Increasing passenger rail capacity

An interesting report from the National Audit Office was released today about increasing rail capacity. Increasing demand for rail travel – in particular commuter rail – means that Network Rail have the task of ensuring increased capacity on overcrowded commuter trains with a shrinking budget as necessary cuts are made in public spending.

For the five years to March 2014, the Department for Transport (DfT) has allocated £15.3 billion to improve the rail network, with the main focus on increasing rail capacity. Network rail was required to accommodate 17 per cent (64,900) more peak time passengers into London and 27 per cent (17,400) more passengers into other major cities. The focus on commuter rail is sensible and the TaxPayers’ Alliance has repeatedly argued that the transport budget should be prioritised on roads and commuter rail.

However in May this year the DfT’s latest plans on increasing capacity showed that Network Rail would not secure as much extra capacity as originally specified. The report states the following:

“Capacity was expected for 99,000 extra passengers into London during the three hour morning peak (7 till 10 am) 15 per cent less than the 117,000 first envisaged, and for 25,500 passengers into other cities by 2014, 33 per cent less than first envisaged. Our analysis shows the extra capacity of 44,000 for the one hour morning peak in London (8 till 9am) was 28 percent less than originally envisaged.”

The failure of Network Rail to secure the additional capacity is likely to stem from its inability to use better technology on rail tracks and rail signals because unions have threatened strikes if the working practices of track maintenance workers and signal workers change. Recall the failed strike back in Easter this year, which was called for that precise reason.

The power of the unions over Network Rail is intensified as Network Rail is largely funded by the taxpayer, not by private shareholders. Tom Winsor – Rail Regulator from 1999 to 2004 – wrote earlier this year about the possible strike and highlighted that strikes would be virtually impossible if Network Rail were properly privatised:

“In the days of Railtrack and the 1994 strike, the RMT knew that this could wipe out shareholders’ annual profits in a fortnight.”

Using better technology on the track and rail signals will mean that running the rail infrastructure will be cheaper, which is even more essential when the public finances are in such dire straits. And the planned reductions in his DfT’s funding of rail could provide the necessary push to introduce better technology that will lead to efficiency savings, which are desperately needed at Network Rail.

However it would appear that when it comes to the rail network yet more power lies in unelected hands. Funding for Network Rail can only be reduced with the consent of the Office of the Rail Regulation – a government quango.

The report states that the rail regulator scrutinises “Network Rail’s plans to enhance the infrastructure for capacity increases. It also monitors Network Rail’s delivery with the aim of securing value for money for passengers and taxpayers.”  Let’s hope it does that.

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