Time to make tracks

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Rail freight has been a hot topic of discussion in recent months as roads become increasingly congested and the adverse effects of climate change are ever more apparent.

However, in order for rail to become an attractive alternative infrastructure has to be improved and reliability needs to be guaranteed.

“Co-location of terminals and warehouses is fundamental to success,” says Simon Jenkins, first vice president of the development team at ProLogis. “To make rail competitive we need to get warehouses closer to terminals.” That was one of the reasons ProLogis bought into DIRFT, the second and third phases of which will have more warehouses next to terminals.

“I like to think that will be one of the first developments we bring forward as it’s a prime site and one of the most straightforward.” ProLogis is likely to push the button on the project in the second half of the year, “but in many ways,” says Jenkins, “we need to see what happens with the election and see where the confidence is.”

Currently, the emphasis for ProLogis is to move existing sites. “We’ve now got rid of more than half of what we had on the market and will start to bring forward build-to-suit projects this year, some of which will be rail connected. But things are slow because of the economy. There is not the confidence in the market to bring forward the likes of Howbury and Corby [rail-connected developments ProLogis has in the pipeline] at the moment.”

Environmental policies
Interest in rail freight has increased significantly, particularly from major retailers, but also from manufacturers, “and it’s not difficult to understand why,” adds Jenkins, “when you look at the environmental policies of the big supermarkets like Tesco, M&S and Sainsbury’s. It makes sense to move things by rail.”

The House of Commons Transport Committee has recognised a strong case for ongoing investment into the Strategic Freight Network. It said: “We would expect the funding committed to the Strategic Freight Network to be, at the very least, maintained by the government in the next control period. The current proposals to develop the Strategic Freight Network after 2014 should be given a high priority and must be aligned with economic and environmental objectives.”

Radial routes around Manchester were identified as a key priority, as was electrifying the Midland Main Line – both would deliver benefits for freight services.

Jenkins says: “It’s pretty encouraging, but the amount of spending in the current control period is pretty low and the question now is will it get higher? But the fact of the matter is they are investing.”

Any investment, even on the passenger side, would ultimately be of benefit to the industry as it will free up space for more freight journeys. But Jenkins is keen to point out that “developers can’t fund major network improvements. It has to be done by the government.”

Chris MacRae, the FTA’s rail freight policy manager, says: “Greater rail freight capacity is, quite simply, a pre-requisite if we are to meet the need for moving goods sustainably in the UK.”

However, despite regular calls from the public for more goods to be moved by rail though, proposals to build interchanges often come under protest by local residents.

HelioSlough’s proposed 3.5 million square foot rail freight development at the former Radlett Aerodrome near St Albans has received fierce resistance.

“There has been lots of opposition because the good burghers of Radlett don’t want a nasty freight terminal in their back garden,” says RFG chairman Tony Berkeley, “but I do think the reaction has been over the top.”

Jenkins is keen to point out that the South East in general is a big challenge. “We can identify locations outside London but in and around London it’s a different story. HelioSlough’s Radlett development should be such a good idea as it has great road and rail connections and is just north of the M25.”

A public inquiry into the development took place at the end of 2009 and a decision to the appeal will be issued by the secretary of state on or before 23rd June 2010.

Gazeley’s plan for Magna Park Peterborough in Stanground has also come under fire but, despite opposition from some councillors in the area, Peterborough City Council voted to keep the development in its core strategy.

The development will provide four million square foot of rail-linked sustainable warehouse space and create an estimated 5,000 jobs. It is adjacent to the Felixstowe-Nuneaton rail line, which is a designated freight route to the West Coast Main Line, giving access to the Midlands, the North and Scotland. Once upgraded, the A605 will link to the proposed Stanground Bypass providing access to Junction 17 of the A1(M). The application is intended to go to the Infrastructure Planning Commission this year.

However, despite coming up against a number of hurdles Berkeley is confident the market will increase by four or five times over the next 20 years.

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