It’s time to transform regional rail networks – and here are four practical examples of why and how it could be done.

Ben Still, Managing Director of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority and the Urban Transport Group’s Board Lead for Rail, takes a look at our new report on regional rail investment.

From the evidence and experience we have developed over the years, we know investment in rail services can have a real and transformational impact on people’s lives and regional economies. Previous research from the Urban Transport Group has shown that investment in urban and regional programmes represents high or very high value for money, and returns far in excess of the original capital investment.

Our latest report – The Transformational Benefits of Investing in Regional Rail: four case studies – is a powerful study of the benefits that improvements in rail infrastructure can bring to regional economies. Although the case studies are based on real examples they are indicative of what can be achieved from different types of rail schemes rather than fully worked up business cases for particular schemes.

The examples include the development of a new passenger services on an existing freight route (based on the Ashington Blyth and Tyne line in South East Northumberland), the linking of two radial passengers routes to create new longer distance and cross-city journey opportunities (based on a new link in the West Midlands) and the total transformation of an entire rail network to include tram-train technologies and on-street running in city centres (based on the Cardiff Valleys).

As Managing Director of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, one of the case studies has particular resonance for me. This is for a whole route upgrade (based on the Leeds – Harrogate – York line). The route is extremely well used, with demand increasing at some stations on the route by around 40% over the last 10 years. However, to date the only major improvements to the line have been lengthening trains and some station improvements.

The report uses the route as the basis for a case study of the benefits of resignalling and electrification as well as route and service improvements, including new stations. The benefits would include increased passenger capacity, shorter journey times and easing congestion in the major urban areas at either end of the line. The two new proposed stations would also unlock much needed new housing development potential and deliver new and easier access to jobs, education and other social services.

The report found this case study to have very high value for money, with a cost benefit ratio of 4:1 – meaning for every £1 invested in the scheme there are £4 worth of economic benefits.

The other case studies have differing cost benefit ratios but all bring significant benefits. Our report should be seen as a signpost to what can be done and what can be achieved – if brave and forward-looking investment decisions can be reached.