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Lord Berkeley: TransPennine freight is being sidelined

Source: RTM Feb/March 2019

Lord Berkeley, former chairman of the Rail Freight Group, makes the case for extra freight capacity across the proposed TransPennine route upgrades.

Freight has suffered from the lack of capacity across the Pennines, especially for container trains needing W10 or W12 gauge. This has been a frustration for many years, and some services have been trialled running via Derby or Edinburgh – but these are much longer routes that not only cost more, but also tie up assets for lengthy periods, which renders rail uncompetitive. Today, with Brexit looming, ports on the east and west coasts have been investing in quayside and rail facilities to increase their trade, and are keen to make more use of rail to support their customer demands. In addition, the region is seeing significant growth in warehousing and retail logistics, with bulk businesses such as construction also keen to use rail.

These customers, along with the rail freight operators and regional stakeholders, have therefore been deeply frustrated by the government’s recent decision to exclude new freight capacity and gauge from the current project to upgrade the north TransPennine route – which will provide two additional passenger paths as well as journey time improvements between Manchester, Leeds, and York.

On 7 January in the Lords, I asked minister Baroness Sugg whether government “will consider proposals by Transport for the North (TfN) to include capacity and capability for freight services within their plans to electrify and upgrade the Manchester to Leeds route; if not, why not; and what alternative proposals they will make for freight services.”

Her answer was equivocal: “We are planning to invest £2.9bn in the first phase of the TransPennine route upgrade over the next five years, with an immediate focus on improving journeys for passengers. We have taken TfN’s advice into account as we develop this first phase and are taking forward many of TfN’s recommendations. We will continue to work with Network Rail and TfN to develop future phases of the upgrade and on how best to realise potential future benefits for cross-Pennine freight flows on this line and other routes.”

Nothing about alternative routes and nothing about extra funding timescales. Ministers have therefore ignored TfN’s advice on the need to include freight in the first upgrade, as TfN’s public position has been that the route upgrade must deliver all its requirements – which includes freight.

Does the minister really believe that, after almost £3bn has been spent on the first upgrade for passengers – for which the line will be closed for many months – anyone will seriously accept another similar closure a few years later for freight? The DfT has sold freight ‘down the river’ here in favour of a quiet life! But PD Ports (who write on page 56), which runs Teesport, says that this failure to allow for freight “could seriously damage the economic aims of the Northern Powerhouse and would leave an over-reliance on the heavily-congested M62.”

What she could not describe was the scope of work needed for a freight upgrade compared to a passenger one. This is because the work to cost these extra elements has not yet been fully completed despite being requested over a year ago. However, it is believed that the scope of additional work is relatively minor, and that some elements needed for freight capacity are also likely to be needed to ensure that the passenger outputs are resilient and perform at an acceptable level.

For gauge clearance, according to Julian Worth, chair of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport’s Rail Freight Forum, “there are very few locations that need enhancement to clear the route to W10/12. Essentially, it's some small bridges, particularly around Mossley and working within Stalybridge tunnel, which may need track lowering.”

So what else does Network Rail have to do? They must be challenged to justify the additional work and the associated freight-specific costs. It is of note that the benefits of including freight have been accepted by the DfT based on input from the customers.

Another scheme that ministers may see as the answer to the freight ‘problem’ is the idea of reopening Skipton to Colne, a project being pushed hard by the secretary of state for transport. This would have many benefits for passengers but, for freight, it would only work if there were major enhancements beyond Skipton and Colne to give a through route between the ports, all gauge cleared. This might include some very expensive flyovers in the Leeds area and across the West Coast Main Line. The currently estimated BCR just for Skipton-Colne ranges from 0.1 to 0.9, but the problem for freight is that it would be a decade or more before the through route was available – by which time any freight company interested would have long since given up!

I also query the refusal by Network Rail to run any freight trains over the hill in the daytime in order to provide for six passenger trains per hour. Is it not about time that the DfT gave the same attention to capacity on these northern routes, where three to five coach trains are the norm, as it does to the London commuter routes, where 12 car trains are the norm? It may need some platform lengthening in the north, as has been done around London, but five much longer TransPennine passenger trains an hour would surely suffice, allowing one freight path every hour.

It is time for the DfT and Network Rail to listen to the freight industry experts who believe that this initial upgrade to include freight is neither onerous nor costly, and ought to be done alongside the passenger upgrade. It could give PD Ports, ABP, the Merseyside ports and their customers a few trains a day each. It would also allow government to demonstrate that they are listening and doing all they reasonably can to help business in the north. Alongside this, it is time for the passenger interests and the various mayors and councils keen to demonstrate their power over the railway and its services to accept that businesses need rail freight too!


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