The UK’s rail network fulfils a vital role in connecting our towns, cities, communities and regions. But rail provides much more than a means of getting from A to B. Improvements that boost capacity or open up new routes provide a powerful stimulus for growth, regeneration and employment. Investing in rail is one of the most effective ways to boost the UK economy.
Investment is needed now because the current network is approaching full capacity. Today, rail supports 40 per cent more passenger journeys and 60 per cent more freight than it did a decade ago. At peak times on the busiest parts of the network, there is simply no space for more trains. Yet over the next 30 years, Network Rail expects freight demand to rise by 140 per cent and passenger demand to more than double.
Government and industry are working together to meet this capacity challenge across the rail network.
Practical improvements to ease congestion include running more frequent services and employing longer trains. However, even these apparently simple measures are not straightforward, as improvements to stations and platforms are typically needed to cater for additional carriages and increased passenger volumes.
One example of this is a project designed to increase capacity at Bank Underground station in the City of London. One of the capital’s most complex infrastructure schemes, the work will improve connection times between Tube lines and dramatically improve the passenger experience. A new Northern Line southbound tunnel will liberate more platform space, while improved interchange tunnels and an additional station entrance will reduce crowding at peak times. Tunnelling will take place under iconic landmarks such as the Bank of England and Mansion House, and importantly the work has been carefully planned to ensure that this crucial transport hub will remain open throughout construction.
That said, there is a limit to what can be done with existing infrastructure, and new lines will play an important part in supporting increased rail traffic.
HS2, one of the UK’s most transformational new rail projects, is set to have a profound impact on the economy. It will provide a high-speed link bridging the north-south divide and, importantly, liberate passenger and freight capacity by taking longer journeys off existing lines.
There is also growing investment in the country’s regional and rural lines. The reopening of disused railway lines is an efficient way of meeting demand by reclaiming former infrastructure.
A prime example of how new railway investment can revitalise communities is offered by the Borders Railway project. Delivered by Network Rail in partnership with Transport Scotland, the project involves reopening the Waverley Line that was closed by Beeching in 1969.
The new line is more than a restoration of the original route – it includes 30 miles of new track and seven new stations, making it the longest new domestic railway to be constructed in Britain for more than 100 years. As well as a driver for local regeneration, the new line has already proved to be a catalyst for the wider Scottish economy, driving inward investment, business development and housing opportunities. New communities are developing along the route, and with them numerous opportunities for employment, business, tourism and leisure.
The Waverley Line example demonstrates both the harm caused by a lack of infrastructure and the benefits of network improvements, underlining the strong connection between investment in rail and economic growth.
Clearly, rail is not the answer to every transport question. The greatest stimulus to the economy will come from a joinedup approach, where improvements to rail, road and aviation are tackled in concert.
Coordinated development at a national scale will not be easy, but the potential rewards could be huge.
Ian Hay is the UK director of rail at URS Investment in the nation’s rail network is an investment in economic growth