John Smith is a lifelong railwayman who is the Managing Director of GB Railfreight. In 2012 he won the Outstanding Personal Contribution for Senior Management prize at the National Rail Awards. According to John, his proudest achievement is setting up GBRf and seeing the commitment of his staff day-in, day-out. For better or for worse, John is an avid supporter of Sunderland FC. In John’s blog you can read his musings on all things rail freight. 

02:14pm 20 June 2016
Brexit: a risk to Britain's rail freight sector

It seems clear that any exit from the EU will lead to an economic recession. The only arguments appear to be around how deep and long this will be.

The last time GB Railfreight (GBRf) faced similar circumstances was back in 2008. At that time, we experienced a reduction in intermodal demand and watched from afar as aggregates traffic collapsed. Fortunately for us, we weren't exposed to aggregates and had invested in coal. This proved to be a stroke of genius as coal became buoyant for a number of years. All of this was more luck than judgement and we consequently rode out the country’s severe economic downturn.

This time around, we won't be as lucky.  We are surviving the coal downturn (which, incidentally, is due to much more draconian carbon emissions controls than are required by the EU) by growing in other markets, particularly passenger, aggregates and intermodal. All of these markets would be hit hard by a recession, leaving GBRf in very difficult waters.

It is also worth reflecting on a number of our commercial arrangements in the light of our EU membership. Many of our customers have strong links to the rest of Europe. Czech business, EPH, has bought Lynemouth Power; Aggregate Industries is owned by the French/German conglomerate LafargeHolcim; and EDF Energy is French-owned. The list goes on.

Most importantly, we buy our wagons in Romania and Poland. Our membership makes trade simple and quick. As we speak, I'm about to sign a letter of intent for 50 sand hoppers for Siniat, and there are no duties to pay, no taxes and no tariffs.

From a personal, more emotional standpoint, managing a business in a recession is never easy and will always have an effect on all our circumstances. I'm not an economist so I have no idea if all the above would have happened were we outside the EU. What I do know is that it HAS all happened whilst we have been members and that membership has been a huge help. 

Secondly, it is clear that to leave will create a political and commercial vacuum. Businesses like EPH won't be attracted to invest until they are clear of the rules. With all the political negotiations that will have to take place, it could take years to sort this out; years that will (in my opinion) see a long, hard recession that will negatively impact us all. One particular area of concern is our border with France and what this could mean for controls at Calais.

So overall, it's very definitely IN from my perspective. The logic of leaping into the unknown is definitely not attractive. Whilst the EU is bureaucratic and on occasions frustrating, I see no reason to think this will change in isolation. What makes the EU work is not Brussels or Strasbourg, but businesses like our own doing deals across Europe day-in day-out, deals that are facilitated by our membership.

03:53pm 20 August 2015
Safeguard capacity, not wires, in CP5

In response to the Government's review of Network Rail and its CP5 programme, I wrote a letter to RAIL Magazine outlining my views. In short, we should not get too hung up about the cancellation of electrification programmes so long as they continue to invest in key capacity enhancements on the network. You can read the letter in full below. 

It is capacity that is important, not wires above the tracks

Political, industry and media figures alike have voiced their concerns over the delayed electrification plans announced in the Transport Secretary’s speech to the Commons last week.

While I can see the benefits both the Midland Main Line (MML) and TransPennine electrification plans will bring to passenger and freight services, I think people are looking at this incorrectly.

If a delay to these electrification programmes is accompanied by continued investment in CP5 capacity enhancements – particularly on the MML – then I welcome the Government’s announcement. It is capacity that is important, not wires above the tracks.

There are CP5 projects still in place that will provide more extensive capacity improvements in the short-medium term. Two schemes that are particularly important are the four tracking from Kettering to Corby and from Bedford to just north of Kettering.

Take the line to the north of Bedford, for example. The combination of stopping and non-stopping
passenger services is a major constraint for freight paths. So is the mixture of four, three and two-track alignments. Four-tracking this route would tackle many of the bottlenecks along the line and cater for future freight and passenger growth. This is far more valuable in the short-term than overhead wires.

