The Railway Industry Association (RIA) held its two-day annual conference on 4/5 November 2021, the first since 2019.
A packed programme included speeches from two government ministers and one shadow minister, as well as talks by industry leaders and several thought-provoking panel sessions, all on the theme of the conference – “Build back better, Build back greener, Build back rail.”
RIA chief executive Darren Caplan began by welcoming members and commenting on a new poll, which showed that confidence in the rail industry has returned to pre-2019 levels – a positive sign of growing optimism about the future.
He also set out RIA’s key ‘asks’ for government, including visibility of upcoming work, ensuring no hiatus as the industry restructures, decarbonisation, digital signalling and promoting rail as an export.
Around the UK
Introduced by conference host Sameena Ali-Kahn, the first panel saw an impressive line-up of speakers from across the UK’s nations and regions. Maria Machancoses of Midlands Connect set out the importance of Midlands Engine Rail, highlighting how it can add 736 extra passenger services per day, 72 more freight trains per day and be fully integrated with HS2.
Tim Wood, Northern Powerhouse Rail Director at Transport for the North, was clear on the need for Northern Powerhouse Rail and Transport for the North’s rail plans, which he said would help create 76,000 jobs and add £14.4 billion in value to the economy by 2060. He urged the Government to get on and publish the Integrated Rail Plan.
James Davies, CEO at Industry Wales, explained how he was passionate about moving people in an accessible, affordable and sustainable way and that too often the industry was focused on the ‘what’ and not on the ‘why’ of what the real opportunities are that rail brings to communities.
John Dickie, chief executive officer at London First, gave a stark warning on the need to get rail fares right following the pandemic, calling a rise in fares of RPI+1 “bonkers”. He gave three priorities – supporting people that want to come back to London, navigating the complex labour market and public transport leading the recovery.
David Barnett, general manager of engineering at Northern Ireland’s Translink, commented on the situation in Northern Ireland, where passenger volumes are now at 60-63% of 2019 levels. However, the market was shifting from commuters to much more leisure travel. In this context they are reviewing their offering, he added.
Finally, Justin Moss, head of electrification sales at Siemens Mobility and chairman of Northern Rail Industry Leaders, ended the panel by highlighting the work NRIL has done to bring northern companies together to share knowledge and lobby on behalf of the north, setting out how it provides a platform for RIA members in the region.
Caroline Donaldson is managing director of the West Coast Partnership, which is currently making recommendations to the Department for Transport (DfT) about the business case and feasibility of certain solutions for operating HS2. She explained that it was important that the WCP’s work is founded on evidence, looking at what the customers will actually want from it, and what they’re prepared to pay, so they get maximum benefit.
She said they were working closely with HS2 Ltd and there was still a lot more to be procured over the next 2-3 years, providing many opportunities for the rail supply chain.
Chris Heaton-Harris MP began by highlighting the important role of the rail supply community during the pandemic and thanked the industry for its efforts in keeping the railway moving. He said the industry now needs to drive the economic recovery and build a new economy. The money spent on rail generates a high level of income and supports thousands of jobs, he added.
The Minister then highlighted areas he wants to focus on to “build back rail” in a more sustainable way. First, he talked about investment and ensuring rail infrastructure is delivered. In particular, he praised the work done by the industry on Rail Project SPEED. Secondly, on the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail and the restructuring of the industry, he said he believes that the private sector is best placed to deliver the future of our railways and that Great British Railways stops us from blindly following a model that doesn’t work.
On the issue of the day, asked when the Integrated Rail Plan will be published, the Minister promised it will be “very soon”. On electrification, the Minister thanked RIA for its work to help cut costs, learning lessons from previous projects.
Turning to decarbonisation, he said that DfT’s message is that rail has a great story to tell already. However, commuters and freight customers still overwhelmingly choose road. “This has to change,” he said, adding: “So, our offer has to change.”
He ended by highlighting the net-zero rolling stock that delegates at COP26 can experience, including Vivarail’s battery train and Porterbrook’s hydrogen train.
An hour later, following lunch, Shadow Transport Minister Tan Dhesi MP addressed delegates on Labour’s vision for the railways, emphasising its importance for the economy and communities. Crucially, he stressed that the industry cannot go back to how things were pre-pandemic. “The 1990s franchise model does not work and must be replaced,” he stated.
Although the Conservative government has already said much the same thing, he set out Labour’s view on public ownership in the sector, saying “public ownership is a reality around the world,” but adding that there would not be a return to British Rail as there is an important role for private industry in Labour’s plans. In particular, he said: “Innovation will come from below, from start-ups and SMEs.” He added that the Integrated Rail Plan must come out soon to help suppliers and the industry plan for the future.
