How the rail strikes threaten the momentum behind rail freight - Dr Kamran Mahroof
When we think of rail strikes, we tend to think of the impact on the passengers. But what many of us forget is that, after hours, our railways also provide a vital link in the supply chain, transporting goods, foods and medicines across the country.
A shortage of HGV drivers in 2020 due to Covid-19 and Brexit, along with rising fuel costs and a drive to cut carbon emissions, have resulted in more companies turning to rail transportation in recent times, and rightly so.
When one train replaces approximately 80 trucks on our roads, why wouldn’t companies turn to a more environmentally-friendly transportation solution?
Rail Delivery Group, the British rail membership body, estimates rail freight is cutting Britain’s carbon footprint by preventing seven million HGV journeys every year. It’s a more efficient and quicker alternative, using less fuel and taking traffic jams and road closures out of the equation, while carrying larger volumes over greater distances.
In fact, rail freight played a significant role during the pandemic, meeting high demand and transporting essential items on a daily basis. Rail freight also kept our NHS safe, carrying PPE equipment across the country during unprecedented demand.
It comes as no surprise then, that rail freight contributes £2.45bn annually to the UK economy - and yes, we’re very much reliant on it. Every day, 8,000 tonnes of food and other goods are transported on rail freight into Scotland through England. Tesco is one of the major retailers leading the way on this.
Any disruption to our transport networks has an impact, but these rail strikes coming ahead of Christmas, brings about extra layers of complexity and uncertainty.
Retailers want to maximise their stock at this time of the year and rely on all forms of transport across its supply chains. Cancelling rail freight from the list won’t do us any favours.
It’s safe to say we’re not expecting shortages, as rail freight remains marginal in the broader context of retail supply, but customers might find they’re not getting the same choice as they would expect.
There will also be the knock-on effect at our ports and distribution centres. Stock is coming in, but if it’s usually moved around the country by rail, it will pile up, incurring further costs which eventually will be picked up by consumers.
Of course, we will be fine. We’ll carry on and get through this disruption, hopefully only suffering some inconveniences and small price fluctuations.
But, the longer these strikes go on, the more sour a taste it will leave, especially for companies who saw the promise of rail freight, but may no longer see it as a reliable mode of transportation.
When we’re making good strides in using rail as a more environmentally-friendly alternative, not just for passengers using cars less, but for companies transporting goods, food and medicine around the country, it would be a shame to have to return to relying on just roads again and not capitalising on the momentum gained for rail freights during the pandemic.
Dr Kamran Mahroof is associate professor of supply chain analytics at the University of Bradford.