One of the first panels to be held at the Railway Industry Association’s annual conference, the ‘Do we need a 30-year rolling stock strategy?’ webinar took place on 4 November.

During the 50-minute conversation, panellists covered a number of issues, from how to achieve decarbonisation to the need to make rail services more accessible to all passengers.

Here are three main takeaways from the event.


Rolling stock needs a 30-year plan, or does it?

Replying to the question of whether rolling stock needs a 30-year plan, panellists offered several arguments on why long-term schemes are needed for the industry to thrive.

According to rolling stock company Porterbrook CEO Mary Grant, rolling stock needs a 30-year plan that incorporates the whole business chain.

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“At the end of the day, it’s about creating a marketplace that provides for the customer, provides for the businesses but also provides crucially for the whole supply chain,” Grant said.

If the 30-year plan wants to work – said Siemens Mobility rolling stock and customer services managing director Sambit Banerjee – it also needs to cater for the needs not only of the industry but also of other stakeholders. As explained by Banerjee, companies such as Siemens are working “[to provide] safe and better transport for the UK Government, transport operators and the general public.”

Journalist and disability campaigner Mik Scarlet believes that, in terms of accessibility, a long-term plan for rolling stock is not sufficient, as disabled people need an improvement in accessibility now.

“If we start using these years as goals to get to, it tends to be that accessibility gets pushed further away,” he explained. “It’s nice to think that by the time we get to the 30 years, that accessibility is built into everything we do.”

Scarlet added that rolling stock and fleets nowadays should be equipped to cater to the needs of passengers with disabilities but unfortunately aren’t.

“Disabled people want to be able to travel like everybody else,” he said. “They don’t want to book ahead or go to a train station and hope that someone is there to put a ramp out for them. They want to have the same experience.”

While some panellists – including Rail Delivery Group director of people, operations and railway strategy Susie Homan – continued to stress the importance of long-term plans ones, others believe that they’re too far into the future.

South Western Railway managing director Mark Hopwood believes that the future is too unpredictable to have 30-year plans. “If we went back 30 years, that would take us back to 1990,” he commented. “And very few people in 1990 would have had a clue of what we needed to be doing today in 2020.”

What the sector needs, he added, is high-level strategy and a framework that integrates the whole industry in the process. Hopwood also added that rolling stock needs to tackle a series of challenges, the biggest one being decarbonisation. “We absolutely have to align to rolling stock strategy with the infrastructure and electrification strategy,” he concluded.


Rolling stock decisions need to be made by singular guiding mind

As explained by Govia Thameslink Railway COO Steve White, a balance needs to be struck when making decisions that impact the rolling stock. According to White, allowing individual operators to make their own decisions whilst letting market forces function usually works.

Whilst history shows that in normal times this kind of attitude can lead to innovation as well as benefits for passenger, these aren’t normal times.

White explained that, for the industry to recover post-Covid, there needs to be a high-level plan that makes sure that rolling stock procurements align with a set of objectives and that the industry is moving towards an ideal end-state.

“In a post-pandemic world, [the idea of] a singular guiding mind taking stock of the entire industry has some merit,” he added.

Building up on what White said, Rail Delivery Group’s Susie Homan added that decisions need to be made putting customers at the heart of operations. “Those making decision need to make sure the experience is felt the same by all people who use our transport system,” she concluded.


Switching from diesel to electrification is the way forward

To support the next phase of Network Rail’s Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy – which aims to develop a rolling electrification programmes of 13,000 track-km to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 – the industry needs to work holistically, whilst focusing on priorities.

For South Western Railway’s Mark Hopwood, getting rid of diesel trains is at the top of its list.

If you look, one of the businesses in our group is hauled trains,” he said. “And although hauled are having some challenges at the moment, hauled was able to bring new trains in and go from being a diesel operator to an operator that was spending most of its time running trains on electric traction without a mile of electrification taking place.

“So there are some opportunities around that and […] that would be my approach. “

Other companies have jumped on the bandwagon and followed South Western Railway’s example.

According to Sambit Banerjee, Siemens is also focusing on alternative train propulsions, having stopped producing diesel for the last four years.

Porterbrook, on the other hand, has been working on retrofitting old diesel trains with hybrid and battery alternative traction, which are considered more immediate.

“We all agree that electrification is absolutely the correct way to go forward, but it’s a very long-term programme,” Porterbrook’s Mary Grant added. “So I think the answer lies in what we do in the short and medium-term to improve air quality and reduce emissions as much as possible.”