For every two steps forward, it feels like the UK’s rail industry takes one step back, says Michelle Craven-Faulkner, a partner and rail lead at Shoosmiths
The government’s decision to ‘rephase’ parts of HS2 means the line to Crewe may not open until 2036, and Manchester not until 2043. There’s also the possibility that HS2 will not reach London Euston until 2040, instead stopping further out of the Capital at Old Oak Common.
That said, with inflation remaining above target levels and construction costs rising, the reasons for these actions are entirely understandable as the government grapples to control public spending. It is important to, however, remember that these rail links are critical to improving connectivity and driving economic growth across the UK. By delaying sections, after plans were already scaled back, there is a risk of limiting the full potential of high speed rail. Progress has been made elsewhere though, with the Great British Railways’ (GBR) headquarters announced – putting Derby and the wider East Midlands at the centre of the rail industry.
Great British Railways
While confirming the location of GBR’s HQ brings to an end months of uncertainty for bidding regions, the news also represents a major turning point for the rail sector.
It cements the commitment to move forwards with the establishment of GBR as the guiding mind of the rail network. The organisation will set its strategic direction, and if successful, could have a major impact on the rail network, passenger experience and ticketing.
On ticketing alone, the integration and reform delivered through GBR could be key to simplifying rail travel, overhauling a system consisting of an estimated 55 million different fares. GBR has a transition team in place and with its HQ now confirmed, many in the industry, as well as the wider public, will be asking: Why isn’t it full steam ahead on reforming and improving the rail network? Unfortunately, there are hurdles that still need to be overcome.
The establishment of GBR hinges on legislation and the passing of the Transport Bill.
While the Bill is not rail specific, dealing with other matters including legislating for the use of e-scooters, and pedicabs in London, it will introduce a series of provisions relating to GBR. Despite initially being mooted for implementation during the current parliamentary session, it has been confirmed that the Bill will not be brought forward until May 2023 at the earliest.
Without the Bill, the Department for Transport and GBR’s transition team will only be able to progress the parts of GBR that do not require legislation – effectively choking its full roll out.
Considering the delays to the Transport Bill, it is now likely that GBR will not be fully operational until 2025 or later. This poses a real danger for the rail industry, which is already dealing with the aftereffects of industrial action, ongoing economic disruption and increasing customer complaints.
Data from the Office of Rail and Road shows 86,385 complaints closed by train operators between 1 July to 30 September 2022 – an increase of 18.8 per cent on the same quarter in 2021, and fuelled in part by a drop in train punctuality and reliability.
It is, therefore, critical that the rail industry avoids entering a period of stasis as it awaits the establishment of GBR. Forward momentum must be sustained, with a focus on upgrading the network, improving the passenger experience and attracting new talent into the sector.
Vision for the future
The rail industry has battled huge challenges in recent years. Its ability to bounce back from the Covid-19 pandemic shows its resiliency and the adaptiveness of those working in rail. While it may not always seem it, there are opportunities emerging for the rail sector. Passenger numbers are now exceeding pre-pandemic levels, reaching up to 103 per cent on 22 February 2023. Travel habits may have altered, but what remains clear is that people continue to see rail as a vital method of transport for both work and leisure purposes. There are also the environmental benefits of rail travel – arguably one of its main strengths. Per kilometre travelled, domestic rail emits less CO2 emissions than a passenger in an average diesel car, or domestic flight. There is progress still to be made, however, with the vast majority – over 60 per cent – of the UK’s rail network reliant on diesel power.
Fully electrifying UK rail is not only key to meeting the government’s long-term target of removing all diesel-only trains by 2040, but could also enable the industry to secure immediate efficiency gains. This is alongside cost savings per vehicle, and on a fleet basis.
The government must support these efforts by providing more information, including on the status of the Midland Main Line electrification and East Coast Main Line power upgrades.
A statement is also needed confirming which elements of the Integrated Rail Plan will continue and when, alongside the long-awaited publication of the Rail network enhancements pipeline. By doing so, the government can provide much-needed clarity over the future development of the rail network – enabling those in the sector to plan accordingly.
Even without these announcements, the industry is moving forward and innovating.
Porterbrook’s hydrogen powered train – HydroFLEX – continues its trials, and with Great Western Railway recently agreeing to purchase assets from Vivarail, new technology could soon be brought into mainstream use and adopted across the network.
Electrification and hydrogen power represent only parts of what the future of rail could look like. The advent of GBR, delivery of HS2 and industry reforms have the potential to truly transform train travel in the UK. That is why further delays must be avoided, with the public and private sectors ensuring that the process of building a better rail network starts now.
Michelle Craven-Faulkner is a partner and rail lead at Shoosmiths