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Rail freight sector must do more to ‘sell its collective benefits’

The rail freight industry must do more to ‘sell’ its benefits as it faces challenges such as a lack of network capacity, the DfT’s rail freight strategy has said.

The report notes: “The rail freight industry has many potential benefits for customers and for the UK as a whole. But the competitive nature of the industry means that the industry has not always been good at coming together to sell its collective benefits to potential customers, decision-makers and the public. Similarly, the rail freight sector is not always well understood within the wider rail industry.”

As part of developing the strategy, the DfT formed a freight communication sub-group, which will now be chaired by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG).

It will promote freight to major decision-makers, whilst Network Rail will also include more information about freight on its revamped website.

Elizabeth de Jong, director of policy at the RDG, said: “Rail freight is crucial to Britain, helping to ensure supermarket shelves are full, next day deliveries arrive the next day and the traffic keeps moving by taking thousands of lorries off the road.

“The sector is changing and in this strategy, the rail industry has come together to set out important actions that will support freight companies to continue to innovate. The UK rail freight industry is recognised as a dynamic and environmentally-friendly means of transport and this strategy will help companies exploit new and existing markets.

“RDG will continue to work with government and the wider industry to develop the four priority areas identified in this strategy – innovation and skills; network capacity; track access charging; and, telling the story of rail freight.”

The report warned the freight industry is facing a number of challenges, including a shortage of capacity and skills. It also said there is a need for freight to be more “systematically considered” in the passenger franchising process.

The DfT and Network Rail will look at a number of options for improving network capacity, including encouraging third-party investment, greater use of the new virtual rail route, reviewing speed and weight restrictions and developing a network of nodal yards.

The strategy recommends considering innovative new business models for freight in order to deal with the loss of markets such as coal. For example, parcels could be carried directly between and into city centres using the spare capacity on off-peak passenger services, or old rolling stock could be converted to carry freight.

The RDG will also host a skills workshop in order to encourage more recruitment in freight.

In addition, the DfT said it would support Data 4 Freight, a project designed to use data science techniques to develop a better understanding of UK freight movements, as well as freight as an option for deployment of biofuels.

The report also said “further support may be needed from government” to help the freight industry meet track access charges, which have grown from £72m over CP4 to £87m over CP5.

Maggie Simpson, Rail Freight Group executive director, said: “The rail freight sector is changing and freight operators and their customers are working to deliver growth in new and existing markets and to be fit for the future.

“This strategy will help to provide the stable and supportive environment they need to do so, and we welcome its publication.”

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