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Railways: Network Rail

Volume 708: debated on Monday 2 March 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they advise Network Rail on the strategic impact of its engineering works programme.

My Lords, the Government do not provide such advice. This is an operational matter for Network Rail, overseen by the independent Office of Rail Regulation. As part of the Periodic Review 2008 final determinations accepted by Network Rail on 5 February, the Office of Rail Regulation has set targets and provided funding for Network Rail to reduce the impact of its engineering works on users of the railway.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the weekend after next both the east coast and the west coast main lines will have severe delays due to engineering works and that it is not uncommon for two of the three routes into East Anglia also to be subject to delays? Who speaks on behalf of passengers when the overall network delays are simply unacceptable?

My Lords, I understand the noble Baroness’s point about inconvenience to passengers. It is precisely for that reason that the Office of Rail Regulation, which is the body responsible for ensuring that the voice of passengers is conveyed loud and clear to Network Rail, has agreed with Network Rail that over the next five years there will be a reduction of more than one-third in the disruption caused to passengers by engineering work. Of course, it is not possible to maintain the railway without engineering work, which will cause some disruption to passengers, but we expect that the target of a one-third reduction in that disruption will make a big difference to the experience of members of the travelling public.

My Lords, the Government should think again. The noble Lord referred to the Office of Rail Regulation. We have the Office of Rail Regulation, we have the operators, we have Network Rail and we have the passengers. There needs to be more connect between that lot. The passenger loses out all the time. Will the Government think more about how those four bodies can co-operate more fully?

My Lords, I hesitate to point out who privatised the railways in the first place, which caused a lot of the disconnections to which the noble Lord referred. However, there is no absence of responsibility in this matter. The Office of Rail Regulation is clearly charged with ensuring that the passenger voice is heard loud and clear and it establishes the regime within which Network Rail works. As I say, it has set a target for a substantial reduction over the next five years in the disruption caused to passengers by engineering work.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Network Rail report on corporate governance presented to Network Rail members last week was suppressed and not publicly published, to the detriment of taxpayers and railway travellers alike, and that that entirely justifies the criticisms made by the People’s Rail campaign?

My Lords, I do not believe that it has been suppressed; a decision has not yet been taken to publish it. However, my noble friend will be aware that there are more than 100 members of Network Rail. In my experience in this game, the prospects of keeping that document private for long are not great.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that last week there was a lot of publicity about Network Rail directors’ bonuses? I declare an interest as chairman of the Rail Freight Group and as one of the 100 members of Network Rail. Does he believe that the proposed level of bonus is satisfactory and do the Government agree with it, on the basis of either Network Rail’s performance or the current economic climate?

My Lords, the setting of bonuses is entirely a matter for Network Rail, not the Government. However, I am sure that that House would expect Network Rail’s remuneration committee to be mindful of the public mood on bonuses and not to award bonuses that the travelling public would consider unjustified by their own experience of Network Rail’s performance. This includes the hundreds of thousands of the travelling public on the west coast main line whose services were cancelled or massively disrupted in the new year by poor maintenance of the overhead wires.

My Lords, standard railway practice is that first you plan your engineering work and then you plan your timetable, with engineering work planned so that one strategic route between all points is kept open. How will the present shambles of an organisation that runs our railway system get back to the established practice?

My Lords, the performance of Network Rail has been improving substantially in recent years after, as the noble Lord put it, the shambles that it inherited from the privatised Railtrack. In addition to the near-30 per cent improvements in efficiency that Network Rail has achieved over the past five years, the Office of Rail Regulation is requiring Network Rail to make a further 25 per cent improvement in efficiency over the next five years. That will be achieved only if it plans its engineering work much more effectively.

My Lords, I hope that the Minister can at least confirm to me that he has overall responsibility for the railways, instead of having someone doing this, someone doing that and someone doing the other. Does he know of any attempt to find out what happens with engineering works in other countries that seem to run efficient railways? For example, is there any night working? Let me just explain this. We live on what is known as the misery line—Southern railway—which is usually closed for two weekends a month. That means that it will never increase passenger numbers at weekends because no one knows whether the trains are running or not.

My Lords, the Office of Rail Regulation has looked at the practice of other countries, some of which, as the noble Baroness rightly says, are more efficient in the way in which they conduct their engineering works than is Network Rail, to see what lessons can be learnt. Partly as a result of that benchmarking exercise, new targets have been set for Network Rail’s overall efficiency and for the reduction expected in the disruption caused to passengers by engineering work.

My Lords, the Minister rightly criticised the Conservatives for privatising the railways, but he must be aware that the present Government have had 12 years to renationalise the railways, as some of us suggested and demanded in the early years of the Government. There is, of course, still time between now and next June for a nationalisation Bill to come forward.

My Lords, we created Network Rail in order to improve on the performance of the privatised Railtrack. Performance has been substantially improving and I do not believe that it is in the public interest that there should be further big changes to the organisation of the railway industry at present. It is important that those who are responsible get on with the job and do it properly. Network Rail’s performance has been improving substantially in recent years, but it needs to continue improving.