Network Rail, which runs and operates Britain’s train tracks, tunnels and bridges, will not have to answer Freedom of Information requests about controversial issues such as cost overruns, accidents and delays until after next year’s general election.
The organisation, which spends about £5bn a year on works, services and products, was reclassified as a public body last month, but will not be subject to FoI requests until April due to a delay in introducing necessary legislation. With FoIs taking at least a month to answer, the shadow Transport Secretary, Mary Creagh, is furious that this means she will not be able to get additional information on Network Rail that could be used for policymaking or criticising the Government ahead of polling day.
Network Rail’s debt burden is more than £30bn, while there are fears over the electrification of the Great Western line, one of the oldest railways. The chief executive, Mark Carne, admitted in May that converting the London to Swansea line from diesel to electric trains would break the initial cost estimate of £1bn. Recent board minutes show that the “cost increase was substantial” and that a programme director from the US engineer Bechtel had been “brought in to strengthen the team”.
The minutes added: “In response to a question whether there was a positive business case on the revised costs this was confirmed still to be the position … . Critically lessons needed to be learnt, particularly from the early part of the project and the executive team were keenly aware of this.”
Ms Creagh told The Independent: “With the Government’s flagship electrification programme in trouble ministers have denied the public the chance to access information until after the election. Their reluctance begs the question, what are they trying to hide?
“David Cameron said sunshine is the best disinfectant, but he and his ministers are strangely reluctant to let light in on the workings of Network Rail. Hard-pressed fare-payers and tax-payers deserve to know how their £4bn annual support is being used – especially as ticket prices have risen by 20 per cent since 2010.”
FoIs could cover Network Rail’s expansion into lucrative consultancy work, safety incidents, and its suppliers. Its contractors EDF, Carillion and Babcock won £341.1m, £281.2m and £220.5m of work respectively in 2013-14.
A spokesman said that Network Rail had been “operating as if” FoI applied for more than a year.