The UK faced a challenging year says Rail Freight Group head
This has been a year of resilience and recuperation. Those were the keynote themes at the Christmas gathering of the Rail Freight Group, the industry’s representative body in the UK. The director general of the RFG, Maggie Simpson OBE, addressed around eight hundred guests, including the UK rail minister Huw Merriman and chiefs of staff from among the rail freight industry in the UK and abroad.
A weak economy fuelled by high inflation and interest rates has made 2023 tough for the rail freight industry. The sector operates on tight margins and depends on a collaborative attitude. As such, it has seen the year in better shape than many other economic sectors. Maggie Simpson’s annual keynote address was able to offer encouragement to the industry at large. She clearly pointed out that the RFG had been instrumental in lobbying for the interests of its members. It has been challenging the governments in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff to deliver a policy package supportive of the industry.
No cause for complacency in the coming year
The main challenges faced in 2023 are only too apparent. The financial crunch has hit hard. There has also been a tail-off in consumer demand and a dip in construction activity. The downturn has been particularly evident outside the London and South East region. That has hit both multimodal and bulk traffic. The primary rail freight operations have been caught in an economic pincer movement. Also, in her foreword message to guests, Maggie Simpson noted the UK Government’s decisions to curtail the HS2 high-speed rail project and to defer the rail reform programme. Both of these were double caution signals for the industry.
Maggie Simpson leads the Rail Freight Group. Image: Simon Walton.
However, the resilience of the rail freight sector has seen out the year with the industry virtually intact. That, however, leaves no cause for complacency in the coming year. “Rail freight continues to show its strength”, she said. “[It is] performing better than the economy at large and delivering modal shift from road, even in challenging times. Every single person, from train operators, customers, supply chain and support services, has worked to keep the goods moving, to grow and increase rail freight and keep their colleagues safe.”
Rail minister is listening to freight lobby
The lobbying effort from the RFG has helped make a case for rail freight to stakeholders across industry and government. “This has included our policy work on rail reform”, she said. Simpson referred to the intention to replace the national infrastructure agency, Network Rail, with the more overarching management body, Great British Railways. That move is still on the agenda despite some wavering during the year. The dedicated freight team within the transition body must owe some debt to the Rail Freight Group, for its prominence within the planning for the new body.
Returning to her written foreword, Maggie Simpson noted the role rail freight continues to play in the construction of HS2. That contribution remains critical, even in HS2’s truncated West London to Birmingham form. Simpson also alluded to the sector’s self-improvement drive. Decarbonisation, digitalisation, research and development have all been fostered by groups within the RFG. It’s a welcome development despite a year beset by clear and present challenges. “The input of members is absolutely key to making the case for rail freight”, concluded Simpson.