The time is ripe…

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Strategic Rail Freight Interchanges seem to be proliferating in the Midlands but are they needed?  Liza Helps reports.

The time is right for rail freight to expand to provide a cleaner, greener alternative to road freight, according to Phil Oakley of Prologis, which is developing out DIRFT – the major rail freight interchange in the heart of the Midlands.

“Rail freight delivers economic and environmental benefits to the tune of £1.7 billion in the UK each year and is forecast to grow further.”

And it probably cannot come too soon. “Rail freight is going to be increasingly important to the logistics property market as supply chains respond to the challenges of Brexit,” says John Clements, of Verdion, which is operating the iPort Rail terminal at its six million sq ft iPort logistics hub in Doncaster, South Yorkshire.

Indeed the Rail Delivery Group, the rail industry body that brings together passenger and freight rail companies, Network Rail and High Speed 2 is advocating the creation of new Railway Customs Areas (RCAs) at rail freight terminals that would avoid the need for a single border checkpoint, removing the prospect of congestion on the rail network in Kent and avoiding disruption to the more than 2,000 intermodal trains transporting 1.22 million tonnes of freight per year.

RCAs provide new opportunities for businesses that import from Europe and don’t currently use rail freight to export, potentially reducing congestion on the road network.

Paul Plummer, chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group, says: “As we leave the European Union, the rail industry is united in wanting to secure imports through the Channel Tunnel and provide new opportunities for British businesses. Our proposals to create customs facilities at freight terminals support and complement the work on-going in Government for customs controls post-Brexit and will prevent unnecessary congestion on the railway and clear the way for smooth trade with our partners in Europe.”

As yet there the RCA has yet to be adopted however, Clements says: “iPort Rail has already been designed to meet SACTFF security requirements but we also expect to finalise government Authorised Economic Operator (AEO) status later this year, which will mean quicker access to simplified customs procedures on site.”

Should RCAs be adopted widely in one form or another the importance of the rail freight terminal will increase exponentially. However, the building of these rail freight terminals is expensive.

Government has helped developers circumnavigate the problem allowing developments including strategic rail freight interchanges – classed as strategic national infrastructure projects – to in effect by-pass time-consuming and potentially financially crippling local planning and fast forward straight to the Planning Inspectorate for a development consent order, which is then either approved or not by the secretary of state.

The need for associated warehousing alongside the SRFIs says Chris Evans of Colliers, “is down to the fact that quite frankly rail takes a long time to be built and is very expensive.” He adds: “It’s a symbiotic relationship one needs the other to function.”

Robert Whatmuff of Colliers notes: “NDCs and RDCs can link up well by rail and if you take the bulk of your goods through these then the last mile by road – there will be huge savings.”

It has long been noted that to get freight on rail and hence off the UK’s increasingly congested roads there needs to be a network of rail freight interchanges with associated warehousing at strategic points around the country – add in Brexit and this becomes more pressing.

So are we seeing an upswing in such developments? In effect yes, but the majority coming forward are clustered in the Midlands and not everyone believes they are needed.

At present there are five strategic rail freight interchanges being proposed in the Midlands with a combined associated warehouse development of some 39 million sq ft in addition to the ones already there which include East Midlands Gateway and DIRFT (adding a further 15 million sq ft of associated warehouse space).

Goodman has its East Midlands Intermodal Park in South Derbyshire which would bring 6 million sq ft of associated warehousing across a 630-acre site. Then there is Northampton Gateway Interchange on a 610-acre site at Junction 15 of the M1, south of Northampton with 5 million sq ft of warehousing.

On an adjacent 600-acre site Gazeley has jumped into the fray by teaming up with Ashfield Land to promote Rail Central in Northamptonshire, two miles from Junction 15A of the M1 motorway. The scheme boats 7.4 million sq ft of associated warehousing space.

Far in the north west of the region in South Staffordshire, Four Ashes is championing the 733 acre West Midlands Interchange, with up to 8 million sq ft of associated warehousing.

Finally the most recent to be put forward is dbSymmetry’s Hinckley National Rail Freight Interchange in Leicestershire which links in to the Nuneaton to Felixstowe rail freight route. The 560-acre site could accommodate up to 9 million sq ft of associated warehouse space (some of it mezzanine). It is located close to Junction 2 of the M69 motorway connecting the M6 near Coventry and the M1 motorway near Leicester.

The question is why do it? Why have so many in one area? The answer has to be the Midlands is exactly that in the middle and the perfect place for an SRFI. Whether there needs to be so many is quite another matter.

For Harry Sadler of db symmetry the process to go forward with the proposal was simple: “We are doing it in response to the government requirement for extra SRFIs – and the fact that rail freight is growing by six per cent a year.”

“What we are seeing is that there is beginning to be a demand for intermodal facilities of this nature. DIRFT has been used by the FMCG and there is now acceptance that freight coming onto rail is a workable model.”


This article first appeared in Logistics Manager, April 2019.

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