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RAIL FREIGHT

The Future Of Rail Freight In Great Britain

MDS Transmodal’s Chairman, Mike Garratt, wrote to the editor of RAIL magazine in March about the future of rail freight in Great Britain following an editorial that suggested that the decline in coal traffic might call into question rail freight’s future role and potential. 

Nigel Harris
Managing Editor
Rail
Media House, Lynch Wood
Peterborough Business Park
Peterborough
PE2 6EA

Dear Nigel

Your editorial on freight: edition of 2.3.16

I am writing about the extensive coverage you recently gave to the impact on rail freight volumes of the decline in coal and the danger that this would call into question rail freight’s future role and potential. I would like to provide two very simple performance statistics to counter such an impression.

Based entirely on data available in Transport Statistics Great Britain, between 2004 and 2014 GB heavy rail passenger volumes (measured in passenger trips made) can be shown to have grown by 4.8% p.a. as compared with the overall market in trips (all modes) by only around 0.2%. Rail passenger growth was therefore 4.6% p.a. faster than for road and rail together. That growth is widely celebrated.

However, over the same period and in head to head competition with road haulage the tonnage of all rail freight lifted except coal in Great Britain grew by 1.6% p.a. while the overall freight market actually fell by 2.1% p.a. Non coal rail freight growth was therefore almost as fast for passengers relative to the size of the market addressed at 3.7% p.a.

Coal should be ignored in evaluating performance; tonnages have fluctuated alarmingly through the failure of Government energy policies to provide business with the sort of environment that can encourage efficient investment strategies. Much of that coal was in any event captive to rail; monitoring coal tonnages carried did not help to evaluate rail’s competitiveness.

That growth figure for rail freight takes into account that overall less freight is now lifted because the 2009 recession saw off so much manufacturing industry, itself damaging traditional rail freight markets and despite the failure of Network Rail to always deliver capacity where required.

This performance by rail freight has been achieved despite network capacity constraints on key freight generators (such as with Felixstowe). Rail freight does not only compete with road. It also competes for rail network capacity with passenger services which are generally allocated capacity based upon franchise commitments planned well in advance.

As is generally recognised most coal traffic used those parts of the network that do not trouble principal north-south routes.  By contrast, most other (growing) rail freight traffics share routes with growing passenger markets and are hence in competition for limited network capacity.  If, as we would anticipate, overall the non-coal all modes freight market now grows in line with population (i.e. the process of de-industrialisation is now more or less complete) then based on the last decade’s performance rail freight’s non-coal tonnages would triple by 2043 (in line with the Network Rail’s Freight Market Study), but only if sufficient network capacity is available and land use policies direct a substantial amount of warehousing to rail connected sites as set out in the Government’s Strategic Rail Freight Interchange policy.

An increase in rail freight’s market share has a very positive role to play in raising the efficiency of the UK freight industry. Despite the lack of network capacity it is growing its market share almost as fast as is the passenger sector through being cost effective.

Yours sincerely

Mike Garratt

Chairman
MDS Transmodal