HOW SHOULD THE UK INVEST IN ITS RAIL INFRASTRUCTURE TO MEET THE DEMANDS OF THE NEXT HUNDRED YEARS?

28th October 2020, Virtual Discussion

“Connectivity is the principal means of creating growth, jobs and housing, and the railway has played that role for the last 190 years.


COVID is the greatest crisis of our lives, but it makes it even more vital to promote growth through jobs, homes and boosting social mobility. Cars and roads can only absorb so much of the demand for transport, so unless we are prepared to tolerate chronic congestion and air quality, mass transit has an obvious role to play as we recover.


So, railway investment to create faster and more reliable journeys, and more capacity, will continue to be needed. It will not only create short and medium term jobs, and make the railway more environmentally sustainable, but it can also contribute to the levelling up agenda. All that will ensure the railway plays its part in the country recovering from the pandemic and moving the growth, jobs and housing agenda forward.” Sir Peter Hendy

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The Speaker

The discussion was introduced by Sir Peter Hendy, who has been the Chair of Network Rail since July 2015, and Chair of the London Legacy Development Corporation since July 2017. He was previously Commissioner of Transport for London for nearly 10 years. He started his transport career in 1975 as a London Transport graduate trainee. He is a trustee of London’s Transport Museum and of the Science Museum Group. He was knighted in the 2013 New Year's Honours List, having been made CBE in 2006.

The President, Doug Oakervee welcomed Sir Peter who presented opening arguments to the discussion.

 

Introductory Presentation

Sir Peter introduced himself as an operator rather than an engineer, but he recognised that good engineering was essential in any transport operation.

Building and maintaining (railway) infrastructure satisfies economic, political and social requirements, but requires long-term planning. In the midst of the present COVID pandemic, it is difficult to look forward as the needs of the moment – providing transport safely for essential workers, and the plan to recover service levels to 90% of that pre-COVID - dominate. Further, infrastructure works take longer than the political cycle, and the railways themselves are quite disorganised as a result of the 1990’s privatisation. The current railway is a strained mass-transit system, whose shortcomings were exposed by the 2018 timetable fiasco. It is a large, interconnected network, described by some as one of the most complex of systems.


Sir Peter’s experience as Commissioner Transport for London was that a long-term (30 year) plan enabled strategic investment decisions to be made once finance was released through successive political cycles. His intention at Network Rail is to produce a whole industry strategic plan such that future investment could be directed wisely for the next 30 years or so, and would seek to achieve the customer focus widely understood to be the direction of the Williams review  into the structure of the whole rail industry. He asked the discussion groups what they felt ought to be included in the plan, and gave a number of pointers:


We live in an urban environment and, although we have seen demand for rail fall, there is an inevitability that demand will increase again but with passengers having a reluctance to accept the levels of pre-COVID overcrowding. Expanding the road network to provide additional capacity is not going to be possible. Major rail relief schemes still have decent Benefit/Cost Ratios (BCR) even at 80% of pre-COVID demand.

The Government agenda is to level up the North and South of the country, and the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has been tasked to deliver this. The focus of investment will move away from the SE of England to the North and Midlands to deliver speed, capacity and reliability upgrades such as the Trans-Pennine project.

Connectivity in mainland Scotland, Wales and England needs to be considered, and in particular Scotland and Wales where there is a belief that planning has not been undertaken coherently since devolved administrations took power and the breakup of British Rail. In particular HS2 needs to connect to Scotland and integrate with the rest of the network rather than operate in isolation.


Beeching reversal has much political support since communities emotionally still see the presence of a local railway station as the economic lifeline that they need to improve their lives.

The sustainability and decarbonisation agenda has moved centre stage and the railway is uniquely placed to build on its environmental credentials. We should not be distracted by opposition to (say) HS2 if such projects support a better future environment.

The plan needs to look forward at least 40 years, considering railway asset life (some of which is 195 years old) and is unlikely to be displaced by new technologies such as Hyperlink and autonomous vehicles since the world continues to increase its desire to connect. Personal transport as proposed is unlikely to displace public mass transport in the next 100 years.

Further considerations are cost, timescales and approvals processes (all of which need to be cheaper, faster and better), how we should look after passenger and freight customers.

 

Discussion

The five discussion groups presented their findings in the following topic areas:

Recovery from Covid-19

The importance of personal interaction in business and social life is likely to recover in the medium term, despite its abrupt fall in the short term due to the pandemic. The use of electronic communication media is very important but has its limitations. Rail travel is likely to recover, but we should not return to the pre-pandemic ‘status quo’.


Safety 

Safety on the railways is taken as given, but can be improved by learning from experience. A step change in safety could be achieved in many areas by reducing the impact of human factors, such as driverless trains. How COVID-19 might impact on social behaviour and its consequential impact on safety was questioned.


Risks must be understood and good, competent engineering applied in all areas.  Engineers are trained in the solution of complex systems problems and we need to continue to attract, train and motivate young engineers.

Environmental

Raised awareness of sustainability and climate change issues is acting as a strong influence in long term infrastructure development. Decarbonisation is a key objective, and the rail network should capitalise on this prior to 2050. Rail has a lower energy cost per seat mile or freight tonne mile regardless of energy source.


There is a huge opportunity for ‘electric freight’, and for less diesel running ‘under the wires’.


It will be a long time before there is an electric car charging network covering the country, and whilst there are arguments for rail corridors to be converted to autonomous vehicle corridors, many small electric vehicles will be much less energy efficient than rail, particularly over intercity distances for reasonable journey times. Young people are less ‘fond’ of train travel that the older generation.


