Infrastructure: the rail story

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We don’t talk a lot about rail when it comes to infrastructure, long-time readers of our blog will know the road network is critical for sending and receiving goods, recruiting and retaining employees and operating efficient ‘just in time’ manufacturing methods.


Rail divides the debate on infrastructure neatly into the movement of goods and the movement of people, a divide that is supported by manufacturers.

Rail – moving people…

Our Transport for Growth survey indicated it is an important network for customer relationships, for large manufacturers and for recruiting and retaining employees in some parts of the country.

  • The most critical or important activity derived from rail is building and maintaining customer relationships with 34% of manufacturers saying this was critical or important (50% of large companies said that rail was critical or important for this)
  • 27% of manufacturers say the rail network is critical or important for recruiting and retaining employees, with significant regional differences. For example in London and the South East that figure is 34.7% and for the North West it is just 19%

The rail network was also cited as a barrier to recruiting and retaining employees, with 24.3% of companies saying it was a barrier. Again regional differences exist, in London and the South East that figure rises to 30.4% and for large companies that figure is 33%.

…not necessarily goods

  • While 47.4% of large companies say rail freight interchanges with the road network is essential or important for company growth, 65% of all manufacturers said it was not important at all
  • Additionally just 19% of manufacturers say the rail network is critical or important to their company for sending or receiving products and raw materials, again skewed toward large companies (35.9%).

There has often been talk of shifting freight off roads and onto rail but as we’ve highlighted before, just a 10% shift in freight volumes from road to rail would completely swamp the rail network, grinding it to a halt.

Transport statistics show rail freight is mainly used for volume commodities such as coal and steel and construction products.

It works, but why?

  • 79% of manufacturers say they experienced no significant problems from the UK’s rail network, which, given the limited use by manufacturers may be a bit unsurprising.

Read another way, it could also be an indication that the arms-length forward looking approach used for rail investment (which has recently been copied for roads) has ensured provision stays one step ahead of demand. If only we took this approach with all infrastructure sectors

Investment is set to continue with over £22bn pledged over 2015 to 2020 for Network Rail (and £16bn for HS2 over the same period).

Given the challenges around recruitment and customer relationships, the focus for that investment from manufacturers would be on conventional passenger rail (38.5%), followed closely by access to international gateways (35.7%).

The pursuit of this may be aided by devolved transport budgets.

Greater Manchester has recently completed an extension of its tram network to the airport using funding from a devolved revolving transport infrastructure fund, with future funding coming from any additional revenues from a growth in business rates.

Expanding this opportunity to other areas would help to put local areas in the driving seat to prioritise rail schemes that expand access to skilled talent and improve connectivity to regional airports.


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