We’re not making the most of railway freight for UK distribution, WHY?

We’ve all seen column inches given over to railway being a greener and more efficient method of transport but does that really have any impact on the use of the network for railway freight transport as opposed to passenger traffic?

According to the Department of Transport statistics from 2010, in recent years around 9% of freight moved in the UK each year has travelled by rail but this figure had declined in each of the previous 3 years. Rail is perceived as suitable for long distance shipment of basic goods but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of major retailers, for example, continuing to invest in their road transport capacity. So what is going to drive the recovery and growth of rail freight carriage in the future or is the cost of the necessary infrastructure in the current economic climate going to push this onto the back burner?

The people who do the sums see the flexibility, speed and costs of road transport and are not prepared to pay the additional costs associated with the perceived inconvenience of transhipment which are an inherent part of the costs of rail transport as we now have it set up in the UK.

Back in 2009 the Government set out plans for the Strategic Rail Freight Network to optimise the freight capability of the existing mixed-traffic rail network with a vision of more, longer and larger freight trains. This required network infrastructure investment as well as the development of Rail Freight Interchanges but has enough progress been made? In 2011 there was further planning guidance and policy issued by the Department of Transport to try and unblock the development of interchanges and encourage private sector investment but is the industry any further forward?

In the absence of interchanges if you want to install a siding for your own use to reduce transhipment what obstacles do you face? The costs of preparing safety case and scheduling the work are only the start of the protracted process, the civil and then signal and telecommunications requirements of any changes in the track layout are much higher in the UK than elsewhere and put off most companies who have got beyond the planning stage.

What if you want to send single wagon loads to multiple destinations? The infrastructure to support this type of traffic was finally removed in the 90’s to concentrate on the handling of bulk loads that rail supposedly does best. The other conclusion reached in the 60’s was that rail works best over longer distances, for example for bulk movements as are still operated in the USA.

Despite some recent improvements, the reality is that as currently operated, freight and passenger traffic do not mix well on the existing network. Even if segregated “goods lines” are still available, the movement of a slower moving freight train in a conflicting path across passenger routes at junctions can have a significant effect on the tightly timed passenger schedules of today.

What could change the balance of costs in favour of rail?

  • Fuel costs?
  • Further increases in road congestion?
  • Streamlined procedures for changes to the network?
  • Long term policy investment to contribute to the economic recovery?

But despite best efforts it looks as if we will continue to have a mainly passenger railway for the foreseeable future.