Event report: 31st Annual Rail Freight Conference

The RFG’s Annual Rail Freight conference (held on 5 October 2023) was a great success attended by more than 100 guests who were welcomed to the venue by Paul Hirst, Addleshaw Goddard’s head of Transport Sector Group. Maggie Simpson opened the day by reminding everyone that, despite economic challenges, stalled rail reform, and the disappointment over HS2 (for which we need to find solutions for freight), there was still plenty of optimism. The rail freight sector remains resilient and there is some good news in the announcement about Ely.

Following a short video from the Rail Minister, Huw Merriman MP, the morning sessions focused on supporting rail freight growth.

Richard Moody, GBRTT’s Programme Director for Reform, reminded delegates that, regardless of legislative progress, there were opportunities to create a more joined-up railway. The establishment of a strategic freight unit and unified freight teams working across the GBRTT and Network Rail’s regions would help grow the rail freight market. The publication of a freight growth target would guide behaviour across all parts of the network.

He was followed by John Larkinson from the ORR who began by saying that the ‘post HS2 plan’ would take time to deliver. CP7 was going to be challenging as inflation is eroding the value of the funding settlement while the industry faces the challenge of deteriorating assets. While economic activity will impact growth, so will performance. Network Rail has made great strides in meeting efficiency targets and this must continue.

Julie Nerney Interim Rail MD with NTS gave a stimulating address on the subject of change. Often difficult in the rail industry due to long timescales to acquire assets and to improve infrastructure in what is a low-margin business. “The only thing that is certain about any change plan is that it will be wrong. Change happens while you are changing. You need a flexible route map but most of all you need to take people with you along the way.”

The morning rounded off with a lively panel discussion about the challenges of planning for growth Chris Swan (Tarmac), spoke about bringing digital technology into the business, Mark Hooper (DP World) about investment underway at London Gateway to make more use of rail, James Tierney (Maritime Transport) spoke about their growing portfolio of SFRI’s and how these were stimulating more domestic intermodal traffic.

Jane Boyne (DfFT) reminded us of some positive investments, on the at Transpennine routes, at Oxford and now at Ely. She reminded us to look out for a Call For Evidence on the Modal Shift Revenue Support scheme.

Contributions from the floor raised the challenges of safeguarding investment, the uncertain timescales of investment returns as well as some inventive suggestions about how private sector money could pay for electrification.

Over lunch, we were given the chance to see a model of the IWagon. A collaboration between VTG and Knorr-Bremse to bring a power supply and Digital Intelligence technology onto wagons. Among the benefits are the elimination of wheel lock and the consequential risk of derailments.