Last week, Network Rail received its largest ever fine – £14M – for overruns during the New Year at Rugby, London's Liverpool Street, and at Glasgow's Shields Junction.
Network Rail admitted that it had perhaps bitten off more than it could chew in a hearing with the Transport Select Committee in January. "We were overambitious, but for the right reasons. We wanted to get the work done and still be on time," said Network Rail chief executive Iain Coucher.
The overruns were for work that was not simply important, but essential, to complete.
The work at Rugby involved completely remodelling the lines to remove bottlenecks along the West Coast Main Line , improving journey times between London and Manchester.
A similar bottleneck was removed at Shields Junction. The blockade at Liverpool Street not only allowed the removal of the vast GE19 bridge, as part of the East London Line expansion, but also important electrification and track work.
"Of the 35 disruptions this Christmas, we got three of them desparately wrong," admits Network Rail director of operations and customer service Robin Gisby. But he is also keen to add that much was achieved at Liverpool Street, it was, he says "one of the best eight and a half day possessions we have ever done".
So the work was both a success and a failure. The regulator recognised the importance of the work, and turned down Virgin's request to have the Rugby possessions halted.
"We looked at the impacts of saying Network Rail could not [keep the posession], and we decided that not agreeing to the extra days would have prejudiced [future] timetables," Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) chairman Chris Bolt told the transport committee in January.
But if the work was so important, why the fine? ORR chief executive Bill Emery said last week that Network Rail was "failing to manage major engineering work as consistently well as it should".
But the regulator could see that staffing problems were a significant factor – particularly at Rugby – and not necessarily Network Rail's fault. "We accept that on occasion this [delays] will be because of factors outside your control and responsibilities," wrote Emery in a letter to Coucher, last week.
Emery went on to say Network Rail, "has accepted that it does not have a robust plan, agreed with operators, to deliver the upgrade work to the West Coast Main Line needed for the December 2008 improvements".
The fine, then, sends a message to Network Rail – we know you had to do the work, but pull your socks up and make sure overruns do not happen in the summer when more closures are planned for the WCML.
But rail pundit Christian Wolmar says the fine completely meaningless. "What is £14M when Network Rail's annual spend is, what – £5bn per year? It shows there is no coherent way to regulate the railway."
Many agree with him. "At the very best this is simply robbing Peter to pay Paul, but taking funds away from Network Rail," said RMT general secretary Bob Crow last week.
This was confirmed by the ORR director of rail policy Michael Beswick, who said the regulator would pass the money on to a general treasury fund.
"If Network Rail gets its act together, it will save more than £14M," said Beswick, speaking at the Rail 2008 conference in London last Thursday.
Network Rail is undoubtedly listening – it has taken no pleasure in the New Year overruns. But part of Network Rail's problem is that it wants to stay invisible, maintaining the railway off the radar of passengers and the public. When the trains fail to run for a few days passengers are united in condemnation. Would the ORR's fine have been so great if the public were not so hostile?
One solution would be to really engage with the public, to publicise both major and minor works. People would then understand what has gone on, whether something goes wrong or not.
Understanding would at least make more people sympathetic, but longer-term could even persuade some to consider a career in engineering.