MPs call for new strategic vision to maximise return on investment in UK rail

A new long term strategic vision for the UK’s road and rail networks is needed as a vital step to realising the value from record levels of investment being sunk into the rail sector, according to a new report by the influential Transport Select Committee.

And following the rail chaos seen at Christmas, Network Rail, it added,  still had to demonstrate that it was capable as an organisation of delivering to the objectives already set in the current five year CP5 spending plan.

The report "Investing in the railway" follows an investigation by the Transport Select Committee into the wider UK rail investment strategy but also set out to establish the root causes of travel chaos at Kings Cross and Paddington over Christmas and the on-going disruption at London Bridge and so understand whether Network Rail is capable of deliverin the UK's scale of ambition in the current funding period.

“The Department should clarify its future plans for improving trans-Pennine links—the Chancellor's proposed HS3—and consider such plans alongside its proposals for future investment in the classic network.”

In their report MP’s called for a new published vision which sets out “provisional objectives for future spending, and considers the rail network as part of an integrated transport strategy, which takes a route-based approach to road and rail investment, and prioritise connectivity to ports and airports”.

"A longer-term look at rail should be part of a wider route-based transport strategy that considers road and rail together, and recognises the interconnections between different modes of transport," said MPs. "This approach would enable the Government to consider whether proposed investments, in road or rail, offer the most effective and efficient way to improve connectivity and boost economic growth."

Record levels of funding for Network Rail committed by government from 2014-2019, for the operation, maintenance and enhancement of the rail network was, said MPs, welcomed to meet the growing demand for both passenger rail and freight services

However, Network Rail’s ability to deliver the ambitious programme, the committee said, “has been brought into question” by recent overrunning engineering works.

"The fact that King's Cross was only one of a number of overrunning engineering works and signalling problems that plagued the rail network over the festive period offers further evidence of systemic weaknesses in Network Rail's capacity to plan and execute engineering works," said MPs.

"Given the ambitious investment programme that Network Rail will receive £38bn to deliver by 2019, this is a matter of great concern," the report added. "If Network Rail is to maintain and improve the rail network in CP5 it will require managing multiple, complex engineering projects simultaneously. Network Rail must demonstrate how it will learn from the mistakes it has made in its engineering works and maintain a decent service to passengers while enhancement work is carried out."

MPs also questioned whether the current system of fining Network Rail when it failed to deliver was appropriate.

"The ORR should consider whether the disruption over Christmas and the New Year suggests that Network Rail is unable to deliver the enhancements programme planned for CP5, alongside a safety-focused, high-performing railway each and every day," the report said. "In the light of the change of status of Network Rail the ORR must reconsider whether fining a public sector body remains an acceptable means for the regulator to exert control."

The Committee also underlined the need for this new strategic vision to demonstrate how new investment in high speed rail will operate and connect effectively into the existing network.  

“The benefits of HS2 will only be maximised by ensuring connectivity between the classic and high-speed network, including improving East-West rail links across the country,” said the report. “The Department should clarify its future plans for improving trans-Pennine links—the Chancellor's proposed HS3—and consider such plans alongside its proposals for future investment in the classic network.”

By establishing a new longer term strategic vision for the industry would, MPs said, bring greater context to the benefits of this investment for the nation and enable the investment levels to be better justified.

“A revised—and published—criteria for allocating funding will take into account the wider economic and social objectives of rail investment, and help to ensure a fairer distribution of spending across the country,” it said.

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