Modernisation of rail infrastructure in Poland, source: Trakcja PRKiI

UK rail industry responds to ‘piecemeal’ Integrated Rail Plan

The Railway Industry Association, the national trade body representing over 300 rail companies, has responded unfavourably to the UK government Integrated Rail Plan. The long-awaited document, giving details of revised plans for the North of England and the Midlands, has been described by the association as ‘piecemeal’ and expressed worry that major elements within the plan have been significantly scaled back or cancelled.

Industry will welcome the end of the uncertainty surrounding the Integrated Rail Plan, says the Railway Industry Association (RIA). They say that the government’s plan at least gives some clarity after months of speculation surrounding the future of several major projects in the north of England, including the now cancelled eastern leg of the HS2 high speed rail programme, and the cancellation of a proposed east-west high speed line, commonly known as Northern Powerhouse Rail. Many of them have been preparing over the last few years to deliver the projects contained within the plan, and the RIA says that at least everyone now knows the Government’s thinking.

Government credibility issue

The Integrated Rail Plan, published last week, confirmed widespread speculation that rail projects in the north of England would be scaled back or abandoned totally. However, the RIA found some comfort in the publication of revised plans. “It is positive to see confirmation of some local and regional rail projects within the Plan and the speed at which the Government aims to deliver them” said Darren Caplan, Chief Executive of the Railway Industry Association. “Many rail businesses will look forward to working on these. However, it is difficult to see this IRP as anything other than a piecemeal approach to national strategic railway infrastructure development, given the abandonment of HS2 Eastern Leg and the scaling back of Northern Powerhouse Rail.”

Critics have been quick to point out that the revised plans will force more mixed traffic on to existing lines – and even if those lines are enhanced, their capacity will be reduced. They say that rail freight will suffer as a result. Caplan says the government has a credibility issue to overcome, having made so many reversals and U-turns already. “Even if the Government claims in the Integrated Rail Plan can deliver benefits more quickly with upgrades to the current network, how certain can the railway industry be that the IRP will actually be delivered, given what’s happened to the previous plan”, he said.

Ready to cooperate

Freight paths are already at a premium in several bottlenecks around the North and Midlands. The Integrated Rail Plan seeks in some measure to rebuild capacity to suit modern needs. Many of the parallel tracks that carried wagon-load freight and coal traffic have been given up to other development, making it expensive and difficult to replace.

Darren Caplan of the Railway Industry Association (RIA)

The RIA has already said its members are well placed and capable of delivering the objectives of the Integrated Rail Plan. “Whatever schemes do proceed, RIA and rail businesses will of course work with the Government to take them forward”, says their statement.

Midland Main Line project resurrected

Caplan pointed to the proposed improvements to the Midland Main Line – a project resurrected in the wake of the cancellation of HS2 eastern leg, designed to benefit the cities of Derby, Nottingham, Sheffield and Leeds. “It is positive to see new electrification going ahead after a number of projects were halted in 2017”, said Caplan. “Electrifying the rail network is not only good for passengers and freight, providing more reliable and faster services to diesel trains, but it also essential to decarbonising the network by 2050.”

With only 38 per cent of the UK rail network electrified – a figure far below other developed countries, according to the RIA, there is plenty work to be done, and quickly. “We clearly need to get on with electrifying more track and ending the hiatus in work that has negatively impacted the industry”, says Caplan. “It’s positive to hear the Transport Secretary [Grant Shapps] suggest that work will begin on the Midland Mainline electrification soon. Let’s hope this is the beginning of the sustainable pipeline of electrification Government has promised.”

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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