How can the new government support rail freight?

Source: RTM Jun/Jul 17

Following the recent general election, Maggie Simpson, executive director at the Rail Freight Group, considers what action the government can take to ensure that the sector continues to grow.

You may not have expected the result that voters delivered on 8 June, but a new government is now getting established and starting out to deliver its priorities, however challenging that might prove to be. Transport did not feature strongly in the election campaigns, yet rail freight did get a mention in all three of the main party manifestos, showing cross-party support for growth. So how best can the new government help? 

Rail freight is a key part of the UK’s freight and logistics. We move a quarter of all containerised imports from the nation’s ports to consumers, deliver 40% of the construction aggregates used in London and the south east’s building boom, and underpin key industrial sectors such as steel. In the last 12 months, we have seen construction increase by 7% and intermodal by 6%, showing that after recent difficulties, the sector is now returning to a growth mindset. 

Rail freight is, of course, a private sector business and not under direct control from Whitehall. Yet government action is key to providing a framework which allows rail freight to continue growing, and allow those private sector operators and customers to invest for the future. This is particularly important when considering any wider changes to railway policy, including the structure of passenger franchises and Network Rail. 

The outgoing government set out its rail freight strategy last autumn, and with a returning Conservative government, we hope to see continued development of the themes in that document.  We will certainly be pressing the ministerial team at DfT to deliver this, but what else might be needed? 

Put rail freight at the heart of post-Brexit trade links 

With Brexit talks now starting, understanding the impacts on the free movement of goods is a critical priority. Trade is at the core of the economy, and as Brexit forges new global trading arrangements, we need efficient freight and logistics links to deliver exports to market and imports to our consumers and manufacturers. Rail freight is a key part of this, with strong links to ports and the Channel Tunnel. Government needs to support these links through streamlined customs procedures, investment in infrastructure and ensuring seamless international journeys by rail can continue.

 Invest in rail freight infrastructure and technology 

Government investment in rail infrastructure is key to enabling growth, and for freight this is often about smaller schemes to unlock capacity or enable more efficient trains to operate. As the railways look to technology to help modernise services and deliver new capacity, it is essential that freight is also able to benefit. Government should prioritise and commit to investment for freight in the next five-year railway funding cycle. 

A stable environment to enable private sector investment 

Private sector train operators and customers are investing in equipment and services but, to continue, they must have sufficient confidence in the future structure of the UK’s railways. Although there are benefits in devolution, there are also risks for nationwide cross-route operators, and a strong ‘system operator’ function is essential. There must also be stability in the access charges paid to operate on the network, avoiding increases which jeopardise rail’s position compared to other modes. 

Restore and promote rail freight grants 

For new services, and as new terminals and interchanges develop, tactical freight grants have been an essential part of government’s support for the sector. Despite the scheme improving value for money, the budget has been cut back, risking traffic returning to road and undermining growth and investment. Government must act to restore the budget to previous levels, and work with the industry to ensure it is most effectively targeted. 

Develop fit-for-purpose terminals 

Freight terminals are our stations, and need to meet the needs of demanding customers. We need a planning system which can deliver new locations and protect existing sites from adverse development. Government must commit to this safeguarding, and to ensuring that railway land used for operational freight sites is retained by Network Rail for the long-term use of the sector. 

We look forward to working with the new government and with transport leads in opposition to deliver these key objectives.




Nonsuchmike   04/09/2017 at 12:56

Having read this article by Maggie Simpson, I am struck by the important points she mentions and areas of definite improvement to be worked upon by both Freight companies and Government, but her specifics are somewhat lacking. Freight lines need to be upgraded to take longer, heavier, faster trains as well as dualling back to what they were half a century ago. The greatest need here is probably the Felixstowe spur which would benefit loads coming in or out on the biggest ships on earth as well as improve local & through passenger services. In addition, sharing lines with passengers can improve both. The obvious choice her is the cross country line from Leicester to Burton. Other line improvements in North Wales and western England can help both Freight and passengers for modest amounts. The bigger essential schemes are in Scotland east of Alloa, the north Devon line through Okehampton to Plymouth and rebuilding the Colne to Skipton Trans-Pennine route. To drum up business once more from new and old clients, how about a 5% rate reduction across the board until December and/or a hold on long term rates? Freight must be pro-active to move forward, because as sure as eggs, the road lobby will be also.

Alistair James Kewish   14/02/2018 at 22:28

Whilst discussing freight by rail wherever possible, would it be relevant to slip in an overlooked statistic that emerged this week? The Channel Tunnel is only operating at under half capacity yet Mr US- born Boris is trying to rally support for a second crossing. Perhaps he should get out more?

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