Network Rail commits to UK freight
Although the rail system in the UK is mainly designed to serve passenger train operating companies, infrastructure operator Network Rail has restated its commitment to the freight sector, just as environmental issues and climate change begin to be taken seriously.
With its putting passengers first strapline often open to satire from freight operators, there is some degree of scepticism over Network Rail’s enthusiasm for cargo that does not load itself. However, infrastructure agency may well reply by pointing out the plan for enhancements in the next five years (Control Period Six) is named the Freight & National Passenger Operators (FNPO) CP6 Route Strategic Plan.
“Our freight customers are a vital part of the economy”, said Paul McMahon, managing director of FNPO at Network Rail. “Growth needs to be considered as part of our GB-wide network as this will make sure that the required capacity and capability exists. Network Rail champions and supports freight, and we will continue to work in delivering the uplift.”
Indicative of the regard for freight operations now and in the future, is the extensive programme of works just completed on the mainly rural passenger line between Aberdeen and Inverness in the north of Scotland. That project included enhancement and future provision for freight at four locations, including a speculative venture near Inverness Airport.
Chris Swan, head of rail at construction giants Tarmac, one of the UK’s largest private sector users of rail freight, believes it is important to see freight provision recognised as part of the wider economy. “Building capacity in the rail network is vital to help the effective delivery of infrastructure ambitions,” he said. Debbie Francis, managing director of Direct Rail Services, agrees. “Being one of the main intermodal freight operators, it is key that Network Rail and industry partners understand the needs of freight customers. By working in partnership we can all ensure freight and its customers has a voice equal to train operating companies.”
The green card
Environmental factors are playing an increasing part in the swing towards rail freight. Several UK Government-backed schemes exist to encourage less carbon intensive transport options. The well known Freight Facilities Grant, which supports the establishment of new rail-borne freight flows from scratch, has been popular. One other key grant for the rail freight sector is the Mode Shift Revenue Support scheme (MSRS), designed to offset any additional costs involved in using rail in preference to road, principally on economically marginal shorter intermodal hauls.
However, MSRS only runs until the end of March 2020, when the environmental impact of the scheme will be reviewed. If, as seems likely, the scheme is renewed, it is unclear if Brexit-bound British companies will still be able to benefit, or if the overall agency, the European Commission, will exclude the UK.
Regardless of the trading relationship with Europe, a report by consultants MDS Transmodal, commissioned by Network Rail, predicts that while there is a decline in traditional loads like coal and steel, the overall picture is for continued growth. Whether the infrastructure can cope with putting freight first as well as passengers remains to be seen.