The benefits of switching traffic from road to rail are well quoted and understood, both politically and within the wider population. Road decongestion, improved road safety, and economic gains for road users and freight customers all accrue when traffic moves on rail. The environmental benefits are significantly greater than other modes too, particularly in reduced carbon emissions. It is these benefits which underpin Government investment in rail freight, such as the investment in the Felixstowe branch line and other routes, along with the small budget freight grant scheme that promotes modal shift for intermodal trains. Yet it could be argued that such approaches have been somewhat piecemeal and have thus failed to unlock the significant benefits that rail freight could generate with a focused, ambitious growth strategy. Recently, we published new research which highlighted how a strategic approach to investment could generate between £75 and £90 billion in environmental and economic benefits over the coming decade. The study, undertaken by Stephen Joseph Associates, has been based on a review of existing literature and identifies the key areas necessary to unlock growth and benefits. The main areas include:

■ Accelerated investment in the Strategic Freight Network to unlock capacity and improve train efficiencies. This is essentially to ‘complete’ the core network providing capacity and capability for freight on the principal routes. Although good progress has been made in many areas, strategic gaps still exist including the Felixstowe to Nuneaton corridor, trans-Pennine and gauge clearance on routes to the Channel Tunnel. Completing the network will allow growth and also support businesses which wish to use rail right across their supply chains.

■ Electrification of core routes to further improve rail freight’s environmental benefits. An increasing priority, electrification of the core network will support a switch to electric haulage, which can be funded by the private sector if the network is sufficiently wide. Such a move would make a significant contribution to rail decarbonisation in line with the 2050 net zero carbon target and provide operational efficiencies for customers and operators.

■Promotion of new rail linked facilities and reform of planning law to support a greater uptake of rail. Building rail linked terminals which work for today’s logistics network is an area where the private sector is keen to invest if there can be a framework which enables firms to deliver a return on their investment. This includes a fair and supportive planning framework and matched capacity on the network. Similar themes also support new rail freight services including high-speed freight to city centres, which require consistent capacity and access to stations or other urban depots for smaller consignments.

■ To encourage uptake of rail, measures to ensure cost comparability such as grants and access charge discounts would support modal shift, at least where there is not yet economy of scale. In the longer term, moves to introduce road pricing (which may well be necessary with the shift to electric vehicles) can also be used to encourage take up by rebalancing road and rail.

Coal drives freight reduction in first quarter

Less of the black stuff: a long rake of bogie wagons containing imported coal trail No 66613 on an Immingham to Scunthorpe working on 3 July 2018. The location is Barnetby, now without its well-known semaphore signals but where Barnetby East signal box survives as a welfare facility for track workers. John Vaughan

THE VOLUME of rail freight moved fell by 1% during Quarter 1 (April to June) of 2019-20, according to data from the Office of Rail and Road.

The continued decline in coal traffic drove this trend, partially offset by increases in construction to its highest ever level and a 20% rise in international traffic compared to the same quarter the previous year.

Domestic intermodal accounted for the highest volume, and together with construction traffic accounted for just over two-thirds of rail freight moved during the quarter.

In terms of freight lifted, which measures the tonnage of material but does not take account of the distance it travels, the fall was larger at 3%. The amount of coal lifted was down 19% to 1.9 million tonnes, the lowest on record.

Freight performance improved compared to the same period the previous year. The Freight Delivery Metric score was 95.3%, 1.6% higher than the previous year, with the moving annual average improving by 1% to 94.2%.

Freight delay was 9.1 minutes per 100 train kilometres, a 19% reduction compared to the previous year and the lowest level of delay since the time series began in 2007-08.

The total number of freight train kilometres operated during the three-month period was 8.4 million, representing a small rise of under half a percent. Increases were recorded by GB Railfreight (13%), Direct Rail Services (14%) and, from a low base, Devon and Cornwall Railways (463%). DB Cargo was the largest operator (38% of freight train kilometres), followed by Freightliner (26%) and GBRf (22%).

