What will tomorrow’s freight trains carry?

The DfT has commissioned a study by Arup to assess rail freight growth potential by commodity and review key capacity restraints affecting the industry.

The last time government set a strategic vision for rail freight was in 2009; however the subsequent implosion in coal traffic and the recent Bowe and Shaw reports means that a more up to date assessment is required. Also, the previous study was ‘unconstrained’; it only measured potential demand for rail products and did not take into account supply constraints on the industry (unlike the Arup study).

A joint DfT/Network Rail freight market study in 2013 forecast an annual 2.3% growth in freight kilometres to 2043.

Rail freight contributes £1.6bn per annum to the UK economy. The five main FOCs (freight operating companies) employ more than 5,000 workers and their combined annual turnover exceeds £850m. Since privatisation in 1994/95, freight moved (i.e. distance travelled measured in terms of tonne miles or tonne kilometres) grew by 35% despite a sharp drop in coal to power stations (or 58% is coal is excluded); and rail’s modal share of UK freight moved improved from below 8% in 1998 to 12% in 2014.

Traditionally, rail freight has been dominated by high volume, low value, bulk commodity products like coal, iron & steel and aggregates, but the rapid contraction of the former industry means that innovation is needed to break into new markets.

That King Coal has lost his crown is evident from the 2015/16 commodity breakdown of freight moved: domestic intermodal (36.2%); construction (22.4%); coal (13.1%); metals (8.6%); oil & petroleum (6.6%); international (2.7%); and other traffics (10.5%).

Arup looked at constrained growth projections for 14 different commodities, based on tonnes lifted (i.e. the tare weight of the cargo excluding weight of rolling stock and the distance travelled). These forecasts are on the conservative side due to the constraints imposed and the actual outcomes could be higher:

Commodity 2011 tonnage (million) Projected 2030 tonnage (million) Trend
ESI (electric supply industry) coal 41.1 Long term decline
Construction materials 18.2 Between 31.9 and 22.0 Long term growth
Ports intermodal 15.1 Between 45.7 and 22.0 Steady growth
Metals 8.0 8.8 Static
Network Rail engineering 6.9 Between 9.2 and 6.4 Static
Ore 4.9 Between 4.1 and 2.1 Static
Petroleum 4.8 Between 5.3 and 3.6 Static
Non ESI coal 3.1 Between 3.0 and 0.0 Long term decline
Industrial materials 2.4 2.7 Static
Domestic intermodal 2.3 Between 5.8 and 2.8 Steady growth
Domestic waste 1.6 1.4 Static
Biomass 0.8 Between 18.6 and 2.5 Steady growth
Chemicals 0.7 0.8 Static
Automotive 0.3 Between 0.6 and 0.4 Slow growth
Channel Tunnel 0.6 n/a n/a

(n/a – Channel Tunnel traffic largely included in the other categories)

The report says innovation, network capacity and track access charging are three priority areas affecting the potential of rail freight.

The growth of both passenger and freight traffic has stretched network capacity though this impacts in different ways:

“Although the rail network is used for both passenger and goods transport, there is a significant difference in the way the two operate. Freight services operate in response to demand – if the customer does not need the delivery, the train does not run. Conversely, if a new market opportunity arises, rail needs to be able to take advantage of it. Passenger services operate in anticipation of demand: the services run in their timetabled slot whether or not there are any passengers there,” emphasises the report.

Traditional ways of block train working are not suitable for handling smaller consignments:

“The decline in traditional bulk rail freight commodities such as coal, together with changing customer demands, presents a challenge for rail freight. The rail freight industry is largely configured around a model of efficiently moving high volume or high tonnage cargos, and its ‘whole train load’ model is not readily adaptable to multiple smaller loads.”

Innovation is needed to open up niche markets, conveying some freight by passenger train is one suggestion:

“(Innovative new models) may include parcels carried directly between and into city centres using the spare capacity on off-peak passenger services, or old rolling stock fully converted to carry freight into cities. Trials of these models are already happening and the government has commissioned a study by Arup to assess the potential market for such services.”

In the steam age high value traffic was courted; mails, parcels, newspapers and perishables were regularly conveyed by passenger train, but most of those lucrative trades have now gone for good.

Despite a reduction in more than 3,700 unused freight train paths over the last two years, greater efficiency has squeezed more capacity out of the system: “Between 2003/4 and 2013/14, freight tonnes lifted increased by 30 per cent while train numbers fell by 30 per cent, resulting in an increase in tonnes per train of over 80 per cent.”

Digital signalling will enhance capacity further, as will increases in train speeds, weights, lengths and wider gauge clearances.

£235m has been ring-fenced under the Strategic Freight Network (SFN) for infrastructure projects under CP5, though Hendy’s review of maintenance and renewal programmes has deferred £17.5m to a later control period.

FOCs will pay £87m in annual track access charges at the end of CP5 (2019), which is £15m higher than at the end of previous control period, CP4 (2014). The charges are being phased in gradually over the five year period and are intended to more accurately reflect the costs FOCs impose on the network.

Responsibility for charging ultimately rests with the ORR: “The charges paid by rail freight operators include variable charges (which cover the direct costs incurred by freight trains running on the network) and a share of the fixed costs of the network. Fixed charges are levied only on those sections of the market where there is no competition from road and therefore the market is judged to be able to bear the increased charges (currently coal, spent nuclear fuel and iron ore).”

The government is keen to promote the use of rail for environmental reasons; the concern is that if ORR gets it wrong about track access charges (through over pricing), then some traffic might be lost to road.


High-speed rail freight: Colas Rail, in partnership with Eddie Stobart/Sainsbury’s and TNT Urban Logistics, have undertaken trials, utilising converted rolling stock (Motorail NVA wagons) to carry goods from supermarket roll cages and pallets to clothing and garments – even cars – from central rail-connected warehousing direct to Euston Station.
Future high-speed rail freight: Colas Rail, in partnership with Eddie Stobart/Sainsbury’s and TNT Urban Logistics, have undertaken trials, utilising converted  Motorail rolling stock to carry goods from supermarket roll cages and pallets to clothing and garments – even cars – from central rail-connected warehousing direct to Euston Station. Photo: Colas Rail.

DfT  Rail Freight Strategy: Moving Britain Ahead







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