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Freight needs voice in UK rail reforms

The British Rail Freight Group says that the government's planned reforms to the rail industry must benefit freight shippers as well as passengers
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Some 20 years after privatisation and the split between infrastructure and operations, the British government is looking to integrate them in order to improve rail service delivery for passengers.

This initiative is seen in some quarters as a move to reprivatise Network Rail, although this has been denied by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, notwithstanding the plan for a new fully private and integrated railway to develop an express line between the university cities of Oxford and Cambridge.

The Rail Freight Group (RFG), however, has expressed concern that Network Rail's rail freight customers could be marginalised if more operational control is given to passenger franchises. Freight is essentially a national issue, while passenger franchises are regional. RFG says it will be asking government to ensure that any changes balance the needs of all users. This can be done, it says, through:

  • Strengthening Network Rail’s Freight Route to promote the interests of freight customers across the network
  • A powerful National System Operator with responsibility for timetabling, capacity management and coordination of engineering work
  • A framework which incentivises integrated franchises to support growth in rail freight including new freight terminals and services
  • A regulatory structure refocused on protecting the needs of non-incumbent operators and their customers
  • An absolute requirement to maintain the national rail network in a fit condition for rail freight.

"Freight customers may not be as vocal as passengers, but they share a common desire for a high performing and cost effective railway which deliver for their needs," said RFG Executive Director Maggie Simpson.

"The government’s recently published rail freight strategy recognises this, and we look forward to working together on the details of the proposals to ensure that they are a success for everyone."

"Gravel doesn't vote"

On Wednesday, 8th December, speaking as the principal guest at the RFG's annual Christmas lunch in London, Britain's Rail Minister, Paul Maynard, MP, made the point that "gravel doesn't vote," but nobody should dismiss the role of freight. A freight train bringing aggregates to London for the ongoing construction boom in London, he pointed out, takes 76 HGVs off the road.

"It makes sense to bring track and train together, so the parties work together instead of pointing fingers," said the Minister, "but the freight voice has to be hard-wired into the new arrangements."

In his opening remarks, RFG Chairman Lord Berkeley said that 2016 "was a difficult year for rail freight, due to the 'death of coal,' Calais and other factors. On the other hand, for the first time in five years trains carrying new automobiles returned to the Channel tunnel." This was a reference to shipments from the Port of Bristol to Ghent in Belgium via the tunnel. The trains are shipped by STVA, with GB Railfreight (recently sold by Groupe Eurotunnel) as traction provider.

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