The Railway Industry Association (RIA) has been representing rail companies since 1845, and – under various names in the last 147 years – has acted as the voice of the UK rail supply community, speaking to decision makers and influencers, and bringing colleagues across the rail supply sector

In a meeting in 1960 between RIA representatives and Dr Beeching, the then Chairman of British Railways, our predecessors made the case that the rail network is vital to the economy and that greater certainty on railway projects would help businesses. Plus ca change!

In 2022, rail suppliers continue to face ‘boom and bust’ periods of investment, especially in enhancements to the network such as electrification, as well as uncertainty over funding decisions and upcoming procurements. It is the role of RIA, working with its members, to stand up for rail businesses in the supply sector who are impacted by policy decisions and to set out how we think the Government can get the most out of its railway industry.

Bringing the industry together
As a national trade body, much of our purpose is to offer a forum for dialogue and networking between industry colleagues, provide information and insight to members and promote exports of members’ products and services.

Through over 80 events per year, our members have the opportunity to build relationships with potential partners, clients, government officials and overseas buyers.

RIA also runs a dedicated Unlocking Innovation (UI) programme, which is open to all. Run in partnership with Network Rail R&D and the UK Railway Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN), the UI programme helps match ‘problem owners’ with ‘problem solvers’, so to speak. As part of this programme, RIA recently launched a new Innovation Strategy, which sets out how we think the Government and the new Great British Railways (GBR) can tap into ideas and innovations from the supply chain and academia, to improve how the railways are built, enhanced, and operated. RIA’s Exports function works hard to showcase the best of UK rail around the world. We run regular trade missions, briefings and joins exhibitions in key markets for UK exporters, helping businesses make the most of trade opportunities. This is at an important time for trade, as the UK looks to boost ties with new international partners, such as Australasia, North America or in the Middle East.

Being positive about the future
At RIA, we believe the future for the railways, and UK rail suppliers, is bright. The work our members and the wider industry delivers speaks for itself and we should be publicly positive about promoting this. Take one journey of the new central section of the Elizabeth line and you cannot fail to be impressed. Alongside the awe-inspiring experience as a passenger, the scheme will help drive economic growth for decades to come and leave a skills legacy, with over 50,000 people having worked on it at some stage or at some level. Whether train manufacturing in Derby, station construction in the East Midlands, signalling expertise from Chippenham and Stockport, or telecoms and electrification support in London, this impact is truly national.

We must also be relentlessly ambitious, and positive about our sector’s future. On the country’s biggest infrastructure project, HS2, a series of major milestones continue to be reached as Phase 1A from London to Birmingham progresses. Over 20,000 people are employed on the project, including 900 apprentices, and we have this year seen major announcements on its London Euston station and Colne Valley Viaduct as well as remarkable figures on the apprenticeships supported and environmental achievements. Across the UK, passengers will also feel the benefits of projects such as the Transpennine Route Upgrade, South Wales Metro, East West Rail and the East Coast Digital Programme, which is installing digital signaling on the Main Line from London to Edinburgh.

Representing our members
That said, rail faces its fair share of challenges at the moment. We have seen significant disruption this year through industrial action and the impact of ever-increasing cost of living and inflation; the potentially unsettling transition to GBR, which will take over much of Network Rail and the train operators’ responsibilities for managing the railways; and continual concerns over work visibility and – as mentioned above – a lack of certainty of investment from the Government. Plans which are known change regularly, for example with the recent scrapping of HS2 Eastern Leg and the Golborne Link, and the scaling back of Northern Powerhouse Rail; and, at the time of writing, we still await an update of the Rail Network Enhancement Pipeline (RNEP), around 1,000 days since it was initially announced.

On the latter point, many of the projects in the Integrated Rail Plan will need to pass through the RNEP to be approved and for construction to start – until this happens, rail suppliers will remain in the dark about when and exactly where these investments will be spent.

More widely, the short-term issues around inflation and the cost of living could affect passenger numbers and the ability of rail projects to be delivered to budget and time.

One of RIA’s core functions is to communicate these concerns and experiences delivering projects, directly to policy makers. That means being the collective voice for rail supply in the UK, and getting the right people together in the same room. As the industry undergoes its major transition to GBR, this will become increasingly important.

Let’s look to the long term
The long-term future for ail is bright. UK transport – and that includes rail – will revert to medium and long-term passenger growth trend, as it always historically has done, regardless of recessions, crises and pandemics. Despite Teams and Zoom, people are inherently social animals, and are likely to get more – not less – mobile in the years ahead.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work at encouraging the post-pandemic return to rail – but we should do so with a ‘can-do’ attitude which says we will attract higher passenger and freight volumes and revenues, and not plan for a smaller sector in the future. For example, in May passenger numbers according to the DfT regularly hit 85-90 per cent of pre-Covid passenger levels (on all days of the week). Why is this not greeted as an encouraging start, considering these levels were reached a mere three months since Covid restrictions started being relaxed? Let’s focus on building on this, rather than continually berating shortfalls.

Despite the challenges, some of which have been referred to here, fundamentally the UK railway industry is a strong one. Whilst it is understandable that people want to focus on the challenges of the short-term, we should also be looking further ahead given the 20-30 year time horizons required to develop rail. In the meantime, all of us should be ambitious for rail, and seeking to build a bigger and better supply sector – we should not be accepting managed decline.

Despite the short-term challenges – which of course we all need to address today – there is so much to promote in our sector and to work towards in the years ahead. Whether major projects being delivered, hundreds of thousands of jobs being created and supported, billions of pounds of investment generated, or clean connectivity provided, linking up communities around the UK, we at RIA are clear that the next 147 years can be marked just as much by progress and achievement as the past 147. We hope you agree, and feel emboldened to play an active part in promoting it too.