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From The Socialist newspaper, 13 February 2008

Off the rails

Cuts and backlogs cause delays

OVER-RUN OF engineering work is a common reason for delays on the rail system. The four-day over-run at the New Year around Rugby got plenty of attention but there were serious problems elsewhere at the same time. A BBC Radio Four programme looked at this issue.

Network Rail has of course 'apologised' for the delays. But travellers might not be too re-assured that Network Rail boss Iain Coucher wants more trains to run on Christmas day which would definitely interrupt scheduled en-gineering work normally done over the Christmas period.

What is the real situation? There is clearly a massive backlog of signalling work, engineering upgrades along with routine maintenance work. Part of the explanation for the problems over New Year is that Network Rail discovered too late that there are only a 'finite' number of experienced overhead line engineers.

The derailment last year at Grayrigg in Cumbria occurred because of failure to carry out basic routine patrolling and inspection. Network Rail has since claimed that these problems were local, but reports from the Railway Inspectorate and the Rail Accident Investigation Branch cast doubt on this.

There are examples elsewhere of similar failings. The suggestion is that maintenance workers are expected to cover bigger areas more quickly, that there are examples of "unremitting workload, lack of manpower".

Likewise the public will not be impressed that there is according to Iain Coucher "a proper process for deferring work." One item of work has been deferred for four years. Network Rail has a budget for maintenance work which has fallen for each of the last three years. Talks are now being held to sort out the future budget.

All this takes place behind the backs of the travellers and even of the workforce who have no involvement at all. Everyone wants faster, more frequent, more reliable trains running on safe, properly maintained tracks. The current system fails to provide a basis for this aspiration to be realised.

Unless the skills and knowledge of the workforce can be used to plan and implement the work needed, the railways will continue to perform poorly.

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