Paul Plummer: Post-Brexit plan to smooth way for freight traffic

Rail chiefs are proposing measures to minimise delays at the Channel Tunnel after Brexit.
Rail chiefs are proposing measures to minimise delays at the Channel Tunnel after Brexit.
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THE topic that doesn’t take a summer holiday: Brexit. It’s the biggest issue to people in the United Kingdom according to national opinion polls and, with seven months to go until ‘Brexit Day’, the rail industry, with many other sectors, is looking to life after we leave the European Union (EU).

As a sector that imports and exports both goods and services, moves people across borders, and controls our only physical link to the continent, getting Brexit right for our industry will also be an indicator of how any deal will enable Britain to succeed in the generations to come.

Britain’s railway is vital to so many of our lives. For almost two centuries it has connected workers and jobs, friends and families and goods to businesses. It’s the backbone of the British economy, employing around 240,000 people, moving 4.5m people a day and carrying 86m tonnes of freight every year.

This equates to economic benefits to the country worth £31bn every year and through our joint plan to change and improve, we will secure an additional £85bn of benefits, while enabling further improvement. We are determined to secure these benefits and open up opportunities in the future as we leave the EU. This includes the benefits of trade with countries in Europe.

At present, rail freight inside the EU operates without the need for customs controls. The Government has said that the UK will leave the single market and customs union when we leave the EU, which means there will need to be new arrangements for goods that enter the country in the future.

Last year, more than 2,000 freight trains carried over 1.2m tonnes of goods through the Channel Tunnel. In the first three months of this year alone, international rail freight across the Channel increased to 100 million tonne kilometres, up by a quarter (23 per cent) compared to the same period in 2017.

To safeguard these benefits for businesses and consumers, the rail industry has set out new proposals for handling imports through the Channel Tunnel.

At the moment, there are sites at each side of the Channel Tunnel for safety and security inspections. However, converting the site in Kent for customs use could create significant congestion and delays which would disrupt trade and businesses, particularly those using cost efficient ‘just in time’ manufacturing processes.

Our proposals seek to maintain the efficiency of our current system while allowing the HMRC to carry out checks where necessary. We propose that Railway Customs Areas are created at freight terminals to ensure imports reach their destination without delay.

Freight terminals and railway lines are already secure and with investment from the public and private sectors, it would be possible to provide suitable customs facilities.

Ensuring there are no delays is crucial for manufacturing supply chains as well as drinks imports. For example, car assembly parts are moved by rail to terminals in Daventry in the Midlands and Ditton in the North West, while bottled water from France is imported to Daventry.

Our proposals to create customs facilities at freight terminals support and complement the work ongoing in Government for customs controls post-Brexit, will prevent unnecessary congestion on the railway and clear the way for smooth trade with our partners in Europe.

The proposals will also ensure that rail freight operators like DB Cargo, which has its headquarters in Doncaster and employs around 2,100 people, can continue to compete with other modes of transport.

It also offers new opportunities to businesses who are concerned about delays. Earlier this year a survey of 835 exporting or importing businesses by the British Chambers of Commerce, and the Port of Dover, found that 29 per cent of businesses felt the impact of delays at ports would affect them, while one in three businesses said they were unprepared for new customs arrangements.

There is currently spare capacity through the Channel Tunnel for rail freight imports and exports, creating opportunities for more freight to be imported by rail post-Brexit. This would provide reassurance about a lack of delays as well as taking lorries off the roads, particularly in Kent.

Together, as part of our plan to change and improve, Britain’s rail companies are committed to continue supporting the UK’s economy and are delivering investment to improve that will support future growth.

We will work with government to ensure smooth and efficient rail freight movement after the UK leaves the EU.

Paul Plummer is chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group.