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Who's ready to put some skin in the rail game?

“If we carry on doing the same stuff in the same way, we are never going to move this industry forward.”

That was the rallying cry from Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne at yesterday’s annual George Bradshaw address.

The man at the helm of the country’s rail infrastructure body painted a picture of a brave new world for the sector, with contributions from developers and local authorities, as well as the embracing of public-private partnerships involving construction firms.

It is no secret, the finances for the next five-year funding period, CP6, look precarious.

Last week, one rail industry figure told me that they were seriously unsure if they would see half the level of funding they have seen in CP5 coming through in the funding period starting in 2019.

But public-private partnerships; really?

PPP for rail projects has largely been overlooked in the UK since the delivery of HS1. But this now seems to be changing.

Following the creation of East-West rail last December, transport secretary Chris Grayling told Construction News that he would not rule out PPPs as an option for delivering the new line from Oxford to Cambridge.

If the signals from Mr Carne last night were anything to go by, a public-private partnership could be a serious option for the delivery of the East-West rail line.

And it could be the first of many projects to adopt this approach.

But for that to happen contractors will need to be willing to take on the risk.

“We need appetite from the market,” Mr Carne said. “I’m not interested in people saying ’I want a low-risk, longer-term return on my investments’, we need people prepared to put a bit of skin in the game.”

And it was clear that those in the audience were receptive to that.

One rail contractor welcomed the comments from Mr Carne, and said that firms like his would be more than willing to take on that risk.

“Industry is keen to take on that risk, why should the government take that all on?” he said.

It seems this sentiment is only going to get stronger, when yet another report on rail is published in the spring.

Following Dame Collette Bowe, Sir Peter Hendy and Nicola Shaw, former chief construction adviser Peter Hansford is to add his chapter to the future shape and structure of the UK’s railways.

Mr Hansford’s review will be looking at the contestability of the UK rail market, and how to remove barriers that prevent alternative project delivery models.

This report could be the most important yet for contractors.

Rail construction is a massive part of the industry. Network Rail spent more than £7.32bn on external contractors in 2016.

But it looks as if it is at the start of a major change, with new ways of project delivery being introduced.

For the industry to make the most of that, it needs to be prepared for those changes.

Contractors, are you ready?

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