Misery for millions as leaked Network Rail memo predicts more train cancellations and delays

Britain’s teetering railways face delays and cancellations because there is not enough money to maintain them, Network Rail has privately admitted.

A leaked presentation obtained byThe Independent says the government’s funding plans for the next five years will not allow Network Rail to “operate, maintain and renew” the railway at its current level of reliability.

The slides, intended for rail industry bosses and marked “official-sensitive-commercial”, warn delays caused by crumbling infrastructure – like tracks, bridges and earthworks – are expected to worsen amid rising costs and inadequate funding.

Rail unions said the revelations about funding shortfalls for maintenance amounted to “managed decline” of the railway.

The documents warn:

  • Network Rail will do fewer repairs over the next five years and will clear less debris that can cause delays and accidents
  • Lack of funding will lead to higher costs in the longer run with rail bosses expected to repeatedly repair outdated infrastructure that would be cheaper to replace
  • Network Rail has cut its usual £3bn “risk fund” – used to cover events such as extreme weather and Covid – because there is “not sufficient headroom”
  • The company will have to take a “market-led” approach to maintenance, where rail services that make the most money will be prioritised

The news will come as a blow to passengers who were hit with a 5.9 per cent increase in rail fares last month – the highest in 10 years – despite reliability falling to new lows.

Latest statistics from the rail regulator show 4.5 per cent of all trains were cancelled in the last quarter of 2022 – the highest figures since comparable records began in 2014 – while just 62.3 per cent of stations were arrived at on time. Many services also remain cut back as a result of the pandemic, with 3,000 fewer trains a day now scheduled compared to the 2020 timetable.

Signs of physical strain on infrastructure are already starting to appear across the railway. Earlier this month, a failing viaduct in Oxfordshire prompted the closure of an entire commuter line until the summer, while services to the south west of England were crippled for months last year due to track damage from extreme weather.

Last week, a major signal failure threw London Waterloo – Britain’s busiest railway station and the capital’s HQ for Network Rail – into turmoil. The fault was traced to a 610-metre power cable outside the station, installed in the 1970s, which desperately needs to be modernised.

Louise Haigh, Labour’s shadow transport secretary, told The Independent that the government’s approach was “short-sighted” and would lead to higher costs in the long-run.

“A lost decade of dismal Conservative failure has left the country with second-rate infrastructure, and broken rail services failing passengers,” she said. “Short-sighted decisions don’t lower costs – they harm our public finances in the long run, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill.”

Network Rail still expects to be able to run a safe railway. But its presentation explicitly says the lack of funding now will actually lead to higher costs – as the “constrained level of expenditure” will see more “short term lower cost fixes” that lead to “additional costs in later control periods”.

The government-owned company, which looks after all Britain’s mainline railways, says its costs are increasing because of inflation, ageing assets and an increasing need to protect against extreme weather caused by climate change.

“The [financial settlement] does not provide for operating, maintaining and renewing the rail infrastructure in a ‘steady state’ during [2024-29]”, it says, adding that the settlement “reflects a constrained level of expenditure.”

The situation could also create a vicious cycle because Network Rail has to pay operators compensation when faults with infrastructure cause problems – further undermining its income. These payments also usually come out of the “risk fund”, which the presentation shows will be cut. Instead, Network Rail plans to “earmark” areas for possible cuts if money is unexpectedly needed elsewhere.

To save more money the public body also plans to take a “market-led” approach to maintenance, where rail services that make the most money will be prioritised for works over those “that typically see a higher subsidy requirement”.

Overall, the government-owned company expects to spend around £20 billion on “renewals and other capital spend” across Great Britain over the next five years, a flat amount compared to the previous five years despite soaring inflation.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said the government seemed “hellbent on actively pursuing the managed decline of our railways” – accusing it of “cutting investment, slashing services and staff numbers, scrapping vital infrastructure projects and rewarding failed private train operators like Avanti with lucrative contract extensions”.

He added: “It is quite clear that the rail regulator needs to step in as the current perception is that they are asleep at the wheel.”

Chris Hargrave, an official at the TSSA union, hit out at the “alarming” document and said he and his colleagues had already raised concerns with Network Rail about cuts to maintenance schedules.

“Routine inspections and maintenance exist for a reason,” he said. “Any moves to reduce or remove the need to inspect or replace assets can only head towards failure, which ultimately leads to injuries and loss of life.”

Asked to comment on the presentation, a Network Rail spokesperson said “the headwinds of inflation and constraints in public spending” were affecting what it could achieve. The organisation said it is doing what it could given the level of funding available.

They added that Network Rail’s strategic business plan – which sets out the company’s investment plans for the next five years – would be published soon. It will be looked over by the regulator the Office for Rail and Road (ORR) before being finalised.

Asked about the funding shortfall, the Department for Transport said it would not comment on leaks. A spokesperson added: “We have pledged a record £44.1 billion for Network Rail as part of our commitment to maintain vital infrastructure and run a safe and reliable railway.”

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