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Karl McCartney MP: Network Rail is too complex, unaccountable and untouchable - it must change

Karl McCartney is the Member of Parliament for Lincoln.

Hearing the news that bosses of Network Rail have been ‘persuaded’ to hand their bonuses to charity made me, and I am sure the rest of the people of Lincoln, jump for joy. I hope that will mean that, after nigh on two decades of procrastination, Network Rail might finally decide to improve the safety of the level crossings traversing our high street in the centre of our city.  This is especially important as Network Rail recently announced that the level crossings, some of the busiest for non-rail traffic in the country, are to be closed for over 40 minutes in every daylight hour to allow freight trains diverted from the East Coast line to travel through the centre of our vibrant city.  The additional fillip for me was the Secretary of State, Justine Greening’s announcement that there soon will be a Rail Review looking at reforming Network Rail's governance structures including a board member representing, and giving a platform at board level to, the taxpayer. 'About time too' many will say.

For far too long Network Rail have been unaccountable and untouchable.  And that view is one held by many, including rail industry insiders as well as rail passengers and Members of Parliament like me.  Unlike the last Labour Government, this Government has shown the steel to stop turning a blind eye to this supposedly public corporation.  However, once the proposed reforms are published, I hope to see further changes to ensure better public interest accountability and a visible improvement for all of us who wish to see a thriving 21st century railway system in our country.

The fact that the directors of Network Rail were to receive a bonus for declining performance shows where the current arrangement had become untenable.  This gravy train has hit the proverbial buffers.  And whatever the arguments about Stephen Hester’s bonus (and I think his contract should have been honoured), at least he is operating in a competitive environment.  At Network Rail, there is no competition -it is a monopoly.  So why should such a bonus structure exist at all when improving the train network should be a normal part of the day-to-day duties of directors and therefore taken into account in their basic salaries? This story is a variant of crony capitalism outlined by my colleague Jesse Norman, where performance bears little relation to pay, and this time, it is at a public corporation - with no competition!

Since I became Lincoln’s Member of Parliament in May 2010, I and my colleagues on Lincolnshire County Council and the City of Lincoln Council have had a continual problem with Network Rail because of their inaction and unwillingness to solve the pedestrian congestion currently caused by the barriers being lowered for around 20 minutes every hour.  Network Rail are exacerbating this problem by their insistence that the only option to improve capacity on the East Coast line is to send rail freight traffic ‘cross country’ and through the centre of Lincoln.

If you were to forget HS2, or certainly the proposed Leeds branch of it, and improve the East Coast line to its originally envisaged 4 track line in its entirety (and therefore remove the bottlenecks), one would achieve a much cheaper and beneficial system for so many more people and businesses.  This freight traffic that Network Rail has decided will now be diverted down the railway line that runs through the heart of Lincoln means that our city centre level crossings which are currently closed often over 23 minutes in every hour, will see this increased to 40 minutes plus per hour from January 1st next year (this may have slipped as other works to enable this are yet to begin). Even with the closure for 23 minutes per hour the crossing cuts our city in two, damages trade and clogs up the city’s traffic. The enforced increase in barrier down time will pose a risk to the whole economic viability of the city centre itself, and to the pedestrians who are already tempted at times to jump the barriers.  And with no benefit from these freight trains whatsoever for the good people of Lincoln or even Lincolnshire.

All of us who represent the interests of the city have continued to try and make Network Rail see sense but it is like pulling teeth. They frankly do not care about the damage they will cause to the residents, businesses and tourist industry of our city and neither I, or anyone else, seems able to ensure that Network Rail or the Office of Rail Regulation are responsible or accountable for it. They have been, are, and seem determined to remain, a law unto themselves.

Moreover, Network Rail‘s board members are not allowed to publically speak out about any local issue if they live in that locality because they are supposedly conflicted. So someone with the full knowledge and understanding of the effect of Network Rail’s plan for Lincoln, or any other area, is not allowed to say anything.  How supremely Soviet that sounds.

It is the same with safety reports and risk assessments on the city centre crossings (the High Street and Brayford Wharf East) and elsewhere in the constituency. I have continually asked for them and have been continually stonewalled. I, and other Members of Parliament have, at the very least, a right to know whether my constituents are safe in our city, and they expect me to make sure they are.  That Network Rail have still not re-instated the footbridge at the High Street level crossing says so much about their priorities.

I have likened dealing with Network Rail to being trapped in the pages of a Kafka novel. This is why when the Government’s proposed reforms are published I will want to make sure they have real teeth.  Not just to ensure taxpayer interests are served, but also that the wider public interest and accountability is served. The current controls on Network Rail are not working, as the story from Lincoln amply testifies, and this is why the Secretary of State’s announcement is a vital first step in ensuring that some semblance of accountability is reintroduced to our national railways.


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