Rail 779: Network Rail debacle was not media hype

Since the announcement of the Network Rail debacle, I have heard both Mark Carne, the current chief executive, and John Armitt, the one time chairman, sing from the same hymn sheet. It goes something like this: Network Rail has hundreds of projects on the go at any time and one or two are bound to mess up, and it is those that attract media attention. In fact, the argument goes, the media is being unfair and it will all be all right on the night

This is, to use an old fashioned word, balderdash. Sure, Armitt had a point when he said that the Evening Standard is just willing to pounce on any mishap on the railways with ‘misery line’ or ‘wrong sort of’ stories type of headlines. That coverage is, at times, unbalanced and ill-informed. However (my italics!), in this case, the criticism of the railways in the press is wholly justified. This was a grade one cock-up, the worst involving the infrastructure provider since the collapse of Railtrack 15 years ago. Carne tried to tell me that 95 per cent of projects are on time and the press always focus on the ones that aren’t. But this was not just some minor rerailing project on the Cambrian Coast line, but, in fact, involved three of the top five projects – Midland Main Line, Great Western and Transpennine electrification.

Moreover, this had been signed off as a perfectly feasible work programme together with the Regulator just over a year ago. A business that is on top of its brief would not have made such a fundamental error. Carne then tried to say that this was only the first year of a five year programme and implied that Network Rail would be able to catch up. This too, seems to be clutching at straws. The truth of the matter is that the company cannot handle the programme it set out in the five year Control Period that was agreed last year and should never have agreed to it. Unlike in the old days of the Network Rail credit card, it cannot simply throw more money at the problem, so there will be cuts. Indeed, Louise Ellman, the chair of the Commons Transport Committee is sceptical about parts of the electrification plan ever seeing the light of day.

The attitude of Carne and Armitt, and indeed of Network Rail as a whole is worrying. There was an excellent File on Four programme on Radio4 the week after the debacle emerged and it was a properly researched investigation into the issue. Clearly, Allan Urry had been working on the story for some time before the announcement of delays since it had been an open secret for months that the investment programme was in some turmoil. Yet, Network Rail refused to put up anyone and its statements failed to address any of the key questions raised by Urry. As I mentioned in Rail 776, the language emanating from Network Rail towers is at times Orwellian as it obfuscates more than enlightens. Now we have the word ‘paused’ to add to Newspeak as we have no idea when the work on the Midland Main Line and Transpennine will be carried out.

I recognise that Carne places a great emphasis on safety and that is to be welcomed but there is a contradiction here. One factor known to influence safety culture is openness. Closed organisations are by their nature likely to place less emphasis on safety as they do not see themselves as accountable. Network Rail has not been open about this debacle at all. The fact that Network Rail was behind in its programme has, as I wrote in the last issue, has been known about for months and yet officially the company was still saying as late as last December that the programme was on schedule. There is now even a big row going on about who knew what – I am convinced, actually, that ministers did not know but did not want a pre-election embarrassment.

There are two possible explanations. Either Carne and his senior colleagues knew about the delays and chose not to come clean or, worse, no one had told them and they were left in the dark. I am really worried that it is the second of these, but since the company is not being forthcoming, I am left to speculate.

Now for the difficult bit. What happens next? Well, as is the way of these things, once the government goes into panic mode, and has set up a confusing series of measures. First, there is the appointment the ubiquitous Richard Brown (the safe pair of hands who gets called upon to sort out fiascos such as West Coast franchising and Eurostar’s struggle with the wrong sort of snow) who is, to put it bluntly, the government spy on Network Rail’s board. Then Colette Bowe, a non executive board member of the Department for Transport has been parachuted in to find out how Network Rail added two plus two and made three. Then in what seems like overkill, Nicola Shaw (another ubiquitous figure in the industry having been at the Strategic Rail Authority and FirstGroup and is now chief executive of HS1) has also donned a parachute and is supposed to sort out Network Rail’s finances and structure (surely that is Carne’s job??). Lots of cooks, here, but will they sort out the broth?

It is the dynamic between Peter Hendy and Mark Carne that will determine the latter’s fate. Hendy has been sent in to troubleshoot and if there is not a rapid turnaround, one can expect fireworks. Hendy is a great politician having survived the transition from working for Ken Livingstone to Boris Johnson (the story goes that he went into see Boris and rather than say ‘I will only work for you if…’, instead he said ‘what can I do for you?’) during his near decade long stint at but can be thin skinned. I have received some texts sharper than butcher’s knife from him for what I thought were pretty minor affronts, but he is generally a very smooth operator. While he is a good listener, he will not hesitate to kick a few backsides when necessary.

Interestingly, Hendy may struggle with a key difference between Network Rail and Transport for London which is that the latter is not regulated and could just spend the money allocated by the Treasury and the mayor. Hendy may find Network Rail a bit more complex given the convoluted arrangements over investment plans. Which leaves me with a key point? If the Regulator allowed through a scheme that was undeliverable, are there not questions to be asked about its role? Transport for London seems to function fine – apart from the odd mishap such as the signalling fiasco on the sub surface lines – without one. Ever since the collapse of Railtrack, the regulator’s role has seemed anomalous, and there is certainly scope now for a rethink.

 

Trying it on

 

Normally, I am on the side of the punters rather than private companies. But there are exceptions. The car sleeper train I took down to Italy a couple of years ago from Holland which went by the wonderful name of Autoslaap went bust around Easter this year and the efficient little company associated with it in the UK, Railsavers, has consequently lost a lot of money. However, very honourably, the boss, David Evans, is trying to recompense people with as best possible, but there is only a limited amount of money available.

So it was with great exasperation that he sent out an email earlier this month complaining how people saw this as an opportunity to get themselves a free holiday. One person, in particular, so got up Evans’s nose that he published his email in full. Despite having being reimbursed fully by his credit card company, Mr X (I assume it is a man) decided this was a free lunch – so he wrote to Evans saying ‘Having had such a bad do with Autoslaap we thought we would go first class both Ways Paris Nice so total cost was €822’ Jolly nice for him. His taste in hotels was more modest, at least in France where it was two nights at a couple of the Mercure chain but in Italy he decided on a more luxurious stay at the Villa Il Borghetto at 143 euros per night….and so on, the total which including extra fuel and various other bits and pieces, came to 1,600.74 euros. Well, he won’t be getting that 74 cents, let alone the 1600 euros, but Evans is furious that there are so many people wanting to take advantage of a misfortune. No wonder insurance is so expensive!

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