He elaborates: “The reality is having the right relationship with your workforce helps navigate those things. And we have had difficult arrangements to make. Last year we had a very big issue with the end of the SSI contact up at Lackenby. I wasn’t here at the time, but I looked on. I was still at Network Rail - I knew I was coming up to GB Railfreight.
“I got a call from John Smith directly and another call from Dave Knowles who said: ‘Can you speak to the guys in Network Rail and see if there are any opportunities to redeploy some of these guys? They’re fully trained up. If we need to put some investment in to get these guys, so they can be redeployed, we’re willing to take that on as well.’
“Again, I wasn’t an employee at that time, but those conversations don’t generally go on. It was literally a plea for help - look through the Rolodex and look at somebody who might be able to help those guys out.”
Everyone who could be helped was. Some are now driving for GBRf, some have relocated across the country, and some now work for companies such as Crossrail.
“That’s exactly how it should be,” says Clark, clearly proud of the effort. “We all win together and fail together. If we’re together, the failures are never as hard as they otherwise would be, and successes are that much sweeter.”
That’s all very well, but how does GBRf intend to grow in what is a very tough market?
“GBRf has to grow as it always has done, in organic fashion. And like with the shocks that have gone on in the coal market, we have to be much more predatory in terms of attacking the opportunities.”
Is that new opportunities, or cherry picking existing opportunities that are coming up?
“If our model fits the opportunity best, then we will swing for it. But we don’t swing for every opportunity that comes round. GBRf has grown by concentrating on the corridors it can do best.
“But as we’ve grown bigger our network has got wider, and our ability to bid for businesses more competitively has absolutely come towards us. For me, my focus this year and into the next three years is about intermodal, domestic intermodal, international opportunities, and aggregates.”
Does Clark mean specifically through the Channel Tunnel, or actually operating through mainland Europe?
“We already do operate in mainland Europe - that’s Europorte. We already work together with German traffic, for example. Right now we’re bringing in traditional wagons for the long-welded rail train. So the HOBC services, we’re bringing in wagons that are coming in from Germany right now, through Saarbrucken over into Calais Frethun and then we haul them through the Tunnel. Some of them go onto Carlisle, for example.
“We’re already doing that work on a regular basis. We do lots of unit work as well, rail service aside. International has always been in GBRf’s roster, but we’re taking the next step. We have aspirations to run our own services, and we have to navigate some of the problems on HS1, where HS1 has a different track access contract to Network Rail.”
GBRf is one of two operators (DB Cargo UK is the other) that operate freight on HS1, but the numbers have not been anything like predicted.
Clark acknowledges the challenges: “There are a bunch of other liabilities that HS1 brings that we don’t have on classic infrastructure. It’s one of those things with HS1 whereby we’re allowed freight trains on there, but only in a very narrow window and with full liability. I suppose HS2 has been very clear about not bringing any freight trains here.”
Yes, HS2 - the big opportunity for the railway, the chance to release capacity (like a valve) from the London to Birmingham section of the West Coast Main Line from 2026. South of Rugby, the WCML is the most congested section of railway in Europe. The new railway should, in theory, offer opportunities for growth and extra capacity.
“What I worry about with HS2 is whether it just becomes a market segment,” says Clark. “Currently you have regional services on the West Coast. You also have the high-speed services - the Virgin Pendolinos at very high frequency.”
But if you assume that that’s what will end up on HS2, and that what is now London Midland essentially becomes the main operator on the WCML, that could lead to all kinds of possibilities?
“It could, but that’s if you have volume that transfers. If you look at other countries around Europe where they have very high-speed railways (and we already have a very high-speed railway in comparison to certain countries and certain railway operators around the world, with our 125mph services), if we then have a very high-speed service that’s going to run on HS2, is that a bespoke
service in itself, and do we really turn the Pendolinos and Voyagers off? Or does that give a premium opportunity to move around quickly on HS2?”