Rail freight in 2020 – the challenges and opportunities

Ahead of the 28th Annual Rail Freight Group Conference (organised by Waterfront Conference Company, Freshwater’s sister Company) Maggie Simpson, Rail Freight Group’s Director General, explores the prospects and challenges for rail freight in 2020.

The prospects for the rail freight sector are looking good in 2020. Rail freight is a low carbon solution for logistics and many companies and policy makers are looking to modal shift from road to rail as a way of reducing carbon emissions in supply chains. This is bringing new customers to rail, and existing customers are looking to increase their presence.

At the same time, a nationwide shortage of HGV drivers is also causing pressure for road freight operators. An ageing workforce, the impact of Brexit and factors such as road delays and congestion are making this a difficult dilemma to fix. Being able to move 50 loads with a single driver by rail makes perfect sense, leaving the scarce road resource available to do the essential ‘last mile’, delivering goods to customer warehouses, depots and stores. Such factors are also tending to increase road prices, which also helps the economics of moving to rail.

However, growing rail freight is not without its challenges. The railways are a system, so changes in any part of it inevitably impact elsewhere. The current profound challenges in the passenger franchises and the outcome of the Williams Review mean that fundamental change will be happening to the structure of our railways, and freight cannot avoid being impacted by this. Of course, there could be positive changes too, and we need to look for the opportunities that this brings as well as making sure that the private sector freight operators and their customers are properly protected, both at a national level and where powers are devolved to Scotland, Wales and sub national and regional transport bodies.

The railways also need to make a compelling case for decarbonisation. Modal shift to rail today can make an immediate impact on national carbon emissions but there is no place for complacency, as pressure to reduce and eliminate diesel as a fuel is only increasing. This means that we need to persuade Government to reopen the case for electrification of the strategic freight routes, along with upgrading the power supply to allow freight to operate. In the first case, a series of small infill schemes could immediately allow trains to convert using the existing locomotive fleet. In the medium term, freight operators will need to look at new types of equipment, which could include bimodes as well as electric vehicles, but to do so they need confidence in the technology and capacity of the network to ensure they can get a return on that investment.

This year’s Rail Freight Conference will be an excellent opportunity to discuss these topics and to hear from speakers close to the action in important policy areas. I am really looking forward to chairing the event, and to some stimulating and interesting discussions with the audience. Looking forward to seeing you there.

To learn more about the opportunities and challenges for rail freight, register to attend the Rail Freight Group Conference on the 2nd April in London.