ASLEF Consultation Response - Office of Rail and Road - Periodic review 2023: draft determination

-
The ORR consulted on their draft determination on Network Rail's plans for spending in Control period 7 (CP7)
   Download Now

Network Rail set out its plans for spending during control period 7 (CP7) in May 2023 for England and Wales and July 2023 for Scotland. CP7 runs from April 2024 to March 2029.

The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) assessed these plans as the regulator and published a draft determination of the plans. The ORR consulted on their draft determination with a closing date of 31/08/23.

Below is ASLEF's response to the ORR's consultation.

 

1.         General comments on ORR’s draft determination for Network Rail in CP7 High-level / general comments on our draft determination. Please use sections below for more detailed responses on specific topics.

We welcome the opportunity to feedback on the ORR’s draft determination for Network Rail in CP7 and are in agreement that there needs to be a greater focus on renewing core assets as this will help to ensure that the network is safe and enable train performance to improve.

Unfortunately we find ourselves in a position where the funding available is not sufficient to effectively ensure that the railways can be maintained and grown at a rate to meet the government’s HLOS goals of meeting customer needs; delivering financial sustainability; contributing to long term economic growth; levelling up and connectivity; and delivering environmental sustainability. We ultimately believe that greater funding is required to meet these goals, in part due to the chronic underfunding that we have seen for maintenance and renewals alongside poor planning and stripping back of rail infrastructure projects, we are further concerned that this underfunding could lead to safety concerns on the railways in CP7, especially when you factor in the impact of climate change and extreme weather events.

We understand that the ORR has to work within the confines set by the government in terms of its inadequate funding levels and have assessed Network Rail’s business plan with these constraints. In terms of the ORR’s draft determination we understand the efforts to shift funding about to try and increase the available funding for core asset renewals and welcome these efforts although we are concerned that the draft determination may be trying to be overly ambitious in certain areas and pushing to withdraw money from works which could provide returns late into CP7 and beyond in to CP8. We will outline our views on specific points in greater detail below.

 

4.         Our review of Network Rail’s proposed outcomes
For further information, please see section 3 of our England and Wales and Scotland overview documents and our related supplementary document on outcomes.

We are concerned that the lack of appropriate funding could lead to a negative cycle where Network Rail is stretched to maintain assets and as such renewals of core assets are delayed which leads to the current assets needing further maintenance work and resultantly costing more money in the long run. We are concerned that the current plans will lead to similar incidents as to the recent example of the Nuneham Viaduct where maintenance and speed restrictions were in place until ultimately renewal works were needed.

In terms of the ORR’s draft determination we think that point 3.8 which proposes stretching the North West & Central region’s train performance trajectory may be too great of an ask of the region where during CP7 works will be ongoing on the West Coast Main Line to ensure that HS2 can be effectively introduced, this is a region which is already constrained due to high access demands and bottlenecks.

We are supportive of the proposal to introduce a Performance Improvement and Innovation Fund (PIIF) of £0.04 billion in England and Wales for CP7 and can see this being most effective once Great British Railways comes into existence. We also support the proposal to introduce a separate targeted train performance fund in Scotland.

We are cautions that the ORR’s push to set more challenging trajectories for freight train performance, whilst well intentioned it may be unrealistic with the current levels of funding and could give potential freight customers a misleading analysis of the service they can expect. However we expect Network Rail to share further details with the ORR on how their forecasts were reached and perhaps a happy medium between the two forecasts can be found.   

 

5.         Our assessment of accessibility
For further information, please see section 12 of our outcomes document.

We echo ORR’s concerns with the lack of detail in Network Rail’s Strategic Business Plan around accessibility and expect these details to be fleshed out ahead of a final determination. We also welcome the introduction of a Diversity Impact Assessment standard and hope this can be expanded to Scotland. We expect both Network Rail England & Wales and Scotland to provide ‘changing places’ at all national hub managed stations and to maintain their availability as Scotland has already introduced these toilets.

In light of the DfT/treasury’s proposal to shut ticket offices across the network it may be pertinent to push for the fitment of tactile paving to be sped up to be completed ahead of the current April 2025 deadline.

We understand the ORR’s concerns of skewing investment by measuring the delivery of accessibility improvements, however we would expect that, investment in ensuring the railway is safe and accessible to all passengers should be properly considered and encouraged. We are supportive of the ORR’s work to develop a way for Network Rail to report on step-free journeys to enable this to be measured through CP7 as greater work is needed to ensure that as much of the network is accessible.

 

6.         Our review of Network Rail’s proposed costs and income
For further information, please see sections 4 and 7 of our England and Wales and Scotland overview documents and our related supplementary documents on our Sustainable and Efficient Cost assessment and other income – property and charges.

