Mainline upgrades needed to allow longer and extra freight trains, says TfN

The rail network in the north must be upgraded to allow 20% longer freight trains to operate on a six-day week basis, as well as connect to newly-developed multimodal distribution parks (MDPs) that limit freight activity by road, Transport for the North (TfN) has said.

In its new Northern Freight and Logistics Report, which will feed into the Strategic Transport Plan to be released next year, TfN made a series of recommendations that seek to reduce the cost of freight transport to both users and non-users whilst reducing environmental impact and attracting private sector investment.

The headline recommendation was the need to develop 50 hectares of rail or water-connected MDPs per year, situated at the edge of urban centres to minimise the cost of road-based activity and futureproof regions for potential low/zero-carbon solutions in the longer term.

Northern areas have already started identifying potential sites for these, with the chair of the Merseytravel Committee, Cllr Liam Robinson, suggesting Seaforth, Knowsley and Parkside as possibilities in that city-region, and Transport for Greater Manchester identifying 31 future freight generating sites for development.

The report also claimed that existing rail networks must be capable of operating longer trains, requiring upgrades to the Trans-Pennine lines and the East Coast, Midland and West Coast main lines to “accommodate the additional rail freight that the market would choose to handle”.

By 2033, this would also mean several regions would increase their current off-peak paths per hour. The following suggestions are calculated on the basis of 18 off-peak hours per day and path utilisation of 85% for intermodal trains:

  • 5 north of York and 7 south of Doncaster on the ECML and MML together, as compared with means of 2.5 and 4.5 respectively at present
  • 5 north of Wigan, 5.5 between Crewe and Wigan and 6 south of Crewe on the WCML, as compared with 1.5, 3 and 3.5 respectively at present
  • 3 across the Pennines as compared with 2 at present

Cllr Robinson, whose city-region is now also developing its own freight strategy, said longer trains and extra freight paths is something the Linking Liverpool campaign has been “pushing for to help unlock the full potential of our ports”.

“New rail connections east-west between Liverpool and Manchester, connecting on to the proposed HS2 network at Golborne, would free up freight capacity on the existing Chat Moss, Cheshire lines and West Coast Main Line,” he added.

Other recommendations in the report include promoting short-sea shipping to bring cargo directly to northern ports, raising the quality of the environment, and improving complementary land-side access to ports.

Private and public sector roles

Crucial to implementing these will be “instilling sufficient confidence in the private sector to make its own investment in infrastructure and new services in a highly competitive environment,” TfN added.

“The north is home to several major freight and logistics companies, including rail operators and shipping lines, who have supported the development of this report. In addition the north is home to a number of large-scale manufacturing businesses, with extensive local, national and international supply chains that link them to export markets,” the report explained.

But the public sector also has a “clear role to play” in maximising the value of the freight industry, such as by ensuring MDPs can be brought forward in suitable locations through the planning system and providing capacity in line with demand in the rail sector.

John Cridland, TfN’s chair, said: “This is an important report both for the private sector and for local and central government, with a range of practical suggested interventions to help create a step change in the Northern economy.

“We will be carefully considering these recommendations as we prepare our Strategic Transport Plan, which will be released next year.”

The Rail Freight Group welcomed the publication, with its executive director, Maggie Simpson – who frequently writes for RTM about freight issues and developments – arguing that it shows how investing in freight can be “effectively harnessed to promote the economy of the region, through targeted support from TfN and central government”.


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Jerry Alderson   09/09/2016 at 13:45

I once made a very radical suggestion to Network Rail's then head of freight that on certain lines with certain characteristics that it might be a better use of public money not to build very long passing loops for freight trains but to build shorter ones for passenger trains, and to use the money saved to upgrade the passenger service elsewhere.

John Grant   09/09/2016 at 15:03

How would that work? Surely it's the one being overtaken that needs to fit in the loop? I've been on trains in Austria and Switzerland that overtake in much the same way you do an a road; needs bidirectional signalling on both tracks, of course, and cross-overs every few miles.

Andrew Gwilt   09/09/2016 at 15:10

The Felixstowe-Nuneaton freight route could be electrified with electric freight trains to use the newly electrified route to avoid London (via using the North London Line) and also to electrify the Midland Main Line north of Bedford to Sheffield, Leicester, Derby, Nottingham and most of the Midlands with electric freight trains that could benefit a much better eco-friendly freight service across the UK aswell the electric spine that is set to be electrified (except some major routes that are already electrified).

Chris M   10/09/2016 at 03:14

Andrew - the North London Line passes through London, so I am afraid you have contradicted yourself. Unless did you mean to say electrify Felixstowe to Nuneaton instead? That would indeed be a good idea. As for the 'electric spine' concept, as it stands it is half-baked in relation to the MML! North of Sheffield will have no wires and the route through Sheffield Midland and Dore to Derby is not really ideal for heavy freight.The direct Erewash valley is not going to be electrified. Plus there are no daytime paths available for freight between Leicester and Kettering as the line has four high-speed passenger trains each hour and the 27-mile line is mostly double track. There won't be any electric hauled daytime freights via Market Harborough for decades, not until HS2 phase 2 opens at least.

Chris M   10/09/2016 at 04:01

It is right that all UK main lines (in the north and elsewhere) should ideally be upgraded for handling 775m long freight trains - but this will entail full electrification, upgrading the existing power supplies, laying longer recess loops and building powerful electric locos able to keep out of the way of fast passenger trains. None of this will happen quickly and many older electric locomotives have actually been scrapped or exported to Eastern Europe since the end of British Rail. An awful lot needs to be done, there are still far too many diesel hauled freights plodding along for hundreds of miles under the existing wires, wasting valuable train paths and creating unnecessary pollution..

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