Rail 674: Rail regulation needs sharpening up

A new broom has arrived at the Office of Rail Regulation and not before time. Richard Price, a very energetic and go-getting young man has replaced the remarkably ineffective and inept Bill Emery who seemed to find the job of chief executive well beyond his capabilities and yet survived six years at the helm.

Price’s background certainly suggests a high flyer destined for the top. He spent four years at the Treasury leading the ‘Enterprise team’ (don’t ask) which shows he knows the inner workings of Whitehall, and then was chief economist at both the Home Office and the Department for Food, Environment and Regional Affairs. However, clever and ambitious as he may be, Price faces the task of reinvigorating (actually maybe just invigorating!) an organisation whose purpose following the replacement of the privatised Railtrack with the effectively state funded and quasi government owned Network Rail has been open to question.

Price will not find his new job easy, nor does he expect so. The ORR may have escaped any criticism from the McNulty report, not least because it was the sponsoring body, but that does not hide the fact that the organisation has numerous problems, some of which are structural and therefore difficult to remedy, but others which potentially Price could tackle.

Price has to work out exactly what the ORR is for. The feebleness of the list of ‘achievements’ listed by his predecessor in the annual report is telling. It includes, demonstrating a clear measure of desperation ‘with Network Rail agreeing a set of clear and objectively measured trajectories that will get it to excellence in terms of health and safety, asset management and efficiency’. Wow, surely that is its core function, hardly worth mentioning. Then working ‘with a growing number of dutyholders on systematic measurement of their safety culture’ – what on earth does that mean?  It claims credit for ‘challenging Network Rail over its under-reporting of minor accidents and focusing the company on improving its safety culture and risk management’ when, in fact, it was the unions and this magazine which exposed that scandal that ORR had missed. And then most desperately ‘reaching a speedy decision in October 2010 to impose a £3 million fine on Network Rail following significant disruption to both train operators and passengers as a result of the way in which it implemented a new Integrated Timetable Planning System’. Well, that is hardly something of which to be proud.

All this for a budget of £32m, just over 40 per cent relating to ‘economic regulation’ and the rest on safety. Of course there will be things that Price cannot change such as the fundamental contradiction for ORR resulting from the different status of Network Rail from Railtrack. As I have mentioned before, the sanction of fining an organisation whose income comes largely from the state is meaningless. Iain Coucher and the fellow directors at Network Rail seemed to take little notice.

Therefore, it will not be difficult for Price to do better.  His biggest task is to try to make the ORR more accessible and transparent. Emery’s idea was to have a quarterly press conference at which the latest monitor on Network rail’s performance would be published but the quality of the monitor and the data presented often meant that it was impossible for a layman to make any reasoned assessment of the performance. Moreover, there seemed to be a real Catch 22 problem. Emery always seemed reluctant to criticise Network Rail too much because it seemed it would reflect back on ORR. This ‘regulatory capture’ was made worse by the lack of effective sanctions. However, ORR could certainly have done better over such matters as the director’s bonuses. While it did not have the powers to limit them, more and stronger condemnation, which after all had the support of the Secretary of State, would have enhanced its reputation.

Accessibility, too, means transparency and here ORR has a lot of improvement. I have long wanted, for example, a clear statement of how much subsidy goes to each train company, together with track access charges, in order to provide a clear understanding over time of what they are paying and what their real financial performance is when there are changes to the track access charge regime. But there has never been such a simple table although, with some difficulty, the information is available from various sources. There is, too, the problem, of the fact that Network Rail gets the bulk of its subsidy direct from the government, instead of going through the access charge regime. This is partly historic, resulting from the decision to keep Network Rail off the government books when Railtrack collapsed, and the problem is it makes train operators look profitable when, in fact, they are effectively in receipt of vast amounts of hidden subsidy. It  could be sorted out to make railway economics a tad easier to understand but may be well out of Price’s remit, unless he is very forceful.

