Taking place on 5 November – the second day of the Railway Industry Association’s annual conference, the ‘Government’s priorities for rail policy’ session saw UK Rail Minister Chris Heaton-Harris illustrate the government’s top priorities for railway policy.

During the 30-minute conversation with BBC transport correspondent – and the conference’s presenter – Paul Clifton, Heaton-Harris touched upon several topics, including government’s Infrastructure Delivery Taskforce and its plans to decarbonise.

Here are three takeaways from the event.


There is a need to build back better (and faster)

According to Heaton-Harris, the UK Government’s top priority for the sector’s post-Covid recovery is to build back better, greener, and faster.

“We need to definitely beat this virus, but we need to look forward to and tackle the unresolved challenges of the last three decades,” he said.

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Building back better, explained Heaton-Harris, means building back faster. With project speed being a focus of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ‘build back better’ strategy, the UK Government created the Infrastructure Delivery Taskforce at the end of June.

The taskforce, spearheaded by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, will aim to “cut down the time it takes to develop, design and deliver vital infrastructure projects.”

“We do think you can get better value-for-money when you do things more strategically, quickly and efficiently,” he added.

The taskforce is also working in synergy with other government departments, including the Department for Transport, where Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has set up an acceleration unit for transport projects specifically.

“Across transport we will see a drive not just to build better but to build back at a decent pace, which is one of the reasons why the government is putting a huge chunk of money into rails.”


Electrification will play a massive role in the decarbonisation of railways

“We are in a place where electrification fits very nicely with the government’s green agenda and behind the scenes we have been doing a reasonable amount of electrification,” the minister said when asked about the electrification of the UK railway network.

As reported by a statistical study carried out by the Office of Rail and Road, by November 2020 more than 6,000km of railway route, 38% of the country’s total route length, is now electrified.

Even though electrification is very costly, the UK Government has ambitious plans to implement the process, with Heaton-Harris saying that “we want to decarbonise, and electrification is going to have a massive part to play in that.”


The government is working with app developers to simplify fares

Many in the industry believe that now is the time to tear up the country’s complex fare system as commercial agreements with train operators come to an end.

When asked whether the Department for Transport was keen to simplify the system, the minister replied that a certain amount of capital is needed, with the UK Government is pondering what kind of new technology is the way forward to bring long-term and sustainable revenue.

What Downing Street is doing is talking to app developers to see what they can do. “I’ve been talking to all sort of app developers, the City Mappers, the Ubers of this world as to if we open up our data, what offerings they can assist with,” he commented.

“We’ve been well under the bonnet for the last six months, because that’s what you can do in a pandemic when you’re not doing much else. I think you can expect to see some big moves on this in the new year,” he added.

As for the termination of train operators’ commercial agreements, the minister believes that both parties will reach an agreement. “The government stands beside this industry to such eyewatering numbers [in terms of funding]. It didn’t have to do that,” he concluded.