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A fresh start for rail: getting the UK railway industry back on track

The Railway Industry Association (RIA) has published its manifesto for the next Parliament which seeks a fresh start for UK rail. Chief Executive Darren Caplan explains more.

The UK’s railways have been critical to the UK for almost two centuries – next year will be the industry’s 200th anniversary. Rail is one of few industries to have played a key role in national life from the Industrial Revolution right up to the Digital Age, and this durability and ability to adapt represents both challenges – which always come with change – and opportunities.

UK rail connects communities to jobs, training, services, and leisure. It remains a vital catalyst which drives economic growth and productivity, contributing £43 billion to the economy and supporting some 710,000 jobs. The next Government, whatever its colours, needs to grasp the opportunity to refresh rail for the future, to boost capacity, meet future demand, and to take a long-term and strategic approach which harnesses the best of both the private and public sectors.

The next Government will inherit a strong platform. Passenger growth will soon reach 100 per cent of pre-pandemic levels and, according to the recently RIA-commissioned Steer report, passenger numbers could double to 2050 – so a bright future for railway growth is achievable with the right political ambition and commitment. Railway professionals are determined to provide the best possible service to customers, both passenger and freight, and are dedicated to ensuring the industry works better than ever before.

Population growth of 10 per cent by 2035 and passenger growth projected to increase between 37 per cent and 97 per cent in the next 25 years are a reminder that existing rail capacity will not meet future demand. In fact, Treasury advisory body the National Infrastructure Commission recently suggested that this is a significant risk to future national growth, with the problem particularly acute in major English cities outside London, such as Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Bristol.

Growing rail use is one of the quickest ways to reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality. Although transport generates more carbon than other sectors, rail is responsible for less than two per cent of these emissions. So increasing rail patronage and freight volumes can also reduce road congestion. The next five years are a real opportunity for the next Government to reorientate the railway for the future. RIA and our members are clear on this, that Government should take a long-term and strategic approach to invest in what the UK needs, which leverages the best of both the private and public sectors.

RIA has five rail asks for the next Government, which benefit not just the railway industry but also help reduce costs for the taxpayer and improve services for customers, both passengers and freight. In summary, these are:

1. Publish a long-term rail strategy.

2. Deliver on railway industry reform.

3. Accelerate new train orders and low-carbon network upgrades.

4. Support a sustainable supply chain.

5. Leverage private investment.

As ever, the first 100 days of a new Government will set the overall direction of travel. We urge the new Rail Ministers to accelerate rail reform as a matter of urgency – to give structure and certainty to the railway industry – and to bring forward orders of low-carbon trains. The next Government should also focus on top-line growth, not just bottom-line cost efficiency, if it wants to build sustainability and investment.

The UK was a world leader in creating the railways 200 years ago. Politicians of all parties now need to help the UK pick up the baton once again, investing today to deliver the world-class rail network and trains we need for tomorrow.

Download the RIA Manifesto 2024 here.

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