Rail Engineer participated in a recent online conference organised by the Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Forum entitled ‘The Future of Rail Infrastructure in the UK’. With some high profile speakers involved, this was a good opportunity to gauge whether the insight we gather through normal media channels mirrored those being put forward here.
Chaired firstly by Angela Richardson, the MP for Guildford and Vice Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on South Western Railway, and then secondly by Lord Tony Berkeley, well known in railway circles and previously the Chair of the Rail Freight Group, the subjects presented ranged from grandiose plans that take some believing in the present economic climate through to practical assessments on how major projects might be progressed more efficiently.
Setting the scene
When considering the delivery of infrastructure work across all sectors, the UK experience is mixed, so says Jon Loveday from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority that reports directly to the Cabinet Office. Often seen as slow to progress, with cost and timescale overruns occurring regularly, there is an urgent need to do better. But there are notable exceptions; the A14 widening was completed on time and under budget.
The projection of work is huge – some £400bn covering 200 projects – and guidance will be given on finance, speed, delivery, capability and market capacity. There is a need to guide government ministers on how to work with industry. An assessment as to which projects should continue, including how funding will be arranged, will lead to a pipeline for upcoming work.
The Rail Plan is expected to emerge early in 2021, taking account of issues in the supply chain and the availability of labour where the small surplus seen currently but will soon be in deficit. A shortage of 60,000 engineers is anticipated – a particular challenge in the context of the government’s ‘build back better, greener and faster’ agenda. Benchmarking, forecasting, estimating and sharing of data are seen as weaknesses. Project SPEED is intended to move things along faster by cutting red tape and providing realistic ‘stage gates’, but the lack of standardised designs, the existence of silos and too much reinvention are known weaknesses.
Northern Powerhouse & Midland aspirations
This is the big one and probably the most controversial. Tim Wood, Director for Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), set out the aspiration to connect six main economic centres – plus Manchester Airport – with improved rail links. This is essentially the plan for HS3 with some additions:
- Liverpool-Manchester via Warrington
- Manchester-Leeds via Bradford
- Hope Valley line improvements for Manchester-Sheffield
- improvements to the Leeds-Sheffield corridor and a Leeds-Hull upgrade
- upgrading the York-Newcastle section of the ECML and reopening the Leamside line
- reinvigorating the Dearne Valley line to Barnsley
- electrification of all routes.
Submission of the business case has been delayed pending publication of the Government’s Integrated Rail Plan which is considering how the schemes will link up with HS2 and other major infrastructure projects. Several months of additional work may be required. Presentation to government will follow, together with the strategic, financial and management plans. The hope is still to have spades in the ground by 2024/5.
Some may question the need for NPR, but when one considers Leeds and Bradford, two cities eight miles apart with a rail journey time of 23 minutes, you perhaps get the point.
Strangely, the Castlefield corridor from Manchester Piccadilly to Oxford Road and beyond was not mentioned; surely the biggest bottleneck in the north. It was admitted during questions that the new Ordsall Curve had only worsened the situation, by putting more traffic on an already congested piece of railway. A reassessment of the need is currently being undertaken, primarily to look at additional platforms at Piccadilly and possible four-tracking.
James Heath from the National Infrastructure Commission added to this by emphasising the priority for regional transport, including rectifying infrastructure deficiencies. A strategic case has been made for rail investment in the Midlands and North focussing on high speed, high capacity into city centres.
In addition to the schemes referred to above, Birmingham-Nottingham is a good example. The current journey time is 72 minutes which needs cutting by more than half. Using HS2 to achieve connectivity for these local journeys must be part of the plan. Pragmatism and an adaptive approach will be needed to get the best value out of the money available.
The rail industry view
Making the case for rail investment, Kate Jennings, the Rail Industry Association’s Policy Director, listed ten reasons for investment:
- rail is in it for the long term
- the reduction in passenger numbers is a temporary blip
- rail is as much for freight as it is passengers
- rail has to be seen as safe and clean during Covid
- rail supports the whole of the UK
- decarbonisation and the green recovery favours rail
- rail cannot easily be mothballed; once decommissioned, it is very expensive to build back
- the economic impact is good – £1 spent yields £2.20 to the economy
- delaying investment only delays the eventual yield
- there is now a clear window to get work done.
Most of these are good points but a few are questionable, particularly the economic impact. That said, it is clear the supply chain is ready and willing.
In terms of freight, Maggie Simpson, Director General of the Rail Freight Group, emphasised that a modal shift is vital if carbon reduction targets are to be achieved. New trade deals will happen post-Brexit and Freeport zones will be established. There is wide support for job creation in the freight sector including ancillary activities such as warehousing. Freight is holding up well in the pandemic, with more paths becoming available. Longer trains are operating – 775 metres, equivalent to the distance from Kings Cross to Euston – but infrastructure investment will be needed if this is to be sustained in the post-pandemic era.
Top of the list is electrification, especially local infill schemes to avoid having to use diesels all the way. Bi-mode locomotives will be the norm as existing motive power is replaced to capitalise on electrified routes. Gauge and route clearance/availability is another constraint that needs infrastructure investment. Above all, keeping trains moving with improved pathing is vital, essentially meaning investment in Traffic Management Systems to complement the investment already made in Driver Advisory Systems, of which the latter has demonstrated worthwhile fuel savings.
