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Network Rail must stick to guns and set aside climate resilience cash

“It’s only going to get worse. Engineers press for more flood defence cash as fears grow that winter deluge will turn into spring devastation.” When did we write that? Last week? Last month? No, that was the cover line of NCE 10 January 2013.

That week we exclusively revealed how Network Rail had united with flood defence experts to call for more government cash to protect vital infrastructure from the effects of climate change.

For the first time, Network Rail had asked the government to approve spending specifically aimed at addressing the impacts of climate change on key rail assets.

It had included a £300M pot to make its infrastructure more climate-resilient in its £40.1bn strategic business plan for Control Period 5 which runs from 1 April 2014 to 2019.

But the size of that pot hangs in the balance after the Office of Rail Regulation ruled in October that Network Rail could spend just £38.3bn.
Network Rail this week decided against appealing that ruling, leaving the cash hanging in the balance.

If allocated, the money would be used to future-proof 30,000 bridges, embankments and tunnels against flooding and the effects of changing weather patterns, and the call for it came after a month of torrential rain that had seen many lines, including the Great Western main line, blocked for several days by flood waters

Back in January 2013 Network Rail chief executive Sir David Higgins described the floods as a “wake-up call for the whole industry, which we ignore at our peril”.

One wonders how Higgins would be describing the latest storms were he not about to up sticks and move to High Speed 2. Storms which first took out the Cambrian Coast Railway in West Wales and the Dorking to Horsham line in Surrey, and now have wiped out 80m of the GreatWestern main line in Devon.

And rather than being out of action for days, this time the lines have been or will be out for weeks while repairs are carried out.

In Wales, work has been ongoing since the first week in January and won’t be complete until mid-May such is the extent of the damage to the Cambrian line.

And it’s going to cost £10M. In Surrey, full services resumed last week after a month of disruption and heavy engineering work that won’t have been cheap.

And now in Dawlish contractors have been set a six week target to get trains running again - again, it’s going to come at a cost.

Higgins’ replacement Mark Carne doesn’t take up the reins until 1 March and has yet to speak publicly about his vision for the network.

As a former oil executive with Shell, he will surely see the value in investing in improving Network Rail’s business-critical assets. But whether he speaks publicly with such bold authority and argues the case privately as strongly as Higgins did remains to be seen. Let’s hope so.

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s interim editor

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