Not so much a Specification as laying down the law
Wedgie Benn used to huff and puff about the need for the media to focus on ‘ishoos’, not personalities. I have always disagreed with this view, on the grounds that it is people that make things happen. The separate HLOSs for England & Wales and Scotland provide a classic example.
DfT has provided six pages of waffle and fudge, while in its 12 pages Transport Scotland has provided a genuine high level specification. What makes the difference? In Bill Reeve, Transport Scotland has a Director of Rail who is a highly experienced railway engineer/manager and who lives up to his job title and directs.
For example, the opening statement emphasises that the HLOS is based on the assumption that Network Rail will deliver the majority of outputs specified in ORR’s Final Determination for Control Period 5. Those ‘residual’ elements of the CP5 enhancements portfolio that have been deferred are expected to be delivered ‘as a priority’ in CP6. I think the ‘or else’ must have been redacted.
Nor is Transport Scotland afraid to speak truth to power. It points out that while the UK Government had warned it intended to change the basis of funding for Network Rail in CP6, the first formal proposals of how these new funding arrangements will work in Scotland were not received ‘until the evening before the HLOS publication deadline’.
‘This has not left time for prudent consideration and the necessary negotiations to confirm satisfactory arrangements’, notes the HLOS. Which is why it has not been possible for Transport Scotland to provide a SoFA.
Throughout the HLOS it is made clear that Network Rail’s Scotland Route is answerable to the Scottish Government. With ‘the management, operation and governance of all railway activities in Scotland funded by the Scottish Government’, the regulatory framework for CP6 must be fully aligned with, ‘and demonstrably support’, the Government’s strategic priorities. In the spirit of the motto on the Scottish coat of arms, the ministers warn that as rail governance arrangements evolve elsewhere in Great Britain, ‘they must not be allowed to compromise or confuse these clear strategic priorities in Scotland’. Nemo me impune lacessit (no-one provokes me with impunity) indeed.
Noting that there have been ‘significant challenges’ with the costs and delivery timescales of major rail projects in CP5, the HLOS reports that the approach to project specification in CP6 will reflect lessons learnt.
Transport Scotland has already established a Major Rail Projects Portfolio Board, with subsidiary Programme Boards, to provide additional assurance to the Scottish ministers on ‘the progress, management and robust and consistent governance across the entirety of major rail projects in Scotland in CP5’. Network Rail will now work with Transport Scotland to improve the governance processes for programme development and delivery ‘in order to secure improved outcomes for CP6 and beyond’.
Supplementing these new processes will be a new approach to specifying capital rail investment and the release of the necessary funds through a Rail Enhancements & Capital Investment Strategy. This will include major renewal projects generating wider network benefits, such as signalling renewals, or which require significant additional investment in order to maximise an opportunity to improve rail services.
Enhancement and major renewal projects in CP6 will be drawn from a pipeline of potential schemes meeting Transport Scotland’s investment criteria. These schemes must be backed by ‘credible and efficient’ technical proposals that can be delivered efficiently.
Transport Scotland expects to publish this pipeline later this year. It will include the current rolling programme of electrification and its supporting rolling stock policy. Projects will be authorised by the Scottish ministers as business cases are fully developed.
In descending order, the priority for these schemes starts with cross-industry measures to maximise the use of the existing network through timetabling or rolling stock.
Next come schemes, such as asset renewals, which can be used to increase capacity or performance.
‘Efficient and affordable’ targeted infrastructure investment ‘in the right location and at the right time’ focused on whole industry measures to create additional capacity is next. Finally there is investment to help reduce inequality and increase inclusive economic growth.
ON A ROLL
Note the rolling programme of electrification. This is but one example of l’exception Ecossais in the HLOS. In CP6 Network Rail is to develop an efficient electrification technical specification ‘optimised for Scotland’ that can deliver an efficient and affordable rolling programme. And this programme will be delivered by plant, staff and resources based in Scotland, maximising the benefits to Scotland, including the local supply chain.
Indeed, on investment in general, the Scottish Government considers that this should support sustainable economic growth, including the creation of secure rail industry employment within Scotland. The HLOS points out that efficient delivery is optimised by steady work-banks, avoiding peaks and troughs in activity – something the folk in Westminster have yet to grasp.
Warming to this theme, the Scottish ministers point out that such steady activity will require resources to be based in Scotland. ‘Network Rail must ensure that it plans and invests in its capability in Scotland’ to deliver optimal, locally-developed solutions for rail investment. A new whole-rail-system organisation will control all stages of project development and delivery. Oh yes, and dedicated timetabling resources will also be needed for the Scottish network.
But if you think that is hard-nosed compared with the DfT milquetoasts, Transport Scotland has only been warming up. Network Rail’s gauging data, or the lack of, has added ‘significant risk, delay and cost to the introduction of new rolling stock, cascades of existing rolling stock, the development of new rail freight business, and the operation of charter and tourist trains’, says the HLOS. Operators should be able to plan the movement of vehicles around the network without the need for expensive and time-consuming bespoke gauging exercises.
So, Network Rail will be required to ensure that by the end of CP6 all Scottish routes are maintained to accommodate the gauge of ‘all locomotives and passenger rolling stock, including cross-border services and charter operators’ vehicles, which have run in Scotland in CP4 and CP5 or are planned for CP6’. To achieve this, Network Rail must have a strategy in place to implement the ‘Scottish Gauge Requirement’ by the end of CP5, ready for phased implementation through CP6.
It is worth noting that the Transport Scotland specification derives from the work of the Rail Safety & Standards Board’s Vehicle-Structure System Interface Committee (V-SSIC), on which Network Rail is represented. Note too the measured approach, with the strategy being worked up before CP6, followed by its progressive implementation during the Control Period.
