Network Rail has failed to deliver plans to renew Britain’s railways despite being entrusted with billions of pounds of public money, a regulator has said.
Rail Minister Norman Baker is expected to confront bosses again this week over continued delays and an apparent lack of preparation for bad weather.
He said train passengers will be “dismayed” by the company’s failure to make necessary improvements as a damning report found Network Rail faced numerous problems “of its own making”.
Failures in the firm’s drainage and embankment systems have increased tenfold during the past two years, the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) revealed. It found the company paid “inadequate attention” to this area which hampered preparation for adverse winter conditions.
It also revealed a backlog of maintenance work and found improvements in efficiency have slowed down, following its annual assessment.
Richard Price, chief executive of the ORR, said the company must urgently address its shortcomings.
“Network Rail has been entrusted with large amounts of public and passengers’ money, which, if invested well, should deliver the levels of efficiency and punctuality it promised to deliver,” he said.
“However, the company is falling short of expectations at the moment. It is facing many problems of its own making, having failed to deliver plans to renew Britain’s rail network, with delayed works now affecting performance.
“The company must urgently catch up and address the problems which are causing disruption to passengers and target its work as efficiently as possible.”
The ORR’s report examined the amount of money spent by Network Rail and what it provided in return. It comes as passengers face fare increases of around 4.1% in the new year.
Mr Baker said he would raise his concerns with chief executive Sir David Higgins who will step down from his role after next year.
“I am, as I think the rest of the travelling public will be, dismayed to learn that Network Rail is still failing to tackle deterioration in the punctuality and reliability of the network - a matter I have regularly raised with them,” the Rail Minister said.
“Fare payers and tax payers are investing heavily in the future of the railways and they need to have the confidence that Network Rail is maximising the impact every pound has.
“I am this week having meetings with senior Network Rail management, including chief executive Sir David Higgins, to stress my concern about their performance. They must do better.
“Network Rail is doing a good job in delivering the huge growth in the network arising from record government investment in rail, and doing well in driving efficiencies, but its record on day-to-day performance is, I am afraid, letting them down.”
The ORR said Network Rail was now unlikely to deliver the potential 23.5% efficiencies identified for operations, renewals and maintenance by the end of the fourth year of its five-year funding period on March 31.
It said it would now be “more demanding” of the firm’s performance to ensure improvements are delivered for customers.
It identified the following additional issues:
* The information Network Rail holds on the condition of its tracks and bridges is not as good as it should be
* Poor maintenance planning has led to delays and too much of maintenance work is reactive rather than preventative
* The company remains short of key targets such as punctuality on long-distance services
* Network Rail is unlikely to meet a number of targets in its current funding period
* It will have significant ground to cover in the next funding period (2014-19)
However, the watchdog said Network Rail was “on track” to deliver its rail enhancement programme which, it said, would bring “great benefits” to passengers.
During the past year, the company has completed extensions to the East London line, electrified the Paisley Canal branch line and lengthened platforms to increase capacity on the East Coast main line, it said.
A Network Rail spokesman said: “We have reduced the cost of running the rail network by almost 40% since 2004 but inevitably the pace has slowed as we carefully balance the needs of the business against stretching regulatory cost-cutting targets.
“There is further headway we can make and have identified a further 18% of savings we believe possible by 2019.”
The spokesman added: “Five years ago we accepted ambitious regulatory performance targets that have since become more challenging because of increased congestion due to growing demand for travel.
“Although we have been unable to reach these tough targets, today half a million more trains arrive at their destination on time compared with five years ago, carrying tens of millions more passengers.
“Train performance is still, by historical standards, at a high level - last year was the third-best year ever recorded - but we know we can do better, especially on our long-distance routes.”