Delivering the railway of the future

Jeremy Candfield, Director General of the Railway Industry Association (RIA), shares his views on how the industry is shaping up to deliver the Government’s vision of a more resilient railway as well as the areas that need to be addressed to ensure that projects are delivered smoothly.
Jeremy Candfield
We are currently in one of the biggest investment periods that the UK railway network has known, with a whole series of major projects under way or starting. Major examples include Thameslink, Crossrail, the Northern Hub, and massive rebuilding works at Reading and Birmingham New Street. Substantial rolling stock fleets are on order or anticipated, while the industry is preparing to introduce major changes in control command technology and systems. Thus the Industry Strategic Business Plan recently published in response to the Government's High Level Output Specification details £37bn of investment in Britain's railway over the 5 years 2014-2019.

This includes the most important electrification schemes for decades, covering the last non-electrified inter-city routes from London – the Great Western main line to Bristol and South Wales, and the Midland main line to Sheffield – as well as significant parts of the north-south cross-country route, the trans-Pennine route and local commuter routes. The committed schemes will already increase the total of electrified railway from 40% to 50% of the network; potentially with other schemes the industry has been asked to evaluate, the proportion could rise to 60%. It is vital that these major works are implemented as a planned rolling programme to maximise efficiency and encourage investment in the resources required. The programme will also drive further investment in rolling stock, with the proportion of electric trains in the fleet rising from 60% today to around 80% by 2019. As well as improving rail's green credentials further, electrification can enable faster, more frequent services while reducing train operating costs.

So electrification is part of the solution to one of the biggest issues that we face – finding capacity for the continuing growth in demand for rail travel. There is still a lot of capacity in many parts of the system, but it needs investment to release it, by electrification, and by resignalling and eliminating bottlenecks and constraints. The growth in traffic is helping justify the investment in schemes such as the complete remodelling at Reading, and flyovers to eliminate conflicting moves at Hitchin and Doncaster, with positive business cases being generated by the increase in carrying capacity. But some parts of the system are simply full, or will be so very soon, which is why we also need longer-term schemes, especially High Speed 2, which has enormous potential to transform travel between our great cities.

Investing in skills
It is vitally important that we find the resources that we need to deliver the investments, particularly staff. There is much activity in this area, primarily focused through the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering, in identifying and addressing potential skills gaps, accreditation of training schemes, facilitating transferable skills and other actions. This need is especially true of the electrification projects and a cross-industry initiative – the Rail Electrification Delivery Programme – is being launched to help meet it.

Overall, work is progressing well, but there will be an increasing need for companies to help, by joining relevant working groups for example, bringing their own expertise, and especially in sharing knowledge from other sectors. And they can also help by supporting the initiatives to encourage young people to seek a career in railway engineering; all the disciplines are going to need skilled professionals at all levels if we are to deliver the comprehensive programme of improvements now being planned.

Seeking innovation
The overall outlook for the railways is strong. But there are many challenges, not least in financing. All parts of the industry have been collaborating to bring down the costs of operating and maintaining the network and to find better, more efficient ways of delivering enhancement projects. It is especially vital that we continue to seek and deliver innovation, in products and processes, and bring in lessons and technologies from other sectors. We must continue achieving real improvements in performance if we are to continue to attract funding for investments in Britain's railway system that are essential to its long-term future.