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"The Rail Freight Group" by Martin Bignell, Scottish and Northern Representative, the Rail Freight Group - Tuesday 24 January 2023

Martin Bignell, Scottish and Northern Representative, the Rail Freight Groupd

Martin Bignell, Scottish and Northern Representative, the Rail Freight Group

© Martin Bignell

Explaining that his background is in logistics and public policy, with experience in operations and consultancy in the road, rail and maritime sectors, Martin Bignell told us that it was at the beginning of 2022 that he joined as Scotland and North of England representative the Rail Freight Group, which has been well-established since the 1990s and now has over 120 members comprising train operators, end-customers, terminal providers or developers and suppliers.

Examples of RFG's activities include a mentoring programme to build rail freight skills, webinars on key industry issues, knowledge-sharing at conferences and events, responding to industry and government policies and calls for evidence and engagement in industry forums. Examples include representing freight on the Trans Pennine Route Upgrade programme, contributing at events like the Railway Industry Association and University of Huddersfield's launch of the latter's Smart Rolling Stock Maintenance Research Facility launch and sitting on the Scotland Joint Freight Board.

Recent data suggests rail freight volumes in Scotland are broadly 69% intermodal, 11% construction, 8% petroleum, 5% industrial minerals, 4% metals and 3% everything else. Operators with services connecting Scotland are DB Cargo, Freightliner, GBRf, DRS, Colas and newcomer Varamis, operating around 70 different trains each week (both directions). The 2018 High Level Output Statement's target of 7.5% growth by 2024 has been largely achieved, although the recent strikes have impacted, and the forthcoming HLOS is fairly certain to set a new growth target. Scotland provides a positive policy and infrastructure environment, with the recent Strategic Projects Review 2 specific on developing capability to Aberdeen and Inverness, cross-border links and terminal capacity, while Network Rail Scotland has a logical forward plan for electrification and gauge enhancement.

In huge contrast to the historic dominance of coal, an estimated 40% of all rail freight on Scottish routes is now consumer goods, with many recognisable brands from all the major food retailers, Matalan and Next to the likes of Nestle, Dyson, Microsoft and Weetabix amongst the customers contracting directly or indirectly, or being served by a rail connected supply chain.

Growth challenges in Scotland reflect the country's geography. Peripherality and volume achievable from single customers makes it difficult to establish and sustain flows beyond the Central Belt. Freight operators are understandably focused on sweating their assets so as to seek the best return on their fleet and resource investment from a Britain-wide perspective. In terms network investment, Martin's role as RFG's Northern rep as well as being Scottish rep has highlighted that many regions tend to think about local needs, not always recognising that there may be through traffic to meet a demand further down the line. The aspirations to increase Scotland's rail freight market is an example where reminders are often needed that planning for the needs of the North of England have to be layered with future demand beyond the region. More locally within Scotland, RFG members have identified potential opportunities to develop interesting domestic services through collaboration on traction. But gaps in electrification into some ports and terminals inhibit some of the possibilities to use electric locomotives that sit idle during turnaround periods on their primary routes. While a notable recent achievement, the decade-long gestation of the Highland Spring terminal at Blackford and recent rejection by North Lanarkshire Council of a Russell terminal at Ravenscraig show that enormous reserves of patience and time may be needed to deliver new terminal capacity and similar necessary investment to support growth. Perhaps too long when considering the buoyancy of enquiries and demand for services that operators are reporting as businesses increasingly accelerate to decarbonise supply chains.

Martin reflected on several curiosities about rail freight. There are masses of data, but how much is genuinely useful for planning development and growth? Potential customers - especially the very many smaller volume customers - may find it difficult to discover what services are provided and by whom. Growth tends to focus on new services, but expansion of existing ones may be as important if innovation can deliver the tools to maximise the utilisation of current assets and services. Network Rail data is driven by tonnages and billing of empty and full wagons, and Martin found it surprising that there's nothing so simple as a manifest of the number of intermodal units being moved routinely captured - surely helpful statistical information? And there is no apparent process for routinely capturing the commencement or cessation of services, so tracking what is happening on the ground becomes bizarrely complicated, if you are new to rail and trying to understand what's available.

However, there are some positive developments that should be conducive to future growth. He sees encouraging signs that some parts of Network Rail are actively looking for incremental improvements in everyday renewals. Emerging platforms such as Routescanner will enable potential customers to buy more easily into the rail freight offer. Emission modelling will further enhance awareness of rail's already excellent green credentials and provide the sort of information customers are increasingly demanding is calculated and reported. Innovation in design of intermodal units includes curtain-sided and chilled containers, while improved marketing has heightened awareness of rail freight operations including Tesco, with its new refrigerated train, and the global operator Ocean Network Express. Multimodal logistics operators such as Maritime Transport, Culina (Stobart), WH Malcolm and JG Russell have the volume to drive intermodal growth and are increasingly building comprehensive intermodal networks with ambitious plans to increase the use of rail as part of their integrated offer. Longer term, the drive towards zero-emission HGVs by 2040 provides a huge opportunity for a country as large and remote from its markets as Scotland, but can the railfreight industry move fast enough to take full advantage? It will take a collaborative effort.

Report by John Yellowlees. Photograph by Martin Bignell.


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