A national investment strategy for rail freight

UK trade union RMT has renewed calls for the government in London to put in place a national investment strategy to fully support the rail freight sector. The union wants to see financial support for the sector to boost the UK’s recovery from the Covid-19 crisis, and to achieve maximum modal shift from road haulage to rail to ensure the UK leads the way in the fight against climate change.

The rail professionals’ union, RMT, made the call for new investment in the rail industry, in response to last week’s official freight statistics, which they say show the sector is still struggling to fully recover from Covid-19 crisis. The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) quarterly rail freight statistics reveal that the rail freight sector is making a slow recovery from the impact of the Covid-19 crisis during the second quarter of 2020, the summer months July to September.

A worrying picture

The latest figures from the ORR show a summer of disruption and declining tonnage, with the main culprit being the continuing pandemic. “Rail freight is absolutely vital as the UK continues the battle against the Covid-19 and climate crises”, said RMT general secretary Mick Cash. “These statistics continue to paint a worrying picture in a sector that needs much more Government support than it is currently getting.”

RMT general secretary Mick Cash is concerned by the latest freight figures and by government spending policy (RMT)

Despite the launch of several new flows over the summer, the figures that most concerned the union relate to overall tonnage and distance. The ORR statistics say that total freight moved was 3,89 billion net tonne kilometres in 2020-21 Q2, the lowest Q2 total since the comparable figure was first compiled in 1998-99. The total amount of freight lifted in 2020-21 Q2 was 17,3 million tonnes, an 8 per cent decrease compared to the same quarter last year, and freight train kilometres dropped by 12 per cent compared to the same quarter the previous year, falling to 7,5 million kilometres.

Spending review cuts favour road development

The union however shows faith in the sector and reminded the government of its importance in beating the pandemic. Echoing the debate at last week’s ProMedia Air Freight Conference, Mick Cash proposed that rail freight has a pivotal part to play in the roll out of Covid-19 vaccines, at the same time as reducing the country’s carbon emissions.

In addition to concerns over investment, RMT is critical of cleaning regimes at passenger operator GWR, which they contend have contributed to poor Covid infection rates among staff. GWR is also a partner in light goods transport on board its passenger trains. Image: RMT

Cash was however critical of the response from Westminster, particularly the chancellor of the exchequer’s recent Spending Review, which trimmed investment in the railways. “As the Government make billion-pound cuts to the rail infrastructure budget in the Spending Review, whilst ring-fencing the budget for new roads, shows they have got their priorities completely wrong. It is time for the Government to put their money where their mouth is and really get behind the rail freight sector once and for all as our country simply cannot afford for them not to.”

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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