Rail Cities UK report maps out better future for urban rail

Significant rail expansion is the ‘only viable option’ to help UK cities achieve their ambitions on economic growth and meeting housing demand, whilst also creating attractive urban centres with less road traffic and better air quality. 

This is the central finding of a new report in which the Urban Transport Group, the organisation which represents the UK’s largest urban transport authorities, sets out its vision for the future of rail travel in cities. 

The report, Rail Cities UK - Our vision for their future, launched today, highlights how urban rail has been “one of the big transport success stories of recent times”, with patronage levels soaring. For example, over the last decade, rail passenger numbers have grown by 184% at St Helens Central station, by 149% at Birmingham New Street, and by 96% at Bradford Interchange.

But the report argues that current investment in urban rail "falls short" of what is needed for cities to meet their wider economic, environmental and social goals and sets out a five-point vision for 21st century rail cities based on: 

  • Higher density and more reliable rail services, with a greater market share of city centre commuting and more cross city routes.
  • The use of new technologies, such as tram-trains, which are able to switch from rail lines onto streets when they reach cities centres. 
  • Rail networks which are integrated with wider public transport, and which support housing needs and local economic development.
  • Stations which act as hubs for business, housing and community purposes.
  • Interconnected rail networks which emulate those of comparative city regions in countries such as Germany.

Ben Still, managing director at West Yorkshire Combined Authority and the Urban Transport Group’s lead board member for rail, said: “Rail is absolutely vital for creating city regions which are economically dynamic, green and sustainable, meet housing needs, and are ultimately exciting and rewarding places for people to live, work and spend time in. Only by expanding rail networks will we be able to get more people into the denser, less congested urban centres whilst unlocking more opportunities for housing development.

“All our areas have exciting plans for transforming and expanding their urban rail networks but this will require consistent long-term funding and for the rail industry to up its game in delivering the projects we need on time and on budget. Although we are seeing significant investment in renewing and improving urban rail it falls short of what is needed for a long-term vision for rail cities. At the same time the proven benefits that devolution brings are not being extended rapidly enough. We need a step change in our urban rail ambitions if we are to create cities that are truly fit for the future.” 

The report says that this future vision for rail can only be achieved if five key challenges are addressed, which are:

  • An appraisal methodology and decision-making process that better recognises the benefits of urban rail investment.
  • Improving the rail industry’s capability and capacity to deliver schemes efficiently and at reasonable cost.
  • Returning to a national rail planning process based on long term rail expansion.
  • Greater coordination of the planning and delivery of transport, local economic development and housing.
  • Deepening and widening the process of devolution of rail powers to bring about greater integration of urban rail networks with other local public transport services.

Jonathan Bray, director of the Urban Transport Group, added: “It’s time for a new settlement on rail devolution. The government should fully recognise the reality - and the benefits - of a devolving railway within a devolving UK by completing devolution in key regions, and giving more powers over stations where authorities have the ambition and capacity to take on such powers.”

Click here to download the full Rail Cities UK report.

If you would like to contact Andy Walker about this, or any other story, please email