HomeRail NewsThe rise of intermodal rail freight

The rise of intermodal rail freight

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During the last week of April, professionals from across the freight industry gathered at Birmingham’s NEC for the annual Multimodal exhibition. Maggie Simpson, Executive Director of the Rail Freight Group reports on the continued rise of intermodal rail freight.

The show, now in its seventh year, is an opportunity to showcase the latest developments and opportunities for shippers, and those who deliver their supply chains and logistics for them. As the name suggests, the event focuses on logistics which use more than one transport mode, and as such there is a significant presence from the rail sector at the show, along with ports, water freight and of course road. Rail Freight Group has been involved with the exhibition for several years, hosting an exhibition stand and a successful conference for their members and supporters.

It is perhaps hard to believe that rail freight has come so far in establishing itself as part of mainstream freight and logistics activity, alongside the bulk coal and steel movements that once dominated. But that is precisely what has happened. ‘Liner’ trains, introduced of course by Beeching, represented less than 20% of all rail freight at privatisation, but today make up over a third of all traffic. And the growth in intermodal has been spectacular, recording over 85% increase in the decade to 2012.

As with the passenger business, there is no single factor that has driven growth, but a number of conditions which have coincided. The UK has increasingly become an import based economy, and the rise of Far Eastern production has changed the face of global shipping logistics.

Rail privatisation led to competition between operators, driving efficiency and service quality improvements. There has been significant investment, in locomotives, wagon and handling equipment, and in rail infrastructure at ports. Investment by Government to enable larger ‘high gauge’ containers to move on rail has also been critical. This all helps to persuade customers that using rail is a good choice for their business, and that they will get economic, as well as environmental benefits from using the train.

New rail freight handling terminal - Stobart

Today’s Business

To understand where and why intermodal trains are running, you need to look at the shipping and ports market. The dominant flows today are between the so called ‘deep sea’ ports of Felixstowe, Southampton and London (Tilbury and London Gateway). These ports see some of the largest ships in the world sailing from the Far East and the Americas conveying a range of imported goods. The size of these ships is increasing too, with the largest vessels now conveying 18,000 TEUs (Twenty Foot Equivalent Units, the global measure of how many containers a ship can convey).

The operators of these large vessels will generally seek to minimise the number of port calls, and will deliver all UK boxes in a single visit, leaving rail and road to distribute containers to the hinterland.Hence we see rail services from these ports to the inland terminals in Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow, South Wales and so on.

Elsewhere other ports also receive containerised traffic on a more limited scale. The East Coast ports such as Immingham and Tees and Liverpool receive smaller ships conveying deep sea, and ‘short sea’ traffic from the continent, as well as roll on roll off lorry trade. The trade is a mixture of goods imported directly from mainland Europe and also so called feeder traffic which has been delivered from a deep sea vessel at ports such as Rotterdam for onward shipping to the UK.

This market has traditionally been harder for rail as the container sizes vary, the volumes are less concentrated and the distance to market smaller. However in recent years there have been some encouraging trial services, with interest growing, and developments like the major investment in a new deep sea container terminal at Port of Liverpool set to change the market in coming years.

The rise of retail on rail

Not all intermodal trains are serving a port however. From a standing start, so called domestic intermodal trains have seen persistent growth over recent years, particularly on the West Coast Main Line between the English Midlands and Scotland. They are moving traffic for a range of retail customers such as Tesco, Diagio, Asda, coordinated by logistics companies such as Stobart, Malcolm Logistics and JG Russell.

Although there are similarities with the deep sea market, the customer needs for this traffic are different and the price competition with road particularly fierce when you consider the high volumes that can be transported on a ‘double deck’ road trailer. But rail is delivering on reliability, flexibility and on cost as well as helping to deliver sustainability commitments. Tesco for example moves groceries on a number of different services from their warehouse at Daventry, some of it packed ready to be unloaded on the shop floor.

The Rail Network

Supporting this traffic, and encouraging further growth, means that we need a rail network, and a policy framework that meets the requirements of the customers and the rail freight operators. Most recently, the focus has been on gauge clearance, increasing the physical size of the network to allow large containers to be moved. This has meant track lowering, platform alterations and bridge reconstruction on the key routes. With a good network now available, focus is turning to allowing longer intermodal trains to operate – up to 750m – and in increasing the capacity for freight on main Rail Freight, containers, freightlinerroutes. The critical project for the next five years is to upgrade the cross country route from Felixstowe to Nuneaton to allow more trains to run, with similar work also under development on the routes from Southampton. In the medium term, there is also a strong case for electrification, coupled with new electric locomotives, which would deliver further improvements in train length and network capacity as well as the obvious environmental benefits.

Rail efficiency is also important, and Network Rail has created ‘strategic freight corridors’ to allow them to look at performance and journey time on a critical basis. Although it is accepted that freight will be held in loops at some points, and generally does not run in the peaks, every extra minute on a journey has a cost for the operator, in fuel, in staff time and in equipment utilisation. Unlocking this will help rail compete better with road.

Away from the track, a stable policy environment is also vital, with customers able to feel confident about track charges, Government support and certainty about rail freight having a long term role in their logistics provision. We are lucky to have strong cross party support, but with difficult questions on rail funding, the structure of charges and network development to be addressed in coming months and years, the benefits of rail freight for customers, shippers and the UK economy need to be kept in the forefront. At Rail Freight Group we will continue to press the case for an even greater role for intermodal rail freight in the future.


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