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Whether for lockdown, or for our economic recovery, UK rail should play a central role

Credit: PA Images

Darren Caplan, Chief Executive

Darren Caplan, Chief Executive | Railway Industry Association

4 min read Partner content

Whether moving key workers and resources around the country during lockdown, or supporting the UK’s economic bounceback, our rail network is vital in the battle against Coronavirus.

As the UK heads towards a second lockdown this Thursday, our railway network is once again gearing up to support workers across the country in ensuring essential services can stay open, as it did during the first lockdown in Spring.

But how are companies in the rail industry feeling, following what has been an extraordinary year?

In a survey launched on the eve of the Railway Industry Association’s first virtual Annual Conference, independent polling company Savanta ComRes asked more than 250 business leaders across the rail supply industry their views on the prospects of the industry.

The response is very interesting and paints a mixed picture for the sector.

Railway decision makers are almost split down the middle on the prospects for the rail supply industry over the next year, with 35% saying the industry is likely to grow and 36% saying its likely to contract, with 25% saying it will stay the same.

And, when it comes to their own businesses, leaders are more likely to be optimistic about growth prospects, with half (51%) saying their business is likely to grow in the coming year. One in five (21%) say their business is likely to contract in 2021.

Nevetherless, the impact of Coronavirus is clear, with three in five (61%) railway business leaders saying the Coronavirus pandemic has worsened their business’ outlook for the coming year.

Amongst those who expect their business to contract, 74% said the pandemic had worsened their outlook.

Building Back Rail

What is clear is that our rail sector is an essential service during lockdowns, but also is a prime candidate for helping to spearhead the UK’s economic recovery.

UK rail benefits from providing the three G’s. Firstly, growth - for every £1 spent in rail, £2.20 is generated in the wider economy; secondly, geography - with the network supporting towns and communities right across the UK, and finally, green – rail is an environmentally friendly form of mass transit and the industry has concrete plans to decarbonise further.

We need to ensure that, as we approach the coming months and year, we work together  to ‘build back rail’ and help lead the charge for the UK’s economic bounce-back.

The UK Government should ensure that UK rail has all it needs to support the economic recovery – and we are thankful for the support it has already given the sector during the Coronavirus period.

Yet, the rail network can deliver even more – and whilst passenger numbers have fallen over the past few months, UK rail is a long-term business, and ensuring we have a railway that is future-ready will be imperative in attracting customers back.

What does the UK rail industry need to lead the UK’s economic recovery?

It needs visibility and certainty, which means publishing the latest projects within the Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline’ and the Williams Rail Review.

It requires speeding up rail projects, including major schemes like HS2 Phase 2, Crossrail 2, Northern Powerhouse Rail, East West Rail, Midlands Rail Hub, and others.

It involves decarbonising through a rolling programme of electrification and supporting investment in low carbon rolling stock. And it means bringing forward work to digitalise the network, so the industry is ‘match fit’ to replace the 60% of signalling units that become life expired over the next 15 years.

UK Rail Post-EU Transition

As rail businesses deal with the uncertainty caused by Coronavirus, they will also be considering how the UK’s departure from the EU transition period will affect them.

There are both challenges and opportunities for the rail sector as we develop an independent trade policy – UK rail already exports some £800 million products and services a year and could do so much more with the right approach to procurement, skills, cross border trade and standards. Crucially, we also need Government to promote our fantastic rail industry.

We asked a fourth question in that Savanta ComRes poll about trade, and the response showed that two in five railway business leaders say they are not confident the Government will promote the railway industry as one of the UK’s key economic sectors when negotiating future trade deals.

We at RIA are grateful for all the work Government has done in this area in recent times, but clearly supplier companies would like to see rail given more visibility when trade negotiations are conducted in the months ahead.


Our rail industry is supporting the UK at this critical time.

Whether in lockdown or in generating an economic recovery, the UK rail sector will continue to support the country, its towns and communities.

We need to ensure that, as we approach the coming months and year, we work together  to ‘build back rail’ and help lead the charge for the UK’s economic bounce-back.

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