Rail freight line in UK

Freight bodies’ cautious welcome for UK Rail Strategy

Image: Network Rail

UK rail freight campaigners have cautiously welcomed the Government’s new Rail Strategy, which reaffirms ongoing initiatives to boost the sector, but say the integration of regional rail partnerships will present a challenge to freight’s national infrastructure.

While the Department for Transports’s (DfT) Rail Strategy focuses largely on passenger services, it also makes clear the importance of the rail freight industry ‘realising its full potential’ by delivering environmental and economic benefits, including cutting congestion and supporting vital global supply chains.

It points to last year’s Rail Freight Strategy as evidence of the Government’s ‘shared vision’ for the sector’s future and the challenges to the development of its market share. It says it has been working closely with industry to implement the improvements needed in four areas: innovation and skills; network capacity; track access charges and ‘telling the story’ of rail freight.

Track and train management

At the heart of the strategy is revamping the current system which has a clear distinction between track and train management. State-owned Network Rail currently looks after the track and other infrastructure, while train services are operated by private companies. Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, said it ‘made sense’ to run trains and track together, as was the case under the former British Rail.

However both the Rail Freight Group (RFG) and the Campaign for Better Transport (CBT) are concerned about how the planned regional partnerships designed to bring track and train back together will make freight stakeholders ‘uncomfortable’.

Philippa Edmunds, Freight on Rail Manager for the Campaign for Better Transport, said: “We welcome the ongoing commitment to upgrade the rail freight network in the period 2019 – 2024 as there is considerable suppressed demand for more consumer and construction rail freight services on key corridors. Capacity upgrades will remove a serious number of the large long-distance lorries thereby reducing congestion, road collisions and pollution.

‘Structures must incentivised’

“However, as rail freight is a nationwide service with most of its services crossing regional boundaries, the expansion of integrated regional rail partnerships bringing track and train together, presents challenges. Both the System Operator and Virtual Freight & National Passenger Operator need the necessary authority to protect the rail freight industry. As part of this, the system operator function must oversee the national network and retain timetabling functions.

“Furthermore, we believe that the new structures must be incentivised to support existing and new rail freight services otherwise rail freight traffic could be marginalised.”

Maggie Simpson, Executive Director of the Rail Freight Group, said her organisation welcomed the continued support for rail freight outlined in Government’s new rail strategy, in particular the commitment to rail freight as part of the long-term rail vision, and continued investment to develop a fit for purpose rail freight network.

‘Responsibility for freight’

The latest initiative, she added, builds on the Government’s Rail Freight Strategy published last year, and highlights how the industry can work together to achieve growth. However, the plans for regional rail partnerships, which give greater control of the infrastructure to passenger franchises, are ‘uncomfortable’ for freight businesses and customers, who operate across the national rail network, and who expect the infrastructure to be managed impartially.

“Government has set out a clear vision for rail freight as a core part of the nation’s railways – we now need to understand how regional partnerships will support freight growth, alongside Network Rail’s FNPO route and system operator,” she said. “We will be encouraging Department for Transport to consider explicit targets in partnership contracts, to require named senior individuals with responsibility for freight, and to support enhanced governance between different parts of the industry to ensure that Government’s vision for rail freight can be delivered on the ground.”

Low emission rail freight

The document adds that as part of the Government’s Clean Growth Strategy, it is also working towards more cost-effective options for moving freight onto rail, including using low emission rail freight for deliveries into urban areas, with zero emission last-mile deliveries. The DfT’s Ports Connectivity Study meanwhile is looking into port access connectivity across England that will support economic growth, and this will ‘make the case’ for improved rail freight connections to and from ports.

The growth of new sectors such as intermodal containers has also been made possible through a combination of government and private investment, as well as ports, terminals and customers. The Government, it concludes, will continue to provide funding for improvements to the freight network between 2019 and 2024.

Download the Rail Strategy.

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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