Falling Freight Services


It is disappointing to read the ORR’s latest ‘statistical release’ on ‘Freight Rail Usage’, with a wonderful little graph on page 10, which indicates the number of freight train movements has declined from 416,100 in 2003/4 to a paltry 236,300 in 2015/16.

There are several questions that this publication raises – not least of which is the language it is written in – which for the most part seems to include a very full economic/statistical jargon.  It would be hard pressed to achieve the award for ‘plain English’!  One of the more interesting to me is what is defined as a ‘freight train movement’?

The obvious view is that this is the number of freight services operated across the whole Network Rail infrastructure – but does it include services that run through ‘Eurotunnel’ as well?  If so, then we can’t make comparisons with say a Working Timetable from 1977.

But this is what the chart shows:

If you divide the number of train movements by the number of days in the year, then from an apparent “peak” of 1,140 trains daily in 2003, we now only seem to run 647 a day – a 43% REDUCTION in freight operations in just over 10 years.  Wow!

The apparent definition from ORR of train movements is: “The data is sourced from Network Rail and is based on chargeable train movements”.

That SHOULD be good enough, but surely the ORR should also indicate whether that includes a distance measure, and maybe the CO2 footprint of the motive power employed, and the environmental impact.  This has become a mainstay of mainstream media these days – that preoccupation with atmospheric pollution.
There should also be a direct comparison with the commercial and environmental cost of moving similar goods by road, at least to try and encourage businesses to consider alternative transport modes.
Looking at the volume of goods carried on rail, the picture is no better, take what is described by the ORR as ‘freight lifted’, measured in millions of tonnes.   The figures here shown in this graph show a fall of almost 10% between 2015/16 and 2016/17:
The picture overall seems to show growth over the decade or more, but it is very small, and the introduction of the ‘carbon tax’ has severely impacted coal shipments.  All the same, compared with 1989, when BR reported Railfreight traffic was carrying 149 million tonnes – so we are in a position today, when rail freight services carry LESS THAN 1/7 of what was carried in 1989.  And yet, 60% of traffic is defined as ‘intermodal’.
What happens if this continues?  Well at the rates of decline suggested, very little freight will be carried on the rail in 10 years time.
Overall, this deterioration in freight traffic quite clearly undermines the almost complete failure of competition between multiple operators to either maintain or expand the market.  In freight, as in passenger services, the UK approach has been nothing short of disastrous as a method of separating operations from infrastructure.


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