Keeping freight on the right track

27 March 2018
Patrick Talbot
Patrick Talbot
HM Principal Inspector of Railways

It is a cold morning in winter and at a maintenance depot in Crewe, a group of ORR inspectors are observing a demonstration of train preparation and shunting. They are not there for an inspection, but for a specialist freight operations training course being run by ORR’s freight team, with help from workers from the freight sector.

The course is intended to equip inspectors who do not regularly work on freight operations with an understanding of the potential risks and hazards involved in freight operations, as well as an appreciation of the specific challenges faced by rail freight operators.

Britain's Freight Operating Companies (FOCs) lifted 18.8 million tonnes of freight between October and December 2017. Although recent years have seen a decline in the volumes of commodities such as coal and metals that were traditionally moved by rail, there have been increases in other areas such as aggregates and intermodal container traffic. Railfreight is an increasingly competitive market, with operators fighting for business with other transport modes, as well as among rival freight companies.


While many health and safety risks are common across passenger and freight mainline operations, the unique nature of rail freight means that a number of risks are more prevalent there. For example, railfreight is a 24-hour business, and as many services operate at unsocial hours employers have to be conscious of the potential health and safety risks from fatigue amongst their staff.

Freight operators shift a dizzying variety and quantity of goods and this means that special care has to be taken with such seemingly everyday tasks such as loading so that they do not pose a risk to other railway users. The National Freight Safety Group is working to identify solutions to common risks, and FOCs are using ORR’s Risk Management Model (RM3) in their work.


ORR's dedicated freight inspection team brings together experts in railway operations and high-hazard regulation with colleagues from regulatory permissioning and legal support to ensure we provide a comprehensive service to the regulation of the freight sector.

Unfortunately, despite all that expertise and planning, we have never found a satisfactory alternative to early-morning inspections in the cold and wet.