THE UK’s Office of Rail Regulation published on November 29 its first annual report on how Network Rail is meeting the stewardship requirements of its licence, ORR’s targets, and those set in its own Business Plan. Covering the year to March 31 2004, it includes subsequent developments judged to be significant.

ORR Chairman Chris Bolt said NR had ’started to get control of management of the network infrastructure, and to address the decline highlighted by the [October 2000] Hatfield accident.’ But the company ’needs to do much more on delivery, measuring efficiencies and asset data quality. It will be some time before the network is restored to pre-Hatfield performance.’

In terms of delays caused by infrastructure (as opposed to train operators) the delay-minutes to trains exceeded NR’s business plan target of 13·25 million by 3·2%, but ORR believes the regulatory target of 12·3 million in 2004-05 ’will be met’. But Railtrack only caused 7·76 million minutes in 1999-00, the last year before Hatfield.

Broken rails have fallen much faster than targets to a best ever figure of 334 in 2003-04. Pre-Hatfield it peaked at 919 in 1999-00. The number of temporary speed restrictions fell to 457 in March 2004, from double that figure three years earlier. ORR notes that rail replacement reached 1401 track-km in 2003-04. This was 17% more than called for in the business plan, and 4·37% of total rail in the network. In Railtrack’s early days replacement was around 0·8% per annum, clearly unsustainable.

In contrast, low signalling renewal rates are cause for concern. ORR notes that only 1 in 58 of an estimated 65000 Signalling Equivalent Units are renewed annually, implying a 58 year asset life. NR’s current signalling review will shed further light on this issue, which arises in part from at least a trebling of unit costs since privatisation.

Low renewal rates for some structures are also flagged up by ORR. Only nine out of 21300 culverts were rebuilt last year, equivalent to an implied asset life of 2·37millennia which even Roman engineers might consider unsustainable. A new reporting threshold of £50000 along with re-categorisation of multi-bore culverts may have distorted the picture. ORR says it ’has required further explanation from NR of this low level of replacement’.