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The Importance of Rail to our Growth Agenda

Train on railway transport

Fundamental to our plans for a sustainable future is our need to reduce our environmental impact and transport is currently a major polluter. This means we will have to drastically reduce carbon intensive travel options such as air travel and fossil fuel vehicles. Rail is the most ecologically sound clean-air option for long distance and local commuter high-demand routes. This is why we need to prioritise investment in rail.

Transport and connectivity are an essential aspect of sustainable growth. The question is ‘What is the right type of rail – high-speed, intercity, local commuter rail or light rail?’. The reality is we need them all. We need to link our primary, secondary and tertiary cities and towns so that knowledge, manufacturing and commerce can flourish, and people can access employment from where they live.

The arguments are always that rail infrastructure is too expensive, but the problem is that we don’t think of it as long-term investment. Rail has a potential life of 100-150 years. For example, the £15Bn cost of London’s Crossrail 1, if spread over 150 years, equates to £1Bn per decade; this is peanuts compared to the estimated UK expenditure on highways of about £30Bn per annum. 

The UK population is projected to increase by 3.6 million over the next 10 years, and about 7 ½ million in the next 25 years. Estimates are that we need to build 250,000 homes every year for the foreseeable future. The growth will have to be absorbed somewhere. We need to find land in our primary and secondary cities, be smart about how we distribute our development and avoid building over the Green Belt. We need to preserve our green spaces to sustain our built environment’s ecological footprint. To support the growth and to avoid car dependency, we need integrated regional transport networks that typically should consist of fast high-capacity heavy rail that interconnects with local rail services, then potentially light rail or bus rapid transit and that finally connects onwards by ‘softer’ solutions such as walking, cycling and Mobility as a Service.

High-capacity fast rail has an essential role in supporting business and manufacturing and spreading wealth across the country. The ‘wealth spread’ is not sufficiently appreciated and detractors of rail investment claim high-speed rail it will only encourage longer and longer commutes. However, many European countries have, over recent decades, been investing in enhancing their rail infrastructure and an extensive European network of rail, with easy interchanges, has now been created, allowing for easy movement between cities and countries. As a result, European countries see strong metropolitan regions that are well connected to each other with regional and local rail transport systems. These regions are able to compete on a global level, to a great extent because of the condition of excellent mobility for people and businesses. Much of West Europe is now so well connected that rail is generally favoured over air travel and, for example, business travellers from Paris to Lyon now rarely choose to fly, as was the case a decade ago. Connected cities will allow the country’s wealth and benefits to be shared across the nation; but for this to work, it must include a web of connectivity – this could be air travel, highways or RAIL!

There is another good reason why to invest in rail – people universally hate traffic – it causes stress and pollution.The private car has assumed a ‘right’ to our roads and parked cars destroy the streetscape. We need to re-establish streets as places for people and city life, so we need to reduce our dependence on the motor car. If the aim is to create liveable communities, then we have to tackle our relationship to the car and our acceptance of traffic. Without local and long-distance rail, this is going to be a hard nut to crack.

Thank you to Camilla Ween, Director of Goldstein Ween Architects and Chair of the Spacelink Learning Foundation for providing us with this insightful addition to our blog.

If you’d like to hear more from Camilla, she will be speaking at the upcoming Future of Railways Transport Conference on 12th February 2019 in Salford.

Join us by securing your tickets here using promo code RAILWAYCONF to get a complimentary place.

Alternatively, find out more information about our upcoming events here

Follow the conversation on 12th February using the hashtag #RailwayConf

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