RFG Director General on Building back- how rail freight can support the post COVID recovery

Rail freight operators and their customers have been working tirelessly, particularly in these last few months, to supply essential goods to support communities and businesses.

The sector has shown why it is so important to the economy and such a key part of the UK railways.

The Rail Freight Group is the representative body for rail freight in the UK, which aim is to increase the volume of goods moved by rail.

Its Director General Maggie Simpson has written the article below for railbusinessdaily.com looking at the impact of COVID-19 and the challenges freight will need to overcome in the future.

“There is no sector of the economy that has escaped the impact of COVID19 and the resulting restrictions on our lives. In the rail freight sector, the closure of retail and manufacturing has led to a major downturn in the demand for goods, and consequently in the number of trains our customers want. Construction materials and imported containers have felt the brunt of this, and some sectors such as the movement of finished cars have stopped altogether. Total volumes are 30-50% below where they should be, leading to major financial concerns for freight operators and customers alike.

Yet there are also positives. Sectors such as supermarket products and domestic waste are booming, and there have been new services starting, including a new train from Spain via the Channel Tunnel conveying essential food and products for the UK. Freight operators are rightly being praised for their resilience and flexibility, and Network Rail have prioritised freight on the network allowing longer trains to operate and services to be scheduled by more direct routes with commensurate savings in cost and fuel. And public and political support for rail freight has been boosted as positive stories emerge of our role in delivering critical supplies to support business and communities.

As we move forward and hopefully out of the current lockdown, rail freight has an opportunity to build on these successes and return to growth. The backdrop of economic downturn and even recession is deeply uncomfortable and will inevitably affect the speed of recovery. Yet the other factors which have been driving customers to rail remain critically important. These include decarbonisation, a systematic shortage of HGV drivers and changing trade routes which we are already seeing on the back of Brexit. Major projects such as HS2 will also stimulate demand for trains, supplying materials for construction and removing construction spoil.

The industry can and will push for this growth, but there is a role for Government too in providing the right environment for private sector investment. A key part of this is ensuring there is enough capacity on the network, in particular on links between ports and inland conurbations. Support for electrification is also essential to deliver green growth, both through modal shift from road and in moving to less carbon intensive traction over the medium term. And there must be a framework that allows freight to prosper, and not be marginalised on the mixed traffic railway.

We are having these conversations with Government now, as we try and focus on the future as well as the day to day crisis of the current emergency. There are many uncertainties ahead, but the sector will do all it can to navigate to a bright future.”

Maggie Simpson, Director General of the Rail Freight Group (RFG)