Rail freight’s last chance

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Royal Mail announced in summer 2003 that it would withdraw from using rail freight to deliver all its mail, effective from March 2004, because the service was too slow and expensive. Instead, the company said that it would use road and air services.

A saving of £90M a year was the thinking behind the decision by Royal Mail – its annual losses then amounted to £600M. The shift to road will have also added at least a further 160,000 lorry journeys a year to Britain’s beleaguered road network.

The loss of the Royal Mail business was a major blow to rail freight operator EWS. It was even more of a blow for the UK rail freight industry to lose one of its biggest and longest serving customers.

However, it now seems that Royal Mail has had a change of heart having awarded a four-month contract to GB Railfreight (GBRf) to operate four daily services between London and Scotland, via Warrington. GBRf will carry about 4% of Royal Mail’s Christmas mailbag. After Christmas, GBRf will operate two trains a day between London and Scotland until March on a trial basis. GBRf, which produced “a commercially acceptable rail option, based on price”, will be assessed on whether it adds service improvements to Royal Mail’s air and road distribution network.

Royal Mail’s reprieve for rail freight must be welcomed, especially with the road transport sector facing challenges such as increasing congestion, continuing driver shortages and the imminent Working Time Directive. The rail freight industry must not get complacent as this could be its last chance to prove it is a viable alternative to road. After all Royal Mail chief executive Adam Crozier says the network “is now performing well and has achieved the service level and efficiency improvements expected”. GBRf has got its work cut out. n

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