Darren Caplan: Now is the right time to speed up railway projects

16 Jul

Darren Caplan is Chief Executive of the Railway Industry Association (RIA). This is a sponsored post by the RIA.

While both Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have recently made speeches showing a clear appetite for Government action to spur economic recovery, many in the rail industry would like to have seen a greater mention of new rail schemes.

With the Government promoting “build, build, build” and the need for an “infrastructure revolution” to reboot the economy as we come out of Coronavirus lockdown, accelerating rail projects can go a long way to help it deliver. What’s more, many of these schemes have been budgeted for, so the ask is not necessarily for more money.

The Prime Minister highlighted in his end-of-June speech that “a prosperous and United Kingdom must be a connected Kingdom” [through]… accelerating projects from South West to the North East from Wales, to Scotland, to Northern Ireland”. Yet only one rail scheme – addressing the bottleneck at Manchester Castlefield Corridor – was mentioned, welcome though that scheme is.

With UK rail supporting some 600,000 jobs and more than £36bn GVA in the economy, this really should be a key industry for the Government to target. What is more, despite the currently reduced reduction in train ridership levels, the long-term future for rail over the next 30 years is positive. And it is a sector which contributes to the Government’s three “Gs”: growth, geography and green.

On growth, rail projects generate significant investment, with every £1 spent on the rail network, £2.20 is generated in the wider economy. On geography, rail projects support investment in all regions and nations of the UK, including areas of social deprivation where investment and regeneration is urgently needed – supporting the Government’s “levelling up” agenda. And rail investment is green, with rail travel an acknowledged low carbon form of transport.

So that is why the Railway Industry Association (RIA), the trade body for more than 300 rail suppliers, and our members, calls for the Government to be SURE (“Speed Up Rail Enhancements”). We are not seeking money; rather, we are simply urging the Government to work with the sector to fast-track schemes on its existing projects list.

This list, known as the Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline, contains 58 projects including schemes like the Transpennine Route Upgrade, East West Rail, and Western Rail Access to Heathrow. All of the projects are directly in the power of Government to accelerate. The railway industry, for our part, is ready and willing to work with the Government to deliver these projects cost-effectively and efficiently, and to speed up delivery times.

As well as supporting jobs and GVA in the economy, these schemes deliver a real boost to the UK’s connectivity, affording other sectors the ability to function – witness how the railways remained opened during the darkest days of lockdown to enable key workers to get to their workplaces.

While rail passenger numbers may have dropped over the Coronavirus outbreak, past trends following crises show that transport passenger number are likely to return to and build on pre-crisis levels in the coming years. The question now is whether or not we prepare our transport modes for that time and deliver capacity improvements, at a time when the Government is looking for job and GVA creating sectors to help reboot the economy.

From a rail perspective, we urge the Government to work with us to Speed Up Rail Enhancements, help deliver that transport infrastructure revolution, and ultimately enable the UK’s railways to play their part in delivering a green economic recovery for all of the UK.

You can find out more about the SURE campaign here.