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Comment | Fragmented rail industry is unable to deliver

Mark Hansford

So here’s the thing. How many of you were genuinely surprised to hear that Network Rail has been found incapable of delivering on its £38.5bn five year spending plan just one year in?

So here’s the thing. How many of you were genuinely surprised to hear that Network Rail has been found incapable of delivering on its £38.5bn five year spending plan just one year in?

How many of you genuinely failed to recognise that the rail industry supply chain is massively under resourced to deliver?


And how many of you were not more than aware of the massive issues caused by the fragmented structure of the rail industry - a structure that dictates that complex works must be done in time windows which are too short with no room for buffers or soft-launches, at times of the day, week and year least suited to complex engineering work?

And who in the rail industry - in Network Rail, in its supply chain, in the multiple industry lobby groups, in the regulator, or indeed in the government - would not have been well aware of those things either?

That it got to this - the transport secretary standing in the House of Commons, cancelling work and shaming our industry for its lack of foresight and planning - is hugely embarrassing. Particularly so for an industry that was beginning to build a track record of on time, on budget delivery.

It’s unconvincing for chief executive Mark Carne to now say that the plans were too ambitious. He has surely been in post too long to disown this mess. He must act fast and decisively, and ensure that government confidence is not totally lost, and that the schemes “paused” this week while Network Rail reviews its plans, are recovered .

These include the electrification of the Midlands Main Line and the Trans-Pennine route between Leeds and Manchester.

But he needs to do more than just that. Because ludicrously - almost - this week’s news isn’t even the half of the problem.

The programme of work that Network Rail has just found itself unable to deliver is really the tip of the iceberg, the scratching of the surface of the work needed to sort out our Victorian rail infrastructure. Rail infrastructure that in this digital era is still controlled almost entirely by lights on sticks.

The potential offered by digital train control is ridiculously hard to overstate. Analysis of the main South West Trains corridor has shown that replacing traditional signalling with digital train control would yield an instant 40% capacity increase. The potential nationwide is 60%.

And it is not even untried technology, as Network Rail digital transformation director Patrick Bossert told NCE’s future-looking UK Rail conference last week. “Heathrow has put 60% more traffic through its two runways with digital air traffic control. London Underground has achieved similar results on the Victoria Line. Meanwhile we have traditional signalling where you can only have one train in any block at any one time. It means 50% of our network is empty.”

Bossert’s team is currently building a business case for the massive investment that would be needed to digitise the signalling system. But the complexity of the rail industry - with almost infinite vested interests to manage - means this work alone will take until September 2017. Complete roll out was hoped for by 2029. The fallout from last week’s fiasco will only threaten to further delay that.

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s editor

Readers' comments (1)

  • This was my comment on the guardian's website when i read the news:
    "You try spending £640 million a month on complex infrastructure projects. It's impossible. Even £6 million a month is going some and the Government was asking us to believe that Network Rail could procure work at one hundred times that rate? This was a cynical plan to fail thrust on Network Rail managers who should have known better and blown the whistle at the very outset. Now the nasty party can hide behind protestations of management ineptitude with impunity and not spend anywhere near the original figure, always their intent from the beginning."

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