The frustrations of port operators over poor road and rail connectivity came across loud and clear during research for a new report on port connectivity in the UK.
Sir John Randall, who visited a wide range of ports and operators during his research, told members of the British Ports Association and UK Major Ports Group that he found great enthusiasm among those he met.
“But I also detected a healthy dose of cynicism and, indeed, bewilderment as to why ports and port connectivity do not have a higher profile politically, financially and in the wider business community. Someone told me ports are the Cinderella of the transport industry in doing a lot of the work but not getting the reward. I do ask, what happens when Cinderella stops working? One told me they were tempted to close their port for a couple of days just to let the public know what actually goes on.”
Poor connectivity can mean this ‘maritime Cinderella’ can’t work as efficiently as it should and that it bears the cost of delays, said Randall. But, he said, when the supermarkets are low on stocks: “It becomes a national issue, an economic issue, a political and public issue, but many people are just not aware it is ‘their’ issue.”
Ports are very much at the heart of the country’s operations, pushing freight through the nation’s arteries to where it is needed, he said. However, port operators told him they feel undervalued across the spectrum.
“You told me of the frustration as you invest billions in infrastructure for quicker, smoother, efficient handling of freight, ultimately to the benefit of the UK, when the effects of those investments are constrained by transport links.”
Some ports also noted that the process of devolution complicated the issue by adding a layer of confusion as to who and where they should contact, he added.
The key message to address port and freight connectivity is that there needs to be consistent, cross-modal, cross-government, cross-industry understanding of the importance of efficient freight movements to and from port gateways, said Randall. He hoped the final report – due out by the end of the year – will get that message across.
“You are integral to the function of this country,” he told the port operators. “Government and industry need to help each other to understand what is needed by when and why, so they can make a material difference.”
He concluded: “The ports industry is confident, successful, professional and absolutely vital, the Ports and freight the facilitate will play a crucial role in the future prosperity of our country and growth, particularly if we improve domestic connectivity.”
Sir John, who has led the research study so far, has recently been appointed environmental adviser to the Prime Minister.
He presented his findings at a reception organised by the BPA and UKMPG during London International Shipping Week. Shipping Minister John Hayes said: “Connectivity is a subject which we need to give more attention to. Government departments tend to look at road, rail and ports separately, but it is connected. I do want to do more on port connectivity. I also want to do more on zones around ports, taking advantage of ports’ ability to be regenerative in their locality.”
This last comment was in response to BPA chairman Rodney Lunn, who called for the creation of port zones to enable fast-track planning. “Ports create jobs, ports drive the regional and national economy, and we don’t want to be held back,” he said.