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'It's not just about the passengers' - Supply chain expert on rail strikes

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As rail strikes continue, Dr Kamran Mahroof, Associate Professor of Supply Chain Analytics at the University of Bradford, explains why it’s not just passengers who are impacted. 

“It helped keep food on our tables during the lockdown, it kept our NHS heroes protected with adequate PPE and prevented the country from coming to a standstill by delivering fuel supplies to our forecourts - no, not a superhero with a cape, but our overlooked and under-appreciated rail freight network. 

When we think of rail strikes, we tend to think of the impact on the passengers. 

People can’t get to work, they can’t get home for Christmas. They can’t get to their festive parties, which inevitably impacts the hospitality sector who often rely on a bumper December in order to get through leaner months. 

But what many of us forget is that, after hours, our railways also provide a vital link in the supply chain, transporting goods, foods and medicines across the country. 

Headshot of Dr Kamran Mahroof

Pictured above: Dr Kamran Mahroof

A shortage of HGV drivers in 2020 due to Covid-19 and Brexit, along with rising fuel costs and a drive to cut carbon emissions, have resulted in more companies turning to rail transportation in recent times, and rightly so.

When one train replaces approximately 80 trucks on our roads, why wouldn’t companies turn to a more environmentally-friendly transportation solution? 

Rail Delivery Group, the British rail membership body, estimates rail freight is cutting Britain’s carbon footprint by preventing seven million HGV journeys every year. 

It’s a more efficient and quicker alternative, using less fuel and taking traffic jams and road closures out of the equation, while carrying larger volumes over greater distances. 

In fact, rail freight played a significant role during the pandemic, meeting high demand and transporting essential items, often around 1,200 tonnes of food and medicine to shops, on a daily basis. Rail freight also kept our NHS safe, carrying PPE equipment across the country during unprecedented demand.

Complexity and uncertainty

It comes as no surprise then, that rail freight contributes £2.45 billion annually to the UK economy - and yes, we’re very much reliant on it. Every day, 8,000 tonnes of food and other goods are transported on rail freight into Scotland through England. Tesco is one of the major retailers leading the way on this.

Any disruption to our transport networks has an impact, but these rail strikes coming at Christmas, brings about extra layers of complexity and uncertainty. 

Retailers want to maximise their stock at this time of the year and rely on all forms of transport across its supply chains. Cancelling rail freight from the list won’t do us any favours.

It’s safe to say we’re not expecting shortages, as rail freight remains marginal in the broader context of retail supply, but customers might find they’re not getting the same choice as they would expect. 

There will also be the knock-on effect at our ports and distribution centres. Stock is coming in, but if it’s usually moved around the country by rail, it will pile up, incurring further costs which eventually will be picked up by consumers.

Look at the current problem with Strep A antibiotics. The Department of Health has said there are enough antibiotics, but many pharmacies are complaining they are unable to get them. Medicines like this can be transported in cold-chain containers by rail, as happened during the pandemic, but with a disrupted rail network, reverting to road-only may be the only option. 

Environmentally-friendly alternative

Of course, we will be fine. We’ll carry on and get through this disruption, hopefully only suffering some inconveniences and small price fluctuations. 

But, the longer these strikes go on, the more sour a taste it will leave, especially for companies who saw the promise of rail freight, but may no longer see it as a reliable mode of transportation.

When we’re making good strides in using rail as a more environmentally-friendly alternative, not just for passengers using cars less, but for companies transporting goods, food and medicine around the country, it would be a shame to have to return to relying on just roads again and not capitalising on the momentum gained for rail freights during the pandemic. 

Finally, it’s worth noting that 70 per cent of UK rail freight begins or ends at a port. Therefore, to maximise the value of rail freight for domestic goods, similar to the case of passengers, trains ideally need to be at full capacity in both directions of the journey. Further investment also should be considered for more inland rail terminals, to improve overall freight delivery times and reliability. There’s also a need for more temperature-sensitive containers, which can manage fruits, vegetables and even vaccines in greater numbers.”

 

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