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What are our railways really worth?

Former campaigner's picture
Station at sunset

Rail’s strength is not just in moving people. It cuts carbon, supports communities, develops local economies and much else. The rail industry – and franchising in particular - must do more to understand, promote and develop these benefits. 

New research by Campaign for Better Transport's thought leadership programme, Tracks, provides clear evidence that a strong railway can bring many good things. As well as good mobility, well-run train services improve air quality and help cut carbon emissions by getting cars off the road; support local economies by bringing people into town centres; can directly provide a hub for the community through smart use of building and land; and a lot more besides. 

These are much more than ‘nice to haves’ to be tagged onto a cost-benefit analysis after things like ticket revenues have been estimated. Indeed, they show precisely why investing in the rail network it is worth doing in the first place. As well as moving huge numbers of people and millions of tonnes of freight, rail is a central part of the kind of accessible, low-carbon, high-benefit transport network the country needs. 

The UN's Sustainable Development Goals, domestic planning guidance, the Industrial Strategy, Carbon Budgets, the UK Air Quality Plan and even objectives to develop tourism, all highlight the need to make more of rail. And good things are happening. 

For example, the Association of Community Rail Partnership (ACoRP) can cite numerous initiatives where rail is seeking to harness more of its potential. Projects with ex-offenders, imaginative use of redundant buildings and local procurement are all happening. Hopefully, the Government’s ongoing review of Community Rail will develop this further. Similarly, the Rail Standards and Safety Board’s (RSSB) sustainability principles are supported by an active programme of research and development. 

It is perhaps through franchising agreements where the biggest benefits currently stand to be made. In our research, we looked at how environmental, social and economic benefits are reflected in several current franchise agreements. While intentions seem to be good, making them stick is much harder. The agreements are often heavy with process objectives such as strategies and working groups, or very specific actions such as numbers of cycle racks and training places. 

There are real barriers here. Franchises are short term and community engagement needs to be long term. For bid teams and Whitehall officials, franchises are often too distant from the communities they aim to serve. Community engagement should be more than supporting local volunteers to improve the appearance of stations. Deeper two-way engagement is needed that goes beyond ‘tick box’ initiatives to score a few points in bid assessments and gives people a real say in how the railways are run.  

On environmental themes, good progress has been made in cutting carbon, waste and water use through widespread adoption of ISO and other standards. We now need more transparency - baseline data can be a weakness, water and carbon reduction targets are often redacted from franchise agreements and savings made are not included in public reporting. Similarly, waste reduction targets are limited to rail operations and do not include organisations renting rail land and buildings, even though this is arguably where the majority of waste is generated. Other environmental impacts, such as noise or air pollution, are not even included in the franchises we looked at.

Support for local economies is even harder to pin down. Franchise holders’ obligations are less numerous and weakly developed compared with other elements of sustainable development. This in part reflects very patchy local authority engagement due in part to the decline in resources and rail skills in many authorities. 

Some good progress has undoubtedly been made, but sustainable development on the railways now needs to take a leap forward. For franchising, that means active and demonstrable support objectives like a low carbon economy, integrated public transport, air quality targets and sustainable housing growth.

That might include a high-level vision for sustainable development on the railways owned by the Department for Transport; a focus on integrated bus and rail services, rather than regarding them always as competing; using models such as community interest companies to manage buildings over the long term; and developing a circular economy or Social Return On Investment models to measure progress and judge the case for investment. Only by doing these things will we properly understand and reap the benefits from our railways. 


Image by Adam Tas via Flickr.


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