Confidence in freight rail travel is well placed in our planning for strike action - Martin Bignell

Some of the highest barriers to change in business are nothing to do with commercial factors, rational analysis or lack of ideas. Business are run by individuals, which inevitably leads to personal experience or attitudes to risk influencing business decisions being made. We are all human.

Case in point, in 2015 I was choosing a company car. Credible EVs were starting to appear, although still uncommon and viewed with suspicion. The charging network was thin although growing fast, but niggling concerns remained about real life practicality. Experts tell us that most journeys are just a handful of miles but we immediately think about that emergency need to head out at last minute and do 400 miles in a single hit; being reliant on an EV would be fraught with risk. Range anxiety and the spectre of being stranded late at night at the side of the motorway with no juice to go further is sufficient to steer us to the safe zone of petrol or diesel.

With the security of a second car still being available, I reached the “sink or swim, what’s the worst that could happen” moment. I leased an EV for 24 months. If it really didn’t work for me, I would soon find out. In those 24 months, my other car barely moved. My early EV model’s range wasn’t close to what is available today, but even then mild ‘range anxiety’ hit only once. I was never left stranded. I rarely had to plan around its limitations. Most trips were indeed well within its limitations. And that 400 mile journey? Yes they happen and the old car occasionally got dusted off. But I could have as easily got the train or hired a car. The savings from the EV then would have more than paid for those costs, never mind at today’s fuel prices.

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Why tell you this in a column about rail freight? In a word, Confidence. Right now there are factors influencing that confidence. Whilst the long term prospects for rail freight continue to look strong, there is a volatile environment in the short term which needs to be navigated, and which could shape the future too.

Current industrial relations issues are affecting the whole industry. Strikes bring disruption and are likely to have significant impact on rail freight particularly if Network Rail signallers take action. In the immediate moment this will be managed by the freight operators and customers as best they can, but the greater risk is damage to customer confidence which will come when goods cannot be delivered when they are needed. At a time when businesses are looking anew at rail, the timing of this could not be worse, and it will take a huge effort to rebuild that trust and confidence for potential new customers.

Personal experience and perception of rail by supply chain and logistics decision makers, especially those not yet committed to rail freight, does influence their appetite to move from their safe zone of diesel HGVs. Rail freight has worked hard to create a compelling offer, but denting confidence in it risks re-awakening many old fears.

Government and Network Rail have come out in strong support for freight in their planning for industrial action. Freight trains will be prioritised to keep essential goods moving, and there has been good co-operation in ensuring that key freight flows are understood and managed. This commitment will be an important part of rebuilding trust and does show the wider support for the sector which we are now seeing.

We can only hope the arguments for decarbonisation and significant benefits found by customers using rail freight mean they look beyond the short term disruption and we continue to see strong customer support. The rail freight sector is resilient, creative and committed and it needs its customers to share our confidence in a bright and vibrant future.

Oh, and today I still have an EV that gets used without a second thought. The old car occasionally gets dusted off but ironically, when I do need to use it, often it won’t start because the battery has gone flat.

Martin Bignell, Scottish and Northern Representative, Rail Freight Group



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