30th Annual Rail Freight Conference

Kevin Foster MP, Minister of State for Transport, emphasized the huge opportunities for rail freight when he addressed the Annual RFG Conference on 5 October 2022 “as driving economic growth and decarbonisation which are the two priorities for government.” His presentation via video set the tone for the 30th anniversary of the conference, organised by Waterfront on 5 October, with all the speakers including the mainly positive political and commercial environment for rail freight in their presentations.

Foster said it was vital that freight was “talked about with passengers, not after passengers” and that it was important to look at how “to make more of our routes suitable for freight.”

Helen McAllister, Programme Director, Freight on the Great British Railways Transition Team (GBRTT), said that GBR will have a  a statutory duty to promote rail freight, with growth targets being consulted on at the moment.  There will be a new rules-based track access regime considering what is the best economic use of the limited resource. She said the team was “taking innovation and embedding it in the way we run the railway” and that she was passionate about integrating freight literacy across GBR and the relevant government departments for the long-term.

John Larkinson, Chief Executive of the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), discussed the current work programmes underway and the implications for freight.  As well as Rail Reform and PR23 they were starting to look at the implications of the Retained EU legislation bill.  He noted that a lot of rail legislation, such as that covering safety and access charges, was part of EU law so unravelling that would be a very big and complex job. He also noted the action ORR is taking to highlight the current poor freight performance on the network.

John Smith, Managing Director, GB Railfreight, said the right to access the network (from a monopoly supplier in Network Rail) was hugely important. For GB Railfreight, the emphasis was on the productivity of rolling stock and of its people but it needed more engagement from Network Rail in order to achieve that. Covid had helped bring some change, but the momentum needed to be maintained.

David Fletcher, Director of Rail at Cappagh, said the industry needed to make rail work for a wider range of customers. Moving heavy bulk products is what rail is good at but trains need to be kept out of loops and moving, with more multi-user rail heads established close to the market, and provision for stabling in key locations.

Chris Cleveland, Head of Sustainability, Freightliner, said the action of taking small steps to make incremental changes should also be recognised, especially in relation to reducing emissions. He said the process of ‘commitment, framework, delivery and reporting’ had proved successful in the past.

Dr Neil Strong, Biodiversity Strategy Manager at Network Rail, demonstrated how the railway estate had so much potential for protecting an amazing range of habitats. He said there was massive opportunity at freight depots and sidings to encourage biodiversity without reducing productivity.

Ross Shepherd, Chief Technical Officer, Beacon Rail, said investors see sustainability as really important, so rail freight was an attractive option. But there were complicated calculations about using electricity and biofuels that needed to be considered. He said hydrogen is a “fantastic fuel” but he does not see it being used in rail freight haulage.

Aaron Barrett, Lead Research Analyst, RSSB, explained the work being done to review and challenge coupler strength methodology. By looking at the reality of loading and gradient, this has resulted in more than 50% of the wagons on the network receiving an uplift. He described this as a “huge win” as it can increase the number of wagons per train and can be applied retrospectively.

Tan Dhesi MP, Shadow Minister for Rail, said that a rolling programme of electrification was needed and that rail freight helps with the levelling up agenda as 80% of rail freight workers live outside the southeast. In answer to a question on Labour’s policy to renationalise the railways, he emphasized that privatised companies play a vital role and the government should work in partnership with the freight companies.