UK Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin's report to Parliament last week 'lowered the sights' for what would be achieved from the Government's five year plan to invest £38bn in the UK's strategic rail network.

The announcement comes just 14 months after the introduction of the industry transforming plan to the media back in March 2014.

For those looking on from the Roads Industry vantage point, there must be a concerning synergy given the similar nature and scale of the future £15bn of investment planned for our road network, and the creation of the new Highways England public company based on the same lines as the Network Rail company model.

However, despite the concerns, there is a positive that can come from looking at causes of the Network Rails problems by taking steps to ensure that lessons are learned by the Roads Industry.

The key problem areas appear to be:

  • Overly optimistic assessment of the capability and capacity of Network Rail to step up several gears
  • Overly optimistic understanding of the capability and capacity of UK rail industry supply chain to step up several gears
  • A weak UK supply for key specialist products and services
  • An under-estimation of future costs because projections were based on post recession low costs
  • Difficulties in achieving track and station possessions to accommodate construction work given the rail network is at full capacity much of the time
  • Important aspects of the investment programme costing more and taking longer than expected due to lack of consultation with specialist supply chain experts during the planning stage
  • Insufficient time to prepare fully scoped and resourced works programmes due to political timescale pressures
  • Planning consents taking longer than expected to obtain from local authorities

There are also other issues which those in Roads and Rail have in common, not least of which is the influence the 'world of politics' has in such large strategic investment plans and their delivery. These being influences being both positive and negative in nature.

Whilst referencing the soaring costs and missed targets for the strategic rail investment programme, the Secretary of State for Transport commented that there was no excuse, stating that "All off these problems could and should have been foreseen by Network Rail."

However, The Secretary of State's apportionment of blame to Network Rail will not necessarily be accepted by those in industry. There is a growing concern that the 'world of politics' has and will continue to have a negative influence in the planning and delivery of large scale strategic plans at both the national and local level.

At the Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation (CIHT) Cambridge Conference last week the theme of the event was 'Do the Politics Match the Needs?' Attended by a wide spectrum of industry professionals, the consensus of opinion was that there were facets of UK political system that were having a negative impact in planning and delivering the transformation of the nations strategic and local road network.

Contractors hit by electrification work pause Ι Construction Enquirer

The massive programme of works required to transform the UK's rail and road networks has been developed in response to record levels of demand. This is not something that looks set to diminish. As such, it is vital that all of the projects planned are delivered as promptly as possible.

A failure to do this will have a crippling impact on capacity for some of the UK’s vital infrastructure links and will restrict the future growth of the UK economy and negatively impact the well being of our nation.

With the synergies that exist between the rail and road industries, there is clearly a case for organisations from both sectors to exchange best practice, learn from each others setbacks and look to develop common resourced programmes. 

There is the the issue of a joint reliance of the same supply chain, particularly for Civil Engineering skills, plant and materials. The supply chain pressures experienced by Network Rail and likely to be exacerbated as the Highways England programme of works comes on line.

A joined up Rail/Roads approach will also provide a louder voice when lobbying the Government to ensure it understands the full scale challenges faced by industry in delivering the massive infrastructure programmes planned over the next decade. More needs to be done to transform the Government's thinking about how it can support the industry by streaming political processes, removing party political inferences and provide additional funding for strategies to help develop the industries supply chain capability and capacity.

Technology has a key part to play in solving the problems identified above. If infrastructure construction organisations are to meet the challenges of transforming themselves and the UK infrastructure network, they need to leverage innovation and IT in “front-office”project and supply chain operations.

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