So, demanding, but practical. That said, while the policy is being implemented, passenger and freight operators should not be asked to pay for gauging surveys, which should have been kept up-to-date as part of Network Rail’s asset database. Nor should they be charged for rectification of clearances that have been permitted to deteriorate.
Given that successive Rail Regulators have been whingeing about the asset database at every Periodic Review, Transport Scotland has approached the issue from the users’ viewpoint with a practical specification. I’m not sure how it could be enforced, but informed sources remind me that Network Rail’s delivery in Scotland has been markedly better than south of the border and that where there have been problems they have not necessarily been Network Rail Scotland’s responsibility.
Journey time improvements are another HLOS requirement. The average minutes per mile across all sectors of ScotRail’s services should fall from 1.587 (37.8mph) in the December 2019 timetable to 1.576 (38mph) by December 2024.
This difference seems insignificant but, intuitively, I suspect it would require some significant improvements to a few services to shift the overall average by that amount. For freight, the average train speed should increase by not less than 10%.
Scotland also intends to maintain Public Performance Measure as its yardstick for CP6, when the rest of the network is moving to right time (p58). Transport Scotland argues PPM is recognised and well understood by the public and within industry. A target of 92.5% has been set for ScotRail throughout CP6.
Policies for the CP6 renewals programme, including the long-term approach and technical strategy for signalling assets on the network, are being reviewed and will have been approved by the Scottish ministers before the start of CP6. Any subsequent changes to policies or programmes which result in the deferral or cancellation of major or significant levels of renewal works will require approval by Transport Scotland following consultation.
Once again, the contrast with England & Wales is stark. Compare the deferral of £3.7 billion of renewals out of a budget of £14 billion (26%) south of the border with £88 million from a budget of £1.4 billion in Scotland.
As with the SoFA for England & Wales, ORR’s advice to Scottish ministers suggested that funding for renewals should be regarded as an ‘envelope’ from which cost savings could be returned to the taxpayer as efficiencies are achieved. While Network Rail Scotland’s efficiency gains in CP5 are falling short of ORR’s aspirations, unit costs have been coming down, reflected in the minimal deferrals. From this positive perspective, the ‘envelope’ approach has its merits since it offers a ring-fenced pot of money within which to plan.
ORR’s Advice letter indicates renewals expenditure in CP6, before efficiencies, of around £1.9 billion, an increase of 35% on CP5. Scotland is the first Network Rail Route to employ the new Activity Based Planning tool that uses the local maintenance delivery unit’s actual cost and productivity data.
This is reflected in the bottom-up core plan in Table 2. The additional £25 million shown could be spent on further sites at risk of scour and to improve resilience against adverse weather.
Compared with CP5, selected renewals volumes will be increased with the aim of achieving sustainable asset condition. These include switches and crossings (+29%), underbridges (+20%) and earthworks (+12%).
Plain line track renewal is reduced by 31%, reflecting what ORR calls a change in the ‘mix of work’. However, average life will still improve slightly over CP6.
Signalling renewal volumes are forecast to fall by 6% despite an increase in spending of 35%. This, too, is attributed to a change in the mix of work. While this policy will prevent signalling equipment from becoming life-expired, average remaining life is forecast to fall during CP6.
Network Rail’s lack of experienced senior engineers has affected signalling in particular, aided and abetted by the original Digital Railway bubble. As with England & Wales, ORR wants to mitigate a surge of work from CP7 (2024-29) onwards by bringing some signalling renewals forward to CP6. Adding this additional work takes Scotland’s total renewals budget to £1.9 billion, which ‘looks to be the most robust forecast on current data’, according to ORR.
For the first three years of CP5, Network Rail Scotland reported an efficiency improvement of 11.2% on Support, Operations, Maintenance and Renewals (SOMR) compared with ORR’s assumption of a 13.7% improvement. Support, Operations & Maintenance improved by 13.1% and renewals by 10.1%.
Readers will note that Operations, Maintenance & Renewals (OMR) is now preceded by ‘Support’ (SOMR). The ever-helpful ORR press office has provided a definition. ‘Support’ covers: Human Resources, Finance, Safety, Technical & Engineering (the Technical Authority), Property, Legal and Insurance. The largest area by spend is Route Services, which includes Information Technology, materials, logistics, road fleet, high output plant etc.
Over the full Control Period, Network Rail Scotland expects to achieve efficiency of 8.2% on SOMR. According to ORR, this compares ‘favourably’ with the overall GB network but reflects ‘different levels of activity on different asset types and different baselines specific to this Route’.
I’m not sure whether that caveat is intended to excuse poor performance elsewhere or set up Scotland as an exemplar. ORR does add that it was looking for 19.5% efficiency gains in its Final Determination for CP5.
In contrast, Network Rail in Wales has seen a decline in efficiency of 7.8% on OSMR over the first three years of CP5. On operations, support & maintenance alone, efficiency improved by 8.0% but this was offset by a 20.5% decline with renewals, mainly due to the Cardiff Area Signalling Renewals (CASR) programme.
Network Rail Wales still expects a 16% efficiency gain on OSMR by the end of CP5. As with Scotland, ORR notes that this compares favourably with Great Britain overall and reflects different levels of activity on different asset types and different baselines specific to this route.
But if both Wales and Scotland are ‘different’, how are they ‘different’ from inefficient England? And is there any such thing as a ‘typical’ Route?
All this ‘difference’ suggests ORR’s enthusiasm for benchmarking Network Rail’s devolved Routes may be misplaced. I’m frequently told off for trying to compare apples and oranges in my analyses. Perhaps ORR is trying to baseline a whole costermonger’s barrow.