If you were hoping things might soon get cheaper for UK rail, there might be bad news. We sat down with Gleeds Project Director James Bowry to get the lay of the land. 

Materials shortages and supply issues exacerbate the strain on UK rail schemes, and the Government’s ongoing fight for sustainability now means taxes on red diesel are bound to make things even trickier for the supply chain. Meanwhile, the newly unveiled Integrated Rail Plan proves that the rail landscape continues to be ever-changeable.

Does that have to spell doom and gloom, or are we actually not giving the rail sector enough credit for its ingenuity in overcoming challenges? James Bowry, Project Director at Gleeds, has seen lots of creative problem solving on rail projects over the years.

We sat down with him recently to learn more about the changing landscape of UK rail and barriers to affordability.

How do you think the pandemic has changed the rail sector?

The pandemic catalysed the likes of Network Rail and the Department for Transport to re-examine where inefficiencies lie. The question on everyone’s mind is, ‘how we do things differently?’

I think the sector did right to pause some new projects that were going to enhance passenger benefits. They halted those because they didn’t know what the passenger footprint would look like. Conversely, the industry has done well to not neglect renewals needed to keep existing infrastructure up to scratch; we can’t afford to have assets degrade to an extent where incidents happen.

Another very interesting thing that has changed in rail is how the sector is looking at using infrastructure projects for new purposes. Take freight, for instance. We are always going to import, whether from Europe, America, or Asia. How do we get those things from port to where they need to be? One freight train could hold a couple of hundred lorries’ worth of haulage – that’s a couple of hundred lorries that have been taken off the road, which is great for emissions.

The sector has wised up to this, but not all the railway network has capacity for that freight, so we’re seeing projects in development to enhance the network to accommodate this.

How do you think the sector is faring on sustainability goals?

Sustainability is more than just the environment. It’s about the socio-economic impacts as well.

Certainly, I think we’ve come a long way in ten years in terms of accessibility, which is a lot higher up on the agenda than it used to be. That’s not to say accessibility is where it needs to be yet. There are still stations without any disabled access at all, which is a crazy thing to say in 2021. But you need money to be able to get level stations or put lifts in, and lifts are expensive – you’re looking at a million pounds for a footbridge with lifts in it at a minimum.

What do you foresee being a big problem for rail in the coming months?

Aside from the material shortages – which has led to issues for sourcing timbre and steel – one thing that’s going to become a big issue from 2022 is red diesel cost. It’s going to go up massively as the government imposes new taxes on it.

The silver lining is that this has the potential to spur organisations in rail to seek more environmentally friendly technology and solutions. And contractors are very savvy; there’s a lot of them out there and they’re always trying to find ways of bettering their competition so it’s not unreasonable to think they will discover an alternative, as well as new ways to make back their money elsewhere.

What are the barriers to affordability for rail?

The availability of essential materials for rail schemes is certainly a short-term barrier that needs addressing.

In the long term, rail schemes in the UK would be so much cheaper if disruption was a possibility. However, that’s never going to be the case because the sector puts passengers first. To build complex rail schemes, you need access. Say you’re putting in a new foot bridge – you can’t build a new bridge over a live railway. You could try, but the risks are just way too high.

Countries like France take a different approach: they shut the railway network down for three months and they just build it, whereas in this country, it would take us three years because we take a fragmented, piecemeal approach. Shutting the railway, however, down comes with a cost too because you need to take into account temporary transport method replacements. Is there a debate to be had about accepting short-term pain for long-term pain? Perhaps…

One of the biggest constraints we have, though, with regards to affordability is being 100 percent sure of our requirements from the onset. Scope creep is a constant concern as a direct result of not having robust enough requirements, which happens everywhere, not just in rail. In particular, there’s an unfortunate tendency on rail schemes to gold-plate design and engineering solutions to rail schemes. Imposing the highest-quality regime, however, is not necessarily the most feasible. That’s where project management is needed to consider time, cost, and quality all at the same time.

Global Property & Construction Consultants | Gleeds
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James Bowry

James Bowry
Project Director