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Great British Railways: a new start for rail freight?

In May 2021, the government released its long-awaited white paper, Great British Railways: Williams-Shapps plan for rail, which sets out its plans to transform GB’s railways.

Within the white paper is a proposal to make the biggest change to the railways in 25 years: the creation of a new public body – Great British Railways (GBR) – to bring the network under single national leadership. The plans outlined in the Williams-Shapps review are essential for understanding the future of rail, as they are set to transform the rail freight landscape in the years to come. 


Logistics UK supports the creation of GBR in principle. Rail freight has long been disadvantaged by complex systems of decision making involving various rail bodies; the body should lead to more unified decisions for freight. GBR will include a national freight coordination team to, as detailed in the white paper, “help embed freight firmly into strategic decision making, including by incorporating freight into the new 30-year strategy,” with changes expected to ensure freight operators have “fair access to the network.” 

Alex Veitch, General Manager – Public Policy, Logistics UK, said: “The industry needs a strategic vision for freight and Logistics UK hopes that the creation of GBR’s national freight co-ordination team will ensure this becomes a core priority, however, implementing reform will take time and legislation so we will not see immediate change, and it remains to be seen how the body will work in practice.” 


Within the review, the government has been clear that it wants to grow rail freight, attract more customers and deliver a more open, coordinated approach to accessing the network. GBR will have a statutory duty to promote rail freight to secure economic, environmental, and social benefits for the nation, with the government issuing guidance on its priorities for rail freight in each funding settlement. The body will also be given the remit to overhaul the current track access arrangements – which often result in passenger travel being prioritised over freight – with the government planning to consult with freight operators on the development and implementation of a new rules-based access system.  


As detailed in the report, rail produces just 1% of GB’s transport emissions, despite carrying almost 10% of all passenger miles and nearly 9% of freight moved before the pandemic, with the government stating that is the only form of transport capable of moving both people and heavy goods in a zero-carbon manner at present. As part of the review’s initial 30-year strategy and in support of the green recovery, GBR is expected to develop an environmental plan to decarbonise the entire rail network, with electrification likely to be the predominant method, according to the white paper, with alternative technologies such as hydrogen and battery power employed to a lesser extent. Vast stretches of the network are electrified already, with many more projects underway or in the pipeline, for example, the TransPennine route between Leeds and Manchester has just received £600 million of funding to start construction. The government has also pledged to improve freight connectivity through interchanges by accelerating short infill electrification projects in between places such as Felixstowe and Ipswich and west London.  


Following the publication of the white paper, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps MP commissioned the Whole Industry Strategic Plan, which will set out long-term strategic drivers that ministers will use to hold GBR to account, set to be published in 2022. 

In the meantime, Sir Peter Hendy CBE, Chair of Network Rail, has confirmed that rail freight operators will continue to be given increased access to the network until passenger numbers recover; helping to provide a short-term solution to the lack of capacity.  

“Going forwards, Logistics UK will work with the new GBR and the Department for Transport on the reform process,” Veitch said, “While some uncertainty remains over how the new body will operate – and implementing reforms will take time and legislation so we will not see the plans in practice for some time – the rail freight sector will work together to ensure the body meets the needs of logistics businesses.”

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