Restoring abandoned railway lines emerges as a crucial solution to secure the future of the industry amidst a decline in commuting caused by the pandemic, according to Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines. In a thought-provoking speech delivered at the Railways Industry Association (RIA) Innovation Conference, Haines highlighted the pressing need for the industry to evolve beyond its reliance on commuter funding and adapt to the changing landscape of post-Covid travel patterns. He emphasised the importance of creating a welcoming and reliable railway system that minimises disruptions, encourages travel, and offers affordable solutions to passengers.
Haines expressed the strong support and commitment of the UK government, led by a prime minister who is keen to invest in railway infrastructure and believes in the reopening of Beeching lines. The government's interest in affordability is not merely driven by financial considerations, but by a strategic vision to maximise investments and provide a wider range of travel options for the public. Haines underscored that efficiency and cost-effectiveness must be integral components of any ambitious plans undertaken by the industry.
Amidst these discussions, the Department for Transport (DfT) recently unveiled an impressive array of 85 rail schemes competing for investment under the Restoring Your Railway ideas fund. This funding opportunity presents a significant boost for proposals seeking to reinstate stations and restore passenger services that were closed during the 1960s Beeching cuts. The previous funding rounds have already witnessed the successful allocation of funds to 15 proposals, with 10 schemes receiving backing in the initial round.
Excitingly, one of the first projects set to witness services being restored under the government fund is the Dartmoor line between Exeter and Okehampton. Scheduled to resume services later this year, this development highlights the industry's commitment to reviving previously dormant routes and enhancing connectivity for both local communities and tourists. Haines emphasised the immense potential of tapping into the leisure travel market as a means to sustain the railway in the long term. He stressed the importance of providing an end-to-end service that seamlessly connects rail travel with popular tourist destinations, offering convenience and accessibility for passengers of all types.
To further accommodate leisure travel and minimise disruptions during peak travel times, Network Rail is actively exploring the possibility of adjusting maintenance work schedules. Traditionally, maintenance activities have been concentrated over weekends and bank holidays, causing inconvenience to travellers. Haines believes that leveraging technology and adopting innovative approaches can enable the completion of maintenance work within shorter time frames, such as a two-day period, ensuring smoother travel experiences for passengers while maintaining the integrity of the railway infrastructure.
Haines expressed his unwavering belief in the transformative power of the railway industry to drive economic growth and prosperity. The restoration of abandoned lines, coupled with a dedicated focus on providing reliable, affordable, and efficient rail services, serves as the cornerstone for securing the industry's future success. By embracing strategic considerations for leisure travel, fostering innovation, and aligning with the evolving needs of passengers, the railway industry can unlock new opportunities, contribute to sustainable development, and remain a vital pillar of transportation infrastructure in the years to come.