The recently published Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline, and its Scottish equivalent, the Rail Enhancements and Capital Investment Strategy, have been expected since last summer, when both Governments issued their High Level Output Specifications. Whilst their publication is therefore welcome, the documents still leave as many questions as answers for the funding of freight enhancements from the start of the next Control Period in April next year.

The history of these documents starts with the Bowe review, which investigated how the enhancements programme had ended up in quite such a mess. The report made a number of recommendations around the governance of projects, including interactions between the Department for Transport and Network Rail, leading to a Memorandum of Understanding between both parties. In turn this led to a new structure of Programme Boards, an overarching Portfolio Board and other measures to facilitate greater oversight from Government and better management of any desired changes to the scope of projects.

It is perhaps too early to judge quite how successful these measures have been. Certainly, they have added complexity to the governance process, as the new Boards sit on top of Network Rail’s existing investment approach. However, on freight projects we have seen a greater focus on cost reduction and a demonstrably more focused approach to delivery, including pragmatic approaches to standards derogations and phasing of work and better stakeholder management. These may be more about Network Rail’s own progress in project management, but either way the change is welcome.

Control Period 6, which starts this time next year, will however be different. Both Westminster and Holyrood Governments have chosen not to include any specified enhancements within their output statements, instead setting an envelope of funding which will allow them to progress schemes over the five years, using the pipeline process set out in their documents. Whilst the two documents differ slightly in detail, the principle is common, with funds released only when Government is confident it wishes to proceed.

Three stages are defined, one for early development to a strategic outline business case, one for scheme design, and one to implement. The design ‘gates’ will consider the quality of the business case, as well as seeking to ensure a ‘balanced overall portfolio’.

This all sounds sensible on the face of it, but the documents are light on actual process and approach. And this raises many questions. We were pleased the Secretary of State confirmed last summer that there would be funding for freight, but we are no clearer on the amount, or how that will be made available. Will there be a ‘fund’, as now, safeguarded for freight, or will schemes enter the pipeline individually alongside other passenger schemes?

If the latter, will there be a freight ‘allocation’ within the portfolio? Linked to this, how will Government seek to ensure continuity of funding? It will surely be tempting to award funding for delivery as soon as possible in the Control Period, meaning the later years will have little left to award. Arguably this is no different to today, but the added pressures of political expediency probably increase the risk.

What is the overall balanced portfolio of projects? Will there be a regional allocation of funding, and how would that be assessed or protected? If a scheme in (say) Southampton enables more trains to Manchester, how would that be considered? Does this seek to ensure a passenger/freight balance? Small scheme against large scheme? There will need to be more definition to help scheme promoters understand what Government is looking for. A particular concern is where a project such as Felixstowe to Nuneaton requires a number of discrete projects to enable end-to-end capacity uplifts. How will the new process take account of each part in turn yet still ensure the overall programme is delivered?

Finally, the documents are light on how the new process will work with Network Rail’s existing governance and GRIP process. Can the ‘stage gates’ be aligned to a single decision point or will there be another layer of approvals? Will Network Rail have any level of delegated authority in early scheme development in order to establish whether it is worth pursuing at all? And how will the boundary between renewals and enhancements be managed so that the network is kept in best modern form rather than a like-for-like basis?

These questions and others must now be developed between Governments and Network Rail ahead of the ‘go live’ date in April 2019. For freight, some clarity on the scope and nature of future enhancement funding would also be a bonus.

An opinion column of the Rail Freight Group,