Railway Industry Association urges UK government to ‘Build Back Rail’

Despite the key role the rail sector has played in the economic survival of the UK, almost two-thirds of rail industry leaders say that the coronavirus has worsened their outlook for the year ahead. This was concluded in a survey of the Railway Industry Association (RIA), the national trade body for rail suppliers. The association at its annual meeting urged the government to ensure rail plays a key part in the UK’s economic recovery post-corona, strengthened with the slogan ‘Build Back Rail’. 

The survey, conducted independently by market research specialists Savanta ComRes, interviewed more than 250 key rail industry leaders. More than 150 (61 per cent) were of the opinion that the coronavirus pandemic has worsened the business outlook for the coming year. Amongst those who expect their business to contract, three-quarters (74 per cent) said the pandemic had even further worsened their outlook.

Rail investment to reboot the economy

Prior to his online address to the annual conference, Darren Caplan, chief executive of the RIA, said that the new poll represented a mixed picture for the UK rail industry. For him, it provided cause for concern. “It is clear that the UK railway industry has been essential this extraordinary year”, he said, citing both the nationwide Spring lockdown, and the new lockdown imposed in England from tomorrow (Thursday). “As we consider how to reboot the UK economy, it is also clear that the railway and rail investment can play just as key a role.”

Strategic investment in the rail sector will help the wider economy recover, says the Railway Industry Association. Schemes like these improvements around Southampton aid trade and industry (Network Rail)

Prime minister Boris Johnson has promised that Britain will “build back better”, after the turmoil of the pandemic, but the rail industry is far from convinced that will happen any time soon. Railway decision makers are almost split down the middle on the prospects for the rail supply industry in the coming year. In the poll for the RIA, just thirty-five believe the industry is likely to grow in the coming year. An almost equal number (36 per cent) say its likely to contract. Most of the reminder believe the status quo will prevail.

TfL bail out for Byford

When it comes to their own businesses, leaders are more likely to be optimistic about growth prospects. Half of them are still confident of growth, but that represents a contraction of confidence from this time last year, when a similar poll recorded 59 per cent confidence in the short term future. This year one in five leaders (21 per cent) say their business is likely to contract in 2021.

Developments continue around London, where the metro operator has been bailed out for the second time by the UK government. The wider network, here at Clacton in Essex is ripe for investment too. Image: Network Rail

Andy Byford, the commissioner of Transport for London, the operator of metro services around the UK capital, is also addressing the conference. His operations were the subject of a huge financial bailout package, agreed earlier this week, which will keep services running until March next year. “More so than ever, the rail industry must come together to address the challenges we face, exchanging ideas on how we can ensure a safe, green, sustainable recovery from the pandemic and regenerate the UK economy”, he said.

Investment and economic growth

Transport for London is pressing ahead with several significant expansion projects, including regeneration developments at Barking in east London, and Battersea in south London. TfL will also serve the Mayor of London’s office, when it moves to Newham on the Crossrail line at the end of next year. The operator recently started taking delivery of a new fleet of maintenance rolling stock, ordered from Chinese state-owned manufacturer CRRC. That particular order may not come up in conversation with the RIA top brass too readily. Chief executive Caplan is at pains to promote the part that the indigenous rail industry can play. “UK rail is a prime candidate for helping to spearhead the UK’s economic recovery”, he said. “With the network touching towns and communities right across the UK, providing clean travel, and which can be used as a catalyst for further growth – for every one pound spent in rail, 2.20 pounds is generated in the wider economy (1.10 to 2.41 euros).

Caplan concluded with a call to action, for Westminster to make good on the prime minister’s commitments. “We urge the government, as it seeks to ‘Build Back Better’, to also help the railway industry ‘Build Back Rail’, utilising the dynamism and innovation of the sector to generate jobs, investment and economic growth across the country, at a time when the UK , and its town and communities, so vitally need it.”

The three-day RIA event, being held online, also features the association’s annual awards. It remains to be seen if the government will be awarded a round of applause for making good on build back better commitments.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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