Welcome plans to expand Freedom of Information (FoI) laws to private companies that operate local monopolies have stopped short of including the statutory corporation Network Rail Ltd, leaving it free to continue evading public scrutiny.
The company, which maintains almost all of Britain’s track and rail infrastructure has been an at-times chaotic and controversial organisation which has still yet to fully settle down after its difficult birth at the end of the last century.
As reported by investigative blog FOI Directory, the changes to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 that are being brought by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition are the biggest shake-up to the system in over a decade. Targeting firms that hold a prominent place in the lives of ordinary people and often receive lucrative government contracts, companies such as the ‘big six’ energy providers, nursing homes, and waste disposal companies will all have to open up to the public that they serve.
Network Rail was originally on the list of organisations to be subject to the act, however internal conflict within the government means it may escape scrutiny under this round of changes. Liberal Democrat minister Simon Hughes has blamed the Conservatives for the block, telling the Daily Telegraph “as of this minute somewhere in Tory central command there is a ‘we don’t want to go there’ with Network Rail, surprisingly and disappointingly”.
This year Network Rail will, at the behest of the Office for Government Statistics, be reclassified as a full government body, which will add some £30 billion to the public debt. This may account for the delay in Network Rail acceding to the FOI laws, however if this reluctance remains over the monopoly rail provider after the change pressure from rail-user groups is likely to intensify.
One source told the Telegraph: “[David] Cameron is blocking the Network Rail extension. This is another barnacle that Number 10 sees on their ship even though it is hugely popular and in the public interest.”
A Number 10 spokesman said: “Discussions are ongoing.” It is understood that Downing Street believes that Network Rail already has strong transparency arrangements in place.”
Network Rail was created and remains controlled by government via the Office of Rail Regulation, but it is not technically owned by the government.
Amongst relics of British heavy infrastructure to be re-privatised, the railways were amongst the last. The beginning of the process was the creation of Railtrack in 1994, a new private company to oversee the maintenance of the rails upon which other private companies operated trains.
The unwieldy business model and a number of mistakes made over outsourcing the maintenance of rails led to a number of major and fatal rail crashes, which made the survival of Railtrack untenable. It was replaced with Network Rail in 2002, which while still not government owned was under their direct control.
Network Rail continues to evolve. After a decade of major investment and working with private train operating companies, the total annual passenger count finally surpassed the 1.5billion figure of 1914 a full century later, reversing decades of decline in only a few years.