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"Railways are the Catalyst for Expanding Horizons," Remarks Huw Merriman, British Minister of State for Rail and HS2

&quote;Railways are the Catalyst for Expanding Horizons,&quote; Remarks Huw Merriman, British Minister of State for Rail and HS2
photo: RAILTARGET/"Railways are the Catalyst for Expanding Horizons," Remarks Huw Merriman, British Minister of State for Rail and HS2
26 / 09 / 2023

In an exclusive conversation with the RAILTARGET team, Huw Merriman, the distinguished British Minister of State for Rail and HS2, opened up about his recent endeavors in the Czech Republic and the ongoing collaboration to enhance rail connections between nations. Discussing the future of railways, the essence of green transport, and the dynamics post-Brexit, Merriman lays out his vision for an interconnected Europe and the key role railways play in this future tapestry.

Last October, Mr. Merriman was appointed the Minister for Rail and High-Speed Railway in Great Britain in the Department of Transport, and during your time in Westminster, you're a member of Parliament; you've had a variety of responsibilities. It's a great experience in politics and administration. You came here to Gdansk for TRAKO 2023 from Prague. It is the biggest railway fair in Europe. What does the Czech Republic and Poland represent for you?

Firstly, thank you. It's great to have a chance to speak to the RAILTARGET audience. And you're quite right, yesterday I was in four countries. I left the UK very early in the morning and spent a day in Prague, where I was able to work with our embassy team and meet Minister Kupka and his team at the department. We signed a Memorandum of Understanding for both countries and our rail industries to work together to collaborate to learn from each other and share and create opportunities for our railway industry. It was really exciting, and I enjoyed meeting the Minister. He has great experience and enthusiasm for the railways. So I left Amsterdam and landed in the city of Gdansk, where the TRAKO fair is taking place. We've got a fantastic UK exhibition stand. I've just been to meet the Czech team again, talking about the day I had yesterday with the Minister and the signing of the agreement because it's really important that we do something with that Memorandum of Understanding. So, meeting the Czech stand, which I've just done with the team there, my big question is, how can we now make both our countries' railways work really closely together? It's really exciting, and I'm happy to be in Poland, and I was happy to be in Prague yesterday.

Central Europe, the Czech Republic, and Poland, in particular, will start building a network of high-speed railways. The UK has also embarked on this part and has continued since 2019 construction of High Speed 2, which will link London with the Northern part of Great Britain. What kind of cooperation do you want to develop between Great Britain and the Czech Republic on the basis of this Memorandum that can be interesting for both parties?

Most importantly, the Czech Republic is investing in its railways in a similar way that we are in the UK. The signaling needs to be replaced; digital signaling is the future. My Czech counterpart, Minister Kupka, was telling me how this is how they wish to proceed, and we are currently embarking on the railway between London and Edinburg to turn that into digital. With where we've been, and where we are currently going, our hope is that we can work with our counterpart in the Czech Railway to show what we've been able to build and also what we've learned in terms of lessons. We always learn lessons in terms of how we can do things differently. The same with high speed. It was really interesting listening to Minister Kupka and his plans for high-speed rail. We both discussed how some communities are not as passionate about it because it goes through them rather than them being able to stop. So it's a question of how you can sell high-speed rail as a country-wide project where everyone benefits, even if certain people may have more impacts. So again, I hope that we can learn and collaborate, not just on the building and the engineering but also on how we are able to persuade the country, the investments in railways, new and high-speed ones. More connections are a good thing. I equally then hope that we can take some of the understanding and learning from where the Czech Railways are currently building and delivering and then be able to do better learning from the Czech experience. So it's a two-way partnership, and it's important that we can take the best of the Czech Railways and invest it in our railways by using the Czech expertise, and vice versa.

That's my next question. What would you recommend to the Central Europe? Because we have just started this planning process. Does an optimal model of financing for such a large-scale project exist from your experience in Great Britain?

We talked about this yesterday when we had the meeting at the department. Railways, of course, take a long time to build, particularly in democracies, because we have to take into account the considerations of those where the railway goes through. There's something that has to be factored into in terms of the long-term cost because you're dealing with years of inflation uncertainties where you can't predict. When you start these projects, it's important that you take the country and explain that no matter what occurs, this is positive, and it's going to be delivered. And, of course, with High Speed 2, we are currently in our peak build between London and Birmingham, and, of course, we are experiencing the global shocks, which everyone is experiencing right now, and our construction inflation is running about fifteen percent, so of course it adds to the build. But ultimately, if you're going to deliver a project, then from the very start, you have to factor in shocks, and you have to make sure that you manage the expectations and you want to do your best to ensure the costs are financially controlled. There are sometimes things outside of control. It doesn't mean that the project is not a good one. But all of the things I think that we talked about yesterday in our meeting is how to be able to maximize the land opportunities, the values that go up, making sure the railways get some of those proceeds back, and also making sure that the contracts are tight so that they're financially controlled, meaning those who build the railways have to work towards them. I think those are the things we are still learning ourselves from the project, so again, by learning, we pass on that learning under the Memorandum of Understanding.

Exactly. There's another part for modernization and construction of new railway infrastructure. The European Union is now trying to fight the economic stagnation and recession. How important is it to keep the transport for users, especially with rail transport competitors?

