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Message to Government on rail projects: please tell us what you want to be delivered and when

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Darren Caplan, Chief Executive

Darren Caplan, Chief Executive | Railway Industry Association

4 min read Partner content

The decision to scrap the HS2 Phase 2 leg between Birmingham and Manchester has received much media coverage in recent weeks. However, there has been less focus on what comes after.

Whilst we at the Railway Industry Association (RIA), representing rail suppliers, will continue to fight for increased north-south capacity in the months and years ahead, there needs to be a clear plan to deliver the rail schemes the Government does support in the meantime. This is not a self-serving plea about providing work for the industry; it is about delivering the rail network the Government says it wants, to enable economic growth, levelling-up and decarbonisation.

The plea from the railway industry is simple: please tell us what we can do to help you, the Government, build the rail network you now think the country needs. However, new analysis conducted by RIA shows that very few proposed local and regional schemes are likely to materialise any time soon.

Following the cancellation of HS2 Phase 2 announced by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the Conservative party conference on 4 October, the Department for Transport (DfT) published ‘Network North’, a document billed as ‘a £36 billion plan – funded from the savings from HS2 Phase 2 – “to improve the transport people use every day.” A revised version was released the following day, and subsequently schemes were referred to by the Prime Minister as “illustrative” only.

RIA’s policy team has considered whether the proposals outlined in Network North and associated funding are additional to previous announcements or not. Of the £36 billion said to be in the plan, we have concluded that a maximum of £11.65bn, less than a third, will be allocated for potential rail-related projects. These funds will only be available from 2029 unless the Government decides to actively bring them forward.

Of this £11.65bn, £3.8bn is investment in the ‘regions’ of the UK, therefore we cannot be sure which proportion of this funding will be invested in rail. As things stand, unless we get clarity from the Government soon, we have to assume that only £7.85bn of the £36bn in the Network North plans constitutes additional funding for rail projects beyond what has previously been announced.

Further, Network North notes in a footnote on page 24 that, “As usual, individual projects referenced in this document will be subject to the approval of business cases”, which casts doubt on whether the funding will be used for the suggested projects.

Five proposals in Network North are additional to proposals already announced, of which three are wider investment in regions: we believe these are North Wales Main line electrification (£1bn), and upgrading Newark and Nottingham links (with no value allocated). The three wider investments in the regions we believe are: investment in local authorities in the Midlands (£2.2bn), East Midlands (£1.5bn), and the West of England Combined Authority (£100 million).

So it is clear that the rail projects in Network North plan lack clear commitments and timelines. Few, if any, have been fully scoped or costed so they cannot come to market any time soon. The document also neglects to consider future energy and power requirements on the rail network or alignment with Net Zero goals, which without explanation calls into question its credibility.

Another source of information on rail projects is the Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline (RNEP), which in 2018 set out the UK Government’s plans to improve the railway in England and Wales (and are distinct from maintenance and renewal work). Despite an assurance that the DfT would publish an update of the pipeline annually, to help streamline investment, it hasn’t been updated in four years.

RIA’s current review of the RNEP shows a significant number of the original 58 projects lack recent updates, with five schemes receiving no updates in the past year and 15 no updates in the past two years and more, implying possible pauses or cancellations – that’s 35% of projects not updated. Certain RNEP schemes, such as the South-West Rail Resilience Program and the Ely Junction upgrade, are included in Network North but without specific funding.

Given the HS2 Phase 2 decision, and the Prime Minister’s declared preference for local and regional schemes, the Government now needs to provide some clarity about which rail projects in Network North and the RNEP it now wants to go ahead with and when. This will be important for the 35,000 people currently working on HS2 who don’t know what their next job will be.

A clear plan with details, information and project timescales would provide certainty for the railway industry and suppliers, and help clarify the national, regional and local rail network the Government wants to see. The ultimate beneficiaries of this would be not just rail customers – both passengers and freight – who deserve better services, but also taxpayers, who want value-for-money from the public investments spent in their name.

Darren Caplan is Chief Executive of the Railway Industry Association. RIA’s Network North and RNEP analysis can be found in the members’ section of the website www.riagb.org.uk  

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