Railways: Network Rail

Volume 704: debated on Monday 6 October 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What steps they intend to take regarding the efficiency and effectiveness of Network Rail.

My Lords, Network Rail is a private sector company, limited by guarantee. The company has significantly improved its overall performance in recent years, and its efficiency targets for the five-year period from 2009 to 2014 are in the process of being determined by the independent Office of Rail Regulation. The Office of Rail Regulation is expected to issue its final determination at the end of this month.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on his new post. Does he agree that, notwithstanding some improvements, weekend journeys by rail are still difficult, if not impossible, and that this summer maintenance work overran the weekend by several days, making travel very difficult? Does he further agree that if we are trying to get people off the roads and on to the railways, Network Rail will have to do a lot better than it has been doing up to now?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his opening remarks. My call came while I was in the Wallace Collection and the custodian asked me to turn off my mobile phone. I toyed with the idea of telling him that it was the Prime Minister on the line but thought that he might not believe me, so I made a rapid exit and took the call in the street.

I of course appreciate my noble friend’s concerns about the impact of engineering work. I know that he is particularly concerned about the work that has been taking place on the west coast main line. As he knows, Network Rail was fined £14 million for the late running of work at Rugby over Christmas and the new year on the west coast main line. However, although there has been unavoidable inconvenience for passengers in the completion of the work—this is a huge, £8 billion programme to upgrade the line—when it is completed, by the end of this year, journey times will significantly reduce and the inconvenience to which my noble friend and others have been subjected will be at an end. The gains will be considerable; for example, the journey time from London to Lancaster, the route that my noble friend uses, which in 2004 took three hours 13 minutes, will reduce to two hours 24 minutes. So, to use a railway metaphor, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, on his new appointment. I very much look forward to working with him across the Table. However, a lot of us regret his departure from education and children’s services, because he was doing a really good job there. We hope that his successor will carry on that good work.

About 200,000 passengers were inconvenienced and in considerable difficulties last Christmas and Network Rail was fined £14 million. Are the Government taking any steps to ensure that there is not similar chaos this year? Rail transport passengers need some assurance that they can travel in comfort this Christmas time.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his remarks and look forward to working with him closely, as we do in this House, across the Dispatch Box. I hope that the £14 million exemplary fine on Network Rail will indeed ensure that the company is much more careful about ensuring that engineering work is completed in future. But work on the west coast main line, which was the cause of those delays last year, will be completed by the end of this year, so there will not be any recurrence.

My Lords, to continue in the same vein as the answers given, the efficiency of Network Rail and the train operating companies would be greatly improved if they could be encouraged to work closely together to make services better and cost less. But the Department for Transport has apparently told both parties that, if there are any savings as a result of these improved efficiency measures, the department will claim them, so there is no incentive for the two parties to co-operate.

My Lords, the noble Lord speaks with great knowledge and experience in these matters and I very much look forward to working with him, too. Network Rail has seen a significant improvement in efficiency in recent years—admittedly that has been from a low base, but it has been significant. In the five years up to 2009, we are projecting efficiency gains of 30 per cent. The regulator’s ambition is for about a 20 per cent efficiency gain over the five years to 2014. We see those as appropriate efficiency gains if the Office of Rail Regulation determines that it wishes to proceed with them.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that while the majority of us who travel on the west coast main line are concerned about journey times, we are more concerned about reliability? We do not care if a journey takes 20 minutes longer as long as we can rely on being in Euston or Lancaster at a certain time.

My Lords, I completely understand my noble friend’s point. When modernisation of the west coast main line is complete, we expect reliability to improve as well. However, I am glad to say that reliability has improved on the railways in recent years. The most recent figures, for August of this year, show more than 90 per cent of trains arriving punctually, compared to barely 81 per cent only five years ago. The reliability of the network is improving, but it still has further to go.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the west coast line north of Preston went under water in January due to flooding. Have steps been taken to ensure that this does not happen again?

My Lords, I do not think that the determination of the weather is among my many powers—I have yet to discover their full extent—but I will see whether I am invested with such a capacity. However, I am sure that whatever is humanly possible is being done.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on his new post. Will he and his department keep in mind that all judgments on British railways must be conditioned by the memory of the cruel axe wielded on them by Dr Beeching, which has recently had more attention in the media?

My Lords, that is a question more for the historians than for me, but I watched a fascinating programme about Beeching on BBC Four last week, in which the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, made a star turn as a railway manager who worked through that period. The nostalgia in me was overpowering.