FREIGHT OPERATORS are demanding dramatic cuts in track access charges to compensate for the recent delays and to attract freight customers back to rail.
The move follows growing fears by shadow Strategic Rail Authority head Sir Alastair Morton that the current rail crisis could permanently damage rail freight.
Recent delays are thought to have prompted many customers to abandon rail and turn to road transport for freight. Longer term contracts demanded by road hauliers could now see rail lose long term custom.
Morton, answering MPs questions at a transport select committee, said he believed passengers would return 'pretty smartly', once services were back to normal and they got fed up with road congestion. But he added the outlook for freight was 'more uncertain.'
Planning director for rail freight operator EWS Graham Smith said the only way to restore customer confidence was to reduce track access charges.
He added that the ongoing network renewal programme had to take in to account the fact that much freight is moved at night - just as rail maintenance often starts.
Recent Government tax concessions to road hauliers and the raising of the maximum lorry weight to 44t have added to rail industry fears.
Smith believed it would cost little to restore confidence in the railways. 'The Regulator has the mechanism open to him and a 50% reduction (in track access charges) is perfectly feasible, and the minimum to be expected, ' he said.
Rail regulator Tom Winsor this week said he was in the process of 'establishing a charging regime that would stimulate growth in rail freight', but pointed out no decisions had been reached.
Rail Freight Group chairman Tony Berkeley backed Morton and said customers would quickly find alternative modes of transport. 'The huge cost and effort of transferring modes of transport mean it is less likely they would return, ' he added.
The sSRA confirmed the 'severe impact', saying there had been a 14% reduction in gross tonne mileage last month against August 1999 figures, while an 8% increase could have been expected.
The Royal Mail this week announced plans to dramatically increase its number of airmail flights to serve the Christmas rush. A spokesman said it liked to have a mix of transport systems, but added: 'Ultimately it is customer needs that count.'