News that Britain's biggest rail freight company is up for sale has alarmed rail campaigners.

EWSR, which moves around 85% of all UK rail freight, has clocked up several years of astonishing success in increasing the amount of freight carried on rail.

Railfuture urges that whichever company buys EWSR must ensure that the recent gains in rail freight are not wasted.

Between 1998 and 1999, freight on rail increased by 6% to 4.6 billion tonne-km, within an overall increase of 25% since privatisation. But this still represents only 5% of all freight carried in the UK - the rest goes by lorry or ship.

Railfuture wants to see a greater proportion of freight carried by rail rather than road, but is concerned that we might see a reversal back to the old British Rail days of declining freight if the wrong strategy is imposed by the new owner of EWSR.

It is rumoured that two European rail companies - Deutsche Bahn and SNCF - are interested in buying EWSR. While Railfuture does not wish to express a preference, we want to point out that there may be some advantage to bringing in a European company.

The "explosion" in inter-European rail freight that was promised with the building of the Channel Tunnel just has not happened. Some integration in the rail industry would be very welcome – especially after the well-known disasters that have recently illustrated how fragmented our system is. Having a European company on board with the biggest freight company in the UK may well help rectify this fragmentation.


Explanation & history:

Wisconsin Central RR, a huge rail freight company based in the USA that currently owns 48% of the British firm EWSR (English, Welsh and Scottish Railway), are now selling EWSR, who move 85% of Britain’s rail freight.

Under British Rail, rail freight was declining, after BR abandoned its ‘speedlink’ scheme of moving freight. (This was a ‘wagon-load’ service, where individual wagons of freight from different companies could be amalgamated into one train that took the whole lot.)

BR replaced this system with one that required one company to supply the entire train-load of freight – something that few companies outside the coal and steel industry could do. The result was that rail freight plummeted and we can see the effects of this in the massive growth of lorries on our roads.

However, after rail privatisation, the creation of EWSR and a number of smaller rail freight companies led to some astonishing gains in UK rail freight. One reason for this increase was that EWSR launched its ‘enterprise’ scheme, a compromise between BR’s ‘speedlink’ and the ‘full-train’ requirement. Enterprise amalgamates several medium-sized freight consignments into one train.

Deutsche Bahn is Germany’s railway and SNCF is France’s railway - both are state-owned.


For more information please contact Alix Stredwick at the railfuture office on 020 8981 2922, or on her mobile: 0771 247 1411