In many respects, rail freight is doing rather well. Construction traffic moved by rail grew by 7% in the year to April 2017 to a record high of 4.25 billion tonne-km. Driven by a buoyant construction sector, growth has been supported by investment from freight customers and operators in new high-volume equipment, longer trains and additional services.
Intermodal traffic also had a record year, growing 6% to a record level of 6.81 billion tonne-km reflecting new services and routes as well as continued pressure for longer trains.
Despite these successes, the rapid decline in coal traffic caused an overall drop, since coal was a large proportion of rail freight moved, and this has affected not only rail freight but ports, rail routes and other facilities. Yet we are now seeing both rail and ports responding to changing customer demand, and adapting to prosper.
These changes also take place against the backdrop of Brexit, be it ‘hard’ or ‘soft’, and it remains difficult to understand quite how this will affect the industry.
Our members are citing concerns over customs and other frontier control issues between the UK and other member states, and there are some specific issues for international rail freight via the Channel Tunnel. RFG is working with Government and others to make the rail freight case and will certainly campaign for the minimum frontier controls necessary.
However, regardless of short term issues, there is every likelihood that trade between the UK and other countries will continue to grow, in part reflecting our reliance on low cost economies and globalisation of manufacture. That means more traffic through our ports and the Channel Tunnel, with rail freight playing an increasing role and seeking to grow its market share.
Whereas competition between operators and others in the rail freight sector provides an incentive to continuously improving services, the industry also relies on Network Rail to ensure that there is always capacity on the tracks for new and existing services. That capacity must also allow for efficient services, and for many types of rail freight, customers demand reliability as good as passenger trains. We generally do this quite well in
the UK, with 90 to 95% meeting Network Rail’s performance target. Network Rail is continuing to invest in projects for freight, including many benefiting ports, with funds available to April 2019.
As well as traditional markets, we are pressing for growth in the movement of new cars between factories and distribution points. This can be a difficult market since wagons have to be designed to cater for an ever-changing shape of vehicle, and it needs creativity to design backloads, perhaps with different manufacturers, that can work. However we are seeing renewed interest from both sides in making this happen.
Construction traffic moved by rail grew by 7% in the year to April 2017 to a record high of 4.25 billion tonne-km.
The other challenge facing the industry is how to get into and contribute to the increasing demand for city centre and internet shopping deliveries. A wide variety of means are starting up, from parcels in passenger trains, lobsters and crabs in guards’ vans from Cornwall to roll cages in converted passenger trains. Getting freight onto trains at logistics centres such as Daventry or London Gateway is not a problem but the common theme at the city end is the need for terminals or use of passenger stations where some local authority or government support is needed to kick start this sector.
So there is much to be positive about for the ports and rail freight sector, and working together we can set out the case to Government for continued support and investment for the benefit of our economy.