UK report says “treble freight” to save the railways

Post pandemic, the railways in the UK are in crisis, according to a new think-tank report from the Centre for Policy Studies. The authors say it is not just the dramatic and possibly permanent reduction in passenger commuting either. To get the railways back on track, an equally dramatic increase in rail freight is needed, and it is not just the network that will benefit, with climate and congestion issues also addressed.

The report makes several proposals for passenger rail reform, but it also calls for a greater focus on private investment and ambitious targets to treble rail freight volumes. These reforms are essential in shoring up the railway's future, say the CPS, but they claim they will also help drive forwards the government's levelling up and Net Zero agendas. Controversially, the report also suggests that full electrification may be an ambition to be shelved in favour of more pressing needs.

The holy grail of full electrification

The report's lead author and CPS Research Fellow Tony Lodge has reviewed what he calls the 'new normal' of the railways, and it is a very different layout to the pre-pandemic.

He says that has fundamentally changed the nature of rail in the UK. "The Government has the opportunity - through the new Great British Railways body - to radically overhaul the current model to make sure that it is fit for purpose", he says. In addition, he reiterates the industry's conclusions that the time is right for a modal shift. "Rail freight is now the clear low-carbon alternative to heavy goods vehicles and road haulage. Ambitious new targets should be set to treble its volume."

The report also calls for government ministers to rethink, and he puts forward a radical proposal for the holy grail of full electrification. "Ministers must also revive plans to encourage the private sector to invest in and deliver new rail infrastructure. This may involve pushing back full electrification to deploy resources elsewhere."

Commuter journeys remain suppressed

A radical shift has occurred in the pattern of passenger demand, which could provide a ready-made capacity boost for freight traffic. Lodge says that support during and after the pandemic has burdened taxpayers with a 14 billion-pound bill (16.55 billion euro).

New figures from the CPS claim that the number of people commuting every day at peak time is just 15 per cent of the pre-pandemic total. Most commuting now takes place Tuesday to Thursday; Mondays are 20 per cent lower, and Fridays are 50 per cent lower than before the pandemic. According to the report, commuter journeys remain at just 45 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, with five-day peak hour commuting - Monday to Friday - standing at just 15 per cent of the previous total.

Tony Lodge of the Centre for Policy Studies think tank and author of the "Changing Tracks" report.

Operators may well contest these figures, but certainly, there is widespread disappointment with the government's lukewarm response to the fall in passenger numbers. "Unless UK rail is radically overhauled, it will be plagued by a future of decline and underinvestment", says the report. "That will necessitate either an extra tax to cover a taxpayer subsidy or cuts to railway lines on a scale not seen since the Beeching cuts in the 1960s."

Huge scope to grow rail freight

Rail freight, says the report, has accepted the need for radical change and the need to identify, establish and grow new long-term markets successfully.

These changes, says the report, come in the face of the disappearance of traditional loads, notably coal, since privatisation. "There is, however, huge scope to grow rail freight - especially given the boom in online shopping and the consequent movement of parcels and bulk retail purchases from retail hubs to distribution centres and customers", says the report. "There is also the potential for considerable private sector investment in new equipment and facilities as rail freight grows. This needs to be supported by an effective land use planning system which protects such land for logistics and industrial use and is responsive to market needs. Rail use should also be encouraged for new infrastructure development and large-scale new businesses such as giga-factories."

Revenue growth

'Changing Track' proposes a series of urgent measures to ensure that the modern railway retail offer focuses on passengers' priorities.

In the light of a cost of living crisis that has already seen consumer discretionary spending curtailed, it calls for much cheaper fares, including the abolition of "sky-high peak prices".

"These changes should be underpinned by the Government's new public body, Great British Railways, committing to boosting competition and driving private investment across the network - thereby boosting revenue growth and securing its future", concludes the report.