We acknowledge the ORR’s attempt to address Network Rails anticipation of an increase in service affecting failures of assets towards the end of CP7 due to inadequate funding.

We also hold concerns around earthworks, structures, operational property and track and have considered ORR’s proposal to enable £0.55 billion more expenditure on core asset renewals. The first proposal to push 25% of the proposed works on life expired assets into CP8, releasing £0.30 billion, could be like robbing Peter to pay Paul as these works will still be needed. The original plan was to deliver a complete package of work reducing long term disruption on the network and ensure that works are completed before the introduction of HS2 services on the West Coast Main Line. Instead the funding for these works would be spent on core renewals in CP7 but could leave the North West & Central Region with more disruptive work needed in to CP8 extending disruption from CP7 to CP8. If Network Rail is to push back these works we would expect the ORR to also re-consider its on time trajectory for North West & Central region.

We are not sure if choosing to not refurbish the high output plant is wise in the long term and expect Network Rail to provide the ORR with a clear approach to the use of high output in CP7 in response to the draft determination.

We agree that Network Rail’s revenue forecasts appear to be too low and should be revised to factor in the increase over the year in passenger demand / usage, we do however find there to be a slight contradiction in the ORR’s assessment of Network Rails management of their property portfolio as concerns are raised around the loss of expertise and the movement of the portfolios to the regions but then outline a desire for Network Rail to be more ambitious in looking at sale opportunities. We would not want Network Rail to sell off too much of its property portfolio to try and make up for a lack of funding from the treasury. As is acknowledged in the draft determination, the reduction of £0.7 billion from CP6’s sales is mainly down to the one-off effect of sales such as the Core Valley Lines, we would want to see a greater push to maximise income from assets instead of selling them and are concerned that the draft determination is un-supportive of Network Rails plans to invest in its future with projects which won’t produce returns until late CP7 or in to CP8.

We hope that prior to the final determination sufficient detail can be provided to the ORR which would satisfy them of Network Rail’s plans to invest to grow revenue in years to come, especially as this could help Network Rail meet the HLOS goal of financial sustainability, whilst we all acknowledge that the current level of funding is inadequate we should not then stop any investments which would produce returns in the future or we could encourage what seems to be the government’s intention of continued long term decline.

 With regards to Network Rail Scotland we also hold concerns with some core assets not being prioritised and due to a lack of appropriate funding we will see speed restrictions and a deterioration in asset sustainability which will make it hard for hard for the Scottish Ministers’ train performance targets to be met.    

 

8.         Our assessment of health and safety
For further information, please see section 5 of our England and Wales and Scotland overview documents and our related supplementary document on health and safety.

As the funding is insufficient we unfortunately find ourselves in a position where Network Rail is planning to maintain what they can and utilise speed restrictions to try and eek out as much life from the infrastructure.

We welcome the ORR’s assessment (agreed by Network Rails own Technical Authority) that there is insufficient demonstration of mitigations to manage the increase in risk posed from a limited set of core asset renewals.  We already see issues with the network due its age with many earthworks and structures being built to engineering standards that are not recognised today and as such pose concerns for our members operating services on these parts of the network with particular concerns around rail adhesion, the maintenance of track, tunnels and vegetation all impacting on the safety of the railways.

Point 5.7 of the England & Wales overview highlights an area of concern for us, the Carmont crash and Haddiscoe wash out point to the issues that insufficient drainage can cause to the safety for our members and passengers. We welcome the ORR highlighting that Network Rail’s plan to not use dedicated drainage teams is inconsistent with one of the recommendations of Lord Mair’s report. In a climate crisis when we expect extreme weather events to result in extreme heat and greater flooding risks having an impact on the railways, we must ensure that lessons are learned and work is done to keep the railways safe. 

Due to the funding restraints on Network Rail Scotland we also hold the concerns raised by point 5.6 around the potential for loss of knowledge and how this could impact on the ability to implement Network Rail’s ‘modernising maintenance’ programme, we hope that the ORR can also raise this with regards to any future proposed job and funding cuts in this area. 

We agree with point 5.8 of the overview of Network Rail Scotland’s plans as we are also concerned that the earthworks are not being satisfactorily managed at present and we need clarity on the deliverance of the action plans developed in response to the Carmont investigations. With the current proposals for additional maintenance and operational restrictions, which are lower safety standards and much further down the hierarchy of control, being proposed in place of renewals we hold concerns for the safety of the network in Scotland through CP7, particularly when the increase extreme weather events and their impact are factored in.