Rail freight playing major role in bringing Christmas down the line - Martin Bignell

For most of us the festive season reaches a crescendo in the week before the 25th. Despite the best of intentions to be organised early, as Christmas adverts roll, our town centres are lit and Noddy Holder tops up his evergreen pension fund, millions of us get swept up in all manner of “just in case” purchases, in addition to our more considered gift selections.

“Just in Case” is also starting to emerge as a logistical term, following years of the more familiar “Just in Time” (JIT). This mindset shift in larger manufacturers and organisations has been a reaction to the turbulent times since 2019, a period that has turned supply chains on their heads, a result of tremendous shocks to the previously smooth running and relative predictability of consumer demand.

Unpredictable manufacturing planning, factory shut-downs, disrupted supply of shipping capacity on a global basis, mass PPE purchasing and, in more recent times, the impact on our discretionary spending power due to energy price rises and inflation have manifested themselves in supply shortages and retailers re-evaluating how best to keep customers satisfied while managing their risks and costs.

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This is a resiliency strategy where manufacturers and retailers hold higher inventories to anticipate demand and mitigate disruption rather than the JIT approach of only moving product as close to the point it’s needed as possible, thus reducing costly inventory levels. For rail freight companies, rail freight terminal operators, ports and distribution hubs, it means a lot more goods to hold, move and manage.

Martin Bignell, Scottish and Northern Representative, Rail Freight GroupMartin Bignell, Scottish and Northern Representative, Rail Freight Group
Martin Bignell, Scottish and Northern Representative, Rail Freight Group

To ensure we can make our “just in case” purchases, the festive season for the rail freight community started back in mid-October with a steady stock building of retail goods. Domestic rail freight flows have been particularly strong, with now 33 high speed, mostly electrically hauled intermodal freight trains operating between the UK distribution “golden triangle” in the Midlands and central Scotland each week. Our terminal operators have also been collaborating with ports, shippers and major retailers to position stock in readiness for pushing into high street stores and the fulfilment operations of online sellers.

Balancing this, an important dynamic that drives good asset utilisation and two-way revenues critical for competitive and cost efficient rail opportunities, is Scottish goods being exported. Whisky continues to sell strongly in key export markets, as do the wide range of other food and drink products supplied into retailers across the UK, underpinning healthy demand for rail freight services.

And just in time perhaps to meet the needs of those new year resolutions, operational training is now completed at Highland Spring’s new Blackford rail freight terminal, officially opened on August 31, with services full of bottled water now up and running direct from production site.

So, come the day and as wrapping paper is being torn open, indulgent snacks and tipples are being consumed and strategies are being formed to make the most of new year sales, have a think about how all these goods have come to be there and the role all the links in the rail freight supply chain played .

Martin Bignell, Scottish and Northern Representative, Rail Freight Group

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