Planning for the long-term…

In her blog this week, Chief Commercial Officer at the Global Centre of Rail Excellence, Kelly Warburton, says rail decarbonisation requires long-term decision making, starting with a major opportunity around rolling stock

Decarbonising the UK rail network is one of the most urgent and strategically important challenges our industry faces.

Transport is one of the biggest emitters of carbon in the UK and so the development of sustainable, integrated and multi-modal transport systems right across the country, with a decarbonised rail network at their heart, is critical to meeting the ambitious carbon reduction targets the UK has now set.

But making sure that our rail supply chain is primed to support the work needed to make that transition a successful one is critical. And as a new report recently from the Railway Industry Association has highlighted, rolling stock is one of the most important areas where we have the opportunity to take bold, long-term action.

As the RIA report rightly points out, what is needed now to support ambitious carbon reduction targets is a coherent and long-term strategy for the decarbonisation of rolling stock alongside clear signals to the market about how that is to be achieved. In short we must ensure that we are planning now, right across the industry and its supply chain, for the development and manufacture of rolling stock that is fit for the type of decarbonised railway we want to see across the UK in the coming years.

With the production capacity that has been developed in recent years, together with the research and development strength that exists across the four nations, the UK is well placed to more than meet the challenge of producing and maintaining the rolling stock we need for the future.

Indeed, with our own Global Centre of Rail Excellence facility soon to be added to the landscape – a purpose-built facility for research, testing and certification of rolling stock, infrastructure and cutting edge new rail technologies that will become Europe’s premier site for rail innovation – the UK is well geared to lead the world in the development of new rolling stock and innovative traction technologies that can support the decarbonised rail network of tomorrow.

Meeting the challenge is partly about giving confidence to the market so it can plan production and maintenance in a timely and effective way. A more balanced and consistent profile of vehicle production and delivery expectations will give all the leading players in the supply chain the chance to plan in more depth the work they need to do to contribute to the decarbonisation effort. It will also optimise the value-added capability of our own GCRE site so we can better plan the testing and maintenance needs of that fleet.

Of course, its easy sitting outside UK Government to make some of these asks. This will require long-term funding commitments and in the midst of one of the most difficult and challenging periods for public spending in the last four decades its incumbent on those of us in the wider industry to understand the challenge faced by UK Ministers in underpinning these plans.

What might mitigate some of the concern is understanding and leaning into the enormous strengths of the rail innovation landscape we have in the UK and, in turn, developing a new mindset and approach to the procurement of the new fleet that’s needed.

Key to that new approach is harnessing the capacity we have in the UK to develop, produce and maintain the rolling stock of tomorrow. With a new, purpose built facility like the Global Centre of Rail Excellence coming on stream in the next few years – a facility that will increase the capacity for testing, maintenance and upgrading of new rolling stock – stronger risk mitigation and, in turn, value for money considerations could be built into the business case required for commissioning new assets at the front end as their whole life operations are more effectively managed and extended.

Long-term planning is certainly critical because the technical challenges of what’s ahead are significant. The RIA report highlights the introduction of ETCS technology to all fleets over time, the implications of which are certainly ones that need greater visibility across the supply chain.

But again, understanding and utilising the strengths of what the UK has in terms of rail innovation could help support some of the long-term decisions we need to make.

Having a UK based innovation, test, validation and certification facility in the form of GCRE means that the UK has a lot of the critical tools needed to support and accelerate the deployment of the new decarbonisation technology that’s needed. This in turn will increase efficiency and capacity across the UK network, which itself opens up exciting new opportunities to accelerate modal shift to passenger and freight railways.

From an economic development perspective its also critical we get these decisions right. One of the ways in which we can positively help support a more balanced economy across the UK is through the long-term development of supply chain opportunities that come from net zero transition.

This Is particularly important in supporting economic growth in deindustrialised areas of the UK. The Welsh Government’s support for CAF in Newport has provided important new skills and employment opportunities in the south east Wales region and the investment made by both our governments in the Global Centre of Rail Excellence in South West Wales will be a powerful engine of economic growth in the coalfield communities nearby.

One of the ways in which we can positively help support a more balanced economy across the UK is through the development of new supply chain opportunities that come from net zero transition and a critical opportunity to do this comes through the work to decarbonise the rail network.

Greater certainty of funding and orders will not only help support net zero transformation in the industry, but also provide much needed economic security for existing manufacturers based in the UK, as well as offer the opportunity to plan additional capacity and maintenance needs.

Decisions like these are never easy to take and we should do more as an industry to work with and alongside Ministers as they grapple with the wider considerations that have to be factored in. But addressing the climate crisis and decarbonising our rail network are things that have to happen and the faster we take these next steps, the better we’ll be for it – as an industry and as an economy.

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