[For people living in Oxford, and West Oxfordshire, this needs no introduction, and likewise, anybody who's ever suffered from the attentions of Network Rail. But for others: in November 2021 Oxford City Council gave the go-ahead Network Rail’s £160m project to modernise and expand Oxford rail station. This necessitated closing Botley road, the main, indeed the only, route into Oxford from the West, cutting the city of Oxford in two, for - Network Rail said then - four days. By spring 2022 this had grown to one month. By August, three months. In September, it became a full year’s total closure. But it rapidly became clear that Network Rail had no idea of the social or political consequences of cutting the city in two, or how to deal with them. About three weeks before the closure was due to start, on 9 January, Network Rail cancelled its plans, saying it would have a re-think. We still have no idea what they're up to. The only constant is that their plans, as announced, never happen – and the work on the main station is also now behind schedule. Now read on….]
“We may never be told why the schedule has slipped so badly”, opines the Oxford Times. No indeed, and much is still concealed from us, but it’s not hard to see what the underlying causes are. As it happens, inquiring into failing projects was part of my job as Finance Director in the Home Office, and I wrote a book partly on that theme. And it’s worth doing: because if you don’t understand why things go wrong, they’ll go wrong again, will they not?
The root cause: this is a highways project being carried out by a railway company - and a very peculiar railway company, at that.
To clarify: there are two separate elements of the work on the bridge. One is essentially railway business - to add extra track, as part of the expansion of the station. This takes surprisingly little time to do: about 9 days, Network Rail now say. A big crane comes along, lifts off the old bridge and plonks down a new one. The second is to widen and deepen the road under the bridge - essentially a highways project, done for highways reasons (poor safety for pedestrians and cyclists, high vehicles cannot pass under). This takes longer (though how much longer is the issue).
Both projects, the railway bit and the highways bit, are being run by Network Rail, a railway company, and it is the railway company which contracted with Keir to do the work, and it is the railway company that provide nearly all the money, which comes from the Department of Transport.
A number of things followed from this. First, railway work is naturally what they focus on, and also what they understand. So: they had an outline project plan for the railway work ready right back in midsummer 2021, because they understood railways and had been thinking about it for years. But all the signs are that they didn’t even begin to think about the road work until Kier were appointed contractor in March 2022, and even then, it appears that they didn’t grasp didn’t fully understand the complexity and difficulty of the road work til about August 2022, 3 months before work was to start. Another sign of how the railway dominated the road works: it is the need to close of the rail line for a week in August, as being most convenient for the railway operators, that determines the sequencing of the road work, yet the prolonged closure of the only road into Oxford from the west seemed not to strike Network Rail as a problem. Money is part of it: closure of the rail lines costs Network Rail (operators pay rent to use the line) - but closing the road apparently costs them nothing . And when the budget proved tight, it’s the road work that took the hit – we were told the reason the road work can’t be done more quickly is money: working overtime and weekends would cost more. Slow is cheap. And yet ironically it is the road work that is creating all the problems, and has now derailed (!) the entire project timetable.
You might think they’d be helped to understand the highways issues by the Highway Authority, the County Council. And they did help. But this was not an effective partnership. For under 19th century railway legislation Network Rail has virtual immunity rom local authority planning control regarding works on its own land - quite unjustified the same does not apply to airports, for example. As a result, we've were told that Network Rail required no legal authority from the County Council to do the work on the road and that legally the Council has no control over what they do. That seems hard to credit, but it's what they say.
In consequence, the County Council seemed astonishingly dissociated from the scheme: they just accepted whatever Network Rail tell them, and whatever they decided. Network Rail made announcements on the road closure themselves, without coordinating with the County Council. And when it became clear that long term closure would have serious social consequences for the whole City, Network Rail found that running the whole show their way embroiled them in issues they were simply unable to understand, let alone address. As late as mid December, it was unclear who would deal with these social problems - the County Council or Network Rail. As for the City Council – whose city this is – Network Rail didn’t even bother to inform them of the changes in plans for the road works (so the City Council informs me).
This is why, in mid-December, weeks away from the planned 12 month closure of Botley Road on 9 January, neither Network Rail nor either Council seemed to have any kind of grip on the re-routing of buses, or continuity of access to healthcare for chronically ill and disabled people in West Oxford, or the cost to local businesses, or the possibility of rebates in business rates, or the safety and feasibility of pushing large crowds of people, cargo and child loaded bikes, disability scooters and pedestrians wit mobility problems through a narrow pedestrian tunnel, or access for emergency vehicles to West Oxford or whether taxis would still serve West Oxford and who would pay the extra or where shuttle buses could turn or stand……Chaos.
I mentioned earlier that Network Rail is a peculiar company. As well as immunity from planning control, Network Rail is also peculiarly unaccountable. It is, in law, a publicly owned company - but not as we know companies, Jim. it does not trade - it has a natural monopoly, so does not need to bother about competition - and it has only one shareholder, the Secretary of State for Transport, so does not need to bother about profit or share price. It is in reality, of course, not a company, but an arm of the State. But even in relation to the Secretary of State, it operates as an ‘arms length’ body. What this means is that Network Rail it is not accountable at all here in Oxfordshire, but also barely accountable at national level. In theory, it is possible for an MP to call the company to account in Parliament, but it is rare for a backbencher to secure time for a debate on a constituency Network Rail issue. And even when they do so, it is apparently the case that Minsters cannot interfere with Network Rail’s decisions (1).
