Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the Rail Freight Group (CHT 16)



  1.  The Rail Freight Group is the representative body of the rail freight industry in the UK. Members include customers of the railways, terminal operators, train operators, infrastructure providers, contractors, consultants, local authorities and others whose objective is to grow the amount of freight carried by rail in, to and from the UK.


  2.  We do not need to repeat here our evidence to the Committee's Inquiry into the 10 Year Transport Plan. However, in support of this, a recently completed survey for the Rail Freight Group found that 91% of people think that more freight should transfer from motorways to rail, and 58% believe that the Government should subsidise the companies to move their goods by rail.

  3.  Furthermore, 91% thought that the UK should increase the percentage of freight carried by rail from 11% to the German figure of 23%, and 58% thought it "very important" and 34% "important" that Government targets of an increase in rail freight of 80% in 10 years were achieved, and 71% thought that the targets should be increased.

  4.  Thus, the growth of rail freight is an important, and achievable, element of the Government's transport policy. Similar policies apply in most European Member States as well as at the Commission.


  5.  Before the Channel Tunnel opened in 1994, it was expected that it would carry six to eight million tonnes of rail freight in the first few years. Sadly, it has never achieved more than three million. There are a number of views as to the reasons for these differences, including service quality, high prices and an overoptimistic forecast although even the eight million figure represents just 6-7% of the cross-Channel unitised market. In the summer of 2001, service quality did start to improve significantly and the industry had a much more optimistic view, expecting strong growth from the plateau of three million tonnes a year so far achieved.

  6.  However, in the autumn, the number of asylum seekers trying to board freight trains suddenly increased, partly as a result of the completion of a much more secure fence around the adjacent Eurotunnel terminal. SNCF (French Railways) staff were being attacked at their Calais Fréthun yard. SNCF suspended services whilst it negotiation with the local Prefect for more police protection. SNCF also improved the fence around the terminal, and stepped up the security checks inside the terminals to detect people who had smuggled themselves into the wagons earlier on their journey.

  7.  Since November, SNCF has suspended services on three occasions, and have never achieved more than 40 trains per week, against a planned 96, a service level regularly achieved before November last.


  8.  Train operations are undertaken by EWS Railway in the UK and SNCF in France. The main types of traffic carried are intermodal (swap bodies), conventional wagons and automotive products. Train operators sell complete intermodal trains to aggregators, who market the service to individual customers. Wagonload services are generally part of the European railway companies' own networks, and automotive traffic is normally train loads sold directly between the train operators and specialist car transporting companies.

  9.  In the UK, there are at least 30 companies in these chains, some part of large international groups, some SMEs set up particularly to take advantage of the new opportunities offered when the Channel Tunnel opened, and many, if not all, of whom are operating against a background of high fixed costs resulting from substantial long term investments in essential fixed assets such as rail wagons, terminal installations and so on.

  10.  Customers were attracted to the service because of the reliability, security and speed offered compared with competing modes. Sadly, since November, the situation has deteriorated drastically. The effect of such an unreliable service is that customers do not know from one day to the next when a train is going to arrive at its destination. In addition, many wagons are trashed inside as a result of illegal immigrants spending several days there without food or sanitation. One train had every wagon trashed in this way.

  11.  Customers are therefore leaving in large numbers. This is particularly serious since it is the high value cargoes that are generally being lost to road, for understandable reasons. Traffic is likely to be down to between one and two million tonnes a year if this problem continues and many UK companies are likely to close as a result.

  12.  RFG has estimated that closure of the service would result in 6,000 extra lorries on the M20 and roads around London, about 8,000 jobs lost with financial losses to the industry reaching about £30 million over the first six months since November. This figure includes both loss of actual orders, plus the shortfall in meeting fixed cost commitments as described above. A number of companies are lodging claims against the French Government.


  13.  The trains have to stop at Calais Fréthun to change locomotives, and for a security check to be undertaken before they enter the Channel Tunnel. This check should also cover the detection of asylum seekers inside wagons, or hanging onto the outside. To be effective, there has to be a secure fence around the terminal, with gates to protect those working inside and to ensure that, once a wagon or train has been checked, it will remain free of asylum seekers.

  14.  Inside the yard, SNCF police and security staff undertake these checks and apprehend asylum seekers, handing them over to the police outside.

  15.  Outside the terminal, the CRS or Gendarmes patrol the fence but, since it is several kilometres long, this is labour intensive. If they apprehend asylum seekers, they may take them back to the Sangatte Centre or just tell them to "go away". Neither is likely to have any effect on these desperate people. Fines or gaol are not apparently used, and would in any case put further cost on the French taxpayer.


  16.  Simply stated, rail freight customers need reliability, safety and security. Damaged, late or lost goods cause financial losses to all concerned but, more importantly for rail freight, they destroy confidence in the industry's ability to deliver a proper service. Unsurprisingly, customers turn to competing modes. Experience on previous interruptions through strikes, all of much shorter duration than the present seven months, shows that it may take many months if not years of near excellent service before customers return in quantity.

  17.  This is therefore the tragedy of the present protracted period of delays and cancellations. In the months before November 2001, the service had reached its highest level of quality ever, and there was confidence in the future. All this was lost by the failure of the two governments to control security and allow the free movement of freight trains.


