Britain’s railway is a barometer for our future EU relationship

Paul Plummer
Our railway is the backbone of the British economy (Source: Getty)

David Davis recently said that the process of negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU will be “as complicated as the moon landing”.

But the Brexit secretary’s lunar comparisons were vastly unnecessary. If he needed an apt juxtaposition, down here on earth, the challenges faced by Britain’s railways would have more than sufficed.

Last week, I hosted a well-attended debate with a panel of experts to explore the complexity of the negotiations, and the role of the rail industry in post-Brexit Britain, focusing specifically on trade. Panellists included a range of representatives, from the passenger and freight companies, to the government and legal professions.

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A senior rail industry figure described the railway as an “anchor in stormy seas”, providing some surety, and helping to deliver the prosperity needed post-Brexit. He is right. As a sector that imports and exports both goods and services, moves people across borders, and controls our only physical link to the continent, getting Brexit right for this industry will also be a barometer for whether the deal will enable Britain to succeed in the decades ahead.

Foreign involvement in the British franchising market is well-documented. We should welcome the jobs, skills and investment that international transport businesses have wanted to bring here, and the fact that so many choose to learn from and build on our successes.

British businesses are also increasing their presence in mainland Europe, and we want to make sure that companies have access to these markets, so we can export our great expertise. Both of these developments can help bring jobs and prosperity to Britain.

Recently adopted EU laws will significantly open up the railway markets of other member states. Britain has had high comparative rail passenger satisfaction scores, second only to Finland, and – despite what you might read – significantly ahead of Germany and France.

This, coupled with our experience operating in a competitive market, means that British businesses are poised and well-positioned to win new franchises overseas. There is a significant opportunity for the industry, if negotiations on EU market access are done right.

One in four containers that arrive in a British port make their onward journey by rail. This is in addition to more than 22m tonnes of freight carried through the Channel Tunnel. Significant changes in customs controls could delay these movements.

Additional infrastructure may be required to manage trains in depots for longer periods or to store goods. On a network that is one of the most intensively used in Europe, delays could have a significant impact on domestic freight and passenger services. Frictionless cross-border transport is therefore essential post-Brexit.

Passenger and freight services cross borders without being subject to different standards, due to the European specifications and mutual recognition procedures that are currently applied by the rail industry and regulators. These specifications – and the ability to influence them – are also critical for the rail supply chain.

Adherence to common standards smooths the import and export of goods with the EU and generates the benefits of economies of scale.

Furthermore, access to a skilled workforce is essential post-Brexit – it’s estimated that up to 20 per cent of the rail industry’s workforce are non-British EU nationals.

Considering that the process laid out for the negotiations will first focus on citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the Irish border, other industry sectors may be deprioritised.

However, this illustration of the rail industry will be replicated across many other businesses, and it is critical that negotiators on both sides take heed.

The good news is that Britain’s rail infrastructure, working together, is well placed to deal with future challenges. Already, it is delivering improvements to the service it provides, making journeys better, and in doing so supporting local communities.

Our railway is the backbone of the British economy. It employs around 240,000 people, moves 4.5m people around Britain each day, and 86m tonnes of freight each year. It spreads wealth to every part of the country.

If Brexit supports investment in this vital service, and enables rail manufacturers to prosper, the deal will put Britain on the right track to make a success of our post-Brexit world.

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