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Government delay on rail proposals is undermining the sector’s ability to increase capacity

4 min read

Now that passenger numbers are returning to pre-Covid levels the network needs enhancements to increase rail capacity, improve journey times and generate economic growth

I am an unashamed supporter of Britain’s railways. I believe passionately in their ability to play their part in helping the country meet its climate change commitments and to provide safe, comfortable and sustainable transport for everyone. If we are serious about reducing CO2 emissions from road transport – passenger cars and heavy lorries – and domestic aviation, then the railways, along with buses, have a crucial role to play.

There are many contradictions in national policy relating to car usage, and in evidence to an inquiry by the Lords Built Environment Committee the Local Government Association (LGA) stated: “Government ambitions about increasing public transport use make little sense when HM Treasury freezes fuel duty every year and cuts funding to public transport.” Another witness said: “A significant barrier is the unwillingness of governments, both central and local, to commit to policies that constrain car use.” 

The Institution of Civil Engineers stated: “In the UK, transport is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions – 27 per cent of the United Kingdom’s total in 2019 – deriving primarily from petrol and diesel use in road transport. Passengers and freight need to switch to lower-carbon transport modes at an acceptable cost to the taxpayer, meaning the UK’s public transport networks will need to provide more journeys and carry more passengers in the future.”

Central to that laudable objective is Britain’s railway network. I am hopeful that this will be recognised by the establishment of Great British Railways, but the legislation to get this up and running has been delayed and we may not see it before the 2023-2024 session. Whatever government is elected next year must regard this as a major priority and aim for continuity and stability.

Meanwhile the railways are being kept waiting for the publication of an updated Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline (RNEP). The original pipeline was first set out in October 2019, and updates were promised annually, but none has been forthcoming. The RNEP was described as “a new approach for rail proposals”, providing certainty and transparency, particularly for those in the rail supply sector who depend on continuity and a secure order book. 

The Railway Industry Association says that now that passenger numbers are returning to pre-Covid levels the network needs enhancements to increase rail capacity, improve journey times and generate economic growth. 

The Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline was described as 'a new approach for rail proposals', providing certainty and transparency

One example of a rail investment project that has been hit by the non-appearance of a new RNEP has been the improvement of services on the North Cotswold Line between Oxford, Worcester and Hereford.

This line plays a vital role in supporting the economies and connectivity of Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Warwickshire and Oxfordshire. Their 2.6 million population is set to grow by 21 per cent by the 2030s – some 558,000 people, equivalent to more than five cities the size of Worcester or three times the size of Oxford. Such a scale of change is dramatic and will be powerfully challenging to the infrastructure supporting movement – people getting to work and education, businesses working with each other, residents accessing retail and leisure facilities, as well as the 90 million UK and internationally-based tourist trips already made across the region each year. 

The North Cotswold Line Task Force, which I chair, was established in 2017. It brings together five county local authorities, five Local Enterprise Partnerships, the Great Western Railway, Network Rail and the Cotswold Line Promotion Group. With financial support and expertise from our partners, we have completed a strategic outline business case for change following the guidelines of the RNEP. The task force has cross-party support from all the MPs and local authorities on the route.

In March 2022, Department for Transport (DfT) officials said that its team could not engage further with the task force until the RNEP was announced. 

What is needed is a DfT/Network Rail partnership – or Great British Railways when it is formally in place – to work with motivated local authorities getting on with good projects themselves, so long as DfT and Network Rail engage closely and offer positive support to well-constructed cases. 

Lord Faulkner of Worcester is a Labour peer

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