Network Rail is a costly, inefficient public sector body now being put under new management. I have been making some proposals for better financial, operating and engineering performance . I will share some with you today and others in a later posting.
I am pleased that Network Rail is now rightly categorised as an arm of the state. All its debts now count as part of the state’s indebtedness, and all new borrowings will be state borrowing. This also means that in future management will need to clear its spending and borrowing plans with Transport and Treasury Ministers, which is only right as they are spending taxpayers money and pledging the nation’s credit. I lobbied for this change.
The positive results of this change include no further borrowing by Network Rail in foreign currencies. This is a potentially expensive and risky way of borrowing, as we saw towards the end of the last decade when sterling devalued substantially. It also means that Network Rail will not take out additional derivative exposures, which have proved expensive in recent years. There remains the outstanding issue of what should Network Rail do with its current open derivative positions on foreign currency and interest rate exposure. The sooner they wind all this up the better. The government does not have a policy of paying investment banks to hedge its own interest rate or currency risks.
The new management is also rightly being charged with doing a better job at managing the large property estate. The government should expect to see more sales proceeds from selling surplus or development property, and to see a more enterprising approach to the use and improvement of its extensive land holdings. In the past Network Rail has often been reluctant to work with developers to improve important real estate holdings, or even to allow the development of adjacent private sector land by making access or bridging the railway expensive or impossible.
Network Rail owns land in many town and city centres which could be helpful in mixed use developments close to the railway. The business can get free or subsidised station rebuilds, additional car parking and bridges to replace level crossings out of suitable development projects. It needs to be more positive and friendly in its approach to such improvements.
Network Rail needs to clean up and tidy the railway estate. As I travel around on the railway I see all too many abandoned piles of old rails and sleepers, weed throttled sidings, piles of building materials and other waste just left by the side of the tracks. Some of this has scrap value. Some can be used. Some of the sidings could become useful track for mainline by pass, or useful sidings to park working trains. Some of the land may be surplus to railway needs.
On many provincial stations there is all too little retail and service offer. On some stations at night there is not even a working toilet, let alone a café or newspaper and magazine shop to help while away the hours of waiting and travelling. Commuter stations often lack shops to buy a ready meal or pick up breakfast in the morning. There are business opportunities to be seized by franchises.