Britain used to lead the world in the construction of new railways and tramlines, but we have fallen behind. Outside of London, British commuters have to make do with less frequent, less reliable and slower public transport options than their counterparts on the continent. 

Sixty German cities have a tram, compared to only seven cities in Britain. In France, every urban area with more than 150,000 residents has a tram or metro, while there are 30 British cities that size that lack any form of rapid transit. Britain is more reliant on slower diesel trains that break down more often than Germany, France, or Spain because we have failed to electrify our railways at the same rate. Our trains are less likely to arrive on time and more likely to be cancelled than European equivalents.

When we do try to restore our railways, projects quickly face significant red tape. Take the 3.3 mile Portishead branch line near Bristol. Residents have been keen to get their railway back almost since it shut in 1964. In 2022, the North Somerset Council successfully got planning permission, after three years and 79,187 pages of paperwork. If all of those pages were laid end to end, it would be 4 ½ times longer than the proposed railway will be. All of those pages add costs, uncertainty, and delay to restoring a vital rail connection for the residents of Portishead.

The high cost of building in Britain has left us with an inadequate transport system. Britain Remade reviewed over 300 transport projects across 20 countries and found Britain builds trams at twice the cost of the European average and almost four times the cost Germans do. When it comes to electrifying railways, Britain pays three times more for a single mile of track than Germany. High Speed 2 was nine times more expensive than the Tours to Bordeaux high speed line.

There are multiple causes of the UK’s high costs from planning delays to regulation, but one key problem is a lack of practice.

Every year for the last fifty years, Germany has electrified roughly 200 kilometres of railway. Britain could learn from this approach. Our boom-and-bust approach has made electrifying our railways around three times more expensive here than in Germany. Instead of building up a skills base and learning from past mistakes, Britain is constantly starting from scratch. Failures like the £190m wasted on unnecessary work for the TransPennine Route Upgrade could be avoided if we copied Germany’s approach.

But that’s not our only problem, Britain is one of the most centralised countries in Europe. Our proud towns and cities should be able to fund their own transport upgrades, but instead are forced to go cap-in-hand to Whitehall. Not only does this mean decision making takes place far from the people who best know what their communities need, it also has the effect of slowing everything down by adding extra layers of bureaucracy. Parliament passed all the necessary enabling legislation for a Leeds tram in 1993, but have repeatedly failed to fund actually building it.

Connecting more people to the best jobs with fast reliable public transport links will mean cutting Britain’s sky-high construction costs and giving city regions more power to invest.


Creating new long-term funding streams for rail electrification and rolling stock

To bring down costs, the Department for Transport should commit to a consistent and rolling programme of investment in rail electrification. Instead of funding electrification on a project by project basis, HM Treasury should provide funding of £350m per annum for rail electrification. To speed up delivery, Network Rail should be given full business case approval powers to choose which projects to spend it on.

Train factories in Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Durham are under threat from another boom-and-bust approach. Between 2012 and 2019, half of Britain’s fleet was replaced, but only a few new orders have come since. The Department for Transport should create a new funding programme to smooth out the boom-bust cycle and prioritise replacing every train that’s more than 35 years old. If we do not act and our domestic supply chain collapses, Britain can expect to pay more in the future as we cannot buy off-the-shelf from international suppliers due to the age of our railways.


Fixing utility regulations to cut the cost of building new tramlines

Britain’s tram projects currently move almost all utilities in their route, while having to pay for 92.5% of the cost of moving them. This doesn’t come cheap, with moving utilities constituting up to a third of construction costs.

For future projects, British trams should look to continental Europe and America and adopt a do not move by default approach to utilities. We should only replace what is necessary. Iron Victorian pipes will need to be replaced, funded by a greater contribution by the utility company, but plastic water pipes, telecoms, and electrics shouldn’t be moved.

With utility companies only covering 7.5% of the cost of moving utilities, there is no incentive for them to keep the costs of work down or to be selective about which pipes and wires actually need to be moved or replaced. Instead, the utility companies get newly installed apparatuses at the expense of the tram project. The government should update the statutory instrument ‘The Street Works (Sharing of Costs of Works) Regulation 2000’ to rebalance the costs of diverting utilities from tram projects to utility. Utility companies are the most capable of efficiently and cheaply re-routing their cables and pipes because of their experience and incentives to only re-route utilities that actually need to be moved.


