HomeRail FreightHigh times for rail freight

High times for rail freight

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For too long rail freight has been treated as the poor relation of the railway, writes Andy Milne.

Freight drivers have long raged at the ignominy of being held in passing loops as sleek passenger trains speed by. Passengers are given a peculiar priority over the economic cargoes that sustain them. New rail freight depots are routinely subject to planning inquires and Kafkaesque debates as to their social and commercial validity.

The traditional view of a freight train is a wheezing Class 47 growling through Brent hauling empty hoppers. The romantic attachment of the public to railways feeds on modern passenger stock, trams swishing through city centres and the heritage railways harnessing rail nostalgia to a laudable business model. It stops there.

Few realise the massive investment by companies like GB Railfreight (GBRf) in new locomotives, Class 66s, new terminals and fleets of wagons such as the Ecofret intermodal transporters.

Freight is continuing to grow

Between 2013-14, rail freight set a post- privatisation record, moving 22.7 billion net tonne kilometres. Although figures published by the ORR in November showed a slight reduction in freight movements in the second quarter of this year, a decrease attributed in part to the closure of Ferrybridge1 and Ironbridge power stations, freight is continuing to grow – the domestic intermodal market in particular.

The number of new drivers is in turn experiencing real growth. The Rail Freight Group (RFG) recently released new figures showing that 201 new freight drivers had been trained in the past year, with 100 more posts planned for 2015.

The truth is rail freight has an economic and social impact far beyond the narrow confines of its gauge- challenged dynamic. Put bluntly, the future of the rail freight industry is as long and broad and high as a confident trading culture chooses to make it. The current political imperative is how better to advance this.

While governments come and go, many content to tinker with the grit- fouled mechanics of social engineering, it is the shippers, traders and dealers of the UK that ensure prosperity. Look at the temple-high containers piled up in Felixstowe, Southampton and London Gateway, in Liverpool and Glasgow, many awaiting onward shipment by rail to the factories and warehouses that catalyse our wealth. The freight train driver, operator, shunter and route manager, these men and women are the reach stackers of the future.

Logistical and distributive magic

The Coalition Government’s espousal of high-speed rail, electrification, and urban railways is praiseworthy, however it is no where near enough. If Britain is to sustain a unity and purpose that goes beyond the imperatives of our present political confusion it must trade effectively and efficiently.

Ask any young child at this time of year what they look forward to most. It is not the trip to shops, not the journey to see grandparents or poor relations, even by train. Rather it is the freight in the sleigh that captures the imagination. Just how true is all this, they ask? The parental answer is that much of what happens on Christmas Eve is achieved by magic.

Fortunately for the British economy, the rail freight industry achieves a similar overnight miracle of logistical and distributive magic every day of the year. High time rail freight was recognised for its true worth and rendered the investment and political support it needs to better answer the aspirations of Europe’s fastest-growing economy.

Read the full freight focus in December’s RailStaff


  1. The impression emerging from Government is that capacity for freight will be enhanced when HS2 is complete but this will not occur for another 20 years or more! There is a need for further network enhancements NOW, such as adding extra tracks on all main lines, building new curves/chords and even reopening certain abandoned lines for freight only. Failure to do so will result in freight continuing to lose out to an ever increasing number of passenger services on what is becoming an overcrowded network.


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