UK rail freight in a state of flux

Maggie Simpson, the director general of the Rail Freight Group, gave a frank appraisal of the industry as she opened the RailFreight Webinar UK on the future prospects for growth. Cause for long-term optimism is tempered with immediate hurdles, and some of them are not of the industry’s making.

She was one of the speakers during the RailFreight Webinar UK, which took place last Friday 1 May. Simpson said that there was some really good, positive news from the industry, working really hard for retailers and supermarket deliveries, during the coronavirus crisis. “This has brought home how important the rail freight industry is to the delivery of goods. The industry has stepped up to the mark, and the UK government has seen how important rail freight is to the country”, she said.

Confidence in the industry

The restricted passenger timetable has helped, by making operations more visible and higher profile. “Freight has been prioritised on the railways, keeping up that vision of what rail can achieve. There are a lot of good case studies, lots of trains running at extended length, longer and heavier too. It may be difficult to timetable when the full passenger service resumes, but if nothing else, this crisis has built confidence in the industry’s ability to deliver”.

The high profile delivery of essential supples aside, the rail freight has been doing what rail freight does best. Bulk deliveries to the essential sectors of heavy industry, have continued. “Domestic heavy industry, such as steel, needs rail freight, but so too does less obvious but equally important flows like domestic waste, which is moved in no small measures by rail”.

Difficult questions for government

In her editorial for the latest RFG News, Simpson went further, and took issue with the concept of ‘the new normal’. “It’s a phrase I really dislike”, she said. “It seems to make what we are experiencing now an acceptable and semi-permanent thing. Whilst the controls and measures are necessary to safely maintain the nations’ health now, allowing them to become anything other than a crisis response raises some difficult questions for government and business alike”.

The UK government has some difficult decisions to make, but it must be sure of its understanding before intervening in the rail freight industry, argues Maggie Simpson.

Returning to the prospects for the future, Simpson told the webinar audience that the current situation had given pause for thought. She said that the overarching problem of capacity on the network was not solved, but there were many things that could be addressed right away. “Capacity for freight is not enough, what else is needed? There are lots of details and points that we have just been talking around. Running in off-peak periods, lengths of trains and speeds, running into loops and acceleration out of them; there are a whole host of operational things to be done”.

Passenger demand impacted

Talk of capacity in the UK inevitably brings HS2 to the table. “Fundamentally you have to build extra capacity”, Simpson told the virtual audience. “HS2 is not the only thing we have to talk about and it is not the only answer. We need to plan to upgrade links from ports, the trans-Pennine routes and increasing the capacity of the network properly”.

Changing work patterns, said Simpson in conclusion, will not necessarily result in fewer services. “Working from home is something we are getting used to. There is an impact to be felt on passenger demand, but I don’t know how much of a difference that will make. There was overcrowding on UK passenger services all over the network, so less people travelling does not necessarily mean less services”.

Freight may be enjoying clear signals right now, but as Simpson is at pains to point out, it is a temporary situation and defiantly not the new normal.

Watch again

If you were not able to attend, you can watch the replay of the RailFreight Webinar UK webinar here.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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