Network Rail privatisation

Having already strangled the oxygen from NR, moves to have it privatised is a simple manoeuvre by the Tories to sell off the profitable oversees consultancy arm to a competitor, and list the domestic arm on the stock market.

Nicola Shaw’s claim that privatisation “was absolutely on the table; it can’t not be” is a fair comment. Her role is to work out how to manage NR going forward.

To pursue a route that NR is somehow anti-commercial is absurd. And any hunt for inefficiencies would struggle. The organisation has been starved under the Tories. There is little left to waste. Having tendered (successfully, I might add) for national and regional property frameworks, as well as national infrastructure programmes such as HS2, West coast mainline signalling contracts, and cost consultancy frameworks, I am certain that efficiencies and optimisation are at the forefront of each of these projects. It is no coincidence that on Friday NR released a tender for “to let” signage? Asset optimisation and cost savings are the two themes that NR and her suppliers have to deliver.

The role of NR is to deliver infrastructure. Her review has to include this. If not, it would not be the full review she is charged with delivering. It is absurd that she would ask deep economic questions about what NR is, and not include what NR does.

“It can’t not be,” only acknowledges how political her role is, specifically her capitalist realism delivered in doublespeak. To bring real efficiencies to the system line closure and privatisation are the only options.

A proper review would include a SWOT analysis of rail delivery in Britain, and how best to deliver it in the 21 century. The network is already heavily benchmarked against international models, and the consultation that always comes from these is underinvestment in the UK as the cause of under performance. If you start the review with NR, you only look at the economic questions as far as the organisation’s walls. And this has already happened. Don’t ask what effect privatisation will have on NR, more: what effect it will have on our country. That’s the question that hasn’t been scrutinised. That’s the objective question.

It’s not a question of privatisation being on the table in a review of NR, it’s about privatisation being on the table for the infrastructure to UK businesses and households. It’s not about profit, cost certainty and employees, it’s about our GDP.

The idea that NR is suffering under its own ineptitude is absurd. It’s suffering under lack of funding. Anyone involved would tell you that. If it were privatised it would employ all the same people, the same engineers, and the same property managers. The differences would be that once the non-profitable arm is left to die, the international arm will thrive under private ownership. The best engineers will work on oversees projects, and the domestic network will escalate in cost.

Tories have cut budgets to councils and given them more power, cut Heritage England yet burden them with more responsibility, empower LEPs and divide the county. These moves make it increasingly tricky to deliver a national infrastructure programmes.

It was tabled for English Heritage to be in part consumed by the National Trust. Would it be worth asking why not give NR greater licence to developed infrastructure. It is crazy that Heritage England (under new title) would protect sites of historical interest, sites that were once summits of engineering and industrial achievement, and in the same breath obstruct any future achievement in these fields. This country’s heritage should be in the hands of pie munching mechanics as much as it is in the hands of scone chomping conservationists.

This probably won’t feature in the review for two reasons: does Nicola Shaw really have the remit for this question? And because the review is being informed by engineers and financiers; not philosophers and economists. Engineers have a tendency to solve the problems that are in front of them, that’s why they are engineers (and not architects). Financiers have a linear remit. I’d expect that if NR was an arts organisation it would ask more abstract questions. There would be a culture for it. Just look at the review of English Heritage for evidence.

Major issues for planning, added to this country’s capacity to deliver large engineering projects —they become less frequent, and the profession is undermanned — are going to factor for delays and cost escalation.

What may be unearthed is that detailed cost reporting is achieved because the prices are benchmarked against global data by everyone on the supply chain. However the cost data used is often from oversees because that’s where the projects are that bear the closest resemblance.

However it’s the ability for our contractors to deliver these unique projects domestically with national teams and resourcing, not international experts and the resourcing afforded those projects. So although the cost reports are more accurate for the designs, they’re not so accurate when it comes to buildability. And that’s where we see cost escalation and delay.

A refurbished and redesigned Birmingham New Street opened at the weekend. Delayed, costly, but there’s no doubt the impact it will have on the local economy. It also is a cathedral for rail. There’s no question on the quality of our engineers, only their number.

The problem we now face is that this debate will play out between the privateers and the unions. And the reality is that neither are in a proper position to take us forward. This isn’t about ticket inspectors, or the M&E trackside teams at Euston tower. It’s about national infrastructure and the most cost effective way to deliver benefit to the country.

It’s infrastructure. Not only the jobs of those employed by NR, but the jobs of everyone in this country. It can’t not be.

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