Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne has called for business to play a much bigger role in helping fund rail projects and improvements.
Carne said that railways were not just important because of the increased number of people using them, but that they were also a major driver of economic growth.
“We know that rail can unlock housing supply to bring communities that have traditionally been cut off within reach of major urban conurbations,” he said. “Just yesterday we announced that we have identified almost 200 sites across the country which will deliver almost 12,000 new homes, and we are continuing to review our land assets to see what more we can do.”
He said the impact of rail improvements, including new stations and new lines, had been felt around the country with investment in housing as businesses chose to move or set up in or near the upgraded areas.
But he went on to urge businesses to help fund the growth.
“We know that rail investment, such as transforming stations, can drive regeneration. But we cannot continue to rely on public funding to do so. It is clear that we need to increasingly source funding from those people, authorities and businesses that directly benefit from better railways.”
Carne highlighted the relative success of Britain’s railway by saying that there had been a doubling of passenger numbers over the last two decades; a 40% cut in the cost of running the railway in the last decade and it was the safest major railway in Europe.
He acknowledged how running more and more services to respond to demand had led to serious congestion on many important routes, especially at peak times, and how this has had a significant impact on being able to run a reliable and punctual service.
Speaking about what Network Rail needed to do to deliver a better railway, he said: “Network Rail is transforming to put the customer at the heart of everything we do.
“We may be a public-sector organisation, but my vision is that we behave like a private sector business – relentlessly customer focused, cost-competitive, commercial and with a high-performance culture and a plan to deliver a railway fit for the future. Transformation is not a choice, it is a necessity.”
Looking to the future, Carne outlined how, with passenger numbers predicted to double again within 25 years, he planned to be able to run more trains on the current infrastructure – without the need to build new infrastructure that would cause huge disruption to passengers and local communities and businesses.
Instead he explained how using tube-like digital signalling technology – similar to that which has revolutionised the Victoria and Jubilee lines in London – more trains could be run on existing tracks.
“We need to accelerate the transition to digitally run railways so we can unlock the benefits before the network is gridlocked,” he said.
“This will be the biggest transformation in the history of Britain’s railways. And I consider it a national imperative.”