UK leaders debate on RailFreight Live: staff, skills, sectors

RailFreight Live studio

Challenges face the rail freight industry in meeting the ambitions laid out in the recent Value of Rail Freight report. That was the primary take away from the latest RailFreight Live debate, voiced by industry leaders in the UK. The report’s sponsors, the Rail Delivery Group, freight operators, and the logistics sector came together as part of a UK Special edition of RailFreight Live, the only weekly broadcast dedicated to the rail freight industry.

Addressing staffing challenges, looking at the necessary skills and training regime, and planning for future sectorial demand were all on the agenda for a debate between industry leaders in the UK. On the panel were John Thomas, the director of policy from the Rail Delivery Group, Peter Graham, the Head of Rail Strategy at Freightliner, and Zoe McLernon, the Multimodal Policy Manager for Logistics UK, whose members represent the freight forwarding industry at large.

Staff issues and better collaboration

Speaking to the Value of Rail Freight report, John Thomas pointed out the fundamental undervaluing of the industry in the current official reckoning. “The government’s transport appraisal principally values non-user benefits like reduced congestion on the roads, improved safety, and environmental benefits”, he said. “A principal aim of the report is to highlight the direct benefits of rail freight, so that a more realistic cost-benefit ratio may be applied to future rail freight development proposals.”

That call for a better understanding of the benefits of the industry came just as the UK Department for Transport announced it would be looking again at its priorities for infrastructure development. Whether that means a greater emphasis on rail development remains to be seen, but Zoe McLernon of Logistics UK directly challenged the key issue of collaboration in the logistics industry. “We do need better working relationships going forward”, she said. “We’re always going to need rail, and we are always going to need road, particularly for last-mile deliveries. That cooperation is already needed and is already moving forward.”

Zoe McLernon of Logistics UK

Nevertheless, McLernon acknowledged that the ongoing shortage of truck drivers in the UK was something a growing rail freight sector could help address. A collaborative approach to “long-distance rail, local-delivery road” could be an answer to this national strategic issue.

Sector-specific growth

While delivering light logistics and part loads may be addressed with local road transport, rail will always excel at moving large quantities. However, as Peter Graham of Freightliner was keen to point out – the popular conception that containers are the holy grail of rail freight operations is far from the whole truth. “I would caution against the assertion that intermodal is the most profitable commodity”, he said. “For rail to be able to compete, it really must be able to compete on price and the service standard. It is a very price-sensitive commodity with high levels of substitution between modes.”

Peter Graham added that while intermodal accounts for around forty per cent of UK rail freight, bulk aggregates is not far behind at around thirty per cent and growing. While agreeing that infrastructure development for rail freight was initially more costly than road options, the greater benefit overall was emphasised in the RDG report. “We do need to learn lessons from other countries that have tried to assess those benefits“, he added.

Watch again in full

The full debate and accompanying video presentation compiled by UK Reporter Stuart Cameron is available on the RailFreight Live YouTube and LinkedIn platforms. The programme is broadcast weekly at 1200 London / 1300 Rotterdam and hosted by editor Majorie van Leijen.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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