UK rail plans call for clarity on procurement

Out-Law News | 20 Dec 2019 | 11:31 am | 2 min. read

"Eye-catching" commitments to UK rail in the government's legislative programme will require further clarity on procurement and financing, an expert has said.

The government intends to produce a white paper on rail reform next year, taking into account the recommendations of Keith Williams' review of the railways once published, according to documents issued alongside the Queen's Speech marking the state opening of parliament (151-page / 474KB PDF). The government has also committed to a number of major investments in the railway, re-opening a number of old lines and stations and significant upgrades to services outside London.

However, infrastructure law expert Jon Hart of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, said that the proposals would not be easy to deliver.

Hart Jonathan

Jonathan Hart


These are big rail commitments with eye-catching procurement opportunities - but there simply aren't enough 'oven ready' projects out there at the moment.

"These are big rail commitments with eye-catching procurement opportunities - but there simply aren't enough 'oven ready' projects out there at the moment," he said. "In particular, the government needs to remove uncertainty around approaches to procurement and the role that private finance can play. Clarity on project objectives and the roles and responsibilities between central and local government is going to be essential."

"The reality is that the current public sector capacity gap within government for procuring schemes, when coupled with the industry's own skills shortage, mean that it could be years before many of the schemes being talked about will be in a position to be tendered for, let alone for construction work to commence. This will certainly take things well beyond the current electoral cycle. As a start, the government needs to look at simpler schemes that have relatively high benefit to cost ratios, for example the Northumberland Line re-opening," he said.

The UK rail network is one of the most congested in Europe, requiring significant future investment, according to the government's briefing document. The government's current priorities are the Northern Powerhouse Rail scheme between Leeds and Manchester then focussing on Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds, Tees Valley and Hull, including reopening lines and stations closed during the 'Beeching axe' of the 1960s.

Keith Williams published the interim conclusions from his government-commissioned review of the railways in July. Williams is proposing replacing the current franchising system with a new commercial model for running the railways, and is due to publish his final conclusions shortly. The government, in its briefing document, said that the proposals in its planned white paper will "end the complicated franchising model to create a simpler, more effective system".

The government also intends to re-introduce the enabling legislation behind phase 2a of the planned national high speed rail network, HS2, to parliament, depending on the outcome of an ongoing review of the project and "any government decisions that follow". The High Speed Rail (West Midlands – Crewe) Bill had already passed through the House of Commons before dissolution of the previous parliament, and will be reintroduced in the House of Lords once revived, according to the briefing document.

The government will also publish an updated National Infrastructure Strategy alongside its first Budget, setting out further details of its plans to invest £100 billion in UK infrastructure and formally responding to the National Infrastructure Commission's 2018 National Infrastructure Assessment.