Aug 2005 - Freight on Rail - Doing nothing is not an option

01 June 2013

A week after ASLEF members lobbied the House of Commons, Alistair Darling produced a written statement to the House of Commons about Freight on Rail. My first impression is that the Minister for Transport seems rather more relaxed about the situation than he could be. Or should be.

Firstly, he appears to renege on the Ten Year Plan for Transport, published in 2000, which forcast rail freight growth of 'up to 80%'. Now the Minister says this was never a target, it was just an indication of what might happen if rail freight operators 'won business in highly competitive markets'.

So what is government's role in this issue, which is vital for the environment and road congestion? Does it stand on the sidelines while matters of central importance for the nation unfold before its eyes? Surely we need more from the Department for Transport than someone to watch what's happening?

Yet this seems to be the role Mr Darling has chosen. He says the government 'will not dictate to the industry how it should run its business or become involved in operational matters'. He sees the solution as a 'competitive and dynamic private sector rail freight industry'.

It looks like a formula for doing nothing at all. Is this what we want from a Minister for Transport? A man accomplished at washing his hand of important issues?

He says the government will 'continue to support the principle of incremental access charges for freight operators' - but to be honest we look to a government department for actions, not discussions about principles.

Then he makes the vague promise to 'ensure grand funding is targeted to deliver the maximum benefits in terms of congestion, pollution and accidents'. The point is that we have made the case - we want firm proposals, not generalised statements.

The Minister also hopes there will be 'private sector investment in major rail freight facilities, such as intermodal terminals'. But he makes the remarkable statement that this 'does not imply an active role'!

ASLEF wants to see the government taking an active role. That is the purpose of our campaign, and, we believe, what the public is looking for. We didn't elect a government to do nothing!

He says he will work with the industry and Network Rail to 'establish how freight growth can be accommodated on the network' but again he is not proposing any government action beyond a vague mention that 'in the long term' the government could consider plans to take forward 'freight-specific enhancement' - but this would be subject to 'strict affordability and value for money criteria'. Again, all his hopes rest with the private sector - an unusual approach for anyone who has seen what privatisation has done to the rail industry!

Finally, a month after the Strategic Rail Authority pulled out of the European Rail Traffic Management System, he promises to work with the European Community to ensure a consistent approach to freight.

We'll be looking at the statement in more detail over the coming weeks. But at the moment it looks like a shoddy response to our campaign. It's jam tomorrow, if someone else gives it to us.

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