Engineers need to train better for adaptation of what we already have, for changed both use and changed climate, with a need to focus on sustaining and adapting the enormous infrastructure we have.


Organisation and Planning

The segmented nature of the railway system is a problem, with a lack of clear leadership and no single point of contact for decision making. Costs are difficult to control. Politicians have short time horizons and like high profile mega-projects that grab headlines, whereas what is needed is a 20-30 year plan for more distributed improvements, including projects presented with a ‘sexier’ image, and transcending political short termism. Does Government have a commitment to the strategic plan in the political cycle, and to how that plan might be financed? There has been historic underinvestment. Rail is a complex system of systems.


There is also a tension between localised and centralised planning which needs much greater transparency and better economic, social and environmental arguments to smooth the way. A national strategy for the trunk transport system (within an integrated infrastructure strategy) is required, but with local plans for City regions within a national framework. Local problems require local solutions. Rail strategy has to be nested in transport strategy, not be in isolation and should consider route redundancy to secure high availability.


Cities cannot run on cars as they simply get congested. Freight is also important and gets too little attention in terms of planning at all levels. Internet shopping is driving a proliferation of 'white vans'.


Noting the influence of low-cost airline ticket prices on the attractiveness of air travel, it was felt that the railways need to adopt a ticket pricing strategy that will allow the development of mass transit, even on long haul, HS rail lines.


Any plan must include a transition strategy or strategies as well as the end state. There is a limitless list of desirable improvements, so objectives must be targeted to become more cost effective and improve economic benefits.


In delivering new infrastructure, modern methods of construction are critical, and standardisation is important. Pre-construction rather than on-site construction is significantly cheaper (15-20%) and could be implemented by the use of repeatable designs; everything of a particular type could be exactly the same to improve productivity and reduce costs. A better balance is needed between speed of construction and cost. We should also provide better engineering access to fix the infrastructure as the system degrades.


Connectivity

Rail is mass transport: for many journeys it is not the strongest mode. A system needs integration between modes in a complementary not competitive manner. Whilst air travel is a particularly polluting mode of travel it may retain importance in fast links between intermediate sized cities where high-speed rail is not available. However, lessons could be learned from the operations of the low-cost airlines and transferred to a high-speed rail system.


HS2 has a key role in delivering a North-South ‘levelling-up’ agenda . High-speed rail lines are generally questioned as to their priority in the queue for investment, but in retrospect are considered as ‘essential’, as demonstrated by HS1. Not all tracks lead to London; some South Coast cities are as left behind as the Midlands.


The UK has not been good at integrated transport but passengers require end-to-end connectivity without physically difficult connections, long delays and multiple tickets. Freight wants a similar 'seamless' service, so any plan should be a 'whole system' transport plan that looks at interconnected hubs, which rail is good at. Such hubs should effectively connect High Speed rail links to regional and local train networks, city bus and tram systems, and airports. Major cities may be well connected with High Speed rail links but travelling between intermediate sized cities often involves the initial and final parts of the journey taking a disproportionate length of time.


New Technologies

New ‘hyper-link’ technologies are not yet available, so rail will continue to be an important mode of transport for decades to come. However, whatever new technologies emerge it is important that reserving and preserving travel corridors is considered through proper asset management.


Potential new technologies that will influence the rail system include:


  • Big Data will provide new capability to analyse demand better to determine the required capacity. Centralised overview systems could also release capacity and improve recovery times during disruption. Big Data could make local delivery more efficient and part of local feeder networks with rail as a significant component.

  • 5G technology will have an effect on transport strategy that is not yet understood.

  • New technology will generally make railways more efficient in their existing operations, but technology insertion is not easy into such a complex environment with multiple interfaces.


It was suggested that infrastructure investment may need to increase from 1% - 1.5% GDP to 3.5% GDP.


We should not let Government drive the agenda and should leave rail planning to railway experts. Proper plans need to be made in advance and then stuck to.

 

Concluding Remarks

Sir Peter picked up on eleven points arising out of the discussion:


  1. He agreed that the railway is a complex system in a complex environment and that impacts of COVID-19 and technologies such as 5G are unknown but will evolve.

  2. Railways are well placed in the decarbonisation agenda, and the debate about hydrogen and batteries will continue. However, an issue is how to run heavy freight where electrification is unaffordable.

  3. He was uncomfortable in expecting a national plan for transport but noted that interaction between land use and transport is essential and that freight is important, even if a fraction of passenger traffic, and may require public subsidy.

  4. Local and national is a continuing debate.

  5. Maglev vs. Hyperlink are interesting future technologies.

  6. Last mile distribution and logistics is important, but he was sceptical of mixing parcels and passengers and concerned about the profusion of white vans.

  7. Safety is important and a given, but adaptation for climate change in relation to length of life of existing assets and future resilience is also very important.

  8. The railway has always been bad at pre-construction. “Project Speed” is currently in progress looking at reducing construction times, but he noted that the primary delay is usually getting government approvals.

  9. Succession of good technical knowledge, training etc. should be in the plan. We should be seeking to increase both numbers of young engineers and diversity, etc.

  10. Spending 3.5% of GDP on infrastructure may be optimistic as the Treasury would prefer to spend nothing. However, infrastructure projects are good for stimulating the economy.

  11. Steam engines warm the reception of the public for railways; people remember that railways are part of the community.


The meeting closed with the President thanking Sir Peter for his contribution.