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Rail success? I think so


London's Grosvenor House hotel on Park Lane plays host to the NCEbacked National Rail Awards tonight. An evening to celebrate success in the rail industry.

A short evening then, some might say. Is there really anything to celebrate in the rail industry? Rail regulator Tom Winsor has condemned Network Rail as expensive, inefficient and in need of £2bn worth of cost cutting. The national media - well in truth, mainly just the BBC - has damned the network operator as a holiday wrecker for closing large parts of the railway over the bank holiday weekend. And the public remains dissatisfied with the level of service and safety provided by train operators.

All of which sounds pretty conclusive. Despite huge amounts of money, effort and disruption, there is little to show in terms of improvement to the rail network and therefore little to celebrate at the Rail Awards.

Nonsense of course. The rail industry is far from perfect but it is in significantly better shape than it was four years ago when we launched the Rail Awards with Rail Magazine.

And if nothing else, engineering and engineering decisions are now far higher up the agenda.

Winsor is of course right to highlight costs and to drive Network Rail towards greater efficiency. We are talking about very large sums of money and shaving a few percent here and there can add up to something substantial. But the fact remains that clawing back years of neglect on the railways will never be cheap or quick, and will probably never be completely achievable. Network Rail and its engineering partners must continue to balance asset life expectancy against the risk and consequences of asset failure - and stretch this formula wherever possible.

Network Rail maintains that it is committed to reducing the cost of maintenance by 20% over the next five years - a target that should free up huge amounts of public cash. But this will only be met through a radical overhaul of possession policy. Put simply this means more long term blockades to clear the track of trains and allow engineering work to progress.

So whichever way you look at it, the closures across the network over the last bank holiday weekend were sensible. More work was done, safety improved, money saved. And despite widespread predictions, traffic gridlock did not materialise on the roads.

Why not? Well clearly the heaviest demand on the rail network comes from commuting and business travel.

The car is still first choice for holiday travel. Over the bank holiday we saw a well planned operation that delivered real improvement on the railways for less cost and more safely than before - without mass disruption to the transport system.

But of course no one makes a fuss when they do not meet the predicted jam on the roads, just as no one remarks when trains arrive on time.

So we have every right to celebrate success tonight. There is no room for complacency.

Safety and efficiency must remain top priority, but there is room to remind ourselves that steps forward are being taken.

Good luck to all those in the running for tonight's awards.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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