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We must be more ambitious in efforts to modernise the UK’s rail network

Martin Heffer, Technical Director for Rail and Transit

Martin Heffer, Technical Director for Rail and Transit | WSP

6 min read Partner content

WSP’s Martin Heffer discusses how, in the UK’s move towards a sustainable and connected future, its rail network must be modernised to alleviate pressure on existing systems and provide confidence in UK infrastructure delivery

UK infrastructure, particularly the rail network, has an impressive historical legacy. Next year will celebrate the 200-year anniversary of the world’s first passenger train journey between Stockton and Darlington and since then, using rail transport for passengers and freight has been the backbone of our economy. And yet, though many of our railways have thankfully retained elements of their vital heritage, they have been unable to keep up with the fast pace of modern life.

If the UK is to continue moving forward towards a sustainable, connected and prosperous future, the rail network must grow and modernise in parallel. Clearly much investment in this effort is already being made through projects and programmes including HS2 (phase 1 - London to Midlands), the Transpennine Route Upgrade, East West Rail, Crossrail and the East Kilbride Enhancement Project in Scotland, but we must be more ambitious.

We need to see further progress from Government and policymakers to enable major infrastructure projects to be delivered to their full potential, alleviating pressure on our existing network to enable more people and trade to move with ease. Moreover, the commitment to and successful delivery of major rail projects provides confidence to infrastructure investors across many sectors that the UK is serious about economic growth and working with the private sector.


The biggest challenges of our times

Climate change has highlighted the pressing need to develop a transport system that is resilient and sustainable. We must see this as a fantastic opportunity rather than a hurdle to overcome. That is not to suggest the solutions are easy: with increasingly wet and violent storms in winter, and unprecedented temperatures in summer, rail infrastructure owners and engineers are contending with extremes which have severe impacts on assets, scheduling and capacity.

Regarding sustainability, rail is responsible for less than 2% of total transport emissions, with the sector as a whole responsible for around a quarter of the UK’s total carbon emissions. As the UK draws towards its 2050 Net Zero target, the sector’s path to zero emissions is likely to come under ever closer scrutiny in terms of enabling the full potential of our railway infrastructure, both in its own right and as a sustainable alternative the other modes of transport. As we consider the myriad possibilities for modal shift and encourage more sustainable ways to travel, it is inconceivable that prioritising rail would not be a key focus for government given its green credentials.

In addition to the important environmental case, investment in rail is fundamental if we are to achieve economic prosperity and drive equal opportunities for the whole of the UK. To paraphrase the UK Government, there is no geographical inequality in talent. What does exist is inequality of opportunity to exploit that talent. Increased connectivity creates the potential for millions of people to access new opportunities, as well as to access to an ever-widening pool of skills for those wanting to grow their businesses. A resilient and reliable railway network, especially in areas such as the West Midlands and North-West, is a sensible way of balancing this equation across the UK’s regions.  

As it stands, however, there are a series of challenges faced in the delivery of major rail infrastructure projects, including delays, cost overruns and public opposition. How do we move forward with these projects and shift the dial on these challenges?

Maturity of design

In previous and current projects, like HS2, cost has been and will always be a major factor affecting project delivery. Sir John Thompson, Executive Chair of HS2 Ltd., in his appearance at the House of Commons Transport Select Committee (TSC) on 10 January 2024, made it clear that certainty of cost and maturity of design go hand in hand. Future projects can ensure more accurate costing by conducting significant and thorough design development. This may sound obvious, but design is fundamental; it encompasses how well projects align with places and communities, how they affect habitats and the environment and how these designs fulfil their value.

It goes further than improving cost accuracy. With maturity of design and associated understanding of key risk items, such as ground conditions, comes a significant reduction in risk. Only once these items are understood and capable of being reasonably priced, should they be passed onto contractors. With reduced risk and accurate costing, there lies greater credibility in the eyes of investors.

Public-private partnerships

There is huge potential in public-private partnerships for both project and risk-sharing. As has always been the case this needs to balance the efficiencies brought by the private sector with the cost to the public purse. To reenergise investment and to increase credibility, maturity of design is critical. However, the scaling back of the Northern Powerhouse Rail project in 2022 and the cancellation of HS2 Phase 2 has meant that a push for public and private funding within the industry is going to prove even more of a challenge. The credibility of future projects will now come into question for private investors.

To drive efficiency there must be equal measures of risk and reward for both client and contractor teams. The private sector should be incentivised to deliver efficiently, and this is best done through a good and effective contract, with joint ownership of risk and opportunity, not private financing. Private sector transport undertakings, such as airports, have a track record in managing such projects so that they deliver value for shareholders. There is no shortage of expertise should the Government try to deliver the same benefits for the taxpayer.

Community engagement

Noise pollution, impact on scenery and disruption during a project build can be of huge concern to local communities and any infrastructure development should keep this front of mind. It is essential to listen to the concerns of communities who are going to be most affected by the work. Thorough and consistent communication during every stage of a project will be paramount. Again, maturity of design is important; it allows for long term visualisation of a design will enable a better grasp of the benefits of the long-term benefits of the project.


The challenges facing the UK are not easy, though not dissimilar to those of many developed countries around the world where major infrastructure is regularly delivered. If the UK is to achieve economic growth and prosperity alongside decarbonisation of its transport system, committed and consistent investment in rail infrastructure is crucial. Only when this condition is met can new projects be delivered to their full potential, as part of a credible, long-term and resilient approach to transport delivery.

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