Cambridgeshire MP calls for Network Rail to be opened up to scrutiny

railway_line09:20 Friday 5th September 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

PAUL STAINTON: The MP for North East Cambridgeshire Stephen Barclay wants David Cameron to confirm when Network Rail will be accountable to the public. At the moment it’s not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and according to the MP, with £34 billion added to the national debt this week from Network Rail at a stroke, that needs to change. So what do you think about giving a company billions of pounds, when there’s no way of finding out publicly how where or when the money is spent? Well Stephen Barclay is here. Stephen morning.
STEPHEN BARCLAY: Good morning.
PAUL STAINTON: It’s almost inconceivable that can be right.
STEPHEN BARCLAY: It is, and I think it’s a matter of time that those paying their rail fares will want to see this done quickly. It’s not just the Freedom of Information that we need opening Network Rail up to, it’s also to give the National Audit Office unfettered access. At the moment, the National Auditors have to go through the Rail Regulator, which creates a barrier in terms of the scrutiny that our public money is under. So I think we do need to let the public have access to information, and really open up the challenge that informed people in the community, particularly those with a knowledge of railways, or engineering, someone who perhaps has had a lifetime as an engineer, allow them to start looking at some of the infrastructure projects, and see whether we can deliver them in a more cost-effective way.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. It’s almost like it’s been all done behind closed doors, with billions and billions of pounds of our money.

STEPHEN BARCLAY: It is. It’s a legacy. It was done deliberately. Gordon Brown and the last Government didn’t want to put this money on to the public books, so we created an artificial structure where we said it was a private company.
PAUL STAINTON: Because it came from Railtrack originally, didn’t it? That was another black hole.
STEPHEN BARCLAY: It did . It did. That was a mess too. But when it went from Railtrack to Network rail, the then Government didn’t want to put this massive amount of money onto the public books, because it was already borrowing so much, so we created a false structure which said it’s a private company, even though it had no shareholders, and all its debts were underwritten by the Government. And the Office for National Statistics eight months ago said look, this can’t go on, it’s clearly a sham, and has insisted this money now comes onto the books. It came onto the books on Monday, which meant that the public debt went up by this staggering £34 billion. We’ve known about this for eight months, and what I’m saying to the Government is we now need to do what goes with that, which is to open it up to Freedom of Information, and to give the National Audit Office full scrutiny.
PAUL STAINTON: What’s been the response? Have you had any?
STEPHEN BARCLAY: Well I’ve tabled a series of Parliamentary questions this week. The Government has to answer those within three working days, so I will get those back early next week. But this is something I’ve been calling for for a number of years, and I was constantly stonewalled, on the basis of this sham that Network Rail was a private company. And I think now that that’s been nailed, there is scope to open it up. And I think many of your listeners, who, like me, are often staggered at how expensive different transport schemes are, .. we’re looking today at Wisbech Rail, and just the sheer number of studies that need to be done costing millions of pounds, using consultants, and taking years and years and years. And I think the more we can open this up to scrutiny the better, because it will help bring costs down, to the good of those that are ultimately paying the bill through their rail fair.
PAUL STAINTON: You mentioned Wisbech Rail. You’re health checking the Wisbech 2020 Vision, aren’t you today as well? How do you feel it’s going?
STEPHEN BARCLAY: We’ve got a meeting here with the leader of the county and district councils, the senior officers, industry representatives such as the Chief Exec. of Anglian Water. And it’s part of the regeneration we’re trying to deliver in Wisbech. And that starts first and foremost with improving the transport links. Because as you know, and as many of your listeners know, the transport links to Fenland are just not good enough. It’s a long term legacy issue, but I’m keen to see more urgency in addressing it. We’ve made a good start in we’ve secured a million pounds from the Government for the various feasibility studies for Wisbech Rail and for the duelling of the A47, and today it really is an opportunity to bring all the players together, and hopefully breathe some further urgency into what I see as absolutely critical to the area.
PAUL STAINTON: The problem is as well confidence in the railways. I’ve got a few comments here. Robin says “I’ve got a much-needed reunion and lunch in London in a few months, and with the track record, excuse the pun, of rail travel into London from Peterborough, I’m seriously considering driving.” We don’t want that, do we? And Darren says “I’m a train driver. Are the railways good value for money? Well it’s hard to say, but let’s just say the lack of investment over the years has affected our railways.” So there’s a lack of confidence from the people that travel on them, and the people who work on them it appears.
STEPHEN BARCLAY: One can always get anecdotal stories of things that are negative. The problem in Wisbech is we don’t have any trains. It’s not that the trains are infrequent from Peterborough. If you want to give us the service that Peterborough has to London from Wisbech we’d bite your hand off. let’s get these things in perspective. The reality is that usage of the railways has rocketed. Actually the railways in recent years in terms of the numbers using them is a huge success. With technology now, with your iPads you can watch TV, you can do some work, you can listen to music. So the appetite for people to travel by rail has increased, and one of the things I’m pushing through the Wisbech 2020 is to say given that cultural change, given that behavioural change from the public, their willingness to use rail in increasing numbers, it’s important that Government at all tiers responds to that, and does so in a quick way, that delivers projects, and this goes back to the Freedom of Information point and the National Audit Office point, that delivers these projects as quickly as we can, as cost effectively as we can, and for that we need to be more open and transparent in terms of those infrastructure costs.
PAUL STAINTON: Stephen, thank you for that. Stephen Barclay.