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Surge in freight train cancellations threatens carbon-reducing rail transport

A worrisome surge in the number of freight train cancellations has cast a looming shadow over several companies that had recently embraced rail transport to lower their carbon footprint, particularly within the crucial realm of the UK's fresh produce cold chain logistics.

According to meticulously gathered data from a Freedom of Information request submitted by City AM, the tally of freight cancellations witnessed an alarming fivefold increase between the fiscal years 2021/22 and 2022/23, escalating from 2,492 to a staggering 12,708.


This noteworthy upswing was primarily driven by instances of industrial action, a factor responsible for a staggering 78 percent of the total cancellations – resulting in 9,952 trains being called off during 2022/23. Additionally, adverse weather conditions accounted for a further 1,097 cancellations.


The reverberations of these cancellations reverberated through recent statistics shared by the Office for Rail and Road (ORR). Notably, the aggregate freight movement – encompassing a wide spectrum of goods including coal, oil, construction materials, and especially perishable fresh produce – encountered a notable dip of seven percent, translating to 15.73 billion net tonne kilometres, within the initial quarter of the current year.


In a parallel trajectory, the ORR's Freight Delivery Metric, an essential gauge of rail freight performance, recorded its lowest point since its inception back in 2013, further accentuating the challenge at hand.


This predicament arises at a pivotal juncture when a mounting number of enterprises are strategically leveraging the UK's rail freight network to navigate their goods across the nation's expanse, with a discernible shift towards reducing reliance on carbon-intensive haulage.


A vivid illustration of this transformation includes Nestlé's declaration of intent to amplify its utilisation of rail freight within the UK. Similarly, DP World's reported contemplation of transitioning from road to rail transportation as a strategic manoeuvre towards achieving comprehensive decarbonisation goals speaks volumes.


In the midst of these developments, the ORR conveyed that Network Rail's performance within the domain of freight transportation had been notably subpar, underscoring the indispensable nature of promptly implementing the mandated enhancement strategies.


John Thomas, a key figure at Rail Partners responsible for policy, acknowledged the positive closure of industrial disputes while underscoring persistent impediments in network performance that continue to hinder the resurgence of rail freight volumes.


Thomas further stressed the pivotal role of bolstering the confidence of freight customers and sustaining long-term growth in rail freight, lauding the considerable economic and environmental dividends that such a shift can yield.


Amidst this landscape, a spokesperson representing Network Rail acknowledged the hardships encountered by freight operators due to a series of disruptions, primarily rooted in industrial disputes but says it remains steadfast in its commitment to enhancing punctuality for all train operators, crucially factoring in the significance of on-time deliveries for perishable freight.


While the RMT chose not to engage in commentary on the issue, the four preeminent UK rail freight operators – namely, Direct Rail Services, Freightliner, DB Cargo UK, and GB Railfreight – did not provide immediate responses to requests for input.


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