© Peter Moulton

The UK government has pledged to overhaul the country’s failing rail networks, with rail freight offered the “opportunity of a lifetime” to accelerate growth.

The long-delayed William-Shapps Plan for Rail white paper calls for a new organisation, Great British Railways to plan and run the network, with a statutory duty to promote freight and get cargo off the road onto the tracks.

The report notes: “Freight use of railways has recovered quickly [since the start of the pandemic] and seems likely to take a bigger share of traffic and revenues in the future.

“The rail freight market has been transformed over the past quarter-century. Freight trains reduce road congestion, connect markets over long distances and are much less carbon-intensive than road freight.”

Even so, nine times more cargo is moved by road in the UK, despite rail freight producing just a quarter of the CO2 emitted by equivalent haulage loads.

The report notes that, through the creation of Great British Railways, a “whole-system” approach, taking in the needs of freight operators, could be developed, replacing what it describes as a “fragmented” system hindering strategic freight planning”.

Rail Freight Group (RFG) director general Maggie Simpson said the report offered a path for decarbonisation and building back the economy. She said it was: “A unique opportunity to meet these ambitions if it ensures private sector rail freight operators can flourish, and that customers and suppliers are encouraged to invest for growth.

“We look forward to working with government as it develops the detailed proposals… it’s essential the new structure and systems truly deliver on their promise for rail freight.”

Yesterday, as reported by The Loadstar, GB Railfreight (GBRf) MD John Smith called for a “freight evangelist” to guide the UK’s beleaguered rail sector through this new phase.

Commenting on the white paper today Mr Smith said: We welcome the publication of the [plan] and appreciate the warm words used to describe rail freight – correctly identified as having played a crucial role in keeping food and medical supplies moving during the pandemic as well as being key to building back better.

“As the Williams Review found, the rail sector lacks clear strategic direction. While we would have preferred a freight specific guiding mind, we welcome the government’s intent that the new Great British Railway body will have a statutory duty to promote rail freight. Within this context it is vital that our access to the network is given long-term security as soon as possible.

“However we remain of the belief that our sector needs a Freight Evangelist to champion it within GBR and across Whitehall. The benefits of rail freight are there for all to see, and we hope they will be recognised by GBR once it has been set up. Hopefully such an individual will be placed in post within the GBR organisation.

“We look forward to playing our part in shaping in the future of the railways…”

Co-executive director of the British Chambers of Commerce, Hannah Essex, shared the RFG’s optimism, and said “long overdue” rail reform was necessary for providing industry with the confidence to invest.

She added: “This encouraging start must translate into long-term concrete commitment to positive change for our railways.”

Despite welcoming the report’s aims, regional responses have been less enthusiastic. Interim chief executive of Transport for the North Tim Wood said “this must not be a missed opportunity” for further devolution.

“The fact that Great British Railways will bring track and train together as the guiding mind is a giant leap forward and something we’ve championed. But this national approach must not be a missed opportunity for giving the north’s leaders greater oversight of services and infrastructure investment to deliver more integrated regional networks that work for all.

“Commitment to growing and investing in rail emphasises the real need for government to publish the Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands without delay.”

Comment on this article

You must be logged in to post a comment.