May insights from the NSAR Chief Executive

I have been considering where we are at as an industry as we get stuck into a new financial year. Positive developments and new plans contrast with familiar challenges that we continue to grapple with.

The scales tip firmly in favour of the positives. Network Rail’s Control Period 7 has begun, and with it comes a fresh start – new funding, exciting new projects and new contracts. It will form an important roadmap for the industry over the next five years and provide some of the certainty that is needed to drive investment in skills and productivity.

Both the main parties have set out at least some of their rail reform plans – this clarity is appreciated as we make plans for the upcoming year and beyond. There is a growing recognition of the power rail has to drive social value. Rail has an excellent return on investment in terms of increasing social value and it is important this is understood when investment decisions are being made.

HS2 provides an excellent example. More than 3,000 people who were unemployed have secured jobs on the project, representing 10% of the workforce supporting the HS2 construction. It is fantastic to see the continued successes for social value as construction progresses.

Passenger numbers continue to increase and are nearing pre-COVID levels. This is good news, considering the importance rail travel will have in achieving net-zero. Much of this increase is thanks to hard work from the industry to provide a fantastic service and encourage commuters and travellers back onto trains. We still have work to do to ensure that rail travel is inclusive and accessible for all people and meets the changing habits and requirements of passengers.

Recent executive and directorial appointments to the Department for Transport and Network Rail will provide a fresh perspective and a good platform to improve. Congratulations to the NSAR Chair, Dyan Perry, for her recent appointment to the Network Rail Board.

And NSAR’s new Apprenticeship Agency service is starting to gain traction with two employers committed and more in the pipeline. Apprenticeships are vital to solving the industry’s skills shortages and we are committed to playing our part in supporting them. NSAR is also supporting quality apprenticeships by supplying its expertise to the refresh of various apprenticeship standards. Bringing apprenticeships into the future will make them more useful and attractive.

As you would expect, there are a few negatives too. As an industry, we are still only investing half of what we should be, overall, on skills and productivity. The economic situation and a lack of certainty in project funding are contributing to this. However, there is still a hesitancy to take on apprentices and spend money on training and development which must be addressed.

Capacity shortages are beginning to affect the market. Fewer bids are being made for contracts because contractors can’t find the people they need to do the job. This means less competition, which pushes up costs.

And finally, the elephant in the room – HS2 plans are still only taking the new line to Old Oak Common… I hope to see a solution for this soon.

Neil Robertson 
NSAR Chief Executive

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