Four years after privatisation the scale of work needed to bring Britain's railway network up to scratch and take it into the 21st century is still emerging. Many anti-privatisation lobby groups, and indeed the Rail Regulator John Swift QC, have condemned Railtrack for not doing enough so far. But last month the company answered its critics with a Network Management Statement running to 226 pages and outlining plans for £17bn of investment in the next ten years.
The opportunities for suppliers are clearly huge. But Railtrack development director Martin Reynolds warns that so too are the challenges.
'Now that we have been privatised for four years, we have to continue to deliver but we also have to get value for money,' he says.
To rise to the challenge, British suppliers will have to look across the Channel to their counterparts on the Continent. Today 1km of track renewal takes 40 to 50 hours in the UK. The same amount of work takes six hours in France.
Reynolds describes track laying work in Britain as being undertaken by '20 year old plant using 40 year old methods.' But although Railtrack ran a workshop in Brussels last autumn to explain its needs to European suppliers, he insists that it is not trying specifically to bring more of them to Britain.
'The development team's job is to bring the world's best into this railway. We are trying to get away from our reputation of not being innovative, but there is no presumption that the world's best come from any particular country,' he says.
Reynolds believes that by moving to contracts of three to five years, more British suppliers will find it economically viable to invest in modern equipment. 'The reason why we are still using old methods at the moment is that buying a track renewal facility was always hard to sell when British Rail was cash constrained.'
But Railtrack's hoped-for cost savings should not necessarily be painful for suppliers. Reynolds says the company is now recognising the efficiency in being constructive with its suppliers.
'We don't want our suppliers to give us new investments at a lower price at the expense of their profits. We want them to do it by co-operation with us,' he says.
Railtrack will also be looking to its suppliers to have a much greater role in the procurement of projects in the future. If an opportunity that benefits all parties can be identified then suppliers should be shouting about it, says Reynolds.
'We want them to know that if they push at Railtrack's door they will be pushing at an open door. We believe that the customers, suppliers and ourselves can all share the rewards.'
He claims that too many of Railtrack's resources are currently spent on explaining its needs to contractors, and that Railtrack is now looking for smarter suppliers that understand technically what is needed to deliver certain projects.
But this will not all have to be achieved at the expense of the contractor. Within Railtrack's own costs on its £200M station regeneration programme last year, Reynolds claims it spent £2M on the transfer of knowledge to suppliers. And he stresses that this is something that contractors will see more of in the future.
'You could say that we are moving the supplier further up the value chain,' he says.
To assess the value of partnering, Railtrack has held talks with BAA, Shell and BP and has also enlisted the help of London University. So far, says Reynolds, the work suggests that the savings of 30% outlined by the Latham report could be on the conservative side for new projects.
But he admits that Railtrack has still got a long way to go.
'Railtrack is a young company and so are the suppliers in terms of the way things are organised now. We are just starting out on partnering, but give us a year and we will show you some firm benefits,' he says.