Railway industry confidence returns in UK

Pendolino and 88 crossing at speed (Jon Veitch) 960

The uncertainty of the pandemic left almost every sector of the UK economy in a state of uncertainty and gloom. However, new polling has revealed that confidence in the rail industry has returned to pre-2019 levels, in a positive sign of growing optimism about the future. A wide range of railway-related businesses have expressed optimism for the coming year.

A poll of more than 260 rail industry leaders, conducted by research specialists Savanta on behalf of the Railway Industry Association (RIA), shows that optimism about the rail supply industry has returned to 2019 levels after a sharp dip in 2020. Almost half of all businesses (45 per cent) are predicting growth in the coming year. Those concerned about a contraction in the rail industry has fallen from 36 per cent in 2020 to 31 per cent today.

Optimism returning to pre-pandemic levels

When asked about their own businesses, optimism has also returned. Three out of every five rail industry leaders predict growth in the coming year compared to half in 2020. This, according to the data from Savanta, is a return to the level of 2019. Individual industry leaders express optimism in their own businesses, pointing to a good underlying trend towards innovation and supply-led growth in the rail sector. Simultaneously, government legislation encourages a modal shift towards rail, suggesting innovation and growth in the rail freight industry.

Two in five (42 per cent) say the easing of Coronavirus restrictions has improved their business outlook, while just 6 per cent say the easing of restrictions has made their outlook worse. Darren Caplan, Chief Executive of the Railway Industry Association (RIA), who commissioned the survey, observed particularly encouraging figures from the freight sector. “Our annual Rail Industry Health Checker, published on the eve of our Annual Conference, shows a sector growing in confidence following the Coronavirus pandemic, with optimism returning to 2019 levels.”

No reason for complacency

Caplan took encouragement from the rail industry as a whole. “With passenger numbers coming back to the network, reaching around 65 per cent only a few months after restrictions have eased, and freight returning to 100 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, it is clear that rail has a strong future ahead of it. The industry can play a key part in the Government’s ‘build back better’ agenda, supporting economic growth, investment and jobs at this critical time for the economy.”

This was, however, no reason for complacency, warned Caplan. He said there were several challenges in the next few years, including the economic impact of Brexit and the political issue of a forthcoming general election in the UK. “Whilst we should welcome that optimism is returning, more can still be done to increase sector confidence. We urge Government to provide the visibility the industry requires, including publishing the Integrated Rail Plan and Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline”, he said.

The RIA is preparing to welcome the industry at large today (Thursday) in London to start their annual general meeting. With COP26 continuing in Glasgow and the Low Carbon Logistics conference also being held in Scotland this weekend, the spotlight is on the industry’s ability to contribute to the economic future of the UK. “Our message to Government is clear”, conclude Caplan. “If you want to Build Back Better and Build Back Greener, then Build Back Rail.”

Featured image of a Pendolino passenger train and a heavy intermodal service double-headed by two class 88 bi-mode locomotives, courtesy of Jon Veitch

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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