The performance of Network Rail has “not been good enough,” rail minister Huw Merriman said today, stating that the body must be properly held to account to ensure it improves the UK’s rail infrastructure.
Speaking at a transport committee hearing, Merriman told MPs that a major challenge for train operators “is the performance of Network Rail, which has not been good enough.”
“We really do have to hold Network Rail to account to ensure that they do deliver,” on improving the country’s rail infrastructure, Merriman said, which is “worn in many parts”.
Network Rail has been criticized by the UK’s rail watchdog, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), for contributing to rail cancellations and delays and not delivering on infrastructure updates.
The ORR said in November that while some of these issues were outside of the body’s control, due to repeat strikes, the group could “nevertheless do more.” In May, the regulator wrote to Network Rail highlighting concerns over a growing backlog of overdue assessments for its structures.
Train operators have also been frustrated with Network Rail. One industry source told City A.M. that train companies were concerned about some of the group’s recent spending decisions.
A spokesperson for Network Rail said that they “totally agree” with Merriman’s assessment.
“While train performance is still ahead of where it was pre-pandemic, passengers have experienced a tough year of disruption, not least because of the on-going industrial dispute. But Network Rail, working with train operators, is determined to improve services and punctuality for all that rely on our railway,” they said.
In April, a leaked Network Rail presentation revealed that train delays would worsen over the next five years due to a lack of funding and rising costs.
In a wide-ranging committee hearing, the minister was also asked about the recent decision to strip Transpennine Express of its contract.
Merriman said that while “the bulk of passengers are getting their trains where they want to get to on time” and having “a very good, positive experience”, he acknowledged that did acknowledge that “performance isn’t where it was pre-covid”.
He argued that the government should consider increasing financial incentives for rail providers to improve performance.
Currently train operators are entitled to a bonus “performance fee” for going above and beyond minimum service standards.
“I firmly believe that if train operators have got the right incentives in place then they will increase service provision, and at the moment it’s down to the taxpayers as to whether that occurs,” he said.