Mail by Rail – common sense surely?


On 6th June 2003, the Royal Mail announced that it was to dismantle its entire rail distribution network by March 2004, transferring the majority of the business to road.

So what?

According to the Government, the Royal Mail’s choice of transport mode is a purely commercial decision, and moving from rail to road will save tens of millions of pounds a year.We think this is nonsense for a number of reasons:

1) The Royal Mail is not a private company, but a government-owned plc. Not only is it obliged to do as the Government says, but actions taken by the Royal Mail send messages to the rest of us about government policy. Strangely enough, the same Government is committed to an 80% increase in rail freight by 2010. If they are serious, they’d be committed to keeping their own traffic on rail, surely?

2) Following a wide-ranging review of transport options in the early 1990s, the Royal Mail decided it made sense to stick with rail deliveries, investing £170 million in state-of-the- art facilities.The move to road is predicted (by its supporters) to be worth savings of £25 million a year.We should add that the Royal Mail is claiming a figure of £90 million a year, but they would say that, wouldn’t they? But even if these figures are true (and we have every confidence in real terms that they are not) the savings will be cancelled out for many years by the capital expenditure on those now worthless rail facilities.

3) The Royal Mail currently carries 14% of all long-distance mail (including 25% of all 1st Class mail) on 49 trains. According to the transport unions, these trains will be replaced by 500 HGV lorry movements a day – a total of 122,000 vehicle miles per day, or 305 million miles a year.

Why should we care?

…over the last 18 months… 99.9% of Royal Mail services ran, and 93.5% ran to time…

According to the DETR – an arm of government, after all – the hidden ‘external’ cost of heavy goods vehicles is in the region of £28,000 per vehicle/year, but some authorities suggest 50p per kilometre might be nearer the mark.You can look at figures in all sorts of ways, of course, but on this sort of evidence, it would seem reasonable to predict an environmental and social cost of somewhere between £14 million and £244 million a year. In real terms, the cash saving has almost certainly disappeared.

Even if you’re a hardened motorist who couldn’t give a fig for the additional 15,000 tonnes of atmospheric pollution generated by those lorry movements, you’ll probably already have appreciated that from early 2004 the vehicles will be in front of you and behind you, costing you time and money.The same Government that wants freight transferred to rail and atmospheric pollution reduced, etc, etc, has also admitted that road traffic will rise by a third in the next ten years.Why add to the problem?

If you make domestic journeys by air, expect extra delays. At present Royal Mail has the option of air, rail or (tenuously) road for Anglo-Scottish deliveries.These will mostly be carried by air in future.

If you travel by rail, you can bet that fares will rise as a result of this decision.The Royal Mail contract helps to pay for the rail infrastructure the trains use. If it is terminated, those costs will fall largely onto rail passengers.

Thanks to the botched privatisation and consequent patch-ups, bodge-ups and misunderstandings, rail services are currently unreliable and slow (see Mole, page 3), but rail freight company EWS has worked hard to make the Royal Mail contract a success under difficult circumstances. Over the last 17 months, the company claims that 99.9% of Royal Mail services ran, and 93.5% of those trains ran to time.That sounds better than the M25 option, surely?

The A to B angle

We use Royal Mail exclusively, and are a relatively large user, dispatching about 1,500 items a month. As such we receive a lot of surveys from Royal Mail, but three months ago we became a little suspicious that there might be a hidden agenda, when a phone survey repeatedly asked our views on future service reductions. At what level of delivery performance would we switch to another operator? Of course, Royal Mail was well aware that performance would suffer, and it was checking with business customers to see how much traffic might be lost. At present, most A to B magazines are dispatched to major cities from the Bristol rail depot (opened in May 2000 at a cost of many millions of pounds). For the record, we’re very satisfied with performance levels, but they will obviously deteriorate if the 125mph trains are replaced by 60mph lorries.

What can we do?

Sometimes, we’re powerless to intervene, but this is a government matter, and that means your MP is obliged to take note of your views. Our leaders sometimes forget, but that is what democracy is all about.The postal and transport trade unions have established a central web-based information point, enabling you to email or fax your MP in just a few minutes. Simply visit:

Transferring long-distance mail to road is about as short-term as transport policy gets and the long-term consequences could be pretty unpleasant. In theory, post could return to rail, but in practice, this would be an expensive and complex operation. If we fail to act now, we may regret it for a long time.