Railway inspector with back to camera look out over freight terminal

January strikes threaten British rail freight says professor

Freight yard inspector (ORR)Image from Office of Rail and Road

A British academic is warning that this week could be disastrous for rail freight in the UK. The first week in January is normally quiet on the British railway scene, but this one will be even quieter than usual. Commuter trains tend to be much quieter, and there is some planned reduction in freight operations, together with a handful of engineering works to tidy up. However, 2023 starts where 2022 left off, with the country in the grip of widespread industrial action keeping trains off the rails.

A series of national strikes have been organised by the trades unions RMT and Aslef, lasting throughout the first week of 2023. That means there will be precious few passenger services in England, with some disruption in Scotland and Wales too. Despite not being directly involved, freight services across Great Britain will be affected as staff walk out from Network Rail signalling and safety roles. That’s an issue taken up by Dr Kamran Mahroof, an academic with a track record in the railway industry.

Threatening momentum

Speaking to the regional daily newspaper, The Yorkshire Post, Doctor Kamran Mahroof from the university of Bradford University argues that the bitter round of rail strikes threatens the momentum behind rail freight. The professor in supply chain analytics at the Yorkshire university says that the overlooked and under-appreciated rail freight network is in danger of being the real casualty of the strikes.

The first week of January has been wiped out by strikes from two of the main rail unions. The largest union in the sector, the RMT (Rail, Maritime and Transport), is staging its biggest action yet. Members at locations all over Great Britain are staging two 48-hour strikes on 3-4 January and 6-7 January. Coupling with those strikes, on Thursday, 5 January, the drivers’ union, Aslef, historically known as the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, will call out its members at fifteen passenger train operating companies based in England.

Rail freight as the preferred choice

Doctor Mahroof has voiced many of the fears being quietly expressed around the industry at large. “It helped keep food on our tables during the lockdown, it kept our NHS heroes protected with adequate PPE and prevented the country from coming to a standstill by delivering fuel supplies to our forecourts”, he said. “No, not a superhero with a cape, but our overlooked and under-appreciated rail freight network.”

Portrait of Doctor Kamran Mahroof, of University of Bradford
Doctor Kamran Mahroof, of the University of Bradford (LinkedIn portrait)

In his column for the Yorkshire Post newspaper, Mahroof argues that the ongoing rail strikes are having an impact on the potential of rail freight as an alternative and preferred choice of transport. “Our railways are a vital link in our supply chain, transporting goods, foods and even medicines across the country. However, continued disruptions can undo good progress made during the pandemic and dent the confidence of companies transitioning to rail freight as an alternative.”

Continued disruptions undo progress

Doctor Mahroof has often been seen on British TV, contributing to debates on logistics matters, including the disruptive industrial action at the port of Felixstowe last year. Mahroof also raised longer-term concerns for the industry. “During an interview with the BBC Breakfast show, I signified the importance of leveraging rail freight during the HGV shortages. However, continued disruptions can undo good progress made during the pandemic and dent the confidence of companies transitioning to rail freight as an alternative.

Figures released recently by the Office of Rail and Road, compiled by the Office for National Statistics, do back up those concerns. They say that every metric by which they measure freight performance has been adversely affected by industrial action – even though the freight industry has generally enjoyed much more cordial relationships with the trades unions.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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