Making the case for rail

In our most recent insight article, SYSTRA's Business Development Director, Mike Muldoon, puts forward a strong case for rail and explains how we got here.

In a post covid world where everyone drives electric cars do we still need rail? Why not end the post-Covid subsidies, scrap HS2 and wind down the network? After all, passenger numbers have dropped...

Such questions would once have been unthinkable, but the concept that we can decarbonise yet still travel, guilt free, without the most efficient form of land-based transport is seeping into Whitehall thinking. They are seduced by dreams of battery cars that charge faster than a petrol fill-up and cost next to nothing – due next year, always next year. And their hands on the levers start to set rail investment and support to lower levels.

How did we get here? At the last general election in 2019, the case for rail expansion and decarbonisation made total sense as there was no question about the fundamental necessity for rail. Rail was carrying almost 10% of journeys whilst emitting less than 2% of transport emissions. It could be made cleaner and had the capacity to carry more. Covid changed all that, or at least, it changed some of it and can be blamed for much more - if that suits your agenda.

The people making those 10% of journeys have changed. Some of them are travelling less, their work patterns have changed, or they moved house to different places in the rush for personal space. Or they just decided to drive more. Whatever they did, they did not come rushing back and buy the same, expensive rail tickets. Passengers are back on the network, some are different people, travelling at different times and for different reasons. They have wised up to the cheaper fare options the network has always offered. In a cost-of-living crisis, people travelling for less could be seen as a good thing. But to others it means lost revenues, lower yields and, crucially, more subsidy. With TOCs hand-tied and disincentivised to grow revenues, there is little prospect of short-term improvement.

The journeys that are still made by rail (even diesel-powered), would be less energy efficient and more carbon intensive on any other mode apart from foot and bicycle. That leaves 90%+ of journeys that could be made more efficient, decarbonised significantly, and removed from other, more congested modes. The same applies, of course, for freight.

Financial pressures are testing political commitments to net zero, but let's assume it still matters. The benefits of delivering on net zero are the health, safety and wellbeing of the planet. Will our children be better served by the option to travel at very high speed up and down the spine of the country from both the north west and north east and to cross the north at will or will they be better served by ever more congested roads and a mountain of batteries to recycle?

With the average electric SUV costing over £22,000 more than its petrol forebear, there will be a lot of people looking for alternative means of travel. The key metric should be an overall reduction in the number of vehicles, not just the proportion that are electric. We must focus on shifting the travel modes used to deliver these journeys, by making the most efficient modes the most attractive. Rail can be attractive, cost-effective and aspirational if it is well operated and well supported politically.

The debate must not focus upon rail's 10% mode share, instead we must focus on the 100% of future journeys and how many of those can be made by rail. People still want to travel – the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) are correct in their latest ad campaign - nothing beats being there, but we need to facilitate this, as do so responsibly. The strategy must be threefold; rail must: increase its modal share; highlight the inherent efficiencies of shifting to rail; and, campaign for a true measure of its value - social, environmental and economic. So how will we do this?

Consistency and reliability is key to reassuring customers that they (or their goods) will get to where they need to be, when they want to be there. The network must be fit to support the services being operated on it. Skimping on maintenance, delaying renewals and deferring enhancements all contribute to a build-up of problems that eventually overwhelm the ability of the network to operate through service deterioration, revenue decline and, ultimately, failure of key infrastructure.

Cost management needs scruitised, of course it does, but in that bigger transport picture, where moving more journeys to rail brings decongestion elsewhere, and decarbonisation everywhere, we must value the return on what we spend more wholistically. This approach will also provide a more fertile ground for private finance.

Rail is the most carbon efficient mode of powered, land-based mass transport. However, these credentials can be eroded by the first and last mile elements of the journey. Nobody's journey starts and ends at a railway station. We are right to highlight the phenomenal efficiency of steel wheel on steel rails, but we must also focus on the end-to-end journey and improving the overall offer and the options available. This may be integrated active travel provisions for those capable, optimised connectivity with low carbon powered solutions for others, and efficient interchange and onward distribution for freight.

Finally, social value modelling can be used to calculate the benefits of getting this right for future generations and to show those holding the purse strings. The distinct shift in public understanding of climate crisis and environmental degradation makes recent suspicion of rail even more absurd and disappointing. Far from freezing investment in HS2, this is the time for driving investment into rail. There is no other efficient, zero-carbon, transport solution for our islands that can replace rail. We need to ask ourselves, are we really doing enough to make the environmental case for rail?

Mike Muldoon, Business Development Director, SYSTRA