On decarbonisation, he said that, under a Labour government, the absolute priority would be to deliver a large programme of electrification. Rail must be “clean and green,” he stated, with electrification the first choice. “We need to move to low-carb – not a diet, but a low carbon future,” he added.
The day’s second panel session, chaired by Angel Trains’ Malcolm Brown, addressed the topics of zero carbon and sustainability.
George Davies, director of sustainable development at RSSB, said the industry should be proud of recent developments, citing Porterbrook’s HybridFLEX, Revolution VLR, the new Lumo service from Edinburgh to London and Skanska and HS2’s work recycling old wind turbine blades.
Steven Hart, Network Rail’s lead strategic planner, gave a frank assessment that rail needs to be easier to deal with and “sexier” to attract passengers and freight. Importantly, Steven added that, during the transition to Net Zero, it won’t be right to demonise diesel, but rather to clean it up – “diesel is not evil,” he said.
Will Wilson, chief executive of Siemens Mobility in the UK, highlighted how industry is good at picking up in adversity and making things happen. “Rreducing costs is the main barrier between us and decarbonising our railway,” he commented. “Rail has to remain the travel mode of choice in-between cities.”
Turning to freight, Maggie Simpson of the Rail Freight Group (RFG) was positive that modal shift is happening – “people are understanding that rail is a way to be sustainable,” she said. She emphasised, that in the short term, the railway needs to be low-carb rather than no-carb, including the use of longer trains and HVO diesel.
Wrapping up the session, Andrew Wolstenholme OBE, group technical director of Laing O’Rourke, outlined the scale of the challenge: “Construction contributes between 35 and 40% of the problem in terms of CO₂ – there is a huge opportunity, duty, task and challenge.”
John Larkinson OBE, chief executive of rail regulator the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), presented on the work his team is doing. He revealed that, once Great British Railways (GBR) has been set up, ORR will take responsibility for regulating the organisation – as present, it regulates the infrastructure but not the train operators.
Describing the Spending Review, he said there is a real need to give trust to people who fund rail – “Delivering volumes is crucial to trusting the system and Network Rail has done that,” he said.
The first day of RIA’s national conference concluded with an address by Mark Thurston, chief executive of HS2. Rather than a traditional speech, he showed a series of video recordings of HS2 employees describing what they do and the progress they are making.
In between the videos, he praised the role of the supply chain in advocating for the project during the Oakervee Review. He challenged the industry to do more on diversity and create a skills legacy from major projects. Looking ahead, he said the Bill for Phase 2B West will land in Parliament in the New Year, and HS2 will be looking to appoint a design partner for Phase 2A in around a year.
Before taking questions from the floor, he wrapped up by stressing the opportunity HS2 has to innovate, improve the way we build railways, to be sustainable, work with local communities, and opportunities for employment. “Let’s not let the opportunity pass us by,” he said.
“It would be unforgiveable not to capitalise on the opportunity HS2 creates.”
Day two dawns
After a successful dinner and RISE (Rail Industry Supplier Excellence) awards event the night before, the only recorded presentation of the conference opened the second day – a sign of how much everyone relishes the opportunity to get back together.Business and Industry Minister Lee Rowley MP thanked the industry for its work during the pandemic and set out the need to focus on infrastructure, skills, innovation and decarbonisation.
He also highlighted the Rail Sector Deal, speaking about the upcoming refresh of the document and the government’s support for the Global Centre for Rail Excellence (GCRE), which received £30 million of funding last year.
The importance of collaboration
Led by Ceri Evans, Bechtel’s head of rail business development for the UK & Ireland, the first panel of the day explored the importance of collaboration for rail projects. Each panellist made a short speech before the sessions turned to questions from delegates.
Network Rail capital delivery director Stuart Calvert spoke first. He set out his work on Rail Project SPEED and the key findings of his work on the Okehampton Line. He said it was vital that the industry moves from just compliance to creative problem solving and focuses on delivering a minimum viable product. He urged everyone to collaborate with communities to improve delivery.
Simon Blanchflower CBE, CEO at East West Rail, highlighted the importance of taking an enterprise approach to projects, saying: “Enterprise is everything we need to create the railway service and deliver outcomes, brought together in an integrated way.”
Viper Innovations’ John Lawrence discussed the importance of collaborating to generate maximum value. He questioned how central and local government could collaborate with the industry to create the new train paths that will be needed to build back better, and then how they could procure the products and services needed to deliver the reliability that will keep passengers coming back, all while creating the export market to maximise return on investment.
