Last reviewed 26 July 2022

The UK’s railways have historically undergone numerous controversial cuts and reorganisations. Traditionally, many come with long delays. However, rail now faces the challenges of climate change, a net-zero destination and arrival times too important to be missed. Jon Herbert reports.

Britain’s rail services are in the headlines again, mainly for unfortunate reasons. But behind the political calls and mixed agendas, they have an urgent timetable to meet as a sector central to the UK economy’s low-carbon journey, environmental priorities and biodiversity security.

After decades of change, rail is once again being analysed closely to develop a sustainable 30-year strategy for customers, staff, investors, business and industry, the regions — and UK connectivity.

Green signals

From the Victorian rush for rail with its many accidents and disasters, through consolidation as the backbone of industrialisation, decline, the Beeching cuts of the 1960s, nationalisation, privatisation, and numerous rationalisations, Britain’s railways have been in a state of continuous flux.

The aim now is to create a modern, flexible, efficient system that can simultaneously bring together high-speed inter-regional travel, greater freight capacity and responsive local services.

To appreciate the Government’s latest proposals, which have a strong green flavour, it is important to understand the current logic and initiatives.

Forming UKNET

A key part of the UK’s transport policy pivots around the Union Connectivity Review, published in October 2020, which considered the investment needed across all forms of transport to maximise social and economic opportunities.

Involving the devolved administrations, an important part of the review was the formation of UKNET as a UK-wide travel network boosting economic growth, supporting job creation, providing levelling up opportunities, expanding the transport system and creating “quicker and easier travel for passengers, freight and business”.

In a final report on the review in November 2021, the Government welcomed the idea of UKNET to map out for the first time key points across the UK that are “essential to stronger, more direct transport connections”.

Legislation

This has implications for the far-reaching Transport Bill — announced in May 2022 — which will affect issues as diverse as high-speed rail between Crewe and Manchester and legislation of e-scooters, but also, importantly, plans for legislation to change the structure and operation of railways in Britain with a new body known as Great British Railways (GBR) to manage all major aspects of the railways.

The strategy now standing at …

In May 2021, the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail white paper was released to revitalise UK railways and “put rail on the right track to support the levelling up on towns, cities and regions” as “the backbone of a cleaner more environmentally-friendly and modern public transport system across the country”.

Keith Williams wrote as the independent Chair of the Rail Review and Grant Shapps as transport secretary. Suggestions included replacing franchising, accelerating innovation and integrating the railways as a whole.

Their Plan for Rail recommended in November 2021 the development of a 30-year strategy, the Whole Industry Strategic Plan (WISP), to set the industry’s new long-term direction.

Great British Railways

Rather than being split up across the regions, the new concept will be managed (with some exceptions) from 2024 by GBR as a new state-owned body replacing Network Rail, the Department for Transport and the Rail Delivery Group (RDG). GBR will also control passenger train service contracting, set fares and timetables, and collect fare revenues in most of England.

In the interim, a Great British Railways Transition Team is responsible for delivering the changes, which are described as the most ambitious in a generation. They will focus initially on revenue recovery after a pandemic rail use slump, plus setting up a strategic freight unit.

However, the reorganisation is still a work in progress. In December 2021, there was a call for evidence to help inform WISP development in line with five key objectives of: meeting customer needs; delivering financial sustainability; contributing to long-term economic growth; levelling up and connectivity; and delivering environmental sustainability.

Environmental priorities

In June 2022, interim feedback on financial, economic and environmental issues was collated on all these issues from 307 organisations and individuals.

Interestingly, 71% said railways can play a greater role in decarbonising the whole transport network; on levelling up and connectivity, 69% thought rail will be important in creating better employment, education, and social opportunities.

A more detailed analysis is expected before the end of the year.

The Government has also canvassed opinions on proposed primary legislation changes needed to implement rail reform that will consider the core functions and duties of GBR, a new governance framework, and reforming wider industry structures and processes. It also wants evidence on risks and potential implications — including costs.