There is, too, the nonsense of the open access regime. Does the ORR favour open access or is it against it? Certainly the convoluted way that Wrexham & Shropshire was forced to operate suggested that the ORR sees it as an unwanted hassle, but an expensive one to maintain because of the complexity. Here, too, a clear statement of intent would be useful.

But above all, the work and publications of the ORR needs to be made clearer and simpler. For a bit of fun, I spent a morning wading through ORR publications and came across this beauty: Part A Mandate AO/007: Review asset policy, stewardship, and management of structure, final report review and  benchmarking.  It contains such gems as : ‘PSSS Data Extraction Process – this feeds into the PPM and CaSL calculations. The data is compared each period against TOC PPM and cancellations data as a cross-check, and this gives confidence that the final extraction of data from PSS (post any corrections) is accurate’. Can anyone really say they understand this, or that it is useful information?

Now I do realise that organisations need to use technical language and deal in difficult concepts. The regulatory process is bound to be complex, but it has clearly go out of hand. The document actually relates to KPIs – key performance indicators – used widely across business to assess performance. It mentions, somewhere, KPI 237 and so I idly asked Network Rail how many KPIs it is required to follow. At first I was told that they no longer use them, but then when I pressed, I was told this was a mistake and in fact more than a day after I initially asked, I was told that there were 232 of which 45 relate to ‘asset measures’, 30 to ‘expenditure and efficiency  and 25 to ‘renewal volumes’.

This is all rather mysterious since clearly there are more hidden away given that reference to 237. In other words, no one actually knows how many there are, not even it seems Network Rail. Indeed, a senior Network Rail executive suggested the whole thing is a farce: ‘It takes six months to understand a new KPI, a year to ensure that you comply by fiddling the figures and then you forget about it’.

This is complete and utter madness, micro regulation of the worst kind. Indeed, when you start reading about whether these KPIs are met in the Arup reports, it is clear that in many cases the data is such it is impossible to judge. So along with accountability and transparency, I would add simplicity onto Richard Price’s agenda. I wish him well but as John Lennon said, ‘Christ it ain’t easy’. Given that ORR is supposed to get more responsibility under the changes brought about by McNulty, with a greater role on the train operators and passengers, it is essential that things are turned around quickly so that we can have confidence in the organisation..

New Birmingham New Street has no room for bikes

Despite some 20 years of far greater focus on green issues and encouragement from government of cycling, the penny has still not dropped. Remarkably, the new design for Birmingham New Street incorporates space for just 26 bikes, in a gloomy part of the station.

As a London cyclist who tries not to bang on about this issue too often as it is so depressing and such a hard struggle, it is very noticeable that where cycling provision is made, the number of cyclists go up. There has been a great improvement at several London stations such as Euston, Waterloo and Liverpool Street, and at each of them it is noticeable that far more people make use of cycles to access or leave the station.

Yet, because there is no cycling champion since the abolition of Cycling England – on whose board I sat – there is no one to push the various ‘stakeholders’ involved in the Birmingham New Street refurbishment to ensure there is adequate bicycle provision. When St Pancras was rebuilt, no provision had been made either and it took the threat of a demonstration to ensure that some racks were hastily installed in the car park at the last moment. Bikes continued to be seen as a terrorist threat by some of the less well-endowed members of the Transec community (the committee which oversees transport security) and that makes allocating space difficult.

  • “Bikes continued to be seen as a terrorist threat by some of the less well-endowed members of the Transec community” – might it be worth reminding them, gently, of the terrible destructive power of car bombs, as used in the UK and elsewhere in the world?  Then they could hastily remove car parks for security reasons 🙂

  • Greg Tingey

    TranSec are just theatre, and incompetent theatre, at that.
    How long before we can exit at St. Pancras by just walking forward?
    Can we have fewer fake “security” announcements on the tube (PLEASE?) ??
    Yet, about a year before the 7th July tube-bombs, I encountered a loony on the tube with an OIL BARREL – did anyone want to know?  Of course not.
    Of LUL, Met Plod, BT Plod and City Plod … only City Plod took any notice at all – even after I’d pulled the handle.
    Grrr ……

