Good news for intermodal growth

Intermodal traffic has been the ‘poster boy’ of post-privatisation rail freight, increasing some 110% in tonne-kilometres moved since 1997. Driven by investment in rolling stock and wagons, terminals and ports and in the infrastructure, we are now moving more containers than ever before. The Rail Delivery Group estimates that a quarter of all containers that land in the UK move by rail. Market share from the major locations exceeds even that, with 30-40% on rail at Southampton, and Felixstowe not far behind.

Although the majority of intermodal services start or end at a port, so-called domestic intermodal has also grown over the period, albeit on a much smaller scale. Such trains convey goods between warehouses within the UK and have tended until recently to focus on Daventry to Scotland, with trains to the central belt, Aberdeen and Inverness operated in conjunction with companies such as Malcolm Logistics and Russell Logistics. More recently, new routes have been added into south Wales and into London, including some services to and from Widnes.

Recent weeks have seen a flurry of further good news for the sector. In early January, Freightliner confirmed contract renewal and extension with international freight forwarder FSEW, which is contracting extra capacity between Southampton and south Wales, as well as onto services to Birmingham and Daventry.

GB Railfreight meanwhile has added a further service between Felixstowe and Birch Coppice in the Midlands. Its fifth new service in 18 months brings its intermodal offering up to 13 trains per day to a range of destinations.

Maritime Transport, which owns and operates Birch Coppice, has also been in the news with a significant expansion of its rail operations. An agreement in principle has been signed that will see Maritime take over operations at DB Cargo’s terminals at Trafford Park and Wakefield and commercial responsibility for DB’s existing train services from Felixstowe and Southampton. DB will continue to provide haulage. Separately, Maritime has been confirmed as the operator of the East Midlands Gateway Strategic Rail Freight Interchange, located on the Castle Donington freight line south west of Nottingham, which will open for business this year. Along with its existing terminals at Birch Coppice and Tilbury, these moves place the business at the heart of an intermodal network that complements its road-based container operations and sets the framework for growth. Not to be outdone, Eddie Stobart has confirmed that its service from Tilbury to Daventry and Mossend will run on a permanent basis after its three-month trial before Christmas, with future plans to link into Widnes. Figures from Stobart suggest the trial saved 920,000 miles and 102,000 gallons of diesel, and reduced journey times and congestion in the London area.

Meanwhile, a service launched by Peel Ports last summer has been deemed a major success, saving over half a million road miles and around 500 tonnes of carbon dioxide in the process. In excess of 2,500 containers have travelled from Liverpool to Mossend terminal in Glasgow, and containers are returning to the Mersey with goods including food and drink destined for overseas via direct deep-sea routes from Liverpool.

These announcements demonstrate continued investment in intermodal, not just from the freight operators but also from the wider logistics and freight forwarding industries. There are many factors for this trend, not least rail’s reliability and increasing cost-effectiveness, but also concerns over road congestion and HGV driver shortages. Mixing road and rail haulage to make the best use of a smaller pool of road drivers makes perfect sense, particularly where the goods are going into the same warehouses, and where the final leg to store will need to be on road.

For the rail network, intermodal growth is not without its challenges. Many parts of the network are struggling when it comes to new capacity. Recent decisions on the trans-Pennine route have demonstrated a lack of appetite in Government for growth, and there is constant pressure on freight paths on the key routes. Rail freight grants are also under pressure as Government heads for the comprehensive spending review during this year. And the Williams Review seems likely to promote greater vertical integration, and greater regionalisation, both of which pose challenges for a market sector that needs to travel right across the UK rail network.

The costs of these challenges to the economy are not insignificant, with recent work from UK Major Ports Group highlighting a £14.2 billion economic value from improving road and rail links to ports. It argues that investment in just seven junctions on the rail network could unlock over £20 million per annum in economic value. And as the recent market developments have shown, such investment can also unlock renewed commitment from across the logistics industry, in terminals and new services. This needs to be a continued priority in the months ahead.