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Rail freight – Solving the capacity challenge

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In the mid 1980s, France’s national postal carrier, La Poste, launched its high-speed mail rail service. It suddenly allowed the company to move letters and parcels around the country at 270 km/h, sorting as it went.

Next year that service will end, but this isn’t symptomatic of an overall decline in rail freight in the country, in fact the opposite could be true. La Poste wants to grow and plans to increase the amount it moves by rail by 30 per cent in the next three years. To do this it must retire its TGVs and turn to conventional freight containers. Marc Johnson reports.

The UK’s planned high-speed rail system, HS2, is currently saying ‘no’ to freight. HS1 has shown that freight capacity can be fitted around passenger services and maintenance schedules, albeit with fewer freight paths than was originally hoped for. There are even those who believe it could be possible to take some of the HSTs that will be displaced by IEP, tear out the seats and run a high-speed rail mail service in the UK. Either way, the debate will continue.

‘We’ve had good meetings with HS2. They’re starting to listen,’ said Lord Berkeley at the opening of the 22nd annual Rail Freight Group (RFG) conference on 4 June.

High-speed and the opportunities for rail freight was one of the central themes of the event. In his presentation, Nick Gallop from transport consultancy, Intermodality, described speed as rail freight’s “missing weapon”. Faster services could tip the balance in rail’s favour over slow road haulage and expensive airfreight services. The potential to use passenger stations as freight facilities, as is already being trialled at London Euston, would also open up a huge new network for freight in the UK and offer some kind of solution to the need for a better network of strategic rail freight interchanges.

The rail freight industry has already said it would like HS2 to be future- proofed for freight use so at least the option for high-speed rail freight isn’t being binned before construction even starts. At the very least, the industry wants assurances that there would be a freight allocation for some of the additional capacity created on the West Coast main line with the opening of HS2.


The rail freight industry’s interest in HS2 extends beyond just the possibility of high-speed freight and released capacity. A link between HS2 and HS1 would open up further opportunities in Europe but currently any plans to connect the two lines have been shelved. One of Higgins’ first acts as HS2 chairman was to recommend that the government scrap the £700 million link and explore other options.

However, as Anna Walker of the ORR pointed out there are positive signs in Europe. The progress of the Fourth Rail Package’s Technical Pillar shows that interoperability across the EU and the development of strategic freight corridors is top of the political agenda.

Rail freight in CP5

Across England, Wales and Scotland, £206 million will be spent between 2014 and 2019 to develop the UK’s strategic freight network. This includes major projects like the Great Western main line gauge enhancement, Felixstowe – Nuneaton Phase 2 and the Northern Ports and Trans-Pennine freight capability.

Photo: Photo: i4lcocl2 / shutterstock.com.
Photo: Photo: i4lcocl2 / shutterstock.com.

Although such major infrastructure investment gives the industry reason to be optimistic about CP5, some of the same challenges such as access charges and capacity continue to put up hurdles to growth in the rail freight sector.

Finding the extra capacity is not the only challenge. Convincing politicians that rail freight is the correct strategy for transporting goods around the country is the first job. Stephen Joseph, chief executive of Campaign for Better Transport, spoke about how the industry needs to push the economic and environmental arguments for rail freight in order to wrestle away some extra capacity from passenger operators.

Rail freight generates 76 per cent less CO2 than road and helps improve air quality as a whole. It takes up less land than roads. The number of casualties on Britain’s roads could also be reduced if more heavy goods vehicles were removed from the network. However, roads still take precedent. Stephen said that the demand for new roads in the UK continues to be overestimated, potentially drawing funds away from rail.

Although some politicians may still need convincing of rail freight’s potential, Network Rail gave its firm backing to the sector. Paul McMahon, freight director at Network Rail, said that Network Rail’s strategy on freight “supports rail freight and growth of freight through CP5 and beyond.”

Throughout that period one of freight’s biggest challenges will be electrification. Network Rail is beginning to deliver a nationwide electrification scheme and McMahon acknowledged that there needs to be more discussion with the sector to establish the case for locomotive acquisition. Can freight operators feel confident enough to invest heavily in electric vehicles?

Says McMahon, ‘If we wait to electrify the railway, how can we make it pay for the operators who are sitting on fleets of diesel locomotives that may only be at their half life.’

Issues like electrification point to a need for long-term planning. ‘This sector can’t be looked at in five year blocks,’ said Anna Walker. In her presentation, Anna set out what the ORR wants to see for freight in CP5. This includes a 17 per cent reduction in engineering works disruption, an agreed charging structure and improved asset management.

Since the event, there have been a number of significant announcements for freight in the UK, including the Secretary of State’s decision to give development consent to an 8 million sq ft extension of Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal.

What the conference did show was that although the challenges are numerous, the investment appears to be there and the industry is starting to have the discussions it needs to have.


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