There’s a place for rail as internet shopping boosts parcels

Cast your mind back a little over a decade. It’s January 2008 and RAIL 553 is warning that there’s little time to make use of Euston station’s freight facilities.
It quotes Intermodality Director Nick Gallop saying: “The Euston parcels deck has sat awaiting the call for decades, and even today the building still has vehicle bays marked with the names of places formally served from the site, and you can even see where the electric vehicles used to be charged up. This is pretty much the last chance to identify what end user interest might exist.”
Despite reports of urgent talks and interested customers, it wasn’t until 2012 that Colas Rail took the plunge. It ran trials using Class 86 electric locomotives hauling converted motorail vans carrying roll-cages of goods destined for supermarkets close to Euston. The vans had side doors that could be lowered to rest on platforms, allowing the goods to be rolled to waiting vans for their final mile.
The concept worked but never caught on. The following year, Colas was telling the Rail Freight Group’s annual conference of hopes of running from warehouses in the Midlands to London, Scotland and South West England. Most of Britain was within four to six hours of the Midlands for express freight services, the RFG heard.
Today, Euston’s facilities still lie idle and are set to be demolished in the next few years as High Speed 2 clears away the station British Rail built in the 1960s in favour of its new terminus. BR built Euston with ramps from platforms to a dedicated parcels deck that was connected to surrounding streets. Parcels were a major traffic with BR running trains of all lengths to accommodate them. It even built self-powered vehicles specifically for parcels as well as converting redundant diesel passenger units.
Some of BR’s parcels traffic achieved fame within enthusiast circles, not least the trains to and from Red Bank in Manchester, a site that Network Rail is now selling. Red Bank’s carriage sidings have long gone and ORR granted permission to sell in October despite misgivings from TransPennine Express which was concerned at the lack of spare land for rail purposes, even if none had yet been identified.
Idle Euston facilities may be but useless they are not. Britain has seen a sharp rise in parcel deliveries, driven by the switch to internet shopping. Click on your desire and the next day it appears at your front door, doubtless in the hands of an harassed courier with a small van full of similar parcels.
There’s some impressive logistics behind this delivery as your product is picked from a warehouse and sent on its way to you. You can be fairly sure that it won’t touch a train with so much of Britain’s distribution network reliant by design on roads.
The Urban Transport Group recently reported that van traffic was the fastest growing sector of road traffic and that 96% of them were powered by diesel. The group admits that it’s hard to know what these vans contain but suggests that a fifth are carrying goods for collection or delivery. Vans account for 15% of road traffic but emit 30% of the sector’s nitrogen oxide pollutant.
There are many factors behind the increase in van traffic but most observers agree that internet shopping has played a part in their rise. There’s surely scope to combine rail’s network of city and town centre stations with low-emission vans to rapidly deliver parcels from warehouses to customers. Railway stations could become useful places to customers to collect parcels. It’s what rail used to do before road transport became dominant. Some still do. There’s a Doddle parcel point outside King’s Cross station in London and Doddle is a joint venture in which Network Rail has a stake. I suspect its parcels don’t arrive at the platforms that sit yards from it.
GB Railfreight Managing Director John Smith is now talking about express parcel services using High Speed Trains made redundant from their passenger work. Many of these HSTs have spent their lives running to and from Paddington station, which has a Doddle outlet. It also retains ramps to its platforms from street level. It should be easy for a freight HST to glide to a halt in, say, Platform 8 in the small hours to be attended by a convoy of electric vans that whisk its contents away for final delivery. Those vans could be worthy successors to the ‘Scarab’ mechanical horses that buzzed around BR’s sundries depots.
This is nothing new for Paddington. At night, its platforms once echoed to the sound of vans receiving newspapers for distribution to the West Country. There were mail trains too, feeding and fed by the sorting office next door and the Post Office’s underground electric railway. Newspaper traffic died as presses moved from Fleet Street and the Royal Mail consolidated its station traffic to purpose-built distribution centre such as the Princess Royal centre near Wembley in North London. With their going, the railway forgot how to handle anything but passengers at stations.
It’s time to rediscover that knowledge. With impressive improvements to parcel tracking, it should be possible for rail to play to its strengths of fast and reliable delivery. Rail’s performance collapse following Hatfield’s accident in 2000 contributed to the Royal Mail dismantling its recently built Railnet operation. It took years to tempt the company back onto the rails but, eventually, it started using its Class 325 electric parcels units again.
John Smith played a part in this return. He doesn’t let ideas drop easily and pushes hard for what he wants. I’m sure he’ll push express parcels for all he’s worth. And push he’ll need to. Network Rail will not welcome any incursion into the time it has for overnight track maintenance. Sure, it needs time but its tracks exist to carry traffic and earn money.
I suspect they’ll be resistance from the wider transport industry that’s wedded to its trucks, vans and roads and will not be willing to change. I fear that in the absence of external encouragement it will simply stick with what it knows. That’s where politicians have a part to play. They can apply external influence by setting policies. These policies might favour more environmentally friendly distribution, perhaps banning polluting vehicles from city roads or making them pay much more to use them.
This could push a switch towards electric vehicles, which is nothing new, it’s how households used to receive their milk because electric milk floats were quiet and didn’t disturb the early morning peace. Link them to electric parcel trains and we’ve suddenly taken out much of the environmental harm of our switch to internet shopping.
If 2008 was too soon, and 2012 still too soon, perhaps we’re finally in a position from which rail can play to its talents and speed deliveries into city centres?

This article first appeared in RAIL 865, published on November 7 2018.

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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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