UK Rail Freight Group firms up post-pandemic policy

Containers at Hamburg port. Source: Port of Hamburg

The independent representative body for the industry in the UK, the Rail Freight Group, has published its forward position on post-pandemic business affairs within the sector. The Group has also taken a holistic view on foreign policy and trade relations after Brexit, and how freeports may or not be the best thing for UK operators.

External factors in the past twelve months have significantly affected policy position at the Rail Freight Group. Global uncertainly, argues Joe O’Donnell, the RFG policy specialist, has led to the world becoming an increasingly uncertain place, affected by a raft of complex interlinked crises. He says that we are not past the worst of it yet, either.

Relations with China particularly prescient

Pointing to an almost certain global recession, brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, he says the UK is also heading into a deterioration of diplomatic relations with both China and Russia. The former playing an increasingly significant part in finished goods trade, and the latter an energy supplier that will not be usurped by green economy measures for some time to come. Also, in case anyone had forgotten, the UK is approaching the end of the Brexit transition period with little progress towards new trade deals. There is also the small matter of the declared climate emergency, and the need to rearrange the entire economy.

Joe O’Donnell is head of policy for the Rail Freight Group in the UK

O’Donnell says that relations with China are particularly prescient. The Chinese word for crisis, he says, is often composed of two characters signifying danger and opportunity, although the second character is also readily translated as ‘change point’. He asks if the UK will seize the opportunity for a green recovery at this change point.

Re-shore may disrupt trade patterns

“The UK relationship with China is rapidly deteriorating as a result of concerns over Hong Kong independence, human rights abuses and Huawei’s role in the 5G roll out”, he says. Pointing to the rail freight figures, O’Donnell notes China National Railway figures of 2,920 trains running between China and Europe from January to April 2020, a 24 per cent increase year-on-year.

“Covid-19 has since taken its toll on trade volumes and service levels have declined”, he says. “It is possible that further diplomatic upsets or an ongoing pattern of lockdowns could mean a further decline in freight from China. This could be exacerbated by increasing environmental concerns over manufacturing things on one side of the world and then shipping them to the other and a desire to re-shore or near-shore jobs in a Covid-19 induced recession. Taken together, this may disrupt the trade patterns of recent decades.”

Freeport consultation

Despite multiple dangers, says O’Donnell, some things are likely to stay the same. “We will remain an urbanised country in an increasingly urbanised world. The fundamental infrastructure of the country – the ports, road and rail networks – will still exist and we will still import and export goods. These basic facts should focus where we look for opportunities.”

Inland ports with rail connections should be considered as a freeport priority suggest the Rail Freight Group (Image of iport Doncaster from Freightliner)

For rail freight and reducing transport emissions, notes O’Donnell, one of the most important current opportunities are freeports. The Rail Freight Group recently responded to the Westminster government’s freeport consultation, which will see up to ten tax and administratively advantaged freeports become hubs for global trade and investment, promoting regeneration and job creation, and intended to create hotbeds for innovation. “Locations awarded Freeport status are likely to receive substantial investment and tax benefits and see significantly higher movements of freight as a result.”

Inland ports should be considered

Inland ports have been at the heart of RFG policy in response to freeports. They say inland rail sites should be considered eligible by the government. “Freeport bids which have good rail access should be prioritised to minimise the carbon emissions from the significant amount of new freight movement likely to be generated”, O’Donnell says. “Freeports provide a major opportunity to invest in innovative ideas on how to advance low carbon freight which could then be rolled out around the country. An electrified rail network should eventually connect them to the rest of the country to maximise their potential effect as green freight hubs.”

The multiple crises faced by the UK have had headline writers struggling for wartime metaphors. The popular press have not disappointed. Is this indeed Britain’s darkest hour, or is it the end of the beginning. Will Churchillian resolve see Britain suffer on without a victory, or march forward without a defeat from this day on. Only time will tell, but the seriousness of the situation cannot be in doubt. Does the remainder of 2020 represent an opportunity for Dunkirk spirit for the British economy, or a final Waterloo.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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