Network Rail says it will deliver a 15% reduction in train delays and almost 1,000 new services every day by 2021 under a £47.1bn five-year plan.
But there are no fresh promises of major projects after massive budgetary overruns in the last five-year plan left many schemes abandoned or delayed. The bulk of its budget for 2019-24 will be spent on maintenance, operations and renewals to make the most of the existing railway.
The provisional funding announced by government in October means Network Rail expects to have almost 25% more money to spend on day-to-day operations. Substantially less, just £10.1bn, will be available for “enhancements”, or rail upgrades – the majority of which are likely to be works deferred from the 2014-19 plan. The biggest single focus is likely to be the TransPennine line from Leeds to Manchester, where up to 20 schemes could speed up the link at the heart of the north’s rail network.
The Network Rail chief executive, Mark Carne, said it was a “healthier” budget than the “immature” plan he had inherited on taking over in 2014. Carne said he would delay his planned retirement to hand his successor a robust, detailed plan, negotiated and accepted by the regulator and government. He said: “This way of allocating capital is a much healthier way than it was [for 2014-19]: you’ve got £15bn and a long shopping list of stuff, which was really very immature.”
The next five years would be fundamentally different from last time when, Carne said: “We didn’t have a plan built in the right kind of way.”
Poorly costed estimates of major works led to, most notably, the tripling of the budget to electrify the Great Western mainline. Carne said the next business plan, which Network Rail expects to submit by Wednesday for the government and regulator’s approval, was built from the ground up. Last time round, the rail regulator, ORR, angered Network Rail by slashing about £2bn from the budget to attempt to encourage efficiency. But Carne acknowledged: “It was such a high-level plan, it was almost impossible for the regulator to know if it should be better.” He said the level of detail now supplied would make any such reduction more questionable.
While marquee projects such as the recent redevelopment of London Bridge are absent from the plans, Network Rail expects to carry out improvements to the TransPennine route between Leeds and Manchester, adding capacity and cutting journey times. Rail passengers in the north have been concerned since the promise of full electrification of the route subsided, when other projects were axed by the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, after the overspend on Great Western.
Carne said that a menu of options for upgrading the line had been submitted to the Department for Transport, with about 20 separate schemes potentially contributing to improving the line. He warned: “It’s a very complicated bit of track, which means that all of the problems we had on Great Western in terms of access on a live railway are present.”
Grayling could announce his decision on TransPennine upgrades – believed to cost between £1bn and £2bn – in March, when he responds to Network Rail’s broader budget plans. The final sign-off is due in October.
Carne said he would commit to further staff diversity, after 20% more women were hired under his watch. He has a set a target to drive up the number by 50% in the next five years, meaning a quarter of the 38,000 Network Rail employees in a heavily male-dominated industry would be women.