Railway engineers work on an embankment

UK industry reacts to Network Rail spending plans

Railway engineers work on an embankment. Network Rail

Network Rail, the UK government agency responsible for much of infrastructure across England and Wales, has published its next five-year plan. The agency, which also works in partnership with devolved government in Scotland, has seen the document on the end of a mixed reception from the rail sector. While there has been some praise for the forthright admission that funds are limited, there has also been criticism that the resultant plan is limited in scope, and the underlying trend is for care and maintenance, rather than grand renewal.

Network Rail has been quick to stress that its five-year plan (2024-29, Control Period 7 – CP7) is a document, laying out its plans to answer the government requirements to maintain the railway network. Capital expenditure for big ticket items – like the Transpennine Route Upgrade for example – is subject to separate government funding. Nevertheless, the forty-four billion pound (51 billion euro) budget is a substantial sum – but so also is the task substantial.

Significant cabinet reshuffle

Among those responding to the publication of the Control Period 7 plan (which commences April 2024), the Railway Industry Association (RIA), which represents much of the supply chain, gave a cautious welcome. “The Strategic Business Plans provide important details about Network Rail’s spending proposals over the next five-year period, which can help businesses plan ahead and deliver work as efficiently as possible”, they said in their statement. “The plans have been published later than usual in the five-year funding cycle, and the equivalent Network Rail plans for Scotland have not yet been published, which are needed for rail supply companies to make their own plans.”

In Scotland, there has been a significant cabinet reshuffle, which included the transport ministerial role changing hands for the third time in fifteen months. Other factors have also contributed to uncertainty in Scottish transport policy – despite a firm commitment to decarbonise the entire passenger network on an aggressive timescale. Like the rest of Great Britain, policy decisions such as that are subject to separate funding, but obviously do have an impact on Network Rail planning.

Government is in the slow lines

For the freight sector, Network Rail has outlined significant developments, recognising its role in the economic and environmental objectives of governments in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff. Network Rail says it plans to invest heavily in upgrading freight routes across England and Wales. Those plans might be manifest in projects like the Ely area project (which will help enhance capacity to handle Felixstowe intermodal traffic) and wider, behind the scenes objectives, including digitalisation on the network and signalling modernisation.

However, there has been some concern expressed that the government has not yet put a timeframe on the proposal to integrate Network Rail into a new body – Great British Railways – which will take on a wide-ranging management role for “track and train”. There is actual concern that the coming session of parliament does not have a commitment to bring forward the necessary legislation.

Whatever the opinion of Network Rail’s plans, there is no escaping the overarching challenge faced by the agency. Step aside from the high-profile projects currently highlighted, and the day to day work of the engineers on the tracks are easily identified. The UK has the oldest railway network in the world, with many legacies of the nineteenth century still forming critical parts of the twenty-first century operation. Keeping all that in working order, in the face of intense operations, climate change and unfavourable economic circumstances amounts to a control period where many of the factors that will be in play are beyond Network Rail’s direct control.

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Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is UK correspondent for RailTech.com and Railfreight.com

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