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Column - March 2013

Benefits to customers and public of rail upgrades

Consumer rail freight has grown 29% in the past 5 years, despite the recession, and increased market share while imports flat-lined. This is because rail offers an reliable competitive service as part of an integrated intermodal solution.  A range of factors have contributed to this consistent growth, including service improvements and recognition of rail’s role in long distance trunk haul to combat road congestion.  But another fundamental driver has been both this and the previous Government’s support for rail freight enhancements which resulted last year in 10% productivity improvements proving that  the Strategic Rail Freight Network (SRFN) enhancements are now being translated in corridor performance improvements. In fact, overall rail freight has experienced a 32% improvement in productivity in the past five year due to longer heavier trains, the building of longer freight loops and high gauge upgrade programme, catering for 9ft 6 containers to the rail network.  

New DRS locoBetween two thirds to three quarters of rail freight traffic is port based which explains the economic importance of upgrading our transport links from and to these gateways and our main pollution centres and why the following projects are so important to our economic future.

The Southampton diversionary route via Salisbury, which is now open, relieves pressure on the important route between Southampton and the West Midlands and complements the upgrade of the other rail route which resulted in rail’s market share out of the port increasing from 29% to 36% within a year of opening. Similarly, the completion of the high gauge clearance along the direct rail route from Felixstowe  port to the West Midlands, the parallel rail route to the A14, was marked by the opening of the Nuneaton chord in November 2012.  This line allows freight trains to travel through Nuneaton station without affecting passenger services helping to reduce disruption and make the railway more reliable as well as helping to remove up to 750,000 long distance lorries from this route which in turn opens up access to the North West and Scotland. Another key upgrade to the route will be the completion of the Ipswich chord in March 2014 which will allow freight trains to avoid Ipswich thus reducing the round trip by 2 hours as well as relieving pressure on passenger and freight services going towards London.

Gauge upgrades on the East Coast Mainline (ECML) in England will be completed by March 2014 taking pressure off another arterial route. The GN/GE joint line via Lincoln, due to be completed at the same time will also improve freight capacity and relieve pressure on this route.

The Doncaster North chord, due to be opened in April 2014, will improve the bulk sector service, in particular coal, out of Immingham port to the Aire and Trent Valley power  stations including Drax. It will facilitate two new routes via Eggborough and Ferrybridge both saving between  25-40 minutes each way.

Further capacity enhancements on the key SRFN, including electrification upgrades which allows faster more efficient trains to run, will be carried out in the next Network Rail period 2014-2019. Additionally the industry will have to agree what the other priorities within the committed Government funding for this period.

The emerging biomass market for power stations needs to be supported in national energy and transport policy including the ORR charging regimes if it is to offer a key energy alternative to coal which is being phased out by the early 2020s; coal wagons can and have been adapted for biomass but dry storage facilities are needed as well as rail network changes. Drax, our biggest power station is currently adapting one of its turbines to biomass. The rail freight industry is keen to invest in biomass but Government policy will dictate whether it can be a viable part of our energy mix and those decisions need to be made soon.   


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