Crazy merry go round goes on

The news that Network Rail is paying a £53.1m fine for underperformance on punctuality highlights, yet again, the daft nature of the industry structure and the way the regulatory regime was set up for a privatised Railtrack, not a publicly-owned Network Rail.

The attempts by the ORR and the government to soften the blow do nothing to hide the fact that the whole process is plain daft. The BBC was told over the weekend that some of the money – an unspecified amount – would go towards paying for wi-fi on trains. Now I reckon wi-fi is like toilets and lighting, a basic service that the train operators, together with Network Rail and the phone companies, should ensure is provided on all the network. Wi-fi is one reason for the growth in usage and therefore while there is no clear business case, there is no doubt that it more than pays for itself.

The ORR, too, tried to disguise the fact that the fine does not even go back to the Department for Transport for spending on other aspects of transport but, in fact, goes straight into the black unknown of the Treasury coffers by using the rather opaque phrase ‘….which require Network Rail to return £53.1m to funders’ In fact, it is goodbye £53.1m that could be spent on all kinds of improvements to the railways. Surely the various parties involved could have organised a better outcome than simply paying for a bit of wi-fi.

I was asked on Sky TV whether the fine would make any difference to the NR executives running the railway. I had to say no. They are doing their best to ensure there is a good performance and a fine, while a bit embarrassing, offers virtually no incentive either way. Indeed, I should have added that Mark Carne’s renewed emphasis on safety is welcome but may well mean that less emphasis is on meeting punctuality targets. Running a railway is far too complex for such a crude regulatory regime that takes money out of the system for no good reason.


  • peter

    Well said Christian.

    This is pure insanity. Whatever is the point of one part of government fining another part of government?

    As you say, the only result is that Network Rail now has £53m less money to invest. This money could have been spent on any number of useful projects that could have increased capacity, reliability or both.

    It could also have gone a long way towards bringing a closed railway back into use. Not many years ago, £50m was quoted as the price tag for restoring the Lewes – Uckfield line. Costs have gone up since then, but this sum would have made a huge difference.

    Instead, the money has been diverted into some kind of shadowy limbo; who really knows what it will eventually be spent on?

    The only good thing to be said about this absurd performance is that once again it highlights the deeply flawed nature of the “privatised” railway.

    What a shame that none of the political parties has any coherent plans to sort the mess out.