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The cost of safety


The rail crash in Cumbria appears to have left the Offi of Rail Regulation (ORR) wrestling with its new combined role as performance and safety watchdog for the rail industry.

As we try to pack more passengers onto trains and pump more trains through the network, the complexities and, perhaps, conflicts of this dual role become clearer. They are illustrated by phrases used liberally in recent ORR publications.

We have assumed that Network Rail can make effi-ciency savings of between 3.8% and 8% per annum during CP4 (without compromising safety or performance), ' says its advice to ministers on access charges.

'In recent years the company has made improvements in managing the network to deliver better performance (including safety) and efficiency, but we consider that there is significant room for improvement, ' said ORR chief executive Bill Emery explaining the advice.

Then there's the ORR National Rail Review: 'Network Rail's achievement of continued efficiency improvements (while maintaining safety and performance) are central to bringing down the industry cost base, ' it states.

'To make expansion affordable and economic it is essential for Network Rail to continue to make substantial improvements in efficiency, thus reducing the cost of the existing railway while maintaining safety and performance, ' it reiterates.

Is it by coincidence or design that we see the inclusion and repetition of such overt references to the need for Network Rail to bear safety or performance in mind?

Is it by coincidence or design that ministers are reminded of the potential impact that their funding decisions may have on the railways efficient, safe running? I think not.

It is just over a year since the ORR took control of both performance and safety on the rail network. Negotiations over access charges for the next regulatory control period are also the first in which it has had to keep these twin goals uppermost in mind.

And it is clear that Emery is acutely aware of the consequences of the decisions that will soon be made over funding the network. Unless investment is made available to expand and improve the rail network it is unlikely that people will be able to continue to switch from car to train at the rate government hopes. Not least if Network Rail is also to meet its parallel targets.

The ORR knows that the more traffic there is on the rail network, particularly heavy freight, the more need there is for investment in better signalling and for an increase in maintenance expenditure to keep everything running efficiently.

And it is equally aware of the safety implications of overstressing an already stressed network. Hence the conflict.

How much pressure can the ORR put on Network Rail and its contractors to cut costs before it compromises safety?

The Cumbria crash was a timely warning for Network Rail of the perils of even a momentary lapse in vigilance.

Yet it also serves as a warning to government that while progress is being made to reverse the effects of rail under-investment it cannot be assumed that everything is sorted.

It is right that the ORR presses Network Rail hard to improve its efficiency and safety record.

But it must also make clear to government that boosting the capacity of the network will not be achieved without continued investment.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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