Transport for the North’s annual conference in Liverpool took place on 5 February, with Copper in attendance alongside political, business, Government and industry leaders from across the region. The focus for this year’s conference was how to ‘Transform the North’.  

On 8 February two of the team attended the Young Professionals in Rail event ‘Politics in Rail’ in London. The event was an opportunity to hear from a panel about what they believe are the main political challenges facing rail in the UK.  

Some of the key speakers we heard from were:  

  • Huw Merriman MP – Minister of State for Rail and HS2 
  • Andy Burnham – Mayor of Greater Manchester 
  • Tracy Brabin – Mayor of West Yorkshire  
  • Steve Rotheram – Mayor of the Liverpool City Region 
  • Lord Patrick McLoughlin – Transport for the North Chair and former Secretary of State for Transport 

From our attendance at these two conferences, there were six key takeaways: 

Focus on the benefits of rail investment for local communities 

All too often, the business case for rail infrastructure has been focused on its technical benefits for the rail network, and not on the wider benefits for society. At these events, we were challenged to consider land value capture and the whole life value of the project. Placing upfront CAPEX in this context would allow for increased consideration of the wider benefits of the railway.  These wider benefits are not limited to higher land value, but include new shops and restaurants, affordable housing, connectivity for those who don’t own cars, and less congestion because of fewer people driving.  

Rail freight should be treated equally with passenger rail  

There is a tendency in the rail policy world to view rail projects primarily from the perspective of passengers travelling by train because passenger rail is more public facing than rail freight. However, there is a significant opportunity to increase the amount of goods transported by rail; at present, only 8.6% of goods in the UK are transported by rail. Advocates for rail freight need to emphasise its capacity benefits: a single freight train can replace 76 lorries on the roads. To some extent, the government acknowledges this; in December 2023, the Department for Transport announced a rail freight growth target of 75% growth in net freight tonne kilometres by 2050. But meeting this target will require more investment in rail freight from both the government and the private sector.   

The rail industry must recognise inclusivity and deliver on social value 

Transport Related Social Exclusion (TRSE) is not a new idea, but it is back on the agenda. Senior figures within the industry highlighted it as a must for unlocking the North’s potential at the conference. 3.3 million people are at high risk of social exclusion due to inadequate public transport in the North, 21% of the population, compared to 16% nationwide. Transport for the North has set a goal of reducing this number by a million within their soon to be released and revised Strategic Transport Plan.  

To tackle this problem it must be central to the national strategy for transport infrastructure spending. There must be targeted investment in areas that are feeling the impacts of TRSE rather than a blanket approach or equal investment to all areas, to avoid existing inequalities being perpetuated.  

Current and future devolution deals present new opportunities 

England has some established combined authorities with devolved transport powers. Mayors of these combined authorities are keen to improve the rail network in their areas. Andy Street has proposed building three new stations, and he is using his influence to help secure funding. Devolution allows for different modes of transport to become more integrated, and directly elected mayors provide a point of accountability for the running of services. For example, in Liverpool new battery powered trains were rolled out on the MerseyRail network and the new Headbolt Lane station was opened on the route served by the new trains. In Manchester, the TFGM bee network was rolled out thanks to the power of devolution. This year, new combined authorities will be established in North Yorkshire and York, the Northeast of England and the East Midlands. Thus, opportunities for rail policy to be devolved are set to increase.  

Rail has a crucial role to play in helping the UK achieve Net Zero by 2050  

The UK has made considerable progress in reducing its carbon emissions especially compared to other major developed nations.  However, the pace in which transport emissions have declined has been slower than in other sectors like energy. Because rail has a much lower carbon footprint than driving or flying, it is estimated that the UK will need to more than double its rail capacity by 2050 if Net Zero is to be achieved. Enabling modal shift and transporting more people and goods by rail will ensure that the UK’s transport sector reduces its overall carbon footprint. 

 

Collaborating with wider society will help make the case for new rail projects and maximise the benefits of the existing rail network  

If performed well, collaboration can benefit the rail industry by creating new advocates for rail; industries such as tourism or finance will lobby for rail investment if they believe they will benefit. We are already seeing this happen in London where the West End retail industry lobbied hard for the construction of the Elizabeth Line, due to the increased shop footfall caused by the completion of the line. Similarly, big companies such as Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank and Jacobs have expanded their presence in Birmingham partly due to the improved connections to the city offered by HS2. 

Overall, the panellists at both events were optimistic about the future of rail in the UK. There are a lot of exciting changes happening to the rail sector, from the delivery of HS2, the devolution of rail governance, to the establishment of Great British Rail. The challenge is that the politics of rail are often fraught, with rail being less of a political priority than other sectors such as energy or housing. The rail industry needs the government to keep to long-term commitments on investing in rail, and to reform the planning system so projects can be delivered more quickly and affordably.