Northern freight priorities must be progressed

Rail Freight Group

The performance of passenger services across the North of England continues to be difficult, with continued pressure on Government to act to reform the Northern and TransPennine franchises or to terminate the contracts. Over the Christmas period the mayors of Manchester and Liverpool called again for control of services to pass to them – along with Birmingham Mayor Andy Street who is also facing problems with performance in the West Midlands.

The case for devolution of passenger services will be informed by the Williams Review, which is likely to emerge during the coming months. Yet that alone will not fix all the issues contributing to the current poor service, nor will it help rail freight to prosper. This requires investment in the network, short-term choices and priorities, and compromises between the acute local needs and the maintenance of a national network for freight and longer-distance services.

The north of England is already a critically important region for rail freight. Work by the Rail Delivery Group in 2018 showed some £740 million of economic benefits each year accruing from rail freight in the north, 43% of the £1.7 billion of benefits generated nationally. These benefits derive from environmental gains in decarbonisation and road decongestion, and economic benefits to customers and wider society from efficient freight transport. In both areas, a greater use of rail freight is therefore key to meeting the regional objectives of economic growth, increased trade and renewed prosperity.

A significant part of these benefits comes from intermodal traffic which has been dominated by north – south flows operating into terminals including Widnes, Trafford Park, iPort, Teesport and Leeds. These services are critical not just for imports but also to give the region’s exporters a route to market, in particular to the Asian and other non-European markets. More recently there has been strong growth in rail to and from northern ports including Liverpool and Teesport and we expect more services to start this year. These new services are operating in addition to those from the southern ports, increasing rail’s overall market share, and any post-Brexit move to create freeports might also accelerate demand.

Construction materials are an important export market, with the Peak District cluster and other quarries and plants regularly dispatching services. Whilst much of the product leaves the region, an increasing amount finds itself in local terminals supporting housebuilding and construction, taking lorries off the region’s road network and supporting local employment. There are also significant flows of biomass, waste, cars, steel and other industrial products.

In all these sectors there is the potential for more. Demand studies undertaken by Network Rail, Transport for the North and others show that there is a clear customer pressure for using more rail freight. The challenge is how to deliver this growth, to provide the necessary capacity on the network and in terminals.

Firstly, there must be an acceptance of rail freight’s place on the network, and the commercial framework in which it operates. Presently there are too many calls for freight to be ‘taken off’ existing routes or run only at night, which fails to understand what our customers need. There also has to be protection for existing terminals and capacity, allowing as a minimum the trains which operate today to continue, and a framework which ensures freight paths remain aligned across the whole network.

More specifically, we continue to campaign for container train paths on the TransPennine corridors to enable growth from the regional ports. Although trial services are being investigated using low wagons, investment in capacity and capability will be necessary to fully unlock these flows, as part of the current upgrade but also in released capacity from Northern Powerhouse Rail. The Hope Valley route is also heavily congested and is expected to see increased demand for freight, not least to support the construction of HS2 and other new infrastructure, so the upgrade of this route also needs to be delivered.

The network also needs to support a greater proportion of electrically hauled freight to support decarbonisation of the railways, including power supply upgrades on the East Coast main line. There must also be support for new terminals where they are required, and expansion of existing sites.

Rail’s customers and the train operators are already engaged in driving this growth, and colleagues at Network Rail are working to support new flows and terminals. Stronger political support at national and regional level, including in any future devolved structures, is critical to help unlock significant benefits and create a northern railway success story.

An opinion column of the Rail Freight Group,