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Rail complaint

RAILTRACK'S EFFORTS to reverse decades of under-investment in the UK's railways are of utmost importance to the civil engineering profession. Not only does it provide a bright spot in the gathering economic gloom, it is also reviving many lost or under-used skills which can be sold to clients overseas. Finally it allows the profession to demonstrate how it can contribute to development of a transport system which is not dominated by the car and lorry.

Given this, you would expect everyone in the industry to have the same attitude to Railtrack as kids have to Father Christmas. But they don't.

It is not that Railtrack is proving a tough client. The industry is used to demanding customers and the best firms take part in cost saving and continuous improvement before beginning negotiations. In any case, Railtrack as caretaker of vital infrastructure has a public duty to get the best work out of all suppliers.

What is worrying the firms working for Railtrack is the unevenness of their workload. During an extensive ring round of both contractors and consultants by NCE this week, 'erratic' was the kindest word used to describe Railtrack's spending on infrastructure. There were complaints of difficulties in planning training, purchase of plant, recruitment and allocation of resources.

These are real problems, undermining efficiency and the morale on which all good civil engineering enterprises thrive.

It is easy, with hindsight, to see how this situation came to pass. Railtrack was rushed into the private sector, with little thought on how the required levels of investment would be delivered, but plenty of hype about the billions in the pipeline. Two years later it is still working to get the balance right. Added to this are the complicating factors of a regulatory system in a state of flux and involvement in the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and the overhaul of London Underground. All cause Railtrack to be understandably cautious on spending priorities.

But that said, greater transparency when dealing with consultants and contractors is badly needed. Simon Murray's arrival from BAA as director of major projects and investment should see things begin to change. He is nothing, if not a direct communicator of a client's needs and priorities. In the meantime Railtrack should recognise that as a monopoly client it is never likely to hear too much criticism from the civils sector and should seek feedback from its partners and act accordingly.

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