  • DH

    Christian there was cycle parking in the design of the new St Pancras from the start – shoved at the far Northern end of the car park and all our approaches to get this sorted were ignored, despite a blindingly obvious demand that shot up by 1000% when the Thameslink blockade was in force (2004) and the managers of the site were forced to install cycle parking in almost the right place (roughly in the middle of the current M&S).  A week out from the opening date and 100 stands were being installed after some rushed discussions, and the Eurostar deal on enhanced cycle carriage was being sealed for launch (in April 2008) – cycle bookings for the Eurodespatch baggage van passed the 1000% growth on the starting level within 3 years, and a hidden growth of bikes that are folded or packed as baggage sees many who can now avoid the damage and hassle of flying (and now a ban on some ferry sailings – because carrying cars and their occupants is much more profitable) for a European cycling holiday.  Of the 3 issues on the campaign list only the traffic management detail remains as a major flaw. 

    There is a #fail in delivery of the fast walking route to Euston – via Brill Place and an option to cut the corner through Chalton Street, Drummond Passage and Doric Way which is more pleasant than taking in the fumes on Euston Road*, although I’ve tended to use the latter for my 3 minute station to station Euston-Kings Cross (4 min train to train if I’m lucky) on the bike, around 1000% faster than the suggested transfer time from National Rail table.  *and you can pass a wonderful Turkish-run corner shop to collect the current Camden New Journal and a few cans and ‘wittels’ for the onward journey. 

    There is a further #fail in not delivering a contra flow cycling route North along Midland Road (not just the short distance we ride to Brill Place but the effective continuation of the core cycling corridor along Judd Street.  Depending on the traffic  levels people cycle up the carriageway or use the wide footway carefully watching for delivery vans coming out of the British Library.  Traffic levels are relatively low on Midland Road on most of the times I’ve been there (often when Euston Road is jammed solid), so the space for a bike lane Northbound should not be a problem.  The arrangements on Pancras Road were proved wrong within months and changed, but not the cycling issue.  Other detailing is also best ignored (cycle filter lane on Goodsway/Pancras Road etc) as you end up in potentially dangerous ‘left hook’ positions on the road.

    In Birmingham NR don’t even read their own Better Stations document – the Green-Hall formula calls for 2,400 cycle parking spaces a 10% delivery is under-performing somewhat and the debate rolls on with Birmingham’s cyclists.  As to the Transec detail I have some sympathy because of the communications failures that I see, and the failings of almost every TOC in managing their cycle parking effectively.  There have only been 4 bombs linked to bicycles which have been known in the UK in the past 72 years – all with packages carried on the bike, yet even at some high risk stations the operators fail to manage their parked bikes to get luggage removed and baskets left empty.  True, bikes can be converted in to bombs but the technical complexity of this makes the materials used and skills required likely to have the material suppliers and individuals involved well monitored by the security services, and the ‘cost’ of production makes the bag or car with a cheaply made device a preferred option.  What would make a huge improvement is to have more registration and secured compound schemes that a few operators are now doing, who knows with 26 bikes fitting (with access) onto 2 parking bays, secured bike parking at 1/12 of the rate for car parking ought to pay at about the same rate as car parking – say £70/year at a typical suburban station (Oh and that £70 charge could include insurance cover for bikes parked in the secured compound).

  • BazJ

    the less well endowed members of Transec
    Hell’s teeth – they must be pretty dire. It always seemed to me that the brightest members of Transec might just about manage a couple of GCSE Grade Es!

  • Boldfield

    KPIs – key performance indicators. The operative word is KEY and the maximum number is 10 to 12. If you have more, then they are not KEY. A simple example would be of rail life before replacement or total length of rail on the network divided by the length of rail replaced per year. This is a simple understanable number simply and quickly calculated. Another one would be maintenance cost per passenger mile.

    Another thing Railtrack must be clearer on is the diffence between maintenance and capital. Rebuilding a station without increasing its capacity is only maintenance.

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