Rail freight line in UK

RFG’s Maggie Simpson: freight network must be ‘fit for purpose’

As Executive Director of the UK Rail Freight Group, Maggie Simpson’s inbox is never empty. She leads the RFG’s work to increase modal shift, by campaigning for a policy environment which supports rail freight, promotes the sector, and supports members in their business activities. On the eve of its Annual Conference, she tells RailFreight.com about her hopes for the future of rail freight in the UK and Europe, not least the likely impact from ‘Brexit’ – the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.

What do you see as the most pressing issues for the rail freight sector, both for the UK specifically and Europe as a whole, and why? 

“Across Europe and particularly in the UK we are seeing structural change in the markets for rail freight.  Bulk commodities such as coal are declining, whilst intermodal and retail sectors are making more use of rail.  Other markets such as steel and construction remain strong, but there are changes in supply and demand, including domestic production and imports.  More generally, freight and logistics is changing in response to the demands of e-commerce and online shopping.  So the most pressing issue for operators is how to respond to this change, to meet the demands of customers in new sectors, and how to innovate to deliver better services.

Fit for purpose

Is enough being done to promote the modal shift to rail, and what more could or should be on the agenda at government policy level to help promote rail?

“The Government in the UK is supporting rail freight and has a recently published strategy on how it can best do this.  However, with a congested rail network, and challenges on costs, we need a real focus on providing a network which is fit for purpose for freight and gives a stable environment for growth. Government can also help encourage rail freight use in its policies, for example on infrastructure development, and in response to air quality concerns.

Do you see Brexit squarely as an opportunity to grasp the future potential of freight movements between the UK and the continent, or do you get any sense from your members that the current uncertainty around Brexit is damaging the industry in any way?

“Both. There is no doubt that Brexit is causing a renewed focus on international trade routes, which creates opportunities for improving rail and road freight links for example to ports and the Channel Tunnel.  However, the uncertainty is also damaging to investment decisions for some members, and as yet there is little clarity on areas such as customs processes which could impact on rail services.

Economic sense

The first freight train between the UK and China recently set out on its return leg to the Far East. Does the development of the ‘new Silk Road’ freight corridor offer genuine grounds for encouragement, and make economic sense for opening up a whole new era of trade? 

“Absolutely. It’s important to remember that similar services have been running for several years now from Germany and Eastern Europe and are providing a good service for their customers.  The train will never replace shipping but offers a much quicker transit time which is important for some higher value goods.  By linking the UK into this network, our exporters are now able to take advantage of this, better competing with their European rivals.

The roll-out of the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) along the EU freight corridors is dominating much of the debate in the continental rail freight sector. What are your thoughts on its deployment in the UK and beyond and do you think it will, as hoped, stimulate more competition? 

“We support the role out of ERTMS as an important way to create more capacity, modernise the railways and to improve cross border operations. However, there are clearly a number of challenges which need to be addressed to ensure that we get the optimum result for freight. There is good progress in the UK, but we need commitment to funding ERTMS fitment on freight locomotives in order to move to the next step of deployment.”

Efficient

Network Rail recently announced it was freeing up over 4,000 weekly ‘unused’ freight paths, but retaining half for future freight development. Are operators currently doing enough to ensure freight operations are as efficient as they can be? If not, what needs to change?

“The work by Network Rail and the freight operators has been a good start, and releases back paths that have no realistic prospect of use, whilst retaining those that do.  This is an inevitable outcome from the decline of coal, and the changes in rail freight’s market.  We now need to work to try and improve the efficiency of the paths we have on the network, so that we can better meet customer needs, use our assets more efficiently and reduce costs.  We need to find ways of keeping freight moving rather than in loops, to optimise train length and loading, and to look to innovation to improve performance and operational speed.

Why is freight consistently having to play ‘second fiddle’ to passenger services?

“Good question. The old adage is ‘freight doesn’t vote’, but it is much more complex than that. Of course, we accept that in the passenger peaks we should keep out of the way, and that high speed passenger trains should be prioritised, but in the off peaks, there is a need to balance the capacity use for all network users.  I think many people never think about the economic importance of keeping freight moving when they are taking transport decisions.

Digital freight era

From GPS trackers on wagons, to wayside monitoring systems, we hear a lot about the ‘digital freight era’. But we will still need people. How do we best engage them in terms of making the technology easily accessible and convenient to staff, particularly those who may be long-serving and rooted in the ‘old ways of doing things’?

“We need both. There is no doubt that the railways, and freight in particular, has a technology ‘gap’ now compared to many other sectors, and we need to move quickly to close that gap.  We also need the best possible workforce to deliver for business and customers, and meet the changing needs of the sector.  Technology can help make work safer for our staff, improve working conditions, and is key to promoting growth so that we can grow and employ more people.  So I really don’t believe that there is any threat, it should be an opportunity for everyone.

The Annual Rail Freight Group Conference is almost upon us, so what do you hope that delegates and stakeholders will take away this year, and what is your message to them?

“We are looking forward to our Annual Conference, and hearing the latest news and development from the speakers and panellists. In a changing sector, and in a changing landscape with Brexit, and now a UK General Election, I hope that we will hear how rail freight is changing and responding to these challenges and opportunities. Our message is to come along and hear what we have to offer, and how you can help to deliver on growth.”

Author: Simon Weedy

Simon is a journalist for RailFreight.com - a dedicated online platform for all the news about the rail freight sector

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