Fast track to the future

2nd November 2020

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Mark Elliman

The Rail Social Value Working Group explains the key role rail infrastructure can play as the UK 'builds back better' from COVID-19

COVID-19 has highlighted how essential rail infrastructure is for the UK. While rail services have looked very different to business as usual, with passenger usage dropping by as much as 96% according to government statistics, the network has kept essential services going. Freight services have kept supermarkets stocked and passenger services have enabled key workers to get to work. Our role in this pandemic has brought the industry even closer together, and we are now asking how we can best serve the UK not just through the pandemic, but beyond.

Improving air quality

During the pandemic we have seen dramatic changes in the way people travel, with traffic reducing by up to 23% and the use of bicycles more than tripling on some days. The noise reduction and air quality improvements have reminded us of the impact our travel behaviours can have on our health and wellbeing. This presents an opportunity to attract more passengers to rail. We will also need to build and maintain strong relationships with stakeholders in other low-carbon forms of travel, to co-create transport hubs that can contribute to a healthier society.

With decarbonisation and air quality strategies in place, the industry has a mandate to act in a coordinated way and make rail an even cleaner and greener way to travel – and it is embracingthe changes required to meet the UK's net-zero carbon target. We know that a great deal will be achieved by continuing to electrify key passenger and freight lines. Excitingly, we have already shown through working with the Riding Sunbeams social enterprise that locally and renewably generated electricity can be provided to the third rail network in England's South East. In 2019, Riding Sunbeams' pilot demonstrated that a 30kW solar scheme could directly connect and provide power to the rail traction system. The triple bottom line approach taken by Riding Sunbeams delivers subsidy-free, low-carbon energy that also brings social value and the ability for local communities to invest in the decarbonisation of their railways.

“Rail can not only decarbonise – it can also play a key role in the renewable energy revolution“

Through the South East Local Enterprise Partnership, Riding Sunbeams has been given access to the government's Build Back Fund in order to expand and build the first MW-sized solar farm in collaboration with Network Rail. The project will comprise up to 3.5MW of panels across 16 acres, which will generate power for about 880 homes and provide annual CO2 savings equivalent to 1,880 tonnes each year. Once this solar farm is running and has passed industry standards, it is forecast that 10-15% of the third rail network could be powered this way. This shows that rail can not only decarbonise – it can also play a key role in the renewable energy revolution, which will be essential to decarbonising the UK's electricity and energy supplies and making regional energy networks resilient through capacity building.

The fact that these projects are community-led and co-owned brings multiple additional social sustainability benefits, including diversified energy supply chains, green job creation and a reduction in fuel poverty. The MW farm is predicted to create 40 green jobs throughout its 25-year life span, from development and construction to operation and maintenance. It is through cross-sector partnerships with local enterprises and communities that we can engage with and bring benefits to more people.

Reducing social disparity

The UK government has indicated that it will invest in infrastructure, including rail, to boost recovery from the pandemic. It is vital that public money is spent in a way that delivers the maximum benefit to the most people. At the same time, the government wants to reduce the UK's prosperity gap. The development of the Common Social Impact Framework for Rail (a social value framework developed by Network Rail and the Rail Safety and Standards Board for use by the rail industry), with monetised benefits for social impacts of investment decisions, could change the way we look at the businesses case for transport investment.

To build back better and 'level up', we need to measure and set goals in the railway industry for:

  • Supporting local businesses, enterprises and supply chain partners
  • Working with charity partners and support groups to provide support to vulnerable people
  • Promoting wellbeing and mental health
  • Creating a diverse workforce and inclusive workplace and travel experience for all.

Building community

We have seen a strong volunteering and community movement during this crisis. From NHS responders to foodbank collections and befriending schemes, communities have come together. The rail workforce, including many key workers themselves, have been going the extra mile to support the NHS and their local communities. Stations have been decorated in rainbows and rail landmarks lit blue on Thursday evenings, while staff have collected and distributed food parcels, produced and donated thousands of items of PPE for frontline workers, and even helped build and equip Nightingale hospitals. This demonstrates the power of an engaged workforce and a grassroots movement, as well as the ability to react positively in a crisis.

Rail can help maintain and accelerate these movements by:

  • Enabling initiatives such as rail confidence schemes, sustainable travel awareness, and partnerships (eg with schools, colleges, local groups, authorities and businesses) that enable joined-up working to promote and boost access to sustainable mobility across the network
  • Reaching out to local authorities and transport partners to discuss how improvements to walking and cycling routes and facilities, and local bus and community transport services, can be connected with rail in order to support integrated, sustainable journeys
  • Taking every opportunity to make rail a positive experience for all, especially those with physical or more hidden disabilities, so that more people can and want to travel by rail
  • Engaging with the street community via the industry's Routes out of Homelessness initiative, in order to help and support people to build their lives back better.

Keep sharing

This is not a comprehensive list of how rail can contribute: we face many uncertainties, so ongoing dialogue and innovation is key. Get in touch at

The Rail Social Value Working Group is a Rail Safety and Standards Board-hosted industry group.

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