Diversity holds the key to freight’s future

The widely predicted outcome of Nicola Shaw’s report into the future shape and financing of Network Rail was always going to raise serious issues for the UK’s embattled rail freight sector. 

Published in March (RAIL 797), there’s little doubt that the report’s headline-grabbing call for greater devolution and autonomy on a route level will need fleshing out substantially, if it is to be reconciled with a sector that has little alignment with geographic boundaries. 

Critics will always point to the inherent risk posed to long-distance freight services and other nationwide operators by any dilution of NR’s central control functions. 

Retaining a non-devolved national system operator to negotiate paths and possessions with newly empowered routes was therefore always going to be part of any sensible recommendations. 

The end result for those with their glasses half full is an efficient and growing railway made more accountable to its users, bolstered by the influx of private capital. 

Freight operating companies, still reeling from a precipitate loss of coal and steel traffic in the past 18 months, should draw encouragement from the safeguards put in place for the sector by Shaw. So says Rail Freight Group Executive Director Maggie Simpson, who believes the safeguards are sorely needed by an industry that is carrying 14% less freight than in did 12 months ago, according to office of Rail and Road statistics.

Any recommendations accepted by the Government are likely to be implemented in time for the start of Control Period 6 (April 2019), meaning that - in the short term at least - the devil will be in the detail. 

“Devolution is quite difficult for freight, because we go everywhere,” says Simpson. “If you come out of Felixstowe on the cross-country route and then go to Scotland, you go over four different routes. And you need all those routes to be aligned and looking after you, so devolution is a bit uncomfortable. 

“The direction of travel around Shaw is for more of that. And in terms of implementation, the detail of how you would manage cross-boundary operators needs to be worked out. You can say ‘devolution’, but what does it actually mean?

“I think the Shaw Report is actually very good for freight. Arguably there has never been a government report into the railways that has had such an emphasis on freight. It got two things right: it gave a lot of importance to having freight routes with equivalent status to the other routes, and generally I think Shaw recognised in the models she was proposing that you have to make sure freight is properly looked after.”

Reassuringly for Simpson and the freight operators that the RFG represents, the report fully acknowledges that some functions would not be appropriate to devolve to route level. It proposes that health and safety, maintaining standards and timetabling are among the functions that should be kept firmly in the centre. 

Another accommodation for freight appears to be in the establishment of a new virtual freight route, with equal standing to NR’s other geographic routes in terms of autonomy and policy setting. 

However, with so many unanswered questions over the implementation and regulation of disparate parts of what remains (ostensibly) a single national network, the Shaw Report should be viewed in its wider context rather than focusing on the minutiae. It’s far more about the destination than the journey, adds Simpson.

“The rhetoric around having a strong freight route is hugely powerful. What that means in practice remains to be seen, but it gives us the strongest possible footing to do that,” she says. 

“There’s also a recommendation to continue system operation, and that should be at the centre to be effective, which is also welcome. 

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