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Why did rail renewal rates fall after 1985?
Reproduced here for your delectation is the profile of rail relaying rates going back to the last time the railways were in private hands. This shows the age profile of Network Rail's current infrastructure.
All railway policy is there, as the News of the World might have put it. Post war recovery, the 1955 Modernisation Plan, all that work in the 1970s to reinforce the crumbling edge of quality and the post Hatfield panic.
In round numbers the current Network is 32,000 track km. Assuming a life of 40 years the railway will need to replace 2.5% of its rails every year. This, argues Network Rail in its business plan, equates to 800km a year to keep pace with life expiry.
This is an oversimplification, of course. Some of that rail dating from the 1950s is in sidings and very occasionally-used bay platforms. While on the main lines rails have always been replaced relatively frequently. Once upon a time this rail was cascaded to secondary routes; now it seems the policy is to cut it up into short lengths for disposal.
No matter. You will see that up to 1985, the 2.5% rule seemed to apply. After that renewal rates fell almost in a straight line to a mere 200km in 1996, the year Railtrack was privatized – although the decline stabilized briefly in 1993 and 1994.
Intrigued by the post-1985 fall I asked some Old Railway chums who were running the railway at that time what they had been playing at. And their answers were unambiguous. It was all down to Bob Reid's business led railway, which encouraged people to think.
Two things came together at that time. First, the quality of the track had been improving, including the quality of rails. Second, Regional Railways, which was responsible for a major proportion of the network, launched the Sprinter revolution. Oh yes, and freight tonnage was falling.
While Sprinters were faster and more frequent that the locomotive hauled trains they replaced, they had fewer, lighter axles and thus generated less track wear. Couple this with better quality components and it was clear that track life could be extended.
In other words renewals scheduled on the basis of a nominal life could be deferred. This saved money and the lower cost of the Sprinter railway helped keep Settle & Carlisle open.
There were similar policy changes on Network SouthEast. Instead of a nominal service life, renewals were geared to conditions and Area Civil Engineers who knew their patches intimately would monitor condition and based each year's renewal programme on this basis.
We also need to remember that British Rail charged track renewals to revenue rather than capital expenditure. Thus renewals went straight to each businesses bottom line.
But as one OR chum who was at the sharp end in 1984 remembers ‘at no stage did the Civil Engineers advise there was a looming crisis - indeed part of the thinking was that lightly used lines could quite happily live with an indefinite renewals holiday'.
Thus, a lot of the drop in renewals was down to reduced wear and tear on the large proportion of the network which is lightly used. The mini-stabilisation in 1993-94 is, I suspect, down to those Managers who were out of sympathy with privatisation and since they could not be held to account for their actions after April 1994 decided to put their budgets into bequeathing the best infrastructure they could.
There was a further factor: BR changed its accounting policy and track renewals became capital expenditure. Thus in the run up to the 1992 Election, when the Government was trying to keep York Works open, £150million was made available under an early form of PFI to buy more Networkers.
But John Nelson, by then running Network SouthEast was quite clear that he didn't want any more trains. If there was any extra money for capital expenditure available he wanted to spend it on infrastructure.
When Railtrack took over in April 1994, it was pretty certain that its new Chief Executive John Edmonds (Mr Sprinterisation) and Finance Director Norman Broadhurst would keep a tight rein on expenditure until privatisation was completed. And you can see this on the graph.
But then came the final blow. Out on the regional railway the new policy was working fine. Settle-Carlisle could have run on for years quite happily. But then Railtrack signed an open access contract with Ed Burkhardt's EWS.
What this meant was that EWS could run its track pounding Class 66s and North American design bogies over track maintained for Sprinters. And when Scottish coal started to flow over the Settle & Carlisle the infrastructure couldn't take it, costing Railtrack around £150million to put right.
Significantly, at the publication of the Network Rail 2003 Business Plan, one of the potential economies I discussed with Chairman Ian McAllister was restricting freight movements to specific routes engineered for high tonnages.
This, of course, raises questions over the validity of Network Rail's renewals forecasts. Do we really need to renew 1,500 track km a year for the foreseeable future? Managing the access for high axle load/high intensity traffic, or even reviving the project to upgrade track to 35tonne axle load on key freight routes could be the most cost effective way forward.
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