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Regulator ignores practicalities of rail work

Mark Hansford

Network Rail’s investigations into what exactly went wrong just north of London’s Kings Cross and west of Paddington over Christmas are now firmly underway and it’s best not to prejudge the findings.

Certainly we’ll get a pretty fair idea next Wednesday when the Commons Transport Committee hears from Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne and his managing director for network operations Robin Gisby.

Carne has already promised committee chair Louise Ellman that her evidence session will be informed by investigative work he has commissioned from his new managing director for infrastructure projects Francis Paonessa.

Ellman will want a detailed explanation of the causes of disruption, the steps that need to be taken to prevent recurrence and the lessons that must be learned. As do we all.

And it will be interesting to hear what Paonessa, recently recruited to Network Rail from train maker Bombardier Transportation where he was UK managing director, will make of things.

Renewing ageing railway infrastructure in an extremely limited time window while fully exposed to the winter elements is certainly a very different kettle of fish to manufacturing trains in a factory environment.

One suspects he will have a very interesting take on that. So it is a real shame that the committee will not hear from Paonessa direct. Hopefully Ellman will ask challenging questions similar to those posed by two NCE readers this week (see Letters).

Firstly, as asked by Paul Dawkins, why do we insist on continuing with engineering works on our railway network in mid-winter when the weather can be disruptive, daylight hours are at their shortest and when families around the country want to visit each other?

The argument used by the railway industry is that this is the least disruptive time for business and commuter customers. But does that argument really stack up?

Another NCE correspondent Nicolas Philipps, asks what role is the rail regulator really playing here?

If it was really doing its job, should it not have known beforehand what was intended and robustly challenged Network Rail to ensure that the works were feasible in the timeframe and that sufficient contingency arrangements were in place if things did not work out?

Both questions allude to the sad fact that the regulator is preoccupied with economics and efficiency savings and is ill equipped to understand the engineering and operational requirements of the industry it regulates.

The sadder fact is that Network Rail seems little better equipped.

We at NCE will be unashamedly focusing on technical excellence in 2015 as we are convinced that, without that as the firm foundation, our profession is set to fail; it will lose trust; and with it, all that promised investment.

Hopefully Carne, Gisby and Paonessa - and their Highways Agency counterparts - can see that too.

Because hearing Anthony Smith, chief executive of independent watchdog Passenger Focus, telling us how we have “broken the trust” of the travelling public is not a good way to start the year.

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s editor

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