Plans have been drawn up to devolve some of Network Rail’s responsibilities to train operating companies as part of the rail value for money review being undertaken by former Civil Aviation Authority boss Sir Roy McNulty.
But concerns about its practical application are already being raised.
The first of these – a combined franchise for running trains and maintaining track for 30 years – is likely to be introduced in the Anglia region in 2013.
And despite the imperfections of Network Rail, few seem convinced about the alternative.
The Civil Engineering Contractors Association say it is concerned about “whether the Train Operating Companies (TOCs) are geared up for this role”.
“There is a risk that the transition would see significant disruption as TOCs will have to bring in new people to set up their infrastructure teams.
“We have seen in the past that such change brings enormous delay, something that the industry cannot afford if it is going to deliver the huge programme of improvement needed to keep the country’s trains running efficiently.”
Contractors have told NCE that rail maintenance could end up in a similar situation to roads maintenance, where the Highways Agency looks after the major trunk roads, and local authorities the smaller ones.
As a result, the standard of maintenance then varies on a local authority basis.
Costain rail director Gren Edwards adds that a greater focus on regionalisation and the potential for applying differing standards could offer an opportunity to save money.
He proposes the introduction of a system that is “about trying to get appropriate standards for the job in hand”.
This could involve tailoring standards for track according to the volume or type of traffic it carries. These standards could be formulated at design stage, and then implemented on the network when renewals and maintenance are being undertaken. They could include using different weights for the rail, and different types of sleepers.
More will be known after the final report from the McNulty review is submitted to the Government in April, and when reform plans for Network Rail follow in November.