UK gets new rolling stock orders but manufacturing is still boom and bust
The Railway Industry Association (RIA), the voice of the rail supply community, has welcomed two recent tenders for rolling stock; up to 70 new or refurbished multiple units for passenger operator Chiltern Railways and a larger call for 450 new multiple units for Northern Trains, the largest operator by area covered in England. This comes following a recent RIA report, The UK Rolling Stock Industry: Making 2023 the year of opportunity not crisis, which highlighted the risks to the UK supply chain if orders for new rolling stock were not forthcoming.
Both tenders for new passenger rolling stock highlighted what the RIA called the need for flexible low carbon rolling stock which will enable the creativity of the supply chain to develop future proof designs, improving the railway’s offering both for environmental sustainability and passenger experience. They say this chimes with RIA’s #RailDecarb23 campaign, which urges the Government to accelerate plans for rail decarbonisation.
Even greener railway but volume of orders is needed
“With a recent RIA report calling on the Government to take urgent decisions around rolling stock, we naturally welcome these two significant tenders of up to 520 low carbon multiple units”, said David Clarke, RIA’s Technical Director. “The industry and whole country will continue to benefit from these rolling stock orders as they will result not just in improved passenger experience, but also help to retain valuable jobs, generate economic growth, reduce emissions and improve air quality.”
The UK as a whole is committed by government policy to radically decarbonise the economy. Some commentators say the transport sector has been unfairly targeted, but, nonetheless, the rail sector has responded admirably to the call to go even greener. “These tenders demonstrate a strong commitment to the future of the supply chain, resulting in a significant strengthening of the pipeline of work which will deliver modern trains equipped with cleaner technologies”, says Clarke. “It is important to recognise however that this volume of orders is needed annually for the supply chain to be able to permanently break out of the historic boom and bust cycle.”
Downsizing but cautious optimism
For at least 30 years the UK rolling stock industry has been characterised by that rollercoaster of ‘boom and bust’ noted by Clarke and demonstrated in the RIA report . There are many precedents for factory closures in the UK. In the freight sector the entire rolling stock indosuty has been eradicated with the exception of the specialist and highly regarded WH Davis. In the passenger sector, Washwood Heath plant in Birmingham closed on the completion of the Pendolino tilting train assembly programme in 2004, and York’s famous works went soon after privatisation a decade earlier. There has also been a recent contraction in the UK upgrade capability, with plants in Scotland, Doncaster and Loughborough all downsizing.
There is however cause for cautious optimism. In 2011 there was only one new build factory in the UK. According to the RIA report there are now five which is positive and reflects the previous demand for new build trains. That demand has, however dried up says the RIA in their report, “The UK Rolling Stock Industry: Making 2023 the year of opportunity not crisis“. “The owners of these factories and the major upgrade and refurbishment facilities are global businesses and will make unsentimental and rational decisions based on their confidence in the pipeline of opportunities. At present there is no visible pipeline and therefore the only rational decision must be to reduce cost and ultimately close the facility.”