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Regulator praises Network Rail, but sounds warning over future planning

THE Office of Rail and Road has praised Network Rail’s timetable planners for their extraordinary work in making four major timetable changes over six months, during ‘a very challenging time’.

Rail schedules were adjusted repeatedly during 2020 to align as much as possible with the various states of lockdowns and other restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The wider Network Rail workforce has also won praise from the regulator in continuing to carry out maintenance which was essential to ensure that the network remained safe. The ORR’s mid-year report on the performance of Network Rail’s System Operator says Network Rail ’remains on course to deliver its efficiency plans for the year, building on the successful delivery of last year’s plans’.

But the ORR is less happy about how Network Rail is planning timetables for next year and in the longer term. It is requiring improvement by Network Rail on ‘how rail capacity is allocated and access to the network is granted’. This warning has come just one day after open access operators Grand Central and Hull Trains started running trains again after a pause for the November lockdowns.

The ORR also wants Network Rail to improve the ‘promptness, accuracy and transparency of how it conducts capacity allocation’, so that operators and the regulator can make ‘informed decisions’ about potential new services for passengers and freight.

ORR chief executive John Larkinson said: ‘In what has been an extremely tough year, Network Rail has been impressive in delivering four emergency timetables in very short order and in continuing to deliver efficiencies in a very challenging environment.

‘But Network Rail needs to fully justify its approach to planning timetables for next year and beyond. It’s important that the rail industry remembers lessons from the 2018 timetable changes and does all it can to maintain passenger confidence in the published timetable.

‘We’ve also found that Network Rail needs to do better in being prompt and transparent over its assessment of available capacity and its decisions to approve or reject new passenger and freight services.

‘The improvements we have asked for will ensure the industry and its customers can be confident that the decisions on how the network is used are fair.’

Meanwhile, the government is snipping £1 billion from Network Rail’s previously agreed enhancement fund of £10.4 billion, which covers 2019-2024. The cut was revealed in a written answer by rail minister Chris Heaton-Harris in answer to a question from Labour’s shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon at the start of this week. It is not clear which enhancement schemes could be mothballed as a result.

RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: ‘These massive cuts to the rail infrastructure budgets are a shameful indictment of the Government’s understanding of the importance of our rail network and fly in the face of their stated objective of building and investing our way out of the COVID crisis.’ 

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