HIGH PEAK BUSINESS CLUB - REPORT BACK: NETWORK RAIL



Was it entirely a coincidence that, just before the Conservatives met in Manchester for their Annual Conference, the announcement was made that the delayed electrification of the Manchester-Leeds line was to go ahead?

No, of course not. That’s a question that falls into the category of “res ipsa loquitur” as lawyers would say: a statement of the bleedin’ obvious.

But when Andrew Skidmore, Development Director of Network Rail, came to speak to the Business Club at Chapel Golf Club, he could be forgiven for having his mind slightly elsewhere: his other main activity that day was the official opening of the £750 million refurbished Birmingham New Street station, the project he’s been running for the last five years.

Now he’s finished in Brum, we have to hope that he’ll bring his expertise to bear on the Northern Powerhouse. Andrew is Network Rail’s lead director on this project, and he has a mountain to climb. Probably literally.

Jeremy Corbyn may want the railways renationalised, but Network Rail is already state-owned – the track, the stations, the shopping centres linked with them. Passenger rail traffic is growing rapidly, but modernisation and capacity increases haven’t kept pace, so they face escalating complaints of overcrowding and delays. In August the rail regulator fined NR £2 millions: a bit like the England rugby team giving away penalties, perhaps.

A year ago the government began to take a closer interest, not least because the whole exercise is loss-making (nothing new about that) and heavily subsidised. More to the point, the business consistently fails to meet its targets, with most projects late and way over budget. You have to wonder about value for money when the partial improvements at Whaley Bridge station, for example, came in at a staggering £1.1million.

So in June the chairman was sacked and replaced with Sir Peter Hendy, head of Transport for London. London’s loss, our gain. We hope.

So will we get an Oyster card system? Through ticketing, yes, Andrew explained, but maybe with something more sophisticated, as the next generation of technology looms; in London they are looking beyond smartcards.

Can’t you do something about the Hope Valley Line? Problem is, said Andrew, it’s so important for freight, especially from the quarries. You may have noticed large sums being spent strengthening bridges and viaducts. They’re looking at various options. Can’t say more just yet. Frustrating!

You have to understand the problem before you solve it, Andrew pointed out (this sounds like Hendy-speak to me). For instance, improving timekeeping at Manchester Piccadilly is all about the bottleneck at Ardwick; the 8 lines going into the main line station are the devil to cross, so at the moment trains have to wait for an empty platform. Two new through platforms there will ease congestion. In fact, though he didn’t give details, Network Rail are in the middle of a huge £850 million programme at and around Manchester, including the Ordsall Hub which will start coming into use next year. Just reading about it can make your head swim: it’s complicated.

Might we get the equivalent of London’s CrossRail – how about that fast new route to Sheffield, promised in the heady days before the election? Could it include a tunnel through the Pennines, to replace the Woodhead Tunnels now used for giant power cables? “Under the National Park? Yes, that’s a possibility,” said Andrew, without batting an eyelid. Now that really sounds exciting.

The government have talked about being “more ambitious” for rail across the north. Mr Corbyn wants heavy public spending on infrastructure: it’ll probably come courtesy of George Osborne, but with the words “value for money” set in stone.

Next meeting is Friday October 18th from 7.30am to 9.30am, and the speaker will be Trevor Osborne, developer of Buxton Crescent. Anyone in business is welcome.