The Process for Change on the Modern Railway
The Government's White Paper sets out how they see the railway changing in the next 30-odd years - this is dealt with in a separate article. However, it's not always clear how decisions are arrived at, and this article attempts to explain the process.
Let's start at the bottom, and look at how it works here. Bodies like the Caithness Transport Forum have no statutory existence, but are formed from local people with a transport input to contribute. Typically they will include councillors, local authority officials, LEC officials, representatives from tourism and business generally, as well as people with some experience of how the railway delivers services. A coherent set of policy objectives is arrived at, and this is then presented to the next layer upwards - in our case Highland Council and, more importantly, HITRANS. The Scottish Executive has set up Regional Transport Partnerships (RTPs) - HITRANS is ours - which set out strategic objectives within each region. Most local authorities cover too small an area for sensible strategic planning which, after all, is usually about connecting places together. Thus larger bodies are necessary, and hence the RTPs. Some people argue that even the RTPs are too small to be able to look at the big transport picture, and a single Scottish body would be best. Nevertheless the present structure incorporates the RTPs, and they are the lowest tier with actual clout and actual money. If a suggestion fails to appear on an RTP's list of requirements, it won't happen. If it does appear it has a chance of making it up to the next layer. RTPs will have to work co-operatively on cross-boundary schemes like the Highland Main Line and Inverness-Aberdeen services. Highland Rail Partnership is hoping to create a high-level group to assist with this.
Earlier this year all of Scotland's RTPs were required to submit their strategic plans to Transport Scotland (TS) - the next tier up. TS is effectively the Scottish Department for Transport (DfT), and is composed of civil servants and transport experts. TS is answerable to the relevant Scottish Minister - in this case Stewart Stevenson and his boss, John Swinney. TS looks at all the input from RTPs (and, one hopes, input from other places as well, especially from transport professionals) and makes its own strategic recommendations to the Minister. In a Scottish context this means what the Scottish government wants to spend in the 4 years of the Parliament. Naturally this has to be sensible within the wider context of what already exists, what has already been planned and started, and what the governing party or parties might want to do over a longer post-4-year term.
We now shift the focus to a Great Britain view. The Railways Act of 2005 requires the Secretary of State (with responsibility for England and Wales, and some GB-wide aspects like safety) and Scottish Ministers to produce to ORR by July 2007 two documents: a High Level Output Specification (HLOS) specifying what they expect the railway to provide, and a Statement of Funds Available (SoFA) specifying how much they're prepared to pay. The time for which these are relevant is Network Rail's Control Period 4 (CP4) (i.e. 2009 to 2014). Everything NR does is broken down into five-year Control Periods, and we are now around half way through CP3. Thus planning for CP4 is the next priority, and hence the HLOS and SoFA this summer.
John Swinney announced the Scottish pair of documents to Parliament in early July. Together they amount to a refreshingly brief 7 sides of A4. The outputs are divided into three Tiers, with Tier 1 being merely a continuation of the existing First ScotRail franchise - confirming what is already known and largely immutable. Tier 2 lists most of the schemes which were already in progress, namely the Glasgow Airport Rail Link, Airdrie-Bathgate, and the Borders Railway. The Edinburgh Airport Rail Link is omitted. Tier 3 contains the new stuff and lists outputs that they "may wish to implement. ... Ministers require NR to produce a credible and affordable delivery plan ... to deliver these outputs". Five schemes are listed: improvements on the Edinburgh-Glasgow line including connectivity to Edinburgh Airport; electrification of this route and some others in the Central Belt; improvements in Ayrshire; improvements in the Highlands "to permit an hourly faster service between Edinburgh and Glasgow and Inverness"; and a set of other "general" enhancements including the trackwork necessary to permit an hourly service between Aberdeen and Inverness.
The SoFA sets out the funding, which will total £3.6 billion over the five years of CP4.
The DfT sets out its part of the HLOS/SoFA within a much larger White Paper which raises its sights to a much longer time-scale. What happens next is that the ORR, to whom these statements are addressed, decides whether the outputs required and the funds available balance (remember, we have an independent economic regulator - ORR - who is the ultimate judge of these things). Both the Secretary of State and Scottish Ministers believe that the figures are robust, and that, in the latter case, there will be funds available for some of the Tier 3 projects. NR agree with the ball-park figures which have been submitted to ORR, and Chief Executive Iain Coucher regards the HLOSs as "achievable".
Assuming ORR is happy that things balance the next stage is for ORR to determine the amount NR can recover from TOCs through Track Access Charges in CP4. ORR is likely to force further efficiency savings on NR (in CP3 these came to 31%). There are several stages in this process, but it must be concluded by December 2008. A major part of this incorporates NR's Business Plan (published in October 2007) which will include its proposals for implementing the two HLOSs. Once NR has put prices on the two HLOS shopping lists the two Ministers can specify which outputs they want if they can't afford all of them. This process is called politics, and it's where people like us can rattle a few cages.
So what has happened? Local bodies like CTF and FoFNL have input essentially local thoughts to RTPs like HITRANS. These have informed TS's input to the Scottish HLOS which indeed does contain some clearly Highland outputs, although none actually on FNL metals. It is up to NR to come up with costings for the Tier 3 schemes which can be met from within the funds made available in the SoFA. The same process happened in England. It's likely some of the Tier 3 (and English equivalent) schemes won't make it because they will be too expensive.
Doesn't this all feel terribly familiar? Didn't Railtrack produce mammoth annual books of wondrous ideas? Yes, and yes. What's new though is that, for the first time, there is a publicly visible cost input. Thus we can see, and the industry and the politicians can see, what each buck buys, and whether some bucks buy more useful things than others. This is a huge step forward, and I have no doubt that the 2005 Act, and its requirements in this area, will be seen by transport historians as marking a major turning point in how long-term projects are decided upon and delivered in the absence of a centralist Grand Projet mentality.