Where next for gauge clearance?

Rail Freight Group

Over the last decade, a significant share of the funding for freight network enhancements has been spent on ‘gauge clearance’, increasing the ability of the network to convey modern-sized shipping containers on standard freight wagons.

Today, as a consequence of this work, there is a good network of gauge-cleared routes linking the major ports and inland terminals. This includes the West Coast main line, routes around north London, the cross-country route between Felixstowe and Nuneaton, Water Orton to Doncaster, Southampton to the West Midlands and various diversionary routes alongside. The Great Western main line and East Coast main line are in progress, and both are expected to be completed in this Control Period, with the last elements of work now being scheduled. The outlier here is the Midland main line, where the loss of the full electrification programme makes the case for upgrade much more difficult. However, there are still some strategic gaps, and these relate particularly to the short sea market.

Container aficionados will understand that, although they appear to be standard sizes, deep sea and short sea boxes are not quite the same. Indeed, there are many different versions, but at its most simple, short sea boxes are wider and sometimes longer than their deep sea equivalents. More recent gauge projects have addressed this by clearing to the wider W12 gauge, rather than the previous deep sea W10.

However, shortsea traffic tends to use different ports of entry, and different rail routes, many of which have been enhanced. It is these that are now priorities for funding.

The most obvious of these gaps is the Channel Tunnel, where the conventional routes have some level of clearance, but it is patchy, and linked to specific wagon and container pairs, some of which have not been updated for many years. The current gauge, which might best be described as W9, does not permit a 9ft 6in high unit on a standard wagon. The inability to move such units effectively is one of the factors hampering this trade, and needs to be addressed if volumes are to increase. This will be particularly key post-Brexit, where rail is already being seen by some customers as a potential solution to customs delays.

The north trans-Pennine route is also an important short sea corridor from the East Coast ports, with volumes increasing year on year as trade patterns move. The current ambition is for W12 to be delivered alongside electrification, but any slippage in the latter could impact on deliverability.

For short sea routes, although we know that the core market is there, the traffic volume is presently significantly lower than out of the deep sea ports. This is rather a vicious circle – without gauge you can’t move the traffic, but the lack of current traffic makes the business case for intervention more difficult. So there is some emerging thinking on options which would enable traffic to start more readily, with cheaper interventions tackling some parts of the market.

One concept is to define so called ‘incremental gauges’. This would work in circumstances where a particular container, such as an S45 swap body, is a little too large for W9 but does not need all the space that W12 provides. An incremental gauge (say W9+) would be defined such that the load could be conveyed, but full W12 clearance would not be undertaken.

The advantage of such an approach would be to reduce costs whilst maintaining a fullydocumented standard. The downsides include additional complication from a wider set of gauges and the potential exclusion of some loads that could fit in the full gauge.

Containers in low well wagons: No 66537 takes the 09.03 Bristol container terminal to Felixstowe North terminal through Sonning Cutting on 30 August 2016.
Ken Brunt

An alternative approach is to use modern assessment software to clear specific loads more quickly and effectively than has been possible in the past. This has the advantage of speed of assessment, but makes it harder to document and maintain. There may be a place for both approaches depending on the specifics of the route.

Another concept where some early investigation is underway seeks to maximise the use of the largest available parts of the network, namely those routes cleared to W12. Specifically, the work is considering whether the largest European swap bodies, routinely moved by rail on the Continent, could fit in W12 on the lowest available wagon. The early work suggests this has potential, and if deliverable would unlock a new market, particularly in sectors such as automotive.

Network Rail has already started some early assessments, and with new software packages becoming available there is a real hope that this work can develop with funding into CP6 (2019-24), to ensure the gauge cleared network can continue to provide for market needs.

An opinion column of the Rail Freight Group, www.rfg.org.uk