Maggie Simpson OBE speaking at Multimodal

Can We Afford to Wait for Rail Reform?

There was a common theme in my conversations at the Multimodal exhibition last week. And it wasn’t rail reform! The businesses we spoke to, at our Rail Freight Pavilion and on their stands, were all keen to talk about rail freight growth and the actions they are already taking to get more goods on trains!

Rail reform should, if it is delivered properly, help this growth to come about. Colleagues from the GBRTT Strategic Freight Unit, who made it to the NEC, were actively involved in these discussions and it is good to hear of the work they are doing. Yet the pathway to reform remains as elusive as ever, with uncertainty over every aspect, from the legislation to the structure to the policies and strategies, and of course the timescales.

Whilst the debate continues, road freight continues to emit carbon into the atmosphere at 4 times the rate that rail does, and business supply chains continue to struggle with road driver shortages and concerns over resilience. We cannot afford to wait; we have to deliver modal shift now.

Rail freight operators and their partners are committed to this, so how can rail reform support them now, despite the uncertainty? Actually, there are many things that could be accelerated. Firstly, the growth target which is promised this autumn could be published now, sending a strong signal of Government commitment. Secondly, Network Rail’s system operator could be rebooted to act as the Guiding Mind, with a priority on network-wide management. The GBRTT and Network Rail freight teams, both powerhouses for the sector, could be enabled to work more closely, accelerating progress on areas such as new terminal development, advocacy and restoring freight performance. And where the Commission for Simplification is identifying the need for change let’s see if we can use existing processes to make at least some of those improvements.

The political imperative for change means that reform will come, at some stage. But we can’t afford to wait. So let’s work to deliver growth now, and make the best use of our combined action to get new trains running.

By Maggie Simpson OBE, Director General, RFG.