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Strong National Systems Operator needed to counter route devo risks

Engagement between Network Rail (NR), train operators and passengers must be “hardwired” into the periodic review process so that NR’s future business planning with regards to route devolution is driven by passenger concerns, Joanna Whittington, chief executive of the ORR, has stated.

Speaking at the Whitehall and Industry Group this week, Whittington said that the regualtor was behind NR’s continued route devolution, but that passengers must be far more engaged in future plans to devolve routes to ensure that targets are being built around the wants and needs of passengers locally.

She added that the success of route and operational devolution was down to all arms of the rail industry, including regulators, to “step up and change the way we behave across the industry”.

In practical terms, this will mean publishing data at route level about the full range of responsibilities devolved to routes for passengers to look at, as well as making that data accessible and usable to a wide audience.

Whittington argued that there would be benefit in a mechanism strengthening the relationship between train operators and NR: “This allows us as regulator to step back while creating a stronger line of sight to the passenger or freight customer.”

However, the ORR boss also commented that a strong National System Operator was also crucial to counter the risk that route devolution brings of services lowering in quality.

“A National System Operator that excels at timetabling, capacity management and analysis can effectively counter the risk that increased devolution to routes could undermine the quality of service to those operating across them – freight operators being a case in point,” she said.

Whittington noted that the ORR has called on NR to prepare a separate business plan for the National System Operator, as well as a separate funding settlement for it.

This approach will, according to Whittington, improve its transparency to give operators more information to be better informed about decisions, and will also sharpen incentives to manage the network more effectively in optimising performance and improving capacity on trains.

“There is more work to be done on how we will measure the success of the National System Operator but we have made a good start and will be talking to all those interested: Network Rail routes, all operators including both passenger and freight, all funders, as well as passenger groups,” she said.

“Our immediate priority for Network Rail is we now want the System Operator to be visible, and take its proper place in the industry.”

The ORR boss concluded her speech by saying that she wanted “to see the behaviours that show devolution is real” from operators and NR.

“Without these, we won’t see improvements in performance: from Network Rail to its train operators; and from those train operators to their passengers and customers,” she stated. “This means encouraging more, better, conversations between Route Managing Directors and customers; visibly so.”


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