Comment & Analysis

Why should we invest in our railways to increase capacity?

Philippa Oldham

Increasing capacity: Putting Britain's railways back on track
Increasing capacity: Putting Britain's railways back on track

Philippa Oldham, the Institution's Head of Transport, reflects on our new rail report, 'Increasing Capacity: Putting Britain's railways back on track'.


As a commuter I arrived at the station yesterday morning prepared for the much publicised additional cost to my train fare. After an indulgent Christmas period we all feel the pinch on our pockets as we are hit again with the annual fare rises.

Our transport network is declared by operators and engineers as capacity-constrained, yet in reality this is not a problem that is visible as most of our tracks appear to be empty most of the time. How can we ensure that consumers are getting value for money and reaping the rewards?

Today the Institution publishes ‘Increasing Capacity: Putting Britain’s railways back on track’This report provides expert insight into what can be done to fill these tracks with more trains, as well as addressing solutions to challenges such as how we can solve over-crowding. The report suggests how improvements to our network can help shift congestion off our roads, and looks to a future where our transport system is truly integrated.

Over the last twenty years our rail network has seen a 116% increase in passenger usage and a 34% rise in use for freight. Network Rail’s own market analysis expects passenger travel to double again over the next 30 years. So how do we ensure that this mode of transport offers a service that is fit for purpose?

The UK has one of the safest railways in the world, but it operates on some of the oldest infrastructure which has lacked investment and which, consequently, constrains capacity. If we are to offer businesses and passengers an attractive alternative to road, we need to invest in our rail infrastructure. We need to enhance our existing network to make it more efficient, resolving known bottlenecks and pulling through innovation as soon as it has been proven. This report draws on four case studies that show how rail can achieve these goals.

Value for money?

Many people query and object to large infrastructure projects such as High Speed 2, so are these investments worth it? The answer is yes, and one of the report's four case studies centres on the project, looking at the wider picture of what is needed.

The UK’s infrastructure is currently ranked at 24th in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report. The 2016 National Needs Assessment stated that in 2014–15 the UK Government financed £49bn in infrastructure development from a combination of public and private sources. While this investment is welcome, it is nearly 40% short of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recommended target of £80bn per year by 2020–21.

So, investment in new infrastructure providing additional capacity is needed. Now, I am an engineer so I can offer practical solutions to bottlenecks, but what about the economic forecast? Well, the World Economic Forum estimates that every dollar spent on capital projects generates an economic return of between 5% and 25% (PWC and Oxford Economics 2014) so surely these large investments must be of value.

The UK needs a transport network that is integrated and incorporates all modes seamlessly. As engineers, we are committed to sustainability and we understand the strengths of rail. We want to capitalise on the energy, economic and safety benefits of rail over road to deliver longer distance and inter-urban passenger and freight flows, as well as passenger movement both within and into cities.

To facilitate optimisation, the flow of people needs to be better understood. We should not merely capture data from station to station usage patterns, but identify origin to destination, where passengers are actually coming from, and why they select particular types of transport.

The way in which people and freight move is entering a revolution, signified by the concept of Mobility-as-a-Service. This defining technological step-change in how we see and use all transport modes will have fundamental consequences and opportunities for the railway sector, challenging it anew to help deliver Britain’s future demands.

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