Andrew Haines

UK: ‘This is a fantastic time to look at reshaping the industry, as we come out of Covid and look to build back’, says Network Rail Chief Executive Andrew Haines.

Talking to Rail Business UK on June 23, Haines described the Williams-Shapps Plan for reforming Britain’s rail sector as an ‘absolute milestone’ that would overcome many of the hurdles created by the Railways Act 1993 which had not been predicated on growing the rail sector.

‘The government is committed to growing the railway, and to decarbonisation’, he insists. ‘There is no appetite to use coronavirus as an excuse to shut the railway. We have a white paper that is clear on its intentions, and a Prime Minister who is passionate about infrastructure development.’

Network Rail overhead line engineers

Haines recognises that ‘we need to change the way we function’, adding that the establishment of Great British Railways as the central ‘guiding mind’ for the industry would provide a greater degree of separation from government when it comes to day-to-day decision-making.

‘We need a rail sector that is simpler, sustainable and more separate. We cannot afford for the railway to atrophy — at the moment it takes too long to respond to a changing market because of complex contractual relationships. And we need to be more sustainable: affordable, user-centric and green.’

Transitional framework

Insisting that there is no intention to ‘move too quickly on implementation’ of the Williams-Shapps Plan, Haines emphasises that the government intends to consult with stakeholders over the coming months to finalise key aspects of the proposals and draft the legislation needed.

Given the government’s extensive legislative programme, he does not expect this to be presented to parliament much before the end of 2022 at the earliest.

Recognising that the Williams-Shapps Plan is very much a ‘high level’ document, Haines confirms that there will be a ‘huge piece of work to flesh out the detail’ over the next couple of years.

Stowe Hill drainage lots of staff

He has been asked to lead a cross-industry working group which is developing a transitional framework and will put in place the core processes that can be achieved within the current contractual structure. He hopes to present some initial proposals to the Secretary of State by the end of July, with a view to mobilisation in the autumn.

With workforce reforms, new working practices and efficiencies seen as a key element in the reform proposals, Haines describes the recent framework agreement between train operators, Network Rail and the trade unions as ‘very significant’.

It recognises the need for change, and ‘tries to create a framework for doing that collaboratively, getting away from the adversarial confrontations that have been so damaging to our industry’, he suggests.

Covid recovery underway

Haines confirms that ‘the Covid effect on ridership is not going away quickly’, reporting that passenger traffic on the national network was back to around 45% of the figures seen in February 2020. But the picture was very different across the various parts of the business.

Hull Trains coronavirus seat label

Short distance leisure volumes are back to around 75% of normal, he reports, whereas long-distance business travel is hovering at just 20%, driven in part by reduced capacity for social distancing and the imposition by some operators of compulsory seat reservations.

Looking ahead, Haines anticipates a ‘different dynamic’ in the passenger market, with more people working from home and ‘a shift of commuting patterns’. However, this offers a demonstrable opportunity to attract new business to rail, with a major marketing initiative ready to be launched once the remaining lockdown restrictions are lifted.

Electrification coming

Asked about electrification and the cross-industry Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy, Haines says there is strong pressure to demonstrate progress before the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November. Rail Minister Chris Heaton-Harris anticipates that the final business case for TDNS will be published ‘by the end of the summer’, he noted.

MML electrification renewals

Haines says Network Rail and its industry partners have done ‘a huge amount of work’ to convince the government that it has learned lessons from the Great Western Electrification Programme in order to control the cost of future schemes, and he hopes to see some key ‘no regrets’ electrification projects authorised in the coming months.

‘We are on the cusp of some material progress which makes economic sense’, he adds. ‘We have made the case that it is cheaper and more sustainable to get going sooner.’

One area being looked at is access to the infrastructure for major works, and the trade-off between train operations and engineering blockades. One area of focus is the Midland Main Line ‘for when we go north of Market Harborough’, he says. And as part of the transition to GBR, work is needed ‘to build a whole-industry financial framework in order to understand the trade-offs’.