Building a world-class railway in uncertain times

The chief executive of the Railway Industry Association explores the rail industry’s contribution to the UK economy

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The railways are a UK success story. But judging by media coverage in recent years you wouldn’t think so, with news often focusing on cancellations, delays, fares and strikes.

Of course, every journey resulting in late arrival, disruption or a poor experience for the passenger is to be regretted. But in the last 25 years passenger numbers have doubled and rail freight has increased by 80 per cent whilst network capacity has remained virtually the same. We have one of the best safety records in the world, and customer satisfaction scores for rail are generally above 80 per cent (sometimes 90 per cent), so there does seem to be an imbalance between the way rail is usually reported and the reality on the ground. In addition, rail is essential for UK plc, its economy and connectivity. It supports 600,000 jobs, generates £36.4bn GVA, provides £11bn to the Treasury (ensuring the network more than pays for itself, excluding capital investment), and for every pound spent on rail, £2.20 is generated in the wider economy. It also supports almost a billion pounds in exports.

Whilst the focus of the current review of the railways, conducted by former BA chief executive Keith Williams, will prioritise structure and focus on the customer, it really is important to keep things in context and recognise that rail in the UK is a great sector. Indeed, it compares favourably with other networks around the world. With government support, the network can get bigger and better, it can create even more jobs and GVA, and it can help exports at this critical time.

Adding to the uncertainty of a rail review and Brexit, Network Rail is reorganising the national network into five devolved regions and 14 routes. And we now have a new Prime Minister, a new Transport Secretary, and new Ministers responsible for rail. Will we see the support needed for the railways, to add the capacity required? And what does the railway industry need to enable it to do its bit?

Our asks are simple and deliverable:

• Ensure changes to the structure of the industry, both through Network Rail’s devolution plans and the Williams Rail Review, do not see a hiatus in investment.

• Smooth “feast and famine” in rail funding, both in infrastructure and rolling stock, which impacts the ability of rail businesses to plan, invest and employ, whilst also increasing costs by up to 30 per cent.

• Support major projects such as HS2, Crossrail, Transpennine Route Upgrade, Northern Powerhouse Rail, London Deep Tube, Midlands Rail Hub, East West Rail and Crossrail 2 – the UK needs all these projects if it is to meet the challenge of ever increasing demand.

• Increase the visibility of rail upgrade projects so suppliers can prepare for upcoming work.

• Deliver a rolling programme of electrification which can be delivered at up to half the cost of past projects, essential if we are to meet the government’s target to decarbonise rail by 2040.

• Ensure Brexit works for rail, addressing standards, access to a skilled workforce, and smooth, cross border trade, whilst also unlocking new trading relationships and opportunities around the world.

However, perhaps the most significant thing government can do is make it clear it is on our side, that rail in the UK actually is world-class and delivering for the country. Of course it can get better. But as rail restructures, as we plan to leave the EU, and as a new political regime takes over, let’s focus on what we can do to make our railways even better and not constantly focus on doing them down.