Never waste a good crisis. And it’s fair to say that road transport is having a crisis.

Attentive watchers will not be surprised. In 2016, the House of Commons Transport Commitee published a report Skills and Workforce Planning in the Road Haulage Sector. A graph showed that goods vehicle operator licences fell from 110,000 in 1999/2000 to just under 80,000 in 2014/15. In 2019/20, that figure was 69,500, according to the annual report of the traffic commissioners. (The people appointed by the Department for Transport to oversee licensing and regulation of road transport).

The MPs’ report in 2016 noted: “Road haulage operators face several challenges, in particular the recruitment and retention of large goods vehicle (LGV) drivers to meet current and future demand.”

The report continued: “There is no single cause for the shortage which arises from a combination of factors including: lack of investment in drivers and driver training, poor roadside facilities, poor terms and conditions, the relative attractiveness of other similar jobs and the cost of licence acquisition.”

Rail freight opportunity

This provides an opportunity for rail freight but it’s not one rail operators can win overnight. Rail Freight Group Director General Maggie Simpson told me: “It’s a crisis of epic proportions for the road haulage industry and that is not going to be fixed by railfreight in its entirety, far, far from it, because we don’t go to stores and we don’t go to petrol stations.”

“So it’s not quite as easy as pointing at 50 lorries that might have run and saying ‘there’s a train’ – it is really complicated and really messy at the minute. But, opportunity wise, [railfreight] out of the port is a no brainer, more rail out of the ports is fewer road hauliers out of the ports which can be deployed onto other things. So the pressure on for that extra train or filling up those trains is as acute as ever, making sure they are as long as they can be now.”

There are problems across the world in moving freight at the moment. Ships are queuing outside major ports such as Long Beach in California. Rates for moving containers across oceans have risen very sharply. Closer to home, containers with no road drivers to move them clog ports.

More wagons

Clearly rail can help if those containers can be hoisted onto flat wagons. That needs wagons and the major rail companies that shift containers – Freightliner, DB Schenker and GBRf – are all efficient organisations that squeeze as much use as possible from their fleets. As Maggie told me: “The thing about wagons is that we’re not the only country in the world wanting wagons. I was talking to Greenbrier the other day and its order books are stuffed until 2023. Some of that will come to the UK because people have ordered wagons so it isn’t that nothing is coming our way.”

Indeed, on the day we talked Freightliner said the first 40 of its fleet of 230 FFA-G wagons had arrived from Poland. The rest should be here by November. It added that they were the result of over two years work with Greenbrier and Wabtec Axiom Rail. The result is a wagon that’s lighter than others with bogies that reduce noise and track damage.

They follow the arrival of Ecofret2 flat wagons for GBRf from VTG Rail last spring. These wagons also feature track-friendly bogies. VTG reckons its design will cut the number of empty spaces on a train.

Take containers of the road

I’ve often heard freight managers comment that the a container train’s profit only comes with the last couple of boxes. Margins are tight. Filling that last spot should be easy this week. But there’s more to converting freight from road to rail as Maggie explains.

“The people who run domestic intermodal are seeing enquiries flying off the scale in terms of what they can do so there are some people they can help and some people they can’t help. 

“So filling up the trains, trying to make that one extra next train, these are the things that people are actively doing. I’ve got members flat out on that trying to help as many people as they can.

“It’s even bringing in the not-yet-running world of high-speed logistics. People are looking at that with a bit more seriousness now, partly because companies like Eversholt have got the units visible but also because this is a big issue for those markets as well.” 

Strategic answers

“So I would say what there is is a strategic opportunity rather than a crisis response. We are doing what we can to help people right now who are displaced and can’t find haulage and there’s plenty of them. 

“People are working but actually to get people converted across is a strategic response which is ‘who’s got what freight loads going where and have we got the drivers, have we got the wagons and have we got enough stuff committed to make a trainload, have we got the price right?’ That takes a bit more time so that’s going to be three, four, five months to get that established rather than two or three weeks.”

But there’s more to railfreight than containers. Coal is yesterday’s traffic but aggregates are booming at the moment. This traffic has soaked up resources. A freight train might only need one driver to shift several thousand tonnes but not even the most committed footplate staff can drive two trains at once.

And if the pandemic has hit road driver training, it has hit rail driver training. Restrictions prevented two people occupying the same cab and so training has slowed over the last year. It should now recover but it’s a reminder that every train needs a driver, stock and a path on which to run.

Fewer passenger trains

None will appear overnight. Talk of cutting passenger trains as fewer people travel might not help freight. The fall in passenger numbers is mainly in commuters so cutting a few morning or evening suburban trains from Waterloo or Charing Cross will do nothing to create long-distance freight paths.

What might help is cutting long-distance passenger paths from East or West Coast Main Lines but here there’s good growth as leisure travellers return.

What might also help is a clearer view of railfreight’s place. A couple of years ago, government funded a £60 million upgrade to the branch line to Felixstowe which allowed Network Rail to lay a loop near Trimley that boosted capacity by 10 trains each way per day. All good stuff.

Today Network Rail is building a new station at Soham, funded with £18.6m from the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority. Sounds good. Except that the new station sits on the single track section between Soham and Ely. This was already a constraint to running more container trains from Felixstowe to the Midlands. One end of the new platform lies just yards from the points that lead to the double-track. The new station will have a footbridge so all it lacks is a platform and a short double-track extension.

So with one hand, public money increases freight capacity and with the other hand, public money wastes that capacity.

Internal distribution

As a country we should look more closely at railfreight. It’s great to see containers travelling by rail from Felixstowe or Southampton to the distribution centres clustered around Daventry. Some container traffic moves on from Daventry to other parts of Britain but there’s more scope for internal distribution.

Where are the trains of roll-cages for London’s shops that could arrive from Daventry by rail into the capital for distribution by electric vans? Those Eversholt trains that Maggie mentioned could change the way we distribute goods. Perhaps this road crisis will give it the push it needs?

More widely, I think the crisis shows just how fragile Britain is. As Maggie told me: “It’s positive for railfreight but a disaster for the country. It helps the cost comparison. It helps bring people across to see the advantage. It’s a strategic matter to get more goods onto rail within people’s supply chains. That takes a bit of time to leverage. In the short-term people are doing what they can to help that crisis response.”

There’s a role for railfreight in making Britain stronger and more resilient. It can’t come soon enough.

A version of this article first appeared in RAIL Magazine in October 2021. See more at

By Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.