The top five priorities for rail freight during the current COVID-19 crisis

Posted: 17 April 2020 | | No comments yet

As the COVID-19 crisis continues, every part of our daily life and the economy is being affected. Rail freight is a key service keeping the UK running, the lights on and the supermarkets filled, but it too is affected by the impact of this pandemic. So, what are the areas that the sector is focussing on at these difficult times? Maggie Simpson, Director General of the Rail Freight Group (RFG), shares her top five priorities.

1. Keeping the trains moving

Every day, rail freight moves essential supplies across the country on behalf of our customers. Some of the trains are particularly high profile at the moment – in particular, the trains full of supermarket goods to restock the shelves and those carrying letters and parcels to help us maintain much needed social contact. Other trains move biomass to help electricity generation, imported and exported goods which must keep moving and industrial supplies for manufacturing. Although some sectors are seeing a temporary downturn – for example, construction – those that are running are providing vital services, including supplying materials for the new Nightingale hospitals. Network Rail are also playing a key role in helping freight to keep moving, prioritising paths on the network now that passenger services are significantly reduced.

2. Going the extra mile

The situation is moving rapidly, and the demands of customers are changing in response.  The supermarkets have seen an increase in demand: Firstly, as people stocked up ahead of lockdown; and now, more generally, as people can’t eat out in the way they once did. This has led to demand for extra freight trains, and for existing services to run at increased length. Other trains have experienced a volatility in demand, with peaks and troughs. Intermodal trains have been stood down whilst the pandemic in China reduced throughput, but are set to pick up again shortly as the ships start returning into ports. Rail freight operators are responding to this as best they can, making sure that all customers are getting the services they require.

3. Looking after staff

The most important aspect for all stakeholders in rail freight is looking after staff and making sure that they are getting the support they need in order to keep working safely. Transport workers are classed as key workers – quite rightly, too – but this has not always been made as clear as it should be. Our members report difficulties in finding hotel accommodation for drivers who are away overnight on shifts, and similar issues with taxis and food. Working together, and with colleagues across the railway, we have helped to find solutions to this, ensuring that key staff can get the rest they deserve at the end of their shifts. Businesses are also working hard to make sure that staff have the right equipment for their job roles. Sadly, some staff have had to be furloughed, both in freight operators and end customers, but we are hopeful that many will be able to quickly return to work if demand picks up in the coming weeks.

4. Working with government

Government, of course, plays a key role in the railways, funding Network Rail and the passenger rail franchises. Private sector freight operators have not benefitted from any of the same funding support that has been offered to the passenger operators and buses, but we are working very closely with government to make sure that our sector gets the help it needs from the support schemes that are on offer. The government has also been keen to support the use of rail freight to help keep the economy moving, and we were particularly pleased to see the ‘Notice to Proceed’ for HS2, which will provide much needed work for freight operators once construction work commences.

5. Planning for the future

It may be hard to think about the future, and the daily thread of news stories do little to offer a way forward. Yet, at some point, restrictions will start to lift, and economic activity will return. Rail freight volumes will be expected to pick back up as demand increases, and the sector must now start planning for how best to achieve this, in whatever form it takes. Regional lifting of restrictions, for example, could cause challenges for businesses who have a national distribution network, whilst sickness rates may not normalise in line with a step up of demand. Yet, there must be a consistent and strong focus on the future, allowing the rail freight sector to get back to the strong position it reached at the start of the year. I am confident that we will get there. 

Maggie Simpson Rail Freight GroupMaggie Simpson joined the Rail Freight Group (RFG) in 2005 as Policy Manager and, in 2012, became its Director General. Maggie works to influence the growth of rail freight, which means she spends time with opinion formers, politicians, railway bodies and the companies who make up the RFG’s membership, setting out the case for freight. A big part of the RFG’s work is making sure that railway and government policy supports the rail freight sector. Before joining the RFG, Maggie was working in safety and risk assessment for a consultancy who started to work with railway clients. This gave Maggie a really good introduction to the rail sector. From there, she went on to OPRAF, managing franchise contracts, and then to the Strategic Rail Authority in their freight team. Maggie joined Global Railway Review’s editorial advisory board in October 2019.