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Many of Labour’s rail plans build on the Government’s commitment to rail reform, providing certainty for long-term rail restructure in the years ahead

Darren Caplan, Chief Executive

Darren Caplan, Chief Executive | Railway Industry Association

4 min read Partner content

Whoever wins the next General Election, the UK’s railway needs a fresh start when it comes to rail policy.

In recent weeks, we have been getting a clearer idea of what the major political parties are saying about the future of rail. The current Conservative Government has published plans in a Draft Rail Reform Bill, and the parliamentary Transport Select Committee (TSC) is consulting on the Bill currently.

Last week the Labour party has published its proposals with rail reform a priority pillar of its own policy platform. It is clear that there is now a near universal consensus across the railway on the urgent need for a ‘guiding mind’ to co-ordinate and plan the industry more effectively, and that certainty and clarity provided by implementing reform early in the next Parliament can unlock significant benefits to improve the railway’s performance and create a better and cleaner network for passengers, freight and taxpayers.

Earlier this month, the TSC began the scrutiny process of the Government’s Draft Rail Reform Bill. There is now a crucial window to review and strengthen the draft legislation and have it ready for enactment by whoever forms the next Government. Labour’s promise in its announcement to do this in its first King’s Speech is a welcome commitment.

It was encouraging that the original architect of rail reform, Keith Williams, has influenced both the Conservative and Labour party’s broad approach to reform, endorsing Labour’s plans for the industry. Established nearly six years ago, his review set out an agenda for returning a strategic direction to rail. The Railway Industry Association (RIA), which represents suppliers to the UK’s railways, has consistently called for a long-term strategy for rail for many years, so we were pleased that this pledge (to be reviewed every five years) was set out by Shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh.

A multi-decade approach would also provide the ability to set long term goals to tackle transport bottlenecks and drive economic growth around key cities such as Birmingham, Manchester, Bradford, Leeds, and Newcastle. It would mean the ability to set a definite course to reach a Net Zero railway by 2050.

RIA works with businesses which supply into the railway, from large multinationals to the 60% of our membership who are SMEs.  They are all companies deeply committed to what rail can offer – low carbon travel that connects people to communities and jobs.  But companies cannot invest in the skills or equipment required without certainty or visibility of what projects are happening when.  Incredibly, this information is not routinely published, despite assurances over the last four years.

For decades, the railway has experienced boom and bust investment cycles whether that’s across rolling stock (trains), electrification or signalling.  All the evidence shows that a long-term steady rate of investment slashes costs dramatically – 30% or more, as well as guaranteeing long-term UK based employment opportunities.   Chopping and changing plans – whether that’s HS2 or an annual commitment to upgrading the existing network – costs taxpayers and sees jobs shift overseas.  So the undertaking in Labour’s announcements to bring forward an industrial strategy for rolling stock and rail manufacturing is positive.

RIA has recently published a pragmatic strategy, with support across the sector, showing that a Net Zero, low-cost, better performing railway is within our grasp if we take quick decisions to commission new battery-powered trains, and set out a clear strategy on electrification. The RIA strategy also demonstrates that it is perfectly plausible with a ‘guiding mind’ to smooth out the above ‘boom and bust’ in both rolling stock and electrification.

Today we have a railway that is almost back to the historically high pre-pandemic ridership levels.  We have commissioned independent expert analysis that shows passenger demand for rail is set to grow between 37% and 97% by 2050.

This is a huge opportunity for the political parties to seize alongside a long-term rail plan which will boost economic growth across the country.  We have a once in a generation opportunity to reset rail, and that long-term certainty is the key that will unlock the benefits.

It is good that Labour’s plan seems to point in the right direction. We now look forward to hearing the other parties’ manifesto commitments on rail too.

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