Thursday, May 20, 2021

Major Restructuring of UK Rail Elicits Differing Reactions from Freight and Passenger Interests

Biggest Overhaul in a Generation to Services
Shipping News Feature

UK – The news that Britain's rail sector is to see the biggest reforms introduced in a generation has been met with wildly different opinions from a variety of stakeholders, not least those involved in freight operations.

The Rail Freight Group (RFG) for example, which has more than 120 corporate members active in all sectors of rail freight from ports, terminal operators, customers, through to operators and suppliers, appears hugely impressed with the intentions expressed in the Williams - Shapps Plan for Rail (viewable HERE), saying it offers the ‘opportunity of a lifetime’ to accelerate the growth of rail freight, helping decarbonise UK freight transport and meet the needs of freight customers.

Under the plans set out by government a new organisation, Great British Railways, will be created to plan and run the rail network, incorporating Network Rail and passenger services. Importantly, the new body will have a statutory duty to promote freight, and a national freight co-ordination team will be created to improve the freight customer experience.

The reason for promotion of freight is clear. The report states that these services, whilst hit by the effects of the pandemic initially, soon recovered demonstrating the agility of the sector. Conversely passenger travel habits are deemed to have changed forever. Now government will set a growth target for rail freight, as has been done in Scotland, and will issue guidance on its priorities for rail freight periodically. Maggie Simpson OBE, RFG Director General, said:

"Businesses across the country are hungry for more rail freight as they decarbonise their supply chains and build back the economy. The creation of Great British Railways is a unique opportunity to meet these ambitions if it ensures that 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 they develop the detailed proposals, including for reform of track access and a new role for the ORR. It will be essential that the new structure and systems truly deliver on their promise for rail freight.”

Just one mile to the north, in the offices of the RMT union where priorities are of course very different, the attitude was diametrically opposite, almost hostile in fact, with General Secretary Mick Lynch saying:

“This is a missed opportunity by the Government to make a clean break from the failures of the past that have left Britain's railways in the slow lane. The Government talk about ending a generation of fragmentation but then leave the same private companies in place under this arrangement to extract management fees that could be invested in to building a truly integrated national rail network. The taxpayer carries all the risk while the train companies carry out bags of cash.

“If the Government were serious about recognising ‎the impact of failed rail policy down nearly three decades they would cut out the middleman, strip away the dead weight of the private companies and work with their staff on building a transport system fit for the future where investment in the workforce and infrastructure comes first.

“It's important ministers and members of this new Great British Railways’ board‎ understand that you don't build for a bright future by threatening staff with job cuts and attacks on pay and pensions. Our chief priority is to defend our members and if the industry chooses the road to confrontation they will meet the stiffest industrial resistance from this trade union.”

Clearly the union agenda is to see the whole rail system renationalised, something very unlikely to happen any time soon. A middle of the road note to the changes which will affect passengers and freight carriage alike was struck by Tim Wood, Transport for the North’s Interim Chief Executive, who said:

“The North saw first-hand the effects of a fragmented rail industry during the 2018 timetable crisis. The fact that Great British Railways will bring track and train together as the guiding mind and put the needs of passengers first is a giant leap forward and something we’ve championed.

“This is a major national moment and a shift in how the railway is run. But this national approach must not be a missed opportunity for further devolution, giving the North’s leaders greater oversight of services and infrastructure investment to deliver more integrated regional networks that work for all.

“The commitment to growing and investing in the railway over the next 30 years only emphasises the real need for the government to publish the Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands without delay, to give us much-needed certainty on delivery of major schemes like Northern Powerhouse Rail, HS2 and the Transpennine Route Upgrade.

“As an established and effective partnership in the North of England, Transport for the North will collaboratively engage with government as it begins to work through the detail and we stand ready to drive positive change in the interest of our passengers.”