THE publicly-funded owner of Scotland's railways has had to fork out £133m of in compensation claims in two years while incurring an over £350m budget 'overspend' over four years, it has been revealed.

Network Rail which was fined £6.7m last month after admitting health and safety failings over the rail crash at Carmont, near Stonehaven that claimed three lives has seen claim values more than double in a year.

Compensation costs for delays, service changes, cancellations and other disruption has shot up from £41m in 2020/21 to £92m in 2022/23.

It has emerged that Network Rail in Scotland, the nationalised body that is responsible for the management and safety of the infrastructure, such as the tracks and the signals, had spent £352m more in its delivery tham expected in four years of its five-year delivery plan.

READ MORE: Regulator probes Network Rail as taxpayers count cost for Scots train service failures

According to analysis by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), the government department responsible for the economic and safety regulation of Britain's railways the 'financial underperformance' which was at £124m in 2022/23 alone.

Compensation imposed on Network Rail Scotland for the impact of lateness and cancellations on train operators income from unplanned disruptions rose from £12m to £25m.

Meanwhile compensation for planned disruption soared from £29m in 2021/22 to £67m in 2022/23. It comes as a government spend on improvements to the nation's rail infrastructure has been 'cut' by £127m.

The Herald: Train derailed at StonehavenFlashback to the Carmont train crash.

According to the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), the government department responsible for the economic and safety regulation of Britain's railways Network Rail received £179m by way of rail enhancement grant from the Scottish Government for improvements in 2022/23.

But the ORR says that means that the forecasted grants received for the five year period between April 2019 and March 2024 would be £771m - £127m less than agreed in a funding letter. This is reportedly due to "wider government funding constraints and slow approvals of projects and release of funds".

There are concerns amongst some union officials that the rising compensation costs and 'overspend' will have an impact on the upkeep of Scotland's railways amidst existing maintenance 'cuts'.

The National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers (RMT) in Scotland says it has strong worries about safety on the railways due to concerns over funding and staffing of railways.

Mick Hogg, the RMT's Scottish organiser said there were concerns that that paying for fines and compensation would cut into Network Rail funds which impacts the maintenance of the network.

Last month, Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) analysis of 20 official recommendations made a year and a half ago in relation to the Stonehaven crash showed that just two have been 'closed' or implemented.

Driver Brett McCullough, 45, conductor Donald Dinnie, 58, and passenger Christopher Stuchbury, 62, died when the 06:38 high speed Aberdeen to Glasgow Queen Street train left the tracks after hitting washed-out landslide debris near Carmont during heavy rainfall in August 2020. Six other people were injured.

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The RMT in Scotland has been raising concerns over plans to slash the safety-critical maintenance workforce in Scotland from nearly 2000. The union says that 300 Scots maintenance staff, working within the Scottish and UK government-subsidised Network Rail, could go amidst vacancies.

Network Rail has been looking to slash existing maintenance scheduled tasks by up to 50% through what it calls "better use of technology and data", and reducing the number of manual inspections carried out by teams.

It suggested that it would significantly reduce the safety risk to maintenance staff who have to access the railway infrastructure to undertake these inspections.

"Funding is a big issue for us. Part of the cuts agenda is to attack maintenance," said Mr Hogg.

"You are talking about a couple of maintenance workers having to be responsible for 100s of miles of rail track and that is in our view a complete nonsense.

"If we don't take the issues seriously, if we don't take Carmont issues seriously, then you can bet your bottom dollar we will end up with another Carmont."

"The fine is a nonsense, because as a public sector organisation it is funded by the public. They aren't really being punished or fined as such, as it is public funds."

The regulator says that the compensation payouts that were unplanned were the result a mixture of "increasing volatile weather" and industrial action which had impacted performance and led to "higher than anticipated compensation paid to operators".

An ORR analysis found that out of all regions of the UK, Network Rail Scotland had the highest incident count of track circuit failures and wheel slips, partly attributed to accelerated leaf fall.

The ORR said it has been liaising with Network Rail Scotland to understand what it called "poor performance" in the autumn.

The top three causes of issues were weather related incidents, wheel slips often caused by fallen leaves, and issues with the use of high pressure water jets used to clear lines caused by debris found in water systems.

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Network Rail Scotland is said to have created an updated autumn performance and delivery plan for this year which includes reviewing the programme of work for managing leaf fall and ensuring vegetation management is "maximised".

But the ORR, which is scrutinising Network Rail Scotland's financial and infrastructure performance says it and nationalised ScotRail established a joint performance improvement plan aimed at addressing the key drivers of poor performance and a strategy for dealing with this was complete in May.

It contains a comprehensive range of performance improvement schemes, covering fleet, traincrew, customer operations, Network Rail infrastructure, external delays, autumn and seasonal delivery, and network management.

The regulator has said it will "continue to closely monitor delivery" of the improvement plans.

Network Rail Scotland has told the regulator that the wider impact of industrial relations issues, combined with an increase in route crime, fleet resilience issues and the impact on performance of weather-related operational changes implemented after the Stonehaven rail crash had hit their performance targets.

Another union official said that Network Rail's Modernising Maintenance plans were already raising "serious safety concerns" in the wake of Carmont and said there would be fears that the "alarming" financial issues would further impact on the need to learn lessons from the crash.

"I believe we need to have a clear, transparent examination of Network Rail finances to ensure that this does not affect the general public in any way," he said.

TSSA has taken this step because the union has seen scant details around the planned changes.  

We strongly believe that, as presented, the changes Network Rail are looking to implement – reduction in staffing numbers, changes to ways people work and the significant reduction in routine inspection and maintenance work – pose a very real threat to the future safe running of the railway. 

Network Rail’s fine over Carmont, the worst accident on Britain's railways in 18 years, was reduced from £10m because the firm admitted culpability and a series of failings that resulted in the deaths, pleading guilty to a charge covering the period from 1 May 2011 to 12 August 2020.

The Carmont crash came after debris had washed on to the track from a wrongly built drainage system after heavy rain. Despite the conditions, the driver was not warned to reduce speed.

The RAIB found that the train derailed because it struck debris that had been washed out of a faulty drainage system constructed between 2011 and 2012 by failed outsourcing giant Carillion.

After the court case, Network Rail said it would build upon the “significant changes” it had made since the incident, and that about £1.6bn of its budget over the next four years was dedicated to improving the resilience of the railway due to the climate crisis, with rail bosses in Scotland and elsewhere warning that this posed an increasing threat to infrastructure.

A Network Rail spokesperson said: “We are set a specified financial settlement for each five year railway planning period, the latest of which comes to an end on 31 March 2024 and we are on course to remain within that financial settlement amount.

“Last year Scotland’s Railway faced challenges caused by industrial action, which closed and limited the railway on several occasions and came at a significant financial cost in compensation to train operators.

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“Our maintenance and works delivery programme remains robust. We’re constantly working with ScotRail and other train operators to improve the reliability of the train service in Scotland and that extends to a joint focus on autumn, when we know leaves on the line and storms can cause delays.

“We continue to work with all of our partners to make our railway as safe and reliable as possible while delivering greater value for taxpayers’ money.”

Network Rail said its  18 leaf-fall teams and fleet of seven leaf-busting trains have been working around-the-clock, covering 80,000 miles – more than ever before - to keep trains on the move, reducing delays during the challenging autumn period.

They said this autumn it had increased the amount of vegetation clearance work by 31% compared with last year while its leaf fall team resource has risen by 25%.

It said it was using innovations such as sand that doesn’t easily get washed off with rain  and weather resistant drones to enable quicker resolution to rail issues.