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Freight’s importance on the East West Main Line and beyond: Maggie Simpson, Rail Freight Group

8 min

Freight has proved invaluable to keeping the country moving through the Coronavirus pandemic in eCommerce and getting PPE delivered to key workers. But where can major rail projects like the East West Main Line and HS2 build freight further? And does freight have enough of a say? Ahead of Peloton’s East West Main Line webinar series, Quadrant Transport sits down with Maggie Simpson, director general, Rail Freight Group, to find out more!

Could you walk us through the work of the Rail Freight Group this year and its key goals for 2021?

MS: The rail freight industry has started the year in quite a good place. Everybody understands the challenges of COVID, as well as post-transition changes to trade routes, the economy, and rail reform.

There is still strong interest in customers in doing more by rail freight. Post-Brexit trade routes and changes in supply chains coming from that offers some opportunities for the sector, and although it is volatile, it feels like there are opportunities to be had out there.

Maggie Simpson, Director General, Rail Freight Group

We’re expecting the Rail Reform Agenda White Paper later this year, and we need to make sure those changes are good news for freight.

I think network capacity is always important. There are significant changes in the passenger market at the moment. They hopefully won’t remain forever – but there are some opportunities arising in being able to run longer trains or better paths and such like.

There are also schemes such as East West Rail and other enhancement programmes as well. Whether that’s Felixstowe to Nuneaton, HS2, and others, these are important schemes. We need to keep pushing the case for those, and influence the shape of them.

Will the creation of the East West Main Line benefit freight?

MS: It’s an open question at the moment. We don’t have a definitive position on whether or not the East West Rail Company is building freight capacity in the central section. Rob Brighouse [Chairman at East West Rail Company] was vocally clear that this line was not for freight.

The Western Section has some freight capacity on it, although it is fairly limited. But there are opportunities there for intermodal freight; that is for the port traffic that can divert and thus not run via Birmingham.

Or, perhaps even more usefully, freight that can serve distribution centres in the East and West Midlands. That would grow some new traffic. That section clearly offers up opportunities.

The work at Ely needs to be prioritised and moved forward if we’re to run more trains out of the ports to anywhere. There’s lots of synergy there

The Eastern section isn’t wholly in scope yet, but there are huge synergies with Felixstowe and the traffic coming from the port there and the upgrades that are needed to get more traffic across from Felixstowe across the Fens.

Additionally, the work at Ely needs to be prioritised and moved forward if we’re to run more trains out of the ports to anywhere. There’s lots of synergy there.

How important is rail freight’s synergy with the ports in the coming years, taking into account the growth in eCommerce and post-Brexit regulation changes?

MS: Rail freight has done well in getting short notice extra services, lengthening trains, and working collaboratively to do more where they can.

It’s not the only part of the solution that’s needed; we can’t move every parcel and every box. But we have been moving flexibly to do that.

Port of Felixstowe, c. diamond geezer, Flickr

People are looking at the supply chains differently. They are reducing their reliance on accompanied HGV movement, and there’s a lot more unaccompanied HGV happening at the moment. But also there are people moving onto unitised goods, which suits rail.

This is opening up opportunities for lots of ports. Not only the ports of Felixstowe and Southampton, but also some of the regional ports: Liverpool and Tees for example, are benefitting from this too.

We’ve seen trains going into Liverpool recently, Immingham are looking very bullishly about what they can do, Tees are already doing a lot more container trains. Those things are going to have to happen.

For us, at many of those ports that I’ve mentioned, they don’t have enough capacity to be efficient at what they do. Felixstowe is now pretty much maxed out. We can get more trains at the branch line, but we can’t get them across the Fens.

None of the East Coast or West Coast ports have paths across the Pennines to get to each other. We can’t get any progress on that. The west and east coast are already quite busy. Some of this is about optimising how we timetable, some of this is about priority and choice.

Some of it is about making the running of freight more efficient, so we can get out of the way quicker, and not spend so much time in loops. If we don’t tackle the capacity of the links to and from the ports, then those supply chains are even more hindered by that.

Maggie will be a keynote speaker at Peloton’s East West Main Line webinar starting 11 January. Click here to register for free!

How do you make sure rail freight’s voice is heard when it comes to major projects like East West Main Line and HS2?

MS: When you crack that one, let me know!

You’re loud, you keep making the point, but the thing that sells is when new customers come to rail and when freight is visible on the network. People can look at it and go ‘there’s a new train, there’s a longer train’. You build up people’s awareness of it.

It is really hard. People understand the passenger railway. This is not always true in freight. You’re only aware when it goes wrong.

When a Hermes parcel person loses your Christmas present three doors down, you are raging on Facebook about it. That’s your interaction with freight. If it turns up on time, you wouldn’t have given it second thought.

It is really hard. People understand the passenger railway. This is not always true in freight. You’re only aware when it goes wrong

It’s that problem – it’s completely undervalued. The events of last year have caused decision-makers in government to realise the value of freight to our economy, and that they can’t take it for granted in the way that they have been.

That’s really good – the vibe is really good within government at the minute about freight. But you have to translate that into capacity on the network. That is where it gets difficult.

Before Christmas we interviewed Logistics UK, who argued that passenger services such as the West Coast Partnership have a larger say on timetabling for major routes like the West Coast Main Line. Logistics UK added this can unfairly skew capacity towards the passenger and negatively impact stakeholders like freight. Do you see the same?

MS: I share concerns there. Good employees are going to do things to benefit their own company. The only way to stop this being a problem, in my opinion, is to have a neutral party doing the timetabling.

That has to be either Network Rail as a system operator, or it has to be another body.

As soon as the timetable is being done by somebody with a vested interest in some but not all of the trains, then it will never be a fair process.

Low Gill viaduct on the West Coast Main Line c. Richard Szwejkowski, Flickr

Network Rail have been an independent infrastructure manager. It’s not perfect by any stretch, but when they do the timetable, then they should be doing it in a way that is neutral and balanced across their customers

There are more cases now like the West Coast Partnership where other parties are doing the timetable.That is ringing alarm bells for us all over the place

That doesn’t mean to say you always get your own way. There are criteria and processes in the network code for doing that.

What we’ve seen recently is Network Rail becoming more devolved out to the regions. Then their reliance on their own system operator timetabling process is less.

There are more cases now like the West Coast Partnership where other parties are doing the timetable. That is ringing alarm bells for us all over the place. I’m quite sure, if I were a passenger operator, and Network Rail had given the job of producing the timetable to a freight operator, they would feel just as nervous.

This is not about one party picking on another. It’s about understanding knowledge and priority.

If you’re not neutral in that space, then you cannot do a good outcome for all parties. You just won’t.