The Department for Transport is eighteen months into a five-year, £9 billion investment programme to improve rail travel, in particular by increasing the number of passenger places on trains by March 2014. This was to be achieved by a combination of longer platforms and other station improvements and more carriages coming into London and other major cities during peak hours. The Department is responsible for securing the extra places on trains from train operators. The Office of Rail Regulation is responsible for ensuring Network Rail delivers infrastructure efficiently.
The Department's latest plans show that all the relevant targets will be missed. There will be 15% fewer extra places delivered in London in the morning peak and 33% fewer into other major cities, compared to the numbers the Department stated would be needed just to hold overcrowding at current levels. Despite the impact of the present economic downturn on journey numbers, we are concerned that the failure to meet the targets set will lead to substantial increases in already unacceptable overcrowding levels by 2014 and beyond. Rising demand for rail travel combined with serious cuts in public expenditure make it imperative that the rail industry becomes more efficient, otherwise the passenger will suffer. The Department told us that levels of crowding, and ticket prices, depend on policy decisions about the level of government subsidy. We are strongly of the opinion that this view is misguided as it ignores the scope for efficiency savings to release resources for front line services. The industry's ability to provide a good quality rail service, including acceptable levels of crowding, depends crucially on the efficiency of all players in the rail industry, and of Network Rail in particular.
Rail infrastructure costs more in Great Britain than in other countries. The Regulator has been in existence for more than a decade yet he still accepts that there is still "a very large potential for Network Rail to improve its efficiency".
The Regulator's ability to drive efficiency in Network Rail is limited by a lack of transparency of Network Rail's costs which, it seems to us, is compounded by the Regulator's lack of urgency and effectiveness in challenging Network Rail's efficiency at a detailed level. Network Rail is a company without shareholders and is the monopoly provider of rail infrastructure. It is vital therefore that its costs are scrutinised and challenged robustly and independently on behalf of Parliament and taxpayers. The National Audit Office is ideally placed to do this.
On the basis of a Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, we took evidence from the Department for Transport and the Office of Rail Regulation on the measures taken to tackle overcrowding and on obtaining value for money from the rail network.