Major shake up looming for Network Rail

Network Rail has been told it must relinquish its monopoly over rail maintenance in England and work more closely with train operating companies to plan and operate work to keep the network running. The Transport minister Chris Grayling wants to bring about more integration of rail infrastructure and train service operations to improve the way work is planned and carried out. New management teams responsible for track maintenance will be set up between Network Rail and TOCs as new franchises are set up, starting with the South Eastern and East Midlands franchises in 2018.

Grayling's announcement follows the McNulty report which recommended more vertical alignment of train and rail operations, and comes as government's response to Nicola Shaw's report into Network Rail's future financing and structure. Her report published in March produced a series of recommendations based on three fundamental perspectives of the customer, devolution and growth. She recommended devolution be continued along the lines that Network Rail is already pursuing – splitting operations along route lines.

Her call for a Route for the North has since been rejected by government in favour of a new unit man-marking Transport for the North, but Grayling's announcement this week goes further, giving train operating companies more direct control over the planning and delivery of maintenance operations. 

Network Rail is currently devolving its central management of the rail network into regional areas based around key routes, which Grayling says he supports, but he also wants more streamlined operation of maintenance that gives teams involved more incentive to get work done promptly to reduce disruption for passengers. Grayling has also announced that the delayed East-West Rail project will be taken out of Network Rail's hands and put under the charge of a new 'special purpose vehicle' set up to explore how the project can be delivered more quickly. His plans have been strongly criticised by Unions as the thin of a wedge driving towards full privatisation of the rail network, which Grayling has denied.

Commenting on the proposed changes, the chief executive of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering, Nelson Ogunshakin, welcomed the changes but urged clarity and good oversight:

“Changes that lead to a better, safer, more efficient rail service should not be resisted just because they involve more private involvement. The government’s proposal should allow more effective collaboration between the UK’s world class engineers, designers and rail operators, to ensure the availability of the best possible infrastructure.

"There is a need for a great deal of clarity, both in terms of how the regionalisation of the network will function in reality, and in how the interoperability between all the different sides will be smoothed. This will take a significant amount of oversight by the Office of Road and Rail, which must ensure it is up to the task.”

Grayling's announcement has rejected the London Assembly's hopes for devolution of commuter rail services to Transport for London. Instead TfL will be invited to take part in setting the specification for the new South Eastern franchise, he said.

In response, the chair of the Assembly's transport committee, Caroline Pidgeon, said: "The Government and the Mayor have missed a fantastic opportunity to improve rail services in the capital.  I am appalled they couldn’t get their act together to secure a deal which would so obviously have benefitted London passengers. Yet, once again, the passengers have been ignored and our services will suffer as a result."