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Inaccurate Network Rail data 'leads to inefficiencies'

Network Rail Image copyright Network Rail

The company running Britain's track, signals and train stations has overspent, and may be using flaky figures to plan its maintenance work, according to the rail regulator.

The Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) has taken a look at Network Rail's performance between April and October this year, and found it wanting in key areas.

Maintenance work is already £40m over budget, and rising.

Punctuality is 0.7% below target.

And the ORR has once again cast doubt on the data that Network Rail uses to make important decisions on which bits of the network to mend or renew, and when. Bad data means more delays for passengers and higher costs for the taxpayer.

Miles mix-up

To give you an example, maintenance crews across Britain record what they do in different ways.

Network Rail told me that in some parts of the country they use miles, in other parts they use kilometres, so when two teams record the fact that they've fixed "three units" of line, some mean three miles, others mean three kilometres. I don't need to spell out what a mess that makes.

Image copyright PA
Image caption One bright spot for Network Rail: Safety at level crossings has improved

And it doesn't end there. Some fill in forms, others use electronic devices. If you bear in mind that over the six months covered by this health check, about 35 million work orders were generated by maintenance staff, you can imagine how confusing it all gets.

The regulator has been trying to crack the whip on the reliability of this data for some time now. But there's a legacy of red tape on the railways, and it won't be cheap to sort out.

Richard Price at the ORR says: "Without up-to-date knowledge, Network Rail will not have sufficient understanding of how and why its assets fail and its maintenance approach will remain reactive - leading to inefficiencies and hindering its efforts to improve punctuality.

He adds: "The new management at the company has made it clear that it shares our concerns and has committed to address these issues."

Clean-up costs

The current overspend is a worry too. Network Rail has a £38bn budget for the next five years, so how is it already £40m over-budget, and heading for £122m across the year?

Well, it's mainly down to two extra projects.

The relatively new boss, Mark Carne, has ordered a clean-up of the lines. All those spare bits of old track you see lying about, the old mattresses, the Buddleia - he wants it all gone.

The second project goes back to red-tape again. Mark Carne wants a much slimmer, more-focused safety book for maintenance staff. Again, there's a legacy of thousands of rules that he wants cut, so that people understand what to focus on.

Mark Carne hails from the oil industry, don't forget, and in our last interview he talked a lot about safety culture.

His response to today's report?

"The railway continues to see strong growth in passenger numbers, however, we know that there are too many passengers that do not get the level of reliability they have a right to expect and that this has a real impact on their daily lives.

"Increasing capacity on a complex network, at the same time as keeping it running every day, is the challenge we face. We have clear strategies to deliver the improvements required."

There is one positive highlight from the regulator. Network Rail has made good progress on level crossing safety, mainly through new technology or just closing them down.

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