Government’s railfreight strategy is nothing of the sort

There’s a deep irony at the heart of the government newly published rail freight strategy. It boasts that each tonne of railfreight reduces carbon emissions by 76% compared with road transport. Yet in chasing its environmental targets, government has wiped out the coal market for which Britain invented railways and on which railfreight relied (in recent years coal has accounted for as much as 35% of freight moved.)

DfT reckons railfreight “has the potential to make a real contribution to meeting the UK’s emissions reduction targets” but doesn’t say what railfreight’s emissions are, simply saying that rail accounts for 2% of total UK transport emissions in a figure that includes passenger operators.

With coal gone, DfT suggests that the future might lie in “new ‘core’ markets” such as construction materials and intermodal containers (both established for decades). Its strategy contains vague hopes and hints of a transfer of goods from road to rail. It talks of action in four areas – innovation and skills, network capacity, track access charging and “telling the story of rail freight”.

It doesn’t reveal what it wants from railfreight. There’s little policy behind this strategy beyond carbon emissions reduction. There are no goals. There is a list of 25 actions, which makes this a plan not a strategy.

dsc_0242DB Schenker 59204 backs into Acton Yard in West London with a stone train. PHILIP HAIGH.

It’s interesting for what it doesn’t say as much for what it does say. Take its case study of a Colas Rail trial of moving roll cages in converted Motorail wagons from warehouses to Euston for onward transport to shops in Central London. What it doesn’t say is that these trials took place several years ago, in 2012 (RAIL 705 and 725), and have not translated into permanent services. Indeed, the very simple, and purpose-built, road access to Euston’s platforms is set to be swept away by government’s HS2 project.

Has government a strategy of switching city centre supermarket deliveries from road to rail for their trunk haul from distribution centres? Apparently not.

It talks of using space on passenger trains to carry parcels. Is it likely to include such provision in future franchises? Apparently not. This is for the rail industry with DfT suggesting that government only has a role “by demonstrating the opportunity which exists”.

Then DfT suggests: “There may also be scope to explore greener alternatives to diesel fuel such as biofuels, more advanced technology such as hydrogen or electric or developing new ways of reducing noise.”

Biofuels have been around for years. Indeed, EWS (now DB Cargo) ran its first biofuel service way back in 2007 (RAIL 572). DfT says it’s supporting the biofuel sector with capital grants but the indifference shown by freight companies so far suggests this is not seen as an answer. Nor is electric traction. DB Cargo has rafts of Class 90s rotting in storage, having not turned a wheel in years. GBRf has recently taken delivery of another batch of Class 66 diesels. DRS provides an exception by bringing electro-diesel Class 88s to service sometime soon.

Meanwhile government has been funding projects to push freight away from electrified routes, such as the East Coast Main Line. Here, the Peterborough-Lincoln-Doncaster route has been upgraded to allow freight to be diverted from the ECML to provide more space for passenger trains. Not that there was ever much ECML electric freight. Container trains, for example, heading to and from Felixstowe use diesel locomotives because their route via March has no overhead wires or any plans for them.

The picture is better for Felixstowe trains running via London and the West Coast Main Line. Here, Freightliner has used electric locomotives for many years. Their passage should be eased by a project now underway to electrify the Gospel Oak-Barking line to provide an alternative route across London.

In May 2000, EWS released a ten-year investment plan for railfreight. It included nine electrification schemes. One was Gospel Oak-Barking. Another was Crewe-Kidsgrove, which was delivered in 2003 by the West Coast Route Modernisation. Other schemes remain undone: Nuneaton-Water Orton-Walsall, Water Orton-Proof House Junction, Redhill-Reading, Dudding Hill, Acton Wells-Acton Yard and Kew East, and Edinburgh Suburban. EWSR’s call for the Number 2 lines between Dalston and Camden Road to have AC electrification added to their DC status was partially overtaken by the East London Line plan that now devotes these two tracks to passenger services east of Highbury & Islington. From there westward the lines now have AC electrification. Two further schemes, Falkland Yard and Shields Junction Burma Road Line were small schemes aimed at simplifying coal traffic by removing any need to switch from diesel to electric locomotives.

EWSR’s document provides a further warning to freight predictions. Using a base of 100 in 1999, it quotes Railtrack’s 1999 prediction that by 2010 railfreight would sit between 115 and 239 (in gross tonne kilometres) and consultants McKinsey’s suggestion in 2000 that the figure would lie between 173 and 313 (in net tonne kilometres). What actually happened is that 2010 produced a figure of 105. The DfT’s latest statistics (2014/15) equate to 122 on the same basis. That’s 22.2 billion net tonne kilometres but it includes 6.5ntkm of coal. Remove that and 1999’s 100 falls to 86. Did a lack of investment lead to this fall or is the fall proof investment was not justified?

DfT is now considering bids from Stagecoach and First/MTR for the South West Trains franchise. The bidders will have built their timetables for trains to and from Alton around the needs of an oil terminal at Holybourne, on the final single-line section. Yet, as Paul Clifton reported in RAIL 809, that traffic to Fawley, near Southampton has ended. It shows just how quickly freight services can change. Should DfT now keep the paths for freight in the hope some traffic returns or fill them with passenger trains. Its strategy provides little clue other than saying this balance is increasingly a challenge.

It admits “there is not a well-developed process for assessing the potential for future freight traffic growth to impact on franchise proposals and vice versa. The development of a clear Government strategy for rail freight provides an opportunity to review this position and consider whether the passenger franchise proposal process might be made more robust in this regard.”

It’s right on both counts. A clear strategy would certainly help. I don’t think this DfT strategy will.

Arcow quarry provides a good example of railfreight working quickly with NR to provide a new main line connection. In this case on the Settle-Carlisle railway near Ribblehead for aggregates. Meanwhile the DfT is working with Transport Systems Catapult in a project they hope will “develop a better evidence base on freight movements which could lead to improved infrastructure and efficiencies in transporting freight, support measures to reduce empty running and understanding the UK’s resilience in times of crisis” by March 2018. The commercial freight companies have a keen interest in reducing empty running, improving efficiency and improving infrastructure. They can act far more quickly than a government study.

DfT uses a case study of a ‘pop-up’ depot in Warrington to receive aggregates from the Peak District. It was “installed in weeks on land adjacent to the West Coast Mainline using a readymade weighbridge and office”. DfT doesn’t mention that the site is the long-standing Dallam Lane freight depot. DB Cargo’s use of the site is very welcome and it shows, as does Arcow, that railfreight can react quickly to business opportunities.

Yet in the background of DfT’s photograph of Dallam Lane is large warehouse full of ASDA lorries. This warehouse has a rail link but look carefully and you’ll see the approach tracks are rusty and there are containers dumped over the rails just beyond the site gate. A DfT rail freight strategy that falls to address the logistics industry’s fixation with lorries is not much of a strategy.

This article first appeared in RAIL 810, published on September 28 2016.

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Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.

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