Reactions to the UK’s Integrated Rail Plan

19 November 2021

Does the change of direction announced on Thursday 18 November in the government’s Integrated Rail Plan go far enough in addressing our country’s rail capacity and interconnectivity?  

Mike Birch

Mike Birch

UK Head of Rail
Ramboll. Andy Bell.

Andy Bell

Highways Director
T: +44 7501 495 204

Bram Miller

Technical Director, Strategic Sustainability Consulting
M: +44 7436 545 408

The government have certainly had some tough choices to make. Promises made to the North to level-up and calls to uphold their commitments. Voices of opposition to high-speed rail from many corners. A backdrop of tightening purse strings as we recover from the impacts of the pandemic. The Integrated Rail Plan is certainly different to what was promised and arguably prioritises cost and speed of delivery over capacity and interconnectivity, but is it all bad?   

Ramboll’s transport experts share their immediate reactions to today’s announcement.

Mike Birch, Head of Rail for Ramboll in the UK, commented on the challenges the government’s HS2 decision brings: 

“Whilst the significant cost of big infrastructure schemes such as High Speed 2 (HS2) might feel a harder pill to swallow with the financial pressures arising from the pandemic, the decision to scrap the eastern leg of HS2 is nonetheless hugely disappointing for many. 

Levelling-up and investment into the Northern Powerhouse it critical for our economic future. Transport connections are of course integral to this, not just from North to South, but East to West.  The investment into traditional rail links will help realise some benefits more quickly for some parts of the country but will not come anywhere near close to what HS2 would have brought in terms of addressing the imbalance of rail services across the North for the longer term.”

Andy Bell, director at Ramboll and chair of ACE’s transport group, reflected on the HS2 decision and the impact for the engineering industry:

“Just 18 months ago the Prime Minister told Parliament in a statement following the Oakervee review, that it ‘does not make any sense’ to build Northern Powerhouse Rail without HS2 and the Government’s strategy was to do both ‘simultaneously’. Clearly the pandemic has strained public finances since then, but another change of approach does not help an engineering sector scaling up skills and resources – at a time of global demand for rail expertise – around what appeared to be clear commitments and pledges.  

“The priority now must be to make the new approach deliver for both society and the Net Zero economy we must build. This means ensuring that the schemes that do go ahead increase rail freight capacity and encourage people out of cars, while also ensuring that they are designed as part of broader place-based regeneration strategies. With the change from Network Rail to GB Rail another potential complicating factor, ensuring a coherent and dependable pipeline of work for efficient rail investment needs to be a priority for the Department for Transport.

“Only then will rail be able to effectively contribute to improving the lives of people in communities across the UK.”

Bram Miller, director in Sustainability at Ramboll, speaks to the need for an integrated transport strategy: “Similarly to COP26 and the Environment Act, there are gaps that the Integrated Rail Plan doesn’t fill, and these will be a blow to some, however it also does deliver progress. The confirmation of the tram service in Leeds is good news, whilst critics understandably argue that this only improves mobility around the city and not to the city, it can serve to attract people and businesses to Leeds. 

The difficulty, though, with piecemeal improvement schemes is the interconnectivity and how we move through the different modes of travel. For me, the UK is still in dire need of not just an Integrated Rail Plan, but an integrated transport plan. One that looks at the whole system and considers big infrastructure through to micro-mobility, and which moves through to those last 5-minutes of a journey which are often the most difficult.”  

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