A Way Forward on Reform?

Earlier this week, Secretary of State for Transport Mark Harper broke cover and made his first major speech on rail.  Addressing a packed room he confirmed his commitment to rail reform and to the creation of Great British Railways as an integrated guiding mind for UK rail.

Unlike some of his political counterparts, Harper comes across as measured and intelligent and was generous with his thoughts, both in his address and the subsequent questions.  The speech was wide-ranging and had something for everyone in it.  Passengers will see progress on fares reform with the return ticket banished, whilst fans of open-access passenger services will see more trains running.  Those who feared rail reform might undermine the private sector were reassured that the proposals would maximise competition, and for any backbenchers listening in there was a little bit of Labour Party bashing too!

Rail freight fared well, with the key commitments of the White Paper reiterated, including a statutory duty for GBR to promote freight and a growth target to be published in the autumn. The Strategic Freight Unit, which is already being established was mentioned as a key pillar of reform and of GBR.

Ironically though his speech, named for the inventor of the railway timetable George Bradshaw, was wholly silent on dates!  In particular, there was no clear sense that his department have a legislative slot confirmed or a confirmed plan to get the legal powers necessary to create GBR.  With time ticking ahead of the next General Election, which at the latest must be by December 2024, there is a real prospect that there will be no legislation in this Government.

Whichever way this plays out, there is plenty to be getting on with in rail freight.  The Strategic Freight Unit is already looking at market development plans and could be empowered and funded to start investing with customers in new facilities right now.  An increased focus on the productivity of trains would help some of the current cost challenges and bring even greater carbon savings.  Collaboration could increase the use of sustainable fuels, and of electric traction, and a push on areas such as biodiversity could further improve freight’s sustainability across the railway estate.

None of this needs new laws or regulations, just a focus on delivery, with the teams at Network Rail and GBRTT focused together.  Let’s hope that Harper’s speech brings a new optimism and a way forward for growth.

For more on rail freight growth targets, please see our response to the recent call for evidence from GBRTT.

By Maggie Simpson OBE, 
Director General, 
Rail Freight Group