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CILT Railfreight Webinar on 29 April 2020 led by Jacqueline Starr RDG, Maggie Simpson RFG, John Thomas RDG, and Julian Worth CILT

Julian Worth: it's an ill wind that brings no good, and the crisis has allowed much greater recognition of logistics in general and railfreight in particular since it has gained a much higher profile than before, bringing greater awareness in Government and even railway circles. Railfreight had already proved its resilience in changing with the times, and moving on from coal 40% is now consumer goods. During the crisis retail and waste have been going at a very high level, and steel has been holding up well even for export through the Channel Tunnel. By contrast automotive and manufacturing industries shut down and much construction stopped, but half of aggregates volumes are running - so about half of normal railfreight volume is still there, in contrast to 5% passenger, and many road hauliers are reported to be going bust.

Maggie Simpson: deepsea intermodal went down earlier owing to situation in China, and the market is volatile since stocks may be out of date. Construction is stable, and the railfreight businesses have taken the necessary action to furlough staff. What we need is stability over the coming months, and we are hoping to see housebuilding resume next week. Network Rail have been brilliant in prioritising freight, allowing longer trains which we hope will continue. The risk is of damage to confidence among global shareholders: it's measures like the HS2 go-ahead that keep us going, and we'd like longer-term stability on access rights so that our businesses may recover.

John Thomas: railfreight has shown in the crisis that it is crucial in keeping shelves stocked and fuel delivered to power stations, but a cashflow problem has been created by overall business being 50% down and there could be risks in devolution of managing the network arising from Williams. We want restoration of Freight Facilities Grant in England as part of promoting railfreight in the post-Williams world, and RDG hold his feet to the fire on this.

Four new flows have been announced since the crisis began: aggregates from Dove Holes to both Small Heath and Gatwick, slurry from Aberdeen to Spalding and Transfesa vegetables from Spain to Barking. Not seen any gain of any Covid-related flows though the industry made the offer to help, since plenty of HGV drivers have been diverted from other shut-down sectors.

For the future post-pandemic, we need to see more supply-chain logisticians pursuing what rail can do, encouraging them to look over the fence from their day job. Anglo-Scottish supermarket flows have flown up people's radar, rail moves stuff too into London but there is a lack of suitable terminals and the south-west of England is a difficult area.

RDG submitted a railfreight-specific response to the Williams review, which arose from difficulties on the passenger franchises. While there has been much talk of devolution on the passenger side, we have emphasised the continuing importance of national timetabling and independent capacity-allocation. Any new national body must have a statutory responsibility to promote railfreight, as already happens in Scotland. JT's guess is that White Paper will be published around September and legislation will slip, but the Government could set up the new body in shadow form.

We don't yet know the impact of the crisis on passenger demand, but for a long time RFG have thought there could be an off-peak adjustment to accommodate freight. We can change access rights, but if they are not independently managed investment may not be forthcoming in freight. We have seen words but not substance as yet.

A trainload of stone that moves overnight to London must return during the day, and wagons may have to be used intensively in order to get a return on investment. Fewer but longer passenger trains during the day would free up paths that railfreight needs in order to grow. A third of HGV mileage is on flows suited to rail, and there is at present no decarbonisation option for most roadfreight since 44-tonne lorries would be carrying a massive weight in batteries. Only a few hundred miles need to be electrified, but there must be more depots - and discussion must start in next couple of years if we are to be where we want to be in 2040.

RDG want independent analysis of the comparative value of freight and passenger paths. Ministers welcomed RDG's proposal for infill electrification, and there has been a sea-change in Government attitude over last twelve months from the previous stance of opposition to any further wiring arising from the Great Western cost overrun.

Flows from China have a middle ground hitherto moved by air that could be won to rail. However this is more difficult for UK to secure than in central Europe since the time-advantage is less and we have few reverse flows. Shipping and aviation have no alternative to diesel, but the rail route through Russia needs electrification.

On potential for future development across Britain, longer routes are better for railfreight, but a Class 319 trial has taken place with cages for parcels and air pollution controls could fund support. The first Trans Pennine intermodal flow would have been announced by now but for Covid. There ought to be a supermarket flow from Bristol to South-West to match those from central Scotland to Aberdeen and Inverness, but demand in deep rural areas is thin and what we need is rail connections into regional distribution centres.

As passenger services ramp up post-Covid, we should look at continuing the practices that have emerged in this crisis. The two weeks before lockdown had been the best ever for construction, and during the crisis freight trains are gaining an hour on schedules between Birmingham to Oxford. We need to put intercity and freight on the graph before handing timetables over for the planners to add in local passenger services. RDG are confident on the future of railfreight, and see a change of attitude in Government.

Notes by John Yellowlees


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