A blog by Helen McAllister, Programme Director for Freight Reform

16 August 2022

Since I joined the rail industry 18 years ago, I have been lucky enough to hold a number of business and network strategic planning roles. Now at the Great British Railways Transition Team (GBRTT), I have been given the opportunity to really make a difference in how rail freight contributes to the UK economy.

It is an exciting role. It is estimated that rail freight accounts for about 10 per cent of surface freight, but people don’t realise that even that delivers social and economic benefits worth £2.5 billion to the UK each year, much of that in former industrial heartlands.

Moving goods by rail also benefits the environment, compared to our road running friends, producing around three-quarters less carbon per tonne of goods transported.

With that in mind, at GBRTT we’ve launched a call for evidence which could help us transform the rail freight sector by collecting the information needed to show how and where moving more goods by rail can contribute even more.

There has been a real step change in the focus on rail freight over the last few years. Whether that’s been its performance through COVID in keeping goods moving, or the HGV driver crisis, rail has been shown as a reliable alternative.

It won’t be easy, but the opportunity provided by reform; the establishment of Great British Railways and the creation of a new whole industry plan cannot be denied. People who know the benefits of rail freight have been very patient and are now looking to see how we can rise to the challenge of getting more freight on the rails.

We have traditionally been a very passenger focused sector, which is not necessarily wrong, but has meant that decisions on the use of capacity have been skewed towards passenger trains. One of the ways to break down this boundary is by using economic analysis to inform decisions on the use of capacity.

Now halfway through its twelve weeks, the evidence gathering exercise will help us understand how much of the current and future demand for freight could be met by rail, how we can make it even more efficient and sustainable and how we can connect to new customers.

We want views and ideas from the widest possible range of stakeholders within and beyond rail and logistics on how to expand rail freight.

The call for evidence enables us not just to go out to the people who are familiar with rail freight, but to organisations that don’t use rail to look at why they don’t and what can be done to change that.

The barriers to entry for using rail are also complicated; it is a lot simpler to shift goods on a lorry but with rail it’s a more complex process requiring a delicate balance between passenger services and infrastructure requirements to even move the volumes we do. We are looking to demystify this process and make it simpler and easier for customers to use the railway to move their goods.

Initiatives like the Government’s Mode Shift Revenue Support scheme, which supports companies transporting goods by rail where road has a financial advantage, have been adapted in light of the disruption of recent rail strikes. This not only recognises the need to support rail freight in the short term through these difficult periods but also provides a modal shift incentive from road to rail.

However, we also need to look at what the medium and long-term barriers to entry are and make it easier for businesses to make a commercial decision to use rail.

The Plan for Rail has highlighted that rail freight is a good thing and needs more of a focus. The creation of Great British Railways gives us a huge amount of opportunity to do things better for freight.

What might we hear in our call for evidence? It could be anything from suggestions for additional links into different freight sites; sequential gauge clearance; using the capacity on the network differently; or benefits from the European Train Control System (ETCS) implementation. It will be a better understanding of the realistic volume of goods that can be transferred to rail; where the potential for future rail freight traffic exists and where new rail terminals could be needed. The end result will be a logistics system where rail and road can work together better for the benefit of businesses and customers.

I would encourage as many people as possible to get involved with the call for evidence. Once the evidence comes into us, we will use it alongside long-term forecasting to inform a range of rail freight growth options that will be put before the Secretary of State for consideration.

This is part of our work at GBRTT to create a simpler, better railway for everyone in Britain. We will get there by centring our railway around the needs and wants of the travelling public and freight users, reaching out and engaging directly with our stakeholders, as shown with this call for evidence.

The freight growth target call for evidence is now half-way through and will run until 27 September so please get your ideas to us now.