Rail Industry Focus

20.01.17

The future of East West Rail

Source: RTM Dec/Jan 17

Shortly before the end of last year, transport secretary Chris Grayling announced unprecedented proposals to create a new and independent East West Rail operation tasked with designing, managing and running services between Oxford and Cambridge. RTM’s Luana Salles reports.

Chris Grayling has made quite a stir in the short time since being appointed transport secretary last year. While at first suggesting rail would continue with its business as usual – reiterating his support for projects like HS2 and Crossrail – the secretary of state soon moved to nip his predecessor’s decentralisation plans for TfL in the bud. London’s suburban services would not be devolved after all, despite Boris Johnson and Patrick McLoughlin both agreeing on the proposals. 

Shortly after, Grayling unveiled what has been hailed as Britain’s first truly integrated rail operation since the 1990s by some, and as a half-baked reform meets full-scale privatisation by others. Under new proposals announced in December in an update to Parliament, the government would create East West Rail, the first integrated operation separate to Network Rail in decades: a company created to design, build and run the missing link between Oxford and Cambridge. 

The decision saw Sir Roy McNulty’s 2011 recommendations finally come to life. In his report on the efficiency of the railway, McNulty had argued for closer alignment of route-level infrastructure management with TOCs, either in the form of joint targets, alliances or full vertical integration. He recommended having at least two joint ventures or alliances and one vertically-integrated pilot in place by 2013-14. 

Finally pressing ahead with these recommendations, Grayling argued the new East West Rail organisation would help accelerate the permissions needed to reopen the route, as well as “secure private sector involvement to design, build and operate” it. It was due to be established early in the New Year, chaired by former Chiltern Rail chief executive Rob Brighouse. 

It comes as no surprise that the East West Rail Consortium, made up of local authorities and their strategic partners, welcomed the proposals. As explained by Cllr Rodney Rose, chairman of the consortium’s Joint Delivery Board for the Western Section, the organisation had been left “disappointed at the pace and progress [of the project] due to financial constraints on Network Rail’s overall investment programme”. 

“We have committed to make a contribution towards the cost of the scheme and look forward to continue working alongside government and the National Infrastructure Commission to ensure its delivery,” he added. “Now, it’s time to speed up the development work, get spades in the ground and tracks laid.” 

But despite the enthusiasm, Grayling admitted in the House of Commons that the DfT had not carried out a thorough evaluation of the time and cost benefits of privatising the route. Pressed by Lib Dem MP Tom Brake, the transport secretary argued that the “assumption that Network Rail should always do everything does not ever give us any benchmarks to judge whether someone else can do it better”. 

Instead, he proposed: “I want to use this as an opportunity, in a way that does not affect the rest of the network, to test the way that we are doing things, and to see whether we can do them quicker and better.” 

Integrated operations elsewhere 

As well as integrating track and train on East West Rail, Grayling further announced he would be embedding a softer integration model on the upcoming South Eastern and East Midlands franchises, which will now have to include integrated operating teams between train services and infrastructure. The DfT will continue to develop the model for greater alignment as more franchises are renewed, including the option of joint ventures. 

Mark Carne, Network Rail’s CEO, welcomed the move, which he argued builds on the infrastructure owner’s route-based devolution and the resulting alliances between TOCs and route businesses. He also supported the East West Rail model, reiterating his catchphrase that organisations must behave like private sector businesses – and that competition should be at the heart of this.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

W: www.eastwestrail.org.uk

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