Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the Rail Freight Group (IT 142)



  1. The Rail Freight Group warmly welcomed the White Paper, published at the end of July, on the basis that it was good for rail freight. It is a strategy document, with many new policy ideas. Some would have wanted it more radical in its environmental slant but we believe that, on balance, if the proposals in the White Paper are implemented, there will be a genuine and sustainable increase in rail freight and a levelling off of the growth of road freight (on which much rail freight depends for part of its journey).

  2. The Rail Freight Group was grateful for the opportunity to give evidence to the last enquiry by this Committee, and believe that the White Paper, together with the Government's Response to the Select Committee's Report, is very much to be welcomed.

  3. There is now a need for action! There is much that can be done without legislation, and we look to the Government to keep up the momentum. We were therefore pleased to note the announcement by the Deputy Prime Minister in September that the British Railways Board would be reconstituted with new board members and chairman to be the shadow Strategic Rail Authority.

  4. There are many other policies in the White Paper which are likely to require legislation. Recent press reports have indicated that there will be little or no time for transport legislation in the next parliamentary session, or even the following one. We cannot urge too strongly on ministers the need to get legislation in place. It is clear that, whether it is the SRA or allowing local authorities to introduce traffic congestion charges and keep the revenue or the many other measures described, the full benefits in the White Paper will not happen without legislation, and will take some years to implement afterwards. We therefore welcome the statement by the Prime Minister in September that such legislation for London will be included in the Bill setting up the Greater London Authority.

  5. We do not believe that the legislation need be in the form of one comprehensive Transport Bill if it can be introduced in small packages in a variety of other relevant bills. But with the long lead time of transport projects, the consequences of no substantive legislation for two or three years will be earlier gridlock on the roads, greater environmental pollution and more severe capacity constraints on the railways.

  6. Finally, we welcome the statement by the Deputy Prime Minister that freight will never again be turned away from the rail network. The key points with implications for rail freight are set out below.


  7. Heavier lorries will be permitted up to 41 tonnes gross vehicle weight on 6 axles and 40 tonnes on 5 axles from January 1999 with no further concession before 2003. The decision not to go immediately to 44 tonnes is specifically to avoid the risk of transferring freight from rail to road. Rail Freight Group argued long and hard that the 44 tonne lorry should only be introduced in the context of a review of road vehicle, particularly HGV, taxation and of the full social and environmental costs and benefits of different transport modes.

  8. The Government has been persuaded that, pending such a review, the potential loss of existing and new rail freight movements outweighed the benefits in reduced lorry mileage which might result from heavier lorries. Combined road/rail transport will retain its concession to use 44 tonne vehicles which should help safeguard the start up of piggyback services within existing gauge. (White Paper paragraphs 3.156-3.167).


  9. A new Commission for Integrated Transport will be established to provide independent advice to Government on the implementation of integrated transport policy. Its tasks will include consideration of the lorry weights issue and the development of rail freight, and research into the costs and benefits of transport and how these relate to the costs faced by users including a review of the basis of lorry VED rates.

  10. This represents the best opportunity for many years to "level the playing field" for road and rail freight through an efficient charging mechanism for both, taking into account their different environmental and social costs and benefits. (White Paper paragraphs 3.168 and 4.4-4.6, Responses to the Committee 32-33).


  11. Enforcement of lorry laws will be tightened up including the detention of illegally operated vehicles and the availability of weighbridges at all significant freight terminals and ports. This goes some way (although perhaps not far enough) towards addressing a complaint among both rail operators and the majority of road hauliers that "cowboy" operations undermine both legal road operators and rail freight. The well-publicised lack of enforcement of road, driving and vehicle use regulations is a problem which is getting worse rather than better. It is exacerbated by lack of funding of the police for this work and the fact that it is not a "core duty" for them. We may go so far as to say that we do not believe that rail freight or the public transport objectives set out in the White Paper will come about until this problem of enforcement is tackled effectively (White Paper 4.192, Response to the Committee 86).


  12. A moratorium on land sales by Rail Property Limited (formerly British Rail Property Board and still part of BRB) has been announced in response to a specific call by the Select Committee and a concerted effort by a broadly based coalition of interests known as the Railway Lands Group and including freight operators, Rail Freight Group, Transport 2000 and the Railway Development Society.

  13. This is only a temporary solution to the problem of safeguarding land for future rail use while a review of remaining holdings takes place. It will result in a one-off opportunity for freight operators, Railtrack and other interested parties to acquire sites and will be too soon for the yet to be established Strategic Rail Authority to have any input or acquire any sites. In the longer term Local Authorities will have the prime responsibility for identifying and safeguarding rail sites. (White Paper 4.35, Response to the Select Committee paragraphs 52-56).

  14. These discussions with the BRB are ongoing. Rail Freight Group's latest proposal to the BRB is attached as an Appendix to this submission. Sadly, it seems that, at a local level, the message about a freeze on further land disposal has not yet got through. The example quoted by Essex County Council, where the BRB does not wish to pay the legal costs of contesting an ownership case and is therefore assumed to be happy to allow the land to fall out of BRB ownership, is a matter of serious concern.

