Wednesday, December 7, 2016

New Rail Plans Affect Passengers and Freight Customers Alike

Government Announcements Receive Mixed Response
Shipping News Feature
UK – The ever convoluted story of Britain’s railway system took more turns this week, both as far as passenger and freight interests are concerned. Nothing should really surprise us in this year of Brexit, Trump et al and, as usual with UK rail matters, confusions and arguments reign even more supremely than usual.

The big news of course was the announcement by Secretary of State, Chris Grayling, to the effect that government controlled Network Rail, which manages all track related matters, will in future work hand in hand with the franchises which take responsibility for the rolling stock. This was followed by an announcement that the new Oxford and Cambridge link line will not be developed by Network Rail, but a new entity created to run track, infrastructure and trains. The news of the Network Rail/Franchise link prompted Labour shadow transport secretary, Andy McDonald to comment:

”Train operating companies, some of which run abysmal services, should not be invited to take responsibility for the repair and maintenance of Britain’s railway.”

Just how this may evolve was seen as two strikingly, and that’s not a pun, differing scenarios. On one hand the government minister expressed confidence that this plan would result in lower fares and more customer satisfaction, intimating that the train operators would mould services around necessary track repairs with little or no service disruptions. The Oxford line was merely a sideshow as Network Rail were simply too busy to trouble themselves with such a trifle. Chris Grayling said:

“I am going to establish East West Rail as a new and separate organisation, to accelerate the permissions needed to reopen the route, and to secure private-sector involvement to design, build and operate the route as an integrated organisation. This is an essential corridor for this country. On that route we are going to bring in private finance, in a form to be decided. I don’t intend to sell off the existing rail network. I don’t intend to privatise Network Rail again.”

Unions, on the other hand, notably the RMT, see this as all part of the capitalist master plan to privatise the railways by stealth. No mention of this particular development was made in the report earlier this year by Nicola Shaw but she did say there should be investigations into obtaining ‘further options for involving private sector finance’ and, never ones to put an understated case when a broadside against the Conservative government will suffice, RMT General Secretary Mick Cash said:

“This is the Tory Government dragging the railways back to the failed and lethal Railtrack model of the private sector running infrastructure. There is no question at all that this plan represents the piecemeal privatisation of Network Rail which over a period of time will see both train operations and track run by the same bunch of companies who have failed so abysmally over the past two decades.

“The idea that what Britain’s railways need is more privatisation is ludicrous. The introduction of the profit motive into infrastructure raises again the spectre of Hatfield and Potters Bar and the other grotesque failures that led to the creation of Network Rail. What the country really needs is a publicly owned railway run in the public interest free from greed and exploitation. RMT will fight any moves to privatise Network Rail with every tool at our disposal.

“Mr Grayling and his Government are hell bent on ripping to shreds the safety regime on our railways, not just by axing guards but also by turning the clock back to the lethal days of the privatised Railtrack on our infrastructure. If the Tories think that we will sit on the side lines while they drag us back to the carnage of Hatfield and Potters Bar then they need to think again.

“As General Secretary of Britain’s specialist transport union I meet with ministers on a regular basis and it is frankly absurd that Chris Grayling has refused point blank to meet with us while the Southern Rail dispute, which he has the power to settle as it is a direct management contract with the Government, rages on. Running our railways by central Government diktat is a recipe for disaster.”

Mr Cash was speaking at a rail policy meeting held in London on December 6 and meanwhile the Rail Freight Group (RFG) has reiterated that any plans for Britain’s railways must include the accommodation of freight requirements. It says that while recognising the need to improve performance and cost, rail freight customers have expressed concerns that their interests could be marginalised by giving more operational control to passenger franchises. RFG will therefore be asking Government to ensure that any changes balance the needs of all users, which should include:

  • Strengthening Network Rail’s Freight Route to promote the interests of freight customers across the network
  • A powerful National System Operator with responsibility for timetabling, capacity management and coordination of engineering work
  • A framework which incentivises integrated franchises to support growth in rail freight including new freight terminals and services
  • A regulatory structure which is refocused on protecting the needs of non-incumbent operators and their customers
  • An absolute requirement to maintain the national rail network in a fit condition for rail freight
RFG Executive Director Maggie Simpson commented on the latest government plans, saying:

”Freight customers may not be as vocal as passengers, but they share a common desire for a high performing and cost effective railway which deliver for their needs. Government’s recently published rail freight strategy recognises this, and we look forward to working together on the details of these proposals to ensure that they are a success for everyone.”

So what do these latest moves portend? A capitalist utopia for train operators and their shareholders, or a better managed, more efficient rail system? Only time will tell although it is hard to envisage Network Rail management working equally efficiently with the many and diverse franchises which currently exist, often with little appreciation from their customers. If the government do snap these up then they will have many watchful eyes on whose hands the mutual contracts to manage both infrastructure and rolling stock together finish up in.