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CN Briefing: Network Rail; Chris Grayling; East West Rail

Yesterday, Chris Grayling outlined his plans to shake up the UK’s railways.

Standing in front of a packed crowd of the transport sector’s biggest names at the Policy Exchange, the transport secretary proclaimed his future vision could lead to a “golden era for rail”.

While the changes will alter the way the UK’s rail network is managed and operated, the effect they would have on construction firms remains less clear. In terms of bringing the operation of track and train back together, it would appear there will be very little impact.

The creation of the new “integrated teams” will give train operating companies more of a say over when and where maintenance should take place, but ultimately those carrying out this work will remain the same: Network Rail’s ‘Orange Army’. Something Mr Grayling was keen to stress yesterday.

Instead, it is the creation of new organisation East West Rail that contractors should keep an eye on.

In his speech outlining the plans, Mr Grayling said the task of the new organisation would be to get private sector companies involved in the design, build and operate the line between Oxford and Cambridge.

This will mean big opportunities for rail contractors and bigger requirement for more money from private developers and businesses to fund these works.

But could it also mean a chance for public-private partnerships, or perhaps the handing over of long-term maintenance deals of the line to private construction firms once the project is complete?

It remains to be seen.

Either way, the project seems to be in the right hands. The man chosen to head up East West Rail, Rob Brighouse, has experience delivering privately funded enhancements while working for operating company Chiltern Railways.

“But you must remember,” one source told me, “the East West Rail line is a drop in the ocean when it comes to the rail enhancements.”

And a project in the hundreds of millions of pounds is clearly only a small part of an enhancement programme worth just shy of £40bn.

But it is its role as a pathfinder that could give it greater significance.

Mr Grayling said himself that the new route would be a testing bed for new innovative ways of delivering rail projects more rapidly.

It is no secret that Mr Grayling wants to lighten Network Rail’s load when it comes to delivering enhancement projects. With the well-publicised delays and overruns to its electrification programme it is easy to understand why.

Siphoning off more enhancement projects to newly created bodies like East West Rail just might be his answer.

Whether that is the case and what model will be adopted will depend on the success of the East West Rail experiment in the coming years.

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Project report

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