The railway industry can lead the way out of the pandemic

"The rail supply chain is ready to lead the way out of the pandemic, supporting investment, jobs and economic growth."

Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Railway Industry Association, calls for greater certainty from the government as the railway prepares to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and face the twin challenges of ‘building back better’ and decarbonisation.                                                                                                              

Darren Caplan, Railway Industry Association.

The Coronavirus pandemic, when it hit in March 2020, changed lives across the UK. For rail, after two decades when passenger numbers had doubled and freight increased considerably, ridership on trains went down to as low as 5-10%, and the only people using public transport seemed to be key workers travelling to hospitals and care homes, or those in jobs considered essential.

However, the railway industry worked tirelessly through the lockdowns and restrictions, keeping people and goods moving, whilst also supporting the economy at a time when, through no fault of their own, many other sectors were unable to function.

At one point during the first lockdown, rail infrastructure work made up 25% of all construction activity in the UK, showing just how vital it was in keeping people in work and supporting the economy.

It is important that we recognise the support government gave to the industry, through the Emergency Measures Agreement and then the Emergency Recovery Management Agreements, both of which have kept services running when otherwise they would have ground to a halt. We also need to thank the client bodies like Network Rail and HS2, who were ready to engage with the industry and quickly brought in measures such as prompt payments, so suppliers could avoid cash flow issues.

A positive future for rail

As we look to the future, rail now needs to get ready for the post-Coronavirus world. We at the Railway Industry Association are pretty bullish about the prospects of passengers returning to the UK rail network. Teams and Zoom calls are a useful substitute for staying in contact with friends, family, or work colleagues, but they do not replace face-to-face contact, networking, visiting friends and family, tourism, or socialising and the sheer bonhomie of being in the company of real people.

Railtex/Infrarail - NEC, 7-9 Sept 2021

Just over ten years ago, I used to run an airports trade association, and, in those days, videoconferencing was seen as a threat to international air travel. Yet studies showed that, rather than replacing travel, videoconferencing actually generated more of it. The virtual engagement made the meeting participants want to meet up in person. In case you were wondering, international business travel grew every year until the pandemic hit, despite the communications technology already available.

Furthermore, evidence from previous pandemics, like the Spanish Flu, economic recessions such as those in the 1980s and 1990s, and the global 2008 financial crisis, shows that, not only do numbers return to trend growth fairly quickly, but that they actually increased after each downturn.

We should simply not accept the commentaries of pundits proclaiming a so-called ‘new normal’, meaning we’re all going to have lower rail passenger numbers for years to come. There is no actual evidence for it, only forecasts based on suppositions.

So, we need to remain bullish about the prospects of rail post-Coronavirus and to give passengers time to return to the network.

10 Reasons for Rail

At the end of last year, RIA published a ‘10 Reasons to Continue to Invest in Rail’ document, listing key points as to why the UK Government should support our railway system and not slow down because of fears about the impact of Coronavirus. I will not list all of them here, but the key reasons include:

  • The fact rail is a long-term game, with value often delivered 20-30 years ahead;
  • The fact that rail travel is clean and safe – all the evidence suggests that train travel has not been a contributor of any note to transmission of Coronavirus;
  • The evidence that investment supports all parts of a country, reducing regional disparities, and also has a knock-on economic impact – in the UK, every £1 spent on the rail network generates £2.20 of Gross Value Added in the wider economy, meaning rail is not just an important sector in its own right, but significantly supports and boosts growth elsewhere too;
  • The fact rail investment cannot wait – if decarbonisation targets are to be met, then investment must happen now;
  • The fact that rail cannot easily be mothballed – once rail infrastructure is decommissioned, it is not easily reopened;
  • And the fact that right now, there is a clear window to get work done – we have an opportunity to push on with rail activity without impacting services; which should be capitalised on before passenger and freight numbers return in lager numbers.

Our ten reasons are based on the key three attributes that rail provides – what we term the three ‘G’s’ – that rail is Green; that our railways are Geographically spready across the country and so are a way of supporting hard to reach communities; and that rail investment directly leads to greater economic Growth.

‘Building Back Better’

So how can rail play its role in leading the UK economy out of the pandemic? The key issue we often hear from RIA members is the need for greater certainty for the future. For example, when it comes to rail enhancements, the government’s list of projects – the Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline – has not been updated for more than 500 days, even though the list is due to be published annually. We are also awaiting the Williams Rail Review into the structure of the industry, the Integrated Rail Plan on projects in the North and Midlands and – with COP26 barely eight months away – the Transport Decarbonisation Plan, setting out how we can reach Net Zero by 2050.

On decarbonisation, RIA recently launched its new campaign – RailDecarb21 – calling on the government to begin decarbonising the rail network through a rolling programme of electrification and support for low carbon, self-powered rolling stock, such as battery and hydrogen trains. This is increasingly urgent if we are to meet the 2040 target to remove all diesel-only trains from the network and the government’s ‘Net Zero 2050’.

It is understandable that reports on UK rail have been delayed, as government’s first priority was on supporting the fight against the virus. But as we look to the recovery, these reports must now be published, as they are vital in giving rail businesses the certainty they need to make investment decisions and plan for the future, thereby encouraging economic growth.

The rail supply chain is ready to lead the way out of the pandemic, supporting investment, jobs and economic growth. With greater certainty and policy focus from government, rail can be a major route to recovery. Now is not the time to be negative about the prospects of rail. Let us not take our foot of the pedal of rail investment when there is so much rail can do to help the country build back better and greener as we emerge from the pandemic.

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