THE railway needs a new organisation to stop the industry being used as a political football, according to Rail Delivery Group chief executive Paul Plummer.
Mr Plummer is responding to the government’s call for contributions to Keith Williams’ ‘root and branch’ rail review, which has been sponsored by the Department for Transport.
He is proposing to the Accelerate Rail conference today that the Office of Rail and Road should be replaced by a new arms-length regulator with greater responsibilities, setting industry objectives while also holding it to account.
Such an organisation would resemble the former Strategic Rail Authority, which was set up in 1999 but wound up seven years later, with its responsibilities for setting strategy and managing franchising moved to the Department for Transport.
Paul Plummer is saying: ‘Too often at the moment, the lines of accountability are blurred, and the public doesn’t know who is responsible for which part of the system. There are too many bodies, some with conflicting remits and competing agendas.
‘Ministers understandably feel they are left on the hook for day-to-day problems. Rationally, they often attempt to offset political risk through constrictive contracts, but that means companies’ ability to innovate, adapt and evolve is curtailed. The industry can be perceived as risk averse, sticking too rigidly to the minutiae of the contract and sometimes overlooking the bigger picture. That leaves passengers with a railway that is not responsive enough to their needs.
‘So that’s why we are calling for a new arms-length organising body to implement national rail policy, and prevent the railway being used as a political football. It would allow politicians to step back and concentrate on the big questions of what they want the railway to achieve for communities and the country. Train companies and Network Rail could focus on what they do best – innovating and creating to deliver better for their customers.’
THE old Strategic Rail Authority was rather like a football itself, because it was often kicked. Set up to meet a lot of the objectives now being proposed by Paul Plummer, the SRA came to be derided as having ‘no strategy and no authority’.
But its abolition in 2006 solved very little. The Department for Transport has not proved to be an able successor, with serious failures on its record. These include the humiliating collapse of the Intercity West Coast franchise competition in October 2012, in which FirstGroup had been named as the winner, displacing Virgin. But a determined challenge by Virgin, which questioned the DfT’s calculations, proved to be correct. The competition then had to be cancelled at an estimated £50 million cost to taxpayers.
More recently the DfT’s franchising timetable has been slipping further and further behind, and an annual franchising schedule which was launched with much trumpeting in 2013 in the wake of the West Coast debacle has not been publicly updated since July 2017.
The DfT has also been criticised repeatedly for ‘micro-management’ – in other words, paying unwelcome attention to small details of how franchises are running their businesses. In October 2009, for example, the Association of Train Operating Companies – the RDG’s predecessor – called for ‘less inappropriate micro-management by civil servants’. Nothing much has changed since then.
A new version of the SRA would need to be defined with some care to avoid the mistakes made last time round, but if it meant that the DfT then switched off its spotlight on the industry it would surely be welcomed by railway managers, who are just trying to get on with the job.