Freight volumes fall to mid-1990s levels in 2020/21

The volume of rail freight moved in 2020/21 fell to its lowest level since the 1990s according to statistics released by the Office of Rail and Road on 27 May, with the Covid-19 pandemic blamed for the fall. With 15.6 billion net tonne-kilometres moved during the year, it was an 8.6% drop compared with 2019/20. In terms of freight lifted – the mass of goods carried on the rail network – the decline was 4.4% to 69 million tonnes, the lowest total of freight lifted since the miners’ strike in 1984/85.

However, despite an early shock caused by the pandemic, in the second half of 2020/21, freight volumes recovered to broadly pre-pandemic levels. The recovery was even better for freight lifted, which recorded a 6.6% increase in the second half of the year over 2019/20 levels. 

Domestic coal traffic suffered the biggest fall (-51% to 0.05 billion net tonne-kilometres) as power generation shifts to other sources, with international traffic unsurprisingly suffering a 27.8% decrease with border restrictions. Oil and petroleum traffic fell by 10.5%, domestic intermodal by 6.9% and metals by 0.5%.

With fewer passenger trains running over the past 12 months, freight punctuality achieved its highest ever level under the Freight Delivery Metric, with 95.2% of trains arriving on time on a moving annual average basis. In the first quarter of the year, the figure was 97%. The number of freight trains which actually ran over the year fell to 189,371 – and the avoided lorry journeys also fell, to its lowest ever figure of 6.4 million. Rail freight lifted declined to 4.6% of all freight lifted, and in terms of overall market share, rail accounted for 8.6% of the total market, the lowest level since 2003.

Although DB Cargo and Freightliner suffered falls in traffic in terms of freight train kilometres, GB Railfreight scored a 7.9% increase, and Direct Rail Services beat that growth figure with a rise of 9.3% to 0.6 million. DB Cargo remains the dominant freight operator, running almost a million more train kilometres than its closest rival Freightliner.