Letting the train take the strain

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In its ten-year transport policy introduced in 2000, the Government called for an 80% increase in rail freight by 2010 to help ease worsening traffic congestion on Britain’s roads and motorways. The shift from road to rail by 2002 showed a less than encouraging increase of just 7%.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI), through the voice of its eloquent director general Digby Jones, has taken up the cudgel on behalf of property developers and distribution firms to reinstate rail freight grants. In a speech made at Warwick University in July, Digby Jones said: “The Government says it is serious about cutting road congestion but its actions defy the rhetoric. Freight trains offer a swift and reliable means of transporting large-scale goods that could ease road congestion. One freight train can carry the equivalent load of 50 lorries. But the decision was made to suspend rail freight grants to firms in England, deterring the move to rail, undermining business confidence and exacerbating congestion on the country’s ailing road network.”

Rail freight operates in a complex environment and differs from that for passenger rail. Train services for moving goods by rail are provided by Freight Operating Companies (FOCs) such as the Midlands-based operator EWS (English Welsh Scottish). These FOCs are not franchises as in the same way as passenger train operators but commercial companies.

The successful conversion of freight from road to rail brings together a network of commercial and operational relationships that work together for common objectives. Part of the role of the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) is to promote and facilitate this network of relationships to enable rail freight to provide the trunk leg of the logistics supply chain.

Yet despite the constraints put on grant funding by the Government, the SRA can demonstrate an impressive portfolio of successful case studies:-

Asda has expanded its use of rail freight for movement of goods between Felixstowe docks and Aberdeen.

Two other high street multiples have also recognised the benefit of bulk movements by rail from Felixstowe.

Household linens retailer Rosebys – with 390 stores – receives containerised rail consignments from the docks at its 28,830sq m (310,000sq ft) distribution centre at Selby, Yorkshire.

Superdrug has followed suit from the Suffolk port to a central hub in Wakefield also in Yorkshire.

Regional authorities

In the West Midlands, August saw the opening of a key rail freight corridor between Birmingham and Nuneaton, North Warwickshire, to allow for the passage of 9ft 6in high containers on standard wagons.

John Cridland, deputy director general of the CBI, said at the opening: “Rail freight interchanges are key to getting lorries off the most congested roads in Western Europe. It is important that the SRA works closely with local and regional authorities to get them in the right place. The statistic that shows an average freight train can remove 50 heavy goods vehicles from our roads clearly illustrates what rail freight contributes to our economy and society.”

The decision to regenerate the former British Coal Birch Coppice Colliery mine site at Dordon into a major 400-acre rail-served distribution park was taken in the knowledge that little, if any, Government funding would be available.

For Warwick-based IM Properties, an up front investment of more than £22M in land reclamation, and in rail, road and business park infrastructure, was as much market driven as it was conditional to reinstate the original branch line demanded by the local planning authority.

Fortuitously the requirement by TNT Logistics to secure a £100M distribution contract for automotive manufacturer VW Audi Group relied on a rail-served site of 40 acres and a rail-linked distribution shed of 68,169sq m (733,000sq ft).

Today at Birch Coppice Business Park, TNT receives a dedicated daily freight train of automotive components direct from Germany via the Channel Tunnel, reducing lorry journeys on UK roads by 8,000 per year and saving TNT around two million miles per year.

A second rail-related planning application in line with Government policy to reduce reliance on road transport is currently with the West Midlands Government Office. If approved, a new intermodal rail freight interchange will help remove a further 100 lorries per day from the region’s road network.

The SRA’s interchange policy, published in March this year, focused on the development of a network of commercially viable rail freight interchanges in appropriate locations to support the growth in freight on rail.

The current planning application at Birch Coppice Business Park is a typical example of just such a facility privately funded in the absence of a Government promise of grant aid. The development of the rail terminal will, however, give a welcome boost to the Government’s target of an 80% shift from road to rail.

Economic growth relies on goods being moved to market efficiently and economically. The problems associated with the region’s congested and often gridlocked roads may be hard to solve; so can the freight train take the strain.

The last word goes to Digby Jones: “The Government needs to commit billions of pounds for transport spending over the next ten years. The sum of £20M for rail freight grants would be a drop in the ocean but it would make an extremely positive difference to UK competitiveness, helping to build a more prosperous country.” n

Mike Eagleton is with chartered surveyor Eagleton & Co.

Tel: 0121 236 1636.

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