"A slippery slope to privatisation": Network Rail shake-up draws mixed reactions

Rebecca Smith
Chris Grayling's plans for Network Rail have sparked mixed reactions
Chris Grayling's plans for Network Rail have sparked mixed reactions (Source: Getty)

Chris Grayling's plans to shake-up Network Rail's monopoly on track maintenance have already caused quite the stir.

Service operators will be given a role in managing the tracks and Grayling wants the firms operating services to form a joint management team with bosses from state-owned Network Rail.

He said on BBC's Today programme that he wants Network Rail and train operators to be part of joint management teams so they can work together to address any issues, rather than simply "throw contracts at each other".

Not everyone's quite so confident. Here are some of the reactions so far:

Network Rail

Network Rail's chief executive Mark Carne said: "We strongly welcome these plans to bring more joined-up working within the industry. We have already devolved Network Rail into route-based businesses closer to customers and the proposals announced today will build on the alliances we have created between these route businesses and train operators."

He added that Network Rail strongly believed "there should be better alignment of incentives between train companies and Network Rail".

Carne said Network Rail's published transformation plan is "moving us to being a public sector body that acts like a private business".

The unions

Mick Cash, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, said: "This is the Tory government dragging the railways back to the failed and lethal railtrack model of the private sector running infrastructure."

He thinks it's a "slippery slop to privatisation" of rail repairs. Cash said the RMT will fight any moves to privatise Network Rail "with every tool at our disposal".

Meanwhile, Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train driver's union Aslef, said the idea wasn't new and past attempts didn't bode well. "There have been numerous alliances on the railway in recent years and none has been a success," he said.

The opposition

Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald also warned of the UK's attempted efforts to privatise rail infrastructure in the past, to no success. Speaking to the BBC he noted that Railtrack, which used to own the track, signalling and tunnels, was taken back into public ownership in 2002 after it fell into financial difficulties.

"The government is contemplating yet more complexity and fragmentation, and yet more opportunities to extract profit out of our railway system," he said. "Taxpayers will ultimately foot the bill for any extra profitability eked out of the system."

Labour's shadow education secretary Angela Rayner also said "incentivising private sector companies to complete safety work quickly" was worrying.

The legal perspective

Rail partner at law firm Ashurst, Naomi Horton questioned whether it constituted an overhaul of the rail network: "Inevitable questions include how different these plans are from what we have seen before, bearing in mind the fact that many train operators already have alliances with Network Rail in place, and joint control rooms, which deal with some operating aspects jointly at present."

The development is also particularly interesting set against the tide of European rail legislation, moving as it is towards more separation between infrastructure management on the one hand and train operations on the other, and bearing in mind the imminent implementation of the Fourth Railway Package.

Unless and until European rail legislation ceases to apply to Britain following the Brexit vote, Chris Grayling's proposals will have to respect this requirement for separation.

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