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The relationship of HS2 and freight: an interview with Logistics UK

7 min

Recent months have highlighted the critical dependency the nation has on the movement of goods from the freight industry. The under-development HS2 project could alleviate major commuter pressures around in-demand areas – but is freight’s voice being heard? Quadrant Transport chats with Zoe McLernon, multimodal policy manager at Logistics UK, to find out more

The Coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on the “intrinsic” importance of rail freight in delivering vital goods in the UK, Zoe McLernon, multimodal police manager at Logistics UK, said to Quadrant Transport. But the freight industry needs greater certainty over what the completion of HS2 can mean for its future planning and investments.

Zoe McLernon, multimodal policy manager, Logistics UK

Logistics UK (one of the largest business groups in the UK for supporting logistics, formerly the Freight Transport Association) and its release of the report High Speed 2: The case for released freight capacity, raises opportunities made available by additional capacity from HS2 – but also highlights concerns from the freight sector in ensuring its voice is heard

“Rail freight has been intrinsic in delivering goods and supplies that we need during the pandemic,” Zoe said. “Before COVID-19, our members are doing sterling work accessing the network and getting goods delivered, but we’re seeing a forecasted growth of 3% in tonnes for rail freight per year until 2033.”

The report details that the rail freight industry, which contributes £870m per year to the UK economy, can be turbocharged by greater capacity brought about by HS2. In spite of recent reports that HS2 could cost taxpayers a staggering £170bn, the completion of Phase One from London to Birmingham, and Phase 2a from Birmingham to Crewe, could transfer passenger demand from operating lines and offer transformative potential for freight.

In particular, the report argues that when Phase One and Phase 2a of HS2 becomes operational, it is estimated that the railway could attract around half the number of users who access services on the West Coast Main Line (WCML). Zoe highlighted the Northampton Loop, where the four-track WCML splits into 2×2 track bits from Roade to Rugby, as one of many examples where bottlenecked freight capacity could be alleviated by moving passenger traffic onto the HS2 network.

Northampton Loop from Roade Station, c. JohnGreyTurner, Flickr

A fully-established HS2 network could allow an extra 144 extra freight trains per day, the report claims – but from Zoe’s perspective, the key is for freight to “see an equal split” between passenger and freight allocation of capacity along those WCML routes. “We recognise the importance of passenger services as vital,” Zoe said.

“But we would like to see that equal split between the two, and no preferential treatment given to passenger over freight. Traditionally, and it’s quite a contentious thing to say, but passenger services have understandably been given more preferential treatment. So now is the time to be looking at that.” Zoe added that at least 50% of those 144 trains a day being added to the freight network’s capacity would be a success.

The passenger relationship

A major element of the report is the concern over the West Coast Partnership’s (WCP) role in the “complete recast” of the WCML timetable to accommodate released capacity generated by HS2. The WCP, a new commercial partnership between First Group and Trenitalia, operates the Avanti West Coast passenger franchise, after replacing Virgin Trains in December 2019.

Our preference would have been for someone like Network Rail to run it: purely because they’ve got the interests of both passenger and freight in mind

The WCP “will develop options” with the rail secretary Grant Schapps, the Department for Transport, and Network Rail on the timetables. Yet concerns have been raised over freight knowledge and impartiality in relation to the new timetables, with the report noting that it could be “a significant conflict of interest” for a passenger operator to lead on a timetable restructure that affects the freight sector.

“Our preference would have been for someone like Network Rail to run it: purely because they’ve got the interests of both passenger and freight in mind,” Zoe explained.

HS2 works at West Ruislip, c. R~P~M, Flickr

“That’s not to say that the WCP won’t consider freight, and I believe they will. We’ve started those conversations with them, but ultimately they are a passenger operator. It wouldn’t have been the decision that we would have made, but we are where we are and we’ve got to make the best out of that situation.”

Does Zoe believe that freight’s voice more widely is heard by decision-makers in the DfT and Network Rail? “I have no concerns that Network Rail in particular will take rail freight into consideration as a result of released capacity – I have 100% confidence in that.

“We’re in regular discussions with the DfT and the team there, and they’re really keen to support rail freight too. It is a balancing act for them between passenger and freight, but we can get that balance, and I think they’re both very open to that as well.”

Future uncertainty

This report has been based on passenger numbers returning to normal levels following the COVID-19 pandemic, Zoe says. But what if they don’t? A Deutsche Bank survey found that after the pandemic has passed, three in five respondents working from home want to continue doing so for two or more days a week. Is a potential fall in commuting levels a good thing for rail freight, even if the fall in fare income and passenger numbers could put future major investments for rail in doubt?

Logistics UK’s report onto HS2’s potential for freight c. Logistics UK

“My gut instinct is to say it’s a good thing for freight because that access to the network is vital,” Zoe argued. “Modal shift to rail is going to be a huge part of the logistics industry in the coming years.”

Particular benefits from the increased capacity include benefits to ports – such as Felixstowe, Southampton, and London Gateway – however, if there’s a fall in demand in passenger services, Zoe said that a fall in revenue should not be a reason to scale back on longer-term projects like electrification of rail networks and meeting of decarbonisation goals.

“I think it’s a mix of pros and cons in the sense that we need that investment in the rail network, but passengers bring that investment,” she said. “But having better utilisation of passenger routes – for example timetabling, instead of having four passenger trains an hour, maybe having two or three, and then you have an extra car available for rail freight – there is some good opportunities there.

“Ultimately any additional capacity being opened up is going to be welcomed by the freight industry.”

There are other uncertainties outside of passenger numbers and its relationship to HS2 and rail freight, as well. Zoe argued that a lack of certainty over decisions on what Phase 2b, which this week it was announced will be split into western and eastern legs from The Midlands to the Northern Regions, can have lingering impacts on long-term investment from freight stakeholders.

Ultimately any additional capacity being opened up is going to be welcomed by the freight industry

“At Logistics UK we don’t talk about anything that’s competitively sensitive, but obviously there’s going to be an element of planning ahead of contracts and works itself,” the manager said.

“But also on the R&D side of things too. The rail freight industry are very committed to meeting decarbonisation targets. We need to make sure that there is that opportunity of full connectivity for rail freight to ports, airports and so on, so you’re not reliant on HGVs all the time.”

Zoe noted that uncertainty brought about by Brexit, the final make-up of HS2, and what passenger levels will access commuter networks, reinforces the need for guarantees to the freight sector of what HS2 means for them.

“I don’t want to mention Brexit, but it’s important: there are some potential opportunities for additional rail freight and moving more fresh produce from the EU. I think we need those guarantees and that certainty in order to plan ahead.”