Rail’s Role in Building Back Better from COVID-19

By  Jonathan Bray

Pre-pandemic, the UK’s rail network was a runaway success on patronage growth but an industry facing a comprehensive redesign after being let down by a cumbersome structure which passengers and politicians lost patience with for its day to day performance and periodic nervous breakdowns (the coup de grâce being the Thameslink and Northern timetable meltdowns).

Now the world is turned upside down. The pandemic has delivered a punch to the railway’s solar plexus – its ability to get commuters quickly in and out of city centres at scale.

Meanwhile, administering financial life support, and creating some breathing space about what to do next, has taken precedence over whatever it was the somewhat obtuse Williams Review was aiming to achieve.

So what next? The extent and rapidity which rail use (particularly commuting) comes back is as yet unclear – but looks unlikely to return to what it was anytime soon which means the COVID-19 funding gap is likely to remain substantial.

At the same time, the Government’s long term ambitions for levelling up, decarbonisation and rail expansion (from HS2 to putting Beeching into reverse) remain intact. The railway (like much of the rest of the public transport) is currently straddling the chasm between the Government’s sunny long term aims and the Treasury’s desire to scale back and withdraw from additional COVID-19 funding as soon as it can.

But let’s be positive and take the Government at its word on its long term ambitions for rail. All of which are shared by devolved authorities and administrations – who were ahead of the game in seeing how they could use devolution of responsibilities of franchising to achieve these goals prior to them being taken up in Westminster. Hence, where franchising responsibility for services were devolved, we have seen greater investment – from the UK’s most advanced commuter trains on Merseyside to a line and station reopening programme in Scotland implemented when the Treasury in London was still looking to complete Beeching rather than reverse it.

You wouldn’t know it from much of the coverage of rail issues but devolution was one of the biggest and best things to happen to rail in the last decade – with pre-pandemic one in three rail trips made on fully or partially devolved networks.

Devolved authorities and administrations back rail now for similar reasons as they did before the pandemic – but more so as they seek to build back better as part of a green and just recovery from the crisis. They back rail because they see how it can contribute to their wider goals of taking road traffic out of urban centres to create places that people want to live, work in and invest in. And because of how it can be at the heart of their housing, regeneration and economic plans.

The danger of the current period is that the industry retreats into its shell and becomes insular. The industry’s future shouldn’t be about repelling ‘outsiders’ but lies in being essential to the wider plans of the three nations of Great Britain and every region and city region of England in building back better from COVID-19.

*Jonathan Bray is Director of Urban Transport Group. The opinion piece was first published un UK Transport Times.

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