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In conversation with RIA’s Darren Caplan

17 min

With a new government in place and Brexit just around the corner – all on top of the ongoing Rail Review, no less – it’s fair to say there’s a lot to talk about when it comes to the future of the rail industry. The Railway Industry Association (RIA) Annual Conference, which takes place on 7-8 November this year, comes at a great time to address these momentous changes. Quadrant Transport speaks to chief executive Darren Caplan ahead of the event to talk all things BoJo, Brexit, and building a better railway

The RIA Annual Conference theme this year is ‘Building customer-focused rail, at home and abroad.’ What does that mean to you?

The reason we’re talking about customer focus is because that’s clearly the direction of the Rail Review that is being undertaken by Keith Williams at the moment. A big part of that is reliability and punctuality, and safety and security – and you can’t get that on the railway without infrastructure, rolling stock, and the rail supply chain all working together. It’s important that as we build rail, whether it’s in the UK or overseas, we do it in a way that works for the customer, whether that’s the passenger or freight. You need us all involved in that conversation. That’s the first part of the theme.

The second part – at home and abroad – is because we’re going through turbulent economic times both in terms of the global economy and in terms of the UK and Brexit. That makes it even more important for UK suppliers to be able to be involved in future trade deals and to export abroad, so that when we’re building a railway it’s not just in the UK – it’s taking the world-class railway that the UK can build and doing that abroad as well.

Apart from the focus on the Rail Review, what else sets this year’s conference apart from last year’s event?

It’s worth bearing in mind that last year’s annual conference was actually an award-winning conference – we won the Trade Association Forum award for Best Conference of the Year, which we’re very happy with. What we’re trying to do this year is emulate that, but make it bigger and better. We’re going to try to have speakers just as good, if not better, as last year; a great range of topics to discuss; and a lot of networking opportunities for delegates.

The reason why we’re hosting the conference over two days is to cover more topics. You have a lot of issues at the moment, whether it’s to do with funding, enhancements, electrification, Brexit, or major projects. There’s a whole range of issues and it’s hard to cover all of them in one day.

We’re also doing something new this year: we’re promoting the RISE, or the Railway Industry Supplier Excellence awards, to enable us to celebrate the excellence and achievements of our members. There’s a number of different categories. That’s going to be hosted by journalist Simon Calder, who’s quite a well-known travel editor. The idea is to celebrate all the good things our members are doing. It’s not the main focus of the conference, but it’s another thing we’re doing in addition to it.

Congratulations on receiving an award! What would you attribute that success to?

It’s actually the second one – last year we won the same award for our RIA Innovation Conference. I think it’s because we have a commitment to having the right people, the right speakers and the right panellists at the event, because people want to hear what they have to say. But I also think our members want to get together with each other and with the stakeholders, politicians, and the rail supply community. We try and do the best we can with it, and it’s paid off well in the last couple of years. We’ll try and do the same this year!

Testament to your commitment is the fact that you’ve invited Grant Shapps, the new transport secretary, to speak at the conference. If he agrees to attend, what message do you think he should be sending to the supply chain?

He’ll only be a couple of months into the job, and if he does accept our invitation it might be the first major speech he gives in transport. We’re very keen to get him if possible, but clearly, he’ll have a lot on his hands around that time of year – it’s worth bearing in mind our conference takes place just a week after Brexit is due to happen. We hope he’ll make it, but we’ll see.

We’re going through turbulent economic times both in terms of the global economy and in terms of the UK and Brexit. That makes it even more important for UK suppliers to be able to be involved in future trade deals

If he can get there, we’d like him to address the issues that are important to our sector. One of the big issues is that CP6 has started. What are the priorities for the control period? Can he make sure that we have a smooth ‘boom and bust’ over the control period, so that we don’t have a whole ramping-up of activity in the middle of the period which then slopes off again at the end? That’s a major issue for Grant Shapps to deal with.

We also want to see clear public support for major projects – HS2, Crossrail, Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), East West Rail, TransPennine Route Upgrade, London Underground Deep Tube, Crossrail 2, the Midlands Hub… They all need public support, both politically and in terms of us as the supply chain and other rail actors promoting it in a big way. We think that rail infrastructure is key to the UK’s connectivity and its economy. Besides, everyone accepts that the capacity in railways has been stretched. We need those major projects to come on stream and be delivered. We’d be looking to him for positive support if he comes to our conference.

