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Toiling relentlessly, as we must, hump shunting data in the information super marshalling yard that is the 21 st Century railway in Britain , the twentieth anniversary of Network Rail passed us by. Should we have celebrated it had we remembered in time? Probably not. But there is no better example of how far the ability of the railway to create its own future has declined since 1994.
In 1986 we were inspired by both the scope and the detail of Chris Green's vision of ‘one railway for London '. But once the plan was explained, we took its implementation for granted. Refreshing, renewing, reconstructing, upgrading and re-equipping railways was what talented sector directors like Mr Green were paid to do in Sir Robert Reid's business led railway.
But what was business as usual two decades ago is pure fantasy railway today. Readers who feel that we are drifting into golden-ageism, complete with rose tinted spectacles, might consider a simple reality check and replay the events of 1986 with the railway and its people of 2006.
Thus, in this parallel universe, at the end of 2005 ScotRail Managing Director Mary Dickson was called down to London by DfT Rail to take control of all the capital's train operating companies. After 100 days spent travelling the network and observing, Mary decided the strategy was a common branding for all services – to be called ‘The Network', and went public in the second week of June.
There are many direct parallels with 20 years ago.
Mary Dickson is going to repaint and refresh all the stations in The Network's area – many of which were last repainted under Chris Green. You can still see red lamp-posts today, even at major stations
Outstanding refurbishment of ex-BR stock is to be accelerated. On every TOC there is one train running in the new livery.
Now, as then, Thameslink is ready to go. Thameslink 2012 is to go ahead with Ms Dickson energising any reactionary engineers or over protective TOC Teams, putting a rocket up Network Rail and beating the Treasury over the head to reduce its ludicrously pessimistic ‘optimism bias.
Thameslink will, of course need new dual voltage trains. And the oldest ex BR stock in the Network fleet, is now 30 years old. At the launch the procurement of a new fleet of SuperNetworkers was announced. Now, as then, there will be a strong emphasis on energy saving. Now, as then, the aim will be to cut consumption by 15% through a combination of weight reduction and regenerative braking.
Back in 1986, Chris Green implemented the Network Card and negotiated a joint rail/bus/tube Travelcard with London Underground in six months. In 2006 the equivalent is an agreement with TfL and Transys on rolling out Oyster across The Network. TfL wants to call it Super Oyster – Mary calls it Network Pearl, with a commitment to have c2c fully gated as the Pearl pilot in 2007.
And so on and so on, although our parallel universe breaks down entirely when we try to feed in the 2006 equivalent of the subsidy for Network South East being cut from around £470 in modern money in 1985-86 to £227 million in three years of ridership growth.
Why, then, is it that today's railway could not start to conceive, let alone deliver, the sort of improvements we took for granted just 20 years ago? We believe the heart of the problem lines in the separation of track and train.
Today, DfT Rail lets franchises which constrain managers within the tightest of specifications. Franchise bidders may seek to offer enhancements, but franchises are awarded on the basis of the lowest cost offer compliant with the specification. Thus, as our Industry & Technology Editor put it to the Commons Select Committee on Transport, the passenger railway is being set in aspic.
When you have won the bid, then you can discuss enhancements. But by then a franchisee is limbering-up before stepping into the hamster wheel where you have run faster and faster over the next seven years to meet that rising premium profile.
As effectively managers of a service contract designed to reduce the cost of the railway, TOC management is not going to add any more risk to an already parlous predicament. Neither is Network Rail for an entirely different reason.
As we have remarked before Network Rail is incentivised to stay within its comfort zone. Big projects inevitably bring risk.
That said, we are encouraged that Network Rail ranks Thameslink 2000 as its ‘Number 1' project for Control Period 4 which will run from April 2009. Even so Thameslink 2000 is an ex British Rail scheme which Railtrack inherited 10 years ago.
But where is the incentive for Network Rail, as a simple utility providing infrastructure to train operators, to think long term in total-railway terms? As we report in this issue, the Government seems to be going back to the 1974 Railways Act in specifying the long term railway with the message ‘run what you've got, more reliably, with improving safety and do something about passenger capacity while you're at it'.
Which brings us to Conservative Transport Spokesman Chris Grayling and his admission that separating track and train was a mistake. The immediate response from the industry was please don't even think of another upheaval hat we have just about got the fractured railway running well.
Clearly, aspic is an attractive option . But we don't see why there has to be an upheaval. The assumption is that vertical integration is top down, with the TOCs taking over infrastructure.
We were of this persuasion once. But the old-railwaymen who could do total railway have largely retired from the TOCs and the new generation of TOC directors have enough on their plate managing a franchise plan, without getting into infrastructure.
We see merit in re-integrating the railway from the railhead upward rather than the wheeltread downward. Network Rail is already actively pressing to become the specifier and procurer of new trains, if only to reverse the trend of track crunching, energy wasting behemoths.
And if you own the infrastructure and rolling stock, you are on your way to an integrated railway. Network Rail is also pressing Government to take over responsibility for stations where, in its view, TOCs implement a quick facelift at the start of a franchise and forget on-going maintenance.
So one organisation responsible for track, trains and stations. Why not throw in ticketing as well? And while you are at it, staff this train set? And you have a vertically integrated railway.
Hang on, we hear DfT Rail and others cry, where is the competition to drive down costs, aren't you proposing the recreation of another monolith like British Rail? Well yes, but given that today's railway needs more than five times the subsidy of Sir Robert Reid's Business led railway in its pomp, would that be a bad thing?
As many private sector companies found when they took over franchises, ‘Neutron Bob' ran a very tight ship. This was created in response to government financial limits on subsidy.
Now, Network Rail's income is determined by the Office of Rail Regulation every five years. But under the latest railways act, the Government once again controls how much money is available through the Statement of Funds Available.
British Rail suffered from demands for savings every time the economy coughed. But a five year review cycle would smooth funding while still giving Government the chance to turn the screw. It would also force politicians to think long terms about a long term industry.
Thameslink 2000 is the ideal pilot scheme. Will NR have the nerve to take the initiative?