Mike Grant examines the challenge faced by the Strategic Rail Authority and explains how it intends to set the railway back on track
The scale of the challenge facing the Strategic Rail Authority cannot be overestimated. In the post-Hatfield environment, the industry is suffering from a scarcity of resources, and is struggling to cope with increasing passenger numbers on a creaking infrastructure. In its bid to improve the network, the SRA is busy setting priorities and seeking to optimise the resources available. Exactly how it intends to do that will be set out in its strategic plan, due out at the end of the year.

The enhancement and expansion of network infrastructure is one of the key challenges facing the SRA. Early in 2000, it indicated that the scale of network enhancement required was too large for Railtrack to manage from its own financial and project management resources.

In July 2000, the government published its 10-year plan, announcing a £60bn investment package for the railways. About £30bn would come from the government itself, through the SRA, including a £7bn rail modernisation fund.

Railtrack, meanwhile, has accepted that it does not have the financial and management resources for enhancement of the network above that which it is contractually or legally committed to carrying out. The company announced in early 2001 that it will focus on its core business – operation, maintenance and renewal of the network – and accepts that responsibility for major enhancements can rest with third parties, including the SRA.

Project Development Groups are being set up for future infrastructure enhancement projects, to include Railtrack, the SRA, specialist advisers, and, where appropriate, other stakeholders, such as train operating companies. These will be established to assess likely costs and benefits and to develop each project to the point where it can be tendered competitively.

The SRA has also been active with Railtrack in developing the method and framework for third party involvement in projects, through special purpose vehicles. One of the first ventures to be set up is for the South Central franchise, which Go Via recently took over from Connex. The venture, comprising Go Via, project management company Bechtel, and Railtrack, has been set up to deliver improvements to the infrastructure on that particular network, including measures to open up bottlenecks and increase capacity on the busy London to Brighton mainline.

The secretary of state determined recently that the proposed upgrade of the East Coast Main Line should be progressed by the SRA using a new model. The SRA is supporting the Railtrack lead programme management team in ensuring progress is maintained while the new enhancement framework is established. A design-build-finance-transfer approach to procurement is prominent among a number of options under consideration, with ownership finally transferring to Railtrack.

In 2000, the Shadow SRA, following extensive consultations with local authorities, train operators and Railtrack, produced a package of incremental output statements. These involve a shortlist of 114 track, signalling and station modernisation projects, which will be developed further for potential inclusion in the railway network improvement programme over the next five years.

One project that is expected to start in the new year is the extension of the East London line. In April, the SRA announced that it was releasing £39m of funding for design and development work to ensure that the project is kept on schedule. The scheme involves a northwards extension from Shoreditch to Dalston. Subject to a successful planning application, the southern end of the existing LU line will be linked at Surrey Quays/New Cross Gate with the National Rail network. Expressions of interest have been received from a range of private firms wishing to tender for the concession to design, build, fund, maintain and transfer the required infrastructure. The route will form part of the National Rail Network.

Further infrastructure enhancements across the country are being examined by feasibility studies and working groups that the SRA is either leading or involved in. In particular, plans have been drawn up for increasing rail capacity and the provision of more journey options and transport integration in the key population centres of the West Midlands and Greater Manchester.

what do you think of the government’s 10-year plan for transport?

Gordon Henderson, director of planning and infrastructure, Ove Arup and Partners
The targets are a real stretch now, especially for rail, with the Strategic Rail Authority not having a strategy. The construction firms involved are looking for help, which actually represents an opportunity to offer consultancy advice for those who aren’t building.

Robin Southwell, chief executive, WS Atkins
I’m encouraged by what is being said. We’ve got a government that has made clear that it knows it is expected to deliver. It has moved forward aggressively and now it is incumbent on industry to show we can be just as dynamic. With goodwill on all sides and a can-do attitude, we can surprise ourselves and do a lot.

Richard Turner, chief executive, Freight Transport Association
We were looking for confidence, but we don’t seem to have got very far in the first year. The plan was for an exponential curve, but I don’t think we’re going as quickly as we should or that the government is showing the dedication it should. With road construction, I’d question whether we’ll even get close.

Bob Miller, transport and planning manager, Sinclair Knight Merz Europe
The government is relying on the private sector – but the skills shortage is tripping up the market, especially because the major projects are soaking up project managers and engineers. Without the resources and with full order books, some key bidders just aren’t interested.

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