Land Rover is investing £35M in a 4km dedicated rail line between its factory at Solihull and the West Coast Main Line. When complete it will carry its new vehicles out of the factory by train instead of by truck.
Why? Simple. 'If we take lorries off the road it leaves more room for the Land Rovers people have bought,' says corporate communications manager Vin Hammersley.
This is said as a joke but there is a serious point behind it. Land Rover's production has tripled in recent times - from manufacturing between 40,000 and 60,000 vehicles a year to 170,000.
'70% of that is exported, and if we can get a vehicle off the end of the line today and in Rome, say, in 24 hours, we can sell it, factory fresh, straightaway,' says Hammersley.
Mounting congestion on Britain's road network means that even for car manufacturer Rover, rail distribution is now considered faster than road. Rover is also conscious of the environmental impact extra delivery lorries would have as production is stepped up. The fact that Rover's plans fit neatly into the Government's integrated transport strategy is an added bonus.
What Land Rover is proposing is a 4km rail link from its Solihull factory to join the West Coast Main Line close to Birmingham International Station. The
route will wind in cutting round SSSI's and the site for the proposed extension to the runway at Birmingham airport.
The company estimates that 102,000 lorry movements starting or finishing in Solihull would be saved each year thanks to the rail link - equivalent to 4.6M road freight miles a year. It is not just finished vehicles on their way to market that the railway will carry. Components and materials will be also be brought into the factory by train.
Body-In-White panels from Rover Body and Pressings in Swindon, and engines, gearboxes and major components from around Europe will all come into the factory by train. And finished products for worldwide markets will be delivered by train direct to sea ports to be carried to Europe, America, the Middle East and South East Asia.
Minimum estimated cost of the new line is £35M though this could rise to £40M. Land Rover will be chasing a Government Freight Facilities Grant towards the cost on the basis of the environmental benefits of the scheme.
First though, the company needs permission to go ahead with the project. An application for a Transport & Works Act order has been made to Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott as Secretary of State for Environment Transport and the Regions. It is expected to take a year to come through.
Land Rover is now in the process of consulting local people, putting on exhibitions and explaining the benefits of its plan prior to a public inquiry early next year. If all goes to schedule, construction could start next summer with the railway up and running by 2002.
'We are expecting objections but, on balance, we think there will be more winners than losers with this scheme,' Hammersley says. 'Our production will continue to increase and if we don't move goods in and out by rail then we have to use the road. There aren't too many fans of 40t trucks out there. This is definitely the better environmental choice.'
The proposed link leaves the Land Rover factory and takes a southerly arc round Birmingham airport to join the West Coast Main Line just south of Birmingham International station.
Agreement has been reached with Railtrack for 12 in-bound and 12 out- bound paths in a 24 hour period. And Railtrack is delighted.
'The proposal is excellent news and represents one of the biggest rail freight developments for many years,' the company says. 'It is certainly the
biggest freight scheme since Railtrack came into existence, and it will require significant teamwork between Railtrack and Land Rover to make the proposal reality.'
Land Rover already has a big team on board to help make the link happen. It is working with transportation consultant Transdevelopment International and Scott Wilson Railways among others.
'The Land Rover rail link is really a benchmark example of the interest being shown by many parts of Britain's manufacturing industry, particularly those with European interests, in being connected to the rail network,' says SWR's managing director Martin Nielsen.
Environmental considerations are high on Land Rover's agenda, a fact reflected by the level of professional advice being sought. Three firms are advising the company on environmental matters, Landmark Environmental Consultants, Cameron Taylor Bedford and Hoare Lee & Partners.
The proposed route for the link follows a corridor away from centres of population and environmentally sensitive areas, Land Rover says. And the Environmental Impact Assessment for the project will look at not just how the project will affect traffic, but the impact on landscape, ecology and archaeology, and mitigation of air, noise and other environmental nuisance.
Most of the route will be in cuttings, with the remainder bordered by earth bunds to provide visual and sound screening. Trees and shrubs will be planted along the whole corridor for extra screening, and landscaping.
Land Rover is being advised on planning law by Wragge & Company; and on financial issues by IGS (UK). Hard-headed business sense rules: the project is being firmly driven by the search for greater efficiency through faster product deliveries and lower fuel costs. Land Rover's plans for a rail link may be the first evidence that Government's efforts to promote an integrated transport strategy might actually bear fruit.