THE revelation in this month’s print edition of Railnews of the full extent of Dr Richard Beeching’s proposals, nearly half a century ago, to reduce the size of the rail network is a real shocker.
Even though not all the proposed closures have come about, we are today nevertheless struggling to find capacity to meet evergrowing demand from both passengers and for freight services on a network significantly smaller than in 1965.
Passenger numbers are heading for a peacetime record of over 1.5 billion this year. Freight requirements are also rising at an unprecedented rate. In the first quarter of 2012-13, total freight moved amounted to 5.49 billion net tonne/kilometres, a 6.8 per cent increase compared to the same quarter in the previous fiscal year.
This was the highest amount of freight moved since the third quarter of 2006-07 — another indicator earlier this year from the rail industry that Britain’s double-dip recession was coming to an end.
Actual freight lifted in 2012-13 Q1 was 28.9 million tonnes, an increase of no less than 19.8 per cent compared to 2011-12 Q1 — and the highest Q1 figure since the Office of Rail Regulation started compiling statistics. No doubt helped by rising world gas prices, the amount of coal carried by train (mainly to electricity generating stations) increased by 32.1 per cent, compared to last year’s Q1. And the volume of other freight lifted in 2012-13 Q1 was 16.1 million tonnes, an 11.5 per cent increase over the previous year’s Q1.
In this November’s print edition of Railnews I have written about the continuing resurgence in demand for passenger train services and route re-openings. But there can be little doubt that there is a similar, growing trend of demand for rail freight capacity.
CBI calls for major upgrades
This has just been emphasised by a major report from the Confederation of British Industry saying upgrades are urgently needed for rail freight services to ports along the east coast of England to overcome “deficiencies in the rail network” and to make a transformational impact on businesses.
The CBI says: “Grimsby and Immingham combine to form the UK’s largest port by tonnage, and further up the estuary the port of Hull handles large volumes of unitised trade, particularly from Northern European and Scandinavian markets. Along with the Port of Tyne, Teesport, and Felixstowe, it is part of a vital set of trade hubs along the north and eastern coastline of the UK.
“But rail freight upgrades are urgently needed if these ports are to continue to fully support the needs of businesses, particularly those in Northern regions.
New capacity is needed on rail links serving the ports alongside modernisation of signalling and electrification of parts of the network.
“In addition, there is significant potential to develop east-west trade across the North by upgrading [structure] gauge to accommodate wider and higher rail wagons carrying bulk biomass or container trade.
“Investing in these improvements could have a transformational effect on businesses across the North that rely on the efficient transfer of goods and materials from overseas. It would also present opportunities for ports in the North East, Humber and in the North West to develop trade flows that are currently constrained by deficiencies in the rail network.”
Rail freight is gathering momentum
Among other recent developments is news that a substantial rail freight interchange is planned at Upper Sundon in Mid-Bedfordshire, close to the new junction 11a of the M1 motorway and alongside the Midland Main Line — which is now to be upgraded to the full W12 structure gauge (as the CBI wants for North of England routes) to handle trains carrying the largest international freight containers. (For more details, see the special Midland Main Line feature in this month’s RailnewsPLUS on-line edition).
The Sundon interchange would be on a scale similar to the Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal farther north, near the M1/A14 junction on the Northamptonshire/Warwickshire border and alongside the Northampton loop of the West Coast Main Line.
This is already home to Tesco’s national distribution centre, which is about to be joined by a similarly large ( 93,000 square metres) rail-based distribution centre for superstore competitor J Sainsbury. If anyone doubts the huge changes taking place today in rail transport’s role in society, the move by the country’s leading retailers to make more and more use of trains — in their determination to reduce costs and cut carbon emissions — surely makes the point.
Anthony Griffiths, managing director of the Daventry terminal’s developer, Prologis UK, says: “We understood some years ago that rail would become increasingly important to the logistics sector and we have invested in strategic rail-connected sites. As Sainsbury’s decision demonstrates, the move towards rail freight is now gathering momentum.”
And Roger Burnley, who is managing director of General Merchandise, Clothing and Logistics for Sainsbury’s, said: “The distribution centre at DIRFT is a significant investment for Sainsbury’s. We are always looking at ways to serve our customers better and this depot will provide us with a central location to support our growing general merchandise business.”
Road freight produces around eight times more CO2 than rail
Tesco’s long-term aim is to become totally carbon neutral, and already it is reducing its ‘carbon footprint’ by switching more and more distribution to regional delivery centres using trains from DIRFT, which is itself powered from two large wind-turbines.
The only sad feature at present is that most freight operations to and from DIRFT, and other similar terminals, are made by diesel-hauled trains — although, of course, even diesel-powered trains consume far less energy and emit far less carbon than road movements.
According to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers “road freight produces around eight times more carbon per tonne/kilometre than rail freight.” And the latest Office of Rail Regulation figures show that emissions from diesel hauled freight trains were down to 27 grammes per net freight tonne/kilometre in 2011-12 . . . the lowest rail freight level since ORR started recording CO2 emissions in 2005-06.
But the IMechE also highlights current and future difficulties: “Rail freight’s market share is predicted to rise by eight per cent by 2030. Such a shift would require an increase in rail freight capacity . . . which the present system simply cannot accommodate.
“Infrastructure has benefited from significant investment recently, including the upgrading of the West Coast main line. These improvements and the recently announced Government plans to introduce high speed rail should free up some capacity on existing lines for extra freight services. . . . However, even the most optimistic forecast falls well short of that required to accommodate an eight per cent rail freight increase. Indeed, even if there were the capacity the impact of an eight per cent move from road to rail would still only deliver a one per cent reduction in total transport emissions.
“Without further substantial infrastructure investment in new track the potential of rail freight to reduce the UK’s total transport emissions will be severely limited.” This suggests that the equivalent of other infrastructure — irretrievably done away with in the 1960s and 1970s under Beeching’s plans, such as the Great Central and Somerset and Dorset main lines — or in other cases ‘rationalised’ — will need to be restored or newly-built to provide adequate capacity. If HS2 is causing a furore, what on earth will plans for even more new rail infrastructure lead to?
Attempts a few years ago to create a new freight line, incorporating much of the former Great Central route for ‘piggy-back’ trains carrying truck trailers, failed totally when a hybrid bill was put before Parliament due to the weight of public opposition. Perhaps companies like Tesco and Sainsbury can help promote a greater understanding of the need for more rail freight capacity.