The Secretary of State has made it clear that further changes will be made to fundamental CP5 projects. As the incoming Sir Peter Hendy and Dame Colette Bow develop their proposals for better investment in and operations of the rail improvement programme, it is vital that capacity enhancements such as four-tracking plans are taken forward to safeguard freight services.

Another policy I would publically call for is a re-evaluation of timetabling for the MML, in order to free up more freight paths. In RAIL’s Issue I775, GBRf’s very own Phil Amos described the restrictions that exist on our services for Aggregate Industries. It needs to be recognised that industry markets fluctuate and timetabling must be regularly updated to reflect that.

With Network Rail due to report on CP5 projects in the autumn, let’s put electrification to one side and urge the infrastructure provider to safeguard these key capacity enhancement projects to cater for short-term freight and passenger growth.

03:07pm 09 June 2015
Capacity challenges on the Midland Main Line

Last month, RAIL Magazine's Richard Clinnick took a ride in one of our cabs to view first-hand the capacity challenges that we face on the Midland Main Line, a key artery for the rail freight industry in the UK.

Whenever the issue of rail capacity comes up, the first thing that comes to peoples minds is squeezing in more passenger services. The needs of freight services  and the importance of moving goods around the UK  are often ignored.

Travelling on the 0947 Neasden-Bardon Hill, Richard witnessed how even a small delay can impact upon our ability to obtain paths, and subsequently our ability to deliver the product on time. We believe that timetabling for the MML needs to be re-looked at in order to free up more freight paths in the short-term. And we look forward to working with the industry on this further in the long-term.

You can find a link to the article below:

http://www.railmagazine.com/operations/freight/freight-fights-capacity-constraints

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11:12am 27 February 2015
GB Railfreight wins Operator of the Year at the UK Rail Industry Awards

I'm really proud to announce that GB Railfreight has won the award for Operator of the Year at the UK Rail Industry Awards 2015. It is testament to the hard work and dedication of over 650 members of our team in offices and depots across the country. It has been a huge year for us and I want to extend my gratitude to every single one of them.

The award is also an important recognition of the rail freight industry, which works around the clock to deliver for customers and keep the UK economy moving.

12:18pm 12 February 2015
'Investment in the Railway' report a step in the right direction

Last month, following an extensive consultation process that included nine separate oral evidence sessions, the Transport Select Committee published its Investment in the Railway report.

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmselect/cmtran/257/257.pdf?

They had a dedicated session for freight, which was very welcome, and I appeared along with industry colleagues Maggie Simpson, Executive Director at the RFG, and Lindsay Durham, Heat of Rail Strategy at Freightliner,

Im pleased to report that a lot of the issues that were bought up during our session were addressed in some capacity: the need for more strategic, intelligent investment on the rail network to support freight, prioritisation of the most effective electrification schemes and fairer passenger timetabling to account for rail freight, amongst other things.

The Government should issue its response to the select committee shortly, which I look forward to reading. In the meantime it is important that we continue making the case to Government to ensure that these issues are taken forward and rail freight growth is sustained in the long-term.

09:58am 19 December 2014
Goodbye Artillery Lane

Last week, after almost two decades, our company HQ moved from our Artillery Lane base to 55 Old Broad Street.

Leaving many fond memories behind, we moved up the road for a new chapter in our company history.

For all of you who dont already know, our new address is:

3rd Floor
55 Old Broad Street
London EC2M 1RX

I look forward to welcoming many of you at the new offices soon.

05:46pm 10 December 2014
Speaking to the Transport Select Committee

Last week I attended the Transport Select Committee's freight-focused oral evidence session for the 'Investment in the Railway' inquiry.

Thanks to the committee for recognising the issues and taking the time to talk to the rail freight industry.

Topics covered included investment in CP5, Network Rail performance, track access charges and the Governments approach to an integrated transport strategy.

I raised the need for what I like to call intelligent electrification prioritising the electrification of those key links that maximise benefits across the industry  as well as the need for a long-term, integrated approach to rail investment.

Read our press release on our media centre page here.

Read our written submission to the inquiry here.

09:50am 29 September 2014
Cycling to Cambridge dressed as a fairy

After two days of sweltering heat, icy winds, punishing hills and dangerous pot holes, the GB Team is finally back from its charity bike ride to Cambridge.

