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Column - April 2017

Rail freight continues to serve the economy

The year started with our Prime Minister, Theresa May, confirming the Government’s support for rail freight at Prime Minister’s Question Time on January 25th. Her commitment now needs to be translated into further upgrading of the rail freight network to cater for the suppressed demand for rail freight services. The latest consumer rail figures show the importance of these markets. Traffic grew 7% in quarter 1, the highest level since 1998; and 4% in quarter 2 of 2016/17 compared to corresponding quarters in the previous year. Overall, it has grown by 30% in last 10 years.

There are a range of new and extended contracts reflecting these figures and demonstrating the industry’s commitment to invest and enhance its services.

Rail freightStarting with the first ever freight train from China to UKcarrying clothing and a range of consumer products which arrived in Barking, London,  in mid-January to huge acclaim.  The 12,000 km journey by railtook around 18 days, half the time sea transport takes. Rail, like sea, is a safer more sustainable way to carry cargo than either air or road freight.  In fact rail, which is much cheaper than air freight, produces around 20 times less CO2 emission than air freight, 76% less CO2 emissions than the equivalent HGV journey.  The train started in Yiwu in the eastern Chinese province of Shejian, going via Kasashstan, Brest in Belarus and then from Duisburg to Aachen, Calais and Barking. Weekly services between Germany and China have been operating since 2011. The train to London, which consisted of 34 containers, is part of a trial which will hopefully continue because of its socio-economic benefits. Rail freight is much safer than HGVs, which were almost six times more likely than cars to be involved in fatal crashes on local/urban roads. In 2014, almost half fatal motorway crashes involved HGVs even though they only make up 12% of miles driven on motorways. Rail is an important part of the logistics industry and is well placed to offer long distance traffic both internationally and in the UK, as this story shows. A quarter of containers imported into the UK are then transported by rail which is shippers preferred mode out of the container ports. So it is vital that the rail freight infrastructure is upgraded, especially out of Felixstowe and Southampton to cater for these services. 

Construction traffic, another key market for rail freight,which increased by 8.3% in quarter 2 against the previous year with the sector realising a 25% increase since 2012.

The  contract using the Channel Tunnel to move kaolin between Belgium and Scotland has been extended for another 12 months transporting china clay slurry from Antwerp to Scotland.

Tarmac’s Aberthaw Cement Plant has opened a rail facility which will ensure that 2,5000 truck movements will be removed from the road each year and reducing its road movements by 25%.  The services include two trains a week of cement to Westbury and one train a week to Moorswater in Cornwall after a 20 year gap in rail services from the plant.

Cemex UK is transporting more than 2m tonne of materials by rail, primarily for construction projects and operates four rail despatch points, Dove Hoes quarry in Derbyshire, Shap quarry in Cumbria, Neath near Swansea and Cardiff.

British Steel’s Immingham Bulk Terminal and Ore Blending Plant have collaborated with the rail freight industry to improve the process flow, removing a massive bottleneck in the last stage of the supply chain feeding the steelworks, resulting in a more efficient operation which meets British Steel’s demanding delivery schedule to keep the furnaces fed with ore and coal.

The Day group has signed a new ten year rail freight deal for more than 15 services a week which will keep the equivalent of more than 190 lorry loads a day off the roads. Under the contract, rail freight will move sea dredged aggregates from Cliffe in Kent to depots at Crawley, Purley, Tolworth and Battersea. The aggregates are used for the production of concrete and in general construction including Battersea Power Station development and the Northern Line extension.

Ports and terminals expansion and investment continues.Potter Logistics has completed upgrade work at its Ely rail freight terminal which include 5.7 km of new track, spread across 13 sidings on 10 acres of the site for train storage. Peep Ports created a dedicated biomass handling facility at Liverpool, a new rail loading facility and storage capacity for up to 100,000 tonnes of the compressed wooden pellets as part of its Liverpool2 £400m investment with road, rail and water connections, officially opened last November. Its rail freight terminal at Teesport celebrated its second anniversary with connections to Felixstowe, Southampton, Mossend and Grangemouth.

The latest emerging urban logisticspolicies are responding to air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, congestion anddemand for safer urban cycling all favour rail freight  if the right spatial planning policies are adopted by devolved and local authorities. Because rail freight is well placed to offer the long distance consumer trunk haul to rail connected terminals and consolidation centres on the edge of cities for transhipment into low emissions vehicles such as electric vans and bikes. As well as producing 76% less CO2 emissions, rail produces 90% particulates and up to 15 times less NOX emissions than HGVs.Furthermore, construction materials can be brought into city centre terminals as long as suitable sites are available as illustrated by the Day Group in London. And this is where local, regional and devolved authorities have a key role in safeguarding key potential rail freight terminal/consolidation sites in their Freight Strategies and local plans to integrate spatial and transport planning. Strategic Rail Freight Interchanges (SRFIs) are an intrinsic element of shifting more freight to rail as they enable rail to compete with HGVs by reducing the transhipment costs between the modes. For example, the SRFI at Daventry in Northamptonshire removes 23 million lorry miles each year, mainly off the congested road network. Developers want to invest in SRFIs as the growing number of proposals such as East Midlands Airport, Etwall Common near Derby, Parkside and Four Ashes near Stafforddemonstrate.Veridon’s I-Port, at Doncaster, continues to develop its rail freight interchange and has already let more units to household brands.City authorities need to embrace these new urban logistics models and recognise that HGVs are often not the right vehicles to use for urban deliveries on socio-economic grounds, even though using HGVsfor urban deliveries may save road haulage operators money.  So I am pleased to have contributed the rail freight element of a joint DfT and Association of Transport Operating officers ATCO guide to helping local authorities engage with the rail industry, launched at an event in April in Manchester.

Finally, the DfT, which  is issuing a Rail Vision/Strategy, outlining its latest restructuring and franchising plans, needs to define a coherent governance structure which protects freightservices by incentivising the TOCs to protect freight performance as the industry needs efficient paths.It is vital that rail freight is not disadvantaged by these changesso it can continue its crucial role in servicing the economy in a sustainable reliable way.

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