Restoring abandoned railway lines is among key solutions to secure the future of the industry given the pandemic-driven decrease in commuting, according to Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines.
Haines told the Railways Industry Association (RIA) Innovation Conference that the industry “won’t be able to rely on being bankrolled by commuters” in a post Covid world.
Going forward, he said it will be necessary to be a “welcoming” and “reliable” railway that minimises disruption and encourages travel. He also emphasised the need to come up with affordable solutions.
“We have a prime minister who really wants to invest and who believes in Beeching line reopenings," Haines said. "He is on our case week after week about the Northumberland line and Okehampton line because these are passionate commitments.
“The government is also interested in them being affordable not because they want to spend less money but because they want more things to do. That is fundamental. There’s no point talking about big plans unless we can talk about big efficiencies as well.”
Last month the Department for Transport (DfT) revealed the 85 rail schemes competing for investment under the third and final round of the Restoring Your Railway ideas fund, with successful proposals to be awarded up to £50,000 each to progress plans to reinstate stations and restore passenger services closed during the 1960s Beeching cuts.
In the last funding round, backers of 15 proposals were awarded cash to develop their business cases. Ten schemes won backing in the first round.
Meanwhile, services are expected to restart later this year on the Dartmoor line between Exeter and Okehampton, the first project to see services resume under the government fund.
At the RIA Innovation Conference, Haines emphasised that tapping into the leisure travel market could also have a role to play in sustaining the railway long-term. However he said passengers need an "end to end service".
“So often when I look at where I want to go at the weekend it’s great if I’m happy to walk three miles from the railway station to the place of historic interest or walk but that’s not viable for a lot of people," he said.
Network Rail will also consider when it undertakes maintenance work to perhaps facilitate more leisure travel, with a large amount of renewals currently taking place over weekends and bank holidays.
Haines explained: “We’ve got to look at where and how we work. We’re looking radically at the August bank holiday weekend to see if we can guarantee that some of the main flows to holiday destinations will be open and we haven’t disrupted people then because that’s how the railway would always have done it.
"And technology can help us there to do in two days work that we always insist on doing over a bank holiday.”
Overall, Haines said he is "a huge believer in the power of the railway to drive economic growth and prosperity".
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