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UK plans for rail industry growth are promising, says expert

The UK Rail Supply Group (RSG) will work with the industry to improve productivity in the UK's railways and to train skilled workers, it said in a report published this week.03 Feb 2016

The plans laid out in the RSG report are a promising sign that the industry's problems are finally being addressed, said infrastructure expert Patrick Twist of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com

The government has made a commitment of £88 billion in the domestic rail infrastructure pipeline, including HS2 and the London Underground, in what is the greatest investment in over a century, the RSG said.

The RSG will now aim to "raise the profile of the industry to help attract 20,000 new apprentices, working with the sector’s unions to ensure they develop in a productive environment", it said.

The group will publish a rail skills plan by March 2016 with a focus on regional and SME organisations, and launch a network of training facilities this year.

The body also aims to offer a sector-wide exports and inward investment advisory service, with strategies based on lessons from France and Germany, it said.

The RSG promised to deliver clear plans on: procurement and planning; promoting UK technology; developing and attracting skilled workers; supporting SMEs and increasing both exports and inward investment. 

Patrick McLoughlin, Secretary of State for Transport and co-chair of the RSG said: "We are funding the biggest rail modernisation programme since Victorian times, which is creating opportunities for UK suppliers across the country. We support the rail industry’s plans to strengthen our supply chain so British companies can win more work here and abroad.

This "focus on developing a skilled rail workforce is very welcome", McLoughlin said. "Our priority is to attract the nation’s talent to the industry and to equip them with the skills to deliver on our commitment to build a world class transport infrastructure system."

Infrastructure expert Patrick Twist of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com said: "Rail usage measured by passenger miles has been on a continuous upward trend, doubling over the past twenty years. There is no sign of this ending, indeed the slight levelling off that occurred after the 2008 recession has been left behind. Growth has reverted to over 4% per annum and predictions are that this rate will continue into the foreseeable future."

"The growth in rail usage has been accompanied by very substantial investment in rail, and every prospect of this increasing over the next couple of decades," Twist said.

"While this can be considered unalloyed good news, there are a number of serious issues. Cost has been a continuing bugbear, both in terms of operations and infrastructure expenditure.  In the past, stop-go expenditure resulted in the decline of manufacturing capacity. The industry failed to operate in a joined up way, with limited collaboration and lack of an industry voice. There had been inadequate research and development expenditure in the UK rail industry and generally there has not been the drive to take advantage for the nation of the opportunities available to the rail supply industry," he said.

"This new strategy document recognises these issues and analyses in detail what needs to be done.  The involvement of government is a welcome recognition of how important it is that there is a co-ordinated and well thought out approach for the future. There are already some very positive developments, notably the establishment of the National College for High Speed Rail which will ensure that there is the technical skill and expertise among a younger workforce," Twist said.

The National College for High Speed Rail was announced in 2014 and is due to open in 2017 in Birmingham and Doncaster.

"The overspending and delay issues that blew up at Network Rail last year were symptomatic of the very big challenges facing the rail supply industry. The Rail Study Group’s report is a promising sign that these challenges are being addressed," he said.