Alastair Dalton: Changing fortunes of Network Rail

THERE is a stark contrast to Network Rail’s fortunes north and south of Border, writes Alastair Dalton

Network Rail has built up an impressive record of getting jobs done in Scotland. Picture: Stuart Cobley
Network Rail has built up an impressive record of getting jobs done in Scotland. Picture: Stuart Cobley

The official opening of the Borders Railway by the Queen next month will come as a justified triumph for not just dogged campaigners but Network Rail.

The arms-length government body’s reputation south of the Border took a significant hit when delays and cost overruns on other projects led to the shelving of two major English electrification schemes in June.

That followed over-running engineering work which caused misery to thousands of passengers, such as at King’s Cross after Christmas.

But in Scotland, it is quite a different picture. Confounding the past orthodoxy that transport projects always finish late and way over budget, Network Rail has built up an impressive record of getting the job done.

This includes two significant upgrades of Waverley Station in Edinburgh, the £300 million Airdrie-Bathgate line, rebuilding Haymarket Station in Edinburgh and the Glasgow-Paisley Canal route electrification.

The £742m Edinburgh-Glasgow main line electrification appears to be going to plan, including completion of work in the Winchburgh Tunnel last month.

Perhaps it’s time to revise our expectations, with on-time, on-budget work the new norm.

Network Rail’s job has not been made any easier by politically-driven changes to big rail projects, such as a massive budget cut to the Edinburgh-Glasgow electrification scheme.

The £350m Borders Railway is another case in point, where the original thinking that Network Rail should construct the line was scrapped in favour of trying to get the private sector to fund, build and maintain it.

As The Scotsman revealed, that approach progressively unravelled until ministers eventually went back to Network Rail, while also trying to set an unrealistic timescale for the project to make up for lost time.

The Scottish Government claimed this week the line would open “on time and on budget”.

It must have meant Network Rail’s £294m construction contract – because the overall project is nothing of the sort, being four years late and more than £50m over budget.

Network Rail also has a good record – in the main – with the day-to-day running of the railway in Scotland, being responsible for a smaller proportion of train delays than nearly anywhere else in Britain.

So why are things going right for Network north but not south of the Border? Observers say it’s because Scottish engineers are more home loving, and either stay put or return to the coop, creating a more settled industry here. Let’s hope that will help build further success as the network expands even further.