Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the Strategic Rail Authority (CHT 08)


  1.  The purpose of this paper is to assist the Committee in its Inquiry into "Rail Freight and the Channel Tunnel", announced by Press Notice 69 of Session 2001-02 (dated 16 May 2002).


  2.  In May 2001, the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) published its Freight Strategy for Britain's railway industry. The Strategy defines a range of policy initiatives and investment projects to increase the attractiveness of rail freight services so as to attain the target of 80% growth in rail freight in Great Britain, as set in the Government's 10 Year Plan "Transport 2010". The Freight Strategy provides 10 year forecasts for key categories of rail traffic, including international freight, derived from a programme of freight demand analysis and modelling.

  3.  The SRA stated in its Freight Strategy that the Channel Tunnel rail freight market comprises "at the same time the greatest single opportunity to increase rail's market share and the most difficult problem to address" [Freight Strategy p36]. Cargo carried on Channel Tunnel freight trains in 2001 amounted to 2.4 million tonnes. This is less than 40% of the cargo volumes initially forecast during the planning and construction of the fixed link, and reflects the impact of a range of technical, commercial and institutional constraints on business development. The Freight Strategy cited illegal immigration on cross-Channel freight trains as an example of an institutional constraint on the growth of international rail freight.

  4.  Within the SRA's Freight Strategy, 6% of the overall 10 year traffic growth target of 80% was estimated to result from increased Channel Tunnel rail traffic. This reflects a positive view of the business development opportunities resulting from the implementation of European Commission initiatives to liberalise the international rail freight market. However, these growth forecasts were prepared before the start of the prolonged series of disruptions and restrictions to Channel Tunnel train services, due to the actions of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, principally in Northern France. These problems have led to the cancellation of around 2,700 (60%) of cross- Channel freight trains since November 2001, and to an increasing incidence of damage and contamination to cargo. The SRA considers that service disruptions and cargo damage have become so prolonged and acute, that continuing clandestine immigration should now be seen as a major threat to the retention of existing freight flows, as well as a possible constraint on traffic growth.

  5.  The SRA is to review its international rail freight forecasts as more information becomes available about the nature, scale and duration of current traffic losses, and in the light of the response of cross-Channel freight customers to the resumption of full rail services. The SRA has not yet formed a view about the long-term impact of a prolonged period of service disruption on the potential Channel Tunnel freight market. However, we consider it likely that some delay will occur to the achievement of the cross-Channel rail traffic growth targets contained within the Freight Strategy: freight users and operators will give priority to the re-establishment of a viable business base on existing services, before investing in additional service capacity and transport equipment.


  6.  Since their launch, cross- Channel freight train services jointly operated by English Welsh and Scottish Railways (EWS) and French National Railways (SNCF) have been subject to a counter-terrorist regime based on criteria established by the Treaty of Canterbury. The counter-terrorist regime comprises a combination of fixed security installations and inspections of cargo and rolling stock in the United Kingdom and France: the effect is to deter and intercept asylum seekers and illegal immigrants travelling individually or in small groups. It is not designed to prevent large-scale invasions of trains at operational railway sites. From October 2002, organised mass incursions at SNCF's freight operating centre at Calais Fréthun became prevalent, as a direct consequence of the deployment of more rigorous security regimes, including improved personnel detection procedures, on ferry routes from Northern France and on Eurotunnel's shuttle service.

  7.  The result of mass incursions by illegal immigrants at Calais, in conjunction with concerted intrusions into wagons and freight containers on trains temporarily stopped at other locations in northern France, has been to severely reduce SNCF's capacity to receive and forward UK-bound trains at Calais Fréthun. This reduction in capacity is caused by the need to intercept and remove clandestine immigrants from operational tracks and from trains awaiting departure at Calais, and by the more intensive inspections necessary to detect intruders already concealed in rail wagons and in containers arriving at the site. Threats to the personal safety of staff have also led to service interruptions.


  8.  To retain operational fluidity, and to avoid congestion on the French rail network caused by queues of northbound trains awaiting access to Calais (with the attendant consequences of excessively long transit times and increased risk of cargo damage due to intrusion by clandestine immigrants), SNCF has imposed a number of restrictions and temporary suspensions on UK-bound Channel Tunnel trains. As an example, during November 2001, the unprecedented frequency and scale of mass incursions by asylum seekers and illegal immigrants at Calais led SNCF to suspend the acceptance of all UK-bound freight services for around 10 days. As another example, from mid-April 2002, an attempt was made by SNCF and EWS to increase services from around 40% of timetabled levels to 75%. Regrettably, it proved impossible to accept, process and protect this level of service at Calais. A backlog of UK-bound trains resulted, leading SNCF, in May, to re-impose a temporary service suspension with only very limited exceptions.

