The CBI’s Director of Infrastructure and Energy, Tom Thackray, joined the Rail Delivery Group’s (RDG) Annual Conference to discuss how reform in the rail sector can deliver huge benefits for commuters. Sharing a panel with Arup’s Global Transport Lead, Isabel Dedring, the CEO of the Rail Industry Association, Darren Caplan, and the RDG’s Director of Regions and Nations, Robert Nisbet, Tom spoke of the need for greater clarity from government about the investments the sector requires to deliver world-class commuter services.
He argued that the rail sector has had a significant impact on the economy since privatization but that this is rarely acknowledged. Research from Oxford Economics in 2018, for example, found that rail-related goods and services have grown to contribute over £36 billion GVA to the UK economy annually. Since the full privatization of UK railway franchises in 1997/8, private investment has meant that there are now 2,500 more carriages on the railway, while over the last twenty years, network use in the UK has more than doubled. These changes have helped to clear towns and cities of commuter road traffic, while reducing emissions per journey.
In order to build better services for commuters, government needs to reform rail franchising and invest in new capacity
Tom contended that today, the UK rail industry is a victim of its own success. Many of the questions now raised about operators stem from their past achievement of persuading more commuters to ditch their cars for the . Issues related to overcrowded services and limited spare capacity to cover incidents on the network stem from how much more heavily used rail services are compared to the past.
Continuing to grow rail services is also a challenge within the current system, which is too fragmented. The latest generation of government franchises offered to private sector operators had hoped to replicate similar levels of growth, without recognizing that further improvements in services will depend on the effective delivery of track and station improvements by Network Rail. Too often, this public-controlled organization has failed to deliver on its promises to complete key infrastructure projects on time and with the least disruption to pre-existing services, leaving rail operators in the lurch.
For the current difficulties to be resolved, Tom argued that businesses and government need to work together to restore accountability to the delivery of commuter services. The Williams Review is a fantastic opportunity for government to take stock of how the current franchising system is failing consumers, as well as the operators who are at present forced to commit to unrealistic schedules.
It was suggested, however, that placing an accountable central authority at the heart of the rail network will only deliver the best outcomes for commuters if commitments are also made to invest in the track and station improvements that can delivery greater capacity. To regain the trust of the commuters and operators who have revitalized the industry over the last twenty years, government needs to reassess how the current network arrangements have penalized rail users and investors.
Delivering HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail is vital if the UK is to deliver the increased capacity the rails sector needs to succeed
Most of all, Tom spoke of the need for greater certainty about how investments in increased capacity for commuter routes will be delivered over the next ten years. Key projects like HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), should be backed by government and delivered in their entirety in order to throw open the possibility of commuting to economic centers from many more parts of the country.
Tom finished by suggesting that while much has been made of the benefits of HS2 as a link between London and cities in the north and midlands, far less emphasis has been placed on the important East-West connections it will facilitate. HS2’s interaction with NPR and Midlands Rail Hub will enable much wider connectivity all along its route. These much less shouted about changes, driving capacity growth across the country, can deliver some of the most obvious benefits to commuters by giving private operators room to breathe again on what are at present overcrowded lines.
It was suggested therefore that to complement structural changes in franchise management, investment in capacity-increasing projects like this will be key for delivering further commuter rail use in future.