RAIL 922 - Make freight an equal priority

After everything we’ve been through, we’re all back to where we were last March. Including our railways.

A passionate debate was under way before Christmas about our railway’s future. What will be its purpose in whatever new ‘normal’ emerges? How can it be rapidly evolved to play a fundamentally important part in rebooting our economy? How can the railway be best restructured to solve long-standing problems which have been swept under the carpet, side-stepped or ignored? These issues include ticketing, fares, pensions, staffing levels (yes, that nettle must finally be firmly and fairly grasped, not least by rail’s trade unions), decarbonisation, electrification, effective devo-lution, technical innovation… and that’s by no means an exhaustive list. 

RAIL asked ten highly experienced ‘movers and shakers’ to reflect on what they believe rail needs in 2021 and beyond (see pages 38-41). There are many common themes, including:

Increasing passenger numbers/revenues.

Rebuilding passenger confidence that trains are safe.

Building quality customer care into the railway’s DNA.

Ticketing and fares reform to reflect changing working practices.

An effective pan-industry rail promotion campaign.

A determined drive to recruit new leisure travel customers.

Electrification, decarbonisation and rail’s green credentials.

Skills and people development, accelerating progress with diversity and inclusion. 

Technical innovation - not just in how trains are powered, but across the board, including infrastructure renewals and especially digital signalling.

By the way, I haven’t slipped into the bad habit of adding ‘…and freight’ to the end of a railway list! I want to deal with freight separately, because I honestly believe that Britain stands to benefit most if we seize this opportunity to equally prioritise freight and its potentially transformative benefits.

Our freight colleagues demonstrated their value to UK plc during the pandemic - helped by the timetable being heavily reduced, leaving plenty of capacity and little congestion. So, how do we keep these benefits?

RAIL has been clear through the pandemic that no more than 90%-95% of the previous timetable should be reinstated, to release capacity. We should now go further and set new standards and policies on our own initiative. The railway has been costing tax-payers £800 million a month. We have heard fears of  ‘Beeching 2’ permanent closures. Such cuts would save relatively little while trig-gering a distracting major political row. Maybe this explains why no significant cuts have as yet even been mooted by Government? 

Whitehall is right to be cautious. We must not run the risk of capacity-destroying cuts of the kind BR imposed in the 1980s, which we know cost gazillions to reverse, even if reinstatement is possible. But that is the likely outcome if the railway waits for Treasury’s grim reaper to come a-calling. The third lockdown offers unexpected opportunities. As Shamit Gaiger says (page 40), we should not let this crisis go to waste.

Between the lockdown on the one hand and understandable fears about the easily trans-mitted infection on the other, passenger numbers are collapsing again. The industry should respond by rapidly evolving a carefully considered programme of temporary service cuts, delivered in a way which ‘rolls the pitch’ for their eventual reinstatement. 

Freight is crucial in this plan, given greater impetus and value by the recent French border closure and HGV chaos around Dover. This was a bitter taste of how Brexit Britain’s logistics could melt down - and it presents rail freight with a golden opportunity. Shippers horrified by tens of thousands of lorries at Manston airfield for nearly a week are already seeking other ports, other routes… and other solutions. Containers/lorries could soon be streaming into Britain from many more quaysides. Intermodal opportunities are obv-ious - but this will require loading gauge enhancements, digital signalling, better pathing, plus infrastructure capable of running longer, heavier and faster freight trains. 

Rail Freight Group Director General Maggie Simpson OBE makes her usual compelling argument for all this on page 39. What gives Maggie’s case real power and potential is that she is offering Government a solution to some of its current major economic problems. Rail freight can not only help smooth out Brexit bumps, it is also a powerful solution for domestic goods movement. There has been explosive growth in online shopping and home deliveries during lockdown, with millions of parcels travelling millions of miles. There is plenty of scope for innovative rail solutions (converted EMUs supplying roll cages into city centres, for example).

Freight should be shoulder to shoulder with the passenger industry in leading the charge. This would encourage investment, devel-opment and job creation by creating a network that is far more than principally a passenger network with limited freight.

In this context, passenger service reductions taking account of lower demand now would carry significantly less risk of becoming permanent. We’d still have all the trains in store, and service reductions would yield worthwhile ‘maintenance holiday’ savings on both trains and track, together with increased opportunities to reconfigure track, trains and stations for the greatly enhanced customer-friendliness we all want. For starters, how about doing away with ironing-board seating - make our trains more comfortable?

Turn the troubles into opportunities. Make the railway better so that it can grow again quickly when things improve. Let’s shape the future - not just wait for it! Give Government  solutions and enthusiasm - create confidence that the railway is ‘up for this’. Government is (I believe) ready to engage. Buried away on page 21 of the recent National Infrastructure Strategy are two very revealing sentences:

“The Government has stepped in to keep train services running in spite of severely reduced passenger demand. While these temp-orary arrangements are in place, the Government will make an early start on key reforms and ensure a new and better type of rail network emerges following the pandemic.”

Be assured: the railway is on the agenda - it now needs to write that agenda. It should start by equally prioritising passenger and freight in the interests of firing up the UK plc economy again, and then better serving its growing needs in the future. Get the railway built into the bricks and mortar of post-pandemic social and economic recovery. 

Use the pause. Don’t waste the crisis. Take the initiative.

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