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Hopes rise for rail electrification spend


12 June 2020

Network Rail is hopeful  the Government will authorise a programme of rail enhancements, including electrification schemes, as part of the country’s Covid-19 recovery planning. 

NR chief executive Andrew Haines told a briefing for journalists this week that he was picking up “very promising” comments from Government about infrastructure investment as part of the recovery. 

Network Rail was fielding lots of enquiries about electrification from the Government in the context of the decarbonisation agenda, he added. The Scottish Government was very keen on electrification too.

Haines said Network Rail had suggested a number of “no regrets” electrification schemes, including extending Midland Main Line electrification north from Market Harborough in Leicestershire, infill schemes on the Great Western, and electrifying from Didcot up to Coventry. 

Network Rail was developing  “fit for purpose” standards for electrification, which would reduce the costs of wiring in the  the TransPennine Route Upgrade (TRU) programme (see ‘NR finds savings on rail electrification’ LTT 15 May).  

It is also looking at how to cut the time taken for enhancement projects to pass through the rail industry’s GRIP (Governance of Railway Investment Projects) procedures.

Covid-19, the subsequent lockdown restrictions, and Government messaging to avoid using public transport, have caused passenger numbers on the railways to plummet. 

Haines said patronage was still less than ten per cent of normal. The Government had given the railways a “really peculiar brief” to run services for little demand. “We’re running a lot of very empty trains.” 

Service levels in England were increased on 18 May. Haines said a further increase would take place on 6 July that will see services return to about 80-85 per cent of normal (In Scotland, 

ScotRail increased services from 47 to 60 per cent of the normal timetable from 15 June).

LTT asked if a suggestion that the  Government was spending an extra £180m a week on the railway was accurate. “That doesn’t sound a million miles off,” he said (the DfT could not give a figure when LTT asked this week).  

Network Rail’s own income is largely unaffected by the pandemic because track access charges have been fixed through the five-year regulatory Control Period 6. All that has changed is the source of the income, with the funding coming from the Government rather than train operators. 

Haines said Network Rail had continued with its programme of renewals and enhancements through the pandemic, spending about £1bn in April and May. 

As the risk from the virus diminishes, he said there would need to be a cross-industry campaign to restore confidence in using the railway.

Turning to the long-term implications of the pandemic, Haines thought the Government would have to introduce flexible ticketing on the railways to reflect the increase in home working, such as season tickets that are not priced on the assumption that users travel five times a week. 

The industry would need to provide more space for cyclists at stations, he added. 

In March, the Government temporarily suspended rail franchises for at least six months, with franchise holders now running services for a management fee. Haines did not foresee many franchise holders wanting to reassume the revenue risk any time soon.  

The industry had been braced for reform before Covid-19 struck, with the Government  preparing a rail White Paper informed by the industry review chaired by former British Airways chief executive Keith Williams. Williams told MPs last autumn a new organisation was needed to act as the industry’s “guiding mind” (LTT 08 Nov 19).  

Haines said Covid-19 meant the Government’s emphasis for rail was likely to be on doing things on the ground rather than getting bogged down in new legislation for three to four years. 

He said Williams remains active in the industry and the two of them speak twice a week. Williams is also chairman of the Royal Mail and was last month made its executive chairman after the company’s chief executive abruptly resigned.

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