Construction workers on the railway

RIA Conference Day 2 - The railway is part of British life

Despite numerous events being cancelled this year, RIA’s Annual Conference has still found its way into our calendars. Although, this year it's slightly different with everything being hosted online, they have still managed to structure a fantastic event. 

Yesterday (5 Nov) marked the second day of the event. The morning began with Graham Stuart MP, Exports Minister, Department for International Trade.

He spoke of the profound changes Covid-19 has brought to rail exports over the past 9 months.

He explained: "We want the UK's rail businesses to fully embrace the huge export opportunities. This government’s commit to Net Zero 2050 opens up numerous opportunities for rail tech companies. We are determined the UK rail remains at the forefront of the changes we are seeing worldwide."

One of the questions from the audience was has Covid-19 caused Government to review export support? Graham responded by saying they have recently launched an export academy and advisory groups, and he spoke of aa£38m fund to provide grants to UK exporters.

He also said he hopes our impending exit from the EU will not put a stop to UK trade.

“We are seeking to get the best possible deal. Government are implementing a series of measures to support UK rail exporters in overseas markets.”

Graham also praised the UK rail businesses who, "are creating solutions to some of the most considerable transport challenges we face."

Graham was followed by Rail Minister, Chris Heaton-Harris who began by reflecting on the first lockdown back in March and where we are now 7 months later.

He described that the reason we got the Emergency Recovery Measures Agreements is because Government understands how vital rail is to our country, by connecting people and transport goods via freight.

The Acceleration Unit, which was launched by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps back in August, was also discussed. Chris said they, “want to expose the delay at the heart of Govt” in terms of infrastructure projects.

The Treasury has injected even more funding into rail over the past seven months due to Covid-19 and has been funding rail at 30% capacity.

Chris said: “The treasury is comfortable doing this for the next 18 months and we have the Spending Review going on right now that should be completed at the end of this month.”

"Electrification fits very nicely with Government's green agenda", Chris stated. He praised the industry for building skills to deliver it, and claimed Government has "massive ambition" for electrifying rail network.

Next up was Jim McMahon MP, Shadow Transport Secretary.

He began by discussing the funding gaps between the north and the south when it comes to rail investment. He said: “We hear a lot about levelling up, we’re often left waiting far too long to see action on the ground. Northern Powerhouse spending has seen a spending decrease of 20%.”

He called for the Government to deliver the full HS2 project and warned that not completing every stage of the project will deplete efforts to “level up” the North.

He stated that a longer-term investment plan for the railway network is vital and we need to put an end to “the abandonment of projects.”

Accessibility of our stations was also raised; Jim highlighted that 40% of stations in Britain don’t have step-free access and if we carry on at the pace we are, our network won’t be fully accessible until 2070.

In terms of rail fares, Jim said Government needs to review the current position and called for more flexible fares and season tickets, in light of Covid-19 changing work patterns.

He explained that Labour’s priorities for UK supply chain are longer-term investment programme for all industries, as well as more radical view from Government.

Following on from Jim was Chief Executive of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, Nick Smallwood.

He kicked things off by outlining the challenges of the pandemic to infrastructure projects delivery, he further added that rail infrastructure is a key part of the National Infrastructure Strategy which we will hear more about in the coming weeks.

Nick highlighted that there is a surprising lack of modern technologies used to build rail projects and we need to ask why is this the case?

"I certainly welcome connection with anyone in the supply chain who has good ideas to share with us" he stated.

On improving delivery of major rail projects, Nick said there are a few fundamentals such as consider behaviours of a team, improve quality of cost-estimate and front-end loading and the need to be curious about value management.

He finished with a challenge to the industry “to modernise, shape up and become more diverse.”

The afternoons first panel discussion was all about aiming for world class projects. Mark Wild, CEO of Crossrail, said the key lesson from Crossrail is, “to build a minimal viable product.”

Stuart Calvert, Capital Delivery Director Wales & Western, Network Rail, said his role in terms of projects is all about, “absolutely delighting every passenger and the treasury” and that “you should be driven by your need and be driven by your customer.”

David Hughes, Director of Strategy & Programme, Transport for the North, said there is a risk the industry and Government over-corrects away from arms-length delivery body for the next mega project.

The second panel discussion of the day was around ‘build back better’. Russell Jackson, Head of Rail EMEA, AECOM, said we need to put the outcome first, whether that is passenger interests, creating jobs or the economy. Also, it is key to have a collaborative, one-team approach for the industry, "very much a culture change."

Nick Bisson, Director for HS2 and NPR, Department for Transport, echoed the importance of rail to future growth of economy and a "one-team approach".

And Practice Director at Atkins, Jo Moffatt, urged the audience to look through a lens of equality, diversity and inclusion, and to recognise diverse teams perform better.

On changing procurement processes after the UK leaves the EU, Jo explained: "Behaviours matter more than process."

The final speaker of the day was nonother than Sir Peter Hendy, Chairman of Network Rail.

He began by speaking about the Union Connectivity Review. He explained that the review will look at what needs to be done to connect the transport systems across the UK, he added that it will be "an interesting challenge" & "not without its political overtones."

The prospect of building a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland was also discussed.

“If you look at the distance between Scotland and Northern Ireland it’s no longer than the Channel Tunnel. We are looking to find out if it’s feasible and how much it will cost, then a calculation as to whether such a thing is worth paying for.”

In terms of the pandemic, Peter said: “As eventually we come out of this, it’s clear to me that there’s going to be increasing economic pressure on the railway.

“If you’re going to build back better, and you believe as the Prime Minister does in infrastructure projects, our job is then to make sure our investments are the right ones and at the right sort of costs. There’s a clear thirst in Government for better transport and greater economic growth.”

On the Williams Review, Peter said the Review will certainly set out a better plan for running the UK's railways.

The TfL bailout from Government was also questioned. With Peter saying the settlement for now brings an end for Crossrail 2.

He concluded by saying: “The railway is part of British life. People adore train travel, they don’t like us when it goes wrong, but you only have to look at what happened in the pandemic, it’s an integral part of British society.”

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