In search of new freight markets

Is there anywhere else GBRf has identified? 

“It’s finding them first!” replies Armstrong. “But it’s not just about looking where you’ve looked before, it’s about looking at different ways. If we can make a flow work based on loading or unloading on the line in some location, rather than putting in a brand new connection which amounts to a million pounds...” 

Paul Taylor is GBRf’s business manager, charged with looking after the company’s vital National Supply Chain (NSC) contract. His role has also recently expanded. “I’m inheriting an awful lot of things when Lee goes,” he explains with a grin.

This includes the charters business. Taylor will have two staff looking after charters and rail services, two facets of the business that go hand in hand as both are a mixture of occasional workings and one-offs. 

This is work that currently seems not to fit the GBRf way of one train being ‘sweated’. It is something completely different. 

“In a way, they’re a good revenue stream because you have a mix,” says Taylor.

“You have the occasional one-offs - the locomotives for diesel galas. Maybe you will get a TOC train or locomotive once a year coming out of works after a collision repair Then you’ll get a regular flow of multiple units going through works, but they’ll only be once a fortnight or once a month. 

“In some respects it’s a marginal operation, so you’re looking at what train crew assets you can sweat to do those instead. It’s still finding the best fit of the work that we do.”

The charters, rail services and one-off jobs also fit in with Taylor’s other project, which is to ensure that the Caledonian Sleeper operates. He manages the Caledonian Sleeper side of the business for GBRf. 

“There are some synergies. You saw on March 12 with the ‘87’ . 

“If we have capacity in the diagrams to re-use locomotives. There is a mix of the same blokes that are going to be doing it, so you have to manage the rosters very carefully to make sure we cover everything.”

GBRf employs a number of drivers who have a range of skillsets. They can drive Class 1 passenger trains, intermodals, engineers’ trains and empty stock moves. It is these men and women whom Taylor will look to help grow his side of the business. 

“We’re looking at how we do our services because the amount of rail service stuff that there is out there, it almost lends itself now to being a link of men themselves.

“I still think on its own it’s very difficult to crack, because there’s also going to be the occasional two moves in one day, then nothing for three days. It’s really feast and famine. That’s where we’ve got the benefit. We’ve got a bigger base of crews so we can manage the peaks and troughs better. And with other things going on in the charter train market, we’ve seen a sudden growth.” 

Taylor denies that this is as a result of the prohibition order placed on West Coast Railway Company by the Office of Rail and Road, and which was lifted on March 23 (RAIL 798). 

“I just noticed there’s a sudden interest in using GB Railfreight for charters. We’ve been asked to do a couple for Pathfinder Tours because we have some locomotives down there . 

“In August we’re doing Lymington with Class 20s. I took that request because they specifically wanted those ‘20s’. We’ve got the traction knowledge and route knowledge, we’re just sharing the work.”

GBRf is also taking Class 73s to Paignton in July. Taylor explains: “That’s something I’ve been wanting to do for years. That’s my fault. John Farrow loves the fun trains. I said I’d like to do this. He saw it as something that will work for him. So we’re happy to do that.”

Long-term, does GBRf see itself as a major charter operator? Taylor’s answer is a categorical ‘yes’. 

“We’ve organically grown around the country. We’ve historically done stuff within our base. We’ve been selective in the past when someone has come to us and asked ‘can we run this charter?’ If it sits within our portfolio of route knowledge and traction knowledge, then we will consider it. 

“You could argue that where the freight market has changed and there’s been sub-contraction, that has given us some more capacity, so we’ve felt more confident to take things on.”

But that does not mean other aspects of the business will be neglected. 

“We won’t take anything on unless we know we can do it,” says Taylor. “There’s nothing worse for a charter operator than for you to say ‘on Saturday we’re going to get 600 people from A to B’, and you don’t deliver it on the day. You can’t do that.”

Taylor explains: “There must always be a business case. Particularly in the past, whenever we’ve done a charter, I’ve sometimes had to justify why we’re doing it. I always can, and there’s always been the question about ‘playing trains’. 

“At the enquiry stage, we check against known work. If it is a particularly busy weekend for Network Rail, I could tell you if I think there’s a risk that something’s going to give. Nobody could ever be forgiven for taking on a train and disappointing 600 people, or for a Network Rail possession overrun because we didn’t deliver. We wouldn’t do that.” 

Taylor’s job also involves managing the National Supply Chain contract for GBRf, so he must balance that with the charters. 

“Interestingly, from a ‘number of trains’ perspective, it is quieter at the moment. It has been over the last couple of years. There is a current reduction of maintenance and renewal trains. When Network Rail had that determination on the finances under this Control Period, it cut back on what it does. And that’s been reflected across the haulage - all the hauliers are seeing less than the previous Control Period.” 

With Network Rail Chairman Sir Peter Hendy talking about cutting back even further, does Taylor believe that charters and rail services can offset the reduced NSC work? 

“The charter market is about tapping into organic growth we already have. From Network Rail’s point of view we’ve grown rather than contracted. Although the work’s less, we’ve still grown. So I think what he’s saying is our portion of the market has grown. That creates more organic growth opportunities elsewhere.”

With the Caledonian Sleeper contract GBRf has faced a number of challenges, including reliability, diversions and the collapse of Lamington Viaduct (RAIL 793). What other challenges does Taylor expect? 

“To be honest with you, provided we don’t have another Lamington, it’s relatively manageable because you’ve got the Network Rail planning process. So you know about your diversions in advance. There’s a negotiation. If they say ‘they want to blockade at B’, you say ‘can you only block it to C, because you want to run this way’. Sometimes you have to give, but it’s more than manageable as it’s a plan-on-plan basis. If there is another Lamington, we’ll just see what we can do at the time - rise to the challenge.” 

Where does he see the markets in the future? 

“With Network Rail, the level of work they’re at, I think that will be maintained where it is. We need to make sure we stay in the game, at least at the same level that we are doing now. We’ll do that by doing what we do now. 

“I’d like to say that we’d just quietly get on with it. We don’t generally have dramas at the weekend. You might occasionally - the other operators here may need some drivers to come in for the weekend. We’ll do what we can with all operators, and we’ll step into the mix when there’s a problem. But I’d like to think we don’t have those dramas when we’re setting up. 

“We try to keep on top of the route learning if there’s a particular area - an odd branch line, for example. Just by day-to-day delivery, the fact that our drivers are helpful, that the contractors do like us because when something goes wrong they’ll step up and help, that always helps. 

“As for the Sleepers, we’re in it for 15 years. I’d like to think, responding as we did to Lamington, providing the service. 

“We like to think that other operators would have gone ‘oh that’s too much, we’re going to lose that train’. That’s always been our strength… responding. You know some of the people we have are characters, and we’re enthusiastic. It’s almost as if we like putting our pants on outside our trousers sometimes!” 

  • This feature was published in RAIL 799 on April 27 2016.

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