Indeed, on the rare occasions that MPs do get to debate the impact of Network Rail projects on their constituencies, they complain bitterly about the lack of accountability and of democratic control. “…. Network Rail s not an accountable body at all…. When we try to raise constituency cases, or make complaints about works on the line or things that it wants to do, it is very difficult to get any answers from it, because it just does not want to consult. It just wants to do things and pays lip service to community engagement” (Alison Thewliss, MP, Hansard, 10 January 2018). And high level accountability is meaningless in relation to the nitty gritty of local issues: “…. the company’s chief executive, is personally accountable to Parliament for Network Rail’s use of taxpayer’s money, and the Secretary of State for Transport holds some power over the board’s leadership and management of the business, but accountability on issues that can have a significant impact on local communities seems to be totally absent. For it to be so independent that it is wholly unaccountable and free from adequate scrutiny on such matters …..clearly is unacceptable. If Network Rail is able to dismiss the representations of local residents, councils, Members of Parliament and even the Secretary of State, surely it is time to revisit its structures. That should not and cannot be allowed to continue…….The reality is that there is no real accountability on this issue. If the community cannot hold Network Rail to account through their elected representatives, surely it is now time to look again at the existing legislation.” (Martin Vickers, MP, Hansard, 4 June 2019). Even the Minister seemed to agree: “the point raised by Members about accountability was well made. I will take that away from the debate.” (Jones, ibid).(2)
So, on issues like the management and mis-management of this project, Network Rail, though publicly owned, is not answerable to anyone. It is in fat, far less accountable than a real private company would be, since a company like, say, Kier has to worry about reputational damage, loss of profit, share price and future business , and its income from the project would also be at risk from penalty clauses. None of those apply to Network Rail. (3)
All these factors go to determine the organisational culture of Network Rail, which I believe is the crucial factor in all this.. All organisations, pubic or private, have a particular culture and way of behaving. For example: Network Rail is an engineering company, and engineers are primarily focussed on things, not people. Furthermore, it is highly specialised: its business is running the railway infrastructure, and nobody else does this. So there is also a tendency to view themselves as the guardians of railways, and everybody else as bothersome outsiders. This was memorably expressed to the inhabitants of Abby and Cripley roads, when Network Rail first advance this project in 2017 and we expressed concern about noise etc. Network Rail’s response was “the railway was here first”.
The effect of all this - Network Rail’s belief that it and it alone understands railways and others have no business interfering, its effective monopoly of its business, its immunity from planning control, its immunity from the normal consequences of project overrun or overspend and its lack of any effective form of accountability - is an organisational culture which is inward looking, uncommunicative and which does not regard itself as beholden to anybody for anything. It is oddly secretive. For example, they have refused to identify the project manager for this project (although I am quite sure they can be forced to do so). So we may not know the name of anyone managing this project! Contrast that with the Highways Authority, where the key people are publicly known. Another example, the Rewley Rd residents’ association tell me that Network Rail promised a wall to screen off noise when work was done on that side of the station, then just did not do so. Another: when the City Council gave permission for this project to go ahead, the Council specifically asked them to work closely with the residents in developing proposals for mitigation of noise, vibration end dust problems, changes in parking and roadways, and the eventual design of the station. They promised to do so, and then simply did not. They promised to show us options for the noise insulating wall, then never bothered. Dismissed our request for sound insulation out of hand (too costly, at 1/200th of one percent of budget!). And this not just a local aberration: if you look at the Hansard debates staged by MPs , the same things are said again and again of Network Rail : that it does not do what it has promised, that it makes its own decisions without regard to the wishes of the community, and often, without even informing them.
And yet for all its dismissal of what outsiders say or want, Network Rail is, for a company specialising in railway infrastructure, lamentably bad at railway infrastructure projects. Its history of project overspend and overruns, even on specialised railway work (never mind highways!) is notorious, and well documented in successive reports by the National Audit Office. The electrification of the Great Western route doubled in price in 4 years before Ministers lost patience - no love lost between Dept. Transport and Network Rail - and stopped the project mid-stream, committing to expensively equipping trains with both electric and diesel motors, because Network Rail could not be trusted to complete the electrification project. (That’s why we will still have smelly noisy diesels at Oxford station, seemingly for ever.) Similarly with the electrification of the Midland Main line: costs escalating out of control, delays running into years, Ministers losing patience and curtailing the project. On the Trans Pennine Route upgrade, £190m abortive spend. (For an entertaining, coruscating and very well informed account of the mismanagement of our railways over many years, see my brother Ben Le Vay’s book, ‘What’s really wrong with our railways?’, available on Amazon).(4)
What we – all of us – should have learned from this is this: if Network Rail insists on being left alone to do things their way, they will fail. And while failure in electrifying rail lines is a railways matter, the cutting in two of a great city for a year is not. It is not Network Rails’ private business: it is our, and our councils, business; and Network Rail badly need us, need the Councils, to make it happen satisfactorily.
This is why the group, WestOxfordAccess, together with our councillors has pressed for a joint approach going forward: with genuine, frequent, formal cooperation between the managers responsible at Network Rail, Kier, and both Councils, with real consultation with local residents and businesses (rather than just announcing an endless series of ‘plans’, then soon abandoned). That is txhe effective way of dealing with the impact of such a project. It is also the democratic way.
Will that happen….is another question.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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