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Delivering the goods

The sSRA needs Government to point the way on a strategy for freight.

Rail freight is one key area where the sSRA cannot make a strategic decision until it knows the Government's transport priorities.

In the past it was assumed the priority was to decongest Britain's roads by getting freight on to the railways. But sSRA chairman Sir Alastair Morton says this is too simplistic.

'Getting freight off the roads is important, ' he explains. 'But what happens if a government policy says it is better to spend more on maintaining rural passenger services than developing freight in terms of annual government pounds put in?'

Another key point, argues Morton, is that the rail freight industry may not be able to deliver what its customers want, even if the sSRA placed increased capacity for rail freight as a priority. And then heavy, slow moving freight trains have a major impact on track quality and capacity.

'After decades of neglect and contempt, can rail freight start managing its business properly?' he asks. 'Can it actually do an efficient job from point to point serving the customer. If it can't, why not? One reason is the cultural attitude of those running the trains that says 'if in doubt stop the freight train'.

Another issue is equipment. We need more modal transport points. That doesn't mean great big terminals.'

All these things have to be pointing in the right direction before the sSRA will sanction massive spending on rail freight. Responsibility for the freight brief at sSRA falls to freight director Julia Clarke.

After 10 years as director of lobby organisation the Rail Freight Group she says her move to the sSRA nine months ago was obvious. 'Ever since privatisation, RFG has been arguing for a body like the sSRA to promote rail freight, ' she says. 'It seemed natural for me to come and do it.

The volume of rail freight will increase as a result of two factors, she says: 'Growth in the overall freight market, and growth in rail's share of that market.'

According to Railtrack's forecasts, the overall UK freight industry will grow by 25% to 30% over the next 10 years, assuming long term sustainable economic growth of 2% to 3% per annum.

This equates to an extra 24,000 trucks on UK roads.

Clarke therefore sees her role as advising the Government on how much of this growth in freight can be moved on to rail. 'Part of my role is to assess what investment is needed and to make moving freight by rail the most viable logistics option for some sections of the market. But we have to be realistic. Rail will not be the ideal solution for everyone.'

Clarke also has a key role in ensuring that, once sections of the market have been identified, this shift takes place. 'It won't happen by itself, ' she warns. 'We have to step in and be proactive.'

One of the biggest barriers is the uneven playing field between road and rail. Promoting financial support for investment and, to a limited extent, revenue support is the most effective means of drawing freight on to rail. Two grant mechanisms, the Freight Facilities and Track Access Grant Schemes, will come under Clarke's control and become a strategic tool to encourage competition in an industry currently dominated by two operators - EWS and Freightliner.

However making rail freight more financially attractive will only work if it can deliver when and where the customer wants. Clarke is already engaged in a process of identifying existing bottlenecks and traffic constraints and assessing re-gauging and diversion work as part of general network development.

Rail also needs to prove it can become an effective part of the door to door delivery of goods.

Traditional heavy industrial bulk materials which have formed the core business for rail freight, have long been in decline.

Future freight growth will be in trailers containing time sensitive consumer goods. 'It is important to recognise that customers will increasingly require services to be time and reliability sensitive, ' says Clarke. 'This means a robust network infrastructure, including effective maintenance planning.'

It is important to build a good working relationship with Railtrack. 'I feel it has got off to a good start, and see no reason why this shouldn't continue when we gain Royal Assent.'

Ask the experts

To kick start innovations in rail freight, the sSRA recently launched a competition to flush out ideas, with a £5M prize. The winner will be expected to demonstrate an innovative solution that is ground breaking, sustainable and deliverable within six months.

Shortlisted proposals are:

Amec Rail and INBIS Rail Engineers: Test operation of a low volume freight system, designed to compete with airfreight.

Blue Circle Industries, Metalair Feldbinder and Babcock Rail: Two year trial of piggyback system for cement products using an intermodal road tank.

Logicom Associates, CAP Gemini and Intermec Technologies: Tracking system enabling customers to track their containers over the internet.

Minimodal, TDG, Lynx Express, Parsec of Europe, GB Railfreight, Engineering Link and Boalloy: Development of a high speed, low cost mini-container system for parcels, aimed at attracting parcelfreight from road.

Exel Logistics, Amec Rail and ISOTRACK: Development of new freight multiple units, aimed at creating a new door to door rail service for existing Exel logistics customers.

The winner will be announced next month.

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