Freight News, Rail

Great British Railways pledges to create more space for freight – updated

[ May 20, 2021   //   ]

The government promised to work with the market to enhance freight capacity on the rail network for freight and grow the market in the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, published on 20 May.

Schemes  could include the long-delayed remodelling of the Ely North junction to improve freight journeys across East Anglia and from the Port of Felixstowe to the Midlands and northern England. It will also explore ways to enable future Strategic Rail Freight Interchanges to be located more appropriately around the country.

The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail envisaged the recreation of a nationwide rail operation, Great British Railways.

It promised a new, customer-focused approach for freight customers with “modern track access rights and new safeguards” under its plans to overhaul the rail network in Great Britain.

The plan promised a new, rules-based track access regime underpinned by legislation that, “though not set in stone, cannot be changed at Great British Railways’ sole initiative. It will be designed in partnership with the market as part of a wider track access framework consultation.”

The Office of the Rail Regulator (ORR) will act as an appeals body for operators or applicants to ensure that Great British Railways fairly applies policies on track access and charging.

The Williams report said that freight use of the railways has recovered quickly after the initial shock from Covid in 2020 and seems likely to take a bigger share of traffic and revenues in the future.

Over the past quarter century, the rail market has been transformed from largely moving coal and steel to construction materials, containers and food supplies between ports and businesses across the country.

Freight trains have played a crucial role in keeping food and medical supplies moving during the pandemic.

Great British Railways will also have a statutory duty to promote rail freight to secure economic, environmental and social benefts for the nation. The government will issue guidance on its priorities for rail freight in each funding settlement.

Future access agreements could include more flexible use of train paths and simpler ways of charging or building upon the offer of longer contract terms to support investment by operators.

To improve the freight customer experience, a national freight co-ordination team will be created within Great British Railways to act as a single point of contact for freight operators and customers across the network. It will help to embed freight firmly into strategic decision making, including by incorporating freight into the new 30-year strategy.

The government will also set a growth target for rail freight, as has been done in Scotland, but this should not become a ceiling.

Commenting on the plan, managing director at GB Railfreight, John Smith said he welcome the publication of the plan and “the warm words used to describe rail freight – correctly identified as having played a crucial role in keeping food and medical supplies moving during the pandemic as well as being key to building back better”.

He added: “As the Williams Review found, the rail sector lacks clear strategic direction. While we would have preferred a freight specific guiding mind, we welcome the government’s intent that the new Great British Railway body will have a statutory duty to promote rail freight. Within this context it is vital that our access to the network is given long term security as soon as possible.”

Director of Policy at Logistics UK, Elizabeth de Jong, said the creation of Great British Railways “should lead to more unified decisions for freight, which has been disadvantaged by complex systems of decision making involving various different rail bodies.

“The government’s planned ambition to promote the use of rail freight is a positive step towards putting freight services on an equal footing to passenger services. The industry needs a strategic vision for freight and Logistics UK hopes that the creation of Great British Railways’ national freight co-ordination team will ensure this becomes a core priority.”

Intermodal rail operator Freightliner, a subsidiary of Genesee & Wyoming Inc. also strongly welcomed the statutory duty to promote rail freight, as well as the growth target, adding: “The formation of a national freight co-ordination team is also an important step, which will help ensure that the priorities of freight are being fully considered, particularly the need to maintain network-wide, national coordination.

Chief executive of the UK Major Ports Group, Tim Morris, pointed out that his sector were big rail freight users now and have bold ambitions to increase their use. He said that research done jointly by the UK Major Ports Group and the Rail Freight Group in 2020 identified that there is sufficient demand to double the amount of shipping containers carried by rail but that potential is currently constrained by capacity and access to it available to rail freight.