Darren Caplan, Chief Executive, Railway Industry Association
The UK heads to the polls this Thursday for the third General Election in five years – proof, if any was needed, of the highly tumultuous political times we live in.
The railway industry has not been immune to this turbulence either. Since 2014 there have been three Transport Secretaries, and seven Ministers with responsibility for rail in the Department for Transport. Looking further back, in less than a decade, since 2010, believe it or not there has been six Transport Secretaries and ten Ministers with responsibility for rail – 11 if you count Paul Maynard, who has been a Minister in the DfT twice! Imagine a business which has had six Chief Executives and 11 Chief Operating Officers in less than 10 years – the chances are it would have gone out of business by now.
Political uncertainty makes it much harder for the industry to plan and invest, particularly as our sector deals with long term assets and projects that can stretch several political cycles and are often dependent on the will of political decision-makers.
In November the Railway Industry Association (RIA) commissioned a survey of rail business leaders by independent polling company ComRes, to probe confidence levels in the industry’s growth next year. 174 businesses leaders in the rail industry were surveyed, and the findings were both stark and concerning. More than half of the business heads, 53%, said they do not expect the industry to grow in 2020, whilst 28% expect the industry to contract. When asked about their own business’s prospects, two in five, 39%, said they did not expect their company to grow, with 18% saying their business is likely to contract.
In conversation with rail suppliers, their dampened expectations for 2020 were based on a combination of a lack of visibility and consistency in upcoming rail work – whether infrastructure, rolling stock or signalling – delayed decision-making on major projects like HS2, Transpennine Route Upgrade and Crossrail 2, the major industry restructures with the Williams Rail Review and Network Rail reorganisation, and Brexit uncertainty.
Given these political and sectoral challenges, RIA devised ‘RAIL 2050’ a manifesto informed by our members, for the political parties to consider whilst developing their own campaigning platforms for the General Election on 12 December. RAIL 2050 has eight clear points, calling on Government to:
- Develop a long term, 30-year, strategy that promotes private investment;
- Smooth ‘boom and bust’ in rail infrastructure and rolling stock investment, and improve the visibility of upcoming enhancement upgrade projects;
- Ensure a better balance in the train fleet between new and upgraded trains;
- Decarbonise the railway, through a rolling programme of electrification for intensively used lines and by using battery, hydrogen, bimode and trimode technology for other lines;
- Digitalise the railway, through deployment of modern digital signalling technology;
- Commit to major rail projects including HS2, TransPennine Route Upgrade, Northern Powerhouse Rail, East West Rail, Midlands Rail Hub and Crossrail 2, amongst others;
- Work with the rail industry to set priorities for innovation and collaboration between rail organisations;
- Consider the role of the rail industry as a key UK exporter, when developing new trade agreements.
Over the past few weeks we have seen the various political parties set out their agendas should they enter Government, including on transport. And in their campaigns we’ve already seen a commitment across all the main national parties to more railway electrification, which is welcome, and significant backing for major rail projects expressed too. But this is not enough.
Whoever enters Government in the coming days, as we approach Christmas and then an uncertain New Year, needs to prioritise transport infrastructure, and co-opt #RAIL2050 into its thinking. We need stability in the political leadership of UK rail; and we need a commitment to RAIL 2050, so we can together build the sustainable customer-focused rail at home and abroad that the sector and its passenger and freight users need, in the weeks, months and years ahead.