Shoosmiths expert on DfT's Strategic Vision for Rail

Shoosmiths expert on DfT's Strategic Vision for Rail

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Author: Lee Perry

Shoosmiths transport and infrastructure corporate partner Martin Fleetwood analyses the details in today's rail strategy announcement by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling.

He says: "Arguably this strategic vision links all five foundations in the Industrial Strategy - ideas, people, infrastructure, business environment and place - and is a good starting point to ensure that there is a good transport network in place to support UK growth.

"The vision to expand the network, both though the addition of new stations and of new lines is most welcome. While old lines closed in the 1960s under the Beeching Report can be reopened, these need to be well considered projects and not just based on being able to re-establish an historic route. Whether a route opens as heavy rail or light rail should also be a factor, particularly for a route which would reconnect new housing to a city centre.

"As tram schemes in Manchester, Birmingham and Croydon - among others - have shown, using a combination of old railway line and alignments along public roads can unlock significant, environmentally friendly, transport capacity for their local region. While the strategic vision does not mention light rail as part of the solution, logically it needs to be part of it. Cambridge is currently looking at whether better benefits could be obtained through using a light rail link with the bio-medical campus rather than just heavy rail.

"Changes to the methods of franchising for passenger services will invariable attract a lot of attention. Getting the right contracting structure for the right type of service has long been spoken about within the industry and there are now examples of management contracts and concessions which can be used to help shape the right solutions. Moving away from mega-franchises is arguably a good move, both because the types of services within such large franchises differ markedly and also because there has generally been a loss of on-track competition.

"It cannot be right that the only competition is in connection with a bidding cycle for a franchise and the passengers, who now pay a much higher proportion of the railway's operating costs, actually have no choice over the service they have to take.

"Smart ticketing and fare reform are arguably two of the biggest challenges for the rail industry. As digital technology improves and changes, what seems to be the future now can quickly become technology of the past and care will be needed not to get locked into a technology which is past its sell-by date before it is implemented. Where there are changes to the ticketing system, it will be extremely important to have the buy-in of the passengers before any changes actually take place.

"The drive to innovate is one area that arguably should have more focus rather than being contained in the last two pages of the strategy. With an Industrial Strategy looking to build on the UK's expertise in coming up with world-beating ideas through both universities and industry, more encouragement would be welcome. What is not clear is whether money already committed by Innovate UK for existing ongoing competitions is included in the £40m fund mentioned, or if this really is new money. Where new innovations are developed, the industry needs to be agile and able to test and implement these innovations in the shortest possible time. Selecting an area to test an idea, whether it is joint operations between train and track or the use of innovative low cost infrastructure on a branch line should be actively encouraged.

"There is much to commend in this vision, but it needs to be both fleet of foot and committed to test out new ideas. We need to break away from the notion that the UK has the best ideas but lacks the resources and commitment to take them to the next step."