Reforming the Transport and Works Act to get trams built faster

Tram projects in the UK take more than a decade from initial proposals to opening for passengers. Trams in France can do the same in a single six year mayoral term. A key cause of delays that British trams encounter and French trams do not, is having to get national approval for the local transport project. Though getting a Transport and Works Act Order is valuable for British tram projects as it gives planning permission and legal protections, the process adds millions in consultant fees and up to four years in delays.

DfT and DLUHC should devolve Transport and Works Act approvals to metro mayors. These projects do not have national level impacts or externalities, so shouldn’t need national approval. Local elected leaders could champion the project throughout its planning, as French mayors and councils do for their trams.

By encouraging drivers out of their cars, Nottingham’s tram contributed to a 25% reduction in the city’s CO2 emissions. Because all British tram projects have had large environmental benefits, requirements to complete environmental impact assessments should be removed for areas where the trams run on existing roads or through built up areas.


Restoring your railway pipeline and improving its viability

The Restoring Your Railway Fund generated significant enthusiasm for rebuilding our railways, with 141 unique bids received. People from Tavistock and Portishead to the Don Valley and Oswestry are desperate to be reconnected to the national rail network. The DfT and HM Treasury should re-open the fund to help progress the accepted bids through the planning process and create a pipeline of projects with consistent funding to encourage investment by private contractors. The next Government should also designate any railway restorations project as critical national priorities in the national networks policy statement. These railways should benefit from the reforms to consultation and environmental impact assessments mentioned in the energy section above.

To help the financial viability of projects, DLUHC should withdraw its 2017 guidance on the 2016 Housing and Planning Act, which limited the number of homes that could be jointly consented with a Development Consent Order to 500. Building new homes and towns in connection with new tracks was how the Victorians funded many of the railways that we still rely on today. Such a funding mechanism would enable capture of the increased land values that a railway brings.


Empowering city regions to fund new transport infrastructure

To make the transformative investments in new trams and rail links that our towns and cities desperately need, we propose giving metro mayors new powers to fund projects. When a new transport link is built, nearby homes become more valuable and businesses are able to access a larger pool of workers. Two years after tramlines opened in Manchester, Edinburgh, and the West Midlands, prices of homes near the line were on average 15% higher. This is compared to essentially no house price changes in the two years prior to the tramline opening.

Metro mayors should be allowed to issue bonds, secured on future uplift in stamp duty and business rate revenues to fund new transport infrastructure. To make it easier for metro mayors to levy business rate supplements and council tax precepts to fund infrastructure the requirement to have approval from the majority of authorities within a combined authority should be removed. The DfT should also devolve to Metro Mayors the approval of future workplace parking levies, where employers are charged a fee for each parking space they provide to employees, as currently central approval could take more than three years.

To provide more funding options, Metro Mayors should also be allowed to levy an extra penny on employer’s national insurance on the condition it is ring fenced for new transport infrastructure and approved at local referendum. A similar tax in France, called the Versement Transport, helped to fund France’s tram renaissance.


Metroising Local Rail

Nearly half a million Londoners rely on trains to get to work. Yet unlike the underground, these services are managed by 11 different companies, which fail to build a coherent or efficient network. These services are often delayed, with Southern only achieving 53% on time services, compared to 80% for the London Overground. Competing operators, poor performance and inefficient operational design creates a downward spiral of delays and overcrowding. Manchester suffers from similar challenges; despite rail being the fastest growing mode of transport to work, only 60% of Northern services were on time.

To fix this, DfT should transfer control of local rail to Metro Mayors starting with London. This would enable TfL to improve operational standards across the new network and make targeted capital interventions to increase capacity, reduce journey time, and improve reliability. TfL estimates they could run 39 additional trains per hour to central London for just 12% the cost of the Elizabeth line if they were given control over local rail in South London. This approach should then be rolled out to Manchester and the West Midlands.