MAGGIE PAGANO: Every cloud has a silver lining and this one could see a renaissance in freight being transported by rail instead of by lorries
Along with NHS workers, the stars of lockdown have been Britain’s supermarket bosses and their staff who kept the shops open, and the food chain ticking over like clockwork.
Apart from a few scares that we were about to run out of loo rolls – which was always a nonsense – the supermarket chains, and the many independents, provided a superb service.
They devoted special shopping hours for the vulnerable and the over-70s and most of them increased their online delivery services to the highest level. Staff turned up to work every day, wearing masks while sitting behind their plastic screens. Their patience was a lesson to us all.
Fast track: Tesco recently started a new rail service from Spain bringing fresh vegetables and fruit into its Barking depot five days a week
But the glory days may be over; the supermarket shelves are starting to empty. A number of factors coming together have conspired to create a perfect storm which the industry warns may lead to acute shortages in fresh and chilled food supplies. Schools have been put on standby: Sheffield City Council has warned headteachers to get ready to hand out emergency fish fingers and pasta to their pupils.
The main reason for the shortages is the scarcity of up to 100,000 lorry drivers. This is due to so many European workers going home after Brexit. Other drivers left because of Covid restrictions. At the same time, the winding down of furlough has had a knock-on effect on the labour pool while fewer HGV drivers have trained in lockdown. On top of the logistical problems, there is a lack of production because many workers are on holiday after furlough. Add to this the extra demand for food because most Brits will be staying here for the summer so more food than usual is needed.
Industry leaders have written to the Prime Minister asking for emergency plans to introduce temporary worker visas for HGV drivers and to put them on the ‘shortage occupation list’.
Nor is it a new problem. Before the pandemic, it was estimated there would be a shortfall of 60,000 drivers due to Brexit – out of a total of 600,000 HGV drivers in the UK. But lockdown has compounded the gap.
Supermarkets are doing what they can to find domestic solutions by training new drivers and paying more to tempt drivers back.
Even so, Tesco paints a bleak picture, warning that the driver shortage means up to 48 tonnes of food is wasted each week.
The longer-term solution is to get more food freight moving by train. Moving food is responsible for a quarter of all the miles covered by heavy goods lorries belching out their pollution across the UK.
Until recently, rail services from the Mediterranean and elsewhere across Europe have not been reliable enough to transport fresh produce. Delays meant food was ruined before it got to the shelf while the train journey from Spain – from where most of our fresh produce comes – to the UK took four days – the same as by road.
With recent upgrades to rail, the journey is down to three days and the trains are the latest electric ones. Tesco is on the fast track: it recently started a new rail service from Spain bringing fresh vegetables and fruit into its Barking depot five days a week. Another four rail routes across the UK are planned, including one that means oranges from Valencia go by rail to Edinburgh. Other retailers are following Tesco’s lead.
Every cloud has a silver lining. In this case, maybe a golden one, which could see a renaissance in freight being transported by rail from Europe and within the UK instead of by lorries. Safer, cleaner and more sustainable. As well as HS2, we need HS3, 4 and 5.