Planning infrastructure works
Knowing that rail projects sometimes attract severe criticism in government and media circles, Susan Evans from AECOM put forward ideas as to how rail projects can be better planned to avoid such adverse comment:
- safety must continue as a given priority
- keep boots off the ground for as long as possible – train-borne instrumentation with digital imaging for vegetation mapping
- aerial surveys for site and ground investigations
- use of digital systems for a virtual reality walk-through
- employ embedded sensors for intelligent infrastructure condition monitoring
- build on existing efforts to improve asset management and maintenance, including the tagging and modelling of assets in BIM
- be aware of advances in artificial intelligence and ‘big data’ opportunities
- look for alternative delivery mechanisms and innovative investment sources
- supervise work remotely by a network of cameras and sensors
- create a library of modular components
- always challenge the norm.
Many engineers will contest that they do many of these things already, but there is always scope for improvement and material gains. Timing of work should always minimise travel disruption. The cost of bus substitution can be considerable and the impact of disruptive engineering work may dissuade people from using rail in future, including freight customers.
Much talk is now on Project SPEED, but one questioner suggested this should be implemented in the DfT as a priority!
Some financial realities
With the country having a national debt of £2 trillion – equalling £30k for every UK resident – the case for rail investment will be that much harder, so says Andrew Meaney from Oxera. Prior to Covid, the fare box covered all operational costs and 25% of fixed costs. The situation has dramatically worsened during the pandemic, but projections for the post-Covid situation are needed.
Remote working is expected to remain much higher (in the USA, it is forecast to increase from 5% to 22%), with people being out of the habit of using public transport. Already the government has cut £1bn from the rail investment budget and evidence from elsewhere suggests that this will hit infrastructure plans aimed solely at increasing capacity.
Rail will need to be articulate in putting forward its future purpose and must emphasise the factors of lower carbon, better air quality and reduced road congestion. It must be mindful of the increasing use of electric cars. There is a perception that only the richest people travel by train, so the rebuilding of growth will almost certainly have to tackle the fares conundrum.
A TOC perspective
The current low number of people travelling by rail is a serious worry according to Mary Hewitt, the Strategy & Policy Director at Arriva. Five factors emerge as important:
- Safety concerns, not in the traditional sense but social distancing and the risk of spreading the Covid virus on trains is a worry for 85% of the travelling public. A campaign to demonstrate cleaning regimes is vital;
- Ideas for doing things differently need to emerge. The season ticket is probably dead and a new regime using technology to devise new fare opportunities is essential, coupling this with more real-time customer data;
- Collaboration and partnership between TOCs is needed to find the right way of delivering what people want;
- Sustainability (in the biggest sense of the word) must address the threat of mass unemployment. The domestic leisure market is seen as potentially buoyant, but linkage to other modes of transport including cycling and walking must improve;
- Modernising the customer experience has to be part of the tough choices ahead.
Developing skills and academia
Whilst sheltered in the short term by furlough, unprecedented levels of unemployment are looming, yet the engineering sector and rail in particular is facing serious skill shortages. Neil Robertson from the National Skills Academy for Rail believes that there will be a 50,000 shortfall by 2030. The traditional means of overcoming skill gaps by poaching from other sectors is risky; many come from construction which does not create the skills needed. People from the EU are returning to their home countries at the rate of 10% per year.
The country has to employ and train the right people; we need apprentices, engineering students and graduates. Above all though, we need people who are motivated. The supply chain is crucial – it currently has the capability to deliver, but not the capacity. Wider productivity is a constant problem. There are three stark choices – do nothing and make a hash of everything, provide some investment in people but with little effect on productivity, or invest in modern methods of construction by means of a ‘workforce plan’. The latter has to be the preferred option, but it will need to be accepted by politicians.
Where does academia fit in all this? Several universities offer rail specialisms with Leeds, in conjunction with Huddersfield, being one of them. Prof Peter Woodward gave a scenario whereby concentrating efforts in the north of England would be a good investment. The region has 2,500 companies engaged in rail of which 92% are SMEs, generating £35-40bn income per year.
The split is interesting: infrastructure 47%, rolling stock 26%, digital systems 11%, energy provision 9% and customer experience 7%. An integrated rail park at University of Leeds should be operational within two years and will be adjacent to HS2’s proposed depot. It will have a 400kph test facility, although how this will be achieved was not described. The whole aim is using technology to reduce cost.
Also from University of Leeds, Andrew Smith, Professor of Transport Economics, gave a pragmatic view of the rail industry’s future. Both infrastructure and operational costs have risen substantially and much is expected of the Williams Rail Review on how this can be tackled. The current momentum by Network Rail on cost targets must be maintained but, in his view, a ‘guiding mind’ authority is required. Concession contracts, with incentives and penalties to control quality, are one idea, but cost modelling and benchmarking will be the key tool. One could be cynical and suggest we have been there before – the Strategic Rail Authority and framework contracts?
The ORR input
Although not involved in the decision as to which projects will proceed, John Larkinson, Chief Executive at the Office of Rail and Road, explained its role in competition, safety and cost-reduction opportunities. Capital project efficiency is improving, but there is a long way to go. The ‘digital railway’ has two funding aspects – one for renewals, the other for enhancements – but should they be combined? Reduced cost opportunities exist in level crossing guidance and the general authorisation process.
For enhancement projects, how much information is actually out there and how much emphasis on funding is linked directly to train service plans? The DfT and the Treasury eye each other warily but, for the future, much will depend on the emerging track record for cost control.
These conferences attract a wide audience and, as such, have a political dimension. It is a matter of conjecture as to how many of the rail projects in preparation will get the go ahead, but traffic levels post-Covid will be a major influencing factor. A degree of pragmatism would seem to be the order of the day.
Featured photo credit – CRAIG GRANT