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5 top priorities for reforming Britain’s rail network

14 February 2022

Britain’s rail network is set to change. With a new long-term strategic plan being developed, ICE highlights five issues it must address to deliver the service the public needs.

5 top priorities for reforming Britain’s rail network
The government argues the reforms will make operating Britain’s railways simpler and more collaborative. Image credit: Stefan Gabriel N/Pexels

In 2021, the government published the Williams-Shapps plan for rail, setting out proposals to reform Britain’s rail network, including a new public body, Great British Railways (GBR), to oversee it.

The new approach will reintegrate track and train operations under one organisation, with Network Rail, the current owners of track, being brought under GBR.

GBR will run and plan the rail network, own the infrastructure, procure passenger services and set most fares and timetables.

The government argues the reforms will make operating Britain’s railways simpler and more collaborative by putting passengers and freight first, and supporting long-term national economic, environmental and social goals.

GBR is developing a sector-wide, 30-year strategy for rail, or a Whole Industry Strategic Plan (WISP), and recently put out a call for evidence to inform its thinking.

ICE’s response to the call for evidence covered the top 5 priorities the plan will need to address if it is to deliver on the government’s ambitions.

1. Getting infrastructure planning and delivery right

Achieving the strategic objectives set out in the WISP will require the delivery of major infrastructure projects which span a development time of years or even decades, but often cost more or take longer than initial estimates outline.

ICE has published a paper setting out recommendations for limiting overruns, including measures to avoid scope creep and retroactive changes, and awarding contracts based on a cost estimate range, using a should-cost estimate as a reference point.

The paper also argued for a shift in thinking around what constitutes success, quoting polling that shows that the public would support attaching more weight to the whole-life benefits of projects – be they economic, social or environmental – rather than focusing on achieving lowest capital cost in delivery.

2. Navigating the long-term impact of Covid-19

Covid-19 has had a significant impact on how and where people live, work and travel, but it remains unclear how it will affect long-term public transport demand and travel patterns.

Any lasting change would present a major challenge for the rail network, whose infrastructure, services and revenue model is built around carrying commuters during peak hours.

Nevertheless, ICE’s work on Covid-19 and the new normal identified that long-term infrastructure planning should still be driven by existing long-term challenges, including population growth, rebalancing the economy and cutting carbon emissions.

Given these demand uncertainties, intelligent use of scenario planning will be vital, with operators having to take a more adaptive approach and make the best use of data gathering and analysis on which to base their decisions.

3. Achieving financial sustainability

One clear consequence of Covid-19 has been the financial impact on public transport operators.

Any long-term reduction in passengers risks causing a spiral of decline whereby lower revenues force operators to cut services or increase fares, and public transport becomes both less attractive and less affordable.

This would undermine years of progress and put at risk attainment of long-term national objectives, which are contingent on accessible and affordable public transport.

In a recent paper on public transport funding post-Covid, ICE identified certain principles that an effective transport funding mechanism should be built on:

  • A reasonable amount of stability and resilience,
  • Flexibility to scale with demand for public transport in times of significant growth,
  • A diverse array of revenue sources, and
  • Public acceptance.

4. Prioritising climate mitigation and resilience

There is no path to delivering net-zero by 2050 that does not run through decarbonising transport, which is the largest source of CO2 emissions in the UK.

With these emissions deriving primarily from the use of petrol and diesel in road transport, there is an opportunity for the rail sector provided it takes decisive action to enable modal shift for passengers and freight operators.

The Climate Change Committee has called for a 90% reduction in surface transport emissions by 2050, and set out an evidence-based pathway for achieving reducing emissions from rail by around 55% by 2035.

Electrification is the most cost-effective way to decarbonise the rail network, but there remains uncertainty about the future scope and funding of the UK’s rail electrification programme.

At the same time, the impact of climate damage on rail infrastructure and services, which is already significant, is likely to worsen as the climate changes and extreme weather events become more common. Infrastructure is undergoing pressures that, for the most part, it was not designed to withstand.

The case for investing in the resilience of the rail network is clear, but infrastructure maintenance and adaptation is currently underfunded.

5. Contributing to ‘levelling up’

The recently published Levelling Up White Paper outlines that, by 2030, local public transport connectivity across the country will be significantly closer to the standards of London, with improved services, simpler fares and integrated ticketing.

The white paper goes some way to addressing concerns that the government has failed to provide planners with detail about how transport investment should contribute to rebalancing the economy.

However, delivering on its ambitious vision will require substantial change, which the Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands appears to fall short of, since it scales back many of the Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) proposals in favour of quick wins and upgrading current lines.

To get ‘levelling up’ right, there needs to be a strong role for those on the ground, such as subnational transport bodies, and further consultation on what the long-term challenges are so that the infrastructure sector can deliver solutions.

Related links

  • David McNaught, policy manager at ICE