  9.  The SRA recognises that SNCF and RFF (the French Rail Infrastructure Authority) have improved fixed security installations at Calais Fréthun since November 2001, whilst SNCF, in conjunction with French public authorities, has also assigned additional security guards, railway police and national police (gendarmes) to the site. However, incursions from asylum seekers and illegal immigrants continue to be frequent and aggressive, and the security resources deployed at Calais are still inadequate to protect services on a continuous 24/7 basis. The SRA is concerned that Channel Tunnel train services, unlike competing ferry services and Eurotunnel's Shuttle operation, remain restricted by externally-determined limits on the availability of security resources, rather than operating within a security regime capable of handling peak traffic levels. This represents a major competitive disadvantage to international rail freight.

  10.  SNCF has indicated that given existing security installations and police and security staffing at Calais, it is able to accept a maximum of six UK-bound trains per 24 hours (roundly 36 trains per week). This can be compared to the standard service of 96 trains per week timetabled by EWS and SNCF prior to November 2001. The SRA accepts that EWS and SNCF have attempted to allocate this restricted capacity on an objective basis. However, some freight users have expressed concerns over the priority assigned to different types or flows of traffic and over the lead-times necessary to obtain space for cargo on international services. There have also been complaints about the unpredictability of transit times, and over the incidence of damage to cargo. On some trains, over 80% of cargo has been contaminated or damaged, particularly where a train has been parked en-route for a significant period.

  11.  The SRA has been advised by EWS that a revised timetable is now being introduced, offering improvements in train service reliability by reducing the number of tactical cancellations required to conform to capacity limits at Calais. The SRA welcomes this development, which should give freight users greater confidence in the cross-Channel rail offer. The SRA also recognises that EWS and SNCF have attempted to optimise train loading in order to mitigate the effect of service reductions on freight users. However, the impact of service restrictions on freight carryings remains severe: total cross-Channel rail freight fell from 2.95 million tonnes in 2000 to 2.45 million tonnes in 2002—a reduction of 17%. Cross-Channel rail freight carried in Q1 2002, at 367,000 tonnes, was almost 50% less than that carried in Q1 2001.

  12.  The management of EWS has advised the SRA that the company has already incurred revenue losses of around £10 million, as a result of service restrictions and damage to cargoes suffered since November 2001. SNCF is likely to have suffered comparable losses. The Rail Freight Group, an acknowledged industry forum, estimates that the cumulative revenue loss since November 2001 incurred by freight users, traction, rolling stock and equipment providers and terminal operators, is some £30 million. In volume terms, EWS has indicated that some 25% of cross-Channel rail freight traffic carried prior to November 2001—particularly higher value and time sensitive cargo only recently attracted to rail—has now been lost for a period of at least six months from the resumption of normal services. EWS contends that without an early improvement in the capacity and reliability of cross-Channel services, and a reduction in cargo damage, a further 25% of Channel Tunnel rail freight traffic may also be at risk. The SRA considers EWS's estimates to be credible indications of the likely consequences of continuing service disruptions.


  13.  Illegal immigration is a widespread and complex phenomenon, and preventative measures are often neutralised by adaptive behaviour patterns. Given these factors, SNCF initially appeared to adopt a cautious stance about the benefits to be gained from improving the security regime at Calais Fréthun without the implementation, in parallel, of measures to address the underlying causes of clandestine immigration to the UK. However, on 23 May 2002, representatives of SNCF, acting also on behalf of RFF, confirmed to the SRA that the necessary financial and project management resources and procurement procedures had been completed to enable the early implementation of a programme of improvements to the security regime at Calais Fréthun. The measures are to comprise:

    —  The erection of a three-metre high reinforced, anti climb double fence around SNCF's operational site.

    —  This is to be completed by end July 2002.

    —  The subsequent installation of enhanced lighting, a new Closed Circuit TV system, infra-red detection equipment at sensitive locations (eg rail entry/exit points) and associated security improvements. This is to be completed by year-end 2002.

