Britain’s railways are a success story—let’s keep it up
"If power is to be devolved to city and regional authorities, rail is ready to play its part"
This article was produced in association with Rail Delivery Group
You could be forgiven for missing it—among the headlines—but the story of Britain’s rail services is one of success. Passenger numbers have doubled in 20 years, journeys are running at 4.5 million a day and demand is predicted to double again within 25 years. Britain has the fastest-growing rail network in Europe and, among the major European nations, the safest too. In the latest European Commission survey, our passengers have awarded British rail services the highest satisfaction rating among major European rail networks.
Commercial initiative coupled with government investment has revitalised a transport system that is now crucial in underpinning the economy and meshing us together as a nation. And if power is to be devolved to city and regional authorities, rail is ready to play its part.
Of course the rail industry faces challenges, as would any system dating back to the Victorian era that has suffered from decades of underinvestment. Some result from modernisation programmes such as the Thameslink project and the linked expansion of London Bridge Station, due for completion by 2018. It is all part of a strategy to make rail fit for the 21st century and we are of course mindful of the inconvenience passengers may face while it is being carried out.
In the pipeline is a host of developments that will dramatically enhance our capacity and passengers’ experiences, with more trains, more seats on trains—especially during the morning and evening rush-hours—and improved reliability and journey times. Services across the country will be expanding, station improvements will accelerate, and plans are under way for a system of digital signalling and control that will bring a step-change in rail management. The list goes on and on, all part of the £50bn-plus Railway Upgrade Plan that comprises one of Britain’s biggest-ever infrastructure projects—a testament to the belief of government and train operators that rail has a vibrant future.
We are confident that the current mix of public and private finance is producing the results the country needs. Maintaining this level of investment is vital to sustaining our improvement programme and meeting rising demand, particularly after the government reclassified Network Rail’s debt in 2014, so that it is now on the public books. We are ready to consider new financial models: what matters to us is what works. But we have planning horizons of 10-30 years, which means that consistency and continuity are vital if we are to carry through our plans.
That is the background against which we view a potential shift of power to our major cities. The idea that Transport for London should take over inner commuter services has already been mooted, even if the functional detail is yet to be developed. We are ready to go with the flow, adapting to a new political and financial landscape, but would like to propose some principles for how this is shaped. We back devolution of rail services so long as passengers benefit. We support such self-evident precepts as sensible planning, transparency and cooperation—not for us the adversarial relationships that major schemes can fall prey to.
There are larger questions that concern us. Will a shift in power be presentational or real? Will city and regional leaders have aspirations but no resources? Will the new bodies continue in a familiar role as lobbyists, or will they be properly empowered and funded?
If the latter, we look forward to helping to meet their needs, which they are best-placed to understand. We are confident that we can do so efficiently and in a way which generates value in their communities, but we would expect a share of that value to fund our operations. We should be involved in these projects from the start, along with the local authorities, developers and other interested parties. It will require enormous energy to make these new partnerships work but the more successes we achieve, the more people will engage and make schemes happen.
At the same time, our new regional partners should bear in mind that we are a joined-up railway system. We operate seamlessly as one railway and we need to build on that. One of our key goals is to improve the connections between our great cities and thus help spread economic growth, and this is already under way. This means that while new urban authorities develop their infrastructure, we can play our part in ensuring that growth occurs across the whole country. Our aim is a strategy that is capable of adapting to local and regional needs—and that also sustains our long-term vision of how rail can benefit our national prosperity.
With the support of Rail Delivery Group, Prospect hosted a panel discussion at the 2016 Conservative Party Conference on how infrastructure spending, in the context of devolution, can help cities develop in a manner that best contributes to a region’s economic objectives. The discussion was chaired by Stephen Hammond MP, Treasury Select Committee and Chair of the Infrastructure APPG (Chair). Speakers included Cllr Bob Sleigh, Chairman of the West Midlands Combined Authority and Leader of Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council; Paul Plummer, CEO for Rail Delivery Group; Jason Pavey, Market Director Local Transport, Atkins; and Sarah Whitney, Founding Director of Metro Dynamics.
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