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A fresh start for rail: getting the UK railway industry back on track in 2024

Darren Caplan, Chief Executive

Darren Caplan, Chief Executive | Railway Industry Association

3 min read Partner content

The UK’s railways have been a foundation sector of the UK economy for almost 200 years – next year will be rail’s 200th Anniversary. Rail is one of few industries to have had a central role, from the Industrial Revolution right up to the Digital Age, and this ability to adapt and longevity represents both challenges – which always come with change – and opportunities.

UK rail continues to connect communities to employment, education, essential services and leisure opportunities. It remains an essential catalyst and enabler of economic growth and productivity, contributing £43bn to the economy and supporting some 710,000 jobs.

The Railway Industry Association (RIA), which champions a dynamic rail supply sector, publishes a manifesto for rail today (6th June) at a turning point in UK rail. Since the pandemic, passenger numbers have almost fully recovered from pre Covid levels and future forecasts show these numbers potentially doubling to 2050. We stand on the threshold of a reformed railway under a future Government, whatever its colours, which should accelerate the movement of people and goods by train for the national interest.

Population growth of 10% by 2035 and passenger growth projected to increase between 37% and 97% in the next 25 years are a reminder that existing rail capacity will not meet future demand. In fact, Treasury advisory body the National Infrastructure Commission recently argued that this scenario is a significant risk to national growth with the problem particularly acute in major English cities, such as Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Bristol.

Growing rail use is one of the quickest ways to reduce carbon emissions. Transport generates more carbon than other sectors, yet rail is responsible for less than 2% of these. Boosting rail passengers and freight also helps reduce road congestion.

The next five years are an opportunity for the next Government to reset the railway for the future. It should take a long-term and strategic approach to invest in what the UK needs, which leverages the best of both the private and public sectors. 

RIA has five rail related asks for the next Government, which benefit not just the railway industry but which will help reduce costs for the taxpayer and improve services for customers, both passengers and freight. In summary, these are:

  1. Publish a long-term rail strategy;
  2. Deliver on railway industry reform;
  3. Accelerate new train orders and low carbon network upgrades;
  4. Support a sustainable supply chain; and
  5. Leverage private investment.

As ever, the first 100 days of a new Government will determine the overall direction of travel. We urge incoming rail Ministers to fast track rail reform as soon as possible – to give structure and certainty to the railway industry – and to bring forward orders of low-carbon rolling stock. The next Government should also focus on top-line growth, not just bottom-line cost efficiency, if it wants to build the foundations for long-term sustainability and investment.

The UK led the world in first developing the railways these past 200 years. Politicians of all parties now need to help the UK lead again, investing today to deliver the world-class rail network and trains we need for tomorrow.

Read the RIA Manifesto A fresh start for rail here.

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