Last week I met the Chairman and Chief Executive of the Office of Road and Rail. This body spends £32 million a year of our money on acting as economic and safety regulator of the railways, and acting as a new regulator of the Highways Agency, the government body that runs England’s roads.
I asked them why they had taken no action over Network Rail’s decision to take out foreign currency borrowings which I have warned against before. I asked why they had apparently taken no action over Network Rail’s derivative trading and hedging, nor intervened to stop losses or to complain about them. They reminded me that Network Rail’s finances are now under the control of the Treasury and they will not be making any more foreign currency loans, as if I was unaware of that change. They had no answer on the broader questions, and were taking no action over derivative losses.
They have been agonising over £2m of fines to Network Rail for poor performance. They wish to express their displeasure, but they do not wish to take too much money off a company owned by taxpayers and funded by taxpayers. They clearly have no sense of significant numbers. Network Rail happily lost more than £2m a day every day last year on financial derivatives , so I guess a single £2m fine is neither here nor there to them.
They were also asked about their attitude towards the prolonged closure of the M20 this summer in Operation Stack. They were asked about other options to allow this crucial highway to continue in use. Again they had no helpful answers, and showed no sign of wishing to change things for the better by using their powers.
I came away seeing little value in much of the £32 million spent each year on this body, as it is quite incapable of keeping a major motorway open, and uninterested in stopping major financial losses at Network Rail despite being their economic regulator. I think they said they had to add road regulation to their rail remit to meet EU requirements.Maybe their safety role for rail is better done than the financial regulation.