Opportunities in new Rail Partnerships

Despite its title being ‘Connecting People’, the Department for Transport’s new strategic vision for rail was strong on rail freight, providing a firm commitment to growth as a part of the long-term vision for UK rail. We were pleased to see the recommitment to the rail freight strategy and the references to ongoing funding for enhancements in Control Period 6 (2019-24).

The strategy also announced that future franchises would be let as Regional Rail Partnerships, bringing infrastructure and operations together under a single management team and brand. In parallel with the strategy, three partnerships were announced; East Midlands, South Eastern and East Coast main line. There are questions on how freight can thrive in such models, and we are keen to see enhanced governance in the partnership contracts to ensure that a ‘pro-growth’ agenda can be promoted, rather than just protection of existing rights.

We will return to this in future columns, but the start point must be an understanding and acceptance of the role of freight in the franchise areas, and the potential for growth over the contract term. So what are the key traffics and where is the growth?

The South Eastern franchise area may seem to have little freight overall, but there are several key routes as well as services to some smaller terminals. For construction, one of the principal locations is the tri-modal aggregates cluster at Angerstein Wharf, Greenwich.

There are multiple customers located here, using rail, water and road freight, and the facility both dispatches trains carrying sea dredged sand and receives trainload stone to be used in production facilities on site. The customers are keen users of rail freight, and volumes have grown, with every expectation that this will continue.

The other significant axis is Channel Tunnel freight, which has endured many ups and downs over the decades. Yet customers are looking to do more, particularly as concerns over customs for road freight post-Brexit emerge. Such traffic has a choice of routes, some looking to go via HS1 to Barking, whilst other comes ‘conventional route’ to the West Coast main line and then onwards. A key issue for this traffic remains the lack of suitable gauge clearance on the conventional routes, which is an area that must be addressed in CP6 if the market is to develop. Developing and delivering this in the new structure could be a challenge and the relationship between the partnership and Freight and National Passenger Route at Network Rail, which could be the sponsor for the work, will be important.