  18.  Simply, and in the short term, there needs to be a fence of equal security to that of Eurotunnel, continually repaired to avoid holes remaining. With this, it needs larger numbers of security personnel inside, and very much more police outside, all operating 24 hours a day since, otherwise, people get onto trains when police are not there. Somewhere between 50 and 100 police outside are thought to be necessary. Sometimes SNCF receives only single figures, and none on certain shifts.

  19.  Provision of the above resources could and should make it so difficult for asylum seekers to get onto freight trains either at the terminal of further afield, and remain undetected into the Tunnel that we believe that they will try other, easier targets.


  20.  There is now general acceptance that this is the responsibility of the French Government. SNCF has claimed force majeure and is declining any responsibility for financial losses by others. The UK Government says that it is the responsibility of the French Government to protect its through trade routes within the European Union, and the European Commission is threatening legal action against the French Government on this same issue.

  21.  However, the UK Government cannot absolve itself from blame. There is a general rule on frontiers that, if one country wishes to keep people out, it has to build and pay for a fence or other means, and police it. It is perverse to expect a country that has no interest in keeping in the kinds of people it does not want in the first place, to expend great effort and expense to achieve this.

  22.  The difficulty with the Channel Tunnel is that both countries have agreed that frontiers should include, for some traffic, dual juxtaposition, where there are UK frontier control staff at Eurotunnel's adjacent terminal and at Paris Gare du Nord Eurostar station.

  23.  A further complication is that the UK's immigration laws are such that, once a person steps ashore, he or she has the right to claim asylum. Under the Dublin Convention, it is no longer possible to send people straight back to France.

  24.  Thus, there is every reason to expect the UK Government to take equal responsibility with France for solving the immediate problem of asylum seekers affecting cross-Channel rail freight services, including sharing the cost of protection measures. In the regard, we were encouraged by the offer of the Strategic Rail Authority, supported by Transport Minister John Spellar MP, to contribute to the cost of a better and more secure fence around the SNCF Terminal.


  25.  We have suggested to Government that the UK frontier control zone around the Eurotunnel terminal could be extended to include the SNCF Terminal. This would allow UK frontier control staff to operate there, and staff who have rather more incentive to keep people out than their French opposite numbers have in retaining or apprehending people they do not want in France. It would require secondary legislation but, since the Government recently did this to extend the regulations to the Gare du Nord in Paris for rail passengers, we see no reason why that should not be done for freight.


  26.  It was clear well before November 2001 that asylum seekers were causing severe difficulties to freight trains. The British Government's reaction was to impose a £2,000 fine on EWS Railway and SNCF for every asylum seeker apprehended arriving by rail freight in the UK. Given the situation at Calais, it was totally unreasonable to expect EWS Railway to have any control over what happened in France, and SNCF would not pay anyway and were claiming force majeure. The only effect that these fines had on the industry was irritation that the Government chose to make the transport industry into unpaid border guards, rather than take responsibility itself for national security and policing of frontiers. We trust that the Government will not seek to reintroduce a modified form of such fines. If they do, it is likely that the services will stop completely.

  27.  We have previously suggested, without success, that the UK Government should offer assistance with policing, with military support or with the construction of a fence as a military exercise. It is, after all, in the interests of the UK to do this, possible more so than activity elsewhere in the world.

  28.  The UK Government is now taking the problem of asylum seekers on freight trains more seriously, after a slow start in November. There is much pressure on the French Government to step up security and policing and ensure that there is a fence around the SNCF Terminal at least as good as that of Eurotunnel.

  29.  Welcome and late thought this initiative is, there does seem to be a lack of a clear policy in how to deal with the problem beyond a new fence and more police. These are essential but short term palliatives, necessary to keep the business going. But there is a need for the UK Government to address the problem of the differences in asylum policies between it and other Member States. It is after all the differences in policy which are causing the queues of thousands of people at Calais seeking to enter the UK.

  30.  We have seen no official reports on why so many asylum seekers, or economic migrants (as many clearly are), seek to come to the UK. Is it our English language, the lack of identity cards, the ease with which people without papers can get jobs for cash, free education and health facilities and of course the presence of their family in the UK already?

  31.  We would have thought that the Government would have detailed information on how the UK's policies on these issues differ from other Member States and, in consequence, what changes they should make to reduce the differences between the UK and France.


  32.  For the UK, there remains the problem that, in matters immigration and asylum, we are often seen as "semi-detached"; from the rest of Europe. This is only possible because we have the sea between us, and even this is challenged by the Channel Tunnel. This attitude is having a serious effect on our trade routes, on business small and large, and is making a complete nonsense of out transport policy of encouraging rail freight generally and through the Channel Tunnel in particular.

  33.  Finally, we have urged the two governments at the front line to engage with each other at all levels on this issue. They should be mature enough to take what may be seen as politically courageous decisions, but make them they must! Continuing to lob insults across the channel—"you need more police and a better fence" and "you have the wrong kind of immigration policy" is no longer an option, either in private or public.

Tony Berkeley


May 2002

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 12 June 2003