Freight trains, freight gains, from High Speed 2

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Aug/Sept 2012

Transport consultant David Thrower, who has contributed to the Transport Select Committee inquiry into high-speed rail and the recent All-Party Parliamentary Group for High-Speed Rail report, discusses the issues surrounding rail freight and HS2.

The announcement by Justine Greening, Secretary of State for Transport, in January that the Government is to proceed with High Speed 2 was a turning point in the development of Britain’s railways. But in some ways, ‘High Speed 2’ is a misnomer. Certainly, the trains that will run to Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and beyond will operate over the new line at fully 100mph faster than the current UK maximum. This will change the perception of passenger travel between the South and North for ever.

But the new line is more about capacity than speed. And this includes freight on the existing West Coast Main Line. Massive growth in passenger demand on Virgin West Coast has been paralleled by a steady rise in WCML intermodal and container traffic, some from the Haven Ports via Nuneaton and some from London and Daventry.

It is a paradox that, whilst most of us are aware of, say, overcrowding out of Euston, or the excellent three-an-hour service between London and Manchester, we are (unless we work in rail freight) very much less conscious of freight, and of future freight demand.

In that case, next time you whizz northwards from Euston and pass the north end of Wembley Yard, look out on the right hand side for those long container trains waiting patiently for a timetable slot northwards amongst the London Midland semi-fast and commuter trains. These freights are not so much important as vital, bringing imports to the Midlands, North and Scotland and moving exports southwards. And the future for intermodal and container freight is bright. New rail-side terminals, companies’ low-carbon policies, larger locomotives, higher clearances for taller containers, low-floor wagons, better scheduling, smarter distribution systems, faster turnrounds, quicker intermodal handling – all these are bringing new business to rail.

Tesco, Morrisons, Waitrose, M&S, Sainsburys, Asda, the Co-op and B&Q are all now using rail. Tesco, which led the way, is claiming 110,000 HGV journeys a year saved, with a carbon reduction of 39,000 tonnes. Fewer motorway trucks, less congestion, less carbon, better reliability for customers: it’s a quadruple-win situation.

And the forecasts done for the Rail Freight Group are for ever-greater future increases, with UK rail freight forecast to exceed 50 billion tonne kilometres by 2030. Particular growth is expected in port-based non-bulk traffic, up from 4.9 billion tonne kilometres in 2006 to an anticipated 19.9 BTK. Domestic non-bulk traffic (such as the supermarkets’ business) is expected to grow from just 1.0 BTK in 2006 to 14.8 BTK.

But these ever-heavier freight trains are largely unnoticed by the general public. And that’s a pity. Because, every time these freights have to sit awaiting a green signal, or stand patiently in loops being overtaken by passenger services, they waste money, with costly drivers and wagons going nowhere, and with goods taking longer to reach its destination. We are all paying for that.

To carry future increased traffic along trunk main lines such as the West Coast, something therefore has to give.

The solution, practised in France and Germany with success, has been to build new high speed passenger lines, taking most of the inter-city expresses off the existing network. The ‘classic’ lines can then concentrate on what they do best, being used by regular-interval high-quality semi-fast and stopping passenger services and heavy freight. And, of course, the big spinoff is the speeding up of the faster passenger services, sending them by HS2 and knocking (in the case of London-Manchester) almost an hour off the schedules.

This will then enable existing (and new) rail freight operators to go to Network Rail and successfully seek additional paths on the classic network.

At present, on both the West and East Coast main lines, Network Rail and the Office of Rail Regulation are facing ever-greater dilemmas in terms of whether they allow additional passenger expresses by the franchisee, or new open-access passenger services to unserved destinations, or improved-frequency local and cross-country passenger services, or more freight.

Too often, the risk is that freight, with its lower profile and fewer champions, could become the loser. Containers don’t have votes, but we cannot allow freight growth to be squeezed off the network. This is why HS2 is essential. And, to those who say that highspeed broadband would be better than High Speed 2, try sending two thousand tonnes of Tesco groceries by broadband…

As for High Speed 2 itself, this is being planned as a passenger-only railway. The appeal of this is obvious – easier to schedule, easier to design in terms of curvature and gradients, and a long nightly shut-down for routine maintenance.

But are we missing a trick here? At the National Rail Conference in Liverpool on 5 July, Tim Robinson, freight director at Network Rail, asked if High Speed 2 couldn’t accommodate premium freight such as mail and parcels. So, could this be squeezed in, perhaps during the late evening when the demand for passenger travel falls away?

And, although Robinson didn’t specifically mention this, but bearing in mind that HS2 will bring European gauge clearances to the Midlands and North, could a limited amount of piggyback freight (lorry trailers on rail wagons) be accommodated before the nightly maintenance shut-down?

The High Speed 2 company has ruled this out to date, but a recent trial by Europorte Channel showed what will happen if this position is maintained. A short trial train of continental wagons carrying Ewals Cargo Care road semi-trailers (see photos) was operated from Antwerp to Barking via High Speed 1. But the goods were actually destined for Vauxhall at Ellesmere Port, and had to complete its journey on the M25, M1 and M6 motorways, because the wagons and their lorry trailers won’t fit into the West Coast loading gauge.

Surely HS2 offers an unmissable opportunity to plug conurbations such as Birmingham, Merseyside, Manchester and Leeds into the European-gauge freight network, even if only for a few late-evening piggyback premium freights? So, next time someone on the radio or in your newspaper caricatures High Speed 2 as being solely for expenseaccount businesspeople whizzing about the UK, think instead of a 2,000-tonne container train that will, post- 2026, have room to travel up the West Coast Main Line.

And maybe a TGV operating on HS2, carrying parcels and mail to Scotland. And, maybe, just maybe, a train of wagons carrying lorry trailers, moving effortlessly from mainland Europe to Manchester or Leeds.

Tell us what you think – have your say below, or email us directly at [email protected]


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