The chairman of Network Rail, which owns and manages the UK’s railway infrastructure, has said he would not mind if a wide-ranging sector review recommended abolishing the organisation.
Peter Hendy, speaking at a Northern Powerhouse event, said that Andrew Haines, chief executive of Network Rail, had already started to devolve its responsibilities and added: “Neither of us are precious about the corporate future of Network Rail. We would much rather see some organisation that better serves passengers and freight.”
The Department for Transport appointed Keith Williams, former British Airways chief executive, to conduct a review of the railway industry following a timetable upgrade debacle that resulted in thousands of services being cancelled last summer and the renationalisation of the East Coast mainline. Mr Williams has a mandate to propose radical reforms.
Sir Peter, former head of Transport for London, blamed the timetable chaos on “the disparate nature of the management and control of the very crowded network”.
One way of replacing Network Rail, which spent £6.6bn on upgrading the UK’s railways in 2017-18, would be to split its responsibilities into regional companies that could work with the local franchises which operate the trains. Chris Grayling, transport secretary, has advocated a closer relationship between Network Rail and operators.
Sir Peter’s remarks came as Meg Hillier MP, chair of the Commons public accounts committee, warned that rail passengers would face a “year from hell” similar to 2018, when thousands of services were cancelled, unless the government “gets a grip” on the network.
Ms Hillier was speaking as the committee, which scrutinises public spending, accused the DfT in a report of not learning lessons from last year and continuing to let down disabled passengers.
The report said that “further significant timetable changes” and more maintenance and improvement work meant “2019 looks to be another difficult year for both passengers and the rail industry”.
Ms Hillier said the DfT had not made sure that “those responsible for the railway were clear about their roles and were working together effectively”. “The result has been misery for passengers,” she said, adding that the department “must set out clear governance and accountability structures for the rail system”.
Govia Thameslink Railway and Northern, two of the biggest train operators, cancelled an average of 780 services a day for several weeks last summer as a massive timetable overhaul turned into a debacle.
The committee said there had been complacency throughout the sector in the run-up to the change last May and that the DfT had not yet “set out in sufficient detail” how the chain of command would change. It added that the DfT also needed to explain how it proposed to improve co-ordination between train operators and infrastructure managers.
Mr Williams said in a speech on Tuesday night: “Franchising cannot continue the way it is today. It is no longer delivering clear benefits for either taxpayers or fare payers.”
The public accounts committee said it was “concerned” that the DfT was “still not adequately protecting taxpayers’ money” in managing Govia Thameslink. The department has set a cap on how much the company can make from the franchise, “but it will not provide details of this cap”. Govia Thameslink itself has indicated that its profit margin would be 0.75-1 per cent.
The DfT said: “The disruption passengers experienced last summer was unacceptable . . . The independently-chaired root-and-branch review of our railway is considering all parts of the rail industry to ensure the focus is on putting passengers first.” Govia Thameslink declined to comment.
While the MPs’ report noted that 87 per cent of trains had incorporated the latest accessibility requirements, it said the system was still failing disabled people, with “variability” in the support they received on their journeys.