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This article is a follow-up to an overview of the UK rail network we published back in 2019. Be sure to read the original before proceeding with the latest update. The information in this article was correct as of 1st March 2023.
The last 12 months proved to be another busy year for the UK rail industry, which saw strike action amongst Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) Union members, as well as a great deal of progress on major projects across the network.
As part of a wider transport network operation, the UK is determined to deliver a ‘world-class’ railway network to its citizens, offering new opportunities to all and improving commuter journeys. Below is a detailed breakdown of the completed, ongoing, and planned UK rail projects from the last year.
On the eve of the pandemic in February 2020, 21,000 services were running every day on the UK railways. This number was over 30% higher than before privatisation and fast forward to 2022, the UK’s railways are among the safest and most frequented in Europe.
There are, however, still many great failings and the UK is still paying the price for British Rail’s dismantle in 1993. Government funding still makes up nearly a third of the industry’s income and fares rose by 3.8% (July 2021’s RPI inflation figure) in March 2022. This figure increased by a further 5.9% in March 2023, the biggest leap in rail costs in the last decade. (National Rail Fares)
When looking at a passenger’s perspective, the customer experience can often feel unsatisfactory due to various pain points. Pricing is inconsistent and rarely offers value for money. Many stations fail to accommodate for disabled passengers and most prominently, the service is unreliable. 27.4% of trains were late from April to June 2022 and 3.1% were cancelled.
It's certainly not all doom and gloom though. The UK rail industry directly employs over 240,000 people and helps to boost productivity and growth throughout the country. Rail plays a vital role in connecting the UK’s communities, reducing carbon emissions, and providing the safest mode of transport for commuters. Several successful completed and ongoing projects are helping to demonstrate the importance of rail in the UK.
The Elizabeth Line (Crossrail) opened on the 24th of May 2022 and has brought over 1.5 million people within 45 minutes of central London. The new 73-mile-long rail line, which acts a high-speed railway underneath central London, runs from Reading in the west to Shenfield in the East. The route has cut commuter times massively, with 12 trains running per hour between Paddington and Abbey Wood and it takes just 11 minutes to travel from Paddington to Liverpool Street Station.
The introduction of the Elizabeth Line has brought a huge range of benefits to customers travelling to and from central London. Reduced journey times are being boosted by additional capacity, greater accessibility, increased opportunities for leisure and business and simply a greater level of connectivity. Customers can utilise the service 7-days-a-week and benefit from up to 22 trains per hour in peak times. By May 2023, this number will increase to 24 between Paddington and Whitechapel.
Once fully open (later this year), the Elizabeth Line will increase central London’s rail network capacity by 10% and drive regeneration all along the route. Crossrail has had a direct impact on the development and delivery of 65,000 new homes, totalling to 5.3 million square feet of residential, commercial, and retail space.
The construction of Crossrail also supported tens of thousands of full-time jobs across the country, with more than 10,000 people working on the project across 41 various sites at the peak of construction. 62% of UK businesses that helped to supply Crossrail were based outside of London and were SMEs.
As part of Britain’s ‘Railways Upgrade Plan’ outlined in 2014, the Great North Rail Project (GNRP) would deliver a vast programme of improvements to train travellers in the North of England. The hope was it would enable 2,000 additional services per week and permit 40,000 more passengers per day. Such changes would help create new opportunities, jobs, and a greater connectivity between the region’s largest cities, boosting economic growth both on a regional and national scale.
The Transpennine Route Upgrade (TRU) was a multi-billion-pound railway infrastructure programme that looked to bring transformative upgrades to the railway between York and Manchester, via Leeds and Huddersfield. Work on the railway first began in 2015 and 2022 was outlined as the year of completion, however, determining exactly how to upgrade it has had its many difficulties.
The project has instead been put on pause after the initial scope was repeatedly altered due to differing priorities and budget constraints. As a result, £190 million of the £1 billion Network Rail budget has been wasted on unnecessary work. As of May 2021, the programme is now being delivered as Phase One of the Northern Powerhouse Rail and is estimated to cost between £9–11.5 billion and be completed between 2036 and 2041.
As well as the TRU, Network Rail have also carried out many station and signalling upgrades to the rail network as part of the Great North Rail Project, such as the Macclesfield station lift renewal. The improvement to the lift began in early 2021 and was reopened on Thursday 1st April 2021. The changes mean that all passengers can travel through the station safely, increasing reliability and minimising the chance for delays or disruption to the daily commute.
