The rail industry will play a crucial role in building back better, faster
“We want to decarbonise, and electrification is going to have a massive part to play in that,” said Rail Minister, Chris Heaton-Harris MP | Credit: PA Images
Speaking at the Railway Industry Association’s annual conference, Rail Minister, Chris Heaton-Harris MP, stressed the significant role the railway industry will play in the green recovery.
With the continuing pandemic and the need for a green recovery, what are the next steps for the rail industry?
On the day that the second lockdown began, these were just some of the questions posed at this year’s Railway Industry Association’s (RIA) annual conference.
Speaking at the conference, Chris Heaton-Harris MP, Rail Minister, emphasised the crucial role that the rail industry will play in the recovery from the pandemic.
“The economy will need to grow if we want to get back to anything like we've had before. Rail is going to play a massive part,” he said.
“It helps the levelling up agenda, it helps the decarbonisation agenda, it helps in the connecting places agenda, it helps with economic growth. Rail is good for our nation,” he celebrated.
His interview came as the Railway Industry Association published new independent polling of 250 rail business leaders, with 61% saying the Coronavirus pandemic has worsened their business’s outlook for the coming year.
RIA Chief Executive Darren Caplan had urged the Government to ‘build back rail’ following the publication of the polling.
We will see across transport, a drive not just to build back better, but to build back at a decent pace
Building back better, faster
In September, the Department for Transport outlined a series of Emergency Recovery Measures Agreements (ERMAs), to support the UK recovery and continue the fight against the pandemic. These agreements, which run for up to 18 months, are designed to bring the rail franchising system to an end.
In reference to the financial support the rail sector has received during the pandemic, the Minister said: “The Treasury and the Government is absolutely there with the cash to keep running these businesses going forward, because we see a great future”.
The MP for Daventry stressed that there was a need to “move faster” and tackle some of the “massive, unresolved challenges of the last three decades”.
This, he described, included cutting down the time it takes to develop, design and deliver vital infrastructure projects.
“Some of these projects have been taking way too long - that's across the transport sector,” he explained.
He described how the Department of Transport were working closely with other government departments to look at synergies and system reform to improve the processes around infrastructure development.
“We will see across transport, a drive not just to build back better, but to build back at a decent pace,” said the Minister.
One particular infrastructure project he discussed was the electrification of the rail network.
“We are in a place where electrification sits very nicely in with the Government's green agenda,” said Chris Heaton-Harris MP.
“We've got massive ambition. There are different technological solutions to last-mile problems and new battery technology is coming in. It's an exciting place,” he said.
“We want to decarbonise, and electrification is going to have a massive part to play in that,” he continued.
The Rail Minister also described how the rail industry would need to evolve for the post-pandemic world.
“We are going to have to look at what sort of products we offer to entice passengers back,” he explained.
“We're going to have to look at how we sweat assets to ensure that we actually have lots of people on trains -when they're allowed to come back on our trains- throughout the day, and not just condensed into two money-making periods in peak hours,” he said.
The Minister was also asked the likelihood that the Government will reach agreements with the train operators over the coming months over the terms to terminate their previous franchises.
“I think we’ll reach agreement,” he said bluntly.
When asked what will replace the Emergency Recovery Measures Agreements and when, Chris Heaton-Harris said: “The Williams review pre-COVID was calling for - in about a decade’s time as gradually all the franchises could be morphed into something else - was a more of a concession-based model bit like the London Overground. I think we'll be heading in that general direction,” he explained.
Finally, he was asked whether we have reached “peak rail” usage in the UK?
“No, we have not reached peak rail,” he said.
“You look at the number of people who are keen to be involved in that process, keen to have rail reopened, keen to build new passenger resources that connect to existing ones to feed passengers into them.”
“I'm ever so excited about what the future of our industry brings. We just need to get over the next 18 months,” he concluded.