The Last Word

01.01.15

We must speed up existing rail projects, not just announce new ones

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Dec/Jan 2015

Mark Cowlard, head of rail at built asset consultants EC Harris, and the former MD of Atkins’ Rail Solutions business, analyses the impact on rail of the chancellor’s Autumn Statement.

In this year’s Autumn Statement, George Osborne put great emphasis on creating a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ as a counterweight to the dominance of London: this mode of thinking must be welcomed. Investment in infrastructure contributes to GDP growth in a way that few other investments are able to achieve, and the proposed rail upgrades set out in the National Infrastructure Plan will have an enabling effect on the regional economies. However, a lengthy decision-making process on important and inevitable infrastructure projects is preventing any local and national economic benefits these schemes will bring from being realised.

The National Infrastructure Plan and Autumn Statement did not reveal anything new; the re-franchising of Northern Rail and the TransPennine Express, and replacement of ancient Pacer trains, are already well underway. With a general election approaching next year, what is really needed now is cross-party support to realise these plans, accelerate the schemes, and to deliver any resulting economic and passenger benefits as early as possible.

Public consultation on big infrastructure decisions is important, but it often leads to unfortunate delays for schemes that have clear economic benefits locally. Other democracies are able to move from concept to operation far quicker than the UK. We have the skills to put these plans into place but we need to accelerate our decision making process. Where schemes are badly needed and inevitable from a planning point of view, we should be able to move much more quickly to development. All interest groups have reason to support this, as local and national economic benefits will be delivered more rapidly.

For now, focus must remain on the big schemes. HS2, including its second phase, is critical and the calls for a further trans-Pennine route (HS3) are also welcome. The connection of these schemes to local needs through connectivity and economic growth is vital to driving plans from conception to operation.

Cities therefore need to think carefully and quickly about how national projects fit into local transportation plans, how they will make the case for investment, and how they speed up the decision-making process.

How much of the Autumn Statement and National Infrastructure Plan is really just electioneering? Political developments, including the rise of UKIP and Ed Miliband’s uncertain stewardship of the Labour Party, mean that the result of next year’s general election is even harder to call. All parties, and particularly the Conservative-led government, need to court the northern electorate.

The ‘Northern Powerhouse’ rhetoric certainly plays to this – indeed, for all of George Osborne’s fanfare, no new announcements were actually made. So, with such a frustratingly slow decision-making process, the tangible benefits of northern infrastructure remain a long way off.

Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Liverpool – the cities that will most obviously benefit from the proposals – have worked hard, independently of one another, maximising the opportunities presented by the government’s localism agenda. But it is my view that whilst cities need to respond with their own local plans to national investment opportunities, collective regional direction would help speed up the crucial decision-making process and deliver economic benefits much more quickly. The delivery of HS2, HS3 and the modernisation of the trans-Pennine railways are critical and inevitable regional developments, and regional leadership is required to turn electioneering into genuine local benefit.

Will these schemes lead to a rebalancing of the economy? They won’t do so on their own, but improved infrastructure through national and local railway projects will unlock invaluable human resource benefits for the regional economy.

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email opinion@railtechnologymagazine.com

Comments

A Rise   31/01/2015 at 11:50

After starting work with a company dealing with Network Rail I proposed a new item (non safety) to be used on a project. I was informed that it would be tested by the Network Rail Lab. This would take between 18 months to 2 years for a full spec test; even thou the item had already been tested by BSI and government and gained approval. Previously I had worked for a very large American electronics company which was focused on achievement down to dealing with approval of new equipment. It was agreed that the decision of a non safety items would be approved with 10 days. I spent many hours trying to find items that were approved by Network Rail to be used on projects. Most of them were out of date with technology. In the end I left the company as projects just dragged on without a conclusion. This is one of many that dishearten me. Something needs to be done to speed up approval of new technology.

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