Autumn statement – what’s in it for rail?

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Photo: Network Rail.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Phillip Hammond, presented his Autumn Statement to Parliament on November 23.

The former Secretary of State for Transport (May 2010 – October 2011) spoke of forecasts for growth (2.1 per cent in 2016, reducing to 1.4 per cent in 2017), of growing employment (2.7 million new jobs since 2010) and of fiscal policy.

He covered a lot of ground. But, buried in his 6,000-word statement, were some items of interest to the railway industry: “Reliable transport networks are essential to growth and productivity. So this Autumn Statement commits significant additional funding to help keep Britain moving now, and to invest in the transport networks and vehicles of the future.

“I will commit an additional £1.1 billion of investment in English local transport networks, where small investments can offer big wins;

“£220 million to address traffic pinch points on strategic roads, £450 million to trial digital signalling on our railways to achieve a step-change in reliability and squeeze more capacity out of our existing rail infrastructure and, finally, £390 million to build on our competitive advantage in low emission vehicles and the development of connected autonomous vehicles; plus a 100 per cent first year capital allowance for the installation of electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

“The Department for Transport will continue to work with Transport for the North to develop detailed options for Northern Powerhouse Rail.”

But there was more. Alongside this commitment to push through a trial of digital signalling, and to support rail in the north of England, he looked at other regions as well:

“I am also backing the Commission’s interim recommendations on the Oxford-Cambridge growth corridor, published last week, with £110m of funding for East West Rail, and a commitment to deliver the new Oxford to Cambridge Expressway.

“But this project can be more than just a transport link, it can become a transformational tech-corridor, drawing on the world-class research strengths of our two best-known universities.”

The Midlands wasn’t forgotten either: “Our Midlands Engine strategy will follow shortly, but I am today providing funding for the evaluation study for the Midlands Rail hub.”

So that was it.  Digital signalling, the Northern Powerhouse, East-West rail and the Midlands Rail Hub. No great detail about how it was to be accomplished, and a clear link between rail and highways investment.

What did the industry think of the announcements?

Dr Colin Brown, director of engineering at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, was critical: “Today’s announcement of additional spending for transport, technology, energy and infrastructure, leaves one crucial part of the puzzle out: skills. All this funding, without the skilled people to deliver these projects, is like funding an empty shed.

“Government wants home-grown talent to deliver Research & Development, driverless cars and new energy infrastructure, but we just don’t have the sufficient engineers to deliver this. We have a shortage of key skills today and no clear plan on how to develop a skills pipeline for tomorrow.

“Government must face facts and outline a clear strategy to ensure the UK has the skills it needs for the economy to thrive.”

Patricia Moore, UK head of infrastructure for Turner & Townsend, commented: “Infrastructure is clearly still a priority, with Philip Hammond reaffirming that it’s a powerful way of driving broad-based economic growth.

“We were never expecting a blank cheque, given the huge pressures of Britain’s debt, but to have an outline of funding for specific projects together with the establishment of a working assumption of 1-1.2 per cent GDP for investment planning is a positive move to provide the longer-term certainty that our industry craves.

“We welcome the announcement that more funding is to be allocated to research and development, a driver of innovation to UK businesses. As infrastructure programmes increase in scale and become more complex, innovative management of programmes and advancement of project delivery through big data needs advancing at an unprecedented rate.

“The infrastructure sector must benefit from the announced R&D funding in the future, and we look forward to working with our clients to develop their responses to this as well as seeing further details on the government’s industrial strategy.”

James Stamp, head of transport at KPMG UK, also referred to the need to develop technology: “Even with investment in specific schemes, a stark fact remains: demand for transportation will always be ahead of our ability to pour more concrete.

“Making more from the capacity we have is – and will stay – key. Without this, congestion will remain a limiting factor on productivity.

“It is therefore vital that investment in transport innovation tackles not only the specific issues of today, but also fundamentally how and why people will travel in the future.

“Smart ticketing, autonomous vehicles, and smart infrastructure all individually promise incremental benefits, and investment in this area is therefore encouraging. But the exponential change that could be unleashed by combining these initiatives (along with better use of data for providing information and choice to passengers) together is the real prize.

“Translating the potential of Mobility-as-a-Service, enabled by digital technology, to reality will require collaboration between policy makers, private operators, and transport authorities. It must be a key aim for the Government.”

So a welcome Autumn Statement but, as is so often the way of these things, it lacked detail and didn’t comment on some important areas.  As the Secretary of State for Transport fleshes out the Chancellor’s comments in the coming weeks, it will be interesting to see what he adds to the debate.

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