There seems to be a proliferation of strategic rail freight interchanges in the Midlands, but do we need more? Liza Helps reports…
It seems an anomaly that there is a greater need than ever for Strategic Rail Freight Interchanges in the UK and that there is a seeming proliferation of them in the Midlands . Some go as far as to say that there are far too many.
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 and to that end successive government’s have supported planning policy for Strategic National Infrastructure Projects allowing the promoters/investors of such schemes 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.
There are strict guidelines and rules to adhere to but there is also some leniency, in particular the allowance for financial viability reasons, that schemes which do get approval may develop out associated warehousing prior to the development of a rail freight interchange/terminal itself.
As you can imagine this has led to some scurrilous accusations that some developers/investors are pushing their warehouse development schemes as SRFIs to secure planning without having to go through due process or be tangled up for years in the planning system. (Developer Arlington spent more than a decade trying to push through the London International Freight Exchange near Heathrow at astronomical expense only for it to be dismissed out of hand in what many saw as a move of political expediency – the scheme was on greenbelt land.)
Those developers that have secured consent in the past few years tell another story. Mike Hughes of Verdion, makes light: “To get a major strategic planning application through the system, is like educating three children through secondary education – it is a very long process and deeply political.”
Verdion has just celebrated the opening of its rail freight interchange at its 6 million sq ft iPort in Doncaster more than a decade after first proposal. “It’s no short cut.”
That being said the planning system has changed in recent years in an effort to facilitate the development of such important schemes and dbSymmetry, which is promoting one of the five SRFI schemes in the Midlands, has spent far less time on the planning of its Hinckley National Rail Freight Interchange scheme as a specific SRFI.
James Kelway of Savills, who is advising a variety of clients on similar schemes, says: “There are a lot of obstacles from a real estate perspective to bring these [schemes] forward. The real estate and rail interface have differing language, approach and attitude to risk and time; there are a lot of obstacles to make a strategic site deliverable with rail connection.”
“Is it a good way to get development?” asks Prologis’ Phil Oakley. “Not in our experience.” The developer has been working on pushing forward a new terminal at the country’s pre-eminent rail freight interchange DIRFT since 2006 when it became owners of the rail terminal and a 130-acre expansion site on the acquisition of Severn Trent Property.
“While national planning policy supports rail freight and freight by rail and associated warehousing, it is not straight forward; it is technical and costly.”
Despite this, Prologis would be interested in other sites. “But we will only choose the right one being mindful regarding financial viability and how it would plug into the wider rail freight network.”
This brings us back to the issue in hand, the five proposed SRFIs in the Midlands. Pundits have noted that ‘some have merit and others do not’. The issue is that because each proposal will be put to the Secretary of State based on its own merits and not necessarily in the round, which will get approval? – The fastest out of the trap? And if so will it be the best solution for getting freight off the roads?
Hughes says: “It’s not about the quantity [of rail freight interchanges] but the quality of the facility – physically and spatially in relation to each other, in relation to infrastructure that they serve, the airports, ports and motorway networks and the proximity to conurbations.”
“We need more of them, but that does not mean just anywhere – some could achieve planning but not be financially viable – there may not necessarily be a good business case for them all.”
Those in the running at present, just in the Midlands (there are others around the UK being promoted) include Goodman with its East Midlands Intermodal Park in South Derbyshire – after pushing the scheme with some ferocity a few years ago it has been rather quiet since 2014 but there could be a lot more going on in the background. As has been said, these schemes are extremely political.
EMIP would bring 6 million sq ft of associated warehousing across a 630-acre site located between the M1 and the M6, the site is adjacent to the A50 and A38 and Toyota’s UK manufacturing plant. It is bisected by the Stoke – Derby railway line, which has been undergoing upgrading by Network Rail.
Roxhill is promoting the Northampton Gateway Interchange on a 610-acre site at Junction 15 of the M1, south of Northampton. It is seeking to provide an intermodal freight terminal including container storage and dedicated HGV parking, rail sidings to serve individual warehouses, and with the capability to also provide a ‘rapid rail freight’ facility and aggregates facility. There is five million sq ft of associated warehousing. The facility would initially handle three to four trains a day with the capacity to increase to some 16 trains daily. It is rail linked to the Northampton Loop Line that feeds into the West Coast Main Line, which is the UK’s main freight corridor (it handles more than 40 per cent of all UK rail freight).
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, with 7.4 million sq ft of associated warehousing space, includes two intermodal terminals serving both traditional container freight as well as ‘express freight’ market with access to the West Coast Mainline and the Northampton Loop.
Far in the north west of the region in South Staffordshire, Four Ashes is championing the 733 acre West Midlands Interchange, which lies adjacent to the West Coast Mainline.
This article first appeared in Logistics Manager, April 2018