Transport secretary Chris Grayling launched his Strategic Vision for Rail today, which is poised to deliver a significant shake-up in the development, maintenance and operation of Britain’s rail network.
The plans will see Network Rail and train operating companies united and calls for “long-term integrated partnerships between track and train”, effectively bringing the responsibilities for both back under one umbrella.
The proposed changes are not set to come in until 2024 at the earliest, although we will see something of a trial run under the government’s new “private partnership” on the East Coast Main Line, replacing the existing franchise there in 2020 (although this has been heavily criticised in some quarters as a not-so-clever disguise for a public bailout of the TOC on that line).
For many, this move will make a lot of sense.
It has always seemed strange to split up the running of the trains from the running of the track and signals, leading to inefficiencies and perverse incentives. The Department for Transport’s report suggests that integrating the two functions will “improve performance”, but it could of course be several years before we see the results of this move.
There is one other project that could show the way on this: East West Rail.
East West Rail chairman Rob Brighouse told delegates at last week’s CN Summit that his project would look to procure a design, build, finance and maintenance contract for the line. He even suggested that the eventual operation of East West Rail could be included in the procurement, in a very different model to how rail works are currently procured in this country.
Mr Grayling’s aims are clearly in the background to this, driving East West Rail towards this solution. Delivering projects in this way could help get a number of schemes off the ground where the business case using the public purse alone is tricky to justify.
Giving contractors a long-term stake by locking them into the line’s operation should (again, in theory) drive up quality, as it will be in their interests to deliver the best possible railway to make their lives easier when it comes to maintenance.
Rail contractors will be watching these changes with interest to see how the situation unfolds.
But with many complaining in the past about the bureaucratic nature of Network Rail and the delays to some major projects, this could be good news for the construction industry.