June 2007 - Network Rail: Creeping guiltily in the right direction?

01 June 2013

Network Rail said last month that it was consulting the rest of the industry about taking over the management of more stations and providing rolling stock as well as continuing to take charge of the track. It was music to my ears. It sounded like exactly the steps ASLEF wants put into place to begin securing an integrated rail system. Suddenly, it seemed, a hint of sanity was in the air.

This development backed up the news (reported in last month’s Journal) that senior Network Rail figures had been speaking to Labour ministers in Scotland about taking control of both train and track in Scotland – a plan that had the blessing of Labour (and ASLEF) north of the border.

Were we heading for a bright new future? It seemed so. I began to believe that Network Rail was coming to its senses after the departure of John ‘Let Them Take Taxis’ Armitt. (For those worried about John’s wellbeing, Tessa Jowell has appointed him Chairman of London’s Olympic Delivery Authority. He should be able to struggle along on the £250,000 a year he’ll be picking up for working a whole 3½-days a week).

It emerged later that the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) had asked Network Rail to examine taking over more stations, including Newcastle and York. This is logical, given that Network Rail already owns Britain’s railway stations and manages a significant number, including most of London’s main line terminuses, Birmingham New Street, Manchester Piccadilly and Glasgow Central. It is difficult to see any advantages in the current system whereby the train operating companies (TOCs) manage and maintain other stations. Network Rail can also take a longer-term view of investment in stations than short-term franchise firms.

The position with train leasing is clearly unsatisfactory – a fact underlined last month when the ORR referred the train leasing companies – Roscos - to the competition commission (formerly known as the Monopolies Commission). Surely it makes sense that reasonable profits – rather than the current excesses - from train leasing should be ploughed back into rail - rather than paid to private shareholders?

Network Rail then began to panic and felt obliged to put out a statement that it ‘wasn’t trying to recreate British Rail’. Perhaps it isn’t – but the questions it has raised has justified pushing the issue back onto the agenda. If the regulator and the non-profit-making Network Rail both feel there is merit in a publicly accountable body owning the track, running the stations and leasing the trains – then frankly there isn’t much left for the TOCs to do.

Network Rail might feel bad about it – but it’s doing the right thing.

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