Where is Network Rail going on the transparency train?

Rail maintenance workers Image copyright PA

Closures of level crossings, the cost of station refurbishments, levels of executive pay, more detailed measures of train performance - these are some of the topics which Network Rail thinks it will be asked about once it is covered by the Freedom of Information Act. That's according to the company's head of transparency, Mark Farrow, who is in charge of its preparations.

Network Rail, which maintains and operates Britain's rail infrastructure, expects to be subject to FOI from April next year and is planning on that assumption. The government has not yet issued the relevant regulations, but the justice minister Simon Hughes has made clear his determination to do so.

Mr Farrow is keen to assert that Network Rail is perfectly happy with this change, despite reported claims to the contrary. "Much as faceless individuals in the outside world want to present us as being dragged kicking and screaming into this and that we want to delay it, that's not the case", he maintains. "I say this from a position of knowledge, because I'm running it."

'Political side'

He and his colleagues are well aware of the political sensitivities. Labour's shadow transport minister Mary Creagh has complained that the timing means that FOI requests may not be answered before the general election on 7 May 2015.

"This has a political side as well," says Mr Farrow, "but quite frankly, let the politicians do the politics and let Simon Hughes talk about his credit for making this happen, we'll just get on with doing it and making sure we can respond to requests as part of our overall transparency agenda."

Network Rail, which employs around 35,000 people and spends £8bn annually on Britain's railway tracks, bridges, tunnels and major stations, is the most important single organisation to be made subject to FOI by the coalition government.

However, as is sometimes the case with railway journeys, this has been badly delayed. During the 2010 election campaign the Conservatives pledged to extend FOI to Network Rail "within weeks of the general election". The LibDem 2010 manifesto also promised to bring the company under FOI. The eventual decision followed a change in legal status which meant the state-founded company was reclassified as part of the public sector last month.

The government has also broadened the reach of FOI to cover academy schools and some other bodies such as the university admissions service UCAS. However these moves have been limited compared to the early plans announced for extending FOI.

Opaque

Network Rail is committed to a major investment programme to upgrade the state of the railway network over the next five years. The rail system is under strain following huge growth in passenger numbers. Earlier this year the company was fined a record £53m because of failings on punctuality targets.

Mr Farrow joined Network Rail in 2011, having previously worked on information rights policy at the Ministry of Justice. He says the company management wanted to counter the impression that it was an opaque, unaccountable organisation: "I came in with a clear brief about being more open and driving better accountability."

"I think we have succeeded," he states. "We've done a lot of work over the past three years towards becoming a more transparent organisation. We make a massive amount of information available proactively on our website."

The range of data published voluntarily by Network Rail has indeed expanded considerably.

Tricky area

Mr Farrow won't predict anticipated numbers of FOI requests, but he says he's planning for the number of staff dealing with them to be in double-digits. He is organising a programme of staff training and improved records management over the next six months.

The company will also be notifying external suppliers that it is to become subject to freedom of information and this could mean the release of commercially sensitive material where this is in the overall public interest. This is likely to be a tricky area involving the FOI team in difficult decisions.

Network Rail proclaims that it already tries to respond to requests for information as if it is covered by FOI. Yet requesters don't have the force of law behind them, nor the ability to appeal to the Information Commissioner if they are unhappy about the company's response.

But Mr Farrow's message to anyone who wants an answer soon is simple - pose your question now. "People don't need to wait until April to ask us."

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