I think there’s also a big issue around Network Rail’s devolution plans and the Williams Review: we mustn’t see a hiatus in investment. Just because there are talks about a restructure – and that’s very important – we mustn’t stop building our world-class railway whilst we’re having those conversations. We’ll be encouraging him to make sure that doesn’t get in the way.

Another big issue for us are the rail upgrade enhancement projects. At the moment, we don’t have visibility of what schemes are coming on stream. We have a process called the Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline, but we don’t actually have visibility of what projects are being planned. The government’s own guidance says that all government departments should be open about their commercial pipelines to help suppliers, but we haven’t had that yet from the DfT. If he hasn’t done it by our conference, we’ll redouble our efforts to ask for visibility of what enhancements are planned for CP6.

A couple of more things, too: if government wants to decarbonise the railway by 2040, it needs to have a rolling programme of electrification projects. That way, we can keep the cost down and keep the expertise in the UK to deliver it.

And the final point: how are our members going to deal with the challenges and opportunities of Brexit? There are challenges around standards, frictionless trade, access to a skilled workforce… but there are opportunities around trying to get more sales in non-EU countries as well. Overall, there are a lot of things to discuss.

Let’s touch on four of those issues. On electrification, is it fair to say you’re hoping for a shift away from Chris Grayling’s direction of travel?

I think the announcement made in 2017 wasn’t helpful towards electrification, but we are hearing more positive noises from the DfT now. They have agreed with a recommendation by the Transport Select Committee to do a report with RIA on what we call ‘cost-effective electrification.’ So we would hope that it’s going in the right direction, and we would hope that the new transport secretary will continue that and support electrification for intensively-used railways. That doesn’t mean to say we need electrification on every part of the network, but on intensively-used railways electrification is the best solution. In other parts of the country – say, regional rail – there may be hydrogen and bi-mode and other forms of transport, but we do want support for electrification because we feel that it hasn’t been supported as it should have been in the past.

Regarding public support for major infrastructure projects, what do you make of Boris Johnson’s comments in support of building a Manchester-Leeds high-speed line? Does that signal a positive way forward in his new government?

It’s positive that he’s thinking about rail infrastructure investment and supporting it in different parts of the country, including the north. What we would say is that we don’t want it to be at the expense of HS2, NPR, or other schemes. If it’s in addition to or part of NPR, then that has to be welcomed.

We’re also encouraged by some of Boris Johnson’s recent comments about HS2. Initially he wanted to scrap it, then he wanted to review it, and now he’s looking at the costs of it but not necessarily the principle of it. His direction of travel on rail infrastructure seems broadly positive.

Let’s move onto the ‘boom and bust’ issue you mentioned. Do you think this problem has been addressed at all by the government, or are you worried that CP6 will be the same five years of peaks and troughs of activity?

I think we have to look at the timescales. I’m not sure that we’ll get a lot of movement in CP6, but we’re certainly doing a lot of work in trying to lobby for smoother rail investment in the medium term – so maybe CP6, but certainly CP7.

In lobbying terms, we’ve made some good progress on this issue. We engaged with the Transport Select Committee’s inquiry into rail investment, which recommended that the government should work with RIA on smoothing the boom and bust. We now have roundtable meetings every few months including the DfT, Network Rail, ORR, Rail Delivery Group, NSAR, and others to see how we can smooth boom and bust in the next control period. We’ll be keeping an eye on what happens in this control period, but I suspect that it might be too soon. But we will keep going, keep lobbying on it, and we’ll keep engaging on it until we get a smoother spending profile.

Have these roundtables been quite productive so far?

It’s going in the right direction, and I think we should welcome the commitment of all parties to smooth out boom and bust – that is a positive step. We hope that the new DfT, as it were, with the new ministers, will continue working with the supply chain and others to achieve success in this issue.

Lastly, you mentioned Brexit. Around this time last year, I remember you questioned why the ‘B-word’ never seemed to come up during rail events. An RIA survey even showed Brexit failed to make it to your members’ Top 3 priorities! Do you think this year’s conference will be different?

It’s a really big issue, but we ought to be careful about Brexit fatigue. It’s an issue that’s been with us for three years. Within our membership, I think it’s still a mixed bag: it doesn’t get raised as a priority issue in most rail events you go to, but it is an issue. Approaching the end of March this year, RIA members were more aware of it, because we were coming up to a deadline. And I think that as we’re coming up to the 31 October deadline, it’s gone up the priority list for members as well.

