Since rail privatisation in the 1990s, private operators have shown enormous commitment to developing rail freight in the UK. While government support has always been in evidence it has sometimes been patchy and short term, and the £1.5bn invested by the private sector has been largely responsible for the 60 per cent growth in rail freight over the past decade.
However the recent High Level Output Strategy (HLOS) issued by the DfT has given new impetus to the industry. The HLOS represents government policy for the development of the rail network up to 2030, and makes a number of commitments, including:
- That the network should be able to deliver double the current levels of rail freight over a 30 year period.
- The development of a ‘Strategic Freight Network’ to provide the capacity and capability for freight growth.
- Allocation of £200m for developing the strategic network, in addition to any funds already provided.
To quote the paper itself, the SFN would “complement, and be integrated with, the existing rail network. It would provide an enhanced core trunk network capable of handling more and longer freight trains, with a selective ability to handle wagons with higher axle loads and greater loading gauge.”
The development of the network will require significant work and a fresh look at a number of policies. For example, it is vital the new body genuinely canvasses opinion from across the industry, including RFG members. We will also need a clearer definition of the shape and size of the SFN and rules to ensure that the proposed freight capacity is protected.
There are still some parts of the network that are not included in the SFN, particularly in the light of the technical strategy that promoted differentiated maintenance standards, which could in effect exclude rail freight from some routes. As rail needs to offer a viable alternative to road it is vital that freight traffic can move 24/7, including ensuring that diversionary routes are accessible when major lines are closed due to accidents or repair and maintenance work. The strategy needs to stay flexible to allow the industry to meet changing freight demands, and to make sure also that everyone adheres to the principles of marginal costs charging.
While the new allocation is in addition to current support, there is some lack of clarity as to how total funding is to be prioritised. To achieve maximum benefit the newly announced fund of £200m is unlikely to cover the larger schemes such as the Felixstowe to Nuneaton line, but should nevertheless contribute to the success of the SFN.
The White Paper makes a number of statements that are vital to ensuring that freight services get equal treatment. They include the need for Network Rail’s timetables to allocate more space for freight that is actually used on a day-to-day basis to allow for peaks in demand. Policies and regulations should not put unnecessary obstacles in the way of rail freight growth and that the needs of the industry should always be considered when reviewing passenger services. Finally the paper acknowledges that prospects for rail freight growth over the coming decade are both strong and forecasts realistic.
The Paper continues by stating that funding upgrades of rail lines to UK ports are subject to ‘the beneficiary pays’ principle. But without any conclusions on ports and inland cross links, the lack of detail is less encouraging. While noting that increased freight through the Channel Tunnel will depend on a commercial charging regime being established, it does not state what the government’s role could be in bringing this about. However, recent comments from Eurotunnel’s senior management have indicated that they may introduce lower off-peak rates.
The HLOS does leave some issues unresolved. However RFG chairman Tony Berkeley said: “We are pleased that the government has shown such strong support for rail freight in this strategy.”