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It's time to cost rail properly

AGENDA - We need an industry standard for measuring railway costs, writes Michael Byng

THE EVER-increasing cost of new engineering construction and asset maintenance continue to cause concern for the public and for those engaged in the rail industry.The result is that many expected schemes are 'on hold' and the Route Utilisation Strategy reviews carried out by the SRA run the risk of being based on incomplete or over-pessimistic cost information, rendering many urgently required schemes, especially outside London, apparently unaffordable.

Analysis of cost in the industry is in its infancy.While much work has been carried out since 1996 to analyse costs, no industry standard form of measurement nor cost analysis has been developed that is comparable with, say, the Building Cost Information Service in the general building industry.

Quantity surveyors have been at the fore in the industry during the past 10 years, gaining a great deal of work - and profit - from it.Perhaps now is the time to put something back into it.

Many of the larger practices have developed their own cost databases to suit their own client needs but these are not generally shared or developed within the industry, nor are they based on a standard method of measurement.

Perhaps the time is now right for the RICS to facilitate the development of a comprehensive method of measurement of railway engineering and maintenance works. Having created an SMM Rail, the institution could also bring the private initiatives within the industry together to create a Railway Engineering Cost Information Service.

Who would benefit? Well quantity surveyors of course, but in doing so the industry would benefit from empirical analysis of the costs of the major projects that have been recently completed.The cost of new schemes is inflated by the apparent need for endless feasibility studies in the absence of reliable benchmarks.

Secondly the SRA and Network Rail would be spared the often harsh criticism based on anecdotal evidence, which it is difficult or often impossible to corroborate from published information.

And finally the Office Of Rail Regulation, which is faced with the invidious task of regulating the expenditure of Network Rail, without having any independent cost data on which to rely. In simple terms, the public is probably being denied new rail and tram schemes because the cost of their construction is overstated by a high level of contingency or risk pricing at the conception stage - brought about by the very absence of any credible cost database.

Like many, I have enjoyed working in an exciting and profitable business sector and have had to recruit new staff to meet demand.Staff taken from the wider building industry often need a conversion course to operate on railway projects.My own costs in training are not inconsiderable - I shudder to think what the large practices spend.Nevertheless, if we were all to co-operate, who knows what we might achieve.We would probably learn a lot, reduce our costs and, more importantly, might put a lot back into the industry for the benefit of the public, who have provided us with a great deal of profitable work.