HomeRail FreightFuture beckons for rail freight

Future beckons for rail freight

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When the rail industry was privatised rail freight, like the rest of the business, was scheduled for quiet decline.

BR had four main freight companies for sale – three were bought by Wisconsin Central and became EWS – subsequently acquired by DB Schencker. Out of the fourth, RailFreight Distribution, BR’s international freight pioneers, came the hugely successful Freightliner – a management buy out. The international business of RfD subsequently became EWS International. Various freight yards and intermodal terminals were divided up between the businesses.

Far from declining, figures show rail freight 60% higher than it was back in 1994. This success has come about as a result of changes in freight type as well as volume. In a bizarre turn around of fortunes this presents quite a challenge to Network Rail, charged with getting the most out of the railway infrastructure.

Under BR freight trains were routinely held up to allow priority for passenger services. New rail freight forwarders and the private sector aren’t about to stand for that. Paths are bought and paid for and more are needed.

Happily Network Rail has demonstrated a healthy sympathy for the sector. Robin Gisby, the original freight director, had first hand experience of BR high handedness when working in the private sector running Charterail. Tim Robinson, Network Rail’s freight director, has worked at GBRf and EWS. His remit is to accommodate and encourage freight traffic.

“The challenge around freight has been enormous for Network Rail. The biggest change has been the shift in market share between bulk and intermodal traffic. Intermodal, which is primarily containers is now the largest single sector in terms of tonne- miles. In fact, 30% of all rail freight traffic is now containers.”

A new business profile

There have been several major changes that have added up to Network Rail’s freight challenge.

First, the traditional internal bulk freight traffic has indeed declined. The aggregates industry is still going strong and, as Tim Robinson pointed out, Network Rail is a major aggregates customer so a number of those trains are for its own use. However, coal is declining and the volume of bulk chemicals is also down.

Secondly, a lot of that bulk freight still exists but is now imported. Bulk trains have to be loaded at the dockside and then transported inland to power stations and other customers, meaning that the network of routes is now totally different.

In addition, the change over of power station fuel from coal to biomass has made a big difference. Biomass, basically wood chippings, is more sustainable than coal as it is the waste bi-product of the timber and paper industries and comes from trees that are replanted.

However, biomass needs different wagons from coal, and more of them as biomass is only half the density of coal meaning that the same weight of material has twice the volume.

Another complication is that biomass has a lower calorific value than coal, so you have to burn even more weight (and double that volume) to get the same heat energy out.

All this has required the building of dedicated biomass terminals at places like the Port of Tyne and Drax power station, and more wagons. As a freight train is limited in overall length to about 775 metres, the longest that British signalling can handle, more wagons mean more trains, in both directions, loaded from the port and empty back.

Trains versus lorries

As well as bulk traffic from the ports rail freight is dealing with a steep increase in containerised freight. Containers are easy to load onto ships and to unload at the other end. When a ship docks a number of containers may be unloaded for the same customer. These all have to be carried to their distribution centre or warehouse.

The obvious way to do this is using a fleet of trucks, each carrying a container. However, to move a number of containers at once is impractical, and having them all arrive at the warehouse at the same time is equally a problem, so the containers tend to be stored at the quayside and collected as required.

For short distances a driver can make a couple of collections a day, and for a small number of containers, that is a reasonable solution. However, if the distance is a bit further a driver can only make one run a day.

The transport costs have suddenly doubled. Quayside storage is expensive; as much as three times more expensive than having the container held at an inland yard.

Enter the Container Train. It can spirit 100s of containers away to inland terminals, where storage costs are lower and from where they can be easily collected by the end customer.

Tim Robinson points out that freight is very cost sensitive. For example, Daventry is close enough to Felixstowe that a lorry can collect two loads a day, making it marginally cheaper than using a train. However, Hams Hall near Birmingham, which is only 34 miles further, is just too far for that, reducing road freight to one collection a day, and making rail freight cheaper.

For multiple containers delivered over a distance, rail freight is competitive, and even attractive. The main challenge then becomes Britain’s constricted loading gauge. Bridges are lower, platforms nearer and tunnels cosier than on the continent.

Big boxes, little boxes

A standard shipping container is 20 or 40 feet long and 8’6” high. Most railway wagons can take either one 40’ container, two 20’ ones or, if it’s a 60’ wagon, one of each. And that is what the railway was delivering, from ports such as Felixstowe or Nuneaton, to rail freight depots at Nuneaton, Hams Hall and elsewhere.

Then along came the 9’6” “hi-cube” container. The shippers like it as they can load more into one container, and most of the world’s railways hardly notice the difference.

But Britain’s outdated and small loading gauge couldn’t cope.

To retain the new healthy level of freight traffic, Network Rail had to enlarge the loading gauge of its major international freight routes. These are W10 and W12 gauge and involve remodelling station platforms and canopies, dropping track under bridges and through tunnels, and even the wholesale replacement of bridges on some routes. Now the six freight hauliers can move 9’6” boxes around large parts of the network and carry on growing their businesses.

The quickest growing sector is now secondary distribution, from the primary distribution centre to others in the regions. Stores such as Tesco, Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer are interested in moving loads from the Midlands to Scotland, Northern England and Wales.

The competition is still lorries, ones with large trailers that can be stacked with pallets two-high. That makes them larger than even a hi- cube container. So the 10’1” container made an appearance. But that won’t even go on a W12 railway.

The answer was some extra-low- height wagons, manufactured in the UK, that enabled an extra-high container to fit on a standard track. They did the trick, and already 1.5% of UK freight traffic is using them.

Timetable triumph

There is still the challenge of running freight trains and passenger trains on the same railway, with both areas of the industry becoming busier. The West Coast Main Line, for instance, is one of the most heavily trafficked railways in Europe.

Freight often runs at night, when there are less passenger services. Set against this maintenance work uses night time possessions. Now maintenance has to be planned better to accommodate rail freight.

Clever thinking helps. Inspired track works are underway to help separate freight and passenger trains at key nodes. These include projects such as the Nuneaton North Cord, opened recently, which is a 0.9 mile new line which cuts 15 miles off a freight route and the North Doncaster Chord. Simple, pragmatic, railway developments which will save money and boost capacity.

Conflict of interest between passenger and freight operations is less of an issue now. A better planned, better performing railway aims to meet all its customers needs.

Says Tim Robinson, ‘The standards of train performance have increased so much these days that there is always a bit of a battle for scarce resources. However, there is a culture in the railway that the good of the railway must come first.’

Every week, 6,000 freight trains criss-cross the railway. 4,000 of these are scheduled, running to timetables every bit as detailed, and just as closely monitored, as passenger timetables. The remaining 2,000 are ad-hoc, arranged at short notice by a large timetabling team at Milton Keynes.

Quiet decline has been all but forgotten in the cries for loud and sustained expansion. Rail freight in Britain is a growing market and one which Network Rail’s freight team is determined to nurture and expand.


  1. I don’t think that the second paragraph is correct. The freight companies were bought by a consortium including Wisconsin Central, not by WC itself; and Railfreight (not RailFreight) Distribution and Freightliner were separate parts of the BR organisation, RfD also being acquired by the WC consortium – now DB Schenker, not Schencker.

    And which 15-mile section of route is cut off by the new chord at Nuneaton?


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