Will ‘Project Speed’ Help UK Rail To Stay On The Right Track?

September 2, 2020

On 30th June, the UK Prime Minister announced a series of infrastructure projects to aid economic recovery as the Country bounces back from the Pandemic.

What is Project Speed?

Led by the Chancellor, Project Speed is designed to bring forward proposals in order deliver government’s public investment projects more strategically and efficiently. The DfT’s ‘Acceleration Unit’ will be in place by September, with a team of experts tasked with tackling delays to transport infrastructure projects as well as programmes made up of several individual projects. The unit will be led by the current chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport, Darren Shirley. Transport secretary Grant Shapps said the unit, together with investment in roads and railways, would help the UK recover from the economic downturn caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. At the same time, the government announced a £360 million investment in roads and railways with particular investment in the Welsh railway network.

Infrastructure expert Robbie Owen of Pinsent Masons said the acceleration unit was one of the first tangible signs of the government’s ongoing ‘Project Speed’ initiative led by chancellor Rishi Sunak. Owen said the unit should focus on four key areas which were a consistent issue in major transport programmes and projects.

“Government needs to re-consider the speed with which it is able to approve business cases and give funding approvals for individual projects; these still seem to take too long, particularly for projects that are being taken forward by supposedly national or regional devolved bodies in England and for projects already included in an investment programme such as the Road Investment Strategy 2,” Owen said.

“It is critical that government reviews and updates the ageing suite of National Policy Statements [NPS] for nationally significant transport projects and puts in place a new and overarching NPS linked to the forthcoming national infrastructure strategy, supported by sector-specific strategies and by spatial policy for major regional transport infrastructure initiatives such as the Cambridge to Milton Keynes and Oxford arc,” Owen said.

“This will ensure that we can build back better – more sustainably and in a net zero world – and would also reduce legal risk as the current age of the NPSs is leading to an increase in judicial reviews when transport projects are approved on the basis of the NPSs,” Owen said.

Owen said further work was required to streamline planning processes for large infrastructure schemes, particularly to bring them fully into the digital age and to make the various environmental assessments and appraisals much more streamlined and efficient.

“The Development Consent Order regime under the Planning Act 2008 could be improved yet further and other planning regimes, particularly the Transport and Works Act 1992, should be reformed to require government to make decisions within a fixed timescale as they must under the Planning Act 2008,” Owen said.

Owen said other agencies also needed to be engaged in the process of accelerating transport infrastructure.

“Statutory environmental, heritage, transport, utilities and other consultative bodies – such as Natural England, the Environment Agency and Network Rail – play a key part in the design, approval and delivery of transport infrastructure projects taken forward by others and yet their engagement in these projects currently leaves a lot to be desired. Government needs to review how these bodies are funded to do this important work and how the need for them to facilitate delivery of the projects, in the national interest, is hard-wired into each of their organisations,” Owen said.

Why is additional investment important?

Having witnessed the severe downturn in the Aviation sector, there are many skilled people looking for opportunities. Project Speed, along with CP6 and HS2 will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs and this can support those with transferable skillsets from aviation, automotive etc. into the Rail sector and significantly increase the talent pool. Additional investment in electrification schemes for example will help address ongoing issues in how we will become Carbon Neutral by 2050 as a Country, and also the ongoing climate crisis. Additional investment will also help improve passenger experience with potentially faster and more frequent services, as well as stations opening up again to serve small communities cut off many years ago as a result of the Beeching Report. Interconnectivity will be vitally important in a post Pandemic World.

Passenger numbers will recover, and a 21st Century transportation system is incredibly important for the UK so additional investment is extremely welcome.

Robert Nisbet, director of nations and regions for the Rail Delivery Group which represents the rail industry, added: “Putting investment in rail on the fast track is good news for communities and businesses across Britain.

“Rail companies will continue to work together to deliver vital improvements to make our railway greener and support job creation.”

Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Railway Industry Association (RIA), said: “It is positive news that the Government has set up a new unit to accelerate transport projects, as well as providing £340 million for rail schemes in Wales.

“Speeding up rail projects is a clear way in which the Government can spur green economic growth, jobs and investment around the UK following the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

What is happening next on “Project Speed”?

Further announcements are expected in the Autumn.

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