  SNCF has advised that these improvements to fixed installations and security systems will, if accompanied by increased on-site police and security staff, enable the operation of a full programme of Channel Tunnel freight services. SNCF considers that by year-end 2002, site security at Calais Frethun will meet the standards attained at Eurotunnel's Shuttle terminal at Coquelles, where the threat of invasion by asylum seekers and illegal immigrants has been effectively countered.


  14.  The SRA welcomes the decision by SNCF and RFF to implement the package of security improvements described above, as a priority project. However, given the service disruptions already faced by cross-Channel rail freight users, and the revenue losses and risks to traffic described in paragraph 10, the SRA is concerned that the current work programme will not permit resumption of full Channel Tunnel freight services until year-end 2002. International cargo flows are directly influenced by UK retail sales, and strong seasonal growth in cross-Channel rail traffic typically begins in October and continues until Christmas/New Year. Unless the timescales currently proposed by SNCF and RFF are accelerated, cross-Channel rail services will be unable to carry seasonal traffic growth in Q4 2002, leading to a further reduction in customer confidence, and to additional road transport movements within the UK. The Chairman of the SRA is to contact the President of SNCF, to emphasise the importance of taking early action to address this problem.

  15.  The SRA has recognised, from an early stage, the need to take action to counter the increasing risk to rail traffic levels due to service disruptions. In January 2002 and in May 2002, the SRA advised SNCF of its willingness to consider providing financial support by means of a Freight Facilities Grant, to permit the installation of enhanced security equipment at Calais allowing earlier resumption of a full service timetable. On May 23, SNCF stated that it was impracticable to accelerate the installation of improved security facilities at Calais Fréthun, beyond the dates given in paragraph 12. Instead, SNCF requested the SRA's support in principle for the deployment of additional police resources and immigration control staff on-site, together with the provision and use of more advanced personnel detection equipment to allow more effective searches of trains, wagon and freight containers.

  16.  The SRA has kept the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions [DTLR] (now Department for Transport (DfT)) fully advised of SNCF's evolving stance as regards security improvements at Calais. The SRA has confirmed its support in principle for any of the measures requested by SNCF that would allow the operation of additional Channel Tunnel freight services before year-end 2002—SNCF's estimated completion date for the new package of security improvements. In addition, the SRA intends to co-operate with EWS and SNCF to promote other, longer-term operational improvements to Channel Tunnel freight services, so as to improve service quality and increase productivity. One such initiative is to extend the operating area for Class 92 electric locomotives from Calais to a freight hub in northern France; this should allow better locomotive utilisation and reduce the risk of incursions from illegal immigrants by minimising train dwell-times at the approaches to the Channel Tunnel.

  17.  The SRA is also considering ways in which its existing freight grants procedures may be used to attract new freight flows to rail, or to retain cross-Channel rail flows likely otherwise to switch to road transport in the UK. Freight Facilities Grant may enable rail freight users and service providers to re-engineer or replace transport equipment and modify loading and transhipment sites, where existing equipment or facilities have been damaged by incursions by illegal immigrants, or require upgrading to reflect changes in operating practice designed to counter such incursions. The availability of Track Access Grant may also permit EWS to reinstate withdrawn international services or to increase timetabled frequencies, more rapidly than if it were to forced to bear all the incremental commercial risk. The SRA is also co-operating with freight users and industry bodies affected adversely by cross-Channel service disruptions, to ensure that the scope for legal action to obtain compensation for financial losses is fully understood.

  18.  In line with its core objectives, and with the Directions and Guidance subsequently issued to the Authority by DTLR, the SRA is supporting DfT and other government departments to provide rail industry input into inter-Governmental initiatives to address the underlying problem of the continuing flow of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants from France to the UK. Resolution of some of these factors will reduce pressures from clandestine immigrants at Calais Fréthun, permitting an increase in operational capacity at the site, and allowing an increase in cross-Channel service levels.

  19.  Finally, it should be noted that the Transport Act 2000 gives the SRA a specific duty to promote international services via the Channel Tunnel. The SRA, through the British Railways Board, is also the co-signatory with French National Railways (SNCF) of the Usage Agreement with Eurotunnel, governing the use of Channel Tunnel capacity for through rail freight and passenger services. The SRA is hence a key stakeholder in the operation of international rail services. To discharge its responsibilities, the SRA is to prepare a Channel Tunnel Strategy during 2002. This Strategy will identify ways to improve rail service quality and to promote the growth of cross-Channel rail traffic, and as indicated earlier, will provide a revised view of longer-term prospects for international rail freight.

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