Alex Warner is managing director of Tracsis Transport. He is also non-executive chairman of the West Midlands Grand Rail Collaboration, a virtually integrated body to deliver railway improvements in the West Midlands. Many projects are involved, including looking at re-timetabling, ensuring a ‘one team approach’ to Birmingham New Street and planning for the Commonwealth Games.
His message: Collaboration should not just be a buzzword. “If I look back at my career, I have enjoyed it immensely, but in a lot of meetings I have been in, customers were not even mentioned. Luckily, we are moving away from that,” he concluded.
A once in a generation opportunity for the industry
The Rail Sector Deal had already been mentioned by Lee Rowley MP. Now, Anna Ince, vice chair of the Rail Supply Group (RSG) and chief executive officer of Resonate, set out the progress that has been made on its four pillars – the digital railway, mobility and data, a sustainable railway and exports and inward investment.
The Rail Supply Group has also been busy since the Coronavirus outbreak, with ‘Act Now’ initiatives setting out how the industry can be supported through pipeline visibility, improved railway access and better utilisation of data.
Anna explained that the Rail Sector Deal would be refreshed in the coming months, with a renewed emphasis on the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, levelling up, Building Back Better and Net Zero. She said they’d be running another survey to examine the priorities soon – watch this space!
Two foreign speakers then joined the next panel thanks to the wonders of the internet. Unsurprisingly, the topic was international trade.
Joining from Canberra, Australia, Caroline Wilkie, CEO of the Australasian Railway Association, spoke about rail activity taking place Down Under. She explained that the ARA represents 170 companies across a AUS$30 billion industry that was quite complex, with both private and state-owned operators and a federal state structure.
She added that there was a significant pipeline of work, with $155 billion of projects coming through, including Inland Rail, Sydney Metro, Cross River Rail, Melbourne Metro and Metronet amongst others. She also highlighted the skills shortage in the industry and the need to get more people into the sector.
In the room, Munir Patel, chief executive officer at XRail Grou,p gave his view as the new chairman of RIA’s Export Leadership Group and as an SME exporting across the world. He urged rail suppliers to get to know their market and to attend a trade show to explore what opportunities are out there.
The conference’s second overseas speaker, Kaspars Briškens, head of strategy and development at Rail Baltica, spoke next – dialling in from Latvia. He said Rail Baltica was a major project in terms of scale and complexity and so is keen to work with businesses on delivering something smart and sustainable. He urged UK rail businesses to come on board and find out more about the project.
The final speaker was David Priestley, head of export finance managers at UK Export Finance. He set out the opportunities for businesses to use export finance, highlighting projects where it had been used, including on Alstom’s Cairo Monorail project. He stressed that the organisation was there to support the industry and can offer advice for suppliers looking for help.
“We need to fight to get a different customer back”
The final session of the Conference was an interview with Network Rail chief executive officer Andrew Haines OBE.
He began with an honest statement that the industry could not simply rely on passengers to return. Although it was positive to see leisure travellers return in force after the pandemic, commuter numbers are still down and the industry needs to adapt to the new customer model.
When asked about his priorities for the coming year, he listed four topics: welcoming passengers back; not losing sight of safety; driving a leaner cost base; and transitioning successfully to Great British Railways
On upcoming projects, he said that, although there may be fewer ‘large’ projects over the coming years, that would be because some of those projects are massive – Transpennine Rout Upgrade counts as just one project for example. In total, there will be an unprecedented level of investment going into the rail network.
Andrew also promoted Network Rail’s work with SMEs and its aim to get more smaller companies into their supply chain.
A real win to bringing people back to the railway could be created through reforming the ticketing system, he added, to make sure it’s simple and accessible. And on the creation of Great British Railways, Andrew said you could expect moves to bring track and train closer together in 2022, although primary legislation would be needed to set up the organisation itself. He urged RIA and its members to ensure the industry does not turn inward during the restructuring.
The final question to Andrew came in two parts – what frustrated him most and what enthused him most? On the former, he said the speed of change was sometimes slower than he would like, and, on the latter, he spoke about decarbonisation, and the role of rail as a green, sustainable mode of transport.
That concluded the 2021 Railway Industry Association Annual Conference. Chairman David Tonkin summed up and thanked sponsors Viper Innovations, X-Rail, Withers & Rogers, Railtex/Infrarail, Cognizant, Morgan Sindall and mpro5 for their support.
He also thanked speakers and delegates for their participation, RIA’s team for organising the event, and told everyone he looked forward to seeing them again in 2022.