Britain’s rail freight soldiers on amid the coronavirus crisis

The UK has awoken in a state of shock, under the most draconian restrictions to public life since 1939. The government introduced new measures to combat the coronavirus outbreak, that leave all but essential industry in unchallenged operation. Yet, freight trains manage to get through.

On Monday, prime minister Boris Johnson delivered the first of a promised series of daily press conferences. Flanked by expert medical advisors, he gave the nation the most stark warnings possible that businesses face a period of months without any meaningful trade. Yet, the supply chain operates. Britain’s rail freight network could be the saviour of the nation’s economy, and the means by which the country remains fed.

Still hauling. Multiple motive power movements captured by Railcam UK (image Railcam UK)

An independent network of cameras that monitor the network for subscribers, Railcam UK, picked up movements around the UK yesterday, that prove there is still vital economic activity on the freight railways. While places like London’s Waterloo station, the busiest passenger station in the UK, were astonishingly almost empty, freight was still on the move.

Stocks hit the buffers

Yesterday, cameras captured regular flows serving clients like supermarket chains. Rail freight’s capacity for movements in bulk is a reassurance to the nation at large. However, concerns over the far wider spread of coronavirus, could affect staffing on both the rail network and among distribution chains.

Businesses, including rail freight operations, faced a punishing time on the stock market. London’s index, the FTSE dropped four percent on Monday, on top of significant losses over the past two weeks. That is the second worst day in history for the index, but the news hardly made the inside pages. Some markets were even worse. The US Dow fell thirteen percent in a day. That is the largest ever points fall in a day and the worst percentage fall since the October 1987 “Black Monday” crash.

Freight movements

Observers for spotted freight and infrastructure trains still operating around the country. Among them, an early morning GB Railfreight operation from Edinburgh to Carlisle. The passing rumble, normally drowned out by the white noise of commuter traffic, gave some comfort to residents in the south of the Scottish capital that commerce was still underway.

Bulk tanks on their way from Teesside to the north of Scotland. Freight still moving yesterday around the UK (image Simon Walton)

As a grey day dawned in Britain on Tuesday, the clouds were gathering over the national mood too. The government has ominously promised even more measures to come. There is a possibility that schools will soon close, forcing staff in all sectors to withdraw from work to care for their children.

Grey clouds

Even more stringent measures are in place elsewhere. France is under a mandated lockdown, with only essential business continuing. President Macron warning yesterday that citizens face ‘punishment’ if they break what is effectively a national curfew.

While rail freight still offers tangible proof that business is working, there is genuine fear in the UK that the worst is yet to come.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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