I dont think anybody realised quite how difficult it would be to cycle 130 miles, but team morale kept us pushing onwards and upwards....until we got lost in Wellingborough.

Thanks to everybody who supported us, especially those that forced me to wear a fairy outfit for the whole journey (yes, you read that right).

We successfully raised 3,500 pounds for Leukemia & Lymphoma Research, an incredibly important charity in the fight against all blood cancers.

But I tell you one thing. Next time, theres no way were doing it without bike cushions.

We are just going through the photos finding ones that are appropriate for public consumption. We'll upload them on here soon.

03:45pm 29 August 2014
Who wants a train named after them for their birthday?

We recently celebrated one of very owns birthday by giving them a train........well not quite, they had a locomotive named after them. Not the normal present we know, but Sarah Whurr has worked tirelessly for GBRf over the past few years and we couldnt think of any better way to honour her achievements and commitment to the team. On her request, no reference to her age can ever be released into the public sphere!

05:33pm 18 August 2014
Captain Picard makes sure history never forgets the locomotive……. 66738

Theres not many people that can say theyve met Captain Jean-Luc Picard himself, let alone have the man name one of their trains.

I recently had the pleasure of standing next to him while he unveiled the new nameplate, Huddersfield Town, on the side of our 66738 locomotive.

As you can imagine, I wouldve preferred it be a dedication to Sunderland FC, but given his loyalties to Huddersfield, I was more than happy to be part of Huddersfield Town FC's special day.

Despite the media furore that surrounded the event, I couldnt help but think that Sir Patricks gaze was focused on the Yorkshire skies of a time that once was.

As I tried to explain to him&..you need look no further than our new EMD Class 66s for a true intergalactic experience. He told me my expectations were greatly exaggerated.

02:07pm 02 July 2014
Berets, ducks and rail freight

Every year we have a conference for the GB Railfreight team to get together, take stock, reflect on the last twelve months and  most importantly  have a laugh.

In most ways, this conference was no different, except for what an exceptional year this has been for the whole company.

We have signed some major contracts and bought a staggering 37 new locos.

We have brought some excellent new recruits on board and promoted some of the people who have worked their way up through our business.

We have adopted new technologies and we have gone out of our way to look to the future (like trialling the first freight trains on the North Doncaster and Ipswich cords) so that rail freight can continue to grow year on year.

So this conference was a real celebration for me and I want to thank the whole team (over 650 of them) for making this happen.?

There were French berets, rubber ducks and egg and spoon races. It really did have it all. Enjoy the photos.

10:42am 06 May 2014
New Website Launch

I’d just like to say a big welcome to everybody visiting our new website.

I am very excited to be launching this today. It marks a crucial point in the company’s development, as we build upon the growth and investment experienced in 2013 and look towards the future and the development opportunities it brings.

You will be able to see the work we do across the various UK sectors and find specific case studies from some of our key clients. Oh, and check out the interactive map!

But, most importantly for me, you’ll be able to find out a lot more about the whole of our team. These people are the lifeblood of the business and without their dedication and hard work we would not be where we are today. I want them front and centre of everything that the company does.

And, I’m afraid, you’ll also be subject to reading my own musings on all things GBRf and rail freight on this, my blog, “John’s corner”. More to come…

10:37am 06 May 2014
The Control Period of Change

When the initial ORR draft determination for Control Period 5 was published, the rail freight industry took a deep breath.

Plans to increase freight on the network were combatted with a smaller Network Rail budget and higher access charges. It was difficult to see where and how we were going to feel these benefits over the five-year term.

Just under a year later and things are looking up. We have lower capped charges for rail freight operators and policies that will facilitate the Government’s freight modal shift from road to rail.

This is, in part, down to healthy and productive engagement with Network Rail and the regulator, which has allowed the industry to express its views on much-needed projects and work towards more co-ordinated operations.

We now have initiatives to improve signalling across the network and the introduction of a double-track on the Felixstowe to Nuneaton route.

While it’s always difficult to predict the state of an industry in five years’ time, the foundations are in place that will allow us to continue growing and keep the economy moving.

Full steam ahead!

(You can read our formal response to the start of CP5 on our 'News Releases' page).

 

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