Rail regulator the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) has released its 2020-21 annual report. This represents the first full year affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which only hit the UK in the middle of March 2020, so it is not surprising that it features heavily in the commentary.
John Larkinson, ORR chief executive and accounting officer, began his report by noting that the regulator continued to deliver its core role effectively throughout the year despite the difficult circumstances brought by COVID-19.
“As the year began,” he continued, “the rail and road industries were continuing to grapple with the challenge of maintaining operations in the face of the pandemic. We reacted quickly to give what support we could, responding to the need for new guidance on health and safety and competition issues, and worked with specific parts of the rail industry and government on the financial impacts and the enforcement of new travel rules.
“We took a pragmatic approach to holding Network Rail, High Speed 1, Highways England and train operators to account, recognising that they would need flexibility to respond effectively to the pandemic. But in doing so we set clear expectations regarding the delivery of the commitments that they had made to users in return for their funding.
“We also sought to protect the interests of passengers impacted as a result of COVID-19 – including working with operators to ensure their websites provided clear information regarding timetable adjustments as lockdown restrictions changed, and stepping in where rules around refunds were not being followed.”
Safety is also a major aspect of his report, particularly in those areas where it fell short of the ideal standard. “We continued to pursue our key health and safety themes,” he commented. “However, sadly in August we saw the first fatal rail accident since 2007, at Carmont in Aberdeenshire. Extreme weather, which is unfortunately becoming more frequent, played a key part in this, highlighting the importance of us continuing to focus on the resilience of Network Rail’s assets.
“And while Network Rail made progress in response to previous ORR enforcement requiring improvements in track worker safety, the tragic deaths of two track staff and a worker in a train depot show that the industry has still more to do to protect its own people.”
ORR chairman Declan Collier was pleased with the way that both rail and highways have responded to the challenges of the coronavirus epidemic. “It is impossible to reflect on the last year without recognising the huge impact that COVID-19 has had,” he stated. “Yet, despite the tragedy of the pandemic, it is heartening how the rail and road industries have overcome the challenges they have faced to help keep the country moving during the crisis.
“In the rail sector in particular, the way that different organisations have worked together constructively in the public interest has been impressive, helping to keep services running and staff and passengers safe.
“ORR has been able to play a crucial part in this, across its range of functions. Among other things, it shows the value of having an independent trusted body able to operate between government, the industry and unions to facilitate resolution on difficult safety issues. And more broadly, the way that the office has responded to the issues created by the pandemic – including stepping in quickly to address potential impacts to consumers and taking on new legal powers to enforce COVID-19 travel regulations – demonstrates its capability to adapt and deal with change.”
The recent Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail came in for comment as well. “The rail reform White Paper, setting the future framework for the industry, will inevitably lead to changes in ORR’s role,” he said. “As the industry itself has to adapt to the post-pandemic world and new customer behaviours and expectations, ORR will need to evolve to ensure it can continue to provide effective oversight and assurance in the new context. I am confident that it will meet this challenge.”
The chairman also stated that ORR is also committed to improving diversity and inclusion (D&I) across the organisation, and in June 2020 it endorsed a new D&I strategy for the office. The Board will oversee the delivery of this and will look to increase its own diversity through new non-executive appointments to help ensure ORR is well placed to operate as a modern organisation.
The full annual report is available for download online.