PARCELS AS PASSENGERS - WHERE ARE WE NOW?
FEBRUARY 2022, BY DEB CARSON
Innovation is all about considering new ideas and ways of working: here at the Rail Innovation Group we strive to make sure that our work streams reflect this. Something that has been on our radar for a while is how we can help promote our extensive passenger rail network to be considered a key part of the national distribution system. After all, one of the key contributors of emissions is road freight and with demand for deliveries continuing to boom post-Covid, there is an ongoing need to bring goods from out-of-town distribution centres into city centres. We believe that rail offers reliable routes, competitive journey times and unparalleled local hubs, with lines reaching into stations located in the heart of our cities. Rail, both passenger and freight, is extremely carbon efficient, with a high proportion of the rail network already electrified and with the UK having among Europe’s greenest power supplies… a perfect match one would think?
"We need to look at our existing national assets, and get much better at forging partnership that create sustainable solutions."
We began by reaching into our diverse community by hosting an online workshop. We wanted to establish what, if anything, was happening in this space. We had some excellent discussions at this workshop, which culminated in the publication of a report “Parcels as Passengers”. The report was made up of a series of insightful contributions from a broad spectrum of interested parties and organisations, from Network Rail to London based EBike courier Pedal Me. All the contributions thankfully affirmed our belief both that there is an opportunity for rail to provide long distance delivery routes, and also that there are lots of “guiding minds” in the industry already working to make this a reality. As Intercity Rail Freight noted in their article, the timetabled nature of trains makes for much easier planning and integration of first and last mile transport, and the short distances from stations to delivery points creates a perfect environment for the use of cycle logistics and electric delivery vehicles. For us it was extremely encouraging that Network Rail noted in their contribution that they are looking at the suitability of their managed stations to accommodate express freight, which includes looking at elements like storage capacity, access for onward distribution and engineering plans. The objective being that Network Rail will then understand how ready existing infrastructure is, and where new flows of logistics might enter the existing operation of the network.
The report was well received and gave us impetus to continue. Our next step was to convene a roundtable event and invite representatives from both the rail industry and several of the more well-known logistics companies. This session was held towards the end of 2021, in person, hosted by High Speed 1, who recently published their own report looking specifically at opportunities for high-speed freight. The discussions at the roundtable were extremely productive, unearthing various obstacles (perceived and real) relating to issues like performance or security (in some cases arising from trade union concerns rather than management) or operators’ assumptions regarding available revenue opportunities. For the logistics sector a key driver is the last mile - as delivering into city centres by road is being actively discouraged through pricing policies like congestions charges - so there was (and is) an appetite to understand how rail could help.
Now that some deeper discussions between the two sectors are taking place, the challenge for rail will be to consider a business case in the context of wider opportunities for rail transformation and the reform of the railways, including as part of new Great British Railways. The challenge to both sectors, and the intermediaries – is to continue to work together with this aim in mind. Because as society becomes ever more concerned about the impact of climate change on future generations, we need to look at our existing national assets, and get much better at forging partnership that create sustainable solutions.