Increased rail capacity could take up the slack on freight - Phil Smart

There is much speculation as to what the “new normal” might look like after Covid. The one constant however is that we will still need feeding and watering, housing, educating, entertaining, clothing, treating when we get ill, and consuming everyday products. All these require reliable supply chains of food, drink, building materials, clothes, shoes, medicines, and other items. Yet, long after pandemic panic buying has ceased, gaps are once again appearing on supermarket shelves, and this is blamed on a shortage of lorry drivers.

Phil Smart, Assistant Policy Manager, Rail Freight Group

The driver shortage is not an easy fix and trouble has been brewing for a long time. Lorry driving is no longer the glamourous occupation it once was, as margins have been squeezed. Fewer youngsters are joining the industry and the so-called ‘tramp’ turns of duty, where a driver can be away from their family for a week, are a real turn-off for potential new recruits. The average age of drivers is increasing as the industry has struggled to replace its workforce as they retire. It is true that the pandemic has not helped the training of what new recruits there are, with long waiting lists for tests, but industry sources say that even an accelerated training programme will be insufficient to manage a crisis that looks set to continue for several years.

Various sticking plasters have covered this shortage in the past. The recession that followed the 2008 financial crash offered some respite by slowing demand in the economy. As things picked up again, so EU free movement laws allowed drivers to be recruited from elsewhere in Europe. Now that the UK has left the single market, this supply has dried up. A perfectly foreseeable consequence of ‘Brexit’, which nothing was done to address.

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Not surprisingly, rail freight operators are receiving fresh enquiries from potential consignees, anxious to secure new ways of fulfilling customer demand. New flows are coming to rail, and this will continue, as pressure builds to find zero-carbon supply chain solutions.

However, we need to increase capacity on the rail network to keep pace with this new demand. Both the East and West coast main lines from Scotland are already electrified, but as we run more freight trains (some up to 2,000t), so we need a matching increase in power supply.

As freight shares the same lines as passenger services, so we need more passing places, long enough for the faster passenger train to overtake, without stopping the freight train in a siding.

We also need to provide and upgrade diversionary routes and it is pleasing to note the intention to electrify and gauge clear the line from Glasgow to Carlisle via Dumfries. If an unforeseen incident or maintenance work results in the closure of the West Coast Main Line for a week or more, we cannot ask a ship to wait in a port, or someone to manage without urgent medical supplies. As supply chains become more rail dependent, we will no longer have the option of sending by road. As one operator put it recently, “where am I going to put my hands on a thousand lorries and drivers in future? I can’t put my hands on ten today!”

Phil Smart, assistant policy manager, Rail Freight Group

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