Hugely important. For the railways, it's essential because there are other modes of transport and if they're doing it better and cheaper, the passengers will use them. But also, it's really important, and I speak to our UK supply chain, who, of course, push me because they want more rail projects, and I do, too, but I have to explain to them that I need their support in making sure that there's financial competitiveness, otherwise, that's time or money I can't spend on new projects. We all have to be financially disciplined to make sure these projects are delivered. But ultimately, and I believe, as the world continues to expand its horizons - we trade with each other, learn, and visit - the railways are the catalyst for this, and as more people look towards environmentally friendly and decarbonized modes of transport, the railways have that edge on other modes in terms of doing long-distance travels. I think the future of rail is great, and it's just important to maximize the opportunities. The more we work together, the more we collaborate, the more we learn lessons, the more efficiently we deliver our projects because we can all learn to do things better.

To your mind, is the Green Deal, or efforts to make transport low-carbon for the future, the right way forward in terms of investment in the future of railways?

Yes, I believe so. I mean, it's interesting in the UK. Our national group, the electricity group, one percent of that is given over to the railways because we have electrified a lot of our railway, about 1200 miles in the last 12 years, but we've still got two-thirds to go. So we need to use that more, and of course, as our electricity generation is more environmentally friendly with alternative renewable sources, that makes the railway even greener and an even better choice. We know, for example, that the younger population in our country make their transport choices based on what's good for them and also the environment, and they have that as a cause, so I want to make sure that the railway can tap into that. It's a great way for the railway to market itself and brings the revenues that allow us to electrify or decarbonize even more of our railway. We have a plan to take all of our diesel rolling stock off the railway by 2040 and be fully net-zero on the railway by 2050. That's quite ambitious when you're building the rolling stock now for the future. And I'm really interested in new technologies, hydrogen, diesel batteries, the new ways of working on the railway, which will also decarbonize and make it even more appealing to the public.

It is very important what you say because the Central European states have been transforming the socialist economy into a market-conforming way in the last thirty years, and now many of our not only experts but also citizens ask whether this is the right and conforming way for the market to make fossil fuels more expensive in transport and open new possibilities in rail for low-carbon transport.

I am fascinated by it, but I tend to look at it the other way around and say, how can we actually make decarbonized transport modes cheaper? And they should be able to do that in their own way. Looking at the rail, for example, at the new technologies that exist, our ability to now use battery power on heavier trains for longer distances, we now have hybrid trains that eventually charge themselves up on the electric part, and then they can actually release that charge afterward - those new technologies will actually drive the price down and make these cheaper. I am not in favor of, for example, increasing air travel prices because that doesn't then encourage decarbonized transport like the rail to be more efficient and actually find ways of bringing the price down. I look at prices to make sure we can see the railways beating aviation by being more efficient and not just saying to aviation, "You have to put your prices up." To me, the competition is important, and I think it's important that you do compete, but railways will have an edge inside the transport competition structure because, as well as being a great way to travel and a great connector, you don't have to spend much time waiting at the airport, etc., you can also say that this is the green clean way to travel, and again, that's part of the competitive edge that I feel rail has over other forms of transport.

We are friends, and the Memorandum and your visit yesterday to Prague is an element of the perfect cooperation between the Czech Republic and the UK. But I still would like to ask, because it's a rare situation, about the effects and disaffects of Brexit. We are very pragmatic and try to create many fields for future cooperation in the Czech Republic. What are the effects for us?

It's fascinating because we remain European and friends with Europe, and I know that sometimes, other members of the European Union would be frustrated at the UK because we were never as into the integration project, so the UK held back the European friends from going in the way they wished to go. I equally know the countries, including the Czech Republic and Poland, valued our membership because it created a sort of counterweight to some other countries. What I would say is that, as we have left the European Union, we have to work even harder now. We need to ensure and demonstrate that we are friends and members of the same club, and put new work agreements in place, such as the Memorandum of Understanding, because we don't have a membership to fall back on and, therefore, we have to go out of our way to demonstrate how closely we can work together. If anything, I believe we will end up working closer together as a result of that. What I also hope it allows us to do, and I think the basis of this is set nicely by the trade agreement the European Union has never signed up before, that we have in place for the UK to trade without boundaries or a few boundaries that many had predicted. That transition, the ability to trade still on a free and competitive basis, the competitive requirement that makes us make even more friends, with that, in my view, we should be in an even more positive place. I certainly don't see a big change where we try to unpick things, good things that we actually put in place in the UK as the result of our membership because we want to continue to cooperate and keep that framework in place for our partnership to thrive. We see it, for example, in Poland, a huge amount of work for the Memorandum of Understanding that was put in place, which under the new Polish transportation projects is actually starting to bear fruit for us in the UK. I very much hope that fruits will be born both for the Czech Republic and the UK from the Memorandum I signed yesterday. These things we have to do to demonstrate our friendship, our cooperation, our ability and desire to work together. Sometimes, when you're a member of a club, that's assumed, and when you're not - and now, of course, as you point out, we've left it - then we actually have to demonstrate and work even harder to keep our cooperation friendship together.

It can be similar to the Czech and Slovak dividing. We have a better partnership now than we had before.

Yes, of course, we left the European Union. I know many regret that. But I regard that as a reset moment, and in the UK, we've always looked at the world outside of our window, we've always wanted to trade and cooperate, and we've always known that diplomacy of friendship is the way to make better for both parties. And, of course, we need that world level. We see what's happening with Ukraine. We need our friendship and partnership to really thrive. And, as I said, when we were members of the European Union, sometimes we were seen as a part holding the project back, and now we are not. My hope is that we will perhaps be more favorably viewed by the members of the European Union because we're outside but very much within in terms of our desire to work and make friends.

That's a perfect final word. Thank you very much.