Just because there are talks about a restructure – and that’s very important – we mustn’t stop building our world-class railway whilst we’re having those conversations

But the basic report back from our membership that we hear is concern about uncertainty. There’s still a lot of work in rail, and a lot of our members are growing, but I think some of them are holding back on investment and on hiring more people. The concerns around standards, workforce, and frictionless trade are still there. Once you have certainty, then our members will spend even more and hire even more people. I think that’s going to be the big change. Our members tend to be getting on with business as usual, but they may be holding back a bit pending certainty on what’s going to happen.

I should probably mention the other side too, in the sense that there are opportunities to Brexit as well, and we think new trading opportunities are key amongst them. We signed an MoU with our counterparts in Australasia and Malaysia, we’re members of the DIT’s Transport Services Expert Trade Advisory Group, and we keep working quite strongly through our exports director Neil Walker on exporting rail goods and services abroad. We will always help our members navigate the challenges, but we will also try and point out the opportunities too.

Do you want the overall narrative to be both more certain from the government’s side, but also just a bit more positive and uplifting from the industry’s side?

Yes – I think all trade associations have a responsibility to seek a positive way through any challenge. We’re not here to spread negativity, we want to find a positive way forward. That’s what we try and do.

Let’s talk about a speaker who’s already confirmed his presence at the conference, Network Rail CEO Andrew Haines. What are you hoping to hear from him, especially as he’s now been in the post for a year?

He attended our conference last year, so a good question for him would be: what progress has been made a year on? We want to hear about the progress on the Network Rail devolution plan: the five new regions, the 14 routes… how is all that going? Our members will want to hear about what these structural changes mean to them, and how they can have an accessible Network Rail structure that allows collaboration between them, the suppliers, and the clients. I would raise at this point the importance of SMEs: they do a lot of work, they employ a lot of people, but they’re not often seen by Network Rail as the dominant or priority area. We want to make sure they’re part of the equation.

Network Rail has started this in a positive way, but is it going to continue to be more outward-looking and business-focused? Will it treat rail suppliers as key partners in delivering infrastructure?

We’d also like an explanation of how Network Rail is going to achieve consistency between the central team and the devolved regions. They are issues that we’ll all be interested in. Given that it was only in June when they made the first changes, it will be good in November – around six months on – to find out how all that is going and if consistency is being achieved.

You’re right, there’s not much to say about route devolution at the moment – but as a whole, do you think it’s the right direction of travel?

I think so. Most of our members are busy working with Network Rail to make the restructuring a success, and it makes sense to have decisions taken as close to the region or the route as possible.

The other side to that is working with the Williams Review. It’s not just about having Network Rail’s devolution plan and then the Williams Review comes along and changes everything again. They have to go hand in glove, to work together. We’ll be looking to see if the Williams Review and Andrew Haines’ restructure work consistently with each other.

Does having a restructuring plan already in place not limit the amount or scope of recommendations that the Williams Review can make?

If the devolution plan and the Williams Review were being done totally separately without talking to each other, then that would be a concern. But you have to assume that Network Rail was liaising with Keith Williams before it made these plans to make sure they’re on the right general direction. There’s a new transport secretary, and that transport secretary will have to be brought into the conversation so that there is a coherent strategy in place going forward. We would argue at RIA that suppliers should be a big part of that conversation as well. There are three pillars to the rail industry: rolling stock, infrastructure, and the supply chain. It’s very important that suppliers are a part of that conversation as well, as Keith Williams takes his plans forward.

I suppose that brings us to the Open for Business programme that Network Rail now has in place, which allows suppliers to challenge existing standards in order to streamline potentially burdensome processes. How has that been going?

It’s progressing well. We’ve been part of the standard challenge process. I think there’s been some positive stuff, and I think it’s good that the initiative exists as a commitment to find better standards that are less onerous.

A lot of the flagship changes taking place at the moment are still in their early days, so the conference will come at a good time. What kind of message would you like delegates to take home with them after attending the event?

The clue is in the theme. We’re calling it ‘building customer-focused rail at home and abroad’ for a specific reason. With this big restructure going on – not just in terms of the Williams Review but also in terms of the Network Rail devolution plan – it’s really important that the supply sector works with that agenda and helps to build customer-focused rail. And as I said, we are at a time in our history where we have to go out into the world and sell even more goods and services than before. Rail could make a big contribution to that, so we have to keep an eye on that as well.

Overall, if they can take our theme to heart and go away thinking, ‘That’s the big objective for 2020,’ then the conference has done its job.