As Liz Truss moves her belongings into No 10, she will no doubt be focussing on the priorities for her new Government. It seems unlikely that rail freight will be one of them, but how she chooses to tackle some of the big issues currently facing the country will be vital to the success of the sector in the months ahead. So what are the most urgent actions?
Firstly, tackling the economy. Crippling energy costs, high inflation and low growth are bad news for business. There are already signs of a looming recession suppressing demand for goods, and increased costs are having to be absorbed or passed onto end customers. So actions which help bring economic stability have to be top of the list.
As part of that, Government needs to give particular focus to businesses as well as consumers. Companies have been buffeted by Brexit, COVID and now the economic pressures and seem to be often overlooked in the narrative. Rebuilding confidence and stability is vital to underpin investment and recruitment and to encourage firms to push forward to growth.
For the railways themselves, Truss and her new team need to act to properly resolve the damaging industrial action which is currently undermining the sector. Finding a resolution which is acceptable to all parties is essential here; we have yet to see details of the proposed new legislation, but this is no substitute for a properly negotiated settlement from which Network Rail, the TOCs and all their staff can successfully build back. Government needs to allow these negotiations to happen at pace.
Rail reform also needs to be progressed, building on the work to date, but with sufficient time to enable details to be properly developed and consulted on. Despite good progress there is still a huge amount to be done, including work on GBR’s licence, structure and culture as well as changes to legislation. With tight parliamentary time available, Government also needs to consider what can be achieved without legislation at least in the short term, including setting the freight growth target and publishing the long-term strategy.
Finally, the railways need to be funded properly in the next control period CP7, the details of which need to be established this autumn. Greater efficiency is essential but allowing the network to fall apart or worse simply cannot be commensurate with sustainability and net zero 2050. A balanced settlement has to be struck to ensure that freight – and indeed passenger – trains can keep running efficiently and reliably over the next five-year period.
There is no doubt that Liz has her work cut out as she takes over at the top of Government. Let’s hope it will be a positive move for rail freight!
By Maggie Simpson OBE, Director General, RFG.