All aboard

The Government’s vision of a futuristic rail system was outlined in a speech Grant Shapps gave recently, standing in front of a Desiro Class 700 train, which he described as one of the world’s most advanced, and digitally enabled.

He listed passenger benefits that include live travel information, intelligent air conditioning, and capacity equal to 21 double-deck buses.

The “cleverest” technology is invisible to passengers, said the transport secretary, including the ability to detect faults before they need fixing by sending continuous live data to the Siemens control centre. The ultimate aim is a reliable, fault-free fleet that is easy to maintain.

However, he also called for staffing and conditions of employment changes which currently differ sharply from the views of the transport trade unions. Explaining that his union had rarely called for strike action since he took office in 2011, General Secretary Mick Whelan of the train drivers’ union ASLEF commented that: “There is no loss or cost to the economy in running your railway properly.”

Leaves on the line

One common criticism of railways is that they ruin natural landscapes, destroy wildlife, cause air, soil and water pollution and create unbearable noise and vibration.

The alternative view is that other than walking or biking, trains are the most environmentally friendly way of traveling and emit between 66% and 75% less carbon when compared to cars and airplanes; they produce 80% less gas emissions than cars. In 2019 they were the source of less than 2% of UK domestic emissions but accounted for 9% of passenger miles travelled.

GBR has been tasked with improving the environmental impact of the system, plus making it green and adaptable to climate change, as it picks up the existing baton from Network Rail.

Low-carbon technologies, such as battery and hydrogen trains, will replace diesel. Rapid electrification will allow electric freight to run on more routes; air-quality monitors will be installed at stations.

Passing on the vision

GBR is publicly committed to providing the UK with the “cleanest, greenest mass transport” that puts passengers and local communities first, while as “a good neighbour” it helps users make green choices around core priorities.

While decisions are being formed, a reference point is Network Rail’s own 30-year vision (details can be found here and here).

Its existing goals are to provide a reliable, low-emissions service that supports wildlife, is resilient to climate change and maximises recycling and reusing. Social value plans are addressed separately; as are noise, vibration and water pollution issues within wider Environmental Sustainability Plans.

Emissions

Specific aims are to cut CO2 emissions to achieve carbon neutrality in Scotland by 2045 and across the rest of the UK by 2050 — with higher air quality for service users and neighbours.

Biodiversity

As one of Britain’s biggest landowners, another goal is to enhance biodiversity “across rail’s landscape” by 2035 by providing protection, maintaining habitats, connecting fragmented wildlife habitats and capturing carbon with six million trees over an estate one and a half times the size of the Isle of Wight.

Climate change

UK rail should also be more resilient to climate change and severe weather by 2050, with ambitious, science-based targets to help limit global warming to 1.5°c. Practical impacts are flooding, service cancellations, infrastructure damage, and months of costly repairs.

Far from just being a future problem, climate change is already a railway reality and the Weather Resilience and Climate Change Adaptation Strategy 2017 – 2019 (WRCCA) has been in place since 2017.

Waste

By wasting less, recycling more, reducing material use and contributing more to the circular economy, the goal is to reuse, repurpose or redeploy so that by 2035 it will be normal practice to use materials made sustainably that do not pollute, last longer, and can be reused and recycled. Suppliers are expected to do the same. Annual supply chain spending has been circa £7 billion; but as an example the system reused 2.6 million tonnes of track ballast over a decade to save £9 million in material costs.

HS2 and Transport for the North (TfN)

While absorbing Network Rail, GBR will also work closely with HS2 Ltd and East West Rail Co., which will retain their current roles.

In November 2021, a potential role for Transport for the North (TfN) — England’s first sub-national transport body — was considered as a “pathfinder for reform” in shaping the future GBR and how infrastructure and services are delivered.

New regional home

To stress the non-London-centric role of GBR, a competition is being run to identify a town or city outside the capital to host its new headquarters. Possible locations include York, Darlington, Carnforth, Crewe, Derby, Swindon and Stockton. The results of this will be released in summer 2022.