Another example is the proposal to reconstruct the Shaws and Crabtree level crossings on the Wigan to Southport railway line to improve the safety for motorists and pedestrians. These plans, however, have been delayed until 2024 due to the lack of available government funding. Once both have been realigned to avoid prolonged crossings, motorists and pedestrians will benefit from improved safety and efficiency.
The hope is by integrating the GNRP as part of the Northern Powerhouse Rail, train customers will receive increased connectivity to the north and beyond, benefiting from shorter journey times between major cities. Services will also be more frequent, comfortable, and reliable, providing the commuter with peace of mind and a timetable they can depend upon. Finally, with the railway running on electricity it will permit a cleaner and greener railway network, diminishing the UK’s overall carbon footprint.
As the largest infrastructure project in Europe, HS2 (High Speed 2) is a major railway project aimed to connect London, Birmingham, and the North by a high-speed railway service. Originally planned in 2009, the project was confirmed by the UK government in 2013 and Royal Assent was granted by Parliament in 2017.
Phase 1 of construction (London to Birmingham) was due to be completed in 2026 but these dates have been significantly pushed back with the London to West Midlands route now estimated for a 2033 completion date. The project has also suffered mounting costs due to issues with supply chains and construction. Originally given a budget of £42 billion, this has now risen to almost £100 billion.
As well as construction on the line and the addition of four brand new stations, tunnelling under the Chiltern Hills was one of the initial stages of Phase 1 and began in 2021. This is a 9.8-mile tunnel beginning in northwest London and emerging near South Heath, close to Amersham. To help reduce the visual impact of the line and reduce overall noise levels, this will be a green cut-and-cover tunnel under farmland which can be used for agriculture after completion.
The line then continues to the West Midlands, travelling west of Aylesbury and up through rural Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, South Northamptonshire, and Warwickshire. The Birmingham Interchange Station (expected to open in 2026) will link HS2 to Birmingham city centre, Birmingham Airport, and the NEC. Phase 1’s end point will be a connection near Lichfield onto the West Coast Main Line.
The delivery of HS2 is already having an impact across the UK, from delivering more than 29,000 jobs to the potential £100 billion opportunity cost to taxpayers.
Contractors are currently in the process of tendering for Phase 2a and work to construct the brand new £570 million Birmingham Curzon Street station is set to commence in the coming months. Tunnelling for the Bromford Tunnel in Warwickshire is due to begin immediately, and this is now set to be 5.7km long rather than the originally planned 2.8km long tunnel. Tunnelling at Euston will not commence until February 2024 earliest.
Re-establishing a link between Cambridge and Oxford, the East West Rail will be introduced in three ‘Connection Stages’ and improve connections between East Anglia and the South of England. The three stages are as follows:
Connection Stage 1 – Running regular direct rail passenger services between Oxford and Bletchley/Milton Keynes. Phase 1 of this was completed in December 2016 with the upgrading of the rail connection between Oxford and Bicester.
Phase 2 which is currently underway involves upgrading and reconstructing the railway line that links Bicester to Bletchley and Milton Keynes. The Department for Transport are funding this phase along with a contribution from the East West Rail Consortium. The ambition is for the service to be up and running by 2025 and in the process deliver 1,500 jobs and inject £1.1 billion into local economies.
Connection Stage 2 -
Once Stage 1 is complete, connecting Oxford to Bedford with a reliable passenger train service will be the next step. The aim is to run two trains an hour on this line, but the project is challenging and will require significantly more investment and the remodelling of Bedford Station. A bid was submitted to the government for funding in 2021 and £760 million was allocated for further construction.
The government has since recommitted to the £5 billion rail project and upgrades to the existing infrastructure between Oxford and Bedford can now begin. Completion of the East West Rail will help to provide a fast and more reliable train service that can connect people with new job opportunities.
Connection Stage 3 –
The final stage of the East West Rail project will see a brand-new railway infrastructure built between Bedford and Cambridge to connect the route. This stage is still in planning and will depend upon government approval, but the hope is the project will result in two brand new stations, new railway infrastructure in the south-west of Cambridge and additional platforms at Cambridge station.
Upon completion, the East West Rail will connect the communities of Oxford, Milton Keynes, Bedford, and Cambridge, allowing passengers to easily travel between the four areas. This will generate new job opportunities as well as easing the pressure on roads and growing the local economies.