Electric freight: No 88006 Juno climbs the final mile of Shap Bank on 2 October 2019 with working 4S44, Direct Rail Services’ 12.16 Daventry to Mossend intermodal service. Dave McAlone

The final area highlighted in the report is not a fiscal measure but to move towards mainstreaming rail freight in transport and industrial policy. This would mean a ‘Think Freight’ approach to railway planning; this aligns with the themes raised in the recent National Infrastructure Commission report on freight (in all its modes) and with the Department for Transport’s own Ports Connectivity study.

Such measures would unlock greater benefits for the economy and environment arising from reduced congestion, improved road safety and less road damage, and improved efficiency for customers. There are also significant carbon savings arising from a greater use of rail.

The report sets out the case for an ambitious strategy for Government, and we will be taking this message to the Department for Transport as part of our discussions. Yet even with fiscal constraints which could limit investment there is a clear message – a strategic approach will deliver greater benefits than a piecemeal one. This echoes calls from the Railway Industry Association for a rolling programme of work, where supply chain costs are reduced through clear sight of the forward programme, and in particular on electrification, where such an approach is already yielding benefits in Scotland. A strategic approach will also help to align investment, be that Government or private, with capacity on the network, ensuring that the benefits that might be delivered in theory are delivered in practice too.

With a climate emergency, and trade routes changing on the back of Brexit, this is the very time for investing in rail freight, and it is clear the benefits of doing so are significant.

An opinion column of the Rail Freight Group,

Taff’s Well depot site clearance: this is the station on 1 August 2019.

In the upper right corner is the site of the future tram-train depot,

where demolition of industrial buildings is underway. Rhodri Clark


THE TRANSFER of the Core Valley Lines from Network Rail to the Welsh Government has been delayed, amid concerns from freight operators over setting a precedent.

The Core Valley Lines – comprising all routes north of Cardiff Queen Street along with the Cardiff Bay branch and the City line – were due to transfer on 20 September, to enable Wales and Borders franchise holder KeolisAmey to operate, maintain and enhance the lines with the benefit of vertical integration.

There has been disagreement between Transport for Wales and Network Rail over the amount of funding required for future maintenance and renewals on the Core Valley Lines (CVL), and freight operating companies (FOCs) have raised concerns in Office of Rail and Road consultations. While there is relatively little freight on the CVL, the asset transfer has been regarded by some as a potential template for other lines transferring to regional control, for example if the Williams review recommends further devolution.

The Rail Freight Group told the ORR the CVL transfer raised important matters of principle and any wider attempts to divest parts of the network should not be treated in the same way. The ORR said it would consider each divestment proposal on its own basis, and that the CVL transfer would not progress until the FOCs’ objections were resolved.

The £738 million budget for CVL modernisation includes £162 million from the European Union. TfW says the EU funding will be forfeited if the ‘business benefits’ are not delivered as intended. In practice, tram-trains must commence operating by the end of 2022, enabling the benefits to be demonstrated in 2023.

However, TfW also says the Treasury has agreed to underwrite the EU funding ‘due to Brexit implications’.


TfW is implementing a contingency strategy to minimise the delayed transfer’s impact on the modernisation. TfW and Network Rail have agreed lineside access for vegetation removal for preparatory work on electrification and other changes. Demolition of industrial buildings is under way at the site of the tram-train depot in Taff’s Well.

A depot for the infrastructure works is being prepared at Treforest. TfW’s annual report warns that the CVL programme could be affected by ‘the historical track record of the construction industry’ in delivering ‘multi-disciplinary rail projects on time and on budget’.

TfW has implemented detailed project management controls and says: ‘We’ll have a more detailed view of project risk exposure and value will be better understood in late 2019, when the final CVL transformation proposal is available’.

This will detail the overall capital cost, risk exposure from ‘identified hazards’ and the remaining optimism bias. Rhodri Clark