Having recently been awarded an ISO 9001 for providing sustainable logistics and considerable media interest we spoke to MD Jeff Screeton on the subject of the award,  InterCity Railfreight and the possible future of railways in the UK.

Mr Screeton and members of the team are available for press interviews if required. 

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What exactly does THE PROVISION OF SUSTAINABLE LOGISTICS SERVICES actually mean?

It means we use low emission modes of transport wherever possible – trains, bikes and electric vans – as well as always looking at ways to improve supply chain efficiency by cutting out wasted journeys, empty running, better stock positioning as well as cutting out waste in terms of energy and materials 

InterCity RailFreight ISO 9001 logo

What makes InterCity Rafilfreight different when it comes to logistics?

First and foremost, we are the only company that uses scheduled passenger trains to move consignments unaccompanied. We have demonstrated how easy it is to integrate zero emission first and last mile transport with trains as we have more accurate overall visibility and can therefore make much more efficient use of resources

Surely trains are about moving passengers not freight can the two coexist without impacting on each other?

Yes; as demonstrated by our experience over the past ten years.

How difficult was the ISO to achieve?

The railway environment is one that demands the highest levels of safety and security, and to meet these and other contractual obligations we have had to put together a comprehensive management system. As a result we were well ahead of the curve in terms of having the necessary components already in place, and so achieving the ISO accreditation was not difficult: in fact, it was much easier than we might have thought.

It has also provided us with a framework to look very closely at every aspect of the business and to work out how to continuously improve on what we do

What does this demonstrate about the use of rail for logistics?

Rail is a highly disciplined industry and its framework encourages the business to focus very closely on the key components of good logistics: high levels of competency among those operating the system; careful planning and preparation; absolute attention to detail; thorough and well tested contingency plans; ensuring high standards of timekeeping and reliability; timely and accurate communications.

The structure of rail makes upholding these disciplines much easier

We live in interesting times how is the rail industry fairing in general?

Not too well is the short answer, though it has to be said that currently the government is taking the revenue risk that, prior to this virus thingy, was carried by the franchised operators.

Were the Treasury not picking up the tab the railway would have ground to a halt back in March when lockdown was implemented.

Given the rise in online shopping has rail or the government grasped the opportunity?

No. Unfortunately the overall mindset remains pivoted around “the passenger” and this needs to change. An army general will work out how to achieve his objectives with the personnel and weaponry at his disposal i.e. making the very best uses of available resources to achieve the objective. 

This does not happen on the railway, but if the mindset was to shift from “the passenger” to “the economy” it might prompt some long overdue changes. Lockdown and masks in shops have prompted a huge increase in online shopping, amply illustrated by the carriers advertising for large numbers of people to cope with demand, so what we’ll now have is a steady decrease in delivery service levels and also a dramatic increase in diesel vans on the roads, a return to unsustainable levels of road congestion and higher pollution …….. 

whilst trains rattle around the network carrying very few people and costing the taxpayer a small fortune for the privilege. A lose-lose situation.

How do you see the future for rail in the UK?

It’s very hard to say, because nobody really knows what the ongoing issues are going to be with this virus and how policies to control it are going to impact upon the economy. Certainly the first wave has made a catastrophic impact upon the national debt and I really don’t see how the Treasury can agree to fund the running of lightly loaded trains for very much longer.

So there has to be a choice: either services (and jobs) are cut in order to save money or alternative revenue streams are found. Now we have an idea for doing this and it’s painfully simple. 

We can identify off-peak services on key routes that are lightly loaded with passengers: one carriage can be locked out and used to carry freight with the remaining passenger capacity allocated via pre-booking. 

It’s a painfully obvious way of making the very best use of railway resources, maintaining services and keeping jobs all with the added benefit of taking vans off the road, easing congestion and reducing pollution.

From lose-lose to win-win; and with not a single penny required from public funds!

Are train operators, government, DFT, Treasury open to this idea?

Alas, no. We have tried to put this before the Department for Transport on a number of occasions and have been ignored. 

Some of the train operators clearly believe that everything will go back to normal tomorrow, but that is now looking increasingly unlikely. For as long as the Treasury is footing the bill, what incentive does railway management have to innovate and find new revenue streams?

UPDATE:

Since this interview discussions are now well underway between the DFT and ICRF.

 

What are the advantages for business?

Business is looking for innovation and sustainability as the headline demands: speed, security, reliability and flexibility are the sub-headings. 

Rail delivers these easily. The ability to combine small volume consignments on passenger trains, medium volumes on the hybrid model outlined above and supported by high speed same day or overnight bulk services can meet – and largely exceed – the demands of business.

Road carriers were increasingly struggling to deliver on these expectations before lockdown, but since people have abandoned public transport for their cars and

 

Given the restrictions on space is this a viable option for business?

Space IS a limiting factor on trains; agreed.

Some sectors, medical for instance, are highly suited because volumes tend to be small and frequent and service frequency enables us to juggle things whilst maintaining a very high delivery service level. 

But we have to go back to the question about effective resource utilisation. Department for Transport figures suggest that off-peak there are somewhere in the region of 4 million empty seats chugging around the network: as we’re now faced with the huge challenge of not just rebuilding the UK economy but rebuilding it sustainably, surely NOW is the time to be having this debate about how best to create and utilise space more effectively and for wider economic benefit.

Your service also provides a last mile green solution how important do you think this will be in the future?

Well, it’s interesting to read some of the research which suggests there has been a definitive link between Covid-19 infections and air pollution – so no surprise to see that the highest levels of infection have occurred within town and city centres. We have a wake-up call here for anyone that wants to hear it and it’s only a matter of time before the change in lifestyles increase the congestion and pollution problems.

So yes, zero emission first and last mile deliveries will be a must going forward

 

We are already seeing a decline in footfall and workers needing to travel to the office.  Will this just solve the problem of congestion and pollution in our towns and cities?

An interesting question.

Decline of office workers would equal a decline in commuter vehicles: it would also unfortunately equal a decline in demand for the businesses that support the offices – sandwich shops, cafes, pubs, dry cleaners etc. – which in turn would suggest a reduction in the number of delivery vehicles servicing such outlets. 

I suspect it’s going to be some time before a definite pattern emerges.

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