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Queen’s Speech indicates future direction of UK rail

  • United Kingdom
  • Transport - Rail

14-05-2021

The UK Government has signalled, through the Queen’s Speech of 11 May which set out its strategic priorities for recovering from events of the past year, that rail infrastructure will continue to have an essential role in domestic and global connectivity.

The rail sector has been planning and delivering a wide range of reforms in recent years, and it is anticipated that this trajectory is set to accelerate, to respond to drawbacks of the existing structure and to the impact on demand caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A key component of these reforms will be the delivery of new infrastructure from the Midlands to the North of England through the Integrated Rail Plan, with the Queen’s Speech also confirming a new Bill to be put before Parliament to deliver the Crewe to Manchester leg of HS2. Alongside, there is a clear desire to simplify the franchising model, to deliver a simpler system which has new fare structures, meeting a step-change in demand, in terms of both passenger numbers and the basis on which individuals will now wish to travel.

Whilst many of these proposals are not new, it is notable that the Government has doubled-down on its commitment to the rail industry as part of its long-term vision to “build back better”, rather than reacting in this regard to a steep short-term drop in demand. It is by no coincidence that the briefing note supporting the Queen’s Speech stresses that rail passenger journeys grew by more than 35% in the last decade, as prior to the pandemic there were areas of capacity constraint across the network. For that reason, we can expect rail investment to continue to reflect projected future demand, whilst addressing short-term economic and financial uncertainties caused by changes in how the nation is intending to live and work in a post-COVID world.

Reform within the rail sector is not unexpected – the Williams Rail Review was commissioned in September 2018 by the Government to analyse the entire rail system in the UK, with its findings having been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We understand from recent comments of the review’s independent chairman Keith Williams at RAIL’s National Rail Recovery Conference that its recommendations have recently been updated, and these form the basis of a Government White Paper that is expected to be published imminently.

The Queen’s Speech therefore provides a clear signal of intent on proposed reforms, with both passengers and the rail industry now awaiting further detail on how and when those reforms will be delivered, and how these will build on lessons learned whilst delivering for the nation well into the future.

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