“Intermodal is not just a great wire-up,” explains Clark. “The relatives of intermodal can work. The branch at Felixstowe is almost full - we’ve been saying that since the 24th, 25th train when I worked two companies ago at a different place. They always said it was full then.
“The reality is there’s probably more we can squeeze out of it, but very little over margins. And Network Rail’s build plans and the Hendy Review has pushed a whole bunch of stuff that would have factored that particular branch line back through to 2019-2020. So we’re saying the biggest port in the country is closed for business.”
Clark suggests that work could start in 2019/2020 at the earliest, with work required at Westerfield Junction and Trimley.
“Fundamentally the difference between freight and passenger can be seen in enhancement programmes, because enhancement programmes generally for passengers are kept captive to a route,” he says.
“The minute the enhancement programme is done passenger trains can take advantage of that immediately. When you think of the enhancement work that has been going on from Felixstowe through to Nuneaton, it’s been done in a piecemeal fashion. The rationale for that was available money, and trying to piggyback on schemes that the passenger operators or Network Rail were funding for the purpose of passenger growth - for example, for Department for Transport commitments and timetabling.”
Surely, because of the amount of money in rail freight and its value to the UK economy, in the grand scheme of things a £200 million rail freight scheme shouldn’t be an issue? Clark doesn’t think it should be, but says that’s not enough.
“Network Rail has never been ambitious enough, and I think that’s because it hasn’t had a mandate necessarily.”
Is that because NR is not ambitious enough as a company in general, or just aimed at freight?
“Freight,” Clark responds. “Freight’s really cleaned up its act over the last three to five years, where performance wasn’t a thing that was necessarily held in high regard. We have now in GBRf some of the best-performing trains in the industry we’ve ever had. In terms of the trains we run on a regular basis we’re up in the 91%-92% arrival within 15 minutes - which is 100% better than a passenger train… than a road vehicle.”
Is there still a railway culture where if there’s a problem, freight is immediately put in the loop?
Says Clark: “The reality is that freight’s always been at the bottom of the pile. That’s just how it is. Network Rail doesn’t say that out loud, but from a regulation perspective…”
However, rather than complain, Clark has solutions.
“We have to be able to give the signallers better information. At the beginning of this Control Period we changed the measure away from delay per hundred km, which is very difficult to work out, to a measure called FDM - freight delivery metric. This essentially said that delivery has to get the train wherever it’s going within 15 minutes of planned time.”
This works in exactly the same fashion as Public Performance Measure (PPM) for passenger operators.
Clark adds: “But it also has a perverse piece where, if the train’s already 20 minutes late and the railway’s just gone really awry, then the freight train’s never going to get where it was supposed to, so you’ve failed. It can’t get any worse than a failure. In those circumstances we just use normal control pressures to push folks along. What we’re trying to do is to make sure the train never gets to more than two hours - potentially four hours worst case - late.”
He says that if the train is that late, then the service just cannot be recovered: “For freight it’s never really about the delay on the day. If the overheads are down or the railway’s closed, it’s really about trying to recover it in that four-hour window.”
Clark explains the thinking behind this: “Ultimately it’s the second order reactionary delay where the train’s arrived at its destination, but because it was so late it can’t be off-loaded, reloaded and sent back out.”
That scenario seriously affects GBRf. The freight company has a different model to others, in that it ‘sweats’ its assets. Clark explains: “We don’t go in and drop a wagon set, and then pick up a new wagon set before it’s pre-loaded. We sweat the asset. That’s the way our economics work.”
Clark recalls his first day with GBRf as an example of how the company operates in a different way.
“The first thing John Smith did when I came to this very office was give me a handbook. And in that handbook was basically a photograph, name and job title, and location of every employee in the business.
“The second thing he said to me was: ‘Make sure you get your PTS and cab pass arranged as soon as. I expect you on a regular basis to be on cab rides and meeting the workforce.’
“And we have. We have regular socials and interactions. The reality is our workforce is the key reason why we can get a degree of efficiency over and above our competitors.”
This partly comes down to job titles (train managers rather than drivers, assistant train managers rather than guards or ground staff), and the fact that they wear uniforms and ties.
Says Clark: “So these guys are given more authority and responsibility. We pay them and remunerate them well. But also we look after them in other ways. That’s the biggest part - pay is only one element.”