Rail Freight Conference 2020

Rail reform, Covid-19 and decarbonisation were themes at the 28th annual Rail Freight Group conference, this time held online on 14 October


Chris Heaton-Harris MP, the Rail Minister, said the rail freight industry needs to be congratulated on its “heroic response” to the Covid crisis as it kept medicine and foods moving around the country. As MP for Daventry, the home of DIRFT, he is a great advocate for rail freight and is pleased that a new Crossmodal Future of UK Freight Strategy will be published next spring. He also emphasized rail freight’s role in helping the government achieve it decarbonisation agenda and said the Transport Decarbonisation Plan to be published later this year is the most ambitious ever produced. He said the government was pushing ahead with electrification plans so the challenge to the industry was to come up with other ways of achieving the decarbonisation goals.


Andy Saunders, Delivery Director, Network Rail, said that the freight movements building up for delivery of HS2 materials should be seen as the “icing in the cake” and not the basis of rail freight growth over the next few years. He said freight traffic had dropped about 30% due to the Covid-19 lockdown but was now back at about 92% of normal volumes. He also noted that the launch of the National Freight Safety Group has been an excellent example of how the industry can co-operate to share best practice – as praised by ORR.


Declan Collier, Chair, Office of Rail and Road, encouraged the rail freight sector to be very vocal in its demands to be an integral part of rail reform. There was a growing recognition at the highest levels in government of freight and rail freight during the Covid crisis so now was the time to build on that. He also stressed the importance of the provision of rail freight data, through the use of telematics and data mining, to help improve the efficiency of the system. And he explained that ORR’s approach to safety is to focus on what needs to be achieved rather than on how it must be done to ensure the operators have freedom to tackle their risks in ways that work for their own businesses.


The panel discussion on plans for rail reforms and their impact on freight was made up of Jonathan Chatfield, Head of Policy (Freight & Stations) RDG; Kathryn Oldale, Head of Strategy, Policy and Communications, DB Cargo and Peter Graham, Head of Rail Strategy, Freightliner.


All panellists agreed that the end of the franchise system for passenger traffic provides an opportunity for a more flexible system that is more able to respond to changes in customer demand, which should benefit rail freight. However there is an uncertainty related to how freight ensures it gets a fair hearing with closer integration of passenger and infrastructure.


Kathryn emphasised that we need a contractual and regulatory process so that freight is not disadvantaged. She also pointed out that devolution poses a risk as the rail freight industry is not equipped to run at a local level and that it is essential that we have one system operator to run nationwide services.


Jonathan said the main three things that rail reform needs to address are: 1) consistency so that companies are willing to invest; 2) a national network with a GB-wide timetable and 3) must be flexible to respond to customer demand. He also noted that efficient capture of data has some way to go in the industry to enable effective decision-making.

Peter said the end of the franchise system means the passenger operators no longer bear the revenue risk of services – but that the same is not true for freight. Therefore, for instance, it is essential that freight operators get long-term access rights and that there is a strong independent rail regulator to oversee and co-ordinate access arrangements.


Liam Day, Commercial Director, GB Railfreight, said that now is the time for rail freight to stake a claim for more capacity and to shout that message as loudly as it can. With regard to decarbonisation, he noted that rail freight needs to ensure the gap with road transport in terms of environmental credentials does not tighten any more. He also talked about GB Railfreight’s work in supporting the mental health of its workers, especially during the pandemic, and encouraged attendees to get in touch if they wished to learn more.


Further regional devolution and opportunities for rail freight were discussed by

Richard Mann, Senior Rail programme Manager, Midlands Connect and Martin Tugwell, CEO, England’s Economic Heartland Strategic Alliance.


Richard said it is important to take an evidence-based approach to push the economic case for rail freight, though he stressed that they look at both road and rail in the Midlands and want the best of both. The seven Sub-national Transport Bodies (STB) like Midlands Connect have an important role to play in linking local authorities in a geographical areas to the national level.


Martin said the alliance commissioned a freight and logistics study soon after it was established as it recognised the importance of freight services in delivering economic growth. Also wanted to see how the area’s distribution centres contributed to the national supply chain. And to recognise that the move to decarbonisation is a legal requirement, not a nice to have.


Lee Armstrong, Group Head of Commercial (Rail), Associated British Ports, looked at the importance of recognising the changes that are coming on 1 January. He agreed with predictions that freight will move from the Dover Straits further north and also from ro-ro to lo-lo. This is a good opportunity for rail although most rail wagons are built for the 40ft containers on the deepsea market and European boxes are typically 45ft.


Richard Ballantyne, Chief Executive, British Ports Association talked about the government’s proposal to establish freeports. He explained that a lot of UK ports have available land so manufacturing/processing facilities in a freeport is an attractive proposition. BPA welcomes freeports as potentially transforming coastal communities but is working hard to ensure that the cap of 10 freeports is lifted and that there is a fair and transparent process for selecting the locations.


Jonathan Brown, Technical and Innovation Engagement Lead, Rail, Ricardo, talked about the T1160 project – looking at traction options for freight and explained that the strategy was to look at decarbonisation while taking a pragmatic approach to consider what works commercially. It is estimated that about 50% of the current freight loco fleet will be 30 years old and due for replacement by 2035 so this created a good opportunity to look at alternative fuels. It is a complex task and needs commitment and investment by government during the transition.


Andrew Kluth, Lead Carbon Specialist, RSSB, explained that T1160 is part of a much wider programme by RSSB looking at decarbonisation and engaging the whole of the rail industry stakeholder group. The taskforce has sent a full set of recommendations to the Rail Minister and the report is being fed into a wide range of programmes and initiatives. He emphasized that freight traction has to be viewed in the bigger picture which includes both rail passenger and road freight.


We would like to thank all the speakers for taking the time to give us such informative and interesting presentations. Also special thanks to Waterfront Conference Company for organising the event and to Freshwater for their sponsorship.