2022 has kicked off with a heightened sense of urgency. In a post-COP26 and Covid climate, greater expectations have been laid at the feet of the built environment, with the rail sector in particular shouldering much of the burden.
As our Chairman Richard Steer recently put it, government interference in mandating where we build, but also how we build should be expected. So what’s the outlook for rail in 2022? Our Project Director, Steve Lines, expects our industry will build on trends that have emerged in the last few years while looking to creative workarounds to the sustainability and supply/labour challenges.
What’s the general prognosis for the UK’s rail sector in 2022?
Steve: There’s been a lot happening in the sector that I believe over the next year probably will result in a lot of caution. Add to that the increases in steel, cement, and other commodities. That’s going to have a major effect until supply gets back to where it was. If you look at steel, the manufacturing costs have gone up by 40%, with the increase in cost of gas and other essential requirements to produce steel. I don’t necessarily think more caution will result in fewer tenders put out but there will be a lot more scrutiny of tenders that come back and you might find contracts getting more robust.
What innovations in particular should we anticipate the industry concentrating on?
Steve: Rail freight is going to be hot on the agenda. Moving cargo around the country brings with a sustainability challenge. Traditionally, we’ve relied on delivery drivers for road transport as our solution, but I believe we’re going to see quite a major increase in rail being used for cargo shipments. That’s going to require quite a lot of work in development of railway sidings, but the benefits are well worth it when you consider the implications for our carbon footprint.
The lorry driver shortage especially has forced the supply chain to look for creative fixes that have led to the realisation that, actually, rail freight presents a more efficient solution. It was just at the end of 2021 that hundreds of thousands of wine bottles needed to be transported from the port of Tilbury to a depot in central England. What did they do? Without lorry drivers, they resorted to a 32-car, 1,600-foot-long wine rack on a train. It took hundreds of trucks off the road in the process in exchange for one diesel train with a relatively much lower carbon output. That sort of thing is going to help drive more positive rail infrastructure action, no doubt, in the next 5 years, including major infrastructure improvements.
Years ago, Port of Dover used to be the only port where a train actually went onto a ship across to France and beyond, so there’s enormous potential for rail infrastructure. Dover could very well be one of those ports because of its proximity to the European continent, and I’m delighted that Gleeds is supporting a major programme at the work in the next few years.
How realistic is the phasing out of diesel trains?
Steve: The reality is that if we’re going to meet the UK government’s requirements for becoming net zero by 2050, we will have to eliminate diesel trains from the mix.
There’s a lot more that can happen to make our electricity more sustainable. One question that pops to mind is, what’s stopping us from having solar trains? It’s clear solar technology is advancing at a rapid rate, and while it may reduce the speed of travel, the clean travel trade-off more than makes up for it. In the long run, I believe even the pure hydrogen train will eventually become more economically viable.
What about driverless trains? What are the challenges and how might such a transition affect rail?
Steve: I worked almost seven years on the Doha Metro in Qatar – a driverless train system that runs 24/7, similarly to the one in Dubai, so the technology is certainly already there. It’s a matter of moving technology from intermodal people movers around a city to an intercity viable option.
It’s well documented by now that labour shortages have plagued our industry, but even if we went fully driverless, this problem is unlikely to go away on the rail network. New opportunities will inevitably crop up in other areas of rail, as is the case when skills requirements shift and open up new opportunities for retraining.
Want to learn more? Get in touch with our experts. If you’ve got a project in rail, we’d love to support you.