  15. We have yet to see whether the reconstructed BRB will be able to assume these responsibilities at an earlier stage but, in any event, we believe that more needs to be done to safeguard all land potentially of use for rail freight, perhaps by protective covenants.


  16. New and revised planning guidance will be issued so that local authorities' plans and decisions and proposals from individuals and businesses reflect the Government's integrated transport policy (including encouraging freight by rail) by the safeguarding of sites and routes and through appropriate land use planning.

  17. A revised PPG 13 for England is expected towards the end of the year and Scotland is already consulting on a new National Planning Policy Guideline and Planning Advice Note on Transport and Planning (see separate article). (White paper paragraphs 4.156-4.166)

  18. This guidance must be strongly worded and require local authorities to positively identify and zone land for rail related uses in an appropriate manner. Such uses would include aggregate and waste terminals, sites for recycling, urban and regional distribution centres as well as private sidings for manufacturing plants and warehousing.


  19. A Strategic Rail Authority will be established to provide a focus for the strategic planning of the passenger and freight railways. It will subsume the functions of OPRAF and of the Freight Facilities Grants Unit of the DETR. The new Authority will have a key role in setting targets for freight on rail, measuring and monitoring capacity of the network, assessing investment needs and resolving conflicts between the aspirations of different operators.

  20. In particular the SRA will ensure that freight interests are given due weight both in long term planning and day to day decisions. Potentially most significant the SRA will have wide powers to make payments (grants or contracts) in pursuit of its statutory objectives although the extent of its funding and the scope for funding major freight initiatives remains to be determined (White Paper paragraphs 4.12-4.16, Response to the Committee 44).

  21. The experience and commitment of the staff and management at all levels is a matter frequently omitted from reports. It is essential that new people committed to the development of a mixed traffic railway, the delivery of public interest benefits and the implementation of the grants policy are appointed, not just at the top but throughout the new organisation.


  22. The Regulator will retain his functions in setting charges for track access and in assessing whether or not Railtrack is delivering against its commitments in terms of investment and maintenance of the network. He will have enhanced powers to secure Railtrack's compliance with its network licence including the delivery of the commitments in the Network Management Statement (Response to the Committee 72).

  23. The periodic review of access charges will go ahead and the Regulator is asked to consider both the amount Railtrack should be paid and the mechanisms for payment. This could mean a change towards an element of direct payment from Government to Railtrack (Response to the Committee 71). The requirement for the Regulator to have regard to statutory guidance from the Secretary of State will be reinstated. (White Paper paragraphs 4.22-4.24).

  24. The new Regulator will be able to focus on his most important duty, that of causing Railtrack to deliver the capacity quantity and capability which freight and passenger operators require, at a price they can afford and in a timely and efficient manner.


  25. An Infrastructure Investment Fund will be established, administered by the Franchising Director, to support (pump-prime) investment proposals which address capacity constraints at key infrastructure pinch-points arising from existing or additional passenger or freight traffic. The comprehensive spending review provides £100 million over three years for this and the Rail Partnership Scheme.

  26. While this may not seem very much money to have an impact in this important area the mechanism is at least established and when funds allow or the need becomes even more acute priorities can be changed and more money voted for schemes which have been tried and tested in a modest way. (White paper 4.31-4.32)

  27. The funds available for freight grants have recently been increased and major schemes such as Piggyback gauge enhancement and major intermodal terminals which require supporting public sector investment will be considered on a case by case basis. Funding for Piggyback, specifically, may be found from the sale of part of the National Air Traffic Services if and when this occurs. (White Paper 4.36-4.37, Response to the Committee 84).

  28. It is believed that those grants are likely to be taken up and more money will be needed in the future to maintain the momentum. The grants are essential to enable a substantial expansion of terminals and private sidings to sustain the growth forecast by the industry and endorsed in the White Paper.

  29. It is also to be born in mind that the grant regime has developed into a successful means of enabling the rail freight industry to compete on a level playing field with road transport for the long legs of journeys. In the future, one can envisage a time when road and driving regulations are properly and comprehensively enforced, and when road users pay the full costs of their operations. At that stage, provided that Railtrack achieve the further cost and efficiency savings that are expected, it could be envisaged that the need for grants required could be significantly reduced.


  30. Primary legislation will be required for the establishment of the SRA and all that goes with it but the Government has stated its intention to use a restructured British Rail Board as a shadow SRA, it has already issued new Objectives, Instructions and Guidance to OPRAF to broaden its remit, this could be extended further.

  31. The Regulator has agreed a voluntary concordat with the Secretary of State which will serve the purpose pending statutory guidance and a new Regulator could and, we hope would, agree a further strengthening within the existing regulations, and the White Paper, the Response to the Committee and associated policy documents give a clear direction to existing players on how the Government wishes them to exercise such powers as they currently have. While not ideal, there is no reason why the main thrust of Government policy for rail freight cannot proceed immediately.

5 October 1998

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