Bigger freight trains have started full operations between Southampton and the West Midlands following the completion of a multi-million pound rail upgrade.
The move is expected to provide a £374m boost for the economy and help to keep down the cost of everyday goods in shops across the UK.
The scheme allows freight trains to move goods, including food, clothing, electronics and other consumer products, around Britain in a quicker, cheaper, greener and more practical way using the larger, modern containers.
It is estimated that the upgrade will also remove up to 50,000 container lorries from the roads each year.
The project involved knocking down and rebuilding 16 bridges, lowering or slewing the track in 22 places, adjusting 11 station canopies and two station platforms, and setting the track through Southampton Tunnel in concrete to create more space for the larger containers to pass through on standard freight wagons.
The project has been completed more than £11.5m under the original £71m budget, largely as a result of the approach used to lower the tracks through Southampton Tunnel.
Transport minister Theresa Villiers said: “Ensuring economic stability and growth is vital and one way to achieve this is by investing in the UK’s rail freight network. That’s why we have provided £43m of funding to upgrade this important rail link between Southampton and the West Midlands, which will enable more goods to be transported across the country faster and more efficiently.”
Robin Gisby, Network Rail’s director of operations and customer services, said: “Britain relies on rail freight, with more and more companies switching to rail and reaping the economic and environmental benefits. The upgrade of the route from Southampton to Nuneaton was vital to keep rail competitive as an efficient and cost effective way to transport goods. It will also bring the added benefits of reduced carbon emissions and traffic congestion.
“Increasingly rail freight is playing an indispensable role in everyday life. For example, it delivers goods to stock our shops and supermarkets, coal to provide electricity to power the nation and aggregates for major industries. With the added environmental, efficiency and economic benefits it brings, continued investment, such as we’ve seen here, is essential.”
The Port of Southampton is home to the UK’s second largest deep-sea container terminal and a key entry point for millions of imported products which are used by consumers and businesses across Britain.
Currently around 25 per cent of containers which are handled at Southampton are moved by rail. To increase this it was necessary to upgrade the railway to be able to carry modern high-cube containers on standard wagons, which are the most economical method for shipping goods, particularly from the Far East.
Rob Douglas, chairman of the South East England Development Agency (SEEDA), said: “Southampton is a global gateway to the economy of the South East and we are delighted our £4.9m investment, together with that of Advantage West Midlands, has helped deliver this new railway upgrade, which will help boost the economic performance of the area while easing congestion on the roads and reducing emissions. It will have a significant impact on the future economic success of the country and firmly place the South East on the global map of the internationally competitive rail freight industry as it opens the port to the West Midlands and beyond.”
Doug Morrison, port director, ABP Southampton, added: “In our 20-year Port master plan published last year, we stated our ambition to increase the proportion of containers carried by rail to 40 per cent. This will reduce the number of containers that would otherwise be seen on local roads and the motorway network. The works are an essential starting point for us to achieve the 40 per cent target and, when the container berth for mega-ships is completed in 2013, this